Maggie Armstrong | Their Exits and Their Entrances

We’ve been asked to write in response to the title of this issue, “I know you are but what am I?” and ideas of alienation and exclusion. This is a piece of dialogue taken from the 1985 film The Adventures of Pee-Wee Herman. In the particular scene two men are having a stand off. One calls the other a name – “You’re crazy!” – and the other replies, “I know you are, but what am I?”. I’ve watched the clip and have nothing more to say about it. Instead of asking what I am, I’m going to ask you what I am doing.

I’ve just been given a theatre column in the Irish Independent, an appointment which frightens me because tomorrow someone will probably tell me it was a mistake, and that I have to go away again. It also frightens me because I have for so many years hated the theatre. Consequently I don’t know anything about it and will likely make a balls of it.

I hear you. Everyone says they hate the theatre. It’s a favourite party piece (of the armchair attention-seeker, the actor manqué) to say you hate the theatre. To be so risqué, such a provocateur. Like saying you hate camembert, or that you are not Charlie. There really aren’t many people who like the theatre. People who make theatre don’t like theatre. Bush Moukarzel of theatre group Dead Centre recently told me, “It’s embarrassing for everybody, theatre. You always want the play to be over. I don’t go to the theatre. I avoid it.” And he sliced into a coronation chicken sandwich.

Theatre is the laughing stock of the world at present in the box office hit Birdman, a film about a disastrous play. Of course it’s a flop – it’s a play! Plays are so backward. Birdman’s demise is too witty. The actors are only too narcissistic. The theatre critic is an old sauerkraut given to pretentious monologues about Art.

But my unhappiness at the theatre is really historic, I feel. It begins like yours might do, with panto. It starts in 1980s provincial circuses, when we children were convened in rings of sawdust by brightly painted faces that swam about the stage like live plastic toys. Fruity women picked us out for audience participation and my worst fears were realised when the finger landed on me – “YOU!” I’d been found out, picked, and I’d have to walk up on stage. The indignity of having to put my name to their joke machine. Like at gigs, when the singers tell you to put your hands in the air.

Clowns. Clowns were a disease that swept across childhood and pock-marked my poor sensibilities. The sad clown in the children’s book, who slumps down and dies in the end. Stephen King’s IT. All my anxieties were born upon watching IT, a foul murderer of children who lives in sewers, and I had to leave bathroom doors wide open during the most sensitive of my developing years.

Clowns digress from the point but so, too, did theatre from the theatres all children deserve: cinemas. I don’t want to get nostalgic but my first trip to the cinema to see The Witches, was magical and bone-chilling. I was bought a Crunchy. At the end of the film my clothes were soiled with chocolate, because I’d been clutching the Crunchy so tightly it had all melted. That was terror. That was as chilled a bone as you get in a butcher shop. That was Art.

But theatre was superior artistic enrichment. My good parents instilled us with this, convinced of the importance of piano lessons, French exchanges, cathedrals, Flemish art wings and Christmas theatre to a person’s even formation. At Sense and Sensibility, we smiled sweetly at their acquaintances before being shown to the soft scarlet seats that you were not allowed to leave to go to the bathroom. The characters had English accents and wore crinoline and pantaloons. I recall with dismay the tittering when [girl] meets [suitor] and has to lean in and shout in his ear – oh the bird-like laughter in the theatre. Tee-hee. The joke being that [suitor] is so ancient she suspects he is deaf.

But it wasn’t funny. It was just so obvious. Her voice was a soaring whinge, the windbag of a drama-school brat with only one ambition, to be clapped. I should have shouted out: I’m going outside to eat a Mars Bar ice cream. I am nine. But I didn’t. I just sat and waited. Like I sat at Pride and Prejudice in The Gate 20 years later, this time to write about it in the papers. I had to pay for it myself (The Gate are tight with comps, which I admire). A pile of feathery girls in gossamer dresses blew around the stage, everyone was bronchial and the silhouette of unbrushed curls in the next row scraped upon my nerves. The nerves! All I could think about was kimchi and sushi, one of the only chinks of real light in Dublin theatres being the nearness of Korean restaurants, but I couldn’t leave. No one is permitted to.

