“‘Habit is a Great Deadener’: Gender, Sexuality and Futurity in Brian Friel’s The Gentle Island and Frank McGuinness’s Dolly West’s Kitchen”

Author: Graham Price (University of Limerick)


In 1971, Frank McGuinness went to see his first professional play at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. That play was Brian Friel’s The Gentle Island and it was to have to a major impact on the future course of Frank McGuinness’s artistic career; so much so that, in 1988, McGuinness directed a production of The Gentle Island for the Peacock Theatre. Despite Frank McGuinness’s clear admiration for The Gentle Island, no extensive analysis has been done on the ways that partiality has manifested itself in McGuinness’s dramatic works.[1] This article shall examine how McGuinness has drawn upon The Gentle Island’s representations of same-sex desire and of open (queer) vs closed (heteronormative) conceptions of futurity in his 1999 drama Dolly West’s Kitchen. The action and setting of the two plays can certainly be regarded as somewhat similar. Both are set in closed, static communities that are disrupted by intruding strangers who offer an escape from the rigidity of essentialist identity categories, both national and sexual. However, in Dolly West’s Kitchen, McGuinness allows his anti-heteronormative characters much happier endings than Friel does in The Gentle Island. Friel’s version of Irish peasant life is somewhat dystopian and almost self-cannibalising in its weddedness to habit and predictability but McGuinness’s conception of Irish futurity allows for more openness and the possibility of a more hopeful (albeit uncertain) future to come. McGuinness’s drama has always been more explicitly driven by notions of equality than Friel’s (with the exception of Freedom of the City) and McGuinness’s commitment to using his plays to imagine a more equal Ireland is what separates the works of the two dramatists. Patrick Mason has written persuasively about Dolly West’s Kitchen’s debt to Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa and this article shall demonstrate that The Gentle Island is an equally important work with which Dolly West’s Kitchen can be compared and contrasted.[2]


Brian Friel and Frank McGuinness: Anatomy of an Intertextual Relationship

 Frank McGuinness wrote a piece for The Sunday Tribune in 1988 in which he referred to The Gentle Island as being “the product of a healthy heterosexual imagination” and as being a drama that he has “lived with…since I saw it.”[3] In 2006, McGuinness wrote part of his article for The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel (entitled “Surviving the 1960s: Three plays by Brian Friel 1968-1971”) on The Gentle Island. In that essay, McGuinness offered the following assesssment of Friel’s play:

More than any other play of Brian Friel’s up to 1971, The Gentle Island was the most threatening, the most perplexing, the most far-sighted of all. Its power lies in revelation, relentless, painful. It hears the beating of a savage heart. Savagery can sometimes be dependent on steadiness and stability. Stability can be the force of habit, and that force may fail [...] In The Gentle Island, Friel’s theatre is one of concentration, narrowing immense events within a dramatic logic that leaves nothing to chance. He spares his characters nothing, particularly not their history, for all they may wish to defy it.[4]

What McGuinness admires in The Gentle Island is its raw power and its willingness to tackle the violence and savagery at the heart of “normal” conceptions of existence that privilege habit and the linearity of time and history. In The Gentle Island, McGuinness sees the acting out of Beckett’s famous assertion in Waiting for Godot: “habit is a great deadener.”[5] McGuinness has been a long-time believer in the importance of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot for Friel and his drama. This opinion is expressed most directly by McGuinness in his essay “Faith Healer: All The Dead Voices,” in which he explicitly compares Friel’s communion with spectrality in Faith Healer to the whispering dead voices that are absent presences in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.[6]

McGuinness’s analysis of The Gentle Island argues that the play offers a “queering” of heteronormative futures by giving us a world that is dominated by supremely masculine, straight men, but which is also clearly dying out.[7] If, as Lee Edelman has argued, the world of heteronormativity is characterized by reproductive futurism (symbolized by the figure of the child), and the realm of the “queer” is that of the “no-future,” Brian Friel attempts to reverse this binary logic by portraying the “no future” of heteronormativity and contrasting it with the potentially more life-affirming version of queer futurity.[8]

The Gentle Island is a drama whose plot contains a great deal of anxiety concerning the future of the Irish state. As Helen Lojek has written: “The Gentle Island was and is a powerful (and rare) challenge to what David Norris identified in 1981 as ‘until recently a doubt as to whether the terms ‘Irish’ and ‘Homosexual’ were not mutually exclusive.”[9] The Ireland that existed when McGuinness wrote Dolly West’s Kitchen, whilst far from perfect, was one that was more accepting of difference and change than was the case when Friel wrote The Gentle Island. Thus, although McGuiness’s play is set during World War II, it is reflective of the culture of Ireland in the nineteen-nineties, when the country was beginning to accept previously taboo subjects such as divorce and homosexuality and the uncertain future for human relationality and intimacy that they represented. Whilst The Gentle Island was written at the beginning of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Dolly West’s Kitchen was created immediately after the Good Friday Agreement, at a time when the people of Ireland had reason to be cautiously optimistic about the country’s future as a place where diversity could be embraced and prejudice overcome.

