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Everyone delights in representation. We find the proof of this in everyday experience, for those very things which are distressing to see in real life, such as malformed beasts and corpses, we enjoy looking at when they are accurately portrayed.Aristotle, Poetics

2300 years ago, Aristotle expressed a profound truth about theatre. When we witness other people in the grip of powerful emotions like terror, anger, and grief, we feel mirroring emotions of pity or fear, and we respond physiologically: the heart speeds up, the breathing quickens, tears sting the eyes, and we tremble. In real life, such episodes are painful. In the theatre, an this type of experience is rare, but when it happens, it is transcendent. Mark O’Rowe’s new play Our Few and Evil Days, which premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on Sept. 5, is a case in point.

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Ciarán Hinds as Michael and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Dennis in “Our Few and Evil Days.” Click for source (Dublin Theatre Festival).

O’Rowe’s last play, Terminus (2007), aimed at a very different effect borne of verbal artistry and phantasmagoric evocation. It is a series of monologues, and its pleasures are the pleasures of storytelling: vivid, shocking imagery, unexpected twists, romance in the classic sense, and richly satisfying, poetic language. Our Few And Evil Days, O’Rowe’s first play for the Abbey main stage, could hardly be more different in its formal qualities. It is a traditional dialogue play with five characters, written in a spare, naturalistic style and presented in a what looks like a modern-day, middle class home.

The Awkwardness of the Situation

We aren’t accustomed to natural speech on the page or the stage. Real conversations involve interruptions, pauses, clarifications and repetitions which literary convention filters out, and for good reason. The technical challenge of a realistic style is to achieve verisimilitude without allowing the characteristics of real speech to become distracting. In the second scene, Dennis tells his girlfriend Adele’s parents how he and Adele met:

DENNIS: …There were plenty of good-looking girls there, actually…
MARGARET: Right.
DENNIS: …But Adele was more, I dunno… on top of her looks, by the way, which, I’d say, were the equal of any of theirs…
MARGARET: Oh, so would I.
DENNIS: …Easily.
ADELE: You’re so good.
MARGARET: More what?
DENNIS: Sorry?
MARGARET: Adele was more what?
DENNIS: More real, I suppose.
MARGARET: More real.
DENNIS: …or herself.
MICHAEL: So, she gave you her number…
MARGARET: That’s lovely, actually.

In this bit of dialogue, Margaret is a couple of beats behind, because she’s thinking about what Dennis is saying. It’s exactly the kind of thing that happens in real conversations, but it is not often heard on the stage. It’s risky: it has the potential to confuse or annoy the audience, and it requires great technical skill of the actors. How ironic that what comes naturally when we are interacting in daily life should be so challenging to reproduce artificially. The realism of the script is matched by that of the environment the characters inhabit, modern-day Dublin. We hear about Trinity College, Mulligan’s and O’Donoghue’s, Brown and Thomas, and the DART. The set is a lovingly detailed kitchen and living room, with working lights and faucets, real soap at the sink, and butter in the refrigerator.

All this realism is not necessarily a good in itself. It works through contrast: the realistic speech and setting are used to convey a story of mythic power. This is not an “Irish story,” but a human story. It tells of unspeakable secrets within a family, facts that are shocking, yet truth be told, not so rare as to be unrecognizable. In the end, the power of the play lies not in its sensational secrets, but in how the characters have coped with them, day after day and year after year. The title, Our Few And Evil Days, refers to the moment in Genesis when Pharaoh asks Jacob his age. Jacob replies, “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life.” Sir Thomas Browne used the exact phrase when he wrote that the human condition is one of suffering, and yet we survive: To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions. But in this play, O’Rowe explores lives lived in a sorrow that is ever-present and raw with repetition.

The House You’re In

Dennis asks how long they have lived in their house, and Michael replies that he remembers Margaret crying when they moved in, over thirty years ago:

DENNIS: Why were you crying?
MARGARET: Well… it wasn’t exactly in the condition it is now, Dennis…
MICHAEL: Far from it.
MARGARET: …you know?
MICHAEL: I remember spending weeks, weeks now, scraping wallpaper off the walls, five, six layers stuck on with, I don’t know what…
DENNIS: Superglue.
MICHAEL: Yeah, exactly. And filthy!

