My last essay, on J.M. Synge and Samuel Beckett, was actually not my first foray into Irish theatrical research- as some of you already know, I’ve spent the last few months researching the 1942 one-act play Thirst by the legendary Brian O’Nolan (better known for his novels, and under the pen name of Flann O’Brien, though Thirst was written under another one of his pen names, Myles Na gCopaleen…).
Thirst is a bizarre and comic play and there is indeed a bizarre and comic story about when and under what circumstances I first encountered it. Yet we will save that for another day. More extraordinarily, I will also leave for another day a general introduction to the biography of Flann O’Brien/Brian O’Nolan (1911-1966).
Today’s update is simply to provide a short list of books and other resources I have found invaluable while conducting my literary investigations so far. Very likely, these resources will be vital for anyone similarly looking into O’Nolan’s theatrical work (and many related literary and cultural issues).
Before getting to the list, however, first let’s provide some basic context about O’Nolan’s theatrical career- currently, a very exciting area for scholars, as it is relatively less well-known than his novels by the public, and because several of his written scripts have never been performed.
However, in the last 10 years significant new efforts have been undertaken to make these works (and the documentation around them) available, in some cases, for the first time. So in the sub-genre of O’Nolan’s theatrical works, we are now in the midst of a thorough-going deep appraisal which will certainly help us to more fully understand this celebrated, if often cryptic and mysterious author of many names.
The Context: How Many Plays Did Brian O’Nolan Write?
This basic question is answered, along with a helpful introduction, notes, and full scripts – some, for the first time – in the first key book on the list. It is:
Flann O’Brien and Daniel Keith Jerigen, ed., Flann O’Brien: Plays and Teleplays (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013).
This is a seminal publication that brings together, for the first time and all in one place, Brian O’Nolan’s complete scripts for theatre, radio and television. The collection provides some amount of context and is a great primary resource for anyone interested in reading, and even studying, the most unknown works of an otherwise very well-known literary genius. You absolutely must get this book if you intend to do any serious research on the topic.
While editor Jerigen notes that O’Nolan’s plays have traditionally been overlooked as being “aesthetically less compelling than the novels,” he adds that the other reason for the oversight is that even the published and acted plays “have fallen out of print in recent years” (p. 5).
His 2013 work rectifies this lack, though it might be said that the reader should not expect complete paleographic analysis of the various manuscripts of the scripts, housed in various university archives. This would be an overly laborious process, but it is good that Jerigen does make certain notes of some differences between script versions, as a sort of helpful starting point.
There are two answers to the above question, ‘how many plays did Brian O’Nolan write?’
O’Nolan wrote six plays for theatre (of which three have been performed), and he wrote seven plays for television (of which all were aired). The teleplays were in fact some of the more interesting content aired by state broadcaster RTÉ, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (Radio Television Ireland).
The play that I’m researching, Thirst, was both the first to be performed (as part of a post-Christmas variety show at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, from 26 December 1942 into early spring 1943), and also O’Nolan’s commercially most successful, having received positive reviews at the time and having been revived numerous times around the world over the years, adapted and re-adapted in unexpected ways for theatre, radio and television.
(Indeed, another point I will make about this play, another time, is that is actually better suited for the medium of radio than either stage or television, owing to its inherent aesthetics, mood and plot).
A Brief Digression on Thirst
Thirst was probably completed during autumn and winter 1942, though exact documentation is not clear; I will argue that its roots and influence go back at least as far as 1940, when O’Nolan was in correspondence with the California-based playwright William Saroyan, whose works he greatly admired.
Another likely, and under-explored literary influence on the play would be the Irish-language short story Anam An Easpaig (“The Bishop’s Soul,” 1918) by Galway-born Irish author in England, Pádraic Ó Conaire, who himself will be celebrated in this space later on in the month.
(Here I must give a special thanks to the University of Ottawa’s Dr. Joseph LaBine, an expert on both O’Nolan and Pádraic Ó Conaire, for first enlightening me on this point of connection).
….Returning to Plays and Teleplays
Some of the below-listed resources help us establish much more clear process timelines about the creation of O’Nolan’s two contemporaneous works, Faustus Kelly (which debuted in 1943) and Rhapsody in Stephen’s Green, also known as The Insect Play, an adaptation of the Czech Čapek brothers play, which also premiered in 1943). These latter two plays are longer and more complex than Thirst, and likely he spent more time on writing them for this reason.
Other stage plays written (but not performed) included An Scian/The Knife, The Handsome Carvers, and A Moving Tale: A Dublin Hallucination. Alas, space does not permit me t go into the plots of either these unpublished plays or those of the below teleplays, but Jerigen’s collection has all the information if you’re interested.