McGuinness was partially attracted to The Gentle Island because it was the first modern Irish play to deal with an openly “gay” couple. McGuinness regards same-sex desire as being crucial to the plot of The Gentle Island:

Peter and Shane are not the first homosexuals on the modern Irish stage. Thomas Kilroy scored the opening goal there in The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche [in 1968]. But despite the lack of open declaration it is certainly the first appearance of a homosexual couple. These men have a mythical as much as a sociological fuction in the play. Love between men infects the island. It will be cunningly, ignorantly looked on as a plague to be eradicated. It is, at a terrible cost [...]. Heterosexuality poisons itself into deepest perversity. The new love between men requires a new language.[10]

Homosociality and male-bonding are privileged in The Gentle Island and the monstrous other of homoeroticism must be brutally eradicated.[11] The playful fight that erupts between Shane and Philly during the dancing scene in Act 2 Scene 2 of The Gentle Island is a disturbing representation of a male homosociality that is predicated on violence and which can barely contain the latent homoeroticism that is waiting to erupt later on in the drama.

This article does not attempt to argue that McGuinness intended Dolly West’s Kitchen to be a one-dimensional companion piece for The Gentle Island. What is being contended is that McGuinness has used Friel’s play as a useful intertext through which he can articulate a dramatic vision that is unique to him, whilst still respectful of the achievements of one of his theatrical predecessors. It will also be argued that the intertextual references to John Millington Synge’s drama in The Gentle Island helps to illuminate some of the inspirations that Friel drew upon for his representations of futurity and gender and sexuality in a specifically Irish context which regards the virile and demonstrably heterosexual Irish peasant as the cornerstone of and guarantor of Irish futurity. Helen Lojek has argued convincingly that: “Synge’s plays are […] a model to which The Gentle Island owes much in terms of plot and language and variations of mood and tone. Like Synge’s peasants, Friel’s characters love drink and cruel amusement [….] Violence erupts on the gentle island without warning.”[12] Masculine violence and the failure of established cultural codes are themes that many of Synge’s and Friel’s plays have in common, which makes Synge an important mediating presence between The Gentle Island and McGuinness’s Dolly West’s Kitchen.[13] Indeed, when Seamus Deane asserts that the recurring elements in Friel’s plays include “a closed community, a hidden story, a gifted outsider with an antic intelligence, [and] a drastic revelation leading to violence,” he could just as easily be providing a solid summary of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.[14] This article argues that Playboy and Riders to the Sea are the two Synge works that are most visible as intertexts in The Gentle Island.

In Eamonn Jordan’s book on the drama of Frank McGuinness, Jordan has offered the following definition of intertextuality that is greatly relevant to how one should consider the presence of The Gentle Island within the text of Dolly West’s Kitchen:

Intertextuality leads to both the opening and compression of spaces, while leading to the overloading of reality by ensuring that it is never a closed unit, filtering references and ideas on both a conscious and unconscious level by making room for the repressed, blocking interpretation and encouraging speculation. These intertextual pressures can be blatant as well as subtle. Intertextuality benefits from the tensions between imitation and subversion or inversion, repetition and alteration of the source text and finally through the location of different or competing moral, cultural or psychological codes.[15]

An intertextual analysis of The Gentle Island and Dolly West’s Kitchen (partially via the mediating presence of John Millington Synge) can thus illuminate both works and extrapolate meanings that might not have been as evident if the texts were read solely in isolation.

Where The Gentle Island is overwhelmingly bleak in its view of what the future holds for Ireland, Dolly West is able to offer the possibility of future happiness and change. The two plays have several themes and issues in common (same-sex desire, and reconfiguring nationality and masculinity being but a few), but it is Dolly West’s Kitchen that offers its characters more hope for change and redemption. If Frank McGuinness has one criticism of The Gentle Island, it would seem to be the play’s overly negative and fatalistic attitude towards non-heteronormative relationality. In Dolly West’s Kitchen, we see McGuinness utilizing many of the themes and character tropes that appear in Friel’s play but they are adapted for use in a more “queerly” positive way. Whilst David Cregan has already argued very persuasively for the presence of a “queer dramaturgy” in Frank McGuinness’s plays,[16] this article intertextually examines the development of that aesthetic in relation to earlier representations of non-heteronormative relations in the Irish literary canon, and The Gentle Island in particular.


Speaking the Love that Dare not Speak its Name

In certain Friel texts, non-heteronormative intimacy is portrayed as being outside the realm of traditional forms of linguistic representation. In Philadelphia Here I Come, Gar Private describes the times that his public persona spent with his male friends in terms that render those moments ethereally beautiful and also utterly unrepresentable: “No one will ever know or understand the fun there was; for there was fun and there was laughing—foolish, silly fun and foolish, silly laughing; but what it was all about you can’t remember, can you? Just the memory of it—that’s all you have know—just the memory of it—that’s all you have now.”[17] Although Friel does not explicitly name the activities that these men engaged in as homoerotic, it is implied that something happened between them that cannot be done justice to by the powers of normal narrative. Whilst Lord Alfred Douglas regarded same-sex desire as “the love that dare not speak its name,” Brian Friel and Frank McGuinness seem to regard such forms of intimacy as being incapable of speaking their (proper) names.[18]

McGuinness has long been interested in the power that language and narrative have to fix and control identity categories such as gender and sexuality. According to Lojek: “McGuinness’s awareness of the impact of language on attitudes was evident in a lecture he gave at the 1990 Synge Summer School. He referred to ‘heterosexual love’. By adding the adjective (without particular emphasis), McGuinness reminded his audience of the extent to which language can privilege one kind of love.”[19] It is this prescriptive, totalitarian form of language that McGuinness demands to see altered in his essay on The Gentle Island.

