September 2014        

The first expressionist play in Irish


Expressionism is an art form that developed fully in Germany in the years before the First World War (in painting, poetry and drama) and after the war in German cinema. It arose from a sense of existential fear and a world going out of control.
     Its themes are very often psychological struggle, insanity, and unfathomable forces controlling people’s lives. Mainstream bourgeois aesthetics of outward objectivity are rejected in favour of the aesthetics of ugliness as the way these artists perceived their reality in the build-up for war and following it, right through the 1920s.
     The themes are supported visually by grotesque, angular sets, dark and starkly contrasting lighting, and storms, all expressing inner turmoil. (The expressionist movement’s magazine, from 1910 to 1932, was called Der Sturm—the storm.)
     Liam O’Flaherty spent much of the 1920s in London, in a circle around the German socialist Karl Lahr, who published some of his work, including the first publication of Darkness. German expressionism as a major avant-garde art movement must have been an important influence on this group of artists. Some of O’Flaherty’s novels, for example Mr Gilhooley and The Informer, are very suggestive of German expressionist cinema.
     Dorchadas is the first expressionist play in Irish, and Darkness must be considered certainly among the first expressionist plays by an Irish writer. Although Ireland’s experience was somewhat remote from the central European one, O’Flaherty had had the experience of participating in the First World War, a sense of a world blown apart, and the loss of an earlier sense of cohesion.
     He creates a dark, expressionist atmosphere in his stage directions, in the set (angular, dark, no music) and some gestures required of the characters (for example “Each undergoes a mental change. They are all carried away, differently, into a sort of ecstasy of fear, while they stand that way motionless and aghast”).
     His characters’ names reflect subjective features (merry, dark, proud, beautiful), and the theme is centred on the emotional; the play is not carried forward by a traditional plot line. Another break with tradition is the portrayal of women, indeed in some ways a reversal of conventional roles.
     All this, it seems, was too much for the new representatives and minders of Irish literature. Rather than allowing the people of Ireland to become a part of the European cultural experience, they feared it and wouldn’t have it. Dorchadas was only performed on two nights in Ireland, in 1925; and, although it was never officially banned, it never became part of the repertoire. Darkness has never been performed in Ireland.
     Dorchadas should not be read as an attack on, or misrepresentation of, the people of Árainn. O’Flaherty drew his strength and the beauty of his language from these very people. His nature stories are projections of the way the world should be; and they are steeped in his boyhood experience in the island. Dorchadas, rather, brings Árainn right into the European avant-garde art movement, and adds to this movement the dimension of the rural poor in the west of Ireland.
[JF]

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