November 5, 2004

Seminar: Irish Studies, 535

Meeting Date: November 5, 2004

Chair: Mary McGlynn

Speaker: Prof. Brian Leahy Doyle
Assistant Professor, Department of Journalism, Communications, and Theatre, Lehman College, CUNY.

Title of Talk: "In the Pocket With Larry Kirwan"

Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons

Attendees: Martin J. Burke (CUNY); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University); Diane Menagh (Fairfield University); Frank Naughton (Kean University); Alice Naughton; Marguerite Lannan, Peter M. Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center); Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Federation); Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College); Beth Gilmartin (Monmouth University); Michael O. Shannon (Lehman College, CUNY); Ken Monteith (Fordham University); Joseph V. Hamilton, Jr., Esq.; Terry Byrne (The College of New Jersey).

"In the Pocket with Larry Kirwan"
The paper that Prof. Doyle gave has been deposited with University Seminars.  The following is a synopsis of the paper.

    Prof. Doyle began his talk by recognising the diverse creativity and volume of Larry Kirwan's work as a playwright, novelist, memoirist, singer, and songwriter.  Kirwan's work "has revealed a restless, playful and bold experimentation that freely mixes comedy, tragedy, drama, farce, satire, music, politics, and history."  Because music is an essential part of all of his plays and his novel, it is hard to separate the playwright-novelist from the rock musician-composer.  Prof. Doyle took the title of his talk from an interview with Larry Kirwan--in which Kirwan describes the experience of playing great rock and roll as being "in the pocket"--and used the expression as a metaphor to describe the nature of his creative process.
    Kirwan was born and grew up in Co. Wexford, where he lived with his mother (his father was away at sea for most of the year) until he was 9 or 10, and then with his maternal grandfather, an unrepentant republican.  He studied accounting in night school, but never took the final exam, moving to New York City instead, where he lived a restless, bohemian life.  After a failed musical career, Kirwan turned to playwriting and enrolled in the Script Development Workshop, where his first play, Requiem for a Rocker--about a rock musician having a nervous breakdown--received a mixed reaction from the workshop’s participants.  His next play was Liverpool Fantasy, which imagines a world in which the Beatles failed to become famous, and deals with the possible political consequences of their failure.  Kirwan's play sees the Beatles reuniting in a Britain characterised by racial hatred, in which the National Front shares power.  This play was also badly received in the workshop, thanks in part to its unsympathetic portrayal of John Lennon, who had only been dead for five years.  The play opened at the Charas Theatre on Avenue B in May 1986, and was an immediate commercial success.  In Liverpool Fantasy, many of the themes that have occupied Kirwan throughout the rest of his career emerge: missed opportunities; a fallen hero who must confront failure; the passing of time; the interplay of the personal and political; and the role of the immigrant as an outsider.  
    The next play to receive a professional production was the full-length musical drama Days of Rage, which opened at the Hudson Guild Theatre in May 1989.  This play is a reworking of Requiem for a Rocker, and features a character called Stevie Hero, with cameo appearances by Che Guevara and James Joyce.  In the next play, Mister Parnell, which premiered in March 1992, Kirwan explores the political and historical ramifications of the affair between Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O’Shea.  This play reflects Kirwan’s growing maturity as a writer and his ability to integrate weighty historical and political subjects into musical drama.  Mister Parnell was followed by Blood, a one-act play that was first produced in May 1993.  The play features just three characters--James Connolly, Seán McDermott, and Patrick Pearse--and makes effective use of the convention of dramatic time, with a prologue and an epilogue framing the main scene, in which McDermott and Pearse force Connolly to join them in the 1916 Rising.  Kirwan humanises his characters, making them less iconic and their lives more tragic.
    His next play, Rockin' the Bronx, was influenced in no small part by the music of Black 47, a band that Kirwan formed in 1989.  Debuting in August 1997, it is a rock musical about four Irish immigrants living together in a tenement apartment in the Bronx.  This is perhaps Kirwan's darkest and most harrowing play.  It was followed in 1998 by Against the Grain, a musical drama about affirmative action and cultural assimilation, and probably Kirwan's least satisfactory play.  The characters tend to represent types rather than living human beings, and the schematic quality of the plot places too much weight on the characters in order for it to be wholly believable.
    Kirwan's most mature and most autobiographical work to date is The Poetry of Stone, which was first produced in 1998.  The play weaves together the plots of familial tension and political action.  One of the most powerful aspects of The Poetry of Stone is Kirwan’s use of a silent tableau to end each scene, freezing the characters in time, like statues.  Following a three-year hiatus, Kirwan returned to a project he had begun earlier—a novelised version of Liverpool Fantasy, in which the character’s backgrounds are more fully developed and the sub-plot of the rise of the National Front is more successfully integrated.
    Kirwan continues to produce prolifically.  In February 2005 his memoir, Green Suede Shoes: An Irish-American Odyssey, will be released; he is writing and recording for Black 47’s next album; in the theatre, two projects--a revival of Rockin' the Bronx, and his new play The Heart Has a Mind of Its Own--occupy him; lastly, he hopes to finish a novel adapted from Rockin' the Bronx.

Q. I am curious about one phrase that you used.  You said that Kirwan lived with his grandfather, "in the fashion of the times."  What time was it, and what exactly was the fashion?
A. I don’t know the exact time, as Larry wouldn’t disclose his age--he would rather not tell me, because it would date him.  I have found some information that would indicate his age, but that would mean that he arrived in the U.S. at the age of 12, so he is lying there also.  I imagine the time must have been in the mid sixties.  Why he stayed with his grandfather may have had something to do with his father being away at sea so often.  From my interviews I can tell that he must have been a handful as a child.  I imagine that staying with his grandfather also had to do with economic issues.
Q. There seems to be an Irish tradition about not telling your age--to this day I don't know when my mother was born.
A. Larry's main objection to disclosing his age is that it would date him as a rocker.
Q. How funny are the plays?  His music is upbeat, but the lyrics are not--they are very dark.
A. There is a lot of humour in the plays.  In Liverpool Fantasy he is playing on our ideas of the Beatles, and he twists and distorts them, which is a lot of fun.  But it is poignant too—it deals with a group of middle-aged men who didn’t make it.  Some people call the play far-fetched because it makes a connection between the failure of the Beatles and the rise of the National Front, but it is true that the Beatles really did have an important political effect.
Q. You have been very much the objective scholar in your talk, but, as a director, do you think that these are good plays?
Q. Yes, they are.  My favourite play is The Poetry of Stone; it is very well crafted.  Larry said of it that there is not a line out of place.  As a director, I can just see the characters perfectly.  He is often criticized because his politics are too forthright, too headstrong, but in this play politics are brought to the level of the personal, and that is much more successful than, say, Mister Parnell.  However, Mister Parnell is Larry's favourite play, because of its discussion of politics.
Q. Which of his plays have you directed?
A. Just Liverpool Fantasy.
Q. Are these plays published?
A. Yes—some of them are published in a book called Mad Angels.  It is published as a vanity press book, and is available in a bar downtown.
Q. The U2 harmonica player in In the Name of the Father seems very Kirwan-like.
Q. Didn’t he also write a song for Gangs of New York?
A. He might have; I don't know.  He was very off-hand about this sort of thing.