Small Rooms Full of Words
For Enda Walsh's damaged characters, talk is both a prison and an escape route
By Christopher Wallenberg
In the view of Irish playwright Enda Walsh, most people—himself included—aren't that far from the cliff's edge of madness. Given a chemical imbalance or the right series of circumstances—divorce, bankruptcy, the death of a loved one—you too could end up staring out a window from a padded room.
"It excites me to think about characters that live their lives in physical or mental extremes and that have developed into these near-monsters," says Walsh, during a recent video chat from his home in London. "I do believe in the human spirit. But we're all accidents away from falling apart."
In claustrophobic plays such as Bedbound, The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom—works that have captivated U.S. audiences and critics in recent seasons, with European productions touring to several American cities and new stagings by such companies as New York's Irish Repertory Theatre and Solas Nua of Washington, D.C.—Walsh has captured the precarious nature of humanity, with savage results. His seemingly grotesque characters are imprisoned by deep-seated pain and fear in panic rooms of their own creation, re-enacting soul-scarring events from the past. They find comfort in the familiar formulas of their self-mythologies, but remain locked in a desperate struggle to keep the outside world, as well as the truths of their heartbreaking lives, at bay.
"The people in his plays are always that heightened version of what we recognize as ourselves," suggests Walsh's friend Mikel Murfi, who directed Druid Theatre Company's Galway premiere of Walworth and acted in its production of Ballroom. "He uses theatre to create the illusion that these people are deranged, clinging to sanity by a thread."
The 42-year-old playwright says his penchant for conjuring up characters who are trapped in a sadistic tape loop of storytelling can be traced back, in part, to his time living in London in the late 1990s, when his breakthrough play Disco Pigs was briefly running on the West End.
At the time, Walsh found himself stuck in a series of obsessive-compulsive routines. He began experiencing panic attacks if he deviated from, say, drinking a glass of water at a precise moment every day, or visiting the same cafe and ordering the exact same lunch. "I was very, very aware of the time and the shape of a day and wanting to be in control at all times," he recalls.
As part of his daily routine, Walsh would walk by a certain house and peer into the ground-floor flat, where he'd find the same arrangement of people—an older couple and their son—standing very still in nearly identical spots every day. He deduced from the items in the room that they were Irish immigrants like himself. That snapshot became seared in his brain.
"We were all sort of aligned, all living a very patterned, rhythmic existence," he says. "If I'd fallen out of that pattern, I would have fallen off the edge of the world, it seemed—like everything would just be fucking chaos. That's had a big influence on The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom and probably all my plays since then. They're all about routine and pattern and trying to recreate worlds or break free of these worlds."
Walsh has no formal training as a playwright. However, as a kid, he was involved in the Dublin Youth Theatre, and one of his teachers in secondary school was novelist Roddy Doyle. He studied film at university; it was only after school, when he had moved from Dublin to Cork, that he fell in with a ragtag group of likeminded (and wayward) artists, who, he says, didn't know if they wanted to be a rock band or make theatre. "We were just guys in their twenties who were living on the dole, drinking, eating crisps and taking drugs, because that's what you're supposed to do at that time in your life," is how he describes it. The group eventually became organized enough to procure a small theatre space in Cork, and began to create small, improvised pieces, with Walsh as the designated writer.
It was during this period that Walsh wrote his first couple of plays, including The Ginger Ale Boy—about a young ventriloquist who has a nervous breakdown and thinks the people in his town are going to eat him alive—which was produced in 1995 by Corcadorca, the company that grew out of that original unnamed, makeshift group. His next play, Disco Pigs, was inspired by the insouciant, debauched time in his Cork with his cronies.
"Disco Pigs summed up just how druggy and trippy it was for us," he recalls. "Yet we were all desperate romantics, trying to fall in love with someone." Corcadorca produced Disco Pigs in 1996, starring a then teenage Cillian Murphy, and toured the production internationally. It was later turned into a 2001 film starring Murphy and directed by Kristen Sheridan. The play revolves around two inseparable teenagers, Pig and Runt, who have developed their own insular lexicon and a haunting co-dependency—that is, until one of them, sitting on the beach one evening, begins to awaken to the world outside their cloistered friendship.
In this early play, one can see strains of Walsh's subsequent work: the feverish dialogue, the breakneck pacing, the menacing and turbulent atmospheres, an intense theatricality and an aversion to naturalism, not to mention the theme of stunted souls who've meticulously constructed an existence from which one of them finally sees a glimmer of escape.
By the late '90s, Disco Pigs had landed Walsh on the international radar, and he became associated with a cabal of upstart young writers—including Conor McPherson, Mark O'Rowe, Marina Carr, Martin McDonagh, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill—who were making noise and ruffling feathers in Ireland and the U.K. at the time. Temperamentally, these playwrights couldn't be more different, but Walsh did share with some of them an unrelenting drive to push past conventional notions of theatre.
