A man walks into a bar. It’s the opening line of a hundred hoary old gags, but it’s also the launchpad for some of the world’s finest plays. David Weir takes a look at when pub theatre is also theatre set in a pub.
Pub. 1977. Spring. Harold Pinter, never a one to waste a word, opens Betrayal with that splendidly bare stage direction.
Sean O’Casey more loquaciously provides 22 lines to describe a ‘commodious public-house’ complete with beer-pulls, glasses and a carafe, and tall windows, a box-like snug and a shelf on which men may rest their drinks in The Plough and the Stars.
Whatever the challenges playwrights present to set designers down the years, one thing is clear. The pub has been for many the ideal setting for plays and key scenes. Think of Falstaff swigging sack or Jeffrey Bernard being unwell. Here’s Hickey revealing why the Iceman Cometh. There’s Valerie scaring the bejasus out of four grown men in Conor McPherson’s The Weir simply by telling them the truth.
So here are six simple rules for how pub theatre really works.
1. Be Irish
While national stereotyping’s never a happy place to go, there’s little point denying that the Irish pub is one of the Emerald Isle’s major contributions to world culture, and its probably no coincidence that Guinness, Jamieson’s and Bushmills flow more than most through the literature of the saloon bar.
Probably the best pub-set play of the 21st century so far is Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen.
The 1990s gave us Conor McPherson’s eerie The Weir.
Admittedly neither the playwright Keith Waterhouse nor Jeffrey Bernard, the journalist on whom he based his play, was born further west than Leeds, but sticking Peter O’Toole in the title role of Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell filled the gap for the 1980s.
Add Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and The Stars and JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, and well, you get the idea. For the Irish Rover, the whiskey’s in the jar. Curiously enough, perhaps the quintessential Irish pub play is by an American – though the fact that his name’s Eugene O’Neill suggests the apple hadn’t fallen too far from the tree.
The Iceman Cometh is entirely set in a bar full of men who spin tall stories about the lives they would lead if they weren’t propping up a bar. Into their midst comes Hickey, the travelling salesman who sees the wider world and gives them hope that their dreams might come true if they’d only step beyond the saloon door. But Hickey, of course, has feet of clay, living himself on a cloud of illusion.
The template’s familiar from plenty more – McPherson’s lonely drinkers spin ghost stories to entertain a newcomer in The Weir. McDonagh’s antihero boasts to the collection of losers in the pub he runs of his status as England’s second most famous hangman, all the while resenting his rival Albert Pierrepoint.
2. Be a man
Not to be sexist, but the literature of the pub has more than a whiff of testosterone to it, as the previous paragraphs may hint. Ever since Falstaff sat quaffing sack in the Boar’s Head, the role of women in pubs has been mostly confined to jolly barmaids (from Mistress Quickly to Bet Lynch and Peggy Mitchell) or prostitutes (see Eugene O’Neill again), if they appear at all.
Even when women write the plays, the girls are usually the other side of the bar (the Shakers half of John Godber & Jane Thornton’s Bouncers/Shakers, for example).
More often, it’s all about blokes, usually friendless blokes drinking a drink they call loneliness ‘cos it’s better than drinking alone (thanks, Billy Joel, for that one).
On the other hand, the unexpected presence of a non-serving woman in a bar can therefore be the most extraordinary thing to happen in the hands of a brilliant playwright.
Conor McPherson’s The Weir has four lonely men in a lonely rural bar telling ever-taller ghost stories to impress sophisticated Dubliner Valerie, possibly the only woman ever to walk into their taproom. When she entirely accidentally turns the tables by telling them a heart-rending true story, their foolishness is exploded by her emotional intelligence.
3. Be working class
Or if you can’t be working class, be as non-working class as can be.
It’s rare to find a member of the middle classes in a pub in a play. Hotels, golf clubs, drinks with friends at home, for sure, but pubs are very much for the lower orders and upper classes slumming it. Abigail doesn’t uncork the liebfraumilch for her party anywhere outside her sitting room. Alan Ayckbourn manages it in a Chorus of Disapproval, but there can’t be anywhere he hasn’t set a scene in 80-plus plays (and counting).
O’Casey’s pub in The Plough and The Stars is peopled with brickies and fitters and labourers, McDonagh’s in Hangmen with ‘cronies’ of no obvious means, and Shakespeare’s Boar’s Head with Falstaff, Bardolph and the rest of the idlers and hangers-on who surround young Prince Hal.
