31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 7: “Dramas” by Edna O’Brien

May 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Lantern Slides

“A writer’s imaginative life commences in childhood,” says Irish novelist, playwright, and short-story writer Edna O’Brien. “All one’s associations and feelings are steeped in it. When you’re young, everything is seen in wonder and detail. I don’t see it as a limitation. So long as the words and the story spring from a true place, that’s all that counts.” For O’Brien, who was born in County Clare in 1932, that true place is Ireland. She has continued to return to the country of her birth in fiction over the course of her long writing career, apparently finding endless inspiration in the people, the attitudes, the mores. Her critics have suggested that her work is mired in an idealized past, a refusal to acknowledge the changing face of Ireland in the late 20th and early 21st centuries but, a certain broad obviousness aside, the kind of intolerance and bigotry O’Brien portrays in her 1989 story “Dramas” is easily recognizable, not only in an Irish setting, but in pretty much any small town the world over.

Like Cheever’s story “The Enormous Radio,” “Dramas” is essentially about hypocrisy. It tells the story of a shopkeeper named Barry who comes to a small Irish village “from the Midlands” and opens a general store in an old, disused bakery. Barry is a lover of the theatre, and is constantly sizing up the townspeople on the basis of the characters they resemble from the classical stage: “although none of us knew precisely what he meant, we would agree when he said, ‘Rosalind, a born Rosalind,’ or, ‘Cordelia, if I ever met one.'” Barry’s ambition is to mount a play in the village, but not Shakespeare because “he feared that, being untrained, the people would not be able to get their tongues around the rhyming verse and would not feel at home in bulky costumes.”

Barry’s assessment of the townsfolk’s relative sophistication points to the disparity between the shopkeeper and his clients. The differences are clear from the moment Barry arrives in town: he has a pony he calls Daisy, “a name unheard of in our circles for an animal.” He replaces the old scales from the bakery with an up-to-date model “that simply registered the weight of a bag of meal and told it by a needle that spun around, wobbling dementedly before coming to a standstill.” His store stocks “ten different flavoured jellies and more than one brand of coffee.” He refers to biscuits as “bikkies” and cigarettes as “ciggies.”

The villagers, meanwhile, are “suspicious” of Barry’s theatrical leanings; “they did not want plays about dead birds and illegitimate children, or unhappy couples tearing at each other, because they had these scenarios aplenty.” Marital discord and sexual infidelity are not foreign to the village but, as is the case with most small towns, these things are kept carefully concealed behind the curtain of decorum and respectability. There is irony in Barry’s decision to eschew Shakespeare and Chekhov and instead mount “something more suitable, something that the people could identify with”: it is the very fact that the people in the town can readily identify with subjects such as tragic predestination and familial strife that arouses their distrust.

Instead, Barry decides, “wisely,” to put on “a simple play about wholesome people and wholesome themes, such as getting the harvest in quickly.” In addition to papering over the fractures and tensions that run through the town, this decision foregrounds a condescending attitude on the part of the new shopkeeper. Barry harbours the notion that the citizens of the town are yokels who do not possess the sophistication to comprehend the great dramatic works of the Western canon. Although this is probably untrue, his conception of the townsfolk’s limitations does appear to be an accurate reflection of a particular kind of unrealized aspiration. The young first-person narrator’s mother, for instance, “would have loved to have been rich, to entertain, to give lunch parties and supper parties, to show off the linen tablecloths and the good cutlery which she had Vaselined over the years to keep the steel from rusting.” It is frustration at a kind of societal paralysis, not an inability to comprehend great works of literature, that afflicts the townspeople.

There is also, however, a deep strain of conservatism, which finds full expression when Barry invites an actor and his “friend,” Ivan, to visit. Early on in the story, the narrator informs us that when Barry goes to the city for supplies, he always picks up one or two plays, which he performs in his shop, “himself acting the parts, the men’s and the women’s.” The narrator is a young girl who is far from worldly: it would not occur to her why it should be that Barry “was very convincing when he acted the women or the girls.”

As readers, however, we understand what is implied here and, in case we were in any doubt, O’Brien provides us with a balcony scene in which Barry, the actor, and Ivan, all in drag, recite Shakespeare and make increasingly lewd comments to the scandalized crowd beneath. This scene is a misstep: the characterization of the three flamboyant men comes too close to rendering them caricatures of mincing homosexuals. When the actor leans over the balcony and gestures with a rolled-up scroll to a man he has “taken a liking to,” saying, “It’s bigger than that, darling,” the broad sexual humour falls flat. Much more subtle is the moment in which the actor utters what the young narrator calls “something awful.” He quotes Oscar Wilde – a famously gay playwright – referring to the marriage bed as “the couch of lawful lust.” Although the full import of this observation goes unremarked upon, Wilde’s comment neatly skewers the hypocrisy of the townspeople who pretend moral outrage at the antics of the three men, all the while maintaining an unacknowledged familiarity with subjects such as “illegitimate children, or unhappy couples tearing at each other.”

O’Brien’s mode in this story is comic, but her climactic scene veers too far into the realm of the bedroom farce to entirely satisfy. Nevertheless, as a portrait of small-town pretense and intolerance, “Dramas” is ultimately effective. The final image of the narrator watching as Barry is taken away “like a criminal” has a powerful resonance: “He looked so abject that I had to look away and instead concentrated my gaze on the shop window, where the weighing scales, the ham slicer, and all the precious commodities were like props on an empty stage.”

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