The lovely and haunting one-man Broadway show Gabriel Byrne: Walking With Ghosts, adapted from his equally wonderful memoir, has had a challenging journey from page to stage. It is a play with subject matter that is unique to Byrne’s life but nevertheless speaks to everyone. Byrne talked to Newsweek about the show’s trip and about the greatness of Irish theater and how it got that way.
Bringing his memoir to the stage “wasn’t my idea,” Byrne told Newsweek. It was Anne Clarke, the producer. She had read the book, and she called me up and said, ‘Do you think you’d be interested in having a go as a play?’ It had never crossed my mind, but I immediately responded to Anne’s inquiry. [Director] Lonny Price and myself have been friends for quite a while, and we got to talking about it, to see if we think we could hammer out a play. To get a play to work any way is difficult, but to make it work from prose was a real challenge, and we certainly worked pretty hard on it. There were no egos in the room. If something didn’t work. I was totally happy to say. ‘Let’s get rid of it. Let’s cut it,’ because obviously a play is about a dramatic narrative. It’s not about nice words or prose. We tried it out, then we wrote some more and then we added more.”
Byrne and Price would start picking out things from the memoir, saying “This will work dramatically. That’ll work dramatically.” And, Byrne told Newsweek, “if it didn’t, then I rewrote it. I also would incorporate material that’s not in the book, so that we could find a [tonal] balance because you can’t get up there and just do big swathes of prose. You also have to have humor in order to soften the impact of the more darker passages.”
Laughter in the Dark
And the passages do get dark, but Irish humor is very often mined from the darkest and saddest situations.
Byrne told Newsweek, “G.K. Chesterton had a famous quote, ‘The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad/For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.’ I personally don’t agree with that. And I think it was just Chesterton being clever, for the sake of it. Having said that, it’s also, I think, a Jewish characteristic in relation to the dark subjects that can only truly be dealt with through a kind of black humor. My brother was an ambulance man for 30 years, and he said that the only way they could deal with the job that they did was through humor. I think being able to laugh at something is a way of disempowering it, by rendering it prosaic and ordinary and ridiculous. Mel Brooks, the great Jewish writer, did it with Hitler in The Producers. It was so funny.
“Charlie Chaplin did it first. And Mel Brooks did it brilliantly as well. But the question is, how do you look at these themes and try to extract humor from them? That was a challenge, too. For me, the great satisfaction of the play is to hear silence and laughter. To hear real silence in the theater is kind of thrilling, and then to hear laughter, to hear that laughter was also deeply, deeply satisfying.”
As for the darker themes, Byrne told Newsweek, “I saw the function of telling those stories as a way of opening a door for the audience into those areas that are not usually talked about. I wanted to specifically address those issues.
“Although some people may say, ‘It’s kind of a period piece,” does those things currently still not happen—addiction, abuse, how we teach?
“The teaching methods we use to implant or inculcate children with ideas,” are seen in scenes with a religious brother in the play. “He does it with a stick. He inculcates nationalism into his students, but he’s repaid by violence. And the point is that violence produces violence.”
Another theme of Walking With Ghosts, Byrne told Newsweek, “is time. It’s not so much about a day at the fairground [which is an incident in the play]. It’s about all those beautiful, magical moments that we have as children that fade away, and you begin to constantly question the concept of what time is. And the last line of that part of the play is ‘how the present so quickly becomes the past.’ I remember at age 9 getting a glimpse of what that actually meant, that you could not hold on to the present. So time [as a theme] runs through the play. “
What Makes the Irish Irish?
“So does the idea of identity: Who are you? One of the things that I added into the play, quite recently, was when I went to England first, it was the first time I was forced to think of myself as Irish. Because when you’re in Ireland, you’re not walking around saying to people, ‘Are you Irish? Or, here in America, you’re not walking around saying, ‘Are you American?’ But if you leave your country, you become immediately identified with your nationality. In the play, at 11 years of age, I go to a different country, where I was immediately recognized as Irish. So identity goes through the piece as well, and identity as an actor: the idea of changing your identity and so forth.
“A lot of those themes were things that I wanted to get the audience to talk about, because it’s not really about my life, per se. It’s about ‘I put my life out here. And maybe you can look at yours.’ That’s the intention.
“The show, which has been basically the same with two iterations in the West End of London, the Edinburgh Theatre Festival and then Broadway. I remember thinking, Will an American or Broadway audience understand this language?
