An Interview with Thomas Kilroy

Thomas Kilroy. Photo: Joe Shaughnessy

Thomas Kilroy is one of Ireland’s leading dramatists and the author of a series of important plays, including Double Cross (1986), which juxtaposes the stories of Brendan Bracken (1901-58), Minister for Information during the Second World War, and William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw Haw’ (1906-46), who served as the principal Nazi propaganda broadcaster, and was executed for treason. Both were Irish. He is also the author of Tea and Sex and Shakespeare (1976), about a struggling writer battling his dysfunctional imagination; The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre (1991), a comedy about theatre companies touring Ireland in the Second World War; The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde (1997), and a number of other works. He was play editor at the Abbey Theatre Dublin for much of his distinguished career, as well as professor of English at Galway; was a director of the Field Day Company, which sought to provide imaginative ways of overcoming sectarianism in Northern Ireland, alongside Stephen Rea and Brian Friel, and was director of its touring company. The Abbey Theatre is hosting a week’s development workshop of a new play, The Trials of William Shakespeare, in November, conducted by Max Stafford Clark, and a revival of Double Cross is planned for next year in a joint production of the Abbey and the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. As a young student at University College Dublin he wrote an MA thesis on Thomas Nashe, ‘Satirical Elements in the Prose of Thomas Nashe’ (1959) and he was kind enough to answer my questions on the influence he thinks Nashe had on his writing career.

Andrew Hadfield

AH: What inspired you to write on Nashe as a student?

TK: Elizabethan pamphleteering was never part of the curriculum during my student days at UCD.  I discovered it for myself by reading C. S. Lewis. I was immediately taken by this alternative writing with its scabrous, irreverent abuse.  I came to love the world of coney-catching and inkhornism.  I can still remember opening McKerrow for the first time, I believe in the National Library on Kildare street in Dublin.  What drew me to Nashe in the first place was the eldritch quality of the persona behind the writing.  Later, I was to surrender to the style.  I had an unsympathetic professor of English who was also chairman of the Irish Censorship Appeals Board.  He disapproved of my fascination with Nashe.  I crossed swords with him and the college authorities by reading a paper in public on contemporary American fiction, much of which was banned.  Nashe was part of my rebellion.

AH: Were you already interested in drama when you worked on his writing? You had a very successful career working in the theatre in Ireland. Do you think Nashe’s writings ever influenced what you did as a writer or director?

KT: Yes, I was trying to write plays at the time.  My first dramatic work was a radio play which won a BBC prize in 1967, eleven years after my thesis on Nashe.  There could be very little connection between them. Influence, except when direct, is extremely difficult to pin down.  Nashe was more an exemplary figure for me at an impressionable age.

AD: You were a heavily involved in the Field Day Movement. Other writers involved in it – I am thinking particularly of Tom Paulin – were interested in satire and polemic. Did Nashe ever feature in discussions or influence any of the movements’ writings?

KT: No, I never heard anyone in Field Day making any reference to Nashe.  Field Day produced its own pamphlets, of course, but they were not like sixteenth century pamphlets, more like those of the eighteenth century, perhaps, pamphlets of intellectual debate and discourse.  There are elements of satire in some of the Field Day plays, including Double Cross, but I would not say that satire was a favourite weapon of the Field Day writers.

AH: Do you ever return to passages of Nashe? If so, which ones?

KT: The words of Nashe that stay in my mind are from the lyrics, particularly ‘Adieu; farewell earth’s bliss’.  I’m working on a new play about Shakespeare the Papist.  In the play ‘my’ Shakespeare is a compulsive hypochondriac and I am tempted to have him quote from this lyric of Nashe!

AH: Your plays often contain unsettling shifts of tone and style, moving between tragedy and comedy – I’m thinking of ‘Tea and Sex and Shakespeare’ – something I associate also with writers such as Nashe (The Unfortunate Traveller). Is that a connection you made? A similar sort of question – your writing often involves nightmares, ghosts, and characters whose imaginative engagement with the world often destabilises their identities, themes I also associate with Nashe (Terrors of the Night in particular). Was there any influence when you wrote works such as Double Cross?

KT: Yes, there is a kind of desperate comedy that arises in moments of unspeakable distress.  It seems to be a characteristic of the modern and is a blurring  of the traditional distinction between the tragic and the comic.  I think it is there in my work and it is certainly there in Nashe.  It has the appearance of something out of control or almost out of control, an involuntary spasm, a cry in the void.  It is related to light and darkness and this is one of the ways in which it may become theatrical.

AH: Your thesis concentrates on Nashe’s prose writing, but he also write two important and unusual plays, Dido, Queen of Carthage and Summer’s Last Will and Testament. Did these ever feature in your thoughts about drama? How might we stage such works now? Is there any point in reviving them? And, if so, what might be your advice to anyone wanting to do so?

KT: Summer’s Last Will is a pageant play, isn’t it, with little or no attempt at conventional plotting, a promenade of abstractions or representative figures? Contemporary theatre should be well able to accommodate it but there is the vexed subject of cost. There are two specific areas where contemporary theatre could lift the work: through stage design and musical composition.  I remember, years ago, seeing a production of Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine at the Odeon in Paris, with Jean Louis Barrault, directed by Maurice Bejart.  It used masks and parades of the saint’s nightmares with some shocking musical effects.  Clearly a work of modern theatre but with a difficult, classical text.  I could see that kind of production working for Nashe.

AH: Would you advise young writers setting out now to read Nashe? Does he have much to teach us?

KT: I don’t know what to say about the young and Nashe.  In my experience of young writers they appear to accept anything.  This may not always be a good thing but at least it is open.  I’ve been trying to make a case, I think, here for the modernity of some aspects of Nashe.  I wonder if Joyce ever read him?


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