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"
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
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
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.