“And then I thought, Well, of course: They’re sophisticated. They’ve seen Brian Friel, [John Millington] Synge and Martin McDonough. Even if they don’t understand a specific sentence, they get the sense of it.
“It seems to me and I could be wrong, but we’re beginning to lose the idiosyncrasies of accents in language and how people express themselves. It’s already happened in Ireland where accents are now becoming more and more homogenized. I remember sitting down with a man many years ago, and he did 35 different versions of a Dublin accent. Now, you’d be hard pressed to find three or four. The phrases, the vocabulary, all that stuff is beginning to change. And I noticed that here in America the homogenization of language, which has been altered to such an extent that it’s not impossible to get by on 60 words, where you can say, “Awesome, cool wow.”
“Irish people express themselves in a kind of musicality in the language. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that the Irish took the English language and gave it back with beauty added. Sometimes the sound of English when it is spoken by the Irish makes sense. So you might not understand the individual words, but the sound of it makes total sense. We have translated the Gaelic way we think and speak into English, and that’s what makes the English spoken in Ireland so beautiful, because it’s a mixture of two languages. It has a mixture of English as it’s spoken, but it also has the residue of Gaelic as it was spoken up to the century ago.”
Working With Lonny Price
Fellow Merrily We Roll Along actor Jim Walton who has also worked for Price told Newsweek that he is an excellent director for and actor to work with. Byrne readily agreed. He told Newsweek, “He’s a superb director of actors. And I think some of that comes from the fact he was an actor himself. But just because one is an actor doesn’t necessarily make you a wonderful director. He’s very compassionate. He’s patient. He’s extremely kind to the process of mistake and failure—two steps back and one step forward. But he’s also very honest, He’ll say, ‘No, that doesn’t work,’ ‘Let’s explore that. I think this might work’. So working with him was a joy. And in the time that we were together, there was not like one moment of discord. We were totally on each other’s wavelength the whole time, because we just wanted to make the best thing possible. And it was a joyful process. It doesn’t happen very often.”
Price and Byrne have known each other since 2008 or so, Byrne was taking a break, having finished In Treatment, Price called him up about working on Camelot, which would play at Lincoln Center. “I’m not a singer. I can pass, but to be standing in front of the New York Philharmonic with 100 musicians was jumping into the cold sea. Anyway, Lonny and I got on really, really well. I did that and it was the first and only musical I’ve ever done. We kept in touch after that and we became friends. And we’d always wanted to work together. So when this came up, it seemed like a natural fit.
“[The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened], the documentary he directed, was a fantastic insight into the vagaries of show business: what success is and what failure is; how, what seemed like an inevitable triumph didn’t pan out like that. It’s a wonderful film.”
‘Our Art Was the Spoken Word’
When asked why such a small country as Ireland has produced so much great theater, Byrne told Newsweek, “I’ve thought about it. We never produced a great philosopher or a sculptor or a painter. The good ones are very good, but nothing like say Henry Moore or Michelangelo or Rauschenberg. Our access to the arts was extremely limited because of the occupation by the English Imperial Army. So, people had to find an artistic outlet other than the predictable ones.
“Art and language and history went underground, and the only way that people could express themselves was through the spoken word—and the spoken word in Gaelic. If you look at the way Irish history developed, the home, and the hearth was where everything tended to happen. That’s where the stories were told. That’s where the mythological stories were passed on. And the fireside was a theater. And so stories were listened to and imaginations stoked by things that you couldn’t see. The world of imagination became extremely powerful in the narrative arts. The same thing happened with Irish education: It went underground.
“So, our art was the spoken word. And it reached such a high degree of sophistication that you could hardly go anywhere in Ireland, in any house, where there wasn’t the storytelling going on. And the way we tell stories and the way we communicate is a result of that history. And if you take the theater out of the fireside, you have a natural continuation of that heritage. And I think that’s why we went into theater as opposed to the visual arts. We haven’t produced that many amazing films either. Some very, very good ones, but it’s only really recently that we’ve come to the world.”
Byrne’s love of language is evident in every line of his memoir and in every speech in his play. Walking With Ghosts sounds and reads more like a tone poem—something along the lines of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales—than the typical memoir. And as specific as it is to Byrne’s life, it has a universality that should keep it alive with any actor in the role wherever Irish plays are performed.
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