IRELAND HAS AN ASTONISHING LITERARY TRADITION FOR A VERY SMALL NATION
I was sent to boarding school from the age of five (something I regarded at the time as “cruel and unusual punishment” – though I did not yet know the phrase) but there were some compensations – in addition to numerous disadvantages - to being the eldest son of my quite extraordinary mother.
The compensation that came to mind, when I referred to Ireland’s remarkable literary tradition yesterday, was the fact that from an early age – perhaps eight or nine – I was taken to the theater a great deal.
My mother was never an actress, although I suspect she would like to have been, but she loved the theater with a passion, and mixed in theatrical circles as often as possible. There, since she was entertaining, charismatic, and a generous hostess, she was accepted freely. Besides, her theatrical connections were extensive. She had met my step-father in an experimental theater, my sister Maxine was a budding actress, her sister-in-law and her husband, Genevieve Lyons and Godfrey Quigley, were highly successful actors, and she was close friends with Lord and Lady Longford who owned and ran one of Dublin’s leading theaters, the Gate. It was in the Gate, by the way, where Orson Welles, still only in his his early twenties, helped to establish his earlier reputation. He was, to put it mildly, a phenomenon.
I was both fascinated and transported by the theatre in a way that was quite different to the movies. Whereas I love movies, and like nothing more than to relax with a good movie after a long day, the theater has a magic of its own. Just for starters, there is the fact that it is harder work (good exercise for the mind). You have to suspend disbelief, put up with the fact that most sets are clearly artificial, and then accept the reality that many performances are marred by the fact that one or more of the cast are still quite blatantly still learning their trade. Nonetheless, the fact that the theater is live creates a palpable tension in itself; and then there is the exciting discovery that although so much is artifice, one can still be transported by a very special kind of magic.
Has exposure to the theater contributed to my writing? Profoundly, I suspect, because the theater had a decided effect upon my imagination. There I was in an all male, rather grim boarding school for much of the year, whereas my visits to the theater back home in Dublin, Ireland, were occasions of glamor, and color, and excitement. And there were real live women there; and many were exceedingly attractive!
Better yet, since we normally went back-stage after a performance, to congratulate the performers in their dressing-rooms, I often got to see these beautiful creatures in a state of undress.
To understand how exciting that was to a sex-starved teenager, you would have to lock yourself up in an all male boarding school in Yorkshire, England, for months on end, for three terms a year, just when your hormones were at fever pitch.
Ironically, the damn place is now co-ed. My imagination fails at this point.
But, I digress. My real message is that the theater is a wonder we neglect at our peril; and it informs the human condition to great advantage. All of that apart, it is a social occasion, and a great deal of fun.