Colm Tóibín, in Conversation with Paige Reynolds

Author: Paige Reynolds and Colm Tóibín

The following interview took place at the 2012 IRISH Seminar at the O’Connell House, the Keough Naughton Notre Dame Centre in Dublin. The interview was presented to a packed audience, including participants of the Seminar as well as other academics and the wider public. We would like to thank Brian Ó Conchubhair, 2012 director of the IRISH Seminar, for his permission to transcribe and publish the following. We would like to extend thanks, too, to Professor Paige Reynolds (College of the Holy Cross) for her permission to publish this interview and her generosity throughout the process. As interlocutor, her graciousness and erudition are evidenced below. And finally, we want to thank Colm Tóibín, for his permission to publish this interview, and for his wonderful generosity, as regards both the interview that follows, and beyond.

Paige Reynolds: I wanted to do a little bit of setup for those of you who may or may not be familiar with the plays, and the first thing I’m going to do is reference a couple of pieces of Colm’s nonfiction—his luminous biography, Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, and his new collection of essays, New Ways to Kill your Mother: Writers and their Families—because these subjects, Lady Gregory and difficult mothers, are both topics of particular relevance for today’s conversation about his two plays. Colm joined the ranks of contemporary Irish playwrights with the first drama, Beauty in a Broken Place, which was staged at the Peacock Theatre in 2004 as part of the Abbey’s centenary celebration. The play examines closely the relationship between Lady Gregory and Sean O’Casey. It depicts O’Casey’s reflections on the 1926 premiere of his controversial play about the Easter Rising, The Plough and the Stars. These ruminations are prompted in particular by his regret over having not made up with Lady Gregory, a regret prompted by her death. Offered from O’Casey’s point of view, the play captures the commitment of Gregory and Yeats to representations of national politics and is composed of short scenes depicting the process of rehearsal and the staging of the play, so you see this amazing depiction of theater business as well the consequent fallout from the production. Tóibín’s account of theater business at the Abbey is sly, intelligent, and funny, which is another of the things that I appreciate about it. Most important in my opinion, the play insists upon the nuance and complexity of this notorious event in theater history. O’Casey, for instance, disdains Irish parochialism but recognizes the honor in Republican protestors, like Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. He considers Yeats an unlikeable snob but marvels at his judicious use of authority. And Lady Gregory is both a bossy old lady and an artist with the vision to identify and secure O’Casey’s genius. Beauty in a Broken Place demonstrates Colm’s ongoing interest in Lady Gregory, a seminal figure who, while sadly unproduced on the contemporary stage, continues I believe to have a profound effect on Irish drama both as a writer and practitioner. I think we still see her influence, for instance, in contemporary dramatists’ use of humor and dialect to their interrogation of power and privilege in the country. In her, it would seem, he sees a figure who shares the belief that literature and the arts might profoundly alter the course of what we term “real life.” As his O’Casey recalls of Gregory: “She believed that a play at her old Abbey could matter that much, could disrupt the peace, or cause even further trouble.”

Causing trouble may have been on his mind in the second play, Testament, which premiered under the direction of Garry Hynes at the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival. This extended monologue, delivered by Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom we know in the play only as “The Woman,” stages Mary’s account of the crucifixion and death of Christ. In a dense and complex monologue, Mary, played in its first production by Marie Mullen, provides the audience with her own account of her role in the life and death of Christ, the figure whom she names only as “my son, our son.” She refuses the Mariolatry that the guardians who record her story wish to impart. Instead, she provides a searing, honest, and frequently unflattering account of the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection. Tóibín’s Mary cannot find consolation in the loss of her son or in the ideals of a nascent Christianity, turning instead to the pagan past for comfort, to Artemis and the gods and goddesses who might, as she beseeches at the end of the play, “let [her] be free.” Now, on one level, the play courts controversy by letting Mary speak her piece, by providing The Woman a loud and aggressive, even ornery, voice; but Colm further challenges instantiated nationalist ideals when he refuses Mary the passive role of the suffering mother who appreciates the self-sacrifice of her martyred son. Unlike Patrick Pearse’s mother, Mary does grudge her son, and he’s one of the many people in the play whom she grudges, and she refuses to derive any joy from her son’s death, which is vividly and gruesomely described in the play. She doesn’t even salvage his corpse and prepare it for burial; she flees the crucifixion to save herself. The Woman values honesty over ideology, critique over consensus, and these are logics soundly practiced by Colm in works such as his somewhat controversial critique of revisionism, “New Ways to Kill your Father,” or in novels such as The Heather Blazing. Both of his plays stage an historical figure who wants to tell his or her side of the story, who reflects on spectacular events in the past. So, it seems fitting today that we invite Colm Tóibín to reflect on and share his side of the story of the creation and performance and reception of his first two plays. Thank you, and welcome.

I thought maybe we would start with a fairly obvious genealogical question, which is, how did these plays get started? I mean, it sounds like they were both commissioned, but was writing a play something you had always been interested in doing, or was it something that you just saw as the next new challenge?

Image by Steve Pyke

Colm Tóibín: What happened was that it was coming to the Abbey centenary. And just an example of the sort of smallness of this society: I was in school with Ben Barnes [then Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre]. He was a dayboy at St. Peter’s College when I was a boarder there. And I played tennis with him when I was a kid. And he wanted to have a meeting with me in the Abbey, and I thought it was about some article or introduction he’d wanted written, because I had, I think, launched the short book I wrote on Lady Gregory in the Abbey, and he was at that. And he sat with Jocelyn Clarke, who was the dramaturg in the Abbey at that time, and they said that they would like to be able to tour a two-hander around Ireland, of Lady Gregory and Yeats talking, in order to celebrate the Abbey centenary. And I said I could do that, but I would throw stones at it if I was in the audience—I suppose which was saying, basically, “No, no, this is not for me.” And Ben, who is from Wexford town, where people are very dry, looked at me and said, “Is there a play you could write that you wouldn’t yourself throw stones at?” And, I said, “Yeah, I think so, but I’m not sure. Just let me go and think about it. If you could just leave that to me and broaden it a bit, then I’ll come back to you.” So, that was the deal. That was how that happened. Then I, I think, came back with something. I probably put it in writing, and then they commissioned it, and then I wrote it.

PR:      And then with Testament, what was that process?