You are a disgrace if you eat at the theatre. They reinforce the point by starting the shows at 7.30, dinner time. That is where the deathly institution of the Pre-Theatre Menu comes from. At The Gate’s genuinely excellent production of A Streetcar Named Desire I didn’t register that it was genuinely excellent because I could only think of the bag of prawn King crisps in my handbag, crushed into tantalising fragments.

Through college I continued booking tickets to things, going along to what was ‘hot’ like a lamb to the slaughter. Trinity, The Beckett Theatre, and its blotting of bleak and badly-produced Beckett monologues, a pathetic fallacy to our unhappy years. In that fusty space I unwrapped jam sandwiches and waited patiently for the masturbations to end. Cillian Murphy in A Playboy of the Western World, a play which, during the 19th century literary revival, Trinity students hissed and booed at for its shocking content, had me now fast asleep throughout it.

It’s extremely important to say you have been to the theatre. You go to be seen there. You dress up, and once through the lipstick smear of hellos and in your seat your charming outfit gets folded away for a winter of watching. The man at The Gate shouts at you to take your seat, to turn off your phone, and not just leave it on Silent. You are such a nuisance to these people. The least you can do is buy a theatre programme, one of the most depressing documents someone can hand you at dinner time on a cold night. The idea that credits would be interesting enough to be bound into a book, that you should sit and learn biographical facts about the people on stage pounding about and pretending. It was such a big ask to suspend disbelief for these people shouting at the top of their voices about things that someone pretended happened centuries ago. Things that happened to nobody. 

It explains that embarrassing moment in a standing ovation, when two or three people gingerly stand up and soon half, soon three-quarters, yet crucially, not all the theatre are standing – like a broken typewriter, the majority of keys perfectly compliant, the few outsiders hinged down. But it’s still the best part, the most cathartic part of the evening, when the actors appear as their true, vulnerable selves, flop their bodies down and bow, thanking you, and it’s all over.

The trouble was, my theatre selections had been distilled from well-to-do ideas about entertainment, crinoline, pantaloons and assigned seating. I’d only been to the supposed peak of theatre, Christmas theatre. To use the tourist idiom, I’d visited Dublin and partied in Temple Bar. 

Perhaps I only ever wanted to be backstage, among the super-race actors. The thick, tawny limbs, the limber swerves, the phosphorescence of their skin. Their splendid technique. One night in a pub I met Simon Morgan, a singer and actor. He was rehearsing for the musical Sweeney Todd. He told me to make sure to come along and to stick around for a drink afterwards, and we exchanged that little smile. 

I went to Sweeney Todd with family members, the only people who can afford theatre tickets. Simon Morgan lorded over me with a Gothic, vampiric look in his eye and was quite compelling, co-starring with the cabaret singer Camille O’Sullivan and the foxy Lisa Lambe. “I’m going to stick around and say hi to a friend”, I ditched my family. I was taking up his invitation, following the great tradition of staying back after the show to tell the actors how incredibly brilliant they are and, in this case, hopefully scoring Simon Morgan. In the bar I sipped a chilly pint of beer and waited. I shall never forget the voluptuous happiness on the faces of Camille O’Sullivan and Lisa Lambe as they pranced in, arm-in-arm, mentor and protégée, greeting their milieu. They were brimming-best, they bounced. I shall never forget the drip-drop, drip-drop of my heart. Simon Morgan never emerged. I left the theatre. He married Lisa Lambe. 

Tant pis – I hated the theatre. Poor Lambe, I say. I would hate that life. I hated the shows in London we were marched to en famille. Buddy Holly, which would never end until my parents had the decency to take us out mid-way through – it was big of them, because you should feel very ashamed leaving the theatre like that. I knew that even then. Oh, over-cultivated youth. I was so like a drenched plant, leaves shrinking and blackening under the deluge.  

