The Bald Primaqueera

It is fitting and typical of Sean O’Casey that his last work, this essay on the theater of decay and despair, should be more than a polemic . It is a vigorous affirmation that life is worth living from a great playwright whose own early work set off a riot in a Dublin theater and was called “sewage .”Mr. O’Casey wrote the article a few weeks before his death last September at the age of eighty-four.

BY SEAN O’CASEY

OH, DON’T tarnish the memory of the marvelous play we’ve just seen. Let not your heart be troubled, nothing ridiculous can linger longer so. Let us steep and seep our souls in the gospel, the last gospel according to Artaud.

Artaud! Artaud!
Pounding a play to a wordless thesis,
Beating up life into bloody pieces,
An’ the birds of Swan Lake to a gaggle of geeses.
Artaud 1
Cut down the ivy, hack down the holly,
Life is sure gruesome, death is most jolly,
Keep the axe poised over Pineapple Polly.
Artaud!
Rape, murder, and suicide for brave British writers,
And a kicking to hell for the song-singing blighters.
Artaud ! Artaud!
For man is a louse and woman’s a folly,
An’ the way to the grave’s the way that is jolly,
So hack down the ivy and burn up the holly,
So into black urns with each Mick and his Molly,
An’ keep the axe poised over Pineapple Polly.
Artaud!

There are mild Mabels among the axemen, those of calmer and more civilized propulsions, who rarely go further than marauding invasions into bedroom curiosities, and spectroscope probing into the mysteries of the toilet, the lavatory, or the water closet, according to the more or less refinements of the several writers of the several plays.

There was a play done on B.B.C. television in which a man and woman visiting a couple met in the hall, came up together, and exchanged remarks when they had settled down on chairs, one making himself known to the lady, explaining that he lived in a certain road, to be surprised by the lady saying that she lived there too, adding that it was “a remarkable coincidence” followed by the coincidence of living in the same house, the same floor of the house, the same flat on the same floor, the same bedroom in the same flat, the same bed in the same room. All just coincidence, variously called “Marvelous, Amazing, Extraordinary, Astonishing, and Tremendous.” Seeing that though they came so close together in so many ways, even to his, presumably, mounting her while they were in bed together, yet could never become acquainted, they were persons of very poor power of observation.

Then in the midst of the coincidences came the climax — a maidservant slipped forward to tell the audience that she had bought a chamber pot, and in the production of this play, as a suitable coat of arms for it, a chamber pot was planted in the stage center, plump and ferocious, in plain view of the audience, their rosy faces trying to keep calm and look ahead as if they had seen nothing. It was the consecration of the house. Apart from being oldfashioned, the chamber pot is almost nonexistent now. It used to be the third piece in a set of three for a bedroom, the ewer, the basin, and the pot, in the upper-class and middle-class homes in the day of my youth, but times and new dispositions displaced them from favor, and now it would be hard to spot them, even in an old-fashioned junk shop. Apart from this, these peering, leering playwrights have no natural or supernatural license to jeer at these essential bodily practices. None of them is the mental and physical outcome of an immaculate conception. Each has a mortal button on his belly.

These are the pacifist Freudians of the Theater, who see sex in a rain cloud, the way a spoon is used, and the way one holds a knife and fork. These, too, are half brothers with the daredevil Horrorhawks of the theater of murder, rape, and cruelty, and all are arm in arm with the theater of the absurd. As Minerva is said to have sprung from the head of Jupiter, so these playwrights seem to claim they have jumped from the head of Freud, a shocking mishap to happen to anyone. They dibble and dabble in their plays with the Freudian faculties, turning them into neurotic fixatives and erotic fribbles and frabbles of their own. There must be some Freudian reason for their frequent leering, sneering among the lower depths of the human body. To them a body is a vile body, and it is nothing more. The Christian Church nourished and nursed this idea, aiming at getting out of the body to be present with the Lord. The idea didn’t work, and it doesn’t work now — except among a lot of playwrights, busy now making the mind worse than the body. The comic thing is that their plays declare that they know little or nothing about either. Psychology and psychoanalysis are sciences, life studies, and cannot be acquired by just reading a book at bedtime. Freud spent his life studying the human mind, yet at the end admitted he had learned little about it.

