There is something lonely about an early spring Sunday in Pennsylvania at sunset. The gold and orange clouds betray the stubborn chill which returns unwelcome by the startling crocuses which also arrive, timely as ever and against all odds. The wind sweeps noisily down the lane through naked trees, some few still bearing shreds of a once resplendent autumn.
If I attempt the poetic tonight, it is because I return from another afternoon at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York , where invariably, I understand anew the complexity, magnificence, sorrow, monstrousness, achievement and loss of my ancestry. After a performance, I easily access the melancholy so much a part of the rhythm of Irish song, dance, and theatre.
Transport, Book by Thomas Keneally, Music and Lyrics by Larry Kiran, recalls the voyage of a British prisoner transport ship in 1838 carrying female “felons” from Cork to Sydney. Focusing on four women who have been convicted of “crimes” ranging in seriousness from stealing butter to participating in a failed revolution, the historical musical drama weaves together threads of Irish history. Themes of the abuse of power by the British and Roman Catholic Church authorities, the lack of solidarity among the Irish to the cause of freedom, the role of religion as a force for social disintegration and conflict in Irish communities and the ageless echoes of exile in the Irish psyche surface, if only briefly, as the storied ship makes its inconceivable passage . One woman cannot leave behind her “raging heart” which, she is counseled by the banished priest who is also on board, she must quell into “submission” as the Lord “submitted.” Another female “felon” finds love onboard in the arms of a protestant surgeon who is unaccountably, and rather incredulously, willing to face the social ostracism which will be the “price of love.” Equally inexplicably is an avowed antipapist’s conversion to tolerance when her shipmates demonstrate compassion at a time of incalculable loss.
Traditional Irish music excels at the ballad which can touch the heart of stone. No such artistry is found in this show. We understand the women are pained to leave their homeland and loved ones, but more for what we are told than for what the music or acting portray. We believe the ship is a cruel and dangerous place, but, again, this is merely impressionistic in this show. Rich stories, characters, themes are touched upon in Transport but the touch is lighter than its promise.
Still, one is inevitably stirred and made thoughtful at a soaring paraphrase of “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, even if the tune is not memorable. Those words, paraphrased, recycled, repeated, as other precious, timeless Yeats’ phrases and images are woven sparingly but vividly through the production bring it to life when it feels as if it is finally failing. Through these phrases, I find myself again beguiled, searching to affirm what it is that makes me Irish. The afternoon theatre has offered more than entertainment but less than enlightenment. I find myself reciting Yeats once more:
Out of Ireland have we come
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start,
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.
(William Butler Yeats, Remorse for Intemperate Speech.)