CT:      Testament arose at a party. I was just going on generally at night as I do, and it occurred to me—because we were talking about the idea of so much Greek theater being lost, just not available, and there being such wonderful parts—and I just said, “You know, there’s one last great one.” One of the people there was Loughlin Deegan who was the director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, and I said, “It’s Mary, Mary the mother of Jesus.” I had come across a sentence in E. V. Rieu’s translation of the Gospels. Now, I don’t know why I was reading this—I mean, it’s a sad life, one in which you find yourself reading E.V. Rieu’s introduction to his translation of the Gospels. But Rieu said that he thought, he understood, he believed, that St. John had read Greek plays. I began to imagine John at a Greek play. So, that was on my mind, and Loughlin Deegan just turned immediately and said, “Will you write that for us?” And I got a letter soon afterwards saying, “We’re commissioning you to do the following play.” And I said, “Yes, I’ll do it.”

PR:      It’s interesting that classical theater was sort of the inspiration for this, or that it was one of the contexts as you were thinking about it.

CT:      Yes, I taught a course in the New School in New York in 2000, as I was working on the Lady Gregory material, and the course was called “Relentlessness.” It was about the notion of relentlessness in a text. Obviously we did the creation of the voice of Medea, Electra, and Antigone. What happens with me is that when I’m teaching I’m actually learning. Does that happen to you?

PR:      Yes, absolutely. That’s why I have this job.

CT:      And just by accident, I think, then Frank McGuinness’s translation of Electra was on in New York with Zoë Wanamaker and Claire Bloom. And so, just anytime I could see one of these classical plays performed, I would travel to see just what they looked like, what these voices looked like if you recreated them.

PR:      It’s fun to read the play and to think about it almost as a kind of Where’s Waldo of looking for classical references. You can see the residue of those female characters with emotional experiences that are extreme or can’t be explained, women like Medea or Antigone. Or you can read The Woman’s comparison of the “expert” in charge of the crucifixion to an “expert” farmer or midwife  and recall Jocasta telling Oedipus, “Oh, everybody dreams about sleeping with his mother, don’t worry”—taking these incredibly gruesome, unnatural, terrifying things and trying to naturalize them to understand or excuse them. So there are lots of these moments of classical theater to consider here. How similar and how different is the process of writing plays? Because you write successfully in so many genres. Do you feel like you have a more visual or aural imagination when you’re writing dramatic dialogue and imagining a play, or does it work in ways similar to your fiction?

CT:      I think in both of the cases, the collaboration was as important in a way as the writing. I mean, I just produced something, and then we started to work. There was a lot of cutting involved in both. The initial text that Garry Hynes got for Testament was 26,000 words; the text Marie Mullen did on the stage was 9,000, and we cut it phrase by phrase with Marie Mullen, working with her. We worked five weeks on the text. And similarly, there was quite a lot of work done in the rehearsal period in the Abbey. At that time, for those five weeks, I would go home every evening and produce a new script for the morning, and in the Abbey I did the same thing, so that every morning I would have something new.

PR:      So a constant work in process?

CT:      Yeah, I would often just go home, and in the case of the Abbey I would spend an hour, perhaps, with Jocelyn Clarke before going home just going through. It was a very difficult process for me. You leave your ego at the door.

PR:      I was going to ask about that, because in rehearsals you have people in the moment saying, “No, no, that’s got to go.” Was it easier to take those critiques in the midst of a collaborative process, or was it just different than having your written work critiqued from afar—hard in a different way?

CT:      I remember the process in the Abbey was particularly difficult. The first one caused a lot of drinking. That was when the actors read it the first day around the table, and there were things that were so unsayable and wrong in my text. I mean, it was so embarrassing. We all sat there, and I had to say things like, “I will cut that, I promise.” And they’d say, “Let’s keep going,” and I said, “Is there anything we can do to stop going.” You know, it was really hard. And they were, I have to say, merciless, in a polite way. It wasn’t as though people are nice to you in the theater. I mean, it’s not that they’re unpleasant, but they’re very, very hard, and there’s no element of letting anyone off a single moment, which will happen with a novel much easier. Editors, especially editors in England, are all, “That’s very good. We all love your book.” No one who was actually working with you would ever say that to you about a play during the process of its creation.

PR:      I’m thinking about the set of Testament, which was amazing. I wonder if you would explain what it looked like at the Project Arts, and then talk a little bit about your input into that in particular. Because the set was filled with beautiful shades of blue, and I remember we’d had a conversation a couple years ago about the color blue, and that you had read the William H. Gass On Being Blue that shows up in The Empty Family.

CT:      Oh, dear. Waste not, want not.

PR:      I was going to say, “I did my homework!” [Laughs] And there was the Blue show that you curated at the Chester Beatty Library. Then, I discovered in my “interneting” last night when I should have been sleeping that we share the same favorite album, Joni Mitchell’s Blue.

CT:      Oh, yeah. “Just before our love got lost, I said…”

PR:      Yeah. So, if you could talk a little bit about how you collaborated with [Testament designer] Francis O’Connor and what that meant to your sense of the play.

CT:      Francis O’Connor works a lot with Garry Hynes, who directed the play does. He’s English and very easy to work with. I’ve known him since 1987. I had nothing whatsoever to do with the design or the lighting of the show. I didn’t see it until it was absolutely up and done. I went in, and seemingly I came out looking like a dog that’s been washed.

PR:      So is that a good thing or a bad thing?

CT:      Well, I mean, be very frightened, be very afraid. I didn’t say what the lighting director later told me I said. Seemingly, he says, I went outside, and I just spoke to no one; I just said, “That is awful.” But I didn’t mean awful; I meant it was such a shock, and I hadn’t been consulted, and I didn’t know anything about it. I knew they were doing something, but I didn’t know what it was. Garry Hynes’s bullshit detector is probably the best one available, and my initial idea for the set was probably pretentious. It was just to be a bare room with a sack of oranges, which is—what’s the word I’m looking for—anachronistic, in the corner. There would be a sack of oranges spilling on the floor; that would be the only color in the room. And every so often, throughout the rehearsal period, which went on for a very long time—it started I think at the beginning of May and went on until September—Garry would say, “What about the sack of oranges?” and everybody would laugh. So, no, I had nothing to do with the set that was finally used whatsoever. I slowly got used to it, but I didn’t have any choice.

