- “Simulat Ergo Est”:Brian O’Nolan’s Metaperformative Simulations
As Anthony Cronin explains it, when Flann O’Brien’s Faustus Kelly: A Play in Three Acts by Myles na Gopaleen (1943) debuted at the Abbey Theatre, the author, Brian O’Nolan, went out of his way to confuse the issue of authorship with his audience.1 Having ascribed the play to the authorship of Myles na Gopaleen, O’Nolan apparently “decided to make himself scarce” on opening night by “watching the performance from the back of the stalls.” When the audience called for the author, they
were answered by a gentleman, dressed as the traditional stage Irishman with pipe, caubeen and cutaway coat, who did a little bit of a jig and then silently vanished. Holloway and some members of the audience disapproved of this extension of theatricality into the author’s appearance on stage; but in fact the gnomic figure was an Abbey actor. The play had been billed as the work of Myles na Gopaleen and it was that mystical personage who was now taking a bow, not Brian O’Nolan.2
The Abbey moment is a curious bit of metatheatricality for an author who—under his most famous pseudonym, Flann O’Brien—has become quite well known for employing metanarrative techniques in his novels in order to draw attention to the artificiality of both author and text. To be sure, if this anecdote were all that one knew of the play, one might naturally assume O’Nolan’s theatrical works to be full of the sorts of metanarrative hijinks seen in his novels. [End Page 87]
Moreover, while the Irish stage of the first half of the twentieth century is most commonly associated with nationalist works or with the naturalism of Synge and Sean O’Casey, a play in the same mold as O’Nolan’s novels would not, in fact, have come as much of a surprise in the Dublin of the late 1930s and early ’40s. There was a minority opinion among theater practitioners as early as 1918 that the rampant nationalist artificiality of so much that was produced at the Abbey would benefit from greater European influence.3 Indeed, a case could be made that it is O’Nolan’s novels that are more anomalous to that era than the same aesthetic wrought out on the stage, For instance, O’Nolan failed to find a publisher for The Third Policeman (1939) even though, in the same years, the avant-garde theater in Dublin managed to find a self-sustaining audience.
All these years later, this largely ignored anecdote of the play’s first performance instead comes across as something of a surprise. O’Nolan’s plays are generally dismissed by critics as quite pedestrian, entirely lacking in the aesthetic innovations of the novels. And although such a response is at least partly warranted, it is also true that—as with the framing device accompanying Faustus Kelly—a self-conscious performativity does, in fact, accompany much of the work written under the Myles na Gopaleen pseudonym. This is especially clear in the long-running column “Cruiskeen Lawn,” albeit with the fundamental difference that whereas the novels focus on the artificiality of their own construction, the work written as Myles na Gopaleen is more directly focused on the artificiality of its author, his pseudonyms, Dublin, Ireland, and its people more generally. So entrenched is Myles’s metaperformative aesthetic that Richard Schechner’s description of the late-twentieth-century “performance studies” turn in the humanities could serve also as a fitting explanation for O’Nolan’s own evolving metaperformative aesthetic: “performing onstage, performing in special social situations (public ceremonies, for example), and performing in everyday life are a continuum.”4 [End Page 88]
As Flann O’Brien, Brian O’Nolan authored four novels and numerous short stories. Two of these novels, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) and The Third Policeman (written shortly thereafter but not published until 1967) have become twentieth-century Irish classics. Less well known is that as Myles na Gopaleen, in addition to authoring a fifth novel in Irish, An Béal Bocht (1941), O’Nolan authored several plays and...