Medicine Wheel Theatre Company
at the Rally Theatre
THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BILLY THE KID
at the Garage
Believing that the British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, of even a respectable minority ready to die to affirm that truth makes that government forever a usurpation and a crime against human progress. –James Connolly, Irish Marxist, executed in 1916 for his part in leading the Easter Rebellion against English rule
This quotation appears on a memorial stone in west Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery, above the names of Irish Marxists who died between 1975 and 1987 for their part in making up a respectable minority.
The more things change. . . .
There’s something at once terribly monotonous and endlessly fascinating about the troubles in Ireland. They’re the Zapruder film of national liberation struggles: a tragedy on infinite replay. You watch the Event reel itself out over and over again in succeeding generations, some part of you half imagining it can end differently this time, another part half mesmerized by the certainty that it won’t.
The Irish themselves seem to savor this Sisyphean pattern, if not exactly to enjoy it. Genuinely exhausted by the conflict, genuinely grieved by the toll it’s taken–in poverty, death, and the de facto despotism of gangs–they’re also profoundly aware of it as heritage. As identity. As an exalting sorrow, poetic in its futility, its absolute refusal to be solved.
And no Irishman savored the pattern more than William Butler Yeats. His poetry is full of a passionate ambivalence toward Ireland and the troubles–an ambivalence most famously depicted in “Easter 1916,” the masterwork in which he tells how Connolly’s rebellion ennobled what he’d thought was a nation of fops and clowns: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”
Yeats savored the pattern so much, in fact, that he fell in love with it–or with an embodiment of it named Maude Gonne. A cunning, stone-hard republican activist, an honest-to- God firebrand who also happened to be a world-class beauty, Gonne became Yeats’s paradigm of Irish nationalism. Everything he loved and hated in his country he found epitomized in her. All the passionate ambivalence he felt for Ireland, he projected onto her.
He found her, like Ireland, both exquisite and mean. He could neither accept nor resist her. And like Ireland, she would neither keep him nor turn him loose.
Ultimately, appropriately, their relationship assumed the character of the pattern itself: of the Event replayed over and over again through the years, generating enormous pain and beauty but never a resolution. Remaining perfect in its incompleteness. Poetic in its futility.
It’s a great story. It ought to make a lovely, even compelling play. But Maura, the new script about Yeats and Gonne by Shannon Branham and Michael Stevenson, is going to require a lot of heavy rethinking before it has a chance of being that play.
In their attempt to express Yeats’s ambivalence, Branham and Stevenson have come up with a tortured, basically nonsensical conceit that pits Gonne-as-Irish-nationalism against a slyly vicious old Celtic warrior–representing the magic and power of the fairy kingdom–in a struggle for the newly deceased Yeats’s soul. Now anybody who knows Yeats’s work, including his mystical tracts and his collection of Irish fairy and folk tales, knows that he was a solid citizen of the Celtic world from early on–vividly aware of its potency and of its claims on him. Given that, why should the warrior feel called upon to fight for Yeats’s fealty? And to do it after Yeats’s death, when he’s already written everything he’s going to write and done everything he’s going to do? If anything, I would think the nationalists would be the ones trying to woo dead Yeats away from the Celts, for posthumous use as a rallying symbol.
But even if the overall conceit made sense, several individual scenes still wouldn’t. An interlude featuring a political prisoner named O’Callahan, for instance, bears no discernible relationship to the narrative; and though another interlude–in which Gonne makes love to a man on her own baby’s coffin–has a distinct shock value, it remains totally unintelligible unless you know certain details of Gonne’s real-life adventures. Details the script never provides.
And so on and so forth. All in all, Maura’s full of holes, and Thomas Quinn’s direction does very little to patch them up. In the end we’re left with the impression that Yeats wasn’t merely ambivalent, but incoherent.
Like Maura, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid tries to get to the bottom of a historical figure. Only with Billy it’s a simpler trip. Ondaatje’s William Bonney has no ambivalence, no warring aspects. On the contrary, he’s practically Zen pure: a childlike assassin with a mystical clarity that allows him to sense (and kill) animals hiding under the floorboards, or to find magic in his ability to make himself vomit.
Ondaatje wrote the work in 1970, and this is a hippie outlaw vision if there ever was one. The current production picks up on that vision with lots of wavy-trippy choreography; a Jefferson Airplane imitation by Friends of Betty; and a wonderfully quirky, whispery, fidgety performance by Doug Spinnuzza as Billy. Spinnuzza’s a complete original: a young actor who combines an apparently absolute lack of inhibition with great intelligence and the best, most dancerly body-sense I’ve seen since John Malkovich careened across the stage in True West. Spinnuzza’s worth watching, and the rest of the show’s so out-there bad you might enjoy it.