“All the world’s a stage..
And one man in his time
plays many parts..”
I hoped the pale October daylight dimming outside the building was not an indication of things to come. The soon-to-be Chief Justice of Ireland peered over his glasses at me across the stage of the courtroom after my marathon performance.
I WAS FRAMED had been running for almost a year and making eye contact, the judge said I was an accomplished actor. I smiled back gratefully.
However, obviously unimpressed with the instinctual lifelong training that developed my internal sensory, psychological and emotional abilities (method acting), he went on to sentence me to 12 years penal servitude.
To drive home his critical appraisal of the method acting style, perfected since the thirties by James Dean, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Paul Newman and Al Pacino, amongst others, for good measure, he refused me leave to appeal.
He then instructed the prison warders standing next to me, who I thought were giving me a standing ovation, to take me away. As he thought he finally ended the longest running play in Irish history ‘Its curtains for me’ I thought as I was escorted from the building.
[/su_column] As the muses triggered a new play I immediately wrote and launched, Please Release Me Now, (and, by inference, a demand for the re-institution of Al Pacino’s reputation), as the judge’s performance, his teachers and school of acting were brought into international public ridicule.
In fairness, little did the sentencing judge know of my long acting career and prowess. At the young age of nine I had been asked to perform in the internationally renowned Abbey Theater, which had burnt to the ground the year after I was born and which, I hastily add, had nothing to do with me.
It was being managed by the late Ernest Blythe at the time of my performance. The part of a leprechaun in A Christmas Panto needed to be filled one year and, looking me up and down, he read the introductory letter from my father, then a movie and theater critic, and asked me to sing him a song. I sang him an Irish lullaby in Irish. Far from lulling him into a state of sombulance he became agitated.[su_column]
[/su_column] “We’ll call you,” he hastily replied , in English.
A fascist with a long, chequered background, it has been said that he rejected many good plays in favor of those which were more financially rewarding and that, as a creative force, he consequently ran The Abbey Theater into the ground.
This may explain why the expectant subsequent phone call to me was never made. But then it could have been worse: he could have nominated me for a firing squad, as he did many who offended him during the Irish Civil War.
I went on to drama school. Unfortunately, I only participated in one class and the lesson should have hinted at any and all my future auditions- and many job interviews to boot. I learnt how to close a door quietly behind me.
The trick, I can divulge, and which will save you time and a fee, is never to turn your back on the audience. Incidentally, this is generally good practice in life for it is always better to face adversaries than have them sneak up behind you.
Later, I trod the boards in The Drag Artist, a Christmas play, about something or other which I am now as ignorant of as I was then, including the paly’s title. It was performed in the late Gas Company Theater in the center of Dun Laoghaire.
Suffice it to say that I was volunteered for the part of a woman, dress and wig et all, by the school headmaster: leading a donkey to water and all that comes to mind.
A-la-Orson Welles, we gave the audience a hint of a scene- and no more than that. Our performance certainly lived up to Friedrich Schlegel’s theory that good drama must be drastic.
Probably associated with my ignorance of the play’s subject, and indeed my and the rest of the cast’s ignorance of our lines, despite the heavy, loud and prolonged prompting from the wings, clearly audible to the audience but not, unfortunately, to the actors, the curtain never rose after the interval.
Arthur Miller would have approved as, by whatever means it is accomplished, the prime business of any play is to arouse the passions of an audience and, in this case, it did. At my most serious endeavors of pathos their feelings fluctuated between titters and raucous laughter.
The performance in general was reviewed well enough, if briefly, in the media, despite a not unsubtle hint that the players might have learnt their lines better.
I was 11 years of age and perhaps missed an early lesson in life, one that suggested I should have stuck to comedy in life as perhaps comedy makes a better sense of the chaos.
Performing drama in the Social Street Theatre I began to be stalked throughout the 70s and 80s, now aged twenty to thirty-something. I accumulated a growing fan base. I even had a performance banned, which is truly a state accolade for any artist.
Once, on the boards outside Leinster House, despite my voice projection I could not be heard in the back row of the live event, the wind whisking away my historic, emotive and insightful words ever before they reached the bottom of Molesworth St, or either end of Kildare Street.
The performance, like many great Irish artistic endeavours before it, was technically banned. This was not because of the performance’s sophistication but because, under The Offenses Against the State Act, all performances are illegal if held without prior consent within a half a mile of the national legislature, either sitting or about to sit, which, technically, is always.
