Review: Protestants and Protest Art
By Gerry Fitzsimons
25th June 2004
Just as the issue of partition remains unresolved by the failed political machinations of London and Dublin, so also, at a far deeper level, does the issue of the Protestant identity remain unresolved in the Irish context. A bewildering mixture of political radicalism, scientific rationalism and visceral bigotry and reaction are jumbled together. Robert Welch is the latest in a long line to explore the contradictions in drama, resolving the contradictions by reduction to a set of subjectivist beliefs which we are asked to simply walk away from into the calming fog of post-modernism.
Performed as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast last April, Protestants by Robert Welch offers experiential and experimental fiction - a series of dream and nightmare invocations.
Apart from the very first scene which is a contemplation of the light and lawns that surrounded the Anglo Irish Big House before the fall, the single performer then moves through the set possessed by the spirit and spirits of the imaginary history of a religion.
Picking up his first props – a (semi) circular saw blade and a Zimmer frame – he becomes Elizabeth I rounding on Essex for signing a peace-treaty with Hugh O’Neill (‘Good for both sides?! But there is only one side: our side!’).
The next spirit, a Rangers fan (better known as the character actor Robert Carlyle) now takes possession. Attempting to make plans for a later ‘Aul Firm’ war, the chain-wielding fan encounters a new and frustrating phenomenon – the UDA boss who has to ‘consult’ his associates before any action plan can be agreed.
Next phantasmagoria, a veteran of Cromwell’s army, recounts the execution of Charles I. This relates more to a description of the many wood-cuts and later paintings that were made of this event, as the veteran (despite having been at the battle of Wexford) seems still impressed with the amount of blood a man can contain.
This is followed by a short soliloquy from a follower of Martin Luther King Jr, and his motivation on remaining in the movement post-Selma, which then fades to make way for Luther himself, on the simplicity of user-defined faith.
Just as we are introduced to the outer edge of his theological reason, he slips back into the darkness. Welch then returns to the spirit of his pastoral opening. A man holds a telescope, at first signifying perhaps the protestant scientist who made some ground-breaking observations. Who was he? What was it exactly that he did?
Questions that Welch somewhat mischievously hopes we will ask ourselves, as the moment he is leading up to has nothing to do with the spirit of scientific inquiry, but everything to do with a particular domestic ritual. The more we move away from the details of the young man’s surroundings, and the closer to the moment of the placing of his first sash around his shoulders, the more numinous and Beckett-like becomes the writing. It is the play’s penultimate moment; the defence of a religion has become a religion in itself.
And I think this mystical overstatement has a purpose – or rather a sub-purpose. For the author (a distinguished academic) has I suspect grown tired of those who continually want to prove their historical even handedness, by insisting on the radical and revolutionary role that aspects of Protestantism played in Ireland and world history. Welch, by contrast, is insisting on the deep subjective activators that motivate us all – and not just Ideology or History.
The final character who takes possession is the weakest in the play, his purpose being to wind down the proceedings (just as the hysterical Elizabeth I and the Rangers fan wound them up). A petrol pump attendant gives us an inventory of how the modern world seems to have arrived in his locality after the impact of Dr King’s movement. This poor white’s tones and grammar owe more to the lines uttered by the hired help in The Big Country than to anyone from Mississippi or Arkansas, so his symbolic petrol pump unfortunately had a better part than him.
In the last scene, another type of possession takes place, only this time it is the author as academic who has the actor speaking in the tongues of post-modern and post Freudian discourse of renunciation. ‘All these moments,’ he tells us, ‘have one thing in common - belief.’ They are but stories and mind-sets, that we must move on from. And it is true; after many years of applying Freudian and post Freudian ideas to texts, quite a few liberal academics have now forsaken academe and taken up psychoanalysis proper.
All of these spirits must be exorcised. But how can this be done, when they have been so mysteriously and lovingly invoked for an audience who may revere them? This is the lesson that Frank MacGuinness unintentionally imparts in his play Observe The Sons of Ulster Advance Towards The Somme. Having dramatically and ritualistically summoned the ghosts of his UVF unit, MacGuinness allows his recollecting narrator’s attempt to escape the past to collapse at the end of the play. The narrator rejoins his company in his mind, as they go (in both senses) over the top and into oblivion. Whatever patriotic understanding the audience had about them, these lives in the end had meaning only when they were sacrificed, for that which would never be extinguished - their vision of Ulster.
At that performance it was clear that a section of the audience was very satisfied with this ending – the founding ‘Norn Ireland’ state myth of the Somme. But it is worth noting that MacGuinness’s and Welch’s re-invocations have other unseen casualties.
First, it would be outrageous to even suggest that MacGuinness was inspired by John Arden’s Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance. However, I think a literary academic would have a task to prove that the terrifying dance of the sergeant does not discloses a deep similarity to the fascistic rally that ends Observe The Sons of Ulster. Innovations that were previously radical can be turned against the cause they once served. Arden’s sergeant is psychologically destroyed by the gore, whereas MacGuinness’s UVF commander is invigorated by the glory that keeps his men simple, decent and strong, and therefore (unlike Musgrave) does not turn against his experience.
Second, for Welch it is much easier to insist on Modernity dissolving ideas and therapeutically absolving the mind, if ideas are characterised as ‘beliefs’ and not ethical principles or ideology. It is a characteristic aspect of liberal professionalism that, after having rebutted the radical left, it then in turn ascribes deep mystical powers to the right, thus underlying the liberal need for gradualism. For it side-steps the problem of the persistence of radical traditions.
Before the recent crop of British tele-evangelist historians, I recall an excellent series on Cromwell. One of the programmes dealt with the Putney Debates and their aftermath, the war against the Diggers and the Levellers.
The Putney Debates marked the beginning in England of the idea that the ordinary people should determine the shape of their government. Having carried out the logic of the reformation – that the true Christian, not being part of the dominion of Rome, must therefore be part of a separate dominion – who and what that dominion was ultimately for, was thrown into relief during the English civil war.
We have excellent records of these debates from this dramatic turning point in radical history and the history of Protestantism, where Cromwell reveals that it was his own mystical fundamentalism that gave him the authority to conduct and win the war. This, he and his supporters maintained, had no relationship whatever to their radical opponents’ ‘notions’ of a new people’s dominion, where the people themselves would rule. The political power that God and property had bestowed would therefore remain for a considerable time to come.
Protestantism is not one thing. It is many.
The many elements are not simply facts of some hidden unity not disconnected
subjective beliefs. Like all other aspects of the society we live in they
reflect antagonistic class forces that struggle for dominance. It is probably
for that reason that Robert Welch sought not to make the struggle of the
levelers part of his play.