Illuminating the Margins of History: Non-Realist Motivations in the Work of Thomas Kilroy

By O'Rourke, Peter | DQR Studies in Literature, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Illuminating the Margins of History: Non-Realist Motivations in the Work of Thomas Kilroy


O'Rourke, Peter, DQR Studies in Literature


Through his drama and criticism, Thomas Kilroy has consistently challenged the traditional confines of realist dramaturgy and in doing so has made an invaluable contribution to Irish theatre. Disillusioned with the stagnation of the Irish theatre, he wrote in 1959 of the need to rejuvenate it: his oeuvre is testament to his determination to explore the possibilities of non-realist theatrical representation. As so many of his plays concentrate on historical characters, the focus here will lean towards Kilroy's attitude to the re-enactment of history on stage. In his re-presentation of history Kilroy invariably interrogates received historical facts. Many of the characters he recreates on stage are retrieved from the margins of history; he finally illuminates the forgotten footnotes. In discussing Kilroy's non-realist interpretation of history, this essay will examine his 1997 play The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde, which exemplifies his interest in uncovering marginalized figures as it retells the story of Constance, the wife of the famous Oscar. The play presents the inner dramas of their marriage and shines light on the impact that Oscar's love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas had on Constance. The essay will also look at Blake, a play yet to receive a full production, which Kilroy reworked in 2011. In it, he freely interprets the historical facts of William Blake's life, mythologizing the poet and his wife Catherine. The premise of the play centres on their incarceration in a lunatic asylum, an imaginative intervention not found in historical fact. Like Constance Wilde, Catherine Blake is drawn out in the play as her own individual person, not just the wife of a great artist and poet.

Each of Kilroy's stage plays is unique and freely experiments with theatre. Since his first play, The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche, was performed in 1968, Kilroy has played with a range of theatrical techniques and devices, always pushing the boundaries of the stage. In an article on Brecht, Beckett and William Carlos Williams, Kilroy suggests that naturalistic imitation is one extreme of the theatre, extremes of artifice being at the other end of the scale, and asserts that "the English-speaking theater may be seen in terms of cyclical movements from one such extreme to its opposite":

The realistic in the theater is outward looking, seeking its models beyond the theater itself, in social and political detail and in the processes of human history. The anti-realistic is inward looking and ultimately narcissistic, a retreat into the nature of stage performance, its histrionics, its eurhythmics, its cultivation of pure stage space, autonomous, owing no obligation beyond itself.1

Kilroy advocates a style of theatre that alludes to itself as theatre; he loves the histrionics of performance. His theatre, although always pushing new boundaries, is not "shock-theatre", but rather demonstrates his intellectual influences and knowledge of international drama. Phil Dunne evinces the linkage between Kilroy's non-realistic dramaturgy and his treatment of Irish history:

His stage is sparse, his actors frequently double up, while puppets or cut-outs often replace actors. An always self-aware writer, he has explored, exploded and imploded his empty space in a manner that has been exhilarating and innovative. Irish history has frequently been brought into this space, but always with its clutter and revisionist aspects thoroughly cleared away so that new voices can be heard and new faces seen.2

Kilroy has enjoyed a career as an academic as well as a writer and has thus written extensive drama criticism, and his comments therein help to illuminate his own particular theatrical preferences and go some great distance to explaining his dramaturgical strategies. Although Kilroy's contribution to the Irish canon has long been respected, his work is rarely revived. In April 2011 this lack of recognition was partly redressed by a celebration of his work organized by Trinity College Dublin, at which theatre practitioners, writers, and academics came together to discuss the neglected 1 2 * contribution that Kilroy has made to the Irish theatre. …

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