The sudden flare of a cigarette in the dark, a plume of smoke wreathing a pale profile—Hatch Theatre company’s production of The Talk of the Town opens with an indelible image of elegance—the New Yorker’s “Long-winded Lady” alone on stage, languorously smoking, chic in black, her hair piled high, her lips a slash of red. Ventriloquizing William Shawn, the long-term editor, she intones, “She was never one of us, she was one of her.” Director Annabelle Comyn and writer Emma Donoghue’s new play explores a decade in the life of Maeve Brennan, a Dublin-born emigrant who became a New Yorker staff columnist and short story writer, and an integral part of the New York literary scene from 1949 to the 1960s.
The emigrant’s divided sense of self, the experience of feeling perpetually a stranger among strangers, at home only in transition, permeates the play from its opening lines. Maeve’s studied elegance, her ferocious displays of wit and chic are a world away from Ranelagh suburbs where she grew up, and the play exploits the seeming contradiction between the intense domesticity and local containment of her fiction, which explores the constraints of women’s identity in 1920s Ireland, and the chatty cosmopolitanism of her Talk of the Town columns, whose volubility captures the myriad excitements of a worldly city.
New York is the space of reinvention, where Maeve can create herself as a writer, escaping the pre-determined gender roles of Irish society, where the only options are to be “a nun, a mammy or a spinster.” Ireland is a site of pained recollection, all that she is reacting against, but also a seam to be mined for her fiction. The glossy hanging lights, mirror screens and martini-strewn tables downstage capture the metropolitan chic of the Algonquin club and the New Yorker offices, while upstage, a recreation of the kitchen and passage hall of a small Ranelagh house contain the ghosts of Maeve’s stories—a husband (Barry Barnes) and mother (Michèle Forbes) caught in the life-sentence of a sterile, barely communicative marriage, a girl child torn between. The frozen claustrophobia of the family, tersely transmitted in excerpts from Maeve’s prose, with all her devastating sense of the minutiae of the everyday, contrasts powerfully with the fast-talking, mambo-dancing electricity of the New York milieu.
The role of Brennan is invested by Catherine Walker with a nervy, antic energy, spitting out her lines with a screwball heroine’s rapidity, all angles and cocked head, brisk hips and fiery temper like a Katherine Hepburn, though the slippage of her accent could at times be distracting, as could the jagged motion of her gestures. But that very sense of perpetual motion is in one sense key—this is a woman who does not pause to reflect, who tears through moments and relations and drinks, always in the mode of performance, acting out an idea of her own elegance. It is only in the fiction-writing that she slows, takes stock, and when she cannot write, her very sense of self is threatened.
The anguish which leads to Maeve’s eventual break-down is a product not merely of her writer’s block, however, but of gendering pressures on her as writer. William Shawn, acted with calm, almost passive aggressive stolidity, by Lorcan Cranitch, is both mentor and imprisoner, a father figure, a male authority delineating the limits of her autonomy while “supporting” her. In one of the most captivating scenes, Shawn and Brennan fight over a passage that he demands that she excise from her story, “The Rose Garden.” Extraordinarily nuanced in its depiction of a young girl’s sense of emergent subjectivity and yearning, the “frozen lake” passage is denounced by Shawn as “hysterical” and he wonders why she can’t return to the containment of her earlier stories. For Brennan, hysterical reads as a code word for “female,” a demand that she suppress representations of feminine subjectivity. The story becomes a battleground over power in the workplace, over ideas of self, over the gendering and material constraints of artistic production.
There are some problems with pacing in the latter third, which slows down and loses its impetus due to too many fragmented, short scenes. The challenge of trying to compact a whole life into a decade becomes apparent here, as in the conclusion, which ends somewhat facilely with the “happy” moment of Brennan’s book publication and seeming recovery. The American accents are muddy at best, and the Irish scenes seem at times too silent, too monolithic. However, as a whole, the script is suffused with the intelligence and humour of Donoghue’s rapid-fire dialogue, as well as the lyricism of Brennan’s prose, and the play is best approached not as a faithful biography of Brennan’s life, but rather as a fascinating reflection on the constraints faced by women writers and on the constitution of women’s identity, as refracted through the different social contexts of New York and Dublin.