Dolly West’s Kitchen and The Gentle Island both centre on same-sex couples. In the case of Dolly West’s Kitchen, we have the American soldier Marco and the Irishman Justin. However, McGuinness tries to improve upon Friel’s version of male romance by featuring two lovers who are around the same age, and who are therefore emotional and physical equals. In contrast, Peter in The Gentle Island is much older than Shane, suggesting an inequality and possible parasitism existing in their relationship. Peter and Shane as a couple can thus be read as a stereotypical example of the love between an older and a younger man which Oscar Wilde felt was misunderstood by a heteronormative world.[20] Although Shane often asserts himself during their conversations, he is dependent upon Peter for certain things and, at the play’s conclusion when he is left possibly crippled, it is suggested that he will be even more so in the future. By offering a “healthier” example of same-sex desire in Dolly West’s Kitchen via Marco and Justin’s romance, Frank McGuinness is following in Friel’s footsteps by putting two male lovers onstage whilst at the same time taking a different path in terms of how he depicts the nature of their relationship.

The various relationships in Dolly West’s Kitchen (both same-sex and heterosexual) can also be said to follow an inherently “queer” code of ethics because at no time is one form of intimacy privileged over another. The various couples represent personal and individual attachments and none of them should be considered as superior to any other. This non-hierarchical outlook on romance can be said to relate to Eve Sedgwick’s assessment of the word “queer”: “‘Queer’ seems to hinge much more radically and explicitly on a person’s undertaking particular, performative acts of experimental self-perception and filiation […]. [T]here are important senses in which “queer” can signify only when attached to the first person.”[21] The romantic pairings that emerge from Dolly West’s Kitchen (same-sex, straight, transnational), do so out of personal needs to engage in connections and acts that refuse to be typed into privileged collective nouns such as gay or straight. For this reason, David Cregan has argued that: “McGuinness could hardly be classified as a ‘gay playwright’, as the term has come to be determined and developed. His plays are not confrontational protests about gay rights, or even theatrical glimpses of the homosexual world of either underground experience or erotic fetish. Instead his work is contextualized within the larger experience of human identity and has an overall tone of reconciliation rather than conflict.”[22] This tone of reconciliation and the celebration of various forms of human intimacy is what gives Dolly West’s Kitchen its claim to queerness and sets it apart for The Gentle Island’s depiction of hostility and conflict between straight and same-sex desires.


Queering Chrononormativity

In his introduction to Frank McGuinness: Plays 2 (which contains Dolly West’s Kitchen), McGuinness provides the following assessment of the dramas that are contained in that volume: “At their heart’s core, these plays centre around rituals and the need to disrupt ritual.”[23] I would argue that this description is one that unites Dolly West’s Kitchen with The Gentle Island since both plays center around characters and worlds that are deadened by habit and whose future is clearly mapped out according to prescribed rules and norms.

Both The Gentle Island and Dolly West’s Kitchen seem opposed to what Elizabeth Freeman calls chrononormativity. Freeman has defined chrononormativity as being:

[T]he use of time to organize individual bodies towards maximum productivity. And I mean that people are bound to one another, engrouped, made to feel coherently collective, through particular orchestrations of time: Dana Luciano has termed this chronobiopolitics, or “the sexual arrangement of the time of life” of entire populations […]. Chrononormativity is a mode of implantation, a technique by which institutional forces come to seem like somatic facts.[24]

Whilst The Gentle Island shows the cataclysmic results of adhering too strictly to that code of chrononormativity, Dolly West’s Kitchen offers glimpses of possible, indeterminate futures that are centred on micro, queer groups.

When The Gentle Island begins, we are confronted with a decaying and dying world that can no longer support the rigid prescriptions of chrononormativity. Most of the inhabitants are leaving the island with only the Sweeney family and a few others remaining behind. The patriarch of this family, Manus, cites the character of Maurya in Synge’s Riders to the Sea since both characters are doomed to watch the destruction of their old and established ways of life. In the case of Manus, this destruction is symbolized by mass emigration; in Maurya’s situation, the necessity of having to travel from their island to the mainland has resulted in the deaths of all the male members of her family. The inevitability of these men’s deaths because of the almost ritualistic quality of their existences is implicitly stated by Maurya’s daughter Cathleen when she asserts: “It’s the life of a young man to be going on the sea.”[25] The tragedy of this statement is that the lives of these young men will end in abrupt death because they have no other choice but to embrace the sea as a primary space of existence. Thus, the manner of their deaths is inextricably bound up with their way of life.

Manus’s lament at the beginning of The Gentle Island for the vanishing inhabitants of the island is comparable to Maurya’s climactic moment of keening for all her loved ones that are now deceased.[26] Maurya’s declaration that “they’re all gone now” expresses despair not just for the death of her family, but for the erosion of her entire society which is doomed to collapse now that all the island men are dead. In the case of Manus, he is in mourning not just for the departure of his friends, but also for the vanishing world into which he has invested so much of himself: “They belong here and they’ll never belong anywhere else! Never! D’you know where they’re going to? I do. I know. To back rooms in the back streets of London and Manchester and Glasgow. I’ve lived in them.”[27] Manus’s attempt to predict his friends’ fates (which echoes Cathleen ni Houlihan’s prediction of what the future holds for those men who help her) can be interpreted as his rebelling against the openness and uncertainty of their futures by inventing one that is clear, certain, and inevitable.[28]

The order of linear time and chrononormativity that sought to keep people together in ordered and coherent groups that could maximize production and bind society together is clearly breaking down in The Gentle Island. This sense of time as being disrupted and order collapsing is thus apparent from the very beginning of the drama. As Michael Parker has argued:

