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Monday, 24 July 2017

The Great Hunger

In a recent New York Times article, Keenan Malik made the claim that "The accusation of cultural appropriation is a secular version of the charge of blasphemy." This might appear a little over the top, but it is a common view among the ex-left-now-militant-liberal commentariat that the concern over cultural appropriation is "a new, weird, destructive form of political correctness" and that its critics are essentially regressive mystagogues betraying the Enlightenment values we hold dear. More revealingly, Malik also frames the issue in terms of property rights and licensing: "In minority communities, the gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians whose power rests on their ability to define what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. They appropriate for themselves the authority to license certain forms of cultural engagement, and in doing so, entrench their power". His decisive argument against cultural appropriation gone mad is a counterfactual in which Elvis Presley was "prevented from appropriating so-called [sic] black music", presumably by the self-appointed dullards of the Delta Blues appellation d'origine contrôlé association.

Among the "gatekeepers" there is also a tendency to address the subject in terms of cultural production, even if the focus is on exploitation and expropriation. Maisha Z Johnson describes it as "a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group." This doesn't just reflect contemporary inequities but reaches back into the past and revives old iniquities in a mocking way (think of Queen Victoria and family wearing Highland dress that had been outlawed a hundred years earlier). Though Johnson gets to the heart of the matter - it's a power dynamic, which is why high-profile cases involving thoughtless celebrities are significant - she still frames culture in terms of rights, which raises the question of who the rights-bearers are. For example, she correctly notes that appropriation "lets some people get rewarded for things the creators never got credit for", but are the creators specific individuals, a particular socio-economic group or an entire people going back generations? Once you introduce rights that are anything less than universal, you introduce qualifications.

That can be counterproductive. For example, when you criticise a white woman for wearing a Native American headdress you are recreating the reservation system within the field of culture. You also have the problem of distinguishing between appropriation and export. Few would harangue Bolivian women for wearing bowler hats, presumably because the hats were designed as commodities open to universal purchase rather than as expressions of distinct identity, even though the latter is what they have become in Bolivia. What matters, as Johnson made clear, is the relative power, hence a rich white woman adopting the full ensemble of a cholita would be considered exploitative. Cultural appropriation is therefore less about the indigenous nature of a cultural product and more about its context as a commodity. Societies that appropriate are also societies that have commoditised their own cultural capital to the point of pastiche (i.e. postmodernism). An example of a culture that celebrates its own superficiality, appropriates the cultures of others without the slightest guilt, and has commoditised itself on an industrial scale for consumption by others is Japan. But this, like its polite xenophobia and self-absorption, is a sign of Japan's cultural strength, not weakness.


One country that can consider itself to be an expert in cultural appropriation is Ireland, not least because it built a modern culture on the appropriation of its own, mythical past and did so in the adopted language of its conquerors, producing a rich cultural inventory that has since been commoditised for international export. In this context, artists of Irish heritage born or raised in Britain occupy an interesting position, being the most hybrid versions of what is ultimately a self-consciously hybrid culture in which the echoes of the classical world and the affinity with Europe (notably France) are always partly attempts to avoid the crushing weight of Shakespeare and John Bull's island. If the play-writing and film-making Martin and John Michael McDonagh (In Bruges, The Guard, Calvary) are the leading contemporary lights of this Hiberno-British tradition, Jez Butterworth (who also has Irish parentage) makes a good case for inclusion in their company with his play, The Ferryman, which is currently on at the Gielgud Theatre in London (plot spoilers to follow). The production, starring Paddy Considine as Quinn and Laura Donnelly as Caitlin, is excellent and deserves the plaudits it has received as a piece of theatre, however it has clearly touched some nerves among Irish critics, essentially over the charge of cultural appropriation: namely, that this is an English playwright using Irish tropes without native understanding and thus legitimacy.