You’re noticing a pattern of unpleasantness, I can tell. That’s right. I’m jealous of actors. I never got cast. In primary school it was cronyish, rigged from the top. There was no audition process, and in the pageants, lead parts were given to particularly blue-eyed children like Ruth Lyons – an artist you will know, but not for her serene qualities, which are considerable – who played Mary more than once. In Senior Infants I was a chorus angel. Miss Cotter told my mother that I should wear a white dress. But, and I’m sure she said this to harm me, an old white shirt would do too. My mother put me in one of her old white shirts. It reached my tiny thighs and was plainly an old white shirt, not a dainty angel’s frock. That is how the show began and ended: cowering in a 1970s castoff, being pointed and laughed at. Woe was me.

Third Class. Baboushka. I played an old lady with a finessed rural Irish accent which was never recognised. Fourth Class, Deirdre of Sorrows. A nobody. Sixth class, an omnibus including Robin Hood. I played Maid Marion and a bandit within moments of each other, piling on stage trying to get a scratchy blonde wig to grip my forehead, wondering why it wouldn’t. My bandit scarf was still on. Hilarity and shame. First year. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. An elf. Our teachers were too ham-fisted to let boys into the school, so Oberon was a sixth year with an eye-shadow beard and a Vaselined bun, and the Fairy Queen never got laid. Fourth year, My Fair Lady, prompter. Fifth year, auditions for Greece in a boy school, didn’t get the gig.

Two years ago my friend Colin Murphy asked if I’d do his theatre column for a little while because he was writing a play. Journalists take what they can get and forgetting I hated the theatre I said, hot stuff, I’ll do it. Colin sent me press releases and deadlines and I covered theatre in the Indo for a month here, a month there. I retired nightly to my writing desk in the garret bedroom I lived in next to a landfill over which rats roamed. The gentrification of Dublin 8 by theatre-going types had an allegory.

Now, I wasn’t in a great headspace, so to speak. I didn’t do any meaningful research. When you hate the theatre, when it’s given you nothing to grab hold of, you don’t want to read about it. Feigning interest amounts to an ill-rehearsed and dotty performance on the page and that is what happened those regrettable weeks.

My first piece was on a production of Tom Murphy’s Whistle in the Dark. It was made by Druid, who have been producing Tom Murphy’s plays for decades. But I’d decided that all thesps were prats and didn’t do any research, then went to meet Garry Hynes, Druid Murphy’s eminent director. I said “Hello. Have you produced Tom Murphy’s plays before?” You don’t say such things to Garry Hynes. Each column was more horrible than the last to turn out. I would be awake in my garret until 4am, or sitting in a room with other journalists. They would be tap-tapping away on their computers and I would feel in total obfuscation, buried in a scrap heap of words and morphing, clashing sentences, never actually writing the things until the last scarified Monday morning minutes of theatrical anti-climax. I was blocked, clammed, and writer’s block is a kind of stage fright turned in upon itself, like the mussel that chooses to die in its shell rather than swim into the moules marinière.

Colin Murphy became a playwright. He asked me to cover more plays in the Indo, and then last summer I went on holidays by mistake, alone. Sounds cool but it wasn’t. Sitting in an Umbrian kitchen surrounded my cherries, peaches and figs I approached the blinding stage of my lap-top. I picked what was most recognisable from the barrage of press releases that appear, like faces in a druggy club, shadows of humans you half-know, approximations to friends – Samuel Beckett.

It was a release for The Beckett Happy Days festival in Enniskillen, where the playwright went to school. Someone was doing Waiting for Godot in Yiddish. That’s edgy, I thought limply. Names swayed about the email and I picked the one that said “known for his role in the Coen Brothers film A Serious Man” – Moshe Yassur. I like films. I’ll have him, I wrote.

