Striking the balance between stereotype and reality
Often, stereotypes allow people to simplistically identify a certain group or community without much thought into the depth and identity of the individual. This was evident in the new play on at the Gielgud Theatre, The Ferryman, alongside some stereotypes that were well-executed and didn’t leave as much of a bitter taste in the audience’s mouth. While society seems to have progressed in terms of legislation and mentality regarding social problems and changes, the presence of stereotypes maintains that the negative effect of intolerance still very much alive. This is evidenced recently by anti-immigration rhetoric in the UK, where some political groups have used generalisations to create fear of the different communities in the country, resulting in public harassment and unpleasant threats.
The Ferryman is a play set in the Irish countryside in the early 1980s. A large Catholic family is split between those who are wholly engaged in the Troubles in the city and those who believe their geography and history distance them from these events altogether. The Troubles are, in simplistic terms, the era in which Northern Ireland was divided between supporters of the British government and those advocating a departure from it instead. On Irish ground, this translated into a religious divide between, on one side, the Protestants, who were loyal to London and, on the other side, the Catholics.
Let’s start with a stereotype which, in the play is delivered in a well-balanced manner, dancing. Dancing is a feature of many cultures, often something which distinguishes music from certain regions from their neighbours and sure enough, in the Ferryman, one sees the whole family excluding a sick mother jig to some traditional melodies as a way of celebrating the harvest. There are two sides to this: generationally, it might have been very likely that the men had been taught the appropriate “jigs’, ‘reels’ and ‘heavies” (types of traditional Irish dance) as children, so to have the majority of the male relatives jumping easily onstage might be no surprise to the average Irishman. Artistically, this could be a metaphor between the fervent revolutionaries (those who fight) and the grieving families (those at the receiving end of the fighting). However, as for the enforced stereotype of an Irish person dancing at every occasion (and dancing well), it could be argued that while it’s unrealistic, it’s more annoying than harmful because it only perpetuates a tame, fabricated idea of Ireland at this tense time in history.
A lot of this play revolves around the IRA (Irish Republican Army), with characters either for or against their objectives. However, for many Irish people of that period, the reason they no longer have a definite opinion on the conflict is because the objectives were lost in the bloodshed that occurred. A personal example of this is my father’s family, who, with a British father and an Irish mother, believed they’d be ‘safe’ during this period and be accepted by both sides. The opposite occurred and all 8 siblings from the family quickly left Ireland, some for good. Therefore, to assume, as the play seems to do, that every native Irishman has an inclination to either side of the Troubles is too simplistic.
The most damaging and definitively one-sided interpretation of an Irish stereotype is the way whiskey is used throughout the piece. The idea of having whiskey as a calming drink, as a celebratory toast, as a shock-reliever are all well and good if you come from a wealthy background and have a substantial store to spare. However, at the time, this drink was a luxury that many families across Ireland would have struggled to afford, least of all a 12-man group plus cousins from the city. Despite joining the EU in 1973, income inequality in Gross Household Income increased by 0.1% from that year to 1980, when the country was already the poorest in Europe. In combination with this, considering today’s price of a bottle of whiskey varying from £22 to £30 (and we can assume a proportionally similar price back then). This is one stereotype that is likely to be factually and contextually incorrect. On a non-economic note, it pushes the preconception that Irish people look to alcohol for help and that there’s a massive drink dependency problem, which again, is not a priority issue in Ireland more than in other northern european countries.
Others have also picked up on the problematic side of Butterworth’s work. As an Irishman himself, Sean O’Hagan was one of the few who dared to criticise the highly-acclaimed play by writing for the Guardian. In essence, he believes the reception this piece got “was the sound of a mainly middle-class English audience having their cultural stereotypes confirmed rather than questioned”, fundamentally other-ing the poor, lowly Irish from their richer, English supervisors.
Jez Butterworth, the writer of the Ferryman, is himself part Irish but in an interview, he claims to not “consider [himself] Irish”. He has chosen not to do that and instead used his distance from Ireland and its culture to pander to a London audience. When writing this piece, I based a lot of the initial thought on what my father, who’s from Derry, said to me in a phone call. Now I’m in a similar situation to Butterworth in that I don’t feel very Irish despite half my family originating there but I don’t think it was necessarily hard to separate the preconceptions from the realities of Irish life. Overall, I believe this play toed the line effectively in both addressing but also feeding stereotypes of Ireland.
The Ferryman is now on at the Gielgud Theatre in London until January 2018.
By Darcey Stickley
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