Theatre of the Reconstruction

Toward the end of Richard’s Cork Leg, Brendan Behan’s last play, a wounded revolutionary, a pair of prostitutes, and “a coloured gentleman,” the manager of the Dublin branch of Fair Lawn cemetery, sit boozing in the home of a lady named Mallarkey, as her daughter, Deirdre, plays an old Irish air on a nonexistent harp. “Wonderful,” says the revolutionary. “How Sam Beckett would have loved this.” A moment later, the guns go off, and a more or less innocent guest is dead (though not silent) on the ground.

The point seems clear enough: Art is in the imagination, guns are real. Unheard melodies are sweet, but a well-placed ounce of lead can put you in Fair Lawn. If you want real absurdity, come visit beautiful Ireland. It’s perhaps the only moment of real clarity in an unholy hilarious mess of a play, and the fact that Brendan Behan didn’t write the scene shouldn’t make us appreciate it less.

Richard’s Cork Leg was begun near the end of Behan’s short, wasted life. He dashed off one act on assignment; by several accounts, it was the rejection of this draft that launched Behan on the round of drinking that soon killed him. A somewhat more complete draft, still lacking an ending, was discovered in 1971 and hammered into stageable form by Alan Simpson, one of Behan’s many biographers and the original producer of the playwright’s masterpiece, The Quare Fellow.

What Simpson had to work with was a shapeless, plotless, ill-proportioned mass of ghastly puns, music-hall bits, song parodies, speechifying, and heavy-handed satire. That’s pretty much what he ended up with as well.

The story is enigmatic: A pair of prostitutes visit the grave of a fallen sister. A revolutionary called “The Hero” busts up a reunion of the Blueshirts–Irish who fought on the side of fascism in Spain. A silver-tongued layabout named Cronin seduces the player of invisible harps. A shot rings out. Curtain.

The texture of the script is what makes it appealing. Behan was very conscious of his high-art countrymen, Beckett and Joyce. (The title of the play, for instance, seems to come from Joyce. As the story goes, Joyce’s play The Exiles was turned down for production; Joyce commented, “If I’d given Richard a cork leg it might have been accepted.”)

And there’s something Joycean about the sound of the play. The prostitutes, Rose of Lima and Maria Concepta, who dominate the first act, are relentlessly uncomprehending and focused on business; they turn everything they hear into nonsense and off-color puns. (A sample: “She’s around behind.” “I know she has, but where is she?” Or this: “We have the hammer at home in the cabinet by the bottle of Lourdes water and picture of Blessed Evelyn Waugh.” “Blessed who?” “Blessed Evelyn Waugh. She was a young girl that wouldn’t marry Henry VIII because he turned Protestant.”) Joyce’s allusiveness, Beckett’s sense of futility–Behan’s got them both, along with a personal feel for anarchy that comes alive in the character of Cronin, the lackadaisical con man and barroom philosopher.

The trouble is that the play is all but unplayable. The prostitutes need to be kept shallow and puppetlike–but Behan gives them the foreground so much that they pretty much have to be humanized. Cronin, Behan’s stand-in, needs to occupy the center of the play, but Behan left little more than a sketch of the character. The play demands a sure sense of tone; it has to drift back and forth between absurdism and low comedy, gradually building up our sense that there’s something appalling in Cronin’s (and Behan’s) humorous disengagement from events.

All in all, it’s not the sort of script you’d want to stage without substantial resources–intellectual and financial. And the Chicago premiere of Richard’s Cork Leg at Theatre of the Reconstruction seems to have gone into the project with more courage than sense. On the sheer mechanical level, budget has taken its toll: the Irish accents come and go; the singing (an important facet in a show with more than 20 witty, rude musical numbers) is mostly impossible to understand; a nicely conceived dance (a slatternly jig by one of the prostitutes) fails, apparently for lack of rehearsal.

This isn’t to say there’s nothing worth seeing in the production. Actually, given the way the script is set up, there’s probably more good in Richard’s Cork Leg than you’ll see in most off-off Loop productions; it’s just that the percentage comes out rather low. Steve Heller as Cronin is smooth, assured, and right on target, if perhaps a little too low-key. In his best scene, the long, wry seduction of Deirdre Mallarkey, he mixes Groucho Marx and Eric Idle and comes out seeming not at all derivative. The night I saw the show, the audience was outnumbered by the enormous cast, and only about one joke in ten was pulling an audible laugh. That must make it a horrifying experience to play the parts of the prostitutes, but Patricia Duff and Peggy Dunne were game and lively, and actually managed to inject a little integrity into their roles.

The most difficult part is Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Fair Lawn man, who is called on to be sometimes American, sometimes English, and sometimes Scottish, and who as a character makes no sense whatever. Colin Jones pulled the part off with reasonable panache and the best singing voice in the cast–if only they’d drop “I’m Lady Chatterley’s Lover” down to a key where he can hit the high notes. The music, by the way, is played by Glennie Wilding-White on hammered dulcimer, accompanied by Bill Jenkins and Larry Smith, and sounds just fine.

As I said, a lot of admirable effort went into staging this monster. But truth be told, at this point it comes across mostly as a historical curiosity–a museum piece–rather than as a living work of art. And truth be told again, I think you can get more out of reading the script. Talent was wasted here. Sam Beckett wouldn’t have liked that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Hruby.