PR:      That’s weird, because as a critic, I felt like your fingerprints were all over the design. I was ready for an expansive account of your involvement in it.

CT:      No, absolutely nothing. We were too busy, in a way, trying to work with Marie and the text.

PR:      That’s fascinating. Because the way that the set worked, you walked as audience members into the Project space, you went up the stairs, and then you walked behind the rear wall of the stage. Then you entered the stage and walked across it on this shifting-earth, sawdusty path toward the stalls. So you were briefly on stage, basically occupying the same space that “The Woman” would occupy. Then you took your seat, and there was this sort of canopy—and again, this was months ago, so if I’m getting this wrong, please tell me.

CT:      No, you’re getting it right.

PR:      There was a canopy on which they projected moving clouds throughout the production, which would darken on occasion.

CT:      And then, at the opening, this thing could pull back, this sort of sacking that could be pulled back really quickly, and the lights were so subtly done. The reason I said it was awful was, you see, when I saw Marie Mullen first moving into that space, she couldn’t see the lights. She couldn’t see where she was lit, so she was having to learn where to stand, and it was a whole new learning process for her. So I was seeing her not being lit. I was seeing the lights on a thing that they shouldn’t be on. Of course, within a few days, as Marie started to know where to move, this then became really beautiful. I liked it. But the lights were from under rather than over, which means that on the last preview night, a woman from Rathmines—the Lady from Rathmines—came and kicked one of the lights (she didn’t mean to), cutting it out completely, just moving it. I don’t know whether she’s from Rathmines or not, but we called her throughout The Lady from Rathmines. She was greeting one of her friends very warmly, and she kicked it, and that meant Marie then was in shadow for some of the play. But then we put up a barrier or a big sign for people from Rathmines. [Laughs]

PR:      Let’s maybe sit with Marie and her performance for a little bit. What about the casting? She seems in so many ways the obvious choice for this role, but can you explain what it was, other than apparently her amazing capacity for memorization, that made her perfect? Because it was a really challenging play for her. To watch, to imagine holding all of that rich and complex language, and also having to hold the emotion of the performance—this seemed to me a masterful feat. So, what does she represent on stage that made you want to use her for your Mary?

CT:      I’ve known Marie and Garry Hynes since, I suppose, 1979 or 1980, and I was close to Garry Hynes’s brother Jerome. And I also spent time in the desert of the Sudan in 1986 with Marie’s sister Maggie. She was working, I think, for Concern [Worldwide] at that time in the Sudan. I was at Marie’s wedding in ’86 or ’87. So, in other words, I was working with people I knew. Marie was quite conscious of that and brought it up several times, the idea of how odd it was that three of us after all these years were actually sitting in a space silently watching this text wondering if it will ever work. We didn’t fall out; there was no question of falling out because, in a way, Garry doesn’t do falling out—I mean that she creates a safe space so that anything can be said and so that the production will start to work.

PR:      Were you conscious at all of what she in particular as a performer in Irish culture would represent to audience members? For instance, I was thinking about her coming off of that performance as a ruthless matriarch in [Tom] Murphy’s The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant—the residue of that performance at the Abbey was still with me at least when I watched Testament.

CT:      I had been very uneasy about that production [of Tyrant]. I thought that it had started high and that it was hard to go anywhere else. In our production, I noted that Marie and Garry have a very similar way of working. Marie would be ready to try things and throw them out and try something else. She did not begin with any certainty. And Garry was the same. They did not have a blueprint or a final point in their minds. So every moment was experiment. And then something would begin. So, there was an awful lot of building. But one of the things that was built, which I became really conscious of and I think probably Garry did, too—although it was never mentioned (it was mentioned between Marie and myself a few times)—was the issue of cheap shock value. What Marie was slowly doing was removing the cheap shock value for the audience from the text. And what I was doing was seeing if anything I could do could help this—that, in other words, you begin with an idea that you think, “Oh, this is going to make people walk out of the show. This is going to cause rioting.” And then you slowly realize, “No, if we bring it in this way, Marie will bring the audience with her so far from the way she starts.” I suppose I’m talking about some sort of emotional truth that she was attempting to find in her own self to see where that would take her with her voice, so that the audience would—no matter what she said—come with her. And I would follow that. I wasn’t actually rewriting very much; I was cutting. So, I think all three of us over that period of three or four months moved the text and the idea of the performance from being something that would challenge people to being something that would do something else to people, which might be more theatrical or pure.

PR:      I think part of it, like you’re saying, is a tension that was always in place. Her inviting performance at moments played against the sometimes alienating characterization of “The Woman,” but the script itself holds similar tensions: there are descriptions of banal domestic everyday-ness, and then suddenly you’ll have a description of a fantastic dream, or a graphic description of the crucifixion—the play moves like this. You start to get a little bit…not complacent but relaxed in the intimacy with ”The Woman” on stage; and then, suddenly, you have to sit back and say, “Oh wait.” [Laughs]

CT:      There was something else going that I suppose I should say, because this [rehearsal period] is like May, June, July—this is such a long period. We’re more or less, the three of us, the same age. I think the two of them are about two years older than me, but that hardly matters at this advanced stage of things. And Garry and myself both lost a brother; both my brother Niall and her brother Jerome died suddenly in the same year. And I was working this out day after day after day, sometimes silently and sometimes openly. In other words, sometimes in trying to give Marie a clue as to what emotion was behind a line or behind a sequence, I would go straight into autobiography. In other words, trying to explain what it’s like—the moment, the second you hear, or the next day, or how memory functions in that context. So, there we were, the three of us, and Marie soaks in all of this, listening to us so carefully to see if she could take this into the text and work it. Garry and myself also started to smoke in the middle of the whole thing. Garry said, “Colm, we’re not smoking our way through this rehearsal.” And we did. And she’s still at it; I gave it up.

PR:      But I think both of your plays are very therapeutic in that way.

CT:      [Sarcastically] Yeah, yeah.

PR:      In all seriousness, they’re both plays about, as you say, “advanced”-age figures—and we can go back and talk about that—but this idea of the plays as a talking cure, that you have Sean O’Casey reminiscing over the death of Lady Gregory, and here you have Mary/Woman reminiscing over the death of Christ, her son. So, both plays are about not just memory and the return to the past, which are terms that we throw around in Irish Studies, but they’re also about therapy and how that re-visitation is very individual.

