Zan Cammack
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Creative Commons 4.0 by Zan Cammack. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Paul Fagan and Dieter Fuchs, eds.

Cork University Press, 2022. 352 pages.

ISBN: 9781782055358

It is perhaps unorthodox to start a book review with the final chapter of the book, but in Flann O’Brien: Acting Out, the final chapter is perhaps one of the most convincing arguments for the need for a dedicated edited collection about themes of theatricality and performance in the works of Brian O’Nolan. Paul Fagan’s closing chapter is a “basic working inventory of key productions and adaptations of O’Nolan’s work for stage, radio and screen”, and the subsequent thirty pages detail an incredible range of works and media written by the complex multiplicity of authorial voices that include Myles na gCopaleen, Flann O’Brien, and Brian O’Nolan (322); and, as Fagan makes clear, this catalogue should not be considered comprehensive or exhaustive. It offers a compelling case for O’Nolan’s enduring allure in, and the inherent performativity of, his works. The inventory is only a part of the larger argument of the entire edited collection, which is that O’Nolan’s works have intrinsic qualities of performance, theatricality, and staging that “have long been evidenced by productions, adaptations and creative receptions of his writing for the stage, radio and screen” and that work on these aspects of O’Nolan’s writings is still largely underdeveloped (352). This chapter is something of an exclamation point at the end of a truly impressive edited collection, comprising twenty essays curated by Paul Fagan and Deitre Fuchs, that delves into the theatricality that permeates O’Nolan’s multifaceted oeuvre.

The collection is structured into five “Acts”, examining different facets of performance in O’Nolan’s writing and personas. While the sheer volume of chapters included does not allow for a detailed discussion of each work in a review like this, the intricacies and nuances of the collection would be lost without a certain high-level overview of each section and its included chapters. The first section, “Act I: Stage Irish”, focuses on the complexity of O’Nolan’s authorial identities, embedded as they are in Irish theatrical history ranging from Dion Boucicault’s plays – from which O’Nolan derives his pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen – to critiques of his contemporary theatre-goers in his Cruiskeen Lawn articles, from the multiple authorial voices that perform as Myles to the multiple plays – including J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World – that inform plot and performance in O’Nolan’s novel The Third Policeman.

“Act II: O’Nolan’s Globe” explores wider influences on O’Nolan’s writing, emphasizing the interplay between his “international theatrical contexts and debts” (13). This section’s chapters examine William Saroyan’s correspondence with O’Nolan and their transactive exchanges regarding the Sweeny legend and translation, Luigi Pirandello’s influence on O’Nolan’s characterization and metanarrative, and the Brechtian strains in O’Nolan’s collapsing novel narratives and breaking the fourth wall in works like At Swim-Two-Birds. Another chapter delves into the Bakhtinian carnivalesque nature of O’Nolan’s often undervalued short story “The Martyr’s Crown”.

The third act, with its witty pun “Myles en Scène”, examines O’Nolan’s plays particularly. Chapters include an exploration of storytelling’s transformative power through speech acts rather than elaborate scene settings in Thirst; a contextualization of Faustus Kelly within a critique of global and Irish rhetorical contexts that aligns O’Nolan’s play more closely with Goethe’s Faust Part One than one might think; a look at the staging and imagery that emphasizes the post-human mechanical insects in Rhapsody in Stephen’s Green; and an analysis of An Sgian and The Handsome Carvers that places O’Nolan within the Grand Guignol tradition, oscillating between the absurd and the graphically horrific. This section offers a nuanced view of O’Nolan’s performative prowess, expanding beyond traditional theatrical norms.

“Act IV: Transmedial Entanglements and Interlingual Adaptations” widens the spotlight to showcase O’Nolan’s adaptability across different media forms and translations. The first chapter in this section discusses O’Nolan’s use of disembodying technologies like gramophones, radio, and film to express posthuman subjectivity and test the limits of corporeality within technical genres. Another chapter explores Lady Augusta Gregory’s influential use of tableaux vivant and her novel The Workhouse Ward in O’Nolan’s works such as An Sgian. The subsequent chapter unravels the intricacies of translating Brinsley MacNamara’s play, emphasizing the complex choices O’Nolan faced with the linguistic nuances of proper names. The section concludes with a poignant exploration of O’Nolan’s translation of the Čapeks’ play Ze života hmyzu in 1943, functioning as a politically charged critique of Irish rhetoric during the Emergency.

The final act, “Curtain Calls”, sheds light on some of O’Nolan’s posthumous authorial personas, revealing them as often unintentional performances that blur the lines between the man and his masks. Chapters in this section explore how posthumous reflections on O’Nolan through personal memoirs and anecdotes, critical apparatuses like the journal The Lace Curtain, or the theoretical framework of historicism have profoundly impacted our understanding of the author, his authorial personas, and his critical reception and trajectories. The constant throughline of the section is an exploration of the performative nature ingrained in O’Nolan’s authorship and works.

