In his new play Ballyturk, Irish playwright Enda Walsh's career long obsessions – small town conformity, the gifted outsider who's cruelly oppressed by it and the lifelong inability of either side to change, learn or grow – is given the most thorough examination of his career.
Few academics write about the history of Irish social conformity in the 20 century, which is curious when you consider how long and life destroying that history actually is.
Instead this important work is generally left to our novelists, poets and playwrights, who have railed against the stifling of individual dreams and desires for most of the 20 century.
The Irish know better than anyone the power and uses of social exclusion and expulsion, we invented the boycott after all. We know how to elevate some and level others and we can do it so craftily, so cleanly and so mercilessly, that you could call it the dark side of our famous friendliness.
Depending on what era you were born in, you have probably already learned some truly unforgettable lessons about what can happen to the awkward, the effeminate, the notion havers, the misfits, in our country.
If you think about it, you can probably pick a handful of examples that you personally witnessed, or perhaps participated in, or you might even have been a target yourself.
Walsh's career has been, among other things, a lifelong and feverish exploration of the power and consequences of Irish social exclusion. He writes about it so ceaselessly that it may be because it experienced some of the sting of it, or witnessed it's baleful consequences.It doesn't really matter, ultimately. Walsh's plays always seem to be set in a sort of 1960's of the mind, or even further back. Few people own an iPhone, no one sends email, no one Tweets or Skype's or Snapchat's. And in the rare cases when they do they can quickly find themselves sucked into the imprisoning orbit of people who don't and will never. There's only one road here and it leads only into the past.
In psychology the condition known as PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, develops in people who have witnessed a shocking, scary or life threatening event. For some that means unexpected accidents or experiences in the military, for Walsh it apparently means an Irish adolescence spent in small town before the turn of the century.
Fight or flight syndrome is the signature PTSD characteristic. Fight or flight is everywhere in Walsh's plays. Ranked together his characters over the last two and a half decades represent a tableau of the haunted and the haunting, men and women who have either been seen off or singled out.
Was this process part of Walsh's own personal experience, or did he witness it happen to others? Is it a metaphor for the condition of the artist or is an embodiment of the unthinking cruelty meted out to those who don't fit the mold?
In Ballyturk, which is simultaneously Walsh's most Irish and most accomplished play to date, he grapples with the damage done to the psyche by the experience of exclusion, putting two trapped and compromised men on stage.
They are so disassociated from their origins that they don't even have names, instead they just have numbers. The gifted physical performer Tadgh Murphy plays 1, the equally gifted Mikel Murfi plays 2 and the hypnotic Olwen Fouere plays 3.
When the play opens Murphy and Murfi (their surnames are just a enjoyable coincidence) are trapped in a room without a door, where they start to do what Walsh's harried and harmed characters often do: reenact the past, outline the scene of the crime.
Sometimes they play the villagers they remember (both actors are superb at bringing the characters of Ballyturk to life with a few gestures or vocal tics) and sometimes they give expression to their own personal predicaments, switching between the two seamlessly as the play progresses.
If American audiences sometimes struggle with what this play means outside of its distinctly Irish context (where, there is no question, it really means the most) Walsh could care less. Ballyturk is a deep dive into the society that made and unmade him.
It's artistically courageous to delve into this dangerous material, because if there's one thing the Irish hate it's being made a show of; but making a show of Irish cruelty toward the unfortunate is a longstanding theme of Walsh's career (the most interesting part of it, in fact).
Characters 1 and 2 rehearse and reenact the original sin of modern Irish society, the contempt that it shows to the weak, for most of the play, alternating between the villagers and the fates they face.
But the past has a way of catching up on the two men, with unforeseen consequences. We are born to be the amusement for our neighbors and the tormentors of ourselves, and this process is unstoppable and unendurable and that's that, Walsh suggests, with a finality that gives the play it's cold strength.
What's remarkable is how little love there is in this oppressive rural vision. In plays like Arlington and Disco Pigs and The Walworth Farce and now Ballyturk, love if its referred to at all, often exists as an afterthought, it's the very last thing on anyone's mind and likely the cause of the biggest betrayals they will ever face.
It's odd to be so consistent in that regard, to continually omit the transformative power of a romantic attachment; the potency of sexual desire is another experience that seems remote from all these signature works.
Where it does exist it seems to be just another cause of potential humiliation, to be scornfully heaped on top of the other thousand natural shocks a baile can throw at you.
So there's a chilliness to Walsh's plays, and a cerebral remove, and a sensation of immense stuckness. People can't go forward or back, they can't grow or regress, they can't start or conclude. In Ballyturk they can't even die with finality, because the process that maimed them immediately finds another new victim and the whole sad cycle starts over again.
When 1 and 2 come to the end of their respective journeys the walls open and a white haired women in a tailored suit and raincoat appears (Fouere). This is 3, a stand in for a mother and also an embodiment of death, womb and tomb, if you will. 3 has come to claim one of the two men, she doesn't care which, death makes no distinctions. She suggests they choose themselves.
When the walls break open in the middle of the play you may hope as I did that the author has had an epiphany, that this represents a break from the hamster wheel his characters have tread since the start of his career in 1996, that his imagination is finally pressing back against the bounds of the possible.
But it turns out that the gap in the wall isn't offering escape, it's simply heralding dissolution and death. The only way out is through it. Few Irish writers have been so relentless at diagnosing the particular disorders of the uniquely conformist Irish society of the 20 century.
In Ballyturk Walsh has decided the long shadow that insular and inward looking society casts can not be outrun. It's his most complex and most condemnatory work to date.
Ballyturk is now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.