A hearse. A kitchen table. A shop counter. A pram. And with them, the characters: the womanizing husband; the worn-out, overbearing mother; the shopkeeper adding her half-pence to her pence; the beleaguered young mother who has been married off to the wealthy older farmer and is tied to him now to avoid the social disgrace of a too-early baby. We’re squarely in John B. Keane territory here and don’t we know it.
The props marking out the acts in Keane’s well-known play spell out the plot though it ploughs on with its terrible inevitability until almost everybody has been destroyed or damaged by the oppressive powers vested in these objects and rituals by a beaten-down, craven society and its false gods. In this play, there is one survivor, Big Maggie, who has eventually managed to outface ‘Pride and ignorance and religion’. But her survival is hard-won, and the toughness by which her independence is achieved produces perverse victories that, in turn, see her cruelly oppress her own children. This is 1960s Kerry, and nothing comes easy.
It is the position of women in 1960s Ireland that Keane is most interested in exploring in this play, the women whose own beaten-down spirits have made them expert in ‘breaking [others’] spirits’. When her husband dies, Maggie tells her children of an unknown will, extracted a year earlier following yet another infidelity, leaving everything to her. The security and independence that this confers on her is an astonishing achievement for a widow in an Ireland where, before the 1965 Succession Act, a woman in Maggie’s position could realistically expect to have to rely on the kindness of daughters-in-law for her survival, as she later tells her son’s pregnant girlfriend. A small farm and a thriving shop form Maggie’s new empire, her chance to get independence – and ‘the taste of marriage out of [her] mouth’.
It is in the shop that most of the play takes place, though the gaily-coloured product on the shop’s shelves bespeak brighter hopes than either customers or proprietor do. (Although a variety of transactions take place in the shop – emotional, economic, familial – nobody seems to manage to acquire any of these bright new products, however, signs of the kinder ‘60s beyond, like the light beyond the shop door and kitchen door that glow temptingly close throughout.) Toughening one child after the next in her bid to prepare them for a hostile, predatory world, Maggie’s parenting style gives new meaning to the term ‘tough love’, and it isn’t long – or surprising – before she alienates the last of them. In Aisling O’Sullivan, a younger actress than usual for the part of Maggie, we have a conspicuously sexual woman whose declaration that she hasn’t slept with her husband for ten years gains particular force, and whose temporizing with the repeated marriage proposals of the ‘town encyclopedia’ and ‘monumental sculptor’ of her husband’s headstone declares her commitment to something more than simply economic independence.
This is Druid on safe territory once again: raiding the treasury of National Irish Drama by Great Irish Men, and treating them to solid new productions, energised by new young acting talent and characteristically sure directing by Garry Hynes. The play dates from 1969, and it shows in the gasps of disbelief alongside the laughter elicited from the audience. Casting self-styled lovable rogue Keith Duffy in the role of Teddy Heelin, commercial traveller and professional lothario, might have seemed a dubious decision, but though he fails to quite inhabit Teddy’s extra-large breeches, that’s sort of the point too. (And full marks for the programme’s typographic acknowledgement of the “pop act” that was “Boyzone”!)
Big Maggie is a play full of humour as well as harshness, wit as well as cruelty, not entirely without relevance today for its exposition of the economic independence that precedes other freedoms. Druid do a very good job of realizing all of this, although there’s little attempt at working its contemporary relevance. Next time, maybe?