A certain professor at a local college delights in telling his English 301 students that there is no purpose to descriptive writing in the 21st Century. No one has time for it, says the professor. Just say what you have to say, get in and get out, goes the speech. Don’t dilly-dally.
As my friend pondered, “I sure hope he feels the same way about sex. Just get in and get out. Don’t dilly-dally.”
Last I checked, reading like sex was supposed to be pleasurable. Even if it weren’t, though, it would still have to convey experience and thought. What if the thoughts conveyed are impressions? Do impressions not by definition comprise description? Furthermore, beyond the gross simplicity of teaching composition in the abstract to high school sophomores, composition without an audience is unmeaningful. After the introductory study of Logic and Grammar, the Trivium requires rhetoric before one can go on and write thoughtfully about anything. As Aristotle noted, rhetoric aims at producing not only intellectual assent but also emotional assent. In order to do so it must be able to clarify thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition.
Now if you’ve been taught you can accomplish all of those things with bare-bones narration with no descriptions, I will supply you with an iron glove, with which I expect you to slap every English teacher you’ve ever had.
This dislike of descriptive language is unfortunately not a rare attitude in contemporary American literature. At a reading with Walter Mosley, he told me he had heard a university professor in Los Angeles say the exact same thing as my friend and I had heard here. I’ve heard students of mine repeat the same bromide, surely transmitted via their writing teachers like any other fatal contagion. This alleged wisdom is simply a spite mound of post-Hemingway, Strunk & White-derived bullshit that nevertheless holds sway over the weak-minded and the desperate-to-pass.
It’s also just about ruined American drama. Our stages and pages are littered with nouveau naturalisme dialogue that pretends to be stripped-down, free of unnecessary description because show don’t tell etc. etc. etc. In the attempt to get drama to sound like “the way people really talk,” everything has become quotidian, everything banal. Anything poetic has almost completely disappears, so much so that when one hears it in the work of Nilo Cruz or Suzan-Lori Parks it stands out like diamond in a swath of coal. It’s also why anytime someone says they want to do a “language play” they don’t mean Cruz or Parks or even Mac Wellman or Len Jenkin from “the old days.” They invariably mean Shakespeare, as if nothing offered by contemporary drama over the past fifty years had any such inclination to poetry.
How truly lovely, then, it is to hear a play like Patrick Fogarty’s The Last High King of Ireland.
From the first line of the play:
Narrator: The peal of the noon angelus bells, undercurrented by a varoom of congested traffic and a gentle harmless breeze. Tapper is perched upon the Mass rock, his throne overlooking the tattered worn town of modern day Molinheer, a perennial vista fit for a king.
Tapper: Urrrrgh, grand ol’ mornin. O, ’tis, ’tis, ’tis a sweet sun-suckin’ day. O that sun, that lily light succubus, liltin’ with natural honey, that sessile torch spillin’ tanks of light over yon kingdom, watch it spread butterin’ me province in melting gold. Blessed are all under the rule of the last…high king of Ireland, heir to the throne of Tír na nÓg, where Manannán awaits his coming, looking — look! Bee droning, hive moaning, gamboling traffic of the loyal brigadiers.
Sounds like one of those bits of purple that sends American English teachers into fits about how there is no reason to write descriptive prose, but then the wrinkles begin to fold.
- The Narrator and Tapper are in fact the same person;
- Tapper is not a king of old at all, but a homeless, alcoholic mendicant in a modern city.
The fun is only just beginning.
As the play continues, the High King narrates his plans for laying a banquet that evening for all of his loyal subjects. To gather all the necessities for said banquet, the High King must traverse his kingdom and engage with his nobles and peasantry to procure all the items: a new crown, a robe, meat for the feast, sentries, and of course, booze. But in this altered reality, the nobles are shop owners, and the peasantry mere passersby. He goes about his day as any good king would, gracing the commoners with his presence, all the while in search of libations.
It isn’t just that this is “descriptive writing.” It is descriptive writing in the voice of a character who, in most Americans’ eyes, would be the least likely to be capable of such descriptions. In my hometown of Seattle the most common pairing with the word “homeless” is “problem.” Seattleites tend to view homeless people as something to be erased — not completely unlike the way English teachers would like to erase descriptive writing. Yet here is one, clearly brilliant, clearly capable of phrases that would make poets blush green, clearly very human. And Tapper the High King is not just “here”: he gets to decide the story that is told about him and his town.
Each of the dramatis personae have their relationship with the High King, some pleasant, some less so. Witness this exchange with Pat the Butcher as the High King peers through the window at meats he will never be able to afford.
But it isn’t only Tapper’s relationship with the outside world that matters, it’s also the relationship between Tapper’s inner world and how he himself views both his inner and external worlds. There is Tapper the drunken fool shambling through the realistic world of Ireland, but there is also Tapper the Narrator of the Life of the High King, who must tell the High King’s story because no one else knows its fine details, and there is also Tapper the High King of Ireland living in fancy and fantasy because the forgotten reality is too unbearable.
Tapper’s arrival at the Turf Accountants illustrates how playwright Patrick Fogarty gently switches between these modes. It begins with the Narrator Tapper talking about Tapper the High King arriving at the race track, and upon seeing the litter of expended cigarettes becomes an internal reverie about the beauty of nicotine, which then becomes a dialogue between Tapper the High King of Modern Molinheer and a smoking bettor at the track.
The loveliest thing about this play is that it is written for radio, with effects that can only be accomplished in radio. The absence of physical space-time on which theater and cinema are built allows the voice to exist simultaneously in the world and in the head. That dynamic is the heart of the drama. Furthermore, the way Tapper sees himself as The Last High King of Ireland has no visual equivalent. Portraying him as a dirty bum on a screen or a stage would completely undermine the effect of the poetic voice.
I thought about how this would sound written by an American playwright but was quickly embarrassed. Americans are supposed to take seriously the drivel of LA Theatre Works (note the pretentious British spelling of theater). Americans spent three years of quarantine unable to realize why Twelfth Night’s cross-garter scene with Malvolio falls completely flat, yet continue to say “The text speaks for itself, the text speaks for itself.” (It does not.) It shows how completely out of touch they are with the power of the spoken word and the immense flexibility of sound unchained.
Too, I wondered what American actor could handle this sort of text with the aplomb of Pat Kinevane. Mr. Kinevane has some experience with the subject of The Last High King of Ireland, certainly. His Olivier award-winning solo show Silent details the decay of a man who’s lost everything and retreated into the comfort of becoming Rudolph Valentino. That play showed how incredibly gifted he is with physical theater. This play shows how incredibly fine he is with his voice alone. His vocal characterizations for each of the Tapper’s modes — narrator, High King, citizen — are remarkably subtle, and even more subtle is the way he seamlessly blends them into each other without ever making Tapper sound phony or staged, no matter how far flung his hyperreal language throws him.
If one were to eschew “descriptive language” one could easily say The Last High King of Ireland is a story about a homeless dude who gets drunk three times a day as he wanders around town annoying others. And in getting in and getting out with such efficiency one would utterly miss the point. The Last High King of Ireland is a play about how a man uses language both to reveal and to conceal his personal relationship with an incomprehensible world. And, despite the contemporary playwright’s favorite axiom, it does so by telling, not just showing, and is stronger for it.
Perhaps English teachers do not know as much as they think they do.