Bedbound was the play that confirmed Walsh's status as one of Ireland's most refreshing new voices. Produced at the Royal Court in 2002 and staged in New York courtesy of Irish Rep in 2003, Bedbound zeroes in on a furniture salesman and his polio-stricken daughter who share a single bed, and a horrifying symbiosis, in a tiny room surrounded by a maze of walls. The salesman spews frenetic talk about his ambitious past, while his frail daughter jabbers to fill the silence in her head.
In The Walworth Farce, which got its premiere at Druid in 2006 and had its American debut at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn two years ago, a tyrannical father has sequestered his two grown sons in a grim London council flat. There, he forces them to don wigs and costumes and repeatedly play out the invented story of his departure from Ireland nearly 20 years ago. The New Electric Ballroom, which received its English-language premiere by Druid in 2008 (following a 2004 German-language production at Munich's Kammerspiel Theatre) and debuted in the U.S. at St. Ann's last fall, is an elegiac companion piece to Walworth. Ballroom finds a couple of cloistered sisters reenacting a shame-filled and life-altering evening from their dance-hall youth. Recruited into this smothering ritual is their 40-year-old younger sister. When a lonesome fishmonger blasts through the steel door into the women's lives, the youngest sister is offered a glimpse of possible salvation. While Walworth and Ballroom circle around similar themes, the tones diverge. Walworth is a galloping, almostâ€“Grand Guignol tragedy, while Ballroom is more brooding, introspective and mournful.
For New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, "The New Electric Ballroom affirms Mr. Walsh's growing reputation as a contender to take his place in the long, distinguished line of great Irish playwrights... The cursed gift of speech has been used to isolate and humiliate the sisters... But can words, the soiling, unworthy but unavoidable things, also be used to build a makeshift bridge to a life-changing connection, a release into a sunlit future?"
The gift of speech is similarly a theme in walsh's The Small Things, staged by London's Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005 and premiered in the U.S. in 2007 by D.C.'s Solas Nua. In this play, an elderly man and woman, the last two people on earth, cling to existence by telling of their dystopian world, in which language was believed to be so dangerous that people's tongues were ritualistically severed. That kind of desperation also flavors Hunger, the Cannes Film Festival prize-winner from 2008 for which Walsh wrote the screenplay. The centerpiece of the film is a 23-minute-long conversation between hunger-striking Irish nationalist Bobby Sands and a Catholic priest, a philosophical chess match that ends in stalemate.
Walsh's language is as lyrical and lacerating as that of celebrated Irish writers ranging from O'Casey to Murphy to McPherson. Acid-dipped humor flows like a toxic river ("The three stooges grappled with the wall unit like it were made of clitoris," says Bedbound's vitriolic father of his employees). The barrage of words has an alternately auspicious and devastating force. In The New Electric Ballroom, the forlorn fishmonger flees from the terrifying images that have crept into his thoughts, overcome with fear about that leap of faith he desperately yearns to make:
In one breath all love is good and it keeps me and this love it fills me...but with each step taken and a different love, a fragile love, a love blind, surely. I let go of your hand and walk away fast. And I want for the lover's walk and the lie-ins and the kisses and the sweet remembered details, the slow romance and the sudden lust of love, but my heart tells me that the risk is far too great...We're walking hand in hand but you're not really there. We're sitting side by side but you are somewhere else maybe...I'm kissing you with a kiss that last seconds too less for me but seconds too more for you...My own heart's too scarred by days and nights alone. Too set in its ways by years of chit-chat to little old ladies. Too scared to face into the unknown with just love as a map!
Solas Nua artistic director Linda Murray, whose theatre has produced more of Walsh's plays than any other U.S. company, describes his characters as "an aspirational bunch, ever gazing starward beyond the walls of their rooms and flats but never getting there, not because of some looming outward force but because of a lack of capacity within themselves. Their dreams and hopes for life outside of their world never leaves space to include themselves within it."
The playwright traces the tyranny of words in his plays, in part, to his own artistic apprehensions. "It comes from actually having to sit down at this bloody desk every day," he says, describing "the great anxiety of being a writer—the seduction of all these words, but the complete fucking inability for these words to, actually, really mean the big stuff. Individually, all these words just add up to chaos, to noise."
More potent, he explains, are the unspoken truths bubbling under the surface. "My characters talk and talk and talk and sometimes talk shit. But it's not what they're talking about that matters. It's what they avoid talking about. That's where the real drama is. You circle until the characters can't circle anymore, and they actually have to talk about the thing that everyone in the fucking room wants them to talk about."
Walsh has long had an ear for subtext. As a boy growing up in Dublin in the '70s and '80s, he says he was always attuned to what was happening in the adult world around him—the hidden anguish, fears and regrets and the subtle jealousies and resentments.
"I suppose I was always quite fucking sensitive," he says. "I've always been aware of the elephant in the room. I've always gotten upset over small things. I don't deal with things very well.... I've got all the ingredients to be a really good playwright."