Jeffrey Bernard was a comparatively well-born journalist who hardly qualifies as working class, but his choice of pub, The Coach and Horses in Soho, was as rundown an old barn as he could find. On the other hand, playwright Keith Waterhouse, who fictionalised Bernard’s life in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell was one of the breakthrough working-class novelists and playwrights of the Angry Young Men era.
Even where the upper middle-class flickers towards a pub, we don’t get a glimpse of it. Young Birling’s drunken antics, which are part of the destruction of the life of a young woman, are reported back to the dinner-jacketed family in their drawing room in Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, for example.
Nope, to date, the pub remains largely a venue for drama about the lower orders. The time of the Gastropub play is yet to come.
4. Be sober
In my own pub-set play, No Occasion To, I require one of my characters to down five pints of lager in about 45 minutes. I was young, I was foolish, and a better craftsman than I would have found more imaginative ways to get characters offstage when I needed them not to hear things than sending them for yet another round. If only I had known exactly how whingey a whinging actor can be when they’re about to sink half a gallon of ginger ale for the eighth day in a row.
That said, it’s easy to see why a playwright in need of a setting finds comfort in the pub. First, most of us would rather be there than at our desks. Second, they offer a space that’s public but perfect for private conversations, as well as a reason for inhibitions to fall away and intimacy to grow as the evening wears on.
Jim Cartwright’s Two is a brilliant, funny and touching example of all that – two actors playing an entire cast of 14 characters in a series of interlinking relationships.
In short, though, keep an eye on the drink in most pub-set plays, and notice how often short is the operative word. Falstaff may talk a big game, but how often do you see him actually knocking one back? McPherson’s four lonely men prefer the whiskey to the beer, possibly for actor bladder-control reasons.
Pinter’s Jerry and Emma get through a pint-and-a-half of beer and a glass-and-a-bit of wine in a 20 to 25-minute opening scene. But then, they have other things to be thinking about than booze….
5. Be single
While in real life, the pub may be a place for a perfectly happy couple to have a perfectly happy drink on a perfectly pleasant evening, this ain’t the way of the pub in drama.
As mentioned, a lot of the characters (let’s face it, the men) in play pubs are alone, not by choice but often by the choice of others not to be with them. While O’Casey’s drinkers often have wives, they’re wives required to be home alone while the men are squandering the hard-earned. As with the Pinter, the pub is more often the scene of a break-up than a first love.
Romance does sometimes rear its head, and JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World is as good an example as any of where that leads.
Barmaid Pegeen Mike is as taken as the lumpen mass of her regulars with the storytelling gifts of mysterious Christy Mahon when he stumbles into Flaherty’s Tavern. Love winds its silken fetters around her, to the dismay of her clod-headed betrothed, but Christy’s tall tales are, as ever, more sow’s ear than silk purse, and poor old Pegeen Mike ends the play behind her bar, lamenting the loss of the ‘only playboy in the western world’ (though she does, and three cheers for Synge, get to dump him first, rather than his simply absconding).
6. The dangers of drinking
Pegeen Mike is first attracted to Christy Mahon when he tells her he has killed a man, and no less than his father at that. Murder stalks the dramatic pub to a remarkable degree. If Ingmar Bergman had stuck a chessboard in a corner of Finnegan’s bar, Death couldn’t have been more at home. Christy Mahon hasn’t actually killed a man, but Harry, the hero of Hangmen, has despatched dozens of them, usually (though, importantly, not always) because they’d committed murder themselves.
Jeffrey Bernard is near enough dead from drink when he gets himself locked in The Coach and Horses to tell his tale. Young Birling’s bad behaviour (among others) has the inspector calling because a woman is dead. Eugene O’Neill’s Iceman hasn’t been sleeping with the hero’s wife; to borrow from another medium, she sleeps with the fishes. The Shadow of a Gunman is never far from an O’Casey pub. Conor McPherson’s ghost stories inevitably involve the dead. Even Falstaff metaphorically dies when Prince Hal eventually spurns him (though in a royal court rather than a pub).
In short, drink is dangerous.
And finally ….
The greatest of all pub plays is, of course, The Weir, and for one simple reason. It means I don’t have to imagine what my name looks like 10 feet high on a West End theatre.
@February 2019 London Pub Theatres Magazine Limited
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