Like BBC listeners, people in Ireland have no idea how good they have it. Raidió Teilifís Éireann often gets treated like BBC-lite, but it’s nothing of the sort. Particularly as it’s one of the few places to hear the Irish language spoken regularly, I would argue even further that RTÉ is more important to Ireland than BBC is to England. At any rate, no other places offer a regular and consistent body of Irish-language radio drama. English speakers rarely worry about such things, but they remain crucial to Irish culture.
Irish radio drama dates back to 1926. Throughout the years its popularity has waxed and waned but the Irish have never given up on it. They have also avoided some of the mistakes of BBC radio drama, a major one of these dealing with young writers. BBC used to encourage young writers but their rather baroque system of commission and the changes within the corporate structure of the Beeb itself have made it a much harder nut to crack. RTÉ on the other hand have never given up their support of young writers. Every year the P.J. O’Connor Awards draw new writers from across the country to work in the medium. Since the competition is open only to new writers and writers with a maximum of one-hour of radio drama professionally produced, this ensures a consistent florw of new talent.
The top three winners are guaranteed productions of their plays to be broadcast at least twice and also made available as part of RTÉ’s Drama on One podcast. Other exceptional plays from among the entries may also receive a production, so one often sees four, sometimes five excellent plays a year from new writers.
The shortlist for 2015 included eleven plays from around Ireland. Unlike the past couple years, there were no plays written in Gaelic on the shortlist this year, which I find extremely disappointing. On the other hand the four prize winners this year were much stronger as a whole than the past four years’ winners.
Dominion by Francis Patrick Bourke Serenity by Andy Burns Living with the Tortured Genius by Brian Comerford Blind Date by Colette Cullen A Swing for Jelly by Charlie McCarthy The Fund by Conor Malone Keep Well to Seaward by Billy O’Callaghan Reposing at Home by Marisa O’Mahony Don’t You Remember? by Mark Richardson Radio Carla by Peter Sirr Wittgenstein in the West by Stephen Toomey
From the shortlist of eleven plays, judges chose three prize winners plus one special mention, all of which received productions headed up by Kevin Reynolds, series producer for Drama on One. These were:
1st Prize – Wittgenstein in the West by Stephen Toomey.
2nd Prize – Serenity by Andy Burns.
3rd Prize – The Fund by Conor Malone.
Recommended – A Swing for Jelly by Charlie McCarthy.
Charlie McCarthy’s A Swing for Jelly goes for deep emotion. Giving you the party line, it is billed as “a sympathetic study of chromosomal disability and the wholeness/holiness that this handicap provokes in those who are its able-bodied and broken-hearted companions.” In short: the kind of middle-class drama that people dread so much on BBC Radio 4.
That is perhaps giving it short shrift. The play does contain an excellent performance by Aine Ní Mhuirí as the mother, understated and matter-of-fact. Ms. Ní Mhuirí makes excellent choices that work against the text and prevent the material from being unbearable. I wish Dawn Bradfield had taken a similar approach to her character. The drama tends to get away from her and she turns the piece into a bit of a soap opera at times. Charlie McCarthy’s script doesn’t help her either. Listening to the piece, it’s obvious that he’s made his career in television formula. Radio makes obvious those clichés of television and its emotional shorthand.
Andy Burns’ Serenity shows a similar problem. Being a teetotaler myself, I tend to have precious little sympathy for plays about alcoholism. At some point they all resemble The Lost Weekend or Days of Wine and Roses but lack such moral complexity. Mr. Burns’ play is the story of how a reasonably intelligent career man can fall off the wagon when he fails to face his own desperation. Step One is hard, but Step Four is harder–or so Mr. Burns’ play opines.
It’s more ambitious than the other three winners. It features more characters, more relationships, more emotional contrast. Structurally it’s impressive. It’s also a play without a real dilemma. In A Swing for Jelly, the characters are all handed something they cannot control and they simply have to deal with it. Choice does not enter into it; the drama lies within how one deals with fate. In Serenity everything that happens is the protagonist’s own damned fault. At any point he could choose to do otherwise than he does, but at no point in the actual play does he seem willing to entertain the thought, much less actually act upon it. Plays like this bore me. There is no real moral challenge because there is no way in character that anyone in the play could do anything other than what happens. Niall starts as a sober jackass and ends as a drunken jackass. It’s all so patent, and therefore dull. But then, I’m not an alcoholic, recovering or otherwise.