Yet a lot of these boyos sit in the minds of their characters like a spider in a web center, noting every vibration and agitation in their characters, as if, like the spider, they themselves had woven the mysterious and multi-multiple web of the human brain. Freud knew the first thing about it, but these know the first and last about it. Each is in his own swollen ego the Alpha and Omega in the knowhow of the whole psychological nature of man, the peak of mammals, yet scientists are now studying the psychology of captive animals, in relation to their food and habits, and they aren’t finding it as easy as kiss hands.

Do they know much more about the body which they so often abuse by sneer and snarl in their plays? It is odd that the body from the waist down should be used as a gibe in the plays of so many present-day playwrights. It would seem that they resent being endowed with a belly. They seem to regard it as an unnatural and unwarranted degradation. They don’t relish the idea of having to carry a basement department with them; they refuse to admit that the lower story is just as wonderful as the upper one, that there can be no apartheid here, for the upper, lower, and middle body, brain, and mind are one unified whole.

It is the middle parts of fortune which hold the golden issues of life, all our wealth of great minds through the ages, in art, science, literature, music, and great and small buildings, all have to make their first passage to life through the belly, and the clash together of complementary bellies has given the world a bewildering mass of wonderful animation in hand and head, with many more to come, all giving problems that keep hands and heads busy trying to keep things steady, shipshape, and cheerful.

IT WAS Artaud — the latest trumpeter of the Primaqueeri — or one of his brethren, who gave us a picture of a beautiful girl, naked, with a malignant tarantula spider between her lovely thighs. An ugly guardian for the seat of life, a vision that could only be seen by a savage Primaqueera — one who is thinking he is looking through a lens which reflects back into the mind of the onlooker, showing that this tarantula spider is squatting, not between the lovely thighs of a woman, but in the searcher’s skull, weaving its tendrils in and out of the web of his brain. It is an opposite vision seen by Peter Keegan in Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island, but is, too, the vision of a madman. All the greatness of man in wealth of science, art, literature, human healing, the fire of vision, the urge of effort have come in a little life from between the thighs of a woman. Such writers blaspheme against humanity, for even the tarantula spider has its place in nature, and in its own haunts is harmless to man.

These fellows rarely mention animals, and when they do, they make them as horrible as they make men and women. None of these Primaqueera playwrights seem to like either beast or blossom. When they do mention any, they seem to give them a sinister or savage symbolism. A travesty on the old and charming tale of Androcles and the Lion told us that when the lion and his master had gone through their romance in the arena of Rome, and they were returning home at night in the dark, with the busy streets empty and still, the lion turned on Androcles, rent him to pieces, and ate the poor bugger up, leaving not a wrack behind. Another story tells us of a fellow absorbing the nature of a dog; not a gay dog, but one apparently on the way to madness. Now, a mad one is no more a true dog than a poor demented person is a true human being. Soon there will be no necessity for a da to buy his daughter a bowwow, bowwow, for with little effort, apparently, he can become one, and a fierce one, too. Ionesco, the playwright, tries to show us men and women turning into rhinoceroses, with but one man left opposing the Mutt a - morphosis. Funny, this, for while there is no fear of the rhinoceros exterminating man, man has to engage in a feverish fight to keep a few of these strange and remarkable animals alive. There is no fear of our turning into rhinoceroses, but there is a possible chance, if these playwrights get their way, of our all turning into Ionescos, a more terrible fate still. Hitchcock is the latest champion in the fray, but he, in a film, gives the venom and the violence to the birds. Our feathered friends become our spear-beaked enemies according to the talk I’ve heard around me. The birds (very different from those imagined by Aristophanes) set themselves to overthrow the dominance of the human family; to pierce and rend them as the frenzied women of Thebes tore their king, Pentheus, to pieces for ignoring and mocking the power and divinity of the god Bacchus. Euripides was bad enough, but he rent but one man, and him for blasphemy against a god. The present literary group, in their work in drama, novel, poem, and film, seem to revel in the sending of all men, mentally and physically, to act like Shakespeare’s wanton boys with flies. They get sport out of it all. They want to be the avant-garde gods. They are a kinda requiem get-together group, and there dare not be any sing-along Saturday in their poem or play.