One of the standout features of the collection that becomes apparent when taken as a whole is its delivery on the contention that “[t]hrough a series of interrelated examinations of his creative debts and collaborations, staged performances and modes of adaptation”, it emerges that the “prominence of performance, imposture, social theatricality, and literally illusion in his multi-genre project remains under-scrutinized” (5, 12). An example of thematic developments of the collection in this vein are the two chapters on O’Nolan’s adaptation of Cǎpeks’ The Insect Play into Rhapsody in Stephen’s Green. In Lisa Fitzgerald’s “Insect Plays: Entomological Modernism, Automata and the Nonhuman in Rhapsody in Stephen’s Green” she demonstrates how the staging of insects as automata and specific stylistic choices are clearly situated as part of a broader modernist tradition: “The physical and behavioural attributes of insects suggest that they are predisposed to the mindless mechanistic traits that were to become a central part of twentieth-century aesthetics” (181). In a similar vein, Matthew Sweney’s “‘A Play with two titles and several authors is a rather unusual event’: Rhapsody in Stephen’s Green by Myles na gCopaleen and Ze života hmyzu by the Brothers Čapek” provides a stunning examination of how O’Nolan translated the play in a specific global political context. Sweney argues that O’Nolan’s translation is closer in spirit to the original play than the existing English-language script, and that his adaptation is also a heavy-hitting critique of Irish neutrality under de Valera during the Irish “Emergency”. Fitzgerald’s chapter positions O’Nolan’s play in global modernism in terms of performance, whereas Sweney discusses it in terms of global politics. Together, these chapters give us a powerful understanding of Rhapsody in Stephens Green, positioning O’Nolan as an author finely attuned to global politics, global artistic movements, and the politics of adaptation and translation.

As a whole, this collection also teases out convincing and nuanced narratives that support Fagan’s claim that “a taste for the performative, even the outright theatrical, marks O’Nolan’s work throughout his career”, and that Acting Out “interrogates this complex nexus of disguise and disclosure, of simulation and authenticity, of persona and imago, that produces the unique hybrid identity of author, performer and literary character that is Brian O’Nolan, Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen,  et al.” (5). For example, Maebh Long’s essay, “Plagiarism and the Politics of Friendship: Brian O’Nolan, Niall Sheridan and Niall Montgomery”, focuses on the correspondence between O’Nolan and his two long-time friends. Through their correspondence, it becomes clear that Myles is an intricate tangle of multiple authors; so intricate that plagiarism (acknowledged or not) becomes a tricky concept to nail down. Long’s previous impressive work on The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien makes it unsurprising that she would handle this topic so deftly. O’Nolan’s correspondence provides additional connection to chapters like Joseph LaBine’s “‘Comedy is where you die and they don’t bury you because you can still walk’: William Saroyan and Brian O’Nolan’s Playful Correspondence”. LaBine traces these two authors’ relationship through the letters, interrogating what we know of their literary give and take. Concepts of authorial agency and performance in these letters become a throughline that allows us to see larger narratives of performance emerging in his larger body of work and his interactions with other authors; the performance of the authorship and how he perceives the additional production of theatrical writing is fascinating.

Other chapters serve as similarly interconnected explorations of O’Nolan’s different authorial masks and personas. From Long’s chapter, we understand that Myles na gCopaleen is a combination of at least three different authors. Then, chapters from Johanna Marquardt – “Morphed into Myles: An Eccentric Performance in the Field of Cultural Production” – and from John Greaney – “The Richness of the Mask: Modernist Thought and Historicist Criticism” – demonstrate that Myles and O’Nolan and Flann O’Brien are always a moving target of performance, mask, and persona. The interview that O’Nolan has with R. M. Smyllie at a pub to become the writer for The Irish Times as Myles na gCopaleen in Marquardt’s chapter is partially performance, for example. And there is constantly a shifting and moving target when it comes to how we discuss O’Nolan or how we refer to O’Nolan and his authorial attribution.

This creates an interesting point of contention in the larger work. Chapters generally use Brian O’Nolan as a somewhat standardized name for the author at the centre of this collection, and yet the collection is named after Flann O’Brien (a decision that is not specifically addressed as an oddity in the collection). This is probably because Flann O’Brien is arguably the most popular authorial voice that we associate with him because of his novels. But interestingly, we notice that this use of O’Nolan’s name is not standardized even in this collection when we read the chapter by S.E. Gontarski, “Sweeny Among the Moderns: Brian Ó Nualláin, Samuel Beckett and Lace Curtain Irish Modernism”, which refers throughout to the author using the Irish spelling of his name. This question of the stability of translating proper names in different contexts is similarly raised in Richard T. Murphy’s chapter, “Cad é atá in ainm? Maighréad Gilion by Brian O’Nolan and Mairéad Gillan by ‘Brian Ó Nualláin’”. This is not to say that the inconsistencies or repeated interconnected themes are weaknesses within the collection, but rather they show the difficulties of exploring O’Nolan as an author because of the inherent performance embedded in his writing; even nomenclature is unstable when it becomes associated with the staging of an authorial voice or persona.

This collection is a much-needed examination of O’Nolan and the myriad ways he and his art are “acting out”. It gives us even greater access points to modernist theatre. It gives us access points to O’Nolan as a global modernist, rather than being considered, as he often has been, an author isolated from global influence by staying in a somewhat insular Ireland. This collection demonstrates what is possible when we explore this author outside of the media standards that we are more familiar with in O’Nolan scholarship. Flann O’Brien: Acting Out emerges as a substantial and meticulously curated collection that significantly advances our understanding of O’Nolan’s works within the broad scope of performance, theatre, and diverse media, offering a nuanced exploration of his multifaceted oeuvre. The collection’s framework guides readers through a range of critical apparatus and thematic intersections of O’Nolan’s creative endeavours. It carefully examines collaborative dynamics, intertextual influences, political critiques, and the performative dimensions embedded in O’Nolan’s personas. As such, Flann O’Brien: Acting Out adds depth to O’Nolan studies and stands as a foundational resource for scholars exploring the intricate interplay between literature, performance, and modernist sensibilities in his works. This collection invites us to continue to engage with O’Nolan and his works on a larger stage.