In Part Three of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews actor Fiona Shaw.
Born in Cork, Fiona Shaw is celebrated for playing many classical roles—Medea, Electra, Hedda Gabler, even Richard II. Most good actors are highly intelligent; few are highly articulate. Fiona Shaw’s fluency never leads her into waffle, but as an actor she has often struggled to conceal her intellectual brilliance, like a great beauty concealing her glamour. With a film crew squeezed round the sofa where I was used to sitting watching TV with my family, I felt as if we were playing an ambitious children’s game. Of the future of theatre she said: ‘The theatre is a fantastic whore and could be anything. If a thousand atom bombs drop, somebody will stand up in the ashes and tell a story.’
Why do all the great Irish writers emigrate?
I suppose until this very decade [the 1990s] the whole nation emigrated, I don’t think it’s just writers that emigrated. Engineers emigrated, doctors emigrated. It’s partially the tragedy of the famine that the country just bred its nation for export. But Joyce of course said that it is the sow that eats its own farrow.
Is all Irish culture underscored by British colonial rule?
I think that temperament is history, and so in that way the Irish temperament has been fundamentally affected by being the baby sister or brother to this big island. The effect of London on Dublin has been enormous. It’s the jumping-off ground, isn’t it? It’s the Ellis Island of Irish culture. Beyond Dublin what made Ireland separate from England is that the Irish had no bourgeoisie. You had an aristocracy and a remarkably kept-down peasantry—in that way, very like Russia: the parallels between Russia and Ireland are enormous. We didn’t produce a Chekhov, but we produced an O’Casey. The other big effect of England on Ireland were the penal laws which forbade Irish people to speak Irish and which caused a sort of surrealism in the country, where people couldn’t own a horse worth more than five pounds, couldn’t own land or hand land over. So the average age of marrying for men in Ireland was fifty. And people attended mass on rocks and in caves and were taught in hedge schools. So the fusion of landscape with the metaphysical, or the fusion of landscape with learning, was not like any other country in the world. Irish English is, on one level, a language forced onto a country that was trying not to speak it, and it then became a sort of tool of revenge: the Irish have attacked the English with their own language. And on the other side you had this rural lost language of people speaking a sort of archaic English forced on them by early settlers, and people struggling with translations from the Gaelic and of course being laughed at by the English for speaking a peculiar English. In Gaelic you say: ‘Toin traich megonair,’ which is ‘I am after my dinner.’ That’s still used as the construction for that kind of sentence.
With the exception of Joyce, Irish writers—Congreve, Farquhar, Wilde, Beckett and so on—choose to write for the theatre. Why?
The theatre is immediate: it needs people. It’s not like a French literary tradition, which would be about intellectual thought. England is a very odd hybrid because I’d say the centre of the English theatre since the seventeenth century, maybe from Shakespeare, is antithesis, isn’t it? The notion that you can declare an argument: ‘To be or not to be’, and at the end of that you could’ve concluded something about the world. The Irish theatre is based on hyperbole and contradiction.
If it’s possible to talk about any national character with Ireland without resorting to stereotype, is there something about the Irish—I mean the Irish-Irish—that is more given to storytelling and to wearing your heart on your sleeve than the English?
Caesar wrote about going to Hibernia, and he said that they just talked and drank all the time, so I suppose it isn’t connected to recent modern history. Perhaps the relationship to alcohol is connected to the climate. There’s also great desolation in Ireland, people who don’t speak from September to springtime because there’s nobody to talk to. Religion is another big part of it.
But is storytelling something to do with having a verbal culture not a written culture?
The culture in cottages that was finally caught by Synge is interesting. Yeats provoked Synge to go to the Aran Islands. Synge went and observed this strange translation of a Gaelic into English and made a sort of heightened self-conscious poetry out of it. But there was a sort of truth in it as well. People were speaking in a language that was self-referential, because they had so little stimulus. I’m not sure that they’re using the language for reality. They couldn’t use it to negotiate, because there was nothing to negotiate, so they had to use it for the imagination.
This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Fiona Shaw. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.
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Don’t forget to check back on the NHB blog TOMORROW and FRIDAY for more exclusive extracts from the book! Tomorrow’s post will feature ‘national institution’, playwright and actor Alan Bennett, explaining what it means to ‘follow your nose’ when writing…