That time is out of joint, that past, present and future are blurred and undetermined, are immediately established in the unsettling opening scenes, and by the set itself. Although outwardly Manus Sweeney’s cottage, comprising of a kitchen flanked by a bedroom on each side and “curragh, fishing nets, lobster pots, farming equipment” […] against the gable wall—seems to belong to an earlier period of continuities, the siting of the central patriarchal character, “sitting in an airplane seat, his back to the audience, staring resolutely into the fire” […] suggests a figure suspended between two worlds and times […] his fixed inward looking gaze on the hearth signifies an attempt to suppress the present, a denial of external realities.[29]

In Parker’s analysis, the world of Inishkeen (where The Gentle Island is set) is one that no longer supports the consoling narrative of linearity but this version of existence is one that Manus still clings to fervently. By refusing to reject chrononormativity, Manus has also shackled himself to a dying landscape the inhabitants of which are leaving by the boatload. Thus, Manus can be regarded as being similar to many of the patriarchs in modern Irish fiction whose view of time is inextricably linked to a particular place which they regard as preserving their identity. As Parker has argued, “For Manus, […] the land is held in a sacred trust. The hallowed bond between a father, son, and the ancestral soil [is] of far more significance than marriage, women, or the lives of strangers.”[30]

The failure of heteronormativity to provide rejuvenation for Friel’s island dwellers is symbolized by the character of Sarah and her lack of children. Since the figure of the child is meant to symbolize (according to Lee Edelman) heteronormative reproduction and futurity,[31] the fact that Sarah has none can be read as an allusion to the fact that, as Susan Cannon Harris has written in relation to Riders to the Sea: “The next generation of Irish patriots will not emerge from this Irish home [or indeed this island].”[32]


Performing Playboys

The conflict between the outside and the inside world in these two plays is strongly suggested by their stage designs. In the case of The Gentle Island: “About one third of the stage area, the portion upstage right from the viewpoint of the audience, is occupied by the kitchen of MANUS SWEENEY’s cottage. The rest of the stage area is around the house. Against the gable wall are the currach, fishing nets, lobster-pots, farming equipment.”[33] As Anthony Roche has argued: “In The Gentle Island, Friel comes up with a setting that is neither interior nor exterior, but both at the same time.”[34] Thus, the world of Inishkeen can be read as one where old and established binaries (such as inside and outside, or masculine and feminine,) are beginning to erode and new forms of liminal spaces are emerging. The family kitchen (a rare setting for one of McGuinness’s plays) is the mainstay of Dolly West’s Kitchen but the world outside of the house invariably casts a shadow over the domestic space inside.

In both The Gentle Island and Dolly West’s Kitchen, the exterior space brings outside influences inside, threatening the static complacency that is represented by the home place. This trope of the intruding stranger (or strangers) who disrupt established communal rhythms because of their flamboyant and overly theatrical versions of gender identity is one dramatic element that both The Gentle Island and Dolly West’s Kitchen share with Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. John Wilson Foster’s reading of Christy Mahon’s subversion of fixed masculine identities via theatricality is very relevant to a reading of the male intruders in The Gentle Island and Dolly West’s Kitchen: “In The Playboy of the Western World (1907), Christy Mahon is, it seems, an utterly malleable male and the play is a descant on what it means socially to be a man, at least in the countryside in Ireland.”[35] This theme of compulsory normative-masculinity in a rural Irish setting can be regarded as a common thematic thread uniting both Playboy and The Gentle Island.

Into the dying world of The Gentle Island enter Peter and Shane. Shane, who is twenty years the junior of Peter, can be regarded as a “non-straight” version of Christy Mahon in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World because, like Christy, Shane is a gregarious, humorous, and wickedly eloquent monument to performance. The key difference between Christy and Shane is that Shane does not ever embrace the roles that he is required to play on Inishkeen with the kind of gusto that Christy did at the beginning of Synge’s play. Indeed, Shane is quite bitter about the fact that he and Peter are being forced to take on these inauthentic roles:

Shane: Be Jaysus. Shane boy, you’re quite a quare comedian. You should have been on the stage. Like me. Look at the act I have […] the simple, upright, hard-working island peasant holding on manfully to the real values in life, sustained by a thousand year-old culture, preserving for my people a really worthwhile inheritance.[36]


What Shane is alluding to in this outburst is the role that the manly Irish peasant plays in guaranteeing the preservation of an Irish culture that is rooted in the past but will continue to be part of a prescribed future. Shane can thus be regarded as playing the familiar role in Friel’s drama of the clownish extrovert who nonetheless possesses more insight than the other characters. As Anna McMullan has written: “Friel’s male trickster or joker figures often reveal the internalized mythologies that sustain a particular social order or community.”[37]

Judith Butler’s formulation of the term “performative” (which she distinguishes from “performance” because the latter word implies a certain amount of control and agency on the part of the performer) is useful when it comes to considering what Friel is saying about the prescriptiveness and rigid fixity of the role of manly Irish peasant that is forced on Irish men as a prerequisite for their being regarded as “naturally Irish.”[38] Prior to Butler, Oscar Wilde similarly had encapsulated the modern reality of people becoming slaves to inauthentic identity performances (gendered, national, among others) in “Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime”: “The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.”[39] When Frank McGuinness demands that a new language be created in the future for same-sex desire, he is seeking to break free from those historically fixed linguistic terms and roles that thinkers like Judith Butler and Oscar Wilde have detected as being at the heart of subject formation. In this respect, both The Gentle Island and Dolly West’s Kitchen can be regarded as examples of what Lionel Abel called “metatheatre” because of their shared representation of human subjectivity as performance-based rather than as a natural occurrence.[40]