THE most recent addition to the dark stars that have swum into the sky of English dramatic literature is the play Afore Night Comes. The scene is a pear orchard on the outskirts of the Black Country. A group of casual laborers gather the fruit under the direction of a bluff, harassed foreman deficient in power of command. Into their midst wanders an outsider — a scrofulous, defeated, defiant, cringing, elderly Irishman, Roche, a lazy visionary who offends and frightens the rest. They kill him, decapitate him, bury him, and go their ways in the dusk.

As among the denizens of these dark stars, this latest one, too, has a psychopath and a homo. The other personae gratae are ignorant and stupid country laborers. They are busy gathering a pear harvest, and they are backed by three pear trees placed so as to be a symbol (it is said) of the Crucifixion, and the murder of the Irish tramp is said to be encased or enthroned on or in a Ritual.

We read that after the scrounger had been polished off, the rhapsodic laborers beheaded him with a hayfork. A playful little group, certcs! Clever, too, to be able to behead any mother’s son with a hayfork. What is a hayfork doing at the gathering of fruit anyway? Fruit is gathered from the trees with the prongs on a hand, not by those on a hayfork. It is said that the play is partly naturalistic, partly documentary. I have watched the gathering of plum and cherry, but never saw a hayfork used in the work. The trees were lofty, fifteen to twentyfive feet high, and they were clustered with fruit. Indeed, the men and I were already treading on fallen plums, and among these sappy ruins lay several blackbirds and some smaller birds I couldn’t identify. Against two of the trees were odd-looking ladders, splaying out at the base, narrowing as they mounted, till they tapered almost to a point at the top, so that they could easily be thrust through the higher branches and placed so that the pickers would have the widest possible radius for the reach of their arms and gather all the fruit within touch of them. It was a job of skill, needing quick and flexible hands and delicate fingers so that the fruit in its plucking and its deposit in the basket might never be bruised. No clumsy, stupid worker could do it, for it required an intelligence far above that embodied in the nature of the primitive man who selected one to be a god for a season and then slew him so that the pieces of the body be scattered over the fields in honor of the Corn God and so ensure a plenteous harvest for the coming year. Ritual of any kind isn’t a haphazard thing! It always has a custom, a reason in the background — a ritual in the churches, on Remembrance Day, the ritual of Freemasonry, the ritual of the old music hall! —but here we have neither rhyme nor reason for it. This sacrifice of a victim seems to me to have nothing to do with any pagan rite described in The Golden Bough, but to have been the act of a group of psychomaniac maniacs.

The strangest thing of all is the foolish and hateful way in which playwrights and critics regard the farm workers as ignorant, stupid, and given to ferocity. It is an odd contemplation of the country worker, and could be very questionable if it were not ridiculous. Even in my early days, although the field workers were often ignorant in the ways of formal education, they were never stupid, were highly intelligent as far as the farming knowledge of the time went, and had a great deal of natural knowledge. They had none of the gaudy or gorgeous knowledge of the higher airs within them, but they were well versed in the knowledge of the good earth they husbanded, of the earth that gave us life and provides the wherewithal to maintain it. They knew the odd ways of the sky, the clouds, the wind, and the rain, the ways of the Farmer’s Boy, and all the ways of the things around them, the fields, the animals, wild and domestic, the trees, the silent turmoil that went on in hedge and pond, and all this made them one with the most remarkable mysteries of life. Under conditions which would be dreadful to the farm worker today, this harassed folk reared up sturdy children ; thousands of them followed the drum to widen Britain’s empire, dotting foreign fields with their dead from Crécy to Tel el Kebir.