I was given his Skype name and a time to call him at home in Manhattan. He had to just give me the quotes about The Happy Days Festival and then I’d ask him about the Coen Brothers, which was actually interesting. As he answered I was Wikipediaing him. No Wikipedia account. He was insignificant to the world. I found him on a small Yiddish theatre website, with no mention of the Coen Brothers. He was old with a grey beard. This was the wrong man. I had to improvise. “How did you come to read Beckett?” I asked with greatly masked disinterest. “I knew Beckett,” he returned in a crackled and beautiful accent. As he settled himself I scanned his biography. Born 1934 in Iasi, Romania. A pogrom against Jews was decreed. Played dead in the massacre which claimed his father. Refugeed in Israel. Theatre scholarship to Paris.

This wasn’t theatre, this was a human story. Moshe Yassur was letting me tell his story. Next I had John Scott, a choreographer, shouting down the phone from Off-Broadway. He was making a dance piece out of King Lear I had no interest in. “How did you come to work on The Lear Project?” I managed. His father, a lighting director, had died after a stroke that year, and he had cared for him. "It was a terrible thing to see this elegant and graceful and athletic man being confined to a bed, a wheelchair. I would look at him when he was suffering and think, he is King Lear,” John said. People were talking about things that must have been painful for them, had overcome the pain, and created work from it, work ambitious enough to allow others to hate it.

In the last days on holidays alone I had to read a play called Punk Rock, for a production in the Lyric theatre in Belfast. Its uncool name allowed me to retreat back into the safety of ill-will towards theatre. Theatre was a plague and it had ruined my holiday. I opened the script, saw the groan-inducing setting – a school classroom – the unreal, pretentious names Lily, William, Chiswick. I prepared a plate of tomato spaghetti and sat reading the script. It was okay. The school friends conversed in a way that was funny and ferociously intelligent – real conversations, but fresher and fuller. Three hours passed, my spaghetti cooled. The view outside of green hills and sunflowers dimmed to a dark pit as the school friends went from discussing foreplay and albums to terrorism, nuclear war, CERN, and then William massacres his school-friends.

I sat in the dark over my laptop that grim night. My lungs turned to a corkscrew, allowing tiny pipes of breath through their spiral. I was terrified. I was going to massacre my friends. Someone was going to massacre me. The world was unsafe. The quiet Umbrian village was no retreat from the deadly benighted creatures that now were rising, frothing, from the black sea of my unthinking underworld.

I wrote these three columns in a state of awe and unhappiness. Unhappiness at not getting it right, not saying what needed to be said, not writing what these plays deserved. Back home, I went to Punk Rock.

We took the train up to Belfast, myself and Lucy Moylan, a Labour Party spin doctor and ex-drama school brat. We had a horrible lunch in Deane’s Deli. At dusk we descended the long, self-perpetuating Stranmillis Road to the Lyric Theatre.

Inside was chic and woody and supported by arts councils. We felt relaxed, taking our seats. The curtains rose. The actors sat in a blue-lit classroom, straddling chairs and lounging across tables, their school uniforms taut and inappropriately sexy. The scenes shot out and the punk screamed and the characters grew personality, heart, they awoke laughter, they embodied. I got some kip in and awoke not wishing I wasn’t there.

At the interval, we drank the brackish black coffee you get at the theatre and mentioned how the play seemed to be good. Back inside things got ever more uncomfortable. I knew what was going to happen, and enjoyed watching Lucy recoil at the sinister turns in the monologues, at each arc of deranged passions. Then William stood with his back to the audience with a pistol slung in his jeans pocket. Only we could see the pistol. His friends teased him until the minute he shot them dead. Afterwards he sat in a clinical examination room with spot-light on his face. His crisp white school shirt was replaced with a grubby t-shirt and his eyes were fully mad. He told the audience how he just wanted to grow up and be normal, buy a small house and have children, not spend too much money. I daresay we were convulsed.

At last I loved the theatre. I felt utterly terrified and miserable and at one with psychopaths – and I was allowed to get the bloody hell out of there. What is not to love.