In The Gentle Island, Shane feels that it is cruel to allow Manus to continue believing in the illusion that the island and its way of life has a future and thinks that it would be better to force Manus to accept that: “The place and his way of life and everything he believes in and all he touches—dead, finished, spent.”[41] Also, Shane would understandably not be desirous of bolstering a myth of Irish manhood as being one which is aggressively masculine and resolutely heterosexual since such a version of Irishness would certainly exclude him and his version of desire and intimacy. Like Christy Mahon, Shane recognizes that mighty men are very often not naturally born, but are created by “the power of a lie.”[42] Philly is equally in collusion with this unnatural performance of masculinity since, although he presents himself as being the epitome of male peasant virility, we are told at the beginning of the drama that he is lightly built and, unlike the other island men, he talks quietly.[43] I would argue that this is a subtle allusion to certain “feminine qualities” existing in him, which he would prefer to keep hidden. For this reason, he overacts the role of hypermasculinity even more than the other men in the play as a means of compensating for his perceived femininity.

The character of Justin in Dolly West’s Kitchen is comparable to Philly in that he attempts to act out a version of Irish masculinity that emphasizes strength, repression of emotion, and a strong sense of national pride that manifests itself in a hatred of all things English. His sister Dolly recognizes the falseness of this performance when she asks her mother: “What way is the army hardening Justin? What is he becoming? He was the gentlest boy. We were worried he was too soft. But I don’t like this.”[44] The army has given Justin a stage upon which to act out this version of Irish masculinity and he is now incapable of repressing it. As is the case with Philly, the love of a man comes into Justin’s life, in the form of the American soldier Marco, and this allows him to explore his more “feminine” side. This relationship, unlike the romance between Philly and Shane in The Gentle Island, ends happily with Justin and the traumatized Marco going away together into the unknown after the war has ended. In contrast, Shane is ejected from “the gentle island” and Philly is left behind to continue with the same routines and rituals that have always characterized his life.

The Gentle Island can be interpreted as offering a critique of the versions of hypermasculine Irish rurality that had become such a cultural mainstay for Ireland from the end of the nineteenth century onwards.[45] Friel’s play endeavours to denaturalize privileged versions of Irishness and show them as cultural constructions and performances that ensure connections between past Irish traditions and the future. Thus, The Gentle Island represents a new direction, not just for Irish drama, but also for Friel’s artistic oeuvre. As Seamus Deane has observed: “[I]n The Gentle Island [...] Friel turned on all the illusions of pastoralism, ancestral feeling, and local piety that had been implicit in his dramatization of the world of Ballybeg.”[46]

Brian Friel has personally acknowledged that his generation of Irish writers is more questioning and critical than their predecessors and that is why works like The Gentle Island seek to destabilize rather than fetishize Ireland and Irishness. As Friel wrote in his essay “Self Portrait”:

The generation of Irish writers immediately before mine never allowed this burden to weigh them down. They learned to speak Irish, took their genetic purity for granted, and soldiered on. For us today the situation is more complex. We are more concerned with defining our Irishness than with pursuing it. We want to know what the word “native” means, what the word “foreign” means. We want to know if the words have any meaning at all. And persistent considerations like these erode old certainties and help clear the building site.[47]

Friel’s desire to “help clear the building site,” I would argue, signals his interest in imagining a new future for Ireland that is not enslaved to old cultural certainties and performative identity signifiers. Although The Gentle Island does not offer many alternatives to these deadening habits of life and subjectivity, it can be interpreted as illuminating the problems and foreshadowing solutions.[48]

With the exception of Justin, most of the other characters in Dolly West’s Kitchen are capable of performing versions of selfhood that are not overtly determined by cultural norms which allows them to create subjectivities that are open to change and resist prescription. Thus, they can be interpreted as offering visions of an undecidable/open future for identity-formation. The primary example of this is the mother Rima, who instigates many of the events in the play by bringing the two American soldiers into the lives of her children. Although Rima seems upon first impression to be like many a stock matriarchal character from Irish literature, she actually functions as a deconstruction of that literary trope. Rima’s earthy language and strong stomach for drinking marks her out as being as atypical an Irish matriarch as it is possible to be. Unlike Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, Rima is a mother who is able to wield power in her home without ever becoming tyrannical.[49] She is an unproblematic force for good in the lives of her children and refuses to replace patriarchal power with matriarchal power, which makes her a powerful feminist icon for a future Ireland. In contrast to Manus in The Gentle Island, who is very much a traditional representation of an Irish patriarch in literature, Rima deconstructs such stereotypical gender roles from a matriarchal perspective. Rima at one point allows her subversive qualities to extend to rewriting the narrative of Ireland’s creation: “A little bit of heaven fell from out the skies one day, and when the angels found it, it looked so lovely there they sprinkled it with gold dust and they called it Ireland.”[50] If a country’s future is to be predicated partially on its foundation myth, then Rima is offering a version of the Irish past that is not wedded to a realistic version of history. As Richard Pine has written: “If ‘the past’ is regarded as an empty expanse of time, its potential is immense. It becomes possible to equate ‘the past’ with ‘the future’. The only affects which are fixed are the horizons themselves.”[51] Thus, if an endlessly rewritable past is to be used as the basis for constructing the future, such a future will be queerly uncertain and unexpected if/when it does arrive.