To say that these were stupid and brutal, if said seriously, is a bare and malignant lie. These fellows with their women have given us over the centuries a rich heritage of folk music, lore, and song which could never have been composed by the brutal, ignorant, and the stupid. Yet today, when the farm workers arc more alert, well up in general education, firmly organized in a sturdy union, are mechanics of a sort, dealing with complicated machines, in this play they are presented as a group of savage and senseless thugs. Even in Chaucer’s day there were good reasons for the peasants’ anger, defiance, and rough usage of a few nobles during their great revolt against intolerable conditions and the deprivations made on their scant possessions by landlord and parson whenever the head of a family died! But even here there was no ritualistic nonsense when a pike speared a body or a billhook slashed at a head ! Nor are there accounts of these goings-on by the rude “mechanicals” during the time Spenser wrote his The Shepheardes Calender and Shakespeare set down the rough-and-ready manners of the country folk, ignorant but vivid beings whom he knew so well and loved so much. Nor can it be safely alleged that the persecution of what were called “witches,” mostly women, was ritualistic. It was the nobility and the learned of the land who used to condemn these poor beings to the stake. Yet on the possible happenings of this play a critic has said, “The play is unbelievable, yet somehow, unbelievably, makes the unbelievable real. In the end it is inevitable that the menacing outsider must be killed by the group.” We need time to tease all this out. In such circumstances of fruit-gathering, no time would be wasted in killing an intruder, however menacing he might be. So they bury their victim under the pear trees, the victim that died for the peace of the group. How did they dig this grave? They had no spade, and a hayfork could but scratch the grass. The group should have left him where he fell, lying on top of the world, should have gone home in the darkness, having called upon the robin redbreast and the wren.

Mr. Pinter is more of a gentleman; you could never see him going about with a hayfork. Yet all critics admit, nay, agree, that he is a sinister fellow as far as his work is concerned. Not only every sentence but almost every word is sinister in its menace: hidden, but nonetheless visible in emotional penetration. Rudkin works bare-handed; Pinter wears gloves, so that not even a fingerprint is deposited in the writing. Rudkin roars like any sucking dove. Prim Pinter is genteel; he rarely shouts, but uses the voice like the sibilant purr of a Siamese cat, ready to change to the dangerous hiss of a snake at any minute. His quicker dialogue, as in that of the mother in A Night Out, is like the hammering of a woodpecker’s beak against the trunk of a tree! His slower tense is like the tap, tap, tap of the stick of Teresius. Pinter doesn’t behead his personae non gratae with a hayfork! He pulls them to pieces in his pauses; the one kills with a shout, the other in a silence. His silence is like that of a cemetery, menacing and creepy, makingeach individual hair upon one’s head stand up like quills upon the fretful perkypine. In these plays we know not the why or the wherefore. No one knows whence the persons come or whither they goeth. Hecuba doesn’t know where she stands. Pinter and Rudkin keep their mouths shut. To any questions they answer not. No names, no pack drill.

They must be meant for No plays. Neither Pinter nor Rudkin likes people. Indeed, Mr. Rudkin declares with a flourish that he despises audiences. Perhaps he means only that he despises them as audiences but really loves them for themselves alone. He dislikes them only when they get in his way. They certainly are a nuisance to all playwrights when they don’t come.

MR. PINTER’S play The Birthday Party is a tour de farce of the menace in the common word, the cliché, and the menace in the pause. It seems to frighten the critics. One of the radiant members of the Sunday school of radio critics referred to a pause as a “bumbinating vacuum.” I imagine that the characters as well as the pauses are another kind of bumbinating vacuum. These are the woman of the house, her husband, a chair attendant, and a lodger named Stanley. There is a young girl, too, and, later on, two visitors who turn out to be megatonic, bumbinating vacuums, who toward the play’s end take away poor Stanley to God knows where; God can only know reason. The play opens with an overture on the theme of cornflakes and fried bread for breakfast!—a brilliant line of chatter which is apparently meant to make a heart stand still. It is Stanley’s birthday, so a boy’s drum is bought and presented to him, apparently for his amusement, or to encourage his musical tastes, for he was once a pianist in some kinda show or pub. He fixes the drum around his neck, beats a simple stepping tap, tap, and parades around the table to the delight of the woman of the house — left, right, left. He increases the beat quicker and quicker, he walks faster, then beats a frantic roll on the toy drum, facing the woman! His whole aspect changes; he looks terrible, so that the lady collapses away from him in abject terror. The dolldrum! The dolldrum! The Congo is strongo, the Congo will how do hoo doo voodo you! Coming events cast their shudders before, the gods arrive in the shape of the two visitors, Goldberg, an effusive Jew, and a surly brutish Irishman, members of the two races which have given a lot of trouble to a too complacent world. They have no trouble here; Goldberg, when he hears it is Stanley’s birthday, calls for a party; the woman of the house says she’ll wear her party dress and hopes she’ll look well, Goldberg replying that she’ll look like a tulip.

