“And to hell with redemption.”

As his new translation of Oedipus The King opens at the Olivier National Theatre – see review round-up and here – the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins interviews playwright Frank McGuinness.

His most famous play, first performed in 1992, is Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, which was based loosely on the experiences of Brian Keenan and other hostages in Lebanon. Other successes have included Dolly West’s Kitchen (1999), about a family in wartime Buncrana, County Donegal; his first play, The Factory Girls (1982), which drew on his mother’s and aunts’ experiences in shirtmaking factories; and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985), his dramatisation of the lives of a group of Protestant soldiers as they made their inexorable way to the horror of July 1 1916.

What draws his plays together is a generous sympathy with people’s foibles in all their forms. But McGuinness loathes sentimentality and views the notion of redemption as laughable. “Sentimentality has damaged so many writers and storytellers. And to hell with redemption. It’s not true, folks! To me, it’s like creationism. Grow up and face reality. Just grow up.”

Indeed.

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  • Rory

    It is difficult to engage with this thread, Pete, unless we know what Frank McGuinness, and indeed, Pete Baker, intends to mean by “redemption”.

    There is the redemption of Christianity, various notions of which are disputed between differing disciplines in that faith.

    There is the secular notion, no doubt derived from the latter, whereby we say a man having injured another, may redeem himself by confessing, sincerely apologising and making restitution for harm done and then going on to amend his behaviour. There is much in the way of literature on this aspect of redemption. In recent times such luminaries as Jeffrey, Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, Michael Stone, the artist and biographer, and that other great Tory luminary, Jonathan Aitken have written on the matter from first hand experience. Theirs are not among the better literature available in my opinion but are useful as guides in “how not to”.

    Then there is the common everday usage to describe a physical process where, for example, in cooking a sauce, the sauce splits and some kind other steps in and says, “Step back. I can redeem that,” and does.

    Now, Pete, I bet my bottom dollar you do believe at least in having a hollandaise sauce that is not split as a dressing for your asparagus. For such example of redemption may taste like very heaven.

  • Brian Walker

    It helps to have seen the play which I have in preview. Oedipus is of course a highly stylised work about the Greek idea of fate (nasty old Apollo) at a time when C6 and C5 BCE Greeks were groping towards explanations of events that didn’t just describe the whims of the Gods or weren’t allegories of them. Thus they wrote the Gods out of the plot. Hubristic Oedipus the king starts the play by thinking he’s the bees’ knees in Thebes, even though everything in the city is going wrong, plague, defeat and later siege. To his horror, Oedipus then finds out why – because he killed his dad and married his mother, both unknowingly, thus enacting two of the worst taboos in human nature. The “unknowing” bit is the difference between the Greeks and us. We would expect justice and exercise moral relativism. Not so the Greeks, not yet. They still believed in retribution and sacrifice. And yet I think the they believed this is in a kind of formal way, the way many people have recourse to religion today, in a ritual enactment that takes care of things we don’t understand, but we don’t really feel responsible for, not like everyday, sensible belief based on evidence and cause and effect. Fate or Apollo call it what you will, is about the underlying rules of humanity we can’t really explain. The story is not just about one poor bloke who happens to be the ruler, it’s about what’s wrong with all of us: he’s just the ritual victim, the sacrifice. These rules have to be enacted from time to time just so as we don’t forget them. That’s why the tragedies were so important in their own time; they were acts of State.

    In ordinary human terms you want to shout out that Oedipus was bloody right to slaughter his horrible old dad who had him exposed to die in infancy and had his little feet nailed together just for good measure. You can see how Hamlet and Lear are prefigured in the older tragedies, the incest theme and all. But you can’t really see Sophocles in human terms as we understand them. “Oedipus” is really about a whole society that suffers for inexplicable innate flaws. Are most societies better informed today? Athenians would have enjoyed this one and its (sort of ) sequel Antigone, as they’re about its northern rival Thebes getting stuffed.

    Moving? Not really because not really human. Not too poetic either but I like that as over poetic language can get in the way.It’s really about politics and morality, a lesson of state about chosing the wise ruler. I enjoyed by the big chunky themes I’ve tried to describe.

    McGuinness deserves great credit for tackling the big ones boldly. But the play of his I enjoyed most recently was Dolly West’s Kitchen in the Old Vic http://www.compulink.co.uk/~shutters/reviews/00032.htm, set in his native Buncrana during WW2. The review here is content to see it as a play about sexual rivalries and family tensions paralleling the political tensions between wartime UK and neutral and only recently independent Eire (in this case Derry with its British and US bases, and Buncrana, only 11 miles apart). The working out of the relationships is moving and convincing and the mammy is the star. Englishman and Irish woman end the play by singing what could have been a dramatic disaster, the British patriotic WW1 hymn by Cecil Spring Rice, setting from Holst’s “Jupiter”: “I vow to thee my Country”, he in a warbling tenor and she skirling in Irish country idiom. The moment was electrifying. To me, it was clearly an allegory about how the two traditions can be reconciled. McGuinness, good man your Da, as we say in the north west.

  • Rory

    Yes, Brian, very good. But, more importantly, was the interval bar service prompt?

  • Brian Walker

    Rory, Don’t take the piss, you’re too young. Everybody knows it’s a one act anyway. Take a hundred lines. “I must mug up on Greek tragedy before blogging..”

  • Pete Baker

    Thanks for the additional historical context, Brian. Excellent stuff.

  • “the British patriotic WW1 hymn by Cecil Spring Rice,”

    Hmmm

    Cecil Spring-Rice:

    “I am an Irishman, you see,

    That is what expresses me.

    I am changing as the weather,

    You must take me altogether,

    Hopeless of distinguishing

    Which is Rice and which is Spring”

    He was also a supporter of Irish Home Rule.

  • Brian Walker

    Well spotted Nevin – and congratulation on your Slugger award. My point exactly – the two viewpoints can be reconciled! And interesting too that Spring Rice succeeded the Belfast born Lord Bryce, the famous constitutionalist, as ambassador to Washington.