The action, set in a farmhouse kitchen in County Armagh, plays out against the wider drama of the last few weeks of the 1981 hunger strike. This coincides with late summer and the seasonal arrival of the Corcoran boys from Derry to help with the harvest. The play centres on Quinn Carney, a former IRA man and now farmer who lives with an extended family of aunts and uncles (essentially personifications of Irish history and culture) and his wife, Mary, and 7 children (essentially a Greek chorus). The body of his brother Seamus, who was "disappeared" years ago by the IRA for an assumed act of treachery, has been discovered in a peat bog south of the border in Louth (the border is also between the living and the dead, hence the title's reference to Charon, who ferried souls to the underworld in Greek mythology). Seamus's widow Caitlin and son Oisin were taken in by Quinn and Mary and now form part of the family, to the point that Quinn and Caitlin's relationship is ambiguous. The IRA commander Muldoon wants Quinn to exonerate the organisation "at this politically-sensitive time" and first sends the local priest, Father Horrigan, to intercede, before arriving himself. Under pressure from Caitlin, who has known of the IRA's culpability all along, Quinn agrees, though in the expectation that they will be left alone. In fact, Muldoon wants Caitlin to move to Derry, essentially as a hostage against Quinn's compliance. So far, so canonical.


Sean O'Hagan was disturbed by the "paddywhackery" of the play's many clichés - the ready recourse to drink, the mad dancing, the prolific swearing -  seeing this as representative of a patronising English sensibility. There's certainly "stage Irish" aplenty: the embittered spinster, the weak priest, the hard men. Patrick Lonergan was more generous, seeing "an English dramatist in very careful dialogue with Irish theatre, and our culture more broadly", though he was dismayed by the predictability of some of the tropes. In part this reflects different backgrounds: O'Hagan is a Northerner with a pedantic concern for accuracy while Lonergan is a Southerner with a professional interest in cultural cross-fertilisation. O'Hagan was sniffy about what he saw as touches of Tarantino and the cinematic McDonaghs in the denouement. Personally, I thought the inspiration for the third act was Sergio Leone, an influence Butterworth appears to share with that other leading English dramatist of his generation, Shane Meadows (who has also done fine work with Paddy Considine). Lonergan, an academic expert on Irish drama, was more impressed with the playwright's skill in constructing a compelling story out of building blocks that could easily have collapsed into parody.

Butterworth has built the play on traditional Irish lines, but that means evoking Greek tragedy in its narrative arc as much as Shaw's witty repartee and O'Casey's demotic raillery. This is audacious in its lack of subtlety but its absolute seriousness, like Butterworth's evocation of Shakespeare in his earlier Jerusalem, makes it work. The sheer profusion of Irish references is exhausting. There are nods to W B Yeats, Brian Friel (notably Dancing at Lughnasa) and Seamus Heaney, among others, though the overriding influence may well be James Joyce (who speaks most clearly through the Virgil-quoting Uncle Pat) and the question of how you can both honour and escape the past. One of the structural threads of the play is music, which is both an Irish cliché in itself (fortunately, no fiddle appears) and yet an example of Butterworth's wit, showing how each generation is trapped in its own era: Maggie Far-Away's ballads; Quinn's sterile Beatles vs Stones vs Led Zeppellin debate with Caitlin; the youngster's Teenage Kicks (O'Hagan, a former NME writer, worries that The Undertones's great 1978 hit was already history in 1981 and even manages an otiose reference to Siouxsie and the Banshees).

The emotional heart of the play is hunger and the fear of sating it, specifically Caitlin and Quinn's suppressed love. This is seen as destructive: Quinn's wife Mary is semi-bed-ridden by a mysterious virus that will only clear when Caitlin moves out. There is a clear parallel in the hunger of republicanism, represented not only by Aunt Pat (the hunger of 1916) and Muldoon (the hunger of 1981) but by the recalled memory of Quinn's own political hunger in the 70s. We also hear of raw sexual hunger - Maggie's reverie about her youthful lust - and see the hunger of the younger children for stories and of the adolescents for recognition and status. Had Butterworth called the play The Great Hunger it might have been seen as too literal by English critics less familiar with Patrick Kavanagh's famous poem about rural "continence and caution". Irish critics might also have bridled at the ironic tone of the adjective if seen as a commentary on the death of Bobby Sands and the other nine (to be fair, Butterworth might also have considered it too close to Hunger, Steve McQueen's film about the 1981 protest).