The set created by Paul Wills for Our Few And Evil Days reflects the play’s distinctive blend of realism and myth. The Abbey proscenium has been moved forward and framed in black with a low ceiling that gives the impression of looking into a neighbor’s window. The set is rich in the mundane details of a comfortable home. [For excellent set photos, go here and scroll down.]

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The window-like set of the play during a standing ovation on Oct. 7. Click for source.

Yet this home is oddly impersonal and tidy. There is no clutter, no knick-knacks or mementos, not one family picture. Together with the cream-frosted windows (a non-realistic detail that makes the space feel sealed and enclosed), the muted green walls and deep brown wood of the set suggest the dark, shadowy forest of the mind’s deepest recesses, a place where the ornamental “wallpaper” of consciousness has been stripped away.

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The cover shot for the script. Photography by Sarah Doyle for Zero-G. Click for source.

But when these calamities happen among friends, when for instance brother kills brother, or son father, or mother son, or son mother—either kills or intends to kill, or does something of the kind, that is what we must look for. –Aristotle, Poetics

Like Sophocles’ Oedipus The King, OFED is a “climax” play in which the key events have taken place many years before the scene is set. The climax, or revelation of these events to Adele, the daughter of the house, is set in motion when her new boyfriend Dennis visits her parents. By the end of the play, many a truth is spoken, but not every truth is heard. Yet only the audience understands the full picture. Even Margaret, the person who seems to know the most, falls short of grasping it. Oedipus famously observed that when he had eyes, he could not see the truth. Margaret has ears, but she cannot hear, though the message is nightly repeated.

The matter of the plot, a mother’s inability to recover from the loss of her child, has been treated before. In Ciarán Hinds’ work alone we could cite the same theme in Thursday the 12th, L’amante perduto, and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. In this play, however, an unexpected variation on the theme gives it resonance and originality. The natural genre for this material is the Greek drama. While the plot hints of Sophocles, the realistic language, nuanced characters and dark outlook are most reminiscent of Euripides. O’Rowe shares Euripides’ interest in female psychology and character, a quality lacking in the work of contemporaries Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh.

Do I Look Like I Went To College?

As Michael, the father-figure, Ciarán Hinds inhabits the set with the physical confidence and expansive masculinity of a man ensconced in the castle he has built. He speaks with the Dubliner’s distinctive “you’s” and “Jaysus,” and sits with legs spread wide in his customary chair, or extends them full length alongside the kitchen table. Michael is a working-class man who never went to college, but married his heart’s desire, a woman he had thought was out of his reach. Every morning, in a ritual we at first do not understand, he comes downstairs and tenderly awakens his wife, who sleeps in the sofa bed. After she dons her dressing gown and goes upstairs, he puts away the bottle of Jameson’s and rinses her glass, then folds up the bed and takes the linens to the utility room.

Michael

Lobby card with Ciarán Hinds as Michael.

Margaret (Sinéad Cusack) speaks in an accent that is more cultivated than Michael’s, but not posh. She adjusts her skirt about her knees when she sits on the couch, and graciously handles all matters to do with the kitchen, refusing Dennis’ offer of help. It is seemingly a traditional marriage: Michael is the breadwinner, and Margaret the genteel homemaker. Yet the pair do not share a bed, in spite of their obvious intimacy and affection for one another.

Margaret

Lobby card: Sinéad Cusack as Margaret.

At thirty, their daughter Adele (Charlie Murphy) is a modern woman, forthright and insistent on having her say. She won’t allow men to interrupt her. She has anger, and why not? She has lived her life in the dark, “protected” from the truth and troubled by disturbing childhood memories. In spite of her assertive manner, she has always been frightened by her father’s overt masculinity, and his firm belief that certain fellas “could do with a bit of a hiding,” a punitive measure which he occasionally feels the need to administer personally.

Adele

Lobby card: Charlie Murphy as Adele.