Marco is another character in Dolly West’s Kitchen who refuses to comply with expected behaviour that is solely predicated on his sexual preferences. Although Marco certainly identifies himself as a gay man, he never presents himself at any time as being stereotypically so. As Lojek argues: “Camp elements in this play are more subdued than they were in [McGuinness’s 1988 play] Carthaginians. In fact, Marco is not so much camping as mocking expectations that he will camp. His actions by and large lack exaggerated ‘performance’ elements and thus necessitate rethinking the association of theatricality with camp.”[52] In Marco, McGuinness has created a man for whom subjectivity is not dependent on sexual desire and thus he is more at ease thinking about himself in the first person singular as opposed to being part of a collective noun.

The heterosexual-identified male, Alec, is also very at ease with talking about sexual experiences without every fearing that he might have to reconceptualize his sense of self in relation to them:

            Dolly: You had a fling with a man in your twenties

            Alec: I was drunk

            Dolly: It went on for three months

            Alec: I was very drunk.[53]

Although Alec’s romance with Dolly is one of the driving forces of the play, the chance of same-sex desire is always present without ever becoming intrusive. This acceptance of otherness, even within oneself, is one of the primary features of the micro-community that exists on this stage. Jamie is the character who perhaps sums up this tolerance the best when he talks about his relationship with Marco: “I don’t say much. Between the two of us, we say what needs to be said. We’re different. I like that. I don’t wear make-up. I don’t like guys. Marco does. Let him. I like difference.”[54] An Irish audience hearing this statement might well regard it as expressing a longing for an Irish future, which would eschew fixed norms and embrace otherness.

In contrast to Dolly West’s Kitchen, where various forms of human intimacy exist happily alongside each other, in Friel’s The Gentle Island, heterosexual love and same-sex desire are constantly in conflict. The relationship between Shane and Sarah seems to be developing along the same lines as the one between Christy and Pegeen in Playboy of the Western World but it gets defeated by the attraction between Shane and Philly. Sarah is attracted by Shane’s charming exterior and eloquent language and is very dissatisfied with her current partner Philly, just as Pegeen regarded her fiancé Shaun as being less than adequate. (Although Philly is far more capable of filling the role of virile Irish peasant than “the middling kind of scarecrow” Shaun Keogh ever was). Friel, then, uses the memory of the famous heterosexual romance between Pegeen and Christy to raise audiences’ expectations about the direction his play might take, only to then insert a same-sex desire plot twist into the equation. Sarah’s display of grief in reaction to Shane’s shooting (even though she was the one who pulled the trigger) is comparable to Pegeen’s feelings of loss at the end of Playboy. When Sarah begins to keen in front of Shane’s wounded body, one can almost hear Pegeen’s famous word: “Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only playboy of the western world.”[55] Both women have been offered glimpses of potentially liberating futures that have now disappeared, leaving them to contemplate the depressing predictability that will almost surely characterize the rest of their existences. Sarah’s shooting of Shane represents the violence and destruction that The Gentle Island presents as being at the heart of the “no future” of heteronormativity. In this scene, Friel outdoes Synge in his representation of the violence and lawlessness, which Luke Gibbons regards as being at the heart of Irish (and American) conceptions of the West.[56]

The romance that exists between Dolly and Alec in Dolly West’s Kitchen is also a kind of forbidden love because he is English while she is Irish. Whilst not being queer in a sexual sense, this relationship can certainly be regarded as non-normative. I would argue that McGuinness wrote Dolly and Alec as partial versions of the Irishwoman Maire and the Englishman Yolland from Friel’s Translations whose love, although cut tragically short by Yolland’s disappearance, did offer a vision of an alternative future for British-Irish relations.[57] When Dolly West agrees to go with Alec to England, she refuses to allow their love to be interpreted as a coming together of two warring nations: “No Alec, I won’t love it [England]. They won’t love me. I’ll make sure of that. That is your country. Yes, it has suffered. Yes, it’s on its knees. But I am not. All right, I’ll stand by you. But I’ll be standing on my own two feet. And I’ll be doing it for you. Not for your country.”[58] Dolly’s intention is that her relationship with Alec will be one based on private desire and not a public declaration of Anglo-Irish reconciliation. Thus, the personal wins out over the political conceptions of selfhood.


Undecidable Futures to Come

When Joe decides to leave Inishkeen at the end of The Gentle Island, he is symbolically rejecting the prescriptiveness of life on the island and is attempting to find a new future for himself that, while potentially more perilous, offers the possibility of a better life to come. In his analysis of The Gentle Island, Pine outlines three options that can be explored in order to attain freedom and they are all related to temporality and futurity:

We are left with three choices in order to maintain a precarious grip on freedom: going back completely to a hermetic past, or exercising some kind of rational, logical rejection of that past and its myth, or (the most extreme choice) a jump into the dark. The first choice is implosive, a negative embrace, the second makes the heart brutal, and calls for the painful excision of the incised/excised parts; the third obeys the principle that “he who hesitates is lost,” and demands explosive action, where the jump is “now” or never.[59]

Joe clearly chooses the third of those options. His jump is into an unknown, open, and potentially liberating future life that will allow him a freedom that he has never known on Inishkeen. It is a decision that is portrayed as being unproblematically positive, in contrast to Gar O’Donnell’s conflicting emotions about leaving Ballybeg at the end of Philadelphia Here I Come.

As he did at the beginning of the play, Manus describes what the future will hold for Joe as a way of combating the uncertainty that is confronting his son as he leaves Inishkeen: “Joe? Three weeks’ll do him and he’ll come creeping back. Joe couldn’t live anywhere but here. I know Joe.”[60] It is this denial of chance and openness that closes The Gentle Island but the audience is still left with the knowledge that what lies ahead for Joe may not be as certain and predictable as Manus and Philly believe. Thus, a queer, uncertain life is what Joe is going towards.

