No joy in slight here

The great Irish novelist Flann O’Brien’s debut, <em>At Swim-Two-Birds</em>, should have sealed his r

For a growing number of readers, Flann O'Brien is the third in the trinity of modern Irish novelists: alongside James Joyce the Father and Samuel Beckett the Son, he is the Holy Ghost in the machine. When he began writing, the term "postmodernism" had yet to be coined, but O'Brien was a postmodernist at a time when it was - as he put it - "neither profitable nor popular".

Flann O'Brien was just one of many pseudonyms used by Brian O'Nolan, who was born a century ago this October. O'Nolan grew up in County Tyrone but spent most of his life in Dublin, where he worked as a senior civil servant and a satirical columnist for the Irish Times (under the pen name Myles na gCopaleen).

Behind these garrulous literary masks, the invisible author craved anonymity. The writer Brendan Behan once said that you had to look twice at O'Nolan to make sure he was there at all. He signed his name variously as "Nolan", "O'Nolan" and "Ó Nualláin".

Three is a magic number for O'Nolan. His first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, written as O'Brien in 1939, is a book about a man writing a book about a man writing a book. The nameless narrator offers the reader three different openings - about a devil; about a man born fully formed aged 25; about the Irish hero Finn MacCool - and concludes his tale with an unexpectedly chilling and grotesque coda:

Numbers, however, will account for a great proportion of unbalanced and suffering humanity . . . Well known, alas, is the case of the poor German who was very fond of three and who made each aspect of his life a thing of triads. He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea with three lumps of sugar in each cup, cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Throughout the novel, O'Nolan provides parodies of canonical authors, as well as a sustained critique of realism and other forms of writing. As the scholar Anne Clissmann has recorded, "By the time the book ends, it has presented some 36 different styles and 42 extracts." In a letter to the travel writer Ethel Mannin in 1939, O'Nolan described At Swim as "a belly-laugh or high-class literary pretentious slush, depending on how you look at it".

The publisher Longman accepted the novel on the strength of an enthusiastic report from Graham Greene, who compared it to Tristram Shandy and Ulysses: "I read it with continual excitement, amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage." Yet At Swim-Two-Birds sold only 244 copies before Longman's warehouse was destroyed during the Blitz and the novel sank into obscurity for over 20 years. As Myles na gCopaleen, O'Nolan later claimed that Hitler "loathed it so much that he started World War II in order to torpedo it".

Several writers hailed At Swim-Two-Birds as a masterpiece. Jorge Luis Borges thought it was the most complex of all "verbal labyrinths", while Dylan Thomas said it was "just the book to give your sister, if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl". Contemporary reviewers, however, were uncomfortable with its Joycean undertones and this notion of O'Nolan as a diluted Joyce has since dogged his critical reputation. Anthony West, writing in the New Statesman (17 June 1939), complained about its Joycean "love of snot-green squalor", but conceded that it was "inspired nonsense that makes one laugh a great deal". Joyce declared O'Nolan "a real writer, with the true comic spirit".

O'Nolan completed his second novel, The Third Policeman, in 1940. In its opening pages, a nameless narrator confesses that he has murdered an old man to get the money to publish a book about an eccentric philosopher. As a consequence of his actions, the narrator is transported to a hellish parallel universe, populated by killers and madmen and patrolled by three sinister policemen. The book is at once an existential whodunnit, an absurdist work of science fiction, a post-colonial allegory and a dark, Menippean satire. In its philosophical scope and comic vision, it is funnier than Joyce and bleaker than Beckett and is now considered one of the first - and finest - examples of postmodernist literature. Longman, however, rejected it: "We realise the author's ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this novel he is more so." Disheartened and embarrassed, O'Nolan pretended to have lost the manuscript and The Third Policeman remained unpublished until 1967, a year after his death.

His third novel, An Béal Bocht - from the Irish phrase "putting on the poor mouth", meaning to exaggerate one's misery - was written in Gaelic and first appeared in 1941. O'Nolan refused to render it into English, insisting that the intertextual playfulness of the work made it untranslatable. Linguistically accomplished and brutally funny, An Béal Bocht is a celebration of the Irish language and a ritual slaying of the nation's sacred cows. As O'Nolan wrote in a letter to the playwright Sean O'Casey (who praised the book lavishly), "It is an honest attempt to get under the skin of a certain type of 'Gael' . . . who [is] ignorant of everything, including the Irish language."

By 1941, O'Nolan had written three of the most innovative novels in the Irish canon, yet had received little public acclaim. At Swim-Two-Birds was still out of print; The Third Policeman remained unpublished; An Béal Bocht, by virtue of its Gaelic mode, was marginalised as inaccessible (it was eventually translated as The Poor Mouth in 1973). This lack of exposure, together with O'Nolan's deepening alcoholism, adversely affected the quality of his later novels The Hard Life (1961) and The Dalkey Archive (1964), which most Flanneurs regard as inferior stuff.

But while O'Nolan floundered as O'Brien, his alter ego Myles na gCopaleen was flourishing. His satirical column in the Irish Times, Cruiskeen Lawn ("full jug"), appeared several times a week, almost without interruption, from 1940 to 1966. Of the seven anthologies of Mylesiana available today - the finest of which is The Best of Myles - none fully captures the anarchic spirit of the enterprise (Myles frequently transgressed the boundaries of his column to comment on neighbouring items). As the modern successor to Jonathan Swift, Myles writes comic anecdotes that are invariably underpinned by his acid deconstructions of the established order.

Over its 26-year history, the column became a collective monologue of what O'Nolan called the "Plain People of Ireland": a mosaic portrait of the country's everyday madness. Some critics now regard it as his magnum opus.

In 1943, Time magazine published a profile of O'Nolan entitled "Éire's columnist". Elusive as ever, he compounded the myth of the author by fabricating a fake biography for himself. The profile does, however, convey the subversive energy of his writings:

Erudite, ironic, he devotes many a column to the hilarious, systematic destruction of literary clichés, to parodies of Éire's leprechaun literature and the red-taped verbiage of government service . . . He is an unsparing, beloved critic of devotees of Irish, who overuse Éire's national tongue; a subtler critic of the clerics, who are not unaware of his innuendo.

O'Nolan died of cancer on 1 April 1966. In recent years, critics have gradually acknowledged him as a writer of international importance. With conferences as far afield as Singapore and Vienna this year to mark his centenary and several scholarly publications in the pipeline, the view of O'Nolan as a "lesser Joyce" is likely to change. As Anthony Burgess once remarked, "If we don't cherish the work of Flann O'Brien, we are stupid fools who don't deserve to have great men. Flann O'Brien is a very great man."

Keith Hopper teaches literature and film studies at Oxford University. He is the author of "Flann O'Brien: a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-modernist" (Cork University Press, £35)

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.