Theatricality in Verse: Donagh Macdonagh's Happy as Larry and the Lyric Theatre

By Walsh, Ian R. | DQR Studies in Literature, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Theatricality in Verse: Donagh Macdonagh's Happy as Larry and the Lyric Theatre


Walsh, Ian R., DQR Studies in Literature


Donagh MacDonagh's Happy as Larry is a fascinating theatrical anomaly - a popular modern verse-play. First produced by Austin Clarke's Lyric Theatre Company in 1947 at the Abbey Theatre, it proved a big hit. Following the success of its Dublin run, E. Martin Browne produced the play at his Mercury Theatre in London during September of the same year. Browne's production was a triumph that provided international exposure. In 1950 the play was produced as a Broadway musical by the Hollywood actor Burgess Meredith.1 Building on this achievement MacDonagh went on to write more plays that were all celebrated by critics and audiences alike when first performed.2 Despite such commercial and critical success MacDonagh's plays are now seldom if ever produced and receive little academic attention. One reason for the neglect of these plays could be their verse form. They have been judged on the strength of the verse, according to literary rather than performance criteria.

This article considers MacDonagh's Happy as Larry in terms of performance by examining its dramaturgical experimentation. It shows that a piece of Irish drama from the maligned mid-century period was part of a wider international movement away from realistic mimetic representation toward what Erika Fischer-Lichte has termed the "retheatricalisation of theatre" in the twentieth century.3 Here, theatre progresses from functioning as a model of reality (mimetic representation) toward functioning as a model of a theatrical reality. In such a theatre, reality is no longer presented to the spectator as fixed and objective but rather as a construct that he/she makes. Fischer-Lichte calls this "process of construction" triggered in the spectator "theatricality".4 In its use of these strategies Happy as Larry challenges the accepted notion that Irish drama at mid-century consisted exclusively of conventionalized parochial plays "trapped in a realistic form".5

A brief history of the Lyric Theatre, which produced verse plays throughout this period, further challenges the assumption that the dramatic output of the 1940s in Ireland was slave to a tired conventional style of realism. Robert Hogan, one of the few critics to examine MacDonagh's plays, views the works as performance pieces employing the ballad form in the writing of the verse. Hogan shrewdly observes that the ballad form has intrinsic theatrical qualities: "the short line lengths demand a simplicity of diction, and the simple ballad meters are already so implanted in people's minds that when MacDonagh uses them the memory is jogged into an instant recognition." However, he finds that MacDonagh's verse, while "clear enough for the theatre and not burdened with an abundance of conceits, images, and metaphors which obstruct the forward impulse of a sentence", is often "flat and uninspired".6 D.E.S Maxwell, in an extended footnote on MacDonagh in his A Critical History of Modern Irish Drama, 1891-1980, agrees with Hogan on the quality of the verse:

The language glitters, sinks to doggerel, keeps the audience aware of strong and varied patterns of verse, which sacrifices metaphorical density, though not always an extravagance of words, to clarity of meaning. Clarke and Yeats maneuver around a rich but static lyricism; MacDonagh's verse, readily speakable and intelligible, has a thinness that does not long survive its performance.7

These two brief examinations of MacDonagh's dramatic work both agree that his verse works in performance are "intelligible" to audiences and "speakable" by actors, and in this regard at least the plays are worthy of performance and full of "theatrical potential".8 This was borne out through the several successes of MacDonagh's plays and their revivals, but after his death in 1968, productions of the dramas ceased.

Denis Donoghue observes that the problem of staging verse plays in naturalistic fashion, as has often been the case with T.S. Eliot's later plays, is that "the nearer the thing comes to being a play, with actors who look like real people, the more difficult to sustain radical departures from credible speech". …

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