In the end Stan is taken away by the Visitors for God knows what to God knows where.

As far as the mind can go, this is the one instance in the plays of the avant-garde where a flower is mentioned. The tulip suddenly flowers, but only in mockery, and is swiftly sheared from the mind of any who noticed it. A flowering plant would be an obnoxious intruder into any avant-garde play. If one was brought in it would be a festering lily, for we are told “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” I wonder if any of the avant-garde playwrights has a garden, and if he has, do flowers grow in it, and if flowers grow there, does he notice them in his goings-out and his comings-in? If he doesn’t, then he is contemptuous of a large part of the loveliness around him, and so is contemptuous of life, for plants arc living things as he is a partly living thing; they spring from seed as he does, and germinate in the earth’s womb as he does in the womb of a woman. They eat and drink as he does, they are attacked by enemies under the earth and above it, as man is by bacilli and viruses, but in spite of these distresses they express themselves in beauty of color and scent. They are useful, too, for man could not go on living on this earth without them.

One play belonging to what we are told is theater of the absurd, The Resounding Tinkle, mentions a garden; no herb or shrub grows there, but an elephant romps around in it. Small chance for a plant or shrub where an elephant is, for an elephant in a garden is as damaging as a bull in a china shop, in the mind’s eye one might see a lovely woman in a garden, like Maud among the musk roses, or see the beautiful lady Handel saw walking in a garden shady, bathed with the evening air, with a glory of golden hair. Or a simple farm worker on seeing a daisy might say:

Wee, modest, crimson-tippèd flow’r,
Thou’s met me in an evil hour;
For I maun crush amang the stoure
Thy slender stem.
To save thee now is past my pow’r,
Thou bonie gem.

But not they. Tree, shrub, or herb grows nowhere near them. They may have glimpsed a tree as they raced past, but their eyes never seem to have rested on the graceful beech, the sturdy oak, the immemorial elm, or the tender ash. They live in a Silent Spring. Of course we know that this elephant was put into the garden as an item of assurance that this play belonged to the theater of the absurd. For the life of me I can’t find anything humanly absurd in any of them. These playwrights seem to be vying with each other as to which can be more absurd than the other. A kinda “what you can do well, I can do better” slogan. Shouldn’t be surprised if one day we had a hippopotamus, not in a garden but in the cage of a canary, and he singing away like any nightingale. They see none of the wonder of animals. They don’t even take a passing interest in them. All kinship is lost between animals and them. If they be mentioned, they are but mentioned in mockery, like the rhinoceros trotting through the town and the elephant in the garden.

A Pinter play mentions a slug, and that is all, as far as I have read or can remember. Arden, of course, writes about a workhouse donkey, but he isn’t one of the avant-garde and doesn’t deal only with nonsense and savagery. Indeed, it seems to me that Arden’s Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance is far and away the finest play of the present day, full of power, protest, and frantic compassion, notwithstanding that it was scowled and scooted from the theater by most of our intelligent and unintelligent drama critics. I wonder why! What dazzling Freudian id or idiom swept this rejection into them, making them reject the denunciation of war’s horrors, and led them to embrace the plays which despise and hate life. They take all they can get out of life, like the most of us, enjoy its sweets and recreations, pilfer its pleasures, and dial 999 for Scotland Yard as soon as they feel a chill in body or in bone.