Growing up, the elephant in the room was financial stress. His father was the owner of a furniture shop, and his business ebbed and flowed with the undulating, recession-mired Irish economy. Walsh had a successful paper route, and he recalls how it felt at age 13 to be counting the cash he'd collected on a Friday evening, and to look across the table at his father doing the same with proceeds from the shop. "I had made more money than he did!"
Walsh speaks of his father with clear adoration: "He was a performer, and his shop floor was like his theatre. He would morph into a different type of man depending on who came in. He would seduce people and make them feel at ease, and then he would begin to make the sale. Now I feel as if that's exactly what I have to do when I introduce an audience to a very particular world."
His father's influence on Bedbound is especially palpable. "My father got very ill. He had a brain tumor," Walsh says. "Trying to keep six kids fed, and the boom and the bust, it was almost like his head was ready to explode and had to be stitched back up and made new."
According to the playwright, however, the autobiographical aspects of his plays have only been apparent to him in retrospect. "I suppose I probably am just re-imagining all those atmospheres from my childhood, those quiet moments around the kitchen table," he admits. "I can see that I am all those characters. There's a bit of me inside all of them. But the expression is purely theirs and wholly theirs, and the plays are wholly theirs."
Considering the harsh, unflinching quality of his plays and the disturbed nature of his characters, the still-boyish Walsh is a rather ordinary guy—warm and funny. He laughs easily and often and professes to live "a normal, ordinary life" in London with his magazine-editor wife and young daughter.
"As a person, he is modest and quite shy," says actor-director Murfi. "You'd never pick him out in a room as the writer of such fucked-up worlds."
Yet there's a palpable restlessness about him that's ultimately charming. In conversation, he fidgets in his seat, while words hurtle from his mouth in an expletive-laced frenzy.
"I feel pretty inadequate as a writer. I don't think I'm getting there yet. So the pieces tend to be really anxious," he says. "Like sometimes I feel the writing isn't good enough. Not that it's not successful enough. I don't care about that. But maybe it's just not true enough or real enough or imagined perfectly enough." He confesses to occasionally asking himself: "Why the fuck am I a writer? Like do something real! Do something that people will actually get a use out of. Like be a fucking plumber."
Still, he says of his writing, "If I didn't have it, I'd be like a fucking puddle on the ground."
Despite his anxieties and self-doubts, Walsh pushes onward. His next play, Penelope, is inspired by The Odyssey's suitor-snubbing wife. It will be staged this spring in Germany at Theatre Oberhausen, with its English-language premiere likely happening at the Druid this summer. Walsh describes Penelope as being set in a swimming pool drained of water, with a hulking barbecue grill looming next to it. Four men of varying ages, dressed in tight Speedos, are walking around in flip-flops. One of them fires up a torch and starts cooking a cold sausage over the flame. Ominously, a long streak of blood alongside the ladder plunges down into the empty pool. A man in a party hat is trying to clean up the blood with a sponge. The atmosphere, as Walsh imagines it, is thick with malevolence. When he sets out to write a play, he says he thinks for a long time about an image and the atmosphere surrounding it—then he starts writing.
In addition to Penelope, Walsh is in the midst of working on two new screenplays, including one about the British soul singer Dusty Springfield, a portrait of the artist in the years before she recorded the seminal Dusty in Memphis. His 2005 play, Chatroom, a psychological thriller that Walsh calls "Lord of the Flies set in cyberspace," has been adapted into a film by Ringu director Hideo Nakata.
Despite his success, Walsh does have his detractors, some of whom probably wish he would take up a career in plumbing. Most denunciations of his work attack what they see as its artificiality, or claim that it's difficult to empathize with his characters.
Murfi, for his part, thinks his friend has too often been tagged with an unfair "nihilist" label. "He writes about people confined to situations in which there seems to be little or no possibility of escape or redemption," reasons Murfi. "He appears a man who has no faith in the capacity of a human to turn a life around. But people should look more closely. His characters have unerring humanity."
Indeed, Walsh's plays may serve up harsh portraits of deeply damaged souls, but you're not a Pollyanna if you detect a streak of optimism. The bleak, unblinking existentialism of Beckett has certainly influenced Walsh. But the small surges of resilience and hope that get repeatedly stomped in his plays are never fully obliterated.
"Maybe someone watching The New Electric Ballroom will go, 'I really need to pick up the telephone, ring that guy, and ask him out on a date.' Because maybe that is the message of the play," Walsh says. "It's a very simple strain, and yet I've told it in a very different way. You have to get up in the morning, you have to take a chance, and you have to burn. You have to open the door and go out there and risk living."
Christopher Wallenberg is an American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support from the Jerome Foundation. Enda Walsh's The New Electric Ballroom and The Walworth Farce are available in one volume from TCG Books; TCG will publish his Penelope, plus some of his early works, in 2011.
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