CT:      Yeah. There’s a really interesting moment in the correspondence between Yeats and Lady Gregory where he loved, as you know, being on the stage for The Playboy [of the Western World]. He really enjoyed dressing up for it. He enjoyed everything everyone said, including his father. The whole thing thrilled him really, and he longed to do it again. And she put a stop to that, not out of badness, but because she said, “Please don’t think you could argue. This is grief. These are women who lost their husbands in the rebellion. If you think that you on a stage are going to be able to do something, to win an argument….” And I think she also said that you never, ever have an argument with a woman, because women are just so foolish, that you just couldn’t have an argument.

PR:      And they always weep, she said.

CT:      Yeah, they always weep! [Laughs] Yeah, you can’t argue with a woman; they always weep. But, she did stop him, because she was aware. I don’t think she particularly minded losing her husband, although there were moments where she sort of did, but not much. But her son Robert—you see, I took that business for Testament, in the diaries and the letters after Robert Gregory’s death. I can’t think of an example—can you?—where Lady Gregory can bring herself to use his name after his death. She says, “My darling”; she often refers to him as “the grave in Italy.” That explains something in “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” because it was written in Coole, and of course Yeats must have noticed, because his name is not mentioned in the poem; it’s only in the title. Yeats had noticed. I mean, I’m just surmising that she couldn’t say his name in those days. But she doesn’t. That was one thing that I began to notice in the diaries and letters after 1918.

PR:      There are a couple things to say about this. One, I have a huge intellectual crush on not just Lady Gregory but also Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, and so, at the conclusion of Beauty in a Broken Place, I loved that it was almost as though O’Casey was being seduced by  Sheehy-Skeffington’s voice and her grief [during her speech for the Plough demonstrations]. The conclusion of your play really speaks to the seductive powers of grief. Another of the things that was interesting about Beauty in a Broken Place as well as Testament is that somehow making a testimony to your loss, to your grief, is imperative—articulating your weeping seems to be crucial for the characters.

CT:      Yeah. I was faced with this business of what to do; in other words, I was aware from the beginning that Lady Gregory and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington would be played by the same actress, and I thought this would be fun. And once I got Derbhle Crotty, I thought, “Wow, I have it now.” Once that was in place, where the actress was exactly the right person to do both, she could do anything. Therefore, I had to be alert. I suppose I was cutting again more than adding, but Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington had to be given an equal dignity to Lady Gregory, and that her speech, her long speech, had to be serious and had to take the audience dramatically and not be in any way comic or even open to argument. Therefore, I had to suppress certain views of my own. I just made fun of Maud Gonne, really, as a way of satisfying myself in certain ways; but O’Casey hated her too, so it doesn’t matter. So, the audience had to have equal sympathy for Sheehy-Skeffington and Lady Gregory. Again, out of a sort of Greek idea, it was a grief that gave them their power. It was loss that led them to having a sort of aura in the society, in the streets of the city, if anyone saw them; and therefore, if they had something to say, by God, we were going to listen to both of them. But, of course, they would never meet. They couldn’t meet, because it was the same actress; but they could never meet in any case, and that’s part of the drama.

PR:      What is it about writing from a woman’s point of view, adopting a woman’s voice, that you enjoy? What are the pleasures of inhabiting that role in your fiction?

CT:      I suppose there are a number of things. Men in Wexford tend to say very little. They sort of sit in the corner a lot and sort of watch you. They’re dry when they say something. They might just say something, and no one will have the slightest clue that that was a witty remark; in other words, they just comment on something. If someone just said, “God, penalty shoot-outs are hard,” that would be considered for a man in Wexford an awful lot to say on the matter. Billy Roche’s plays have very good examples of that—not Danger Doyle as much as Steven in Poor Beast in the Rain. Steven almost says nothing in the play. People in Wexford are generally like that; and the women compensate by doing all the talking. So, like, I was brought up by hundreds of them; aunts who had no children of their own were all around the town, so whenever I wanted anything I would just go and find one of them and I’d get it. My two older siblings were sisters, and my mother was in the house. So, I just sort of used to listen to them all for hours, and everything they said was always immensely interesting, so it starts there somewhere. And then I suppose there are some literary sources for it as well.

PR:      Maybe that’s a good place to talk about some influences on your plays. You’ve mentioned the influence classical drama or classical tales had on Testament. Were there other more modern or contemporary plays that influenced you? Because one of the things that really strikes me about these two plays is that they’re very different. You can trace refrains through them as well as through your other work; but if you look at Beauty in a Broken Place, it’s these short scenes, it’s got a lot of humor, the pacing is quick, and then with Testament, you’ve got this extended monologue, it’s incredibly dense, and it’s very serious. And they’re on wildly different topics. Playwrights in my experience—and you guys can disagree with me about this—but they tend to have a particular [style]—you know, like, there are a set of Marina Carr plays or a set of McDonagh plays that have evident similarities in setting or theme or language. And I want to stress that’s not a bad thing.

CT:      I think they’re serious artists.

PR:      Oh, they are. Absolutely. But you also created two wildly different plays, so were you conscious of that when you were thinking about the emotional tenor and the structure and the characterization, or were you just like, “Oh, this is about this topic, so it needs to be this shape, and this is about that, so it needs to take that shape”? I mean, do you think that the “amateurism” helped, I guess?

CT:      Oh, amateurism. [Laughs]

PR:      You know what I mean.

CT:      No, I do know what you mean.

