The lights come up to reveal the regular customers of Finn’s Pub in Killcock, Ireland, gathered about the bar singing “Old Johnny Bugger was a gay old bugger.” It’s a rousing song, and it establishes a convivial mood. Aye, and afterward everyone lifts a glass and drinks with gusto. ‘Tis a scene to warm the cockles of your liver. Yes, they’re those cute, lovable Irish alcoholics, whose stereotype we’ve come to know so well. And–wait a minute–how did the lyrics to that song go? Something about buggers. If you’re gay (more on this later), relax, because you don’t have to pump Irish blood to be insulted by this play. All you really need is a social conscience.
The author of this bad joke is novelist Ray Bradbury. He wrote plays too, apparently, which you don’t see produced that often, and now I know why. Falling Upward is the most appallingly patronizing, reductive, and fatuous portrayal of the Irish ever written by an ugly American. Nothing compares to it, not even George Segal’s characterization of an Irish TV detective. Really, it’s like Bradbury took a trip to Ireland, possibly even drank a Guinness, quickly affirmed all the misconceptions his narrow mind could muster on the subject of Ireland, and rushed back home to write this god-awful morality play. It beats me why he wrote it, but what really boggles my mind is why anyone would produce it.
The first few scenes of Falling Upward treat the audience to Bradbury’s lame conception of the Irish sense of humor. These scenes contain local color, shenanigans, and the sort of wordplay that would make James Joyce glad he’s dead. Hold on to your hats for the “comic” reenactment of a bicycle (pronounced buy-cycle, not basic-ul) accident. But the real corker is an elaborate, and gratuitous, interlude about the late Lord Killgotten’s will, which stipulates that the contents of his first-rate wine cellar be poured into his grave. Of course, the boys from Finn’s Pub deem this a sacrilege and propose an organic method of first recycling the wine right there in the cemetery, promising that it will eventually wind up in the grave. Now, if you don’t see the conclusion to this gag coming from way over the horizon, face it, your sense of humor is brain dead. And oh, those witty Irish–anything for a drink.
Round about (very roundabout) scene four, three American tourists arrive from an extended sojourn in Sicily. Enter the comic homosexuals, wearing their sweaters and overcoats like capes, much to the horror of the patrons of Finn’s Pub. So while the gay Americans are out admiring the scenery, the local guys grumble and exchange homophobic anecdotes, which, it angers me to report, delighted the opening-night, paper-house audience.
Now comes the really heartwarming part. Timulty (played by Herb Metzler), the open-minded one, observes the tourists closely and reports to his friends that they’re not so different from them after all. You can well imagine, you can predict–you could probably even direct this scene more effectively without any theatrical experience whatsoever–how the guys initially respond. But Timulty pursues his point, listing the similarities between “us” and “them,” including a love of poetry and dance, and a certain dissatisfaction with the female sex. Which would they prefer, Timulty asks, an evening at home with the wife and mother-in-law, or a night out drinking with the boys?
Continuing in this obliquely sexist vein, Timulty poses another rhetorical question. Where, in this wet country of Ireland, could a man and woman stretch out comfortably and do it? Even if a man did manage to find some dry turf, there would be Father Leary looking over his shoulder, invoking the sixth commandment. Now stop and consider. The obvious implication here, if we assume that indoor sex is not unheard of in Ireland, is that Timulty is talking about sex with someone other than the boring wife. A corollary implication would be that women are good for nothing but sex. And if women, weather, and the (Holy Mother) church conspire to deprive the Irishman of sex, who can blame him if he seeks some comfort, if not sexual, in the company of his fellow men? Therefore, the guys reluctantly agree, these queers aren’t so queer after all. At this juncture the gay Americans conveniently reappear, and there’s an extended scene of conciliation and brotherhood.
What a handsome display of humanism! I particularly like the part where Timulty waxes poetic about how the fairies have returned to Ireland.
If you were to substitute blacks for gays in this play, and compare them to the Irish based on their great love of singing, dancing, and getting intoxicated, you’d have a riot in the theater. And somehow I don’t think the Irish people need Bradbury’s admiration for their being liberal enough to admit that gays just might be human. Because Bradbury admires only the crudest of stereotypes in Falling Upward: Irish as alcoholics, gays as bourgeois daisy-sniffers. The amazing and ultimately insulting thing about it all is Bradbury’s unwitting sincerity.
In the end the gay tourists depart, to the tune of “Over the Rainbow,” and the Irish guys gather about the bar for another rousing singalong. And if there’s anything entertaining about this play, it’s the two songs, at the beginning and closing of the show. Except for a few isolated moments of humor, what lies in between is practically insufferable.
The cast is uniformly undistinguished. All performances seem to derive not from life, but from the sort of Irish caricatures you see in sitcoms or old movies. Excluding, of course, the three gay guys mincing about whose hands are never far from their mouths. The Irish accents are bogus, not brogue. And as far as the ensemble goes, all you can say is that the cast is in the same rut. The guys at Finn’s Pub put on a show of community life, slapping each other on the back now and then, but without motivation or any sense that they really know each other. How could they know their neighbors anyway, if they don’t know who they themselves are?
Karen Goodman’s direction, like Bradbury’s script, is uninformed of any aspect of Irish culture or society. Rather than work against the grain of Bradbury’s patronizing attitude, which would require a monumental sense of irony–Goodman seems to embrace it wholeheartedly. I get the feeling that she thinks the Irish are a cute, fanciful, adorable little people. Perhaps if she sat down for an evening with an IRA soldier, she’d learn to distinguish between an Irishman and a mantelpiece ornament.
Twenty years ago, this portrait of gays and Gaels might pass for naive. Now, it amounts to an outrage, and not because words like “bugger” and “fairy” have simply become politically unfashionable. There’s more than vocabulary at issue here; there’s prejudice. You don’t overcome racism by mussing a black kid’s hair for good luck. And you don’t embrace Irish culture by getting trashed on Saint Pat’s Day. Although that would be preferable to trashing the Irish.