Posted tagged ‘Fintan O’Toole’

Critical carnage

February 25, 2011

What kind of meaning do we need to derive from good, or even acceptable, theatre? What should it tell us about human nature and morality? And what about all this if the drama is comedy?

These are all issues that have been taken through the arts and letters pages of the Irish Times recently. The discussion was prompted by a play currently showing in Dublin’s Gate Theatre (having previously been a major success in the West End and on Broadway): The God of Carnage, by French playwright Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton. For those who have not seen it, the play tells the story of a meeting between two couples to discuss the fall-out from a physical attack by the son of one couple on the son of the other. The two sets of parents intend to reach an amicable settlement, but as the initially civilised encounter progresses they gradually strip away layers of composure and eventually civilisation. All of this is in the form of a comedy, and the play includes moments of extreme wit and slapstick.

I might add that I saw the play this week, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but also one that prompted some discussion. This discussion in my household followed an earlier set of exchanges in the newspaper. It began with a critique of the play by Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole. O’Toole  agreed that the play had an excellent cast, ‘roller-coaster dialogue’, ‘gorgeous designs, and ‘lots of laughs and intimations of some kind of underlying intellectual seriousness.’ So a good play, then? Not at all! In fact, O’Toole concluded that it was ‘among the crassest pieces of theatre I have ever seen’. The reason for this was that it was ‘morally tone deaf’. Why? Well, to cut to the chase, because it mentioned Darfur. One of the protagonists is an expert on the civil war there, and this is used once or twice in the play as a theme in the increasingly aggressive dialogue. And Fintan O’Toole doesn’t like that one bit. This is how he summarises his point:

‘The effect of Reza’s attempt to build a tower of moral importance on a swamp of banality is to shrink to nothing the difference between genocide and middle-class people behaving badly.’

But if that was the verdict of the critic, the cast was not necessarily taking this lying down (or even slumped over the sofa, vomiting, as was the case in the play). One of the actors, DCU graduate and Father Ted alumnus Ardal O’Hanlon, in the wonderful words of another letter writer to the Irish Times, ‘came down off the stage and savaged [the] critic.’ Writing to the newspaper, O’Hanlon suggested of O’Toole:

‘Might I respectfully suggest, as one of the cast, that he missed the point of the play by miles and, might I add, that a person of such a delicate sensibility should stay well away from the theatre, not to mention town centres, in future.’

The point of the play, he suggests, is that people can lose their veneer of civilisation and become capable of saying and doing shocking things – and the Darfur reference helps to provide the contrast between lofty ideals and social concern on the one hand and the reality of human interaction when it breaks down on the other.

There is, I believe, a serious point being made in the play, and it is not the first play to present its argument in the form of comedy. It seems to me that O’Toole thinks that theatre must never cut the cord between human outrage and a sense of serious proportion, and that outrage must therefore never be allowed to settle down alongside an exposition of human banality. For myself, I cannot even begin to see why our anger should be so deliberately mannered in assailing the world around us. Or rather, I thought that this view of things had been left behind some time around the emergence of Monty Python.

For all that, the critique and the responses have demonstrated one other, very welcome, fact: that theatre still matters and that it can focus debate. Maybe something that those considering further cuts to the performing arts might consider.

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Is the party over?

January 31, 2011

The latest opinion poll figures in Ireland suggest that independent candidates in the forthcoming general election may do very well: they are currently scoring 15 per cent, only one percentage point lower than Fianna Fáil. If this kind of support is maintained on the actual polling day it could, at least in theory, produce a record number of independent TDs (members of the Dáil, i.e. the lower house of parliament). This would create a completely different political composition of the country’s parliament from that of any other state (apart from Canada) of which I am aware. What does this signify, and does it matter?

Historically independent members of parliament are often elected on single-issue platforms, often to do with local services in the constituency. Where a government does not have a clear majority independent parliamentarians can become crucial to sustaining them in power, and often this is achieved through bargaining that involves the provision of resources or facilities for the area or region. A quick study of the parliamentary career of Jackie Healy-Rae in Ireland illustrates this point.

At a time when political parties are not held in very high esteem the electorate may be more willing to experiment with independents, and may even find them a better proposition. But in fact they distort the political system, because for the most part at least they are unpredictable. Taken as a group they do not represent a recognisable political direction, and so they do not help in the maintenance of sustainable and coherent policy-making, which at this point in our economic fortunes is particularly necessary. They also may, in some cases at least, represent the pursuit of pork barrell practices to support one area at the expense of others.

An interesting development in Ireland was the recent attempt to assemble a group of independent candidates (including journalists and commentators David McWilliams and Fintan O’Toole) and allow them to run under one organisational umbrella, to be called ‘Democracy Now’. However, the individuals who would have made up that group have wildly differing views on almost all matters imaginable, ranging from the fairly extreme right to the very radical left. They would have been committed to a common goal of political reform and the renegotiation of the recent Irish bail-out, but it would have been difficult for them to unite around substantive principles even in those contexts. In the event the group has decided not to proceed, and only one of them, Shane Ross, seems determined to stand as an independent.

It is my view that independents representing university seats in the Seanad, Ireland’s upper house, have played a very valuable role. But the game in the Dáil is a different one, and for me at least there is no evidence that independent TDs enhance democracy and progress. I therefore hope that current opinion poll figures turn out to be wrong. In the end, the capacity of citizens to have their political priorities reflected in government will depend on their ability to vote for a manifesto held in common by a group large enough to form an administration. I hope that the political parties are not finished yet.

Does Ireland enjoy a diversity of published opinion?

April 14, 2010

Here’s an interesting proposition. Writing in yesterday’s Irish Times, columnist Fintan O’Toole suggests that there is no outlet in this country for alternative opinions. He writes:

Given the right-wing domination of our political and media cultures, it is not at all odd that radical dissent has been marginalised. (Even the word “marginalised” suggests, wrongly, that it was anything but marginal in the first place.) What is much harder to grasp, however, is that mainstream, rational analysis has been marginalised too.

This seems to me to be quite wrong, and I wonder whether he is confusing the expression of opinions with the implementation of what those expressing the opinions are recommending. Honestly, you cannot open a newspaper or switch on the television these days without having someone roundly condemn NAMA, the government, the banks, the builders, the politicians, those who defend the banks-builders-politicians-etc, and so on. In fact, if the free and plentiful availability of a particular perspective expressed in the media and other public outlets were to be evidence of its orthodoxy then Fintan O’Toole himself would be right at the centre of power. Indeed it is perhaps remarkable that one of the most frequently published opinions is the view that such opinions are not frequently published.

Public debate that includes a genuine diversity of opinion is not one of the things we lack. Indeed Fintan O’Toole’s column in the Irish Times (which is always worth reading) is itself evidence of the opposite of what he claims. What perhaps we don’t have is a clear trajectory from persuasive argument to action. We don’t have a sense, as a nation, that debate is more than a leisure activity. Even parliamentary debates are wholly ineffective as a source of decision-making. An Irish emigrant in the United States recently suggested that ‘debate is something you do at the bar; it makes the Guinness go down’.

The exchange and analysis of ideas is an important academic task. It is our mission to persuade people that critical analysis is not an abstract skill but rather a basis for reform. We need to celebrate diversity of opinion, not because it passes the time, but because it makes the things we do as a community work more effectively and more fairly. If we get that across better, we may win much more respect as a profession.