Close to a quarter of a million angry, frustrated and upset people marched to Leinster House in protest at the Irish government’s poor intervention in the H-Block Hunger Strike issue. An executive member of the National H-Block Armagh Group it was one of my responsibilities to stay close to the mobile unadorned stage for the drama: a lorry and its sound amplification system in its rear.
Still stalked by some of my aforementioned fans (the Special Branch), an interaction in the march behind me distracted me momentarily. I left my position, instructing the driver not to move away from the march and that I would be back in a few moments. By the time I came back he had disappeared- as had the amplification system, the platform and my souvenir hunting stalkers.
Another smaller van and a much weaker megaphone were located in the swell of the march and pushed to the front that had by now arrived at the gates of Leinster House. And so, facing a quarter of a million people, my largest in-sitiu audience to date, others and I gave forth to the first three or four human lines of people in a semicircle, the rest of the two hundred and forty nine thousand seven hundred people having to content themselves with interpretations coming down the line.
To this day others reminded me of my historic, emotive and insightful words as I gesticulated artistically, my hair windswept. Chinese whispers being what they are I can confirm regretfully, alas, that I never said them.
Down the road, such was the reaction, after I performed to a larger crowd at The British Embassy Gig that a riot ensued. A section of the audience (the police) ran amok and charged forward looking for me, chasing scores of thousands of the remaining audience all the way to Dublin’s city center, a good mile away.
In their determination to get my autograph, or other keepsake, they chased me first through front gardens, over side walls, and then through back gardens and over more walls, the length of some twenty houses deep, until they gave up.
At length, some years later, I performed to a full-to-capacity Mansion House Round Room, (where the play National Birth had its first run in 1921 to a mostly armed audience- many of whom marched out in disgust). Audience response can be harsh if incitefull. This time, after my The Judge’s Performance I relaxed as the audiences hand’s excited their pockets empty and I received a definite emotional response manifested as a standing ovation.
In Tailor’s Hal, birthplace of Ireland’s longest running play United Irishmen, I repeated the performance. It was doubly effective as I gave it bilingually, though not simultaneously, in Irish and English.
In the 90s, then aged forty something, I returned to street theatre with the Diceman and Mick Lally for a photo shoot to promote a fundraiser in The National Concert Hall. Mick Lally’s thespian throat loudly heralded the event for a gathering audience and a TV unit as The Diceman (Thom McGinty) performed one of his statuesque poses.
In this case, he was dressed as a dodgy politician carrying a suitcase full of ‘worms’, a reference to the can of worms that was the case for which the judge’s performance was being castigated internationally.
The Diceman specialised in standing stock still in the street, in complete silence, advertising local businesses and causes close to his heart. Once, when Gardai asked him to move along he frustrated the eviction by employing an extremely slow-motion walk that, as the prosecuting Garda told the court,0
“It was wasting police time as it bordered on immobility, your Honour.”
At the interval of the successful National Concert Hall event, I briefly replaced MD Joe Duffy to speak some lines from The Judges’ Performance to applause.
On another occasion, during a dramatic ‘re-enactment’, for publicity purposes, I was being manhandled by actors dressed as Gardai. Filmmakers and human rights campaigners Tiarnan Mac Bride and Pat Murphy chose a large officious building on Molesworth Street, across from Leinster House, as a backdrop.
The caretaker appeared in consternation and, matters being explained to him, rather than retreating and leaving the actors to it, immediately proceeded towards the ‘gardai’.
“Get away!” he screamed, kicking them repeatedly in the chins.
This of course turned the theme of the short shoot upside down, inside out. The emotional audience response was not in solidarity with us against our ‘arrest’ but because the pillared building was the headquarters of the, particularly that week, much maligned and publicity-shy Knights of Columbanus.
From acting I progressed to penning A Very Very Short Play in co-operation with some of my Special Branch stalkers which was performed in the Project Theater. It was the classic ‘play within a play’. The text was supplied by the Special Branch.
Nial Toibin, Donal O’Kelly and Mick Lally, face to audience, read the lines of three detectives given to the trial court performance in which the detectives claimed there had been no collusion, contact or discussion between them as to any of the content of their notebooks, purporting its contents to be an independent, true, uncoordinated record.
My short play consisted of the actors (pronounced ‘actowrs’) reading each of the three statements, alternating paragraph by paragraph between them. Echoes would have been an appropriate title.
