I have caught my neck in a
mangle and will be indisposed
Yours in death,
- J.P. Donleavy from The Ginger Man
Charming Cad & The Secret Shame J.P. Donleavy's Prescient Play,
The Ginger Man"
by Brad Balfour
While staying at the New York Athletic Club during his most recent visit to the city, James Patrick (JP) Donleavy the bearded, tweed-clad septuagenarian author tells tales of his daily life. "The evening before I came here I was helping deliver a calf, about a two hour procedure. On the way back up to the house I had to dig a grave for another calf to be buried, another expenditure of around 40 minutes. Then the next morning I had to come to America. Tony Lawrenson, a gentleman who formerly looked after the Royal family, was a great help in getting me to the airport in time. He does everything in a per feet military and organized manner." Donleavy is a country squire and gentleman farmer. He lives on a sprawling farm in County Mullingar and has a 20 room house where he spends his days attending to his commensurate chores... "James Joyce's father was once summoned to Mullingar and the head of the County Council was living at the house, and in one of his books, Joyce describes the man coming to the house from the station on a horse and buggy and driving this winding drive and, and that was my home, Levington. And that's Joyce's connection to the house.
Donleavy, born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, has been a major literary figure whose debut novel, The Ginger Man is a story of a long-suffering and abused wife catering to a drunken, raging husband who was allowed total control over her. In 1955 it was banned in America due to the fact that the subject matter was not something for public discussion. Eventually published by the Olympia Press in Paris (his first connection to Joyce as this was the same publisher of Ulysses) then an edited version appeared in England. That initial tome was hailed by the likes of Joseph Heller who called him "one of the most accomplished writers of our time." Donleavy writes about the dark side of life that had been hidden in mid-century Ireland until then. Today the work has a new-found relevance in it's attention to abuse, alcoholism and co dependency. The speech at the end where he reveals the depth of his confusion is an illustration of the dirty little secret of Irish life being finally revealed. When director Ronan Wilmot and his Dublin Theater Company decided to revive the play they had little idea it would be so relevant and in fact, prescient about co-dependent relationships, alcoholism and suppressed sexuality written from the screed of 50 years ago. The cast so effectively portrays his play which details inner traumas and struggles that seem so familiar now.
So when Donleavy makes his way to town, it is event of some portent perhaps not accompanied with the huge public exposure of those many years ago, but with great literary significance.
Other books by J.P Donleavy: A Singular Man, Are You Listening, Rabbi Low, The Unexpurgated [Code] , J.P. Donleavy's Ireland In All Her Sins [and Some of Her Graces], The Onion Eaters, The Destinies of Darcy Dancer Gentleman, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. and A Singular Country. Donleavy has also written volumes of short stories such as Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule.
BACKGROUND ON THE GINGER MAN
JP: The advent of TV was the first revolution in Ireland and they began to get information they never had before. The isolation of Ireland ceased and the next revolution came which was freedom, which couldn't be stopped or censored. I had to go to Limerick one time and everywhere I went people laughed in true recognition. No television reached Limerick so they were all reading books and had read The Ginger Man. The permissiveness and the third revolution is the wealth that has struck Ireland, the cars and things.
The Ginger Man was read by hundreds of thousands of people and people want to see some of the places I describe. One time I wrote about the Catacombs and some gentleman that I had met on the scene told me the only reason he had come to Ireland was to see the Catacombs described in that scene. Sebastian sees himself as a gentleman who feels trapped by his wife and children so he puts off going home at night. As drink was once the enemy of Ireland and Irish men drank to drown their troubles, the relevance of the play is astounding.
THE INSPIRATION FOR DANGERFIELD
JP: The model on whom this is based to some degree was a gentleman named Gainer Stephen Crist. Our friend, director George Poy [sic] [Roy] Hill and myself both decided he was a saint because of his immense compassion towards women and people. He had two children and came to New York walking around in the pavement with a hole in his shoe. It was so hot and traveling on the subway he asked a man, in a very proper English manner, where the train went. The man was offended by him because he thought he was homosexual, so Gainor clocked him. Then he went looking for his friend George Poy [sic] [Roy] Hill's house. Hill had already gone off to Paramount and Hollywood.
Gainor was very elegant and charming and hired by the airlines because he had this marvelous way, but it didn't last because he spent too much time at the bar entertaining. When it came to the time to get out of America, I also had to get out of there because The Ginger Man could go no place and I had booked on the ship Franconia and told him about it. He said he would meet me there because he was also leaving. Women adored him and would do anything for him, give him money, and no woman would be disloyal, and he got the money to go back. I was on the deck of the ship and I heard a pounding and a shout "Wait for me" and it was Gainor with his elegant clothes and carrying a little paper bag.
He was wanted for various indiscretions and he had extremely fast fists. He was on the run because anyone who was rude to him he flipped into the tracks, or whatever. As we stood on the fantail as naval people might (we were both naval people), off we went down the Hudson and watched New York fade in the distance. He was someone who wanted to keep his position in life and let others keep theirs. The play encapsulates this gentleman who is a charming rogue and Marion, his wife who is a codependent who enables him to seduce this other woman. Gainer is totally different from the fictionalized Dangerfield who is more or less a mixture of people.
THE CURRENT TOUR OF THE GINGER MAN
JP: I still see it in the same light when I wrote it and now. I was amazed when I first saw the production in Dublin and I suppose if I was the Archbishop at the time, because I had no idea about those church oriented remarks, I would have stopped it myself.
