Padraic Colum

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Padraic Colum Drama Analysis

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Padraic Colum was a major figure in the Irish Literary Renaissance both because he was the first to deal realistically with the Irish peasant farmer and because of the influence his plays had on the playwrights who followed him. Something of the pervasiveness and power of his influence comes through in the open letter that Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory in 1919, in which he announced that he was giving up public theater for a more private theater of the drawing room. Yeatswrote that while he had sought to create a poetic drama, the Abbey playwrights, following Colum’s lead, had instead succeeded in “the making articulate of all the dumb classes each with its own knowledge of the world, its own dignity, but all objective with the objectivity of the office and the workshop, of the newspaper and the street, of mechanism and of politics.” It was, nevertheless, the realistic drama of peasant life that won for the Abbey Theatre its international recognition.

Colum himself did not claim to have been the inventor of the peasant play; he said that he shared the distinction with Synge. “My Broken Soil and Synge’s In the Shadow of the Glen were produced within a month of each other,” he wrote. “These two plays inaugurated the drama of peasant life. Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan, in which the characters are peasants, was produced first, but Cathleen ni Houlihan is symbolic and not a play of actual peasant life.” “A play of actual peasant life” aptly describes what Colum sought to write, and it was with this type of play, in his view, that Ireland began to have a truly native drama—plays he described as being “authentic in idiom and character” and expressing “the sum of instincts, traditions, sympathies that made the Irish mind distinctive.” Probably the most important concept in Colum’s view of drama was that plays should express Irish life. Synge and others poeticized the life of the peasant; Colum saw a poetry within that life and expressed it realistically. In doing so, he saw his work as being distinctly “democratic, not only because it deals with the folk of the country and the town, but because it is written out of recognition of the fact that in every life there are moments of intensity and beauty.” Other Irish playwrights wrote about peasants, but none accepted them on their own terms. They saw them as outsiders would see them: Yeats’s peasants are romantic idealizations, Lady Gregory’s are caricatures—only slightly less broad than the nineteenth century “stage Irishmen”—and Synge’s, for all the richness and beauty of their language, are exaggerations of the Irish peasant. Of all the early Abbey Theatre playwrights, only Colum, who grew up among peasant farmers and small-town merchants, accurately reflected their character, their language, and their concerns.

Because of their realistic portrayal of Irish life, Colum considered The Land, The Fiddler’s House, and Thomas Muskerry to be his most important and most influential plays. Most literary historians agree with this judgment. What gives each of the plays its dramatic vigor and depth of characterization is the tension inherent in Colum’s view of Ireland. Each presents a pair of characters whose energy or imagination is too strong to be held back by the dreary inertia of Irish country life. Matt Cosgar and Ellen Douras in The Land, Maire Hourican and her father, Conn, in The Fiddler’s House, and Muskerry and Myles Gorman in Thomas Muskerry all experience a conflict between their feelings of responsibility to something in this spiritually cramped existence and a deeper need to rise...

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above it. The attention that Colum gives to realistic detail in the plays is a means of emphasizing the part in the conflict played by everyday life in Ireland. Permeating the three plays as a motivating force and linking them thematically is the struggle for freedom that is resolved inThomas Muskerry’s final triumphant symbol, Myles Gorman, whom Colum described as “a man of energy set free on the roads.”

The Land

Because he considered these plays so central to his reputation as a playwright, Colum revised them frequently throughout his life. He first gathered them together as Three Plays in 1916 and later published revised editions of the collection in 1925 and 1963. With the exception of The Land, which received only light revision, the plays in the 1963 edition differ significantly from the versions that were staged nearly a half a century earlier. The Land was inspired, Colum said, by the Land Act of 1903, which enabled Irish tenant farmers to purchase their land. The play’s central conflict is between two generations: the farmers, who have fought to win their land, and their children, who are tempted by the call of the larger world outside. The younger generation prevails in the end, with Matt Cosgar and Ellen Douras departing for the United States and leaving their claims to their fathers’ farms to Ellen’s less imaginative brother Cornelius and Matt’s slow-witted sister Sally.

Although Colum referred to it in 1910 as only “a sketch for a play” and wrote in 1963 that “if staged these days The Land would have to be played as an historical piece and for character parts,” the play is notable for its strong characterization of Sally and the two fathers, Murtagh Cosgar and Martin Douras. It also has a strongly unified plot and a clean story line. By unfolding his plot against the larger historical backdrop of the farmers’ progress from tenants to landowners, Colum managed to reinforce the irony of the exodus of Ireland’s most gifted young people at the very time when the country had something to offer them.