(I’ll simply say that I agree with Jerigen on the point that The Man with Four Legs is very interesting; it concerns a conscientious office worker who is persuaded or conned by his female colleagues into purchasing charity raffle tickets, which later wins him an unloved donkey. This ‘unflappable’ character takes responsibility for the creature, its veterinary bills and eventual need to be ‘put down.’)
O’Nolan also wrote scripts for ‘teleplays,’ some of which were broadcast on Irish television. These include The Boy from Ballytearim (1955-1962), The Time Freddie Retired (1962), Flight (1962), The Man with Four Legs (1962), The Dead Spit of Kelly (), O’Dea’s Your Man, Episode One- The Meaning of Malt (the first of 26 total episodes, the others not included in this book), Th’ Oul Lad of Kilsalaher, Episode One- Trouble about Names (the first of 15 episodes, the others not included in this book).
The editor notes that all the stage plays (except for A Moving Tale) were attributed to Myles na gCopaleen, while the similar name of Myles na Gopaleen was used for A Moving Tale and all the teleplays. This transition essentially mirrored O’Nolan’s minor transformation in that pen name used for this long-running collaborative Irish Times column, “Cruiskeen Lawn” (p. 5).
Faustus Kelly, The Insect Play and a Second Key Resource
While Thirst premiered at the more cosmopolitan and avant-garde Gate Theatre, the famed Abbey was the host (on 25 January 1943) the launch of O’Nolan’s politically-toned comic turn on the Faust plot, one given an Irish setting, Faustus Kelly. In it, the devil helps a Cork councilman named Kelly advance his political career, only to reverse course at the end, as the thought of spending eternity in Hell in the company of the Irish mortifies even the Devil.
A longer and more complex play, it was not as commercially or critically successful at the time. In fact, as editor Jerigen reminds, some (Republicans) came on opening night, for reasons obscure in hopes of reprising the ‘Abbey riots’ that had greeted Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World decades before. However, when the audience called for the author to take the stage, O’Nolan (who had kept himself out of sight) sent out only a silent Abbey actor, in a crude caricature of the Irish stage actor, to do a jig and leave. No riots ensued and the continuing legend of the enigmatic author ‘Myles na gCopaleen’ grew (p. 7).
Despite the initially ambiguous reception, there has since been carefully re-examination of the play for its nuances and relations with theatrical precedents and O’Nolan’s other works. As for The Insect Play, it was timed to begin (at the Gaiety Theatre) after Faustus Kelly had ended its two-month run, but was terminated early as the Gaiety suddenly closed after five days.
This adaptation of the Czech play uses various insect species to poke fun at different psychologies and types of people from across Ireland, with unique accents, religious and political views involved in its presentation. In fact, editor Jerigen claims that “the failure of The Insect Play” also ended O’Nolan’s aspirations as a playwright; indeed, he cites scholar Anne Clissman, who notes that it would not be until 1955 and The Boy from Ballytearim that O’Nolan returned in some capacity to theatrical writing (though that was a teleplay, p. 9).
Yet this is a claim that must be seen as premature and only true in retrospect. It is true that O’Nolan did not concentrate on theatre much after 1943. But there were probably many reasons for this. For one example, the tragic St. Joseph’s orphanage fire had killed 35 orphans and one adult in the town of Cavan on 23 February 1943, and O’Nolan (in his day job as a civil servant) was assigned to the April Tribunal of Inquiry concerning the incident.
In fact, Boston College archivist of the Flann O’Brien Collection at the John J. Burns Library, Christian DuPont, in a 2022 paper for The Parish Review: The International Journal of Flann O’Brien Studies, points to the unusual drawings O’Nolan made in a notebook during the proceedings – which partly evoke his contemporaneous plays – to make the point that he was weighed down by a system failure, due to the need (from some quarters) to blame the building’s wiring rather than any humans for the accident.
“Disillusioned by the politics of linguistic and cultural revivalism and despondent over the failures of his plays and rejections of his attempt at a second novel in English,” DuPont recounts, O’Nolan “as also seemingly dispirited by the tribunal’s conclusions, which traced the fire to a drafty chimney flue or electrical fault but refrained from assigning blame for the otherwise avoidable loss of life.”
Regarding the early plays, Dr. Tobias W. Harris of Birkbeck College, London has done excellent work, on not only Faustus Kelly, but O’Nolan’s general avant-garde theatrical works. His thesis is available freely here:
Tobias W. Harris (2020) Dublin’s dadaist: Brian O’Nolan, the European avant-garde and Irish cultural production. [Thesis]
Now, it’s time to move on to a different but equally important book for not only Brian O’Nolan’s theatrical works, but indeed for his entire life and literary career.