The acting in this production is so realistic, so full of conviction, that it has a physical impact on the audience. Three times during the play, O’Rowe puts a man and woman together in a scene of overwhelming emotion, where you wonder whether he’s going to lay violent hands on her. Each time I watched these scenes, despite having read the play beforehand, I felt as though anything could happen, as though I was witnessing the events for the first time. I saw the play three times, and each time, two scenes caused people around me to weep: one between Sinéad Cusack and Charlie Murphy (Margaret and Adele), and one between Ms. Cusack and Ciarán Hinds (Margaret and Michael). In the hands of lesser actors, the nature of this material might cause people to reject the work as melodrama. Instead, it is a harrowing but ultimately satisfying exploration of the human need to give and receive love.

Spoiler Warning: The remainder of this essay is intended for those who have seen the play or who don’t mind spoilers. 

Was He A Bad Kid?

The realistic language of Our Few And Evil Days is balanced by structural and thematic symmetries that give it the feel of a Classical drama. It is tightly constructed of two acts, each comprised of three scenes. In each scene, characters are conversing when the lights suddenly fade to black, just after significant words have been spoken.

[Michael tells Dennis that Adele went to college.]
DENNIS: Yes.
MICHAEL (to MARGARET): Which we’re pretty proud of, right?
MARGARET: Absolutely.
DENNIS: And her brother?
MARGARET: Sorry?
DENNIS: Did he?
MICHAEL: Her brother?!
DENNIS: Yeah. (Pause.) Did Adele not say she had a brother?
MICHAEL: Oh, did she?
DENNIS: Why, does she not?
Black.

At the heart of the play is the fate of Jonathan, Adele’s emotionally disturbed brother who ran away when he was 11, and was never found. Invited to spend the night after Adele leaves to minister to a needy friend, Dennis unexpectedly encounters Margaret downstairs, where the sofa bed has duly been made up. He initiates a conversation about Jonathan.

DENNIS: And was he a bad kid?
MARGARET: What do you mean?
DENNIS: No, just you were saying that you were often angry at him.
MARGARET: We were.
DENNIS: And, so…
MARGARET: He had problems, though, Dennis. He wasn’t “bad.”

Margaret describes Jonathan as a child who did malicious, destructive things. Whether Jonathan was “bad” in the eyes of his mother is an important, even a central question. In the middle of Act Two, Margaret reveals to a horrified Adele that on the night he disappeared, Jonathan had sexually assaulted her while she was drunkenly semi-conscious on the sofa bed:

ADELE: I don’t believe it.
MARGARET: Adele…
ADELE: I know he was bad, but…
MARGARET: Yes.
ADELE: Huh?
MARGARET: You know he was bad.

Margaret’s ambivalence about whether Jonathan was “bad” reveals a dynamic in which Jonathan’s escalating episodes of “badness” could be read as attempts to capture his mother’s attention, as desperate cries for help. Instead, his behavior alienated her— until the tragic night of his disappearance, when (we gather) Michael discovered him in the act of raping Margaret.

I Think I Can Heal You

Sinead Cusack and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in Our Few and Evil Days at Abbey theatre, Dublin

Margaret (Sinéad Cusack) has a midnight encounter with Dennis (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor). Click for source (Guardian.com)

Dennis (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a sweetly awkward electrician who has gone back to college, at first seems the perfect boyfriend for Adele. He takes it well when Adele unexpectedly sends him to meet her parents on his own while she tends to her best friend Belinda, who has fallen into a sudden crisis over an abusive boyfriend. In a move that shocks the audience, Dennis suddenly confesses to Margaret that, in fact, he approached Adele only so that he could get to her. He’s been in love with her for a year and a half, ever since he comforted her in a pub after she broke down in a spasm of grief over Jonathan. The scene invariably causes nervous laughter in the audience, who alternate between pity and scorn for the pathetic Dennis: he’s in love with a woman old enough to be his mother, another man’s wife who clearly has no interest in him, yet his infatuation is so powerful that he must speak.

DENNIS: I think I can heal you.
MARGARET: Heal me?
DENNIS: Yes.
MARGARET: Of what?
DENNIS: Your sadness.
MARGARET: Jesus Christ. (Beat.) I can’t be healed.
DENNIS: I think you can. In your present circumstances you can’t, but I think you can.
MARGARET: My present circumstances.
DENNIS: Yes.
MARGARET: Meaning what?
DENNIS: The man you’re with… no offence to him; the house you’re in…

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is best known for his role as a gang member in the Irish crime drama Love/Hate, so Dublin audiences are taken aback to see him as Dennis, a good man whose grief at the loss of his mother to cancer has inexplicably rebounded in the form of an overwhelming passion for Margaret.