The Land plays well on the stage—when the Dublin International Theatre Festival was inaugurated in 1957, it was the only early full-length Abbey Theatre play selected—but it is inferior to Colum’s other two realistic dramas. The plot is perhaps too neatly constructed and the characters too conveniently paired off; the son and daughter of Murtagh Cosgar wed the son and daughter of Martin Douras, and six young emigrants to the United States in act 2 are balanced against six farmers who commit themselves to the land in act 1. Matt and Ellen, moreover, are too thinly characterized for the parts they play, and Cornelius’s curtain speech is too obviously propagandistic. Nevertheless, because of both the popular support it won for the Abbey and its value as a commentary on social and political changes, the play has undeniable historical importance. The Land, in fact, is the only one of the three plays about which it can be said with any justice that historical value outweighs literary worth.

The Fiddler’s House

The Fiddler’s House is similar to The Land in both theme and plot: An aging fiddler, Conn Hourican, leaves the farm that his daughter Maire has inherited to follow the roads, playing at festivals and in public houses. Maire, whose increasing sense of affinity with her father is matched by a growing aversion to Brian McConnell, the man whom she had intended to marry, decides to follow her father on the roads and deeds the farm to her younger sister, Anne. The Fiddler’s House was probably Colum’s most frequently revised play, and through several revisions, the focus switched back and forth between the two main characters. In a letter to his patron, Kelly, in 1910, Colum revealed his fascination with the characters of Conn and Maire and suggested that Maire dominated the unpublished Broken Soil. “Now that I read the plays,” he wrote, “Conn Hourican and [Maire] Hourican in The Fiddler’s House are more vivid to me than any of the people in The Land. I know that you prefer Broken Soil to The Fiddler’s House, the play that has taken its place. . . . But I thought Conn Hourican worth a play, and I tried to make a new one for him.” Conn dominated both the 1907 and 1925 versions of the play. Later, however, Maire began to grow in Colum’s imagination. In the preface of the 1963 edition of Three Plays, he says:The motive in its early version was simply “the call of the road.” It became The Fiddler’s House when a real conflict was seen as developing in it, the conflict between father and daughter in which reconciliation came when Maire Hourican becomes aware that she, too, has the vagrant in her. Later, when produced in New York by Augustin Duncan, something else in her character was made explicit. Her recoil from her lover is due to her fear of masculine possessiveness—a recoil not extraordinary in a girl brought up in the Irish countryside.

In the 1963 revision of the play, Maire regained the ground that she had lost in the versions of 1907 and 1925, and the characters settled into a state of equilibrium, each interesting for different reasons. While the divided focus of the play kept it from greatness, it also gave the Irish stage two memorable characters. The complexly motivated Maire is particularly well drawn. When Brian tries to dominate her and threatens to carry her off by force to marry him, she begins to realize that, more than marriage, she wants freedom. When she leaves to follow her father at the play’s close, the possibility of reconciliation with Brian is more remote than it had been in the earlier plays. Through the various revisions, Colum gradually transformed her from a girl who wants only a home and a husband to a woman who wants to shape her own life.

Thomas Muskerry

Thomas Muskerry went through a similar evolutionary process of revision, and by the time he completed the process, Colum had transformed his weakest play into his strongest. Andrew E. Malone, writing about the early Abbey Theatre version of the play, termed it “in every respect inferior to The Land and The Fiddler’s House”; Robert Hogan, writing in 1967 about the final revision, called it Colum’s “masterpiece.” Most critics concur with Hogan’s judgment. In writing the play, Colum drew on his earliest childhood experiences at the Longford Workhouse. As the play begins, Muskerry, master of a workhouse in the Irish midlands, is at the end of a successful career and looking forward to a pleasant retirement in the cottage he plans to buy with his life savings. By the play’s end, he lies dead in a pauper’s bed at the workhouse. In the intervening scenes, it is discovered that he had accidentally mismanaged the workhouse’s funds, and the Crilly family, into which his daughter had married, persuades him to resign as master to save the family’s reputation in the village. They also persuade him to give up his plan of buying a cottage and to live with them behind their shop. Once he abdicates his power to the Crillys, however, they become increasingly neglectful of him, even as he uses his savings to keep their shop from foundering. At the end of the play, he is penniless and spiritually broken by the ingratitude of his daughter and her in-laws and by the humiliating taunts of Felix Tournour, the workhouse porter. The only person who shows him any sympathy is Christy Clarke, an orphan whom he had befriended.

