Thomas Kilroy: The Artist and the Critic

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Every artist is, no doubt, something of a self critic although it does not follow that he / she is gifted with critical analysis. It can be claimed that the best literary critics have always been the poets and writers themselves whereas if Aristotle wrote plays they are now as little known as those of William Archer or James Agate. Some playwrights, notably Dryden, Lessing, Hugo, Shaw, Brecht and Arthur Miller, have written the sort of criticism which illuminates great areas of aesthetic theory and alters the ways in which dramatic form is subsequently understood. But such writings are, surely, less criticism than inspired self-defence.

In relation to a writer such as Thomas Kilroy the usual relation between artist and critic is rendered complex. Not since Daniel Corkery has there been in Ireland such a combination of academic and creative writer. If John Gross had not sounded its death knell some years ago one might have settled for the term 'man of letters' (1) In its place one can substitute no satisfactory description. In the United States the academy accommodates the creative writer within departments other than English, and there it is somewhat unusual for creative writers to engage in reviewing or to write critical essays. Criticism per se, the formal analysis of and discursive commentary on literary texts and topics, tends and perhaps always has tended in America deliberately to separate itself from creative writing. The great days of American literary criticism, dominated by such figures as Cleanth Brooks, Kenneth Burke, Philip Rahv, Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson, are now over; the essay as such is confined to a very few journal s, notably The Sewanee Review and, with a different emphasis, The New York Review of Books. Nowadays criticism is too specialized and too theory-based to allow the flourishing of this older style of what one might call -- with a nod towards Wilde's 'The Critic as Artist' -- creative criticism. To this distinguished Anglo-American tradition Thomas Kilroy can claim allegiance, especially to Lionel Trilling and in the field of dramatic criticism to Eric Bentley. His allegiance nevertheless differs quite sharply from that of Denis Donoghue, for example, his colleague and supervisor at University College Dublin in the nineteen sixties and seventies. Donoghue more clearly has hewn to the Anglo-American tradition, rooting his early work in the examples of Kenneth Burke and Richard Blackmur (among others). The difference lies in Donoghue's total dedication to criticism as subject. Kilroy combined criticism with creative work in fiction and drama, twice resigning his academic position at University College Dublin in o rder to place his creative over his academic writing.

It follows that Thomas Kilroy is a most interesting if not unique case in contemporary Irish writing, whose creative work has always had a singularly academic field energy. That is to say, Kilroy has carved out a position whereby his keen academic mind has persistently provided the basis for his creative work and his creative work reflects the specificity of his academic mind. If this is no more than to assert that the relationship between academic and artist is here symbiotic this in itself is no small matter in the context of Irish writing viewed historically. It may appear to be no more than the common occurrence of schoolteacher turned poet, but it is actually the more unusual and more rare phenomenon: the 'poet' split between academic and creative pursuits whose creativity is actually a procedure achieving wholeness. The critical commentary feeds the creative writing; the creative writing in some sense (to be shown below) dictates the critical commentary.

The first point to be made in illustration is that when Kilroy writes an article or even a book review (2) he not only brings to bear on the theme a seriousness of critical attention eventuating in clarification and interpretation (as any good critic will) but also a clearing of a certain space for his own agenda as a creative writer. …