The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien: An Essential Resource
Arguably the single most important work in the general Flann O’Brien universe to have come out in recent years is neither a work of criticism nor an original text. After years of labor, one of the leading experts on Brian O’Nolan, Professor Maebh Long, released the author’s collected letters, comprising three decades of correspondence with everyone from friends, family and editors to other famous literary authors. Here is the book:
Flann O’Brien and Maebh Long, ed., The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien (Dalkey Archive Press, 2018).
This massive undertaking, which required considerable cooperation and good faith from various literary estates, not to mention a long and exhaustive process of cross-checking and insertion of helpful footnotes to explain biographical points on everyone mentioned (as well as any potential point of obscurity) was a true labor of love from a noted scholar. While a few of the notes/attributions may be uncertain or debatable, that owes not to any failure on Long’s part but rather to the general obscurity of topical and nominal references, such as inside jokes and linguistic trickery utilized by O’Nolan and his various correspondents.
But what had made the Collected Letters an instant classic in the world of Brian O’Nolan studies is that it can be used in so many ways, to augment literary criticism but also in a very straightforward historical way, helping us to test hypotheses based on the realities of time, and explore new leads that the letters allow.
As mentioned above, one of the ways I’m using this volume in the case of Thirst is to examine the correspondence between Saroyan and O’Nolan regarding theatrical works. A similar way is to examine O’Nolan’s letters to Hilton Edwards, the Gate Theatre’s co-founder and the man who specifically commissioned Thirst for that venue. I am also using the letters to test (and discard, when necessary) possible cases of literary influence or cooperation, in the strictest sense.
A New Scholarly Collection of Importance: 2022’s Acting Out
It was 0nly a matter of time after the publication of Plays and Teleplays and the Collected Letters before the leading lights of Brian O’Nolan studies would compile a collection with partial emphasis given to his theatrical work. It is:
Flann O’Brien: Acting Out, Paul Fagan and Dieter Fuchs, eds. (Cork University Press, 2022).
Edited by two more leading O’Nolan scholars, Professors Paul Fagan and Dieter Fuchs, this new compendium covers the performative elements across O’Nolan’s oeuvre. As publisher Cork University Press writes, Acting Out is “the first full-length study to comprehensively address the themes of performance, masking and illusion in the author’s fiction, columns, correspondence and scripts.”
The publisher adds that the new book “draws unprecedented attention to the author’s critically neglected writing for stage and screen (Thirst, Faustus Kelly, Rhapsody in Stephen’s Green, An Sgian, The Handsome Carvers, Mairéad Gillan, The Dead Spit of Kelly).”
Thus, Flann O’Brien: Acting Out looks set to be an important work, one to be cited for years to come by the Flanneurs of the world interested in his theatre.
Other Important Resources- The Gate Theatre
There’s a special place in the dramatic career of Brian O’Nolan for the Gate Theatre, and that is not only because Hilton Edwards commissioned (and possibly, contributed to) Thirst for that venue.
This Englishman, who founded the avant-garde theatre in 1928 with partner Micheál mac Liammóir, also contributed ideas to The Insect Play (as the Collected Letters show), and doubtless had an impact on boosting O’Nolan’s confidence in the crucial year of 1942, when he was trying to add the rank of thespian to his existing career as novelist and newspaper columnist.
The Dublin Gate Theatre Archive, 1928-1979, located at the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University, has a very helpful and well-informed staff overseeing an important collection of Gate-related scripts and other materiel. They have been helpful in past scholarly volumes, such as Jerigen’s, and are very kind.
An important book related to the Gate Theatre at just the time O’Nolan was writing for it is the following:
Cultural Convergence: The Dublin Gate Theatre, 1928–1960, Ondřej Pilný, Ruud van den Beuken and Ian R. Walsh, eds. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).
This extensively researched book takes a trip back into time and into the archives of the Dublin Gate Theatre, providing crucial context for the plays and personalities that were on offer at the time, and the working situations that aspiring thespians like Brian O’Nolan would have dealt with in helping Edwards to carry out his dream of making Dublin a more cosmopolitan place for (frequently, foreign-origin) plays.
Although covering a slightly earlier period, for background context it will also be helpful to check out Dutch Professor Ruud van den Beuken’s other book on the Fate. It is more in the ‘honorable mention’ category, compared with the above-cited core texts, but nevertheless may be considered worthy of reading. It is:
Ruud van den Beuken, Avant-Garde Nationalism at the Dublin Gate Theatre, 1928-1940 (Syracuse University Press, 2021)
While this book does not cover the Gate Theatre during the period when O’Nolan was yet working on theatre, and delves into several other unrelated themes, its author (Dutch professor Ruud van den Beuken) does an excellent job of setting the context for Irish theatre at a time of change, in a comparative framework with other.
Also check out the Dutch professor in his short appearances on the Gate Theatre’s official Youtube page, which provides a short introduction to the storied theatre’s place:
And that’s a wrap!
Lots of serious work goes into these pieces. Always interesting.