The conclusion of Dolly West’s Kitchen sees all the couples (with the exception of Ned and Esther) leaving the family home to build their lives elsewhere. The uncertainty of their futures is encapsulated by the final exchange between Alec and Dolly which closes the drama:

            Alec: Is the war over?

            Dolly: I said I hope so.[61]

The implication is that, for these characters, struggle and impermanence will characterize the rest of their lives. Despite this, they are leaving behind the ghosts of the past and are refusing to allow them to shape their futures. The child that will be born to Ned and Esther symbolizes the undecidability of the rest of their lives because the identity of its father is uncertain: it might be Ned or it might be Jamie. No happiness is guaranteed for any of the couples at the end of Dolly West’s Kitchen, but their uncertain futures do at least contain the potential for contentment which is not offered to any of the islanders who remain on Friel’s “gentle island” (whose name, as McGuinness has pointed out, also means island of lamentation).[62] Thus, the conclusion of Dolly West’s Kitchen can be interpreted as attempting what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call in A Thousand Plateaus a “deterritorialization” of static conceptions of linear time and prescribed futurity.[63]

McGuinness’s staging of personal and familial bonds in Dolly West’s Kitchen can be read as offering the kind of playfulness and willingness to experiment with romantic coupling that Jacques Derrida regarded as being the ethical future for personal bonds and intimacy: “So many things can be done with a man and a woman! With sexual difference […] we can imagine so many “familial” configurations! And even in what we consider our most stable and familiar model, there are so many subspecies.”[64] Thus in its various couplings, Dolly West’s Kitchen provides its audience with a vision (albeit a provisional one) of the multiplicities and various types of families and couples (both opposite and same-sex) that desire can bring into being.



In the conclusion of his essay on Brian Friel in The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel, Frank McGuinness offers the following appraisal of the early plays of Brian Friel (including The Gentle Island): “I firmly maintain that these plays […] were the making of the master. I’ve always distrusted that description of Friel the playwright. It implies he knows something. He does, but that knowledge is rooted in these rough, rabid, devious texts.”[65] What McGuinness admires in Friel’s dramatic aesthetic is the refusal of absolute knowability in identity and the rejection of total mastery of material. By allowing the unknown future a tentative (albeit somewhat hollow) victory over the known one in The Gentle Island, Friel gave McGuinness the partial inspiration for Dolly West’s Kitchen’s privileging of the open-ended lives that await his characters following the play’s conclusion. It is arguable that these two dramatic works, in different but parallel ways, have helped in some small way to contribute to a culture of growing acceptance in Ireland of same-sex desire that found significant expression on May 22, 2015 when over sixty percent of the Irish electorate voted in favour of the Marriage Referendum which extended the right of marital union to same-sex couples.[66] By opening up the institution of marriage to “non-heteronormative” love, Ireland was at least partially accepting that the future for intimacy and desire does not have to be fixed and striated but can smoothly flow into new areas and take new forms of the kind that Friel probably could not have anticipated when he put the first same-sex romantic partnership on an Irish stage in 1971.[67]



[1] For an analysis of Frank McGuinness’s debt to Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, see Graham Price, "Memory, narration and spectrality in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer and Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,” Irish Studies Review 23, no.1 (2015), 33-47.


[2] See Patrick Mason, “Eggs De Valera: Reflections on Dolly West’s Kitchen and Dancing at Lughnasa,” Irish University Review 40, no. 1 (2010), 35-45.


[3] Frank McGuinness, “The Gentle Island,” The Sunday Tribune, 11 December 1988, 19.


[4] Frank McGuinness, “Surviving the 1960s: Three Plays by Brian Friel 1968-1971,” in The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel, ed. Anthony Roche (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 27.


[5] Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (London: Faber and Faber, 1956), 91.


[6] See Frank McGuinness, “Faith Healer: All the Dead Voices,” in Irish University Review 29, no. 1 (1999), 60-3. For an examination of the ways that Beckett’s work unites both Friel’s and McGuinness’s, see Joan Fitzpatrick Dean, Dancing at Lughnasa (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003), 24-25.


[7] I shall be using the term “heteronormative” throughout this article as opposed to “heterosexual” because the former word refers to the prescriptiveness and attempted naturalisation of the heterosexual identity as practiced by certain groups and individuals. I do not regard the word heterosexual as inherently problematic, which is why I am using the term “heteronormative” instead. For an analysis of the negative effects of heteronormativity see Michael Warner, “Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet,” in Social Text 29 (1991), 3-17.


[8] See Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005), 27-8.


[9] Helen Lojek, “Brian Friel’s Gentle Island of Lamentation,” IUR 29, no. 1 (1999), 59.


[10] Frank McGuinness, “Surviving the 1960s: Three Plays by Brian Friel 1968-1971,” 26-27.


[11] For an analysis of the combat between homosociality and homoeroticism in Deliverance, see Ed Madden, “The Buggering Hillbilly and the Buddy Movie: Male Sexuality in Deliverance,” in The Way We Read James Dickey: Critical Approaches for the Twenty-First Century, ed. William B. Thesing and Theda Wrede, 195-209.


[12] Helen Lojek, “Brian Friel’s Gentle Island of Lamentation,” 52.


[13] Ibid, 52.


[14] Seamus Deane, Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature (North-Carolina: Wakeforest University Press, 1987), 166.


