This weekend, I saw Brendan at the Chelsea in the Project Arts Centre. The play is written by Brendan Behan’s niece Janet, and imagines one of the writer’s extended stays in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. Watching it, I couldn’t help remembering ‘that’ story about Oscar Wilde on the train. The anecdote tells of Wilde leaning out the carriage window to a rapt crowd, where he delivered a string of witticisms to leave them laughing and cheering as the train took off. But before it left the station, the train came to a spluttering stop. The crowd rushed along the platform, while Wilde slid into a heap on the floor behind the door. “That was all I had prepared,” he hissed to a companion.
I was thinking of Wilde because the theatre was full of people delighted to slap their thighs and erupt into raucous laughter at every hilarious comment that came out of Behan’s mouth. He was invariably good-humoured and adored. Nothing was prepared; it was all improvised, easy, yet witty and smart. Are there really writers who speak continually and only in aphorisms? And does alcohol inculcate such charm and intelligence? There’s something essentially untruthful in this; but is it essential to how we think about and dramatize alcoholics on the Irish stage? (There was something similar in Emma Donoghue’s The Talk of the Town last year. Yet, female alcoholics tend to be seen as pathetic and tragic, while the men are just feckless. That may be another blogpost so I’ll leave the thought there.) But why do Irish people retain such admiration for drunken louts with a gamey eye and a joke?
My musing may have something to do with the fact that, as part of my work on Aideen’s biography, I’ve been researching the symptoms of cirrhosis of the liver and other ailments common to alcoholics. It isn’t funny or dramatic. It’s a long, drawn-out and ugly disease. Generally, alcoholics lose friends, alienate family and sometimes hurl hurtful comments at random strangers. Aideen had one particular and nasty falling-out with her adored parish priest in California over her drinking. Christine, her daughter, spent a few Sundays at the Protestant church until they came to some kind of reconciliation. I have seen photos of her bloated and ragged from drink. I’ve researched the AA in Los Angeles, and picked out the letters where she was temporarily ‘dry’. Other stories I’ve been told by family members about her drinking feel too private and shameful to share at all. Real-life alcoholics are not people you want to befriend or spend time with. Not on stage, however.
If you’re interested in Brendan at the Chelsea, Chris McCormack has written a detailed and thoughtful review.
For me, the most affecting scene in Brendan at the Chelsea was created by the lighting designer, James McFetridge. When a drunken Brendan calls out in the middle of the night, his carer/neighbour comes to see what’s going on. The set is dark, lit only by the light on the landing. He pleads with her not to leave him alone and she curls up on the bed beside him. We watch, in silence, as he falls back to sleep. The stage darkens almost to black. Gradually, at a pace almost too languid for the shifting, impatient audience, the New York dawn comes and morning slips into the room. This, I thought, is somewhat closer to how I imagine Aideen’s alcoholism: long, lonely nights and the unbearable pain of another dawn.
In writing her life-story, however, how do I write about the drinking without indulging in sentimentality OR judging her for her disease? All suggestions gratefully received…