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The McGowan Trilogy, three inter-related one act plays, by SÉAMUS SCANLON

Article by Sheena Lambert ©.
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It’s next to impossible to write a review on a play you have only read, and never seen performed. How did we ever do it for the Leaving Certificate exam? Were we really expected to understand Hamlet the play, and answer questions on CHARACTER, THEME and STYLE without ever having seen it on the stage, the medium for which it was conceived? (aside: my own Leaving Certificate class attempted to stage Hamlet ourselves as a balm to this very problem, although it might have been better for everyone involved, and our exam results, had we stuck with reading the manuscript on the page.)

Now I love reading plays, let there be no misunderstanding. The scope for imagining how the story might look and sound is wonderful, superior, I would suggest, to the experience of reading a novel, where often the decorative detail is handed to the reader on a platter. Reading plays is wonderfully entertaining, and a pastime not indulged in enough, I would suggest.

So whereas I was delighted to read The McGowan Trilogy by New York-based Séamus Scanlon, I’m not sure I am qualified to write a review on it, having never seen it on stage. That said, I had to write about Hamlet back in 1992 without ever having seen it, so in true Leaving Certificate style, here are my insights into this play; a play in three acts.

The Victor prop for Victor M. McGowan in Dancing At Lunacy photo: Seamus Scanlon

The Victor prop for Victor M. McGowan in Dancing At Lunacy photo: Seamus Scanlon

CHARACTER: There is only one character in The McGowan Trilogy, and that is Victor McGowan himself. Of course, there are more actors on the stage, and each well drawn, but this play is all about Victor. I can imagine any young actor relishing this role – an IRA man, black and white in his beliefs, loyal to the cause regardless of consequence, he’s a character any Irish person of a certain age would easily recognise. Although violent and ruthless, his many quirks and maladies make him simultaneously human and funny. This is Victor’s play; he needs to be entertaining and interesting enough to carry us through it, and he is. In the first and second acts we see Victor at work – Victor who’s allegiances are rigid, and who’s creed is unshakable. Ironically, it is his gentler interaction with his geriatric mother in the final act that shows us Victor pushed to his limits, straining under the weight of life, and death.

The THEMES in this trilogy of one act plays are, as is so often the case in well wrought pieces, relevant to many times, and in many countries. As with Stuart Carolan’s Defender of the Faith, Scanlon tells the story of the Troubles by focussing a spotlight on one particular player in the game; a clever way of keeping the well-told story fresh and engaging. The McGowan Trilogy was first performed in New York city in 2014, and it is not hard to imagine how the story and theme would have been recognised by immigrants of many other nations, not only Irish Americans. Young men like Victor, who cannot see beyond their own cause, make the news headlines all over the world, all too regularly nowadays. And the heart-breaking interaction between Victor and his mother who is suffering from dementia touches on a theme universal in itself.

long_wet_grass 300The STYLE of these three pieces is old-school, character interacting and dialogue driven. My kind of theatre. There are some laugh-out-loud lines in the first act, and tender interactions in the second and third. There seems to be an over-kill of stage direction in the text which is a little off-putting for the reader (and the director, I’d imagine) but the dialogue flows, and the characters feel real. The only disappointment for me was the apparent effort on the part of the author to wrap Victor’s story up and tie it in a bow in the final few pages – until that point, it felt real, and messy. Like I imagine Victor’s life would be. Real. And messy.

So in summary, a mhúinteoir, I’d highly recommend The McGowan Trilogy as a read. Scanlon has been compared by some reviewers with McDonagh, and whereas that might be a lofty aspiration based on three one-act plays, there is a collective energy about The McGowan Trilogy that makes me genuinely wish I could see them performed on stage.
Which is more than I can say for Hamlet.

(c) Sheena Lambert

Sheena Lambert is a novelist and playwright from County Dublin. Her second novel THE LAKE, on which her play GLANAPHUCA is based, will be published by HarperCollins in March 2015.

Find out more about The McGowan Trilogy in our article here.