RW: He was a cad and a bad guy but still had a charming nature-a charming rogue, at least to everyone outside his family. There has not been too much change as far as people understanding the characters from thirty years ago when the play was written to today. The play still has a huge relevance and yet is truthful to its time when that was the role of women. Certainly David Murray, who plays the role, brings so much passion to it, especially with his attack on Marion.
When JP asked to be allowed to drop into rehearsal we timed it with the final week and I was very apprehensive because I only allowed him to see one scene, not that I was denying him, but because I didn't want to pressure the whole cast.
JP: I think the people who should go on the social circuit should be the cast and the star, and not the writer. It's important for David Murray, the star, as Dangerfield, to be the focus. We had a stumbling block in the beginning due to Immigration because of Actors Equity who did not want outsiders in, so there was a lot of things that had to be straightened out before we came over here. I couldn't understand why a few people would be stopped from coming into the country but in the end everything was done according to the rules. There hasn't been a production done since 1963.
RW: What has happened since JP invested his trust in me is that things have built slowly and very positively. I believe it is like a mustard seed that is plant ed and is growing every night. It's a fantastic piece of work from the twentieth century and I hope the seed continues to grow. We battled to get it, and there's a lot of life left in it. I'I1 wait until it runs out of water to water this plant.
JP: There's a lot of people who want to see this kind of work, see a good story and listen to good acting. Theatre is a minority but a big minority.
ALCOHOL AND ABUSE
RW: There is a lot about abuse today and this play is still truthful to its time then. That was the role of women who lived under the tyranny of the males aided and abetted by the courts, the church and the culture at large. I don't think it was mainly Ireland, because there were no liberated countries then. There is still a chance to make an extraordinary film in Dublin. The architecture is still there and the people are still the same. There is a lovely theme of Ireland such as going to the weekly theatre and it reminds me of the era I grew up in.
ABOUT BEING A PLAYWRIGHT/WRITER
JP: Nowadays you have to tailor make it to the audience, not cutting down on the playwright's work but making it look sharp. Richard Harris would put a lot back in to a show and embellish his part and they were useful to include but you can only put in so much time as did Simon Callow in Beastly Beatitudes. I am in the same boat as Ronan and believe you have to adjust to the audience,
RW: JP gave over his work to me and entrusted me to do a good job. I like it when an author gives me the freedom to do what is necessary for production of the play. I do know how to produce a play and I know what the audience will or will not accept. Today, most plays are too long and I think the length also must be taken into consideration. It's okay if you step into a show like Moon for the Misbegotten with Gabriel Byrne, because you know what to expect in advance. Once after The Long Day's Journey into Night at the Queens Theatre, there appeared a satirical cartoon in the Dublin Opinion of two fellows walking out at the end of the show. One is shown with a beard and he's saying to the other, "I swear I shaved before I went in." So people want the show to be short.
JP: I don't feel that I could apply myself to directing but am a very good sounding board. I like to let the actors use their own instincts because they come around to finding their own place, to be in touch with their character and when they do it is more effective. My scripts are specific-I just had someone writing things over in a script and it strikes me when the nuance is present or missed or the accent is said the wrong way, it registers to me to be incorrect. Coming back to New York, my ear is always tuned to everything; 'take it on the lam' is a new phrase I heard and I write these things in my notebook.
ABOUT BEING A BANNED WRITER
JP: The worst thing about being a writer is the isolation, which is continuous and intense, simply because you are always working at a desk. I don't see anyone at all but simply because you can hear the noise in the house when anyone approaches, everyone sort of retreats out of your presence. And it is just a big, black emptiness, like living at the North Pole, and you have to be careful that it does not become too accumulating. The problem is that if you have some lady friend in the house it is a great comfort and she's a helpful companion. But then you ran into the same problem in this situation as everyone else, 'Should I go home? When will I see her? Will this go wrong?' I have a few friends who pop in and some phone friends who check up on me every now and then and if you have someone who is in the house they are in their own quarters. I miss the children around the place, they are quite wonderful and even now they come back all grown up and reminisce about their childhood and walk around and remember where they've been. This is a house that children go insane about. My own children and the others (children of lady friends) all keep in touch and every year I have a party for all of them.
ABOUT MAKING BOOKS INTO FILMS
JP: I was one of the few people trained in the business of writing screenplays and even films and I can thankfully say this, if you find The Collected Letters of Kenneth Tynan by the great English critic, look up JP Donleavy and there you will read what Orson Welles says about me as a scriptwriter. Hollywood is vanity, and people want to be screenwriters because they can make a good living and the problem I have is that people pick up my books and think they can be made into films and it's plain vanity for Hollywood because they are just interested in the money. If you take professional playwrights like Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, when writing plays they practically write novels because they have expounded so much on them. Some people come and ask me to write an original screenplay and I was told I couldn't do it, which motivated me more to do it. The Ginger Man hasn't gotten made because people forget that censorship stopped it to begin with and I was in litigation with Olympia Press for 25 years over the rights, so no one could make it. Nowadays it is possible to make it without difficulty.
JP: I don't know whether I have any place to be led and I might be deposited in the chapel and my lady friend has it in her will that she'll be buried with me there. I dwell often in the past because it presents me with a future, I never have had writer's block as there's always something to do. Where I live now is perfection, that's the problem. We can tend to enjoy it to a degree but you need some irritation in life too.
This Dublin Theater Company production is at the Irish Art Center till July 2.
purchase books by J.P. Donleavy, go to
the Buyers' Guide.