The 1910 version of Thomas Muskerry was little more than the bare bones of a play and had succeeded only on the merits of an unusually moving final act; it had little else to recommend it. The first act did scarcely more than lay an Ibsen-like foundation of complex exposition and introduce a large cast of sparsely drawn characters—each arriving and departing at too obviously opportune moments. The succession of events necessary for the play’s later developments was more mechanical than dramatic and too rapid to be credible. The second act moved along at the same quick pace, carrying Muskerry mechanically through the events that led finally to his death. Muskerry in the closing scenes achieved—in his mixture of pathos and tragedy, failure and triumph—a grandeur reminiscent of Lear. The play, in fact, resembled William Shakespeare’s tragedy in many ways and gained strength from the underlying but unspoken allusion to King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606) that reverberated through the unfolding pattern of filial ingratitude.

The later version of Thomas Muskerry more than compensates for the artistic deficiencies of the early version. Structurally, Colum’s innovations slow the pace and allow the play to build more powerfully to its climax. What was merely a mechanical succession of events in the first version takes on an aura of inevitability in the revision. In rewriting the play, Colum divided the first act into two scenes by reshuffling the exposition and spreading the action over two evenings instead of one. He also suggests early in the first scene that Felix Tournour has information that may later damage Muskerry’s reputation and jeopardize his pension. In the earlier version, Tournour’s knowledge had come as a surprise late in the play and had no real effect on the action. With this small change, Colum was able to foreshadow the most important turning point in Muskerry’s fortunes and to orchestrate Tournour into a nemesis who lurks through four acts before he finally strikes.

Between the original first and second acts, Colum inserted a new act that accomplishes several things. It begins with the senile bantering of two elderly inmates who reflect on the change in masters and, in the process, reveal to the audience the old master’s record of humane kindliness. Their reverential comments continue in choric counterpoint behind the main action, in which Muskerry is quietly shunted aside to make room for his successor. Like the early slights of Goneril and Regan in King Lear, the early shifts in the way his daughter and her in-laws treat the retired Muskerry provide the first glancing blows at his dignity and prefigure the larger insults that follow. Into the new second act Colum also introduced a traveling photographer whose uncertainty about whether Muskerry is still master of the workhouse helps to bring into focus the other characters’ attitudes toward the protagonist.

The third act of the 1963 play is the original second act; in the revision, Colum polished and augmented the dialogue to improve characterization and made the act a third again as long by the introduction of another character, Peter Macnabo, who, like Muskerry, is a former workhouse master fallen into disgrace. The addition of Macnabo alone would have been enough to improve the overall quality of the play. His indomitability, industrious self-sufficiency, and rising fortunes as he begins a new life for himself provide a strong contrast to Muskerry’s decline. The positioning of his visit between the petty quarrels of the Crilly family and examples of Tournour’s growing arrogance gives the new version’s third act a dramatic intensity almost equal to that of act 4, and the combination of naïveté and shrewdness that prompts Macnabo at the age of sixty to attempt a new career manufacturing traditional Irish clay pipes makes him one of the play’s most finely drawn characters.

The fourth act differs little from the strong concluding act of the original. Colum’s major change was to expand the part of Muskerry’s young ward, Christy Clarke, so that in the closing scenes he functions as something of an adopted Cordelia in ironic contrast to the Goneril and Regan of Muskerry’s daughter and the Crilly family. Colum’s changes in the play involved more than simply improving its structure and adding new characterization and dialogue. While the 1910 version presented an array of broadly sketched characters, the revision contains a gallery of fully delineated personalities. Muskerry, already a powerfully conceived protagonist in the original, is a truly memorable one in the final version. The revised play also features three unusually strong supporting characters in Christy Clarke, Peter Macnabo, and Felix Tournour. The remaining characters in the revised version all have the fullness and clearly defined identities that they lacked in the original. The dialogue, moreover, shows the sure hand of an artist with more than fifty years of experience as both a poet and a playwright.

Despite the high quality of his art and the glowing predictions of fellow writers such as Yeats and Æ, Colum never became truly famous. His emigration to the United States probably had much to do with this. His best plays were the early Abbey Theatre works about rural Irish life; when he left Ireland, he lost the stimulus of a convenient stage and an appreciative audience. Though he had been famous as a poet and playwright in Dublin, he was virtually unknown in New York and had to begin again to make a name for himself while expending much of his creative energy on the children’s books and literary journalism that provided his income. Perhaps he was partially a victim of his own personality and of his ability to do many things well. If he had been flamboyant, irascible, or conspicuously tormented, he might have become a literary personality, as have many writers of less talent. Instead, he was a quiet, good-natured, and apparently happy man. If anything, he was conspicuously unflappable. “Every serious Irish writer has a pain in his belly,” Æ once chided Frank O’Connor, who was complaining of indigestion. “Yeats has a pain in his belly; Joyce has a terrible pain in his belly; now you have a pain in your belly. Padraic Colum is the only Irish writer who never had a pain at all.”

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