PR:      It was in quotes. [Laughs]

CT:      You know, look: one of the reasons for doing Beauty in a Broken Place was that that Peacock space for me is sacred space, and that the Abbey Theatre has lifted me out of myself more than anything else that has happened in society. Donal McCann in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, or the opening night of Dancing at Lughnasa, or The Gigli Concert; or, in the Peacock space, Observe the Sons of Ulster [Marching Towards the Somme], or the Sebastian Barry play called Prayers of Sherkin—that freed me in some way. And, similarly, with Garry Hynes, I think probably something like Bailegangaire changed things and changed me, and what the Druid [Theatre Company] did generally. So, I mean, these are serious things here in a way that so much in Ireland is not serious. So, in trying to work out for Ben Barnes what I thought the biggest achievement at the Abbey had been, in the end, I thought it had been Sean O’Casey. It wasn’t merely the way they put on the work (and forgetting about later controversies), but the fact that for him—as this sort of self-taught, difficult fellow wandering around those meeting places for the Gaelic League into the trade union movement, trying to find something for himself—the Abbey was the thing that really mattered to him. He was in there all the time at all the plays, in the same way that Samuel Beckett as a student was. And I had been there, too, you know, in the 1970s and ’80s. Therefore, I just thought the whole way that Lady Gregory had treated O’Casey, inviting him to Coole, and the two of them had so much in common as idealistic protestants, idealistic about human development, idealistic about Ireland; and the encounter between them was so unlikely, and the work done—I mean, four plays, or three plays—was just so miraculous. So, I thought that was something the Abbey should be proud of and should deal with. And so, I started to think about O’Casey. And I can never work out of anything that isn’t a way of working through something or other that I’m going through myself. I went to a conference on the future of Ireland in Charlottesville, and I felt alone. I mean, there were a hundred people; I knew all of them. But, God, I just wanted to go. I wanted to get under a tree and just curl up. And I wanted to leave; in fact, I did leave at one point. Mary McAleese made a triumphalist speech on the Irish economy, and I just thought, “My God.” There was one bad moment for me where there were two comedians from—I hesitate to even use the word—Northern Ireland. Two comedians from Northern Ireland put on a show, and they made a sort of gesture that suggested a character of a gay man that would hardly have been allowed in a music hall in the nineteenth century. And I watched the entire intelligentsia of Ireland howling with laughter. And I have memory of certain faces of people who otherwise have PhDs howling. I felt like I was in boarding school again, and I just felt, “I want to get out of here”—I mean, “here” being the entire business of the country. And that gave me Sean O’Casey. It was great. Nothing ever goes without a reward, and the reward I got was how Sean O’Casey felt circa 1928 and ’29. [Laughs]

PR:      Does that sense of “I want to get out of here” also mean that you were looking to playwrights outside of Ireland as you wrote? Has it made a difference, for instance, to be in New York and have Broadway and Off-Broadway right there? Do you think about drama in a different way now? Again here is the English professor speaking: in Testament, I was struck by the significance of the angry bird and the hare—so there’s this opening scene, for those of you who may not know the play (though I think most of you have read it), where Mary, The Woman, describes a large angry bird being placed in a cage with these rabbits and viciously going after them. And if you know modern drama, that’s a really provocative image because it also sets you up for a kind of fierceness with Mary but it also suggests her vulnerability: the bird is Nora in Ibsen, “my sweet little skylark,” or Susan Glaspell’s Minnie Wright, the singing bird trapped in the cage of Trifles. If you’re thinking about an international dramatic tradition, that bird becomes a really loaded signifier. I was wondering, as you were writing these plays, are there particular places you look, outside of Ireland, when you’re thinking dramatically?

CT:      I suppose opera would be the thing more than drama. I’ve been going to Wagner, the Wagner at the Met in New York. I went the first time in 1989. But there was also one singer who appeared first not in the Met but in other venues as a soprano called Lorraine Hunt, and then moved to becoming a mezzo called Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She died, and so she left about four CDs, and she did these great recordings of Bach cantatas. Her voice deepened, and the voice became extraordinary. And I suppose I was working on an idea of a voice like that, that deepens.

PR:      How interesting.

CT:      She did a DVD with Peter Sellars of two Bach cantatas, including “Ich habe genug.” And, I became fascinated by her voice. There were a few other voices like that: there’s a contralto in New York who I saw in her very first concert and then followed her every concert, going like a fan at the door and such, called Stephanie Blythe—and just the extraordinary things she can do. So, I might have been using that more than any, you know, drama or play.

PR:      That’s also interesting because it’s so focused on sound. What did you think about the Dublin Theatre Festival last year [2011] in which Testament premiered? Your play was celebrated as a star production of those weeks, and the most play-like in some ways. (That, and Hugo Hamilton’s The Speckled People.) There was all this site-specific, highly visual stuff in that year’s Festival, and you were giving us a very exciting and challenging aural experience. I mean, it was visually provocative and rich and exciting as well, but it was something that made you—at least this was my experience and I think one shared by a number of people—it made you very aware of yourself as a listener. A lot of other plays during that Festival made you aware foremost of who you are as a spectator.

CT:      Yeah, I became aware of myself much more as a sort of clunky nineteenth-century someone who’s just old and should be put down.

PR:      No, no.

CT:      No, I did. I mean it. I’m not just saying that. I went to two shows during the Theatre Festival—I mean, two shows that I wanted to mention. One was Trade, and the other was Laundry, and I realized, I’m out of this league. In other words, Trade was done, site-specific, in a bed and breakfast, written by Mark O’Halloran. Have you seen his films, Adam and Paul and Garage? Particularly Adam and Paul: that used minimal dialogue for maximum effect. I just think this guy’s a very serious artist, and when I saw Trade, directed by Tom Creed, and the effort to get a huge amount of emotion from tiny, tiny things, I certainly felt that. And I also felt that with Laundry, not merely because they had found the building of the Magdalene nuns, but also because of the actual way in which they handled the theatrical event. So, no, I felt, wandering down to the Project that night, I felt middle-aged and out of my league. Yeah, I did.

PR:      It is interesting. You’ve mentioned age a number of times.

CT:      [Laughs] I don’t mean it.

PR:      No, actually, I want to go to this, because I plan to lead my workshop after our interview through an Age Studies-approach to your work. I’ll let you know what we discover. But I am curious because there is, in Testament, The Woman who does not take care of the body of her dead son. There are so many lovely moments in your fiction of young people nursing old; for instance, in The Empty Family, where the young gay man is nursing the aunt as she dies in the home. There are these wonderful moments and representations of older characters and older voices. Is that an evolution? Is this just strictly a feeling of getting older and trying to articulate and explore that in your fiction or in your drama? Or is it something that’s always interested you? What is it about that particular life stage that you find compelling and so richly provocative?