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Tom Vaughan-Lawlor. From the “Howie the Rookie” website. Click to visit there.

There’s something ridiculous about Dennis, who suggests in all seriousness to the disgusted Margaret that she run away with him, and that if they could only “do it” once, Margaret —and by implication, Dennis himself— might be healed. Yet there is also a grain of truth in Dennis’ insistent claims that Margaret is trapped in her house and her grief. When Margaret explains, firmly but with compassion, that what he wants will never happen, his body seems to collapse on itself in a paroxysm of humiliation and frustrated need, and he suddenly loses control:

DENNIS: Just decide to love me. (Pause.) Why can’t you do that?
MARGARET: (Pause.) I….
DENNIS: Why can’t you just decide to love me?
Black.

The Deepest Terror

Act Two begins with Adele answering the door to Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), Belinda’s abusive boyfriend. It is immediately after Belinda’s funeral, and Gary asks Adele to go for a drink with him. His excuse is that he wants to talk about Belinda, since he never had a hint that she was depressed, and he’s finding it hard to cope. Gary’s dumbfounding callousness ignites a storm of recriminations from Adele.

ADELE: She told me how you demeaned her…
GARY: Demeaned her?
ADELE: Yes.
GARY: I…
ADELE: Every chance you got. She told me about your lies, your constant…
GARY: My…
ADELE: …your manipulations… I heard it all from her, Gary.
GARY: Adele…
ADELE: I heard about the things you made her do.
GARY: What things?
ADELE: (Beat.) You know what I’m talking about.
GARY: Listen to me…
ADELE: She fucking despised them.

At first, Gary denies the charges. Everything he and Belinda did was consensual, he insists. But when Adele points out that Belinda only did the humiliating things he asked because she was terrified of losing him, Gary eventually admits the truth:

GARY: Sometimes a person loves another person so much and needs that love returned, so much, that they, yes, they mistreat that person. You know why?
ADELE: Why?
GARY: And this is me, I’m saying. Well, because, deep inside, they don’t believe they’re worthy.

People in this situation feel compelled to test, to confirm the other person’s love, over and over again. Belinda, we learn, had loved Gary so deeply that she “proved it a thousand times” before Gary’s final, unbearable request caused her to end her own life.

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Ian Lloyd Anderson looking much as he did in the play as “Gary.” Click for source: Ian’s Twitter account.

Dennis and Gary are both avatars of Jonathan. Audiences quickly grasp the parallelism between Dennis and Margaret’s lost son, and they suspect that Dennis might be Jonathan grown up and returned after twenty years. But Gary is an equally likely alternative for the man Jonathan might have become: sociopathic, manipulative and abusive, preying on a woman who loves him and squeezing her dry like the spent half of an orange— all in the name of healing the chasm of fear inside him, the unbearable fear that he doesn’t deserve to be loved.

Disgusted with Gary, Adele sends him off, but his parting shot, “You’re a fucking cunt, Adele,” is overheard by Michael, just entering from the back yard. For Michael, such an affront, especially when delivered in his own house, to his own daughter, requires a physical response, which he unhesitatingly delivers. But Adele is not gratified by this show of paternal force. She’s convinced that Michael is “responsible” for Dennis’ sudden refusal to see her, that he must have run Dennis off. Soon enough the deeper source of her anger emerges:

ADELE: Where is he? What did you do to him?
MICHAEL: Jesus.
ADELE: What did you do to him? What did you do to Jonathan?
MICHAEL: (Beat.) Jonathan?!
ADELE: What did you do to my brother?
MICHAEL: (Pause.) Adele…
ADELE: Tell me!
MICHAEL:… darling…
ADELE: Tell me what you did to my brother!
Black.

This Pathetic Little Thing

The second scene of Act Two is a climactic scene of revelation between mother and daughter, in which Adele confesses her fear that her father killed Jonathan all those years ago, and Margaret in turn reveals what Jonathan did to her. Just before the rape, she heard Jonathan speaking:

ADELE: Saying what?
MARGARET: I don’t know. He was asking me something.
ADELE: But you don’t know what it was.
MARGARET: Well, I wasn’t awake.
ADELE: Oh, right.