Though only a supporting character, Tom Kettle (whose name is another reference to Joyce), is the symbolic pivot of the play (he is, arguably, the ferryman), though he also provides a comic analogue to Quinn in his unrequited love for Caitlin. He is an Englishman of obscure origins, supposedly a teenage foundling discovered by Quinn's father down by the river thirty years ago and taken in as a farm labourer. Soft in the head and preserving a perfect London accent despite not having left the area in all that time, Poor Tom is clearly a figure of the faerie world, but one that combines the tropes of Irish and English drama. He has an ability to tame animals (he captures an errant goose, intended for the harvest meal), his pockets are full of windfalls and rabbits, and he wears both the beard of a vegetation deity and a coat trailing the earth's dirt. Apart from Margaret Thatcher's disembodied voice on the radio, denying political status to the hunger strikers, Kettle is the sole representative of England. At the harvest meal, he recites Walter Raleigh's poem The Silent Lover. This is a hint at his love for Caitlin, but it also connects us to Ireland's role as the foundation of the British Empire in Tudor times, and thus links the play to both Spenser's Faerie Queen and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (a key reference in Jerusalem).

It is ironic that an Englishman in a work set in Ireland should represent nature and continuity rather than an invading and disruptive modernity. It's as if the Englishman Haines in Joyce's Ulysses, a condescending prig come to study the native culture, had lost his marbles and turned feral. Kettle is also the deus ex machina who triggers the climax, like a less reclusive Boo Radley. Oisin, mad with rage at his father's death and what he suspects is his mother's betrayal, is misdirected towards the "greater enemy" by the boastful Shane Corcoran, who seeks Muldoon's favour and has already been compromised by providing low-level assistance to the Provos in Derry that earned him the big man's digital watch and a punishment victim's silver crucifix. Oisin threatens Tom Kettle loudly, though perhaps with no real intention of doing him harm. Kettle, who cannot abide noise, seeks to quieten him and in so doing wrings his neck like a goose. Though this is barely credible as an act self-defence, the family do not recoil from him. Instead he steps back from the action, his semi-divine job done. Quinn, realising that Caitlin's grief will now drive her away, fatally slashes Muldoon's throat, shoots one of the henchmen - using the pistol that has been kept by Aunt Pat in memory of her brother who died at the GPO in 1916 - and tells the remaining goon to return to Derry and warn off the rest of the IRA.

Tom Kettle points to what I think is the real subject of the play - cultural appropriation - and his anomaly feeds the uncertain Irish critical response to it. One way of reading the clichés is that they are an ironic comment by a British playwright who sees their absurdity yet also appreciates their power as part of a dramatic canon that stretches back through Synge via Shakespeare to Aeschylus. Just as Butterworth's Jerusalem was part of the tradition of city-reared writers trying to connect with a more "truthful" but estranged rural heritage (ironically through a boastful liar), so The Ferryman can be read as part of the tradition of the Irish diaspora and its ambivalence towards "oirishry" and the charge of being "plastic paddies". The wider point is that no culture is wholly closed to the world so no cultural product is exclusively native. Likewise, no culture can be precisely defined, despite the attempts of institutional arbiters and curators, so there are no fixed boundaries or property rights. This might seem like grounds to dismiss the concerns of cultural appropriation and back the market free-for-all of militant liberals like Malik, but it's actually a plea for the value of true cultural intercourse over mere exchange. In The Ferryman, the characters are motivated by their relations with each other, not by their relations with things. Ultimately, the Bushmills whiskey, the Colt pistol and the Timex watch are just props.

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