A stone of the heart 

Butler Theatre's Irish tour of 'The Dreaming of the Bones'

Butler Theatre’s Irish tour of ‘The Dreaming of the Bones’

In Dublin, Ireland, on April 24, 1916, a motley group of around 1,000 rebels stormed the city’s downtown buildings in order to show their contempt for the British occupation of their country. They were outnumbered 16 to one, but managed to prolong the fight for a week, all but wrecking Dublin’s city center in the process. The rebels issued a proclamation asserting Ireland’s right to freedom and self-government. Sixteen of the men who signed that document were arrested and locked up in Kilmainham Gaol, an 18th century block of stone and black steel, where they were eventually put to death.
In performance at Kilmainham Gaol
Now, 87 years later, Alyson Mull, a member of the cast of Butler University’s production of W.B. Yeats’ play The Dreaming of the Bones, dances meditatively across the gravel surface of the Kilmainham’s unforgiving exercise yard. She is surrounded on all sides by three-story stone walls. Drainpipes leading down from the roof are encircled by angled, bayonet-like spikes. Overhead the sky is threatening rain. Mull, in a long, medieval dress, dips and rolls on the stony ground. Several of us watching her performance are struck by the same thought: This is probably the first time in the history of this dark and brutal place that anyone has danced here. For over a week, a delegation from Butler University, led by Butler President Bobby Fong and the head of its theater department, John Green, have been performing Bones at sites suggested either by Yeats’ play or by his life. Widely considered Ireland’s greatest poet, Yeats was an Irish patriot who was, nevertheless, appalled by the Nationalist Movement’s seemingly bottomless obsessions with violence and hatred. Yeats wrote The Dreaming of the Bones in 1919 as a kind of cry of the heart, a plea to his people to forgive their deadly trespasses against one another. It is not a conventional play. When he wrote Bones, Yeats was fascinated by Japanese Noh drama, a ritualistic kind of theater that makes use of music, masks, poetry and movement. This is also a work governed by metaphor. Although Yeats makes explicit reference to the events of April 1916, he does so in the form of a ghost story, the legend of Dermot and Dervorgilla, lovers whose forbidden affair lies at the heart of Ireland’s enduring pain. For all his interest in the exotic and experimental, Yeats was also a writer with a deep sense of place. Bones takes place in the limestone landscape the Irish call the Burren. As Louis Muinzer, the Belfast-based Yeats scholar and writer who first brought the play to John Green’s attention, put it, “Yeats says too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart — and he has set this play in the stoniest part of Ireland.” Loaded proposition Along with Alissa Stamatis, my wife, Melli Hoppe, has co-directed Bones. Her involvement in the production has provided me with an opportunity to tag along on this tour. The chance to perform this piece in the land where it was created is exciting, but it is also a loaded proposition. “The Troubles,” as they are called, are still a living part of Irish life. Northern Ireland is still considered occupied territory. Both directors are keenly aware that Americans bringing this play to Ireland might be considered impertinent at best. As Stamatis puts it, “I’ve told the cast to be prepared for passionate responses.” But as we depart for Ireland, just what those responses might be remains hard to anticipate. When the play was first performed at Butler in April, it seemed like a colorful, even haunting, collection of parts that were yet to gel. The players held the elements of movement, music and text together through technique, but the soul of the piece seemed undiscovered. A more conventional production would have allowed for a more predictable audience response. This version of Bones, however, is anything but conventional. As if to underscore this fact, the piece will be performed at five completely different sites: Yeats’ Tower, the place he called home; Corcomroe Abbey, a 12th century ruin where the play is set; a small church in the town of Clifden, the capitol of Connemara; and, in Dublin, at the Municipal Art Gallery and Kilmainham Gaol. At each site, cast and crew will have less than an hour to adapt choreography and blocking to whatever space they find. In some cases they may be performing under an open sky that’s prone to rain. We’re on a tight schedule, so postponements are out of the question. With the exception of two days in Dublin, the group is based in the western port city of Galway. When we get there, the annual Galway Arts Festival is in full swing. Windows everywhere sport festival posters illustrated with an image of a frowning man and a perplexed looking toddler. This is actually liberating: We’ve landed in a town with the cultural confidence not to take itself too seriously. Over an Irish hotel breakfast of eggs, congealed pig’s blood and an orange drink that seems more like the idea of orange juice than the thing itself, John Green is enthused. Travel, he says, quoting the great English director Peter Brook, gets you into a different rhythm. “And you start to see that rhythm reflected