The Irish Review

The Irish Review published by Cork University Press

Roundtable – Seamus Deane & Susan McKay

Cover draft 46The Irish Review 46 includes a transcript of a roundtable discussion between Seamus Deane, Susan McKay and Heather Laird, chaired by Joe Cleary. Below is an extract in which Seamus Deane reflects on the impact of Field Day’s cultutal politics. The full conversation can be read in issue 46 of The Irish Review.

Joe Cleary: Arguably in the 1980s Field Day tried to open up a space for discourse that would be critical of that idea of modernisation in the North; and that this then went from outside of the academy, in the Field Day Theatre Company, into the academy in the form of post-colonial studies. What is your own sense of how that post-colonial critique has developed? What have been its consequences and its limitation?

Seamus Deane: I think the limitations are pretty obvious. But what is most surprising is that there has been no other group like Field Day in the interval. There was no other theatrical enterprise that attempted what we tried to do. Stephen Rea always used to say, ‘try and produce something that is short enough for people to read and to feel affected by’ and that’s why theatre was our chosen field of combat. Our aim was to find a public realm which would include what he called the ‘new audience’, which was the generality of people rather than the elite or the special group of the academy. I think we were partly successful in that. And all those rows we had, as Susan mentioned, were in fact entirely predictable; sometimes we wrote things so that we could produce a particular response. But the point was that the scale of the rows hardly ever went beyond the national question; everything was recycled furiously back into the North, into nationalism, into the fact that nationalism, in the view of most of our critics, was always an attack on the Protestant people and it was always sectarian. So we were caught on exactly the treadmill we wanted to get off: nationalist-sectarian/internationalist-liberal. If your idea of nationalism is so improvised and narrow that it has to be sectarian and if your idea of the liberal is equally so improvised that it has to be a kind of cosmopolitanism, then that’s a narrow dispute – those are parallel lines that will travel separately and onward forever.  We did try to break that and I think in theatre at least it was in part broken.

Susan McKay: And can I ask you Seamus, did you deliberately exclude women from the Field Day anthologies in order to provoke the feminist reaction? That was an instance where there was a reaction to something Field Day did which was entirely outside of the national question.

Seamus Deane: