- The Theatre of Thomas Kilroy: No Absolutes by José Lanters
When Thomas Kilroy’s The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1968, it was identified by one reviewer as “the first play by an Irish writer in which the title role is that of a homosexual” (83). Almost a decade later, another reviewer noted that Tea and Sex and [End Page 259] Shakespeare (1976) had crossed another barrier, this time on Ireland’s national stage: “The word ‘sex’ has appeared for the first time in an Abbey play” (104). Over the half century of drama that forms the subject of The Theatre of Thomas Kilroy: No Absolutes, José Lanters demonstrates that Kilroy repeatedly met the challenge he issued in his 1959 manifesto “Groundwork for an Irish Theatre”: to confront the “painful, sometimes tragic problems of a modern Ireland” through an engagement with modern theatrical forms and “the experiments and advances of modern stage-craft.”
Anchored by extensive archival research, Lanters captures the range of theatrical forms through which Kilroy explores Irish subjects and connects “the world to the Irish stage, and Irish theatre to the world” (232). Lanters interprets Kilroy’s willingness to seek out forms and influences beyond Irish borders as a rejection of the extremist and absolutist positions held by many of his characters. In The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas tells Constance that “there are no absolutes except in the desperate imagination of men and women” (134). Kilroy’s drama places those possessing this “desperate imagination” at its center, while never losing sight of the consequences of such vision for those around them. Kilroy’s relentless probing of characters in search of “the impossible, perfect performance” (Rabe in The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre) (qtd. in Lanters 69), work of art (Nell in The Shape of Metal), or beauty (Wilde in The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde), and the inhuman separation that such a quest incurs, forms the key focus of Lanters’s study.
Lanters’s book is organized into three parts— ”Nationalism and Identity,” “Gender and Sexuality,” “Art and Mysticism”—although this structure does not preclude substantial attention paid to each of these themes throughout. Indeed, Lanters’s analyses of the plays that chronologically bookend the study, The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche and the Pádraig Pearse monologue that Kilroy contributed to a commemorative celebration of the 1916 Easter Rising, foreground the repression and self-loathing inculcated by Ireland’s rigid prohibitions around gender and sexuality. Kilroy’s plays repeatedly show the psychological costs of sectioning off parts of one’s humanity under the pressure of performance: uniforms become costumes enabling erasure of the self and violence to others (Double Cross, The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre), stages proliferate onstage (Talbot’s Box, The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde), and puppets force a recognition of the limitations of human agency (also Constance Wilde). Across his work, wardrobes, suitcases, boxes, and rooms in basements and boarding houses fail to enclose the secret personal, marital, or national fracturing within the outwardly homogenous whole. The confrontation with what lies within these literal or imagined containers—Kelly’s confession in The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche that “I let [Mr. Roche] handle me,” the writer Brian’s opening of a suitcase containing a “naked, dead infant form” in Tea and Sex and Shakespeare, Constance Wilde’s brave recognition of the “corrupting childhood incident that constituted her secret ‘fall’”—represent a central preoccupation of Kilroy’s illuminated by Lanters (93, 115, 134).
The numerous challenges posed by Kilroy’s “serious and demanding theatrical fare” in terms of staging and his openness to collaboration make Lanters’s identification of his borrowings from epic theatre (The O’Neill), surrealism (Tea and Sex and Shakespeare), Kabuki and Bunraku theatre (The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde), Brecht (Talbot’s Box), and Artaud (Blake), and her attention to the various productions of his work all the more valuable (59). Her extensive knowledge of Kilroy’s archive allows her to recover his unconscious or...