On Saturday March 5th at 4pm Smock Alley, as part of the Scene and Heard festival I will be staging a reading of my father’s play ‘Once More for Toby Jugg’. I say my father’s play, as it was his original piece. The play was written a little over five years ago, and he passed away almost three years ago now.
I was tasked with ‘doing something with the play’ after he died. A bizarre request but one which would allow for some, at very least interesting writing experiences. I was unsure if he meant for me to send it to the few theatre companies yet to reply, or was it to be rewritten on his behalf?
To give some background here my Dad wrote many plays over his lifetime, some with small success, others with none.
Now, you could ask, (as if out of the blue) ‘What is the measure of a piece of Art; is it at the say-so of a publishing agency? Is it the acclaim? Is it Van Geoghian interplay of suffering in life and the subsequent success in death that makes this measure? At very least, a reasonable reply from a publisher would have sufficed but very few, if none of those measures were applied to his plays. His short stories and poems featured in a few publications. He won a few awards as a young man as far as I know, but the big one, the full-length piece of work that should define him; that never came to fruition.
One of his earlier plays was titled ‘The Honour of Sorcha Daly’; it dealt with the theme of forgiveness. “Forgiveness is the Cruelest act of all” he would say. This was the theme, the message, the mantra he would recite; tapping away at the keys late at night as I was coming home from school. It must have been around the time of my Leaving Cert as I remember him searching for one of my History text-books under a dead-sea of yellow note pages. “Forgiveness is the cruelest act of all Eoghan”. “ OK, cool Dad”. It was an interesting juxtaposition and probably a catchier title than what he ran with. The last words of a woman killed in a brutal fashion sparks a religious movement when she asks God to forgive those who had slayed her. “Forgive them father for they know not what they do”.
That was a tangible and reasonably interesting plot to run with. I always quoted the Sinead O Connor Parody, ‘Niamh Connelly’, from Father Ted, when he mentioned it; “ I love the use of crude religious imagery”. At very least I could have envisioned the blurb in red serif font standing boldly beneath the poster title; debating with the promoter whether or not to include some blood dripping from the wing tip of the ‘F’ in Forgiveness. It had an accessible, if not inverted allegorical quality to it.
‘Once More for Toby Jugg’ on the other hand, the play he requested I ‘do something with’ was a tomb. A staggering 17000 word work, with sporadic and often incongruous morals. It was about a comedian that rose through fame by essentially becoming an ‘Anti-Islamic’ comedian. It was, at face value a jumble of all the moral musings and ‘devils advocate’ quips he spent his life debating with anyone who would listen. It was about the philosophical merits of Comedy, the shaky precipice that stands between being funny and being cruel, and most notably (although at the time unknown to him) the effect of Islamic Extremism on the West.
The play was written two years before the attacks in Paris (as well as in Kenya and Beirut) in November last year, before the gunning down of the Charlie Hedbo journalists in that same year. This, as you may imagine massively effected the manner in which I would have to re-write it. As a new wave of scarfed faces toting ‘ISIS’ flags flooded our HD, Blue-ray screens I was struggling with two concepts. What was the play about previous to this influx of 21st century media perpetuated terrorism, and what does it mean now?
This is in no way to say that the play’s previous manifestation echoed the racist and a bigoted media sphere we now exists within (which has driven fear so deeply into western thought that a man like Donald Trump can become President). Instead it simply didn’t give enough weight or time to that concept. Many, many versions of the play were written over the three year period he spent altering it.
Some of the versions I remember were mired in his own weird fascinations. Researching genuine Satanic bookshops in the leaky backstreets of London to purchase a book of spells to quote. His search for authenticity was quite relentless. I remember he wouldn’t allow me to read the book of Grimoires that he had bought for fear of (his words), “evoking something beyond our control”. I sort of enjoyed messing with his own ironic faith in the power of those books. I partially read a passage once, having taken it without him knowing and he nearly fell off his chair as I read the biblical babble as convincingly as I could. I’m still unsure whether or not he feared what finishing the ‘spell’ might have actually manifested, or if he was more afraid that nothing would have come of it. Living half-way between knowing what they could do must have allowed him to believe that they were true.
The moral, if such a clear one existed, of his final version ended with parental neglect, rather than Islamic extremism being the great tragedy and ultimately Toby Jugg’s downfall. Although in this previous version he had used Satanism (a subject he became interested in a faux scholarly way) as a slightly cheesy tool to inflict this evil. This diluted and shunned the pressing contemporary questions, that I was then forced to address.
After some months six months of the longest processes of my young-adult life, I believe I’ve honed and directed, rather than altered, ‘Once More for Toby Jugg’ into an important commentary on how we in the West view Islam. I could not shy away from it. It has of course been a difficult task staying true to the original message of the play. The text organically shifted as I began to interpret my father’s words, and simultaneously the political and moral landscape that I stood on also began to shift.
Scene and Heard is an amazing festival which has allowed me to do, what my father possibly wasn’t able to do; put these words in the hands of capable actors and have an audience listen to how two generations view the world.
This article originally appeared on Newstalk.ie