Valerie Kennedy
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Reflecting on work of Irish playwrights from the 1960s to 2020, Cormac O’Brien’s monograph, Masculinities and Manhood in Contemporary Irish Drama: Acting the Man, presents a central critical focus on the gradual transition from nationalism to neoliberalism in Irish dramatic representations of hegemonic masculine identity. A fundamental question throughout O’Brien’s study asks “how men perceive themselves as men and the ways in which these perceptions are performed” (19). Over six chapters, and through the work of writers such as Tom Murphy, Brian Friel, Conor McPherson, Frank McGuinness, Nancy Harris, and Deirdre Kinahan, O’Brien considers how shifts in gender coding relate to major socio-cultural and political transformations experienced in the transition to a more secular, diverse, and globalised society in the twenty-first century. Within that transition, Acting the Man effectively questions the relationship between neoliberalism and Irish masculinity and how it is reflected in contemporary Irish theatre.

O’Brien’s introductory chapter clearly outlines Acting the Man’s argument and provides a robust contextual background for the non-Irish or non-specialist reader. His observations regarding the impact of neoliberalism and its relationship to Irish masculinity as reflected in Irish drama point to a combination of neoliberalism and monumental shifts towards secularity as key factors in the challenges faced by the dominant heteronormative patriarchal hegemony. Ireland’s willingness for change was evident in the introduction of marriage equality and the campaign for women’s autonomy in repealing the Eighth Amendment: O’Brien’s book investigates the impact of such a shift in the collective consciousness and how it disrupted hegemonic perceptions of manhood. By scrutinizing how influential patriarchal systems of power and Irish hegemonic masculinity work to shape cultural representation and dramatic performances, Acting the Man offers a parallax view of Irish masculinities and weighs up the impact of economic and social change on those performances both on and off stage. To do this, O’Brien draws from an extensive corpus of post-colonial criticism in Irish theatre studies. Building on existing research, he acknowledges the contribution of Brian Singleton’s Masculinities and the Irish Theatre (2011) and Fintan Walsh’s Male Trouble: Masculinity and the Performance of Crisis (2010) to the field of Irish theatre studies. O’Brien also engages with arguments of prominent voices in sociology, gender and sexuality theory including Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, and Raewyn Connell. In each chapter, O’Brien creates a convincing fluidity in his analyses as he explores the nuances of a process of change.

Building on a strong introductory foundation, Chapter 2, “The Fantasy of Manhood,” explores homosocial environments as spaces where Irish masculine identity is both formed and on which that identity is dependent. Drawing from Lauren Berlant’s theory of gender coding as “cruel optimism,” a fantasy of ideals which become reified within the homosocial group to perpetuate perceptions of “real” masculinity, O’Brien begins by unpacking dramatic representations from 1959, locating Irish masculinity in the era of the Sean Lemass government and the First Programme for Economic Expansion. Various correlations between hegemonic masculine identities and the socio-economic realities of unemployment and emigration in mid-century Ireland are discussed through disturbances in homosocial group dynamics and how Irish playwrights execute depictions of masculinity and manhood on the nation’s stages.

In his third chapter, O’Brien probes the dramatic expression of Irish societal attitudes to gender equality, persuasively challenging the claim of “masculinity in crisis.” This chapter examines Irish patriarchal systems’ response as the nation adapted to socio-cultural change and economic growth. He argues that “the primary pathology of patriarchy in Irish theatre has been a mutation from transparent into euphemistic performances” (122), defining “pathology” as the “nature, causes, development, and consequences” of this dominant power structure (85). With an eye focused on the Celtic Tiger era when most in Irish society saw improvements in their personal circumstances, particularly women and the LGBTQ+ community, O’Brien’s examination details how traditional male-dominated systems of power experienced a loss of control over these cohorts resulting in the impression of “masculinity in crisis.” Neoliberalism, he argues, was a stealth-like remedy administered discretely for the benefit of maintaining the existing patriarchal hegemonic power in both society and Irish theatre.

O’Brien’s monograph acknowledges the lack of a chapter dedicated to issues of race and ethnicity in Ireland’s growing multi-cultured population. One hopes that the author’s sophisticated thoughts and analyses of this topic will appear in future writing on this subject. However, in chapter 4, “Men of the North,” he does address the subject from the perspective of masculinity in Northern Ireland, historically a place of complex identity issues. O’Brien reveals layers in performativity of “tribal masculine identities” and how they are “brought into being by doing” in a shared environment of violence and aggression built on difference (131). He suggests a persistence in the mobilisation of the male body “to serve the ideological agendas of outside forces” (164), whether political, paramilitary, religious, or criminal, as a perpetual consequence of masculine identity for Northern Irish men. Returning to masculine subjectivity, O’Brien presents a considered perspective of modern challenges emerging with the growth of neoliberal capitalism as the province recovers from decades of conflict and begins rebuilding itself.

Acting the Man’s final two chapters, “Masculinity Without Men” and “Acting Queer,” bring a fresh critical perspective to both theatre and gender studies. Each of the subjects shares distinct perspectives of the lived experience as an anathema to Ireland’s heteronormative patriarchal hegemony. O’Brien’s criticism highlights state legislation of sexuality and gender where political action severely impacts on the lives of women and society’s LGBTQ+ community leaving them “contained and controlled” (174). More specifically, “Masculinity Without Men” generates a powerful perspective of “presence-through-absence of patriarchy” (176), detailing various and often conflicting roles expected of women and femininity. A thoughtful selection of plays illustrates explicit and implicit methods patriarchal structures employ to maintain dominance over women and the ways in which women interact with those powers to gain a place within the structure.

In “Acting Queer” O’Brien interrogates a pattern of tropes and stereotypes often used to signify homosexuality as “Other.” The essay borrows from Michel Foucault’s theory of biopolitics and state control of queer bodies while also challenging neoliberal ideology that works to commodify queerness. He advances this analysis through engaging the work of queer theorists Sara Ahmed, Lisa Duggan, and Michael Warner, and identifies a shift in Irish socio-culture that promotes “homonormativity” as a “form of neoliberal respectability” in which society accepts gay men who assimilate into models of heteronormativity (216). Here O’Brien valuably highlights a refusal in both queer theatre and queer lives to conform to hetero- and homonormative expectations, provoking a new approach to queer dramaturgy and performance of queerness while dispelling myths and stereotypes around gay and queer lives.

Overall, Acting the Man demonstrates the tensions between conventions in a globalised Irish modernity and a static and sometimes rigid patriarchal system of heteronormative hegemonic masculinity predetermined by dominant Catholic infused conservative nationalism. O’Brien’s monograph is a fascinating investigation which presents a powerful and illuminatingly fresh account of the contributions made by Irish playwrights to modern Irish drama. While this book is a welcome contribution to the field of Irish theatre studies, it will also appeal to those interested in the developing body of research in the field of Irish gender and queer studies.