[15] Eamonn Jordan, The Feast of Famine: The Plays of Frank McGuinness (Bern: Peter Lang, 1997), xiv.


[16] See David Cregan, “Coming Out: McGuinness’s Dramaturgy and Queer Resistance,” IUR 40, no. 1 (2010), 46, and David Cregan, Frank McGuinness’s Dramaturgy of Difference and the Irish Theatre (Heinemann Publishing, 2011).


[17] Brian Friel, Philadelphia Here I Come, in Brian Friel: Plays 1 (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 76.


[18] See Lord Alfred Douglas, “Two Loves,” http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/two-loves.


[19] Helen Lojek, The Contexts for Frank McGuinness’s Drama (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), 204.


[20] See Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London: Hamilton, 1987), 465.


[21] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 9.


[22] David Cregan, “Coming Out: McGuinness’s Dramaturgy and Queer Resistance,” Irish University Review 40, no. 1 (2010), 46.

[23] Frank McGuinness, “Introduction,” in Frank McGuinness: Plays 2 (London: Faber and Faber, 2002), ix.

[24] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 3.


[25] John Millington Synge, Riders to the Sea (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 5.


[26] See Ibid, 11-12.


[27] Brian Friel, The Gentle Island (Meath: Gallery Press, 1993), 18-19.


[28] See William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, Cathleen ni Houlihan, in Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama, ed. John P. Harrington (USA: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2009), 9-10.

[29] Michael Parker, “Telling Tales: Narratives of Politics and Sexuality in The Gentle Island,” in Brian Friel’s Dramatic Artistry: The Work Has Value, ed. Donald E. Morse, Csilla Bertha, and Maria Kurdi (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2006), 144-45.

[30] Michael Parker, “Telling Tales: Narratives of Politics and Sexuality in The Gentle Island,” 149.

[31] See Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, 12-13.

[32] Susan Cannon Harris, “Synge and Gender,” in The Cambridge Companion to Synge, ed. P.J. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 110. For an analysis of reproductive futurity and the Irish literary canon, see Gerardine Meaney, Gender, Ireland and Cultural Change (New York: Routledge, 2010), 154-166.

[33]Ibid., 11.

[34] Anthony Roche, Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), 108.

[35] John Wilson Foster “Corrigibly Plural? Masculinity in Life and Literature,” in Irish Maculinities: Reflections on Literature and Culture ed. Caroline Magennis and Raymond Mullen (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2011), 15.

[36] Ibid., 40.

[37] Anna McMullan, “Performativity, Unruly Bodies and Gender in Brian Friel’s Drama,” in The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel, ed. Anthony Roche (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 143.

[38] See Judith Butler, “For a Careful Reading” in Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. Thinking Gender (Routledge. London, New York, 1995), 134.

[39] Oscar Wilde, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” in Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: Harper Collins, 1994), 165.

[40] See Lionel Abel, Metatheatre: a New View of Dramatic Form (Hill and Wang, 1963).

[41] Brian Friel, The Gentle Island, 41.

[42] John Millington Synge, The Playboy of the Western World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 142.

[43] See Brian Friel, The Gentle Island, 19.

[44] Frank McGuinness, Dolly West’s Kitchen, 190.

[45] See Edward Hirsch, “The Imaginary Irish Peasant,” PMLA 106, no. 5 (Oct., 1991), 1133.

[46] Seamus Deane, “Introduction,” in Brian Friel: Plays 1 (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 15.

[47] Brian Friel, “Self Portrait,” in Brian Friel: Essays, Diaries and Interviews 1964-1999, ed. Christopher Murray (London: Faber, 1999), 45.

[48] Friel stages both a literal and metaphorical clearing of the building site in his mid-seventies play Volunteers (1975) in which IRA prisoners are clearing away an ancient archaeological site in preparation for building to occur.

[49] For a consideration of Rima’s connection with the character of Lady Bracknell, see Noreen Doody, “Beyond the Mask: Frank McGuinness and Oscar Wilde,” in Ireland on Stage: Beckett and After, ed. Hiroko Mikami, Minako Okamuro and Naoko Yagi (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2007), 75.

[50] Frank McGuinness, Dolly West’s Kitchen, 210.

[51] Richard Pine, The Diviner: The Art of Brian Friel (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1999), 125.

[52] Helen Lojek, Contexts for Frank McGuinness’s Drama, 189.

[53] Frank McGuinness, Dolly West’s Kitchen, 198.

[54] Ibid, 213.

[55] John Millington Synge, The Playboy of the Western World, 146.

[56] See Luke Gibbons, Transformations in Irish Culture (Cork: Cork University Press, 1996), 23-36.

[57] See Richard Rankin Russell, Modernity Community and Place in Brian Friel’s Drama (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014), 144.

[58] Frank McGuinness, Dolly West’s Kitchen, 261.

[59] Richard Pine, The Diviner: The Art of Brian Friel, 124-5.

[60] Brian Friel, The Gentle Island, 76.

[61] Frank McGuinness, Dolly West’s Kitchen, 263.

[62] See Frank McGuinness, “Surviving the 1960s: Three Plays,” 28.

[63] See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London and New York: Continuum Publishing, 2004), 3-28.

[64] Jacques Derrida and Elizabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 37.

[65] Frank McGuinness, “Surviving the 1960s: Three Plays,” 28.

[66] See The Irish Times, May 24, 2015, 1.

[67] For an analysis of the smooth and the potentially veering movements of lines of identity that are actualisable in various living entities, see Gilles Deleuze and Felix Gauttari, A Thousand Plateaus, 523-551.