CT:      I don’t know, is the answer to that. The problem is that everything you do comes one by one, and you don’t associate it with anything else. You just do it, and find that, “Oh, I’m getting a rhythm into the sentences. I’m not dreading going back to this. I want to finish it.” But, I do know that, when I started writing, I tried to write about the generation of people that, say, I was in UCD with. I think all that got lost in moving from one flat to another at some point. At least, I hope it did, because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find anything that worked about my own world. I’ve been reading, say, Jeffrey Eugenides’s new book, which deals with his time at Brown University and tries to deal with people falling in and out of love. I suppose I felt too alienated from everything that was going on. I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t put any shape on it, and I tried a lot, and very hard, to do it. I even tried a play at one point, but everything just disappeared into fragments, pages started, stories sent to David Marcus. Every single thing didn’t work. All that was there was the impulse to do it, and the work itself was just atrocious. I just found people of my age, and even people of my age still, to be absolutely pointless, from my point of view, if I’m writing. I can’t see. It’s almost as though everyone—everyone I’ve known—becomes invisible. But, what’s happened instead is that people that were older than me, of an older generation, not only seem visible but have died, so have moved into an arena where I can actually see something more clearly, or, where I can feel it more sharply, the loss and the sense of what it was like, and put shape on it. So, it starts as something like that. It certainly comes out of failure. It comes out of not being able to describe something that is in front of my nose and that surely there’s something to be said about it. In other words, I tried it in the novel The Blackwater Lightship, but, of course, I lost it almost because the older people become more interesting.

PR:      You realize I’ll be citing that response for the rest of my career? Thank you. [Laughs] So, another question I have, and then I think we should open it up to the audience: I like your representation—actually I adore your representation—of Yeats as a cultural authority and arbiter in Beauty in a Broken Place. There’s both a sense of his pomposity and his performativity, but there’s a genuine respect for what he can do with the authority that he’s marshalled as a result of his gift for writing. So, I wanted to ask you about the consciousness of your own role as cultural arbiter in Ireland.

CT:      Ah, hold on. Declan [Kiberd]: ask him [nods to Kiberd in audience]. He’s a cultural arbiter. I just blather.

PR:      In Beauty, you depict so realistically the different individual roles that circulate around these productions, and, at least for me, the one that was most interesting is that role you imagined for your Yeats. There’s a clear sense of his awareness of his larger responsibility to Irish culture. It made me think of the events I’ve been to with Anne Enright reading or lecturing in the States, where she’s charged with representing “the women of Ireland who write.” And there must be a satisfaction, but also a real burden, in that responsibility.

CT:      I thought she has a good joke about that. You know the one where she says, “I’m only Irish on Mondays.”

PR:      There is something really exciting and important about being an influential public figure in the arts, but it also must feel burdensome, right? I’m getting meta, and I’m probably putting labels on you that you want to resist, but—

CT:      Well, hold on. I just want to tell you one more thing. We were having real trouble in the production of Beauty in a Broken Place. We were at an impasse; we just couldn’t go on. So Jocelyn Clarke said to go outside, and I said, “Why aren’t you supporting me?” And she said, “No, no, Colm. The problem isn’t that. The problem is your mind.” I say, “Oh, right, the problem is my mind. So, like, why don’t you get someone else’s mind then.” And she said, “No, no. Colm, Niall Henry,” who is directing the play, “only thinks in metaphors. And you only think concretely. You have no ability to think in metaphor. You just think absolutely concretely,” which is one of the reasons why I get on so well with Garry Hynes. She really thinks concretely. So, I said, “OK, just leave this to me.” So, I went back in, and there was a scene that no one could fathom or work out and all they wanted to do was cut it, and I said I wanted it in. I said, “Niall, can you imagine, just say that this work is symphonic, that it’s an entire symphony, that now that this scene is down to Erik Satie piano music,” and Niall suddenly lit up. He lit up. He said, “Oh, OK, OK.” And everything went fine from then on. In other words, I don’t have any sense of anything that isn’t concrete. I sit in 70 Merrion Square [address of the Arts Council, where Tóibín was a member between 2006 and 2013, and Aosdána, where Tóibín was briefly a member of the Toscaireacht] some days, but we deal with concrete matters. It’s not, in any way, larger than that. There is no theory involved. I was, with others, making sure that the place works. But, as regards any other thing, I have absolutely no clue.

PR:      Fair enough. But I do think the point that you’re making, too, is that it’s ultimately about the work, that that’s where the focus and the attention is—as you say, the concrete vitality from creating that imaginative space, working on it, producing. And that’s an important aspect.

CT:      But you see, what happened with the work was that the books didn’t really sell. No one paid any attention to the books at the beginning very much, so that was a very slow process, and I always sort of felt disappointed by it. It was a slow process, and I never knew what moment it ceased to be like that. There wasn’t a single day where I woke up in the morning and said, “Oh, right. It’s okay.”

PR:      Thank you. It looks like we have about thirty minutes. Do you guys have questions, things that you would like to ask?

Lindsay Haney: I have a question about Beauty in a Broken Place, just to get us started. Are there moments where your O’Casey needed to feel any differently about Lady Gregory than you might have yourself? In that respect, is the character in sympathy with you?

CT:      Oh, I suppose he is. In other words, I was trying to imagine what it might have been like not seeing her. And I think he did feel that in later years, and it mattered to her enormously as well, really. Because, you see, none of the actors would go out with him because he was from some wrong part of Dublin for them, but once he went to London, he was famous and no one minded what part of Dublin he was from. And he married a wonderful woman, who was really a remarkable person. And, so, I think Lady Gregory would love to have seen that; it really would have mattered to her. And so, whatever happened between them, he certainly should have done something in 1931, when he knew she was sick, and he didn’t. There’s evidence that he regretted, but, yeah, you’re absolutely right about that. Maybe it’s a sort of failure in the thing. But, no, you always suspect yourself if a book contains something that’s too close to you. You should always be able to imagine the opposite to you, and see if you can work from that and see where that would take you, which is what I was trying to do with Mrs. Sheehy-Skeffington. But, no, you’re right about that. That’s absolutely right. Even his view on St. Brigid is probably mine. She was probably a great bit of a nuisance in her day.

Fiona Coffey: Could you just talk a little bit about the difference between writing fiction for a very private individual experience versus writing theater for a collective and a very public experience, whether that impacts the way that you’re writing. And also, you just touched on the very collaborative nature of playwriting such as working with an artistic team to shape your play versus working closely with an individual editor for your fiction: how does that affect your writing and your output in your relationship to the theater text?

