People often take time to come to terms with events that have shaped them. So it proves in Dublin-born playwright Brona Crehan’s new play Pillow on the Staircase, which is based on true life events from her own past.
“When my father died I started writing a book,” she tells the Irish Voice. “Essentially it was the story of my parents. My father had a relationship with a woman that resulted in a child before he married my mum. He never told her and he never told anybody. It came out maybe 15 years after they got married.”
Crehan wrote the story from her father’s perspective and first ran it as a 10-minute drama. Originally presented as a short monologue by the Bronx-based Irish theater company Poor Mouth at the Beal Bocht Café in Riverdale, the dramatic short gave her father’s perspective on a decision that changed three lives forever.
The public reaction to the work was everything a fledgling playwright could have hoped for, leading Crehan to expand the play into a one act (with plans to present it as a two act later this year).
“The story runs from the early 1960s to the early 1990s so it encompasses about 35 years. I don’t remember being very shocked by the true life story when he finally told us. I think it was an unspoken secret,” Crehan recalls.
“I knew there was always something that we hadn’t heard about, and when we were eventually told a lot of time had passed and it didn’t seem to matter as much. It was part of our family’s fabric and that’s it.”
Every decision has a consequence, the play suggests, and the passing of time may not bring about the conclusion you expected.
“It’s basically a story of love, trust and betrayal. It’s also about hindsight and how that changes what you’re seeing,” she says.
Crehan feels that her mother’s 1960s generation was much more innocent than the ones that followed it.
“My father’s revelation made her a little more streetwise. But it came full circle to the idea that – in terms of what life could throw at you – it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.”
Crehan’s family comes to accept their new realities in much the same way the nation they live in does. These are stories that depart from the narrow ones the official Ireland they grew up in allowed them to believe existed, after all. So they begin to recognize their new realities about the same time as the country does.
“He tried to hide the secret for as long as he could but I think the guilt got to him in the end,” Crehan reveals. “As his life became more complicated it became less easy to hide the truth. The stakes kept increasing for him.
“With the arrival of new children with my own mother his past took on a different color. As soon as his own life got a little more real he realized he would have to own up sooner or later.”
The indiscretion that resulted in a secret child happened when Crehan’s father was around 21, she says. In those days there was a total ban on contraception of any kind in Ireland, and what happened to him happened to many. She refuses the lingering shame that would have silenced previous generations.
In the play Crehan does not – yet – address what happened to the child of her father’s first relationship. It’s understandable when there’s already so much to unpack in relation to her family’s surprise.
“This play is true, it’s topical and it looks at the way that events that happened years ago can resonate years later. But it’s the truth told from three characters different perspectives, so what is the real truth, you know?
“Somewhere in there what really did happen is contained, but a lot of it is embroidered and colored by the three characters and me. I’m writing as I think it may have played out. It’s a good rendition of the times.”
From her mother’s generation in the 1960s to Crehan’s own in the 1980s there was a huge social change.
“I look at the change in my mother through the years and I compare it with my own. I left Dublin in the early 1980s. I think there was a huge gulf between my mother’s generation to my own,” Crehan says.
To have grown up in the gulf connecting the two eras in Ireland, having witnessed how wide the gulf actually was between what was said and what was actually happening, makes Crehan the ideal truth teller.
For tickets for the two upcoming performances on January 19 and 20 at the Beal Bocht Café, visit poormouththeatre.blogspot.com.