in the work. We’re outsiders,” he acknowledges, “but we have something from the inside to feed back to the culture.” Bobby Fong agrees. “It’s very important for students to understand that what they’ve experienced in America may not always be universal.” Education, he adds, is about “what it means to create a culture rather than just inherit it.” On our first night in Galway we meet Louis Muinzer. Muinzer was born in Lafayette, Ind., but he’s lived and taught in Belfast for 40 years. Muinzer is the man who brought The Dreaming of the Bones to Green’s attention. Muinzer was slated to direct it, including a prologue he wrote to help audiences better grasp Yeats’ historical context, but was forced to stay in Ireland because of a heart condition. With his shock of white hair, Muinzer looks like a cross between Carl Sandburg and Andy Rooney. His ardent voice fills whatever space he’s in — from restaurants to hotel lobbies to the rainy pathways of Lady Gregory’s estate at Coole — with Yeats’ poetry and stories about the poet’s life. Muinzer’s job, now that we’ve arrived, is to introduce the Butler players to the actual places that inspired Yeats and that inform the writer’s work. Even the sunlight can be lonely The first performance is set to take place on a grassy elbow bordered by a river and a stream at the base of the 17th century tower Yeats turned into his home in 1916. But a hard rain begins falling before lunch and the ground is so drenched that the site for the performance is moved inside, to the second floor of the tower — into what Yeats considered his living room. This is not a commodious space. It’s tight and cold, the walls and floor are made of fieldstones. With a crowd that’s three-deep on all four sides, it’s also humid — sweat drips freely from the mask of Mike Bachman, who plays Dermot, throughout the performance. But the compression caused by the room heightens the sense of visual composition. Every movement reads like part of a stop-action photo sequence. The entire cast navigates in and around one another flawlessly and, in a little under an hour, the spectators reward them with a burst of applause that caps the performance like an emotional exclamation point. Afterward, when I ask various strangers what they’re feeling, their eyes are gleaming and their smiles seem a little dazed. Everyone, everyone, rhapsodizes about what they’ve just experienced. “I thought the acting was superb,” says one woman standing in the road leading to Yeats’ front door, and then she goes on, “their movements wonderful, their singing excellent, and they’re lovely, handsome people.” She tells me she’ll be following the troupe to their next site that day, Corcomroe Abbey. Corcomroe was built on the Burren by Cistercian monks in 1194. The monks liked to settle in isolated landscapes — they must have loved the Burren. “Even the sunlight can be lonely here,” Yeats wrote. The hills are covered with huge slabs of limestone. It’s a rugged, austere, yet somehow gorgeous place. In Bones, Yeats has a rebel who has fought in the 1916 uprising flee to the abbey, and it is within its ruined walls that he meets the ghosts of Dermot and Dervogilla. It was their love that started Ireland’s troubles; the rebel’s forgiveness, they tell him, can make the troubles cease. But the rebel refuses them. At the abbey, rain and sunlight alternate. The cast performs beneath the transept — the only shred of roof that’s left. The rest of us hold umbrellas or take cover beneath the arches of stone passageways. These conditions are challenging for everyone and they unite the audience and players in common cause. Birds fly above us and cry out as if on cue. At the close, members of cast and crew turn to one another in tears. Green whispers, “It’s so saturated with presence. It’s fantastic. There comes a point when performance goes away and you’re just …” He struggles for the right word, “relating.” There has been a breakthrough. This wasn’t simply a performance, it was an offering to the site. It feels as though we have all just participated in a kind of holy rite. Muinzer sits on a camp stool, his head bowed. The next day, as we wait to climb on the bus for the performance in Clifden, Mike Bachman reflects on the first two performances. “Yeats’ Tower was really tough because it was very technical. It was such a small space I wasn’t able to give as much of myself to the character as possible. Whereas at the abbey it was full space and everything took on a different meaning. Walking on the graves there, being on those stones, that moment when the birds cried overhead. It seemed like there was really something supernatural that controlled what was going on.” Bachman was introduced to site specific performance — working, that is, in unconventional environments — when he took part in Blaine Hogan’s The Door, a performance staged in a Broad Ripple alley during a snow storm a year ago. He says it changed his view of what theater can be. “The rain, the wind, the cold, the heat — it seems like it never works the way you want it to, but it’s so much more powerful. To be able to feel those things and see those things around you is very emotional.” Love and death The Corcomroe experience seems to deepen everyone’s understanding of the play. The power of Yeats’ metaphor of forbidden love, that Ireland’s violent history might be linked to an unresolved eroticism, is now palpable, giving the performances a heightened charge. Muinzer tells me, “Love and death are intertwined in this play.” We’re sitting together in a pew in the church in Clifden before the third performance. Muinzer has seen friends and neighbors killed over the course of the 40 years he’s lived in Northern Ireland. “This is really the story of Belfast,” Muinzer observes. “When I think of this play, I think of the continuing story of Irish history — it’s just going on as Yeats is portraying it here: ‘I cannot forgive him. I can almost forgive him. I’m trying to forgive him.’ The people aren’t getting there yet.” On this night, when the performance concludes with a standing ovation, Brendan Flynn, a member of Ireland’s National Arts Council and director of an annual arts festival in Clifden, invites the group back for a performance next year. Bones, he tells us, “is a play about forgiveness … about letting the past go. In Ireland that’s a very hard thing to do.” At one point, Yeats has his rebel fugitive exclaim that had it not been for the crime of passion committed by Dermot and Dervogilla, “our country … had been most beautiful.” That night, driving back to Galway from Clifden on the tour bus, Ireland’s enduring beauty is self evident. It gets dark late. At 10:30 at night we can still see the tops of the Connemara mountains and look down their long, misty valleys. Rain streaks the windows as we pass cattle resting on the ground like outcroppings of rock. Ponies suddenly appear and gallop alongside us. Bringing beauty there The tour closes in Dublin. Split by the narrow Liffey River, the center of the capital city is in disarray, dug up for a new public transportation system. The General Post Office building, scene of the fiercest fighting during the 1916 uprising, is crowded by construction equipment and pedestrian barriers. There is a tough, working-class inwardness about this city which, nevertheless, is also capable of the occasional startling gesture. Across from the GPO on O’Connell Street I pass a large shop window display proclaiming “National Orgasm Day.” At the troupe’s first Dublin performance, at the Municipal Art Gallery, Greg Collins, a critic and director of the W.B. Yeats Festival in Yeats’ birthplace of Sligo, turns up. Collins is a debonair man in a blazer and linen trousers who leans forward as if to catch every nuance of what’s being presented. No one expected him to be in attendance and, at the show’s close, Stamatis and Hoppe approach him with some trepidation. But Collins has been blown away. “I think, without exaggeration, it’s the best interpretation I’ve ever seen of this particular play,” he says. Then he offers the troupe yet another invitation, this time to perform in Sligo. Later that day, at Kilmainham Gaol, Collins shows up again, bringing along a book about Yeats that he offers as tribute to the company. He is visibly moved to be standing in the jail’s exercise yard. Shuddering, he whispers, “The Irish people hate this place.” But, he adds, it’s a “very appropriate” site for Yeats’ play. “The choreography,” he continues, “is very close to what Yeats wanted and I’ve never seen it done so well as in this production. The interpretation of the script is unique, I think, and I speak as someone with a lot of experience of Yeats. So I came back a second time to relish it …” Kilmainham is a forbidding venue. Five chained dragons are carved in stone above the entrance. Irish people, including patriots like Charles Parnell and Robert Emmett, were locked here in narrow, unheated cells — beaten, starved and killed. The shots of firing squads could be heard outside the thick stone walls as a kind of warning to the surrounding neighborhood. The jail was finally closed down in 1922; today it is kept as a museum. It will test the emotional reserves of the Bones cast as no other site has before. When the group assembles just prior to performance, many cast members are weeping. Others are uncertain about whether or not a performance here will be sacrilegious. Alyson Mull, the dancer playing Dervogilla, overcame her doubts. “I don’t think I could have done it if I didn’t really believe in the story — it was for the 16 who died there. All I could think was, they want this story told and if I don’t play this character, it won’t be told.” Drew Wiskowski, one of the ghostly musicians in the piece, said, “It was the most horrific experience of my life and the most spiritual. It pulled things out of us that I had never felt before.” The entire company’s emotional pitch is higher, more risky than ever. Transcending technique, they bring authentic anger and anguish to the work, yet never surrender to these feelings — and never once lose control. This is a heroic piece of ensemble work. Mull calls it “an offering. If their souls are haunting that place, to finally see this and just know that someone cares and is telling their story and bringing it to where they actually died — bringing beauty there.” That night, John Green sits in our hotel bar, slowly taking sips from a pint glass of Dublin-brewed beer. “How rarely,” he asks, “can you take a text and take it home? My feeling is we’ve brought this text home.”

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