There was one lone but grand exception — Mr. Harold Hobson, drama critic of the Sunday Times. He told his many readers, without any qualification, how much he regretted the cold reception he gave to such a fine play. He had been greatly mistaken in his first opinion of the work and went on to give the play the fullest and most eloquent praise any intelligent critic could give to any fine and powerful work. It is naturally hard for a critic to proclaim a mistake in the first estimation of a play, and so Mr. Hobson’s handsome admission of one was a very courageous thing to do, and it shall be counted unto him as righteousness.

THE newest example of the theater’s condition of mind is a play now appearing in London called Entertaining Mr. Sloane. The author gave an interview on the B.B.C. network recently. The interviewer asked him to explain the plot, the meaning of the play, or to say something about it. The author responded as readily as any of Chaucer’s storytellers wending their way to Canterbury. No, he wasn’t influenced by either Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Rix. It was a gathering together of many phases and psychologically disturbed characters, woven in and out into a simple dramatic pattern. Shakespeare did the same kind of thing. The playtold of a house where dwelt a father with his two adult children, a man and a woman. The woman met a man in a public library who happened to be looking for a lodging. She invited him home to see if a room would please him. He went with her, was very pleased, and decided to dwell in the tent of the scarabs. Within the space of eight pages of typescript, say five minutes, she succeeds in getting his trousers off—the outer barbican stormed. Then the brother of the woman enters, and he, too, immediately desires to take the young man’s trousers off. Yet no homosexual he. The author gives us a plump assurance that he is bisexual, so while remaining a man, he could, at a drop of the trousers, become a perfect woman impersonator. Another trivial point — the newcomer, before he arrived, had murdered an old man, and the other old man upstairs knew of it. Some way, the brother and sister became aware of it too, and she blackmailed the lodger into her bed with a hey nonny o. Afterward, the brother succeeded in blackmailing him into his bed in rare counterpoint style, and to brighten the borders, the newcomer kills the old fella upstairs.

Here we have a theatrical gallimaufry of murder, odd sexual surges, a kinda incestuous indulgence on the part of brother and sister, with a man lodger in between, and a variegated assortment of psychiatric phases. A play to make a man pull his trousers up. The future is to have the inheritance of the theater of the ridiculous, of the absurd, of rape, of murder and sudden death, of incest, of futility, of violence, and of a basilisk pot of sexual distortions, and the land of Hope and Glory will disappear beneath the mud of a dull inferno.

Alfred Hitchcock has added an addendum crescendo to all these by his many films of mystery and horror. In a recent interview over the wireless he recounted with opulent satisfaction all he had done, and all he might yet do. Without seeming to see any difference between fear and fright, he told us that people like to be frightened, that they came to the cinema to be absolved from some kind of psychic fear. They joined their emotions with those shown in the picture, leaving the cinema chastened, and easier in mind and stronger in body - the film director adding with a beaming and patronizing air that all this fear and need to be frightened sprang from the nursery rhyme of Little Red Riding Hood. Does the child really carry this rhyme in his or her mind from the cradle to the grave? There was a wise man who said, long, long ago, “When I was a child I thought as a child, but now, having become a man, I put childish things from me,” but maybe he didn’t know what he was talking about. There are many more nursery rhymes than one, and any one of them might become a psychic influence as the one quoted by Hitchcock. I would shove aside his for this:

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes.

Today I heard on the wireless of a fifteen-yearold lass’s diving into the sea to save a boy of ten. The boy was saved; she was lost. And of a policewoman who risked her life on a roof ridge to save a baby which a half-mad father had in his arms, ready to jump off the roof, baby and all had the brave woman not snatched it from the frantic father. Brave woman, brave teen-ager lass. Ah, to hell with the loutish lust of Primaqueera. There are still many red threads of courage, many golden threads of nobility woven into the tingling fibers of our common humanity. No one passes through life scatheless. The world has many sour noises; the body is an open target for many invisible enemies, all hurtful, some venomous, like the accursed virus which can bite deeply into flesh and mind. It is full of disappointments, and too many of us have to suffer the loss of a beloved child, a world that aches bitterly till our time here ends. Yet, even so, each of us, one time or another, can ride a white horse, can have rings on our fingers and bells on our toes, and if we keep our senses open to the scents, sounds, and sights all around us, we shall have music wherever we go.