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The power of fiction in theatre and the transformation of reality-1st installment

Futoshi Sakauchi
Associate Professor of School of Culture, Media and Society, Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Waseda University

Translated performances of Irish dramatic works can occasionally be found even in Japan. However, The Playboy of the Western World was recently brought to Tokyo with hardly any changes to the performances staged in Ireland. This production was brought by Garry Hynes, the artistic director of Ireland's renowned Druid Theatre Company. Druid's revival of the play was a splendid production which vividly depicted a main character that shifted between illusions and truth. The play has a long performance history which has been infused with the strength of outstanding directors. Indeed, the play cannot be easily approached by directors who lack new ideas and the ability to read deeply into the text.

The Playboy of the Western World was written by John Millington Synge. Use of the word "shifts" (women's underwear) by the main character was harshly reviled against by patriots in the audience and was the trigger for social rioting in 1907. At that time in Irish history, it was the eve of independence from England, and audiences sought theatre which supported the dignity of the country. Therefore, it was not unexpected that such audiences were perplexed by the uninhibited character sketches and dialogue written by Synge. It is ironic that the audiences imaging their future nation did not understand theatre as an "alternative reality". However, at that time, it was the eve of an armed uprising which was inflamed by narratives of manliness. The setting of The Playboy of the Western World turned this narrative upside down, with a young woman operating the pub which served as the foundation of the community and all the men being depicted as drunken cowards. Considering the timing, it is no wonder that such a setting caused rioting to occur.

The Playboy of the Western World (Photographic Credit: Futoshi Sakauchi)

In Ibsen's A Doll's House (1879), Nora leaves her home upon awakening to herself. In Yeat's Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902), Michael leaves his home enraptured by the illusion of nationalism. In The Playboy of the Western World, the scene in which Christy opens the door and leaves the place has a unique feeling because it embodies the very process in which awakening and illusion are blended. Through the heroic illusion of a man who is supposed to have killed his strong father and the reality of na誰ve youth, this play depicts how the protagonist ceaselessly travels between illusions and truth. The story raises the idea that the potential to transform reality itself exists in the pendulum motion between the illusion and awakening in which the main character indulges.

However, how is it possible for a man that murdered his father to become a hero? Young women of the village are enraptured by the unusual young man who suddenly appeared. This point can be superimposed with a scene from the play Dancing at Lughnasa, written by Brian Friel. In this scene, the wild dancing of the women is a candid depiction of erupting sexuality which was long considered to be a sin. Also, consideration should be given to the domestic violence committed by fathers and the historical background which included the surfacing of sexual abuse committed on children by members of the church. It can be said that the performance is embedded with a carnival-like chaos that contemplate the downfall and transformation of "paternity", a concept which has had its reality skillfully concealed even while traditionally asserting ultimate authority in Ireland.

The Playboy of the Western World (Photographic Credit: Futoshi Sakauchi)

In any case, if theatre is viewed as an art form that exercises magic for imagining another mode of existence when reality has reached a standstill, then, by proposing the idea that reality itself is swayed by the opposition of lies and truth, the very script of The Playboy of the Western World is a metaphor for theatre. The playwright may very well have envisioned that the first showing of this work would result in riots which spilled from the theatre and flowed into the streets.

In "The Decay of Lying" (1889), Oscar Wilde wrote that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. An unspecified number of audience members, each of whom lives in their own reality, repeat a pendulum motion in which they experience a vision in the special atmosphere of the theatre and then once again return to reality. If there is no society which does not experience some kind of impasse, then we cannot let go of the power of fiction contained in theatre.

Futoshi Sakauchi
Associate Professor of School of Culture, Media and Society, Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Waseda University

The author received his doctorate from the Doctoral Program in the School of English, Drama and Film at the University College Dublin (UCD). He is currently an associate professor of Studies in Media, Image, and Body at the School of Culture, Media and Society at Waseda University. His areas of expertise are physical representation theory and theatre theory. His major theses include Staging Bankruptcy of Male Sexual Fantasy: Lolita at the National Theatre" (published in Ireland on Stage: Beckett and After) and "Not I in an Irish Context" (published in Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui No. 19).