The raised voices, the pleading, the sobbing, the cursing that 9-year old Adele heard downstairs that night were real, and they led Jonathan to run away from home. Adele is shocked, yet relieved, and she shares a memory of Jonathan, of the time the family were crab-fishing and Michael caught a “pathetic little thing that had only a single arm.” Jonathan, she says, “didn’t want to put it in the bucket because he was terrified that they’d tear it apart.” So he threw it back into the sea, but as he did, a seagull came and plucked it from the air. Adele asks twice whether Margaret remembers this, but she doesn’t, not at all. What Adele remembers best is that Jonathan looked at his mother, at the moment the crab was taken:

ADELE: But, yeah… (Beat.) So, there was this sort of expectation in his face as well, as if… I don’t know, as if he was waiting to see how you’d react before he did.
Pause.
Black.

With the wallpaper and the sofa bed, the crab is one of the three ruling images of the play. Jonathan, who believed that he himself was “missing something,” watched for his mother’s reaction to his own symbolic death, yet for her, the event held no meaning.

How I Feel About You

When representing people who are hot-tempered or lazy, or have other such traits of character, [the playwright] should make them such, yet men of worth. –Aristotle, Poetics

That evening, Margaret tells Michael that Adele knew more than they thought. But she has managed to persuade Adele that her suspicion of what happened that night —that in his anger, Michael hit Jonathan too hard— was wrong. Once again, her parents have shielded Adele from the truth, that Michael killed his own son. In Michael’s world, a man protects his family and his hearth against anyone and anything that threatens the inner circle. By crossing the line he did, Jonathan placed himself outside the circle of that protection. By attacking the thing Michael held sacred above all, he made himself the enemy.

The revelation is not unexpected. The power of the scene lies elsewhere, in Michael and Margaret’s discussion of their circumstances. Each tests the waters, afraid that the other has tired of the marriage after twenty years of keeping the secret. He fears that she despises and hates him for taking her son from her. She fears that he is unhappy, and resentful about the terms of their marriage, the fact that she doesn’t sleep with her husband, that she cannot —not ever— spend a night away from the house:

MICHAEL: You’d rather endure what he does to you…
MARGARET: Michael…
MICHAEL: …night after night…
MARGARET: I hate what he does to me, Michael.
MICHAEL: I know.
MARGARET: I fucking hate it. But, yes, I’d suffer a thousand times worse, you know I would, a thousand times worse, than risk never seeing him again.

In the Oedipal conflict between father and son, the dead Jonathan has permanently supplanted his father in the marriage bed. Just like Gary’s put-upon girlfriend Belinda, Margaret is doomed to submit to this violation every night, because if she doesn’t, she might lose him forever. In the play’s final moment, the spectral Jonathan will appear to a sleeping Margaret to ask the question Dennis asked, a question she is never able to hear and respond to: Why don’t you love me?

And yet, as grim as the situation is, in the terrible sadness of Michael and Margaret’s life together, there is a hint of redemption. Unlike Belinda, and unlike Oedipus’ mother Jocasta, Margaret does not contemplate suicide, because she’s not alone. And Michael stays with her, not as some sort of penance for his crime, but for quite another reason:

MARGARET: Any rea…you know, reasonable description of our marriage as a marriage stopped being accurate years ago.
MICHAEL: Not for me.
MARGARET: Ah, Michael.
MICHAEL: Seriously. Or at least, not in how I feel about you.
MARGARET: How do you feel about me?
MICHAEL: I fucking love you, of course. (Beat.) I love you. More than I ever did, so how could I leave you? Why would I want to leave you?
MARGARET: I don’t know.
MICHAEL: What sense would it make? I can’t live without you.

What stays with us as we leave the theatre is not the final shocking appearance of Jonathan, but Margaret’s parting words to Michael, before he goes upstairs to bed:

MARGARET: I love you too. Also more than I ever did.

She reaches up and touches his cheek with her hand. They kiss.

This essay copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss. Excerpts from OUR FEW AND EVIL DAYS copyright © 2014 by Mark O’Rowe are reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Nick Hern Books: http://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk. No re-use or performance of these excerpts may take place without a licence from the publisher.