Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

Dead Men Talking: Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

Dead Men Talking: Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme

Article excerpt

In a tiny stone church On the desolate headland A lost tribe is singing "Abide With Me." (1)

PYPER: Again. As always, again. Why does this persist? What more have we to tell each other? I remember nothing today. Absolutely nothing. (Silence.) (2)

**********

PROVOKED INTO SPEECH AGAIN, impelled to remember again, an old man begins again. Darkness gives way to a spot-lit bed in which Pyper wakes, in which an actor playing Pyper acts out awakening. He has been here before. He is, and always will be, here at the opening of the play. What becomes of him between performances? What becomes of him, for that matter, during performances? The opening scene of the play marks only a new circuit of repetition for Pyper who once again returns to some nightmare ground and the moment of annihilation of his companions: "Those I belonged to, those I have not forgotten, the irreplaceable ones" (9). He dwells in, to borrow from Walter Benjamin, "homogeneous, empty time," returning at the beginning of the play to the site of catastrophe itself and also to countless repetitions enacted ever since. And this condition of past-present, in equal parts monotonous and urgent, is projected onto a future that has as much to do with time past as with time to come: "There would be, and there will be no surrender. The sons of Ulster will rise and lay their enemy low, as they did at the Boyne, as they did at the Somme" (10). This could be a scene out of Samuel Beckett: an old man disjointedly in, outside, across time--soliloquizing into the dark--unwillingly but ineluctably in speech--bound to repeat the same old story--up against it--amongst the ruins--alone. Not entirely alone as we shall see. He is being watched, observed, and not only by us, the audience. We too are being watched, and not only by him. But where exactly is he? When is or was he? Who is he? He is one who returns: a revenant!

We discover soon enough that the nightmare ground is the Battle of the Somme; that his lost comrades are the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division; that his time and his place are, to keep things straightforward for the moment, present-day "Ulster": "We discourage visitors. Security. Men my age have been burned in their beds. Fenian cowards" (11). And to be sure, McGuinness's play is "about" the condition of present-day Ulster, "about" the unloved and unwanted community called loyalist or unionist, and "about" the sense of betrayal voiced most eloquently by Ian Paisley and Frank McCusker. (3) It is "about" all these, and more. But this "about"--if we take the word as a sign of semantic plenitude--should not for a moment distract us from the play's devastating staging of insubstantiality, of meagerness. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme is--as much as anything produced by Beckett, almost--a theater of attenuation: it is "about" what happens when (you think) everything is taken away from you, when (you think) everything is destroyed. The parentheses indicate caution, because in fact the sky hasn't fallen in yet. Pyper, the last of the sons of Ulster, doesn't realize that. He sees no further than the ruins. And because of this inability to imagine a future anything other than incarcerated by the past, his predicament and that of the community he stands (in) for are in fact much closer to minor farce than the tragic conditions he imagines both himself and that community to be enduring.

And just to complicate matters, Observe the Sons of Ulster is a theater of ghosts. From the opening to the closing moments we are in the company of ghosts, and it is with the implications of this that my essay is chiefly concerned. In various ways I ask the question: what happens when a community is figured as spectral, when even the most substantial elements of a culture are rendered phantasmagoric? It is an obvious question, but yet it has not been asked before--at least not by the many critics of a play that has come to assume a central place in Irish theater. …

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