As Painted Bird Theatre gets ready to present ‘Toilers’, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with the company’s Thomas Conway about its muses, and the weight of history.
At the outset of the state’s history, and thus that of the narrative surrounding arts in Ireland, for better or worse, dozens of great female playwrights and novelists proliferated through the halls of native creative endeavour. Working in their communities in numerous roles, they strove to advance feminism, Irish independence, and ultimately, greater social equality. As time went on, and independence was won, however, these voices began to fall silent, in part due to the passing of time, but equally owing to cultural pressure from a Catholic church that seized Irish society in exchange for perceived stability. Among those are Suzanne R. Day, suffragette, pioneering poor-law guardian, and playwright/novelist whose works set a precedent for Ireland’s modern literary greats. Day’s published works are few, but vitally important to Irish theatre and literature.
Painted Bird Theatre seeks to rectify this loss to posterity by creating Toilers, a piece centred around her lost play that speculates and builds a contemporary narrative that ties Day’s spirit to modern struggles, happening as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival throughout the last week of June at the Cork School of Music. Thomas Conway, Painted Bird dramaturge, explains the premise. “Developing this piece, we have worked closely on several of the plays Day co-wrote with Geraldine Cummins, but we’ve chosen to recreate the one play that we have not been able to find. What we present is speculative, based on the brief descriptions of the play that exist. But our speculations are informed by everything that survives of her writing.”
The Painted Bird presentation of Toilers sees the concept of the original play, sourced from existing reviews and documents, presented within a meta-narrative, with three protagonists working to reconstruct it and tease out its relevance to the present. “We are not so much presenting the play’s narrative within a framework. Rather we are telling the story of the play and setting out the stakes for the writer in bringing this play to its original audience, before speculating in what the play itself consisted.”
Day’s creative work and imaginative writing was intricately tied into her identity as a suffragette and poor-law guardian, as well as her work for social reform in Cork. It seems timely to revisit it now, as women still fight for reproductive rights and gender parity in workplaces, over a hundred years since the play debuted. “What we create has its own coherence and integrity, but it also seeks to resonate with the audience and the challenges they confront daily. These challenges oftentimes relate to inequalities, one of the most vexing and persistent being those related to gender. In this respect, what we do needs to take its place alongside those other activities promoting gender equality, the most far-reaching of which is the work #wakingthefeminists are undertaking for gender equality in the theatre.”
As with other female playwrights, Day has been acknowledged as a precursor to more celebrated male playwrights, such as Sean O’Casey and John B. Keane. Conway discusses how the theatrical community can help that generation of women gain their rightful place in the Irish canon alongside their “accepted” male counterparts. “Toilers was said at the time to be the first play set in a slum depicting urban working-class lives. It was also known to be the first to deal with prostitution. Today’s audience would prefer to know about these lost plays, the circumstances of their first performances, the climate of ideas and feelings from which they emerged, just as much as to experience the plays themselves. As theatre-makers, we need to bring together in the same event these several levels, these parallel strands of narrative, and to find a form that gives audiences access to these levels.
The production speaks to the desire of young people to remake the world in ways that they themselves determine, whether it is along gender lines, racial lines, socialist lines, or other means. Young people today can reach for social media, film or music to confront powerful elites and to change societal attitudes; they an also create a theatre piece, just as the protagonists of the play do. How did that premise come about? “The other story we are telling, perhaps the most important, relates to the protagonists – three women in their twenties – and what’s at stake for them personally in the presentation. These stakes relate to their personal investment in Day’s story and in reconstructing her lost play. This is the idea we set out with. If Day’s story cannot chime with these young women, we cannot get Day’s play off the ground, and we’ve been guided by that premise at every step.”
At a time when people are alienated from officialdom, instistutions and authority figures – where the #repeal movement sees many young people try to change things from the bottom up, and relying on personal narratives and creativity as their means – how does Conway see this push for social change being reflected in the Irish arts? “We are a generation of citizen-artists and we bring politics within the scope of our art, not as political issues, but in the implications of the forms we find. We confront ourselves and audiences within the same ethical space and together refine questions about the future than provide answers.”
Toilers will be part of Midsummer Festival this year, and it’s clear that its collaborative nature is fertile ground for exploratory productions such as this. “The programme is committed to collective values that makes us excited to be part of it and to experience the other parts of it. We are hurtling towards a more unstable world, but thiis year’s festival goes to prove that Cork people, for one, are wide awake and eager to celebrate humanist values and wider identities.”
Toilers won’t be the only Cork-centric piece that’ll be emerging from the Painted Bird company this year, as the ensemble prepares to delve further back into history to explore its humanity. “We are working on a brand new work based on Cork peoples’ connection to the 1601 Battle of Kinsale. Our Own Battle will present three statements from three men over three days in Kinsale this coming December.”
Toilers runs at the Stack Theatre at the Cork School of Music as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival. Doors at 6pm (15 – 18 June), 7pm (23 – 25 June) and a matinee showing starts at 2.30pm on 25 June.