Of course, all three were practically identical in every respect, including being untruthful. It proved conclusively the mind reading phenomena of the Special Branch acting school.
Years later, following a human rights conference in Dublin, I and many of the participant’s retired to a local pub to uphold our human right to quench our thirst while rehearsing Closing Time.
The delegation included a very large number of victims of miscarriage of justices over 20 years in Ireland and England, many of whom are household names such as the Birmingham Six and Guillford Four.
Between us, our past individual and group performances ran for decades, resulting in several hundreds of years incarceration, (and I suppose I can divulge the twists in the tales at this stage) for crimes we had never committed.
One minute after Closing Time as if by signal, two of my fans arrived led by a Sergeant, all in costume. The sergeant immediately detected the pub was full due to the swell of bodies at the door.
Drink was not only still being consumed but was also still being openly sold and he immediately instructed his fellow officers to commence taking names and addresses.
He came to me first and I co-operated with the impromptu performance as it enfolded out of respect for a fellow actor only asking him to deal with me in Irish. He obliged.
Looking up at the ceiling in solid artistic pose, he gave the impression of trying to recollect where he had heard the name before.
Moving on to the person beside me and all around me he repeated the performance. Within a few minutes he stopped taking details and I could see stage fright taking over as he hesitated.
As famous name after name was recited to the Sergeant his whirring mind clicked and he shook his head as if in a surreal daze, nodded his head in surrender.
“Why me, why always me,” I heard him mutter.
Tugging at the sleeves of the other two Gárdaí, he led them off stage, exit left, despite their mutterings and reluctance to abandon a cornered quarry.
It would be farce on the court stage he knew, an unforgettable stigma on his acting reputation were he to add to the misery of the lives of those he had found quietly supping a late pint.
It was not lost on him either that representing everyone at any court hearing would be famous stage performer and fellow late-drinker international human rights solicitor Gareth Pierce who was standing beside me as the Gardai exited.
The soon-to-be Chief Justice of Ireland’s critique of my method acting, as should be clear by now, was seriously flawed. Far from closing the play down it was a hit and ran for another 18 years, moving from scene to scene across international stages. It was even positively reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee; so much for the judge’s judgement.
He and his panel were wrong not only because they wrongly jailed me for my performance but, of more relevance to our discussion on acting, in that they participated with a troubadour of bad actors in court.
Detectives changed their lines unflinchingly daily, contradicting their lines delivered at the first trial performance with those given in the second trial performance and those of each other in both performances; all this despite ample loud warning prompts from the bench.
Indeed, the performance from The Bench itself cannot go unmentioned. One of the three judges tended to nod off during the unimportant matter of witnesses giving forth their best lines and being cross-examined.
This is understandable as the judges real performance did not come to the fore until they had to give their guilty judgement at the end of the trial.
Understandably, the longest performance in Irish legal history, running, as it did, for almost twelve months, and until the judges came on to perform, as it were, was a bit of a bore for them. It took other court actors (clerks) banging doors and deliberately dropping large books to wake him from his slumber.
When that didn’t work a swift surreptitious kick under the bench from one of the other two judges did.
The Sleeping Judge went to the High Court stage whereupon they retreated into an Alice in Wonderland panto stating that the trial court had ruled on itself stating no judge slept and that therefore none had- despite any reality to the contrary.
The Broadway-like Supreme Court of Actors was more forthright: straightforward condemning our cast for taking the case to them at all. Then they threw it off their stage and into the street.
Thus we returned to the trial court stage our unjustified fears allayed, protected under the unbiased mantle of the Superior Actors.
That great human rights audience across Ireland and the world disagreed with all the stage judge’s verdicts on my acting, in fact acclaimed the essence of my performance, as did later the Irish courts, eventually, and my sentence and conviction were both quashed. And so, Al Pacino’s method acting style has been reinstated to its rightful place.
Seventeen and half years later the Irish government of the day also agreed to cease the historic frustrating and blocking of My Civil Case re-run and bought out all tickets and all future productions and the rights to my play via a substantial compensatory offer.
The cost was more, it is rumored, than the Birmingham Six ever got for their plays, all of which further attests to the injustice of poor adjudications, or, the superior quality of my productions and performances, which simply follow the essence of all good plays, and indeed all art: they simply tell the truth.
© Osgur Breatnach