The other two plays, however, are outstanding. The Fund relates the story of Davidson Budhoo, who is dead when the play begins, as he recounts his story of how he joined and left the International Monetary Fund. But this isn’t bourgeois drama: this is politics. Even a casual listen will tell you quickly the difference between how American bourgeois dramatists and European playwrights approach the same material.
No way would this, with its complete demolition of democracy and notions of equality, be written by an American playwright. It would be hard to find an American playwright whose view of the world even attempts to include such things as the IMF as relevant and timely material for their middle-class drama. Such things are simply a backdrop for bourgeois revelations in American drama, not worthy matters in themselves. If you doubt this, consider placing this alongside, say, Donald Margulies’s Time Stands Still, wherein a war in the Mideast is simply a decoration for the playwright to explore a middle-class liberal’s tortured family life that breaks because she cannot let go of war-porn.
Instead here you have a play about the rot of the IMF, personal morality, classism, and racism from a first-time radio playwright. Why is it that Tina Pepler, Dan Rebellato, Conor Malone, and other radio writers from the UK and Ireland can write work like this so effortlessly while American radio writers are busy cranking out stories in ossified 1940s genre categories that sound as if they should be heard through a single speaker that had never been paired with anything so quaint as a transistor? Where’s the American radio play that can even begin to say something about Syria, about Fukushima, about McCutcheon v. FEC except as a spur to bourgeois psychological problems?
Mr. Malone’s play deals with human responses to larger issues, but never suggests such responses are definitive. They are obviously not. Some people get fed up and quit. Some exploit others for personal gain because it is their right. Some just go on, refusing to ask questions. No individual action changes anything on a superhuman scale. There is no superficial action. There are no heroes. But there are people who live and endure in good conscience, people who try to make a difference, and people who merely abide until they are called–a lot like our own civilization.
The top prize-winner, Wittgenstein in the West, equally deserves respect. Stephen Toomey’s play is crisp, literate, and extremely funny. In less skilled hands it would turn into an trite, unfunny fish-out-of-water comedy. Instead Mr. Toomey prizes the banality of the play’s central situation, turning it into comedy both high and low.
The play gains greatly from reducing everything to three characters and, essentially, two different levels of dialogue. The conversations that Wittgenstein has with his host stand in sharp relief to the conversations that the host has with his wife not because they contrast philosophical discourse with dinner talk but rather because it accepts that both levels of dialogue are equally absurd.
Wittgenstein naturally finds himself mulling over the subject of language, but this is the west coast of Ireland, boy bach. Language works in mysterious ways. Ultimately Wittgenstein finds it all quite incomprehensible, but learns to enjoy it just as he learns to enjoy the greyness of the sea.
Wittgenstein in the West’s simplicity is its great strength. It’s a devastatingly funny piece and untainted by the typically anti-intellectual suspicion that the British would insert, or the sophomoric wink-wink-catch-my-reference-to-prove-I-read-Spark-Notes smugness that American playwrights like David Ives seem to dote on.
All in all, it’s a good batch of prize winners that cover different ground from each other. Remember, too, these are first-time writers for radio. It’s certainly a far more pleasant batch of plays than the Audio Verse Award winners, about which the less I say the better. The stated aim of the P.J. O’Connor Awards has always been “To encourage new writers of radio drama and to increase awareness of the possibilities and scope of radio as a medium in the field of drama.” Those possibilities in the US and, to a large degree also, in the UK lie untapped. I’d like to nurture some hope that there are enough actors and budding dramatists out there who would at least attempt to tap them, to create a real, self-sufficient culture of respect, support, and creativity not just locally but globally. But then I run across the latest batch of award winners from the US and the BBC and remind myself not to hold my breath.