CT:      I think the first thing is that the difference between a novel and a play is that the novel still has a burden left over from something, from the travel book or from its picaresque origins, in that a novel, no matter what you do, loves a journey, even if it’s someone just going from a kitchen into the dining room, that something that occurred to them in that little journey is important in a novel, and you can really use it all the time. So, if anyone stands up for a chair, what happens as they move? And, say, I’m reading Richard Ford’s Canada at the moment, and it’s so rich in that idea of what occurs once you move. So, if you have A and B in a novel, the lovely business of getting all the textures you can put in between A and B, and B is really of no interest; it’s just the A to B-ness that will do the work in a novel. In a play, you need A, and if you want B, then get B by a simple lighting cue for B, a movement for B, and you will be in B without any interest in how you got there, or what happened on the way. And therefore, you have to really think completely differently. The issue is one that someone like Garry Hynes has been working for so long, and Marie Mullen, so that they can see this, and they can’t see that you can’t see it. They can’t, however, just explain it to you. They have to show it to you. And, so, you really have to move. You really have to pay attention to what they’re saying. And if you really want something left in, you have to really argue for it, but it often falls out later. So, you’re dealing with theater artists, and you’re not one. The other business is something I think I know about instinctively; in other words, I’ve never had a problem with a book editor about something so essential as to what the novel actually is or how it works. And while I’ve worked closely with editors over issues of phrasing or just one thing or another, there are all these minor details, but the overall thing I’m in full control of. I’m the one who knows most about them. I can make the judgments on them. This is a simple matter, I think: there are people who are playwrights, and there are people who are not, and there are very few people who are both. I think Sebastian Barry is possibly one, and I think Brian Friel—his early short stories have a lovely sort of narrative thing about them that work. And Eugene McCabe can do both. I can’t really think of anybody else other than Beckett that can write both. And it’s a curious business, that. The other issue, I suppose, is that it is much more satisfying, the theater—much more fun than sitting at home.

Robinson Murphy: Someone has to ask it: is there any connection to be made between Henry James the playwright and Colm Tóibín the playwright?

CT:      Yeah. The Abbey, when we were looking at the play first and doing the first things, they didn’t know the novel [The Master] existed. And I didn’t tell them anything about it. But it came out before—I mean just before—the play opened, or came into rehearsal, so a few of them suddenly noticed that I had really used this idea. And, the idea was that James and a good number of other people who were like James—including, I think, George Eliot—really were very interested in the theater, and saw it not merely as a way of making money, although it was that. There’s a very good new book about this. It’s by David Kurnick. He teaches at Rutgers. It’s called Empty Houses, and it’s an analysis of, I think, James, George Eliot, Conrad, and somebody else, and their efforts to write for the theater and what that means. But it wasn’t just a sudden impulse. It arose from something fundamental about trying to see space that you’re creating, and then actually seeing scenes enacted. And also, I think, the business of getting out of the house and having a sense of the effect certain things are having. And, for James, it was the only time he ever appeared in public until he began to give lectures when he was in his sixties. And also, it isn’t merely that the failure of Guy Domville steeled him in 1895 and out of it came a lot—there’s a letter saying that, so it’s too easy to think it’s true—but actually, it’s the working with actors and the sense of how scenes are created. I think he learned more from his experience in theater than he would have had he not done that. I think you do learn something about what a line can sound like or do, and I think it’s interesting how much Beckett might have learned—Beckett being the best example of someone who could write just extraordinary prose and plays, that he had a real sense of the theater. But the failure part is what’s interesting. In other words, Beauty in a Broken Place went on for four weeks in the Peacock, and then it was over. It was like breathing on glass, and it was over, and then we all walked home. The episode for me that was really, really crucial was on the last night of Testament—it was a Sunday, it was an early show—and I was just standing at the bar in my usual mournful state, and I just said to someone, “Who are all those guys coming up the stairs?” “Oh, they’re taking the show down.” I said, “Now? Just like this?” And they said, “Oh yeah, because there’s something else going on tomorrow.” It was like watching your own coffin being carried out of a closing. I said, “OK. So that’s it then?” And they said, “What do you mean, ‘Is that it then?’ Yeah, of course that’s it.” So, you just go. So, then it means, oh, the lovely business of going home and writing a novel, meaning, whatever happens, there’s going to be one copy in some library somewhere for someone. So, you know, feeling with every sentence, “God, great, here we are. Back at the day job! I am a novelist.”

PR:      So is The Testament of Mary that’s coming out in the fall, is that a novel, is it the play? Because I’ve heard competing things.

CT:      It’s called, “waste not, want not.” In other words, the original 26 or 27,000 words that I wrote for the theater I worked on afterwards so it would live on the page. So that’s what’s coming out. And then, as far as I know, the show is going to be revived. The actual theater one is going to be revived in a different production.

PR:      Oh, that’s great. In Ireland?

CT:      No, in America. But, I mean, these things fall apart.

Jim Chandler: I’ve never written a novel or a play, but if I had written a novel and then tried to write a play (especially if I had written a novel that was in the James tradition, where point of view was so important), I would think that one of the great challenges would be how to manage without the sort of manipulation of point of view that characterizes the modern novel but is not possible in those theatrical circumstances. Is that an issue for you when you turn your hand to drama?

CT:      With Beauty in a Broken Place, I really just used the framing system in Dancing at Lughnasa. I mean, I just loved the idea of the actor just coming out at the beginning, just saying what he thinks to the audience. I sort of love that. Does Neil Simon do that in something, Brighton Beach [Memoirs]? Does that happen there? I just always thought that was a lovely idea, just somebody strolling out and saying a few things, and then the things being enacted, so I sort of stole it.

PR:      And also The Glass Menagerie.

CT:      Does it happen in The Glass Menagerie as well? It’s sort of a lovely idea. I mean, if you’re writing a play, I think that’s the best way to start it really.

PR:      I have one more quick question I forgot to ask, which is, when you set Testament in “Now,” which is all the text tells us about the time of the play, what did you mean?

CT:      Ooh. You see, the really big problem about a monologue was formulated by Garry Hynes early on. She said to me, “Who is she [The Woman] speaking to?” We were sitting up in a restaurant in New York, and I don’t know, it was the wrong day to ask me that, and I said something I should never have said. I said, “God, Garry, I don’t know.” And Garry asked, “Is she talking to the audience?” I said, “Well, the audience is listening.” Garry said, “Is she talking to….” I said, “Well, what about Faith Healer?” “No, you leave Brian Friel to his own business. You help me. Who is Marie speaking to?” I was so sorry I hadn’t thought of a really good answer, and I never did. I never did. “Is she speaking in the past? Is this a woman 2,000 years ago speaking to the wall? Is there a fourth wall? Is it now?” I said, “Well, she’s speaking now.” “OK,” Garry said, “so it’s now.” I said, “Oh, yeah. It’s absolutely now.” And then we tried rewriting to make it more now than it is, but no matter what we did, that problem of the wall [remained]. And seemingly it’s quite a serious thing for an actress. “Are you there, or is it just me here, and what can I do if it’s in between?” You know, in other words, in The Year of Magical Thinking, Vanessa Redgrave literally says to the audience at the very end, “If this hasn’t happened to you, it will,” making clear, “I’m speaking to you. I know you’re here.”

PR:      But you don’t know that until the end.

CT:      But she knew she was going to say it. You can’t do that in this.

Clair Wills: I am very struck by the number of times you’ve mentioned moments of alienation, separateness—the howling of laughter at the conference in Charlottesville, or the experience of boarding school.  You seem to be describing a feeling of being both within and outside a community. I’m wondering whether that sense of not being clear who a monologue might be being directed to, not being quite sure in the medium, might be related to that experience.

CT:      Yes, it emerged in the end as a character flaw rather than a technical problem. You’re absolutely right about that. And, that didn’t help; in other words, “Colm has a character flaw, and no one can help him with it, and it’s made its way into this text and we all have to try and work our way out of it despite his character flaw.” Yeah, I mean, otherwise, if you don’t have an absolute sense of, say, a society, your place in it, the role of words anywhere, of anything much—as I don’t—you can’t really write well or it is always uneasy, which may be good sometimes. You can manage to create a character from the unease. Not in the theater, I don’t think; perhaps more on the page. I mean, in other words, Henry James was perfect for me because he was from nowhere, and he was no one, and he was mainly silent, and so he’s perfect for me, because I could deal with that. In the theater, the audience would see immediately what the flaw was. So, I think you’re absolutely right about that. I mean, I’m sorry about it.

Margaret Kelleher: If you could speak on the relationship of the play with Paula Meehan’s poem, “The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks.” I was just thinking about the reaction that poem generated, in relation to the death of Ann Lovett, and the way it has become, in fact, in Yeatsian terms, a public poem, and now circulates in that way.

CT:      Yeah, I’m sorry, I should have mentioned that I was in France with Paula Meehan. The two of us were on tour together in the 1990s, and I think she read that poem every night on the stage for a while, and it was done into French, so I remember it was “La Vierge Parle.” So, yeah, I think it was Paula who did it first. But, there were other ones. I mean, Saramago’s book, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ; and there’s a book by George Moore called The Brook Kerith; and so there are a few other ones that have attempted this. Isn’t there a D. H. Lawrence story as well? But the only one who has Mary speaking was Paula Meehan, and that was done for a public occasion in Ireland; and you’re absolutely right, it is from that decade almost one of the essential documents, that poem.

MK:     And that in turn reminds me of Niall Ó Ciosáin’s fascinating point that, of the many Marian apparitions in the nineteenth century, Knock [Shrine] was one of the few silent apparitions.

CT:      Yes. I was very interested in that business of Knock. You know the Virgin Mary appeared at Knock. And she appeared at Medjugorje, and I was in Medjugorje, and what was important was that she speaks in Medjugorje with a lovely Croatian sound. She could not be a Serb. But she can’t speak in Knock, because how would she speak? She can’t speak Irish. It would be hard to imagine. And she couldn’t possibly have an English accent. I mean, she’s obviously very grand, but she couldn’t have an English accent. She can’t be American. So what tone could she use? So, she very cleverly went silent in Knock. What do you do with her, then, on the stage? And, of course, Garry was emphatic working with Marie that Marie would work from her own accent, and there was always a sense of Marie working from a tone of her own that was heightened, but that was her own.

José Lanters: What is it that makes you want to “throw stones,” or what is it that you want to throw stones at?

CT:      Well, I suppose I was thinking about a funny, like, costume drama going around Ireland, with Yeats in high tone and Lady Gregory, and that would just be inert. It would be dramatically inert, and would get nowhere, and I just could see it going on in halls that deserved better.

Annie Galvin: I have a question about form. You’ve been talking about how these two plays are formally quite different—one is a monologue, and the other short vignettes—and I think you said before that your novels are formally conservative, meaning, many are realist, etc. I’m wondering whether the experience of playing with the form in theater has inspired or compelled you to experiment a bit more in your fiction, or whether you’ve found something that works really well and that’s naturally just where that is.

CT:      No, I think the form you choose, the tone you find, is out of DNA. And, while you can refine it, and try to make it better, I don’t think you can actually do that much to it. No, that’s a pity, isn’t it?

Katherine Hennessey: Can I ask about the process of cutting down the 26,000 word text to the 9,000 word script, and whether, looking back on the performance, there were any moments from the original that you had written that you wish you could have seen on the stage?

CT:      Yeah, the three of us went in every day, and I would cut. I have worked as an editor and can still work as an editor. I could actually say, “OK, look there, and then if we took that, then we can take that, and that has to go, too..”  But then there were times when I couldn’t see a problem, and then slowly it would have to be shown to me. It was remarkable watching Garry Hynes. She is the most remarkable person. The way in which she would concentrate and know theatrically what would work and what wouldn’t. And also the amount of care she put into how I felt about what was happening. She would always say to me, “Are you happy with that? Are you sure?” And at the end of each day, she would say, “By the way, we’ve taken quite a bit; are you sure about that? Come back tomorrow if you’re not.” She was always making sure that I was okay. She’s someone who’s so much with actors that she creates a safe space before you do anything, and within the safe space, then, work can get done. So, I could function within that. But, no, in the end, when Marie Mullen did the show, everything was right. I mean, the two of them knew something from the beginning that I didn’t know. But maybe they couldn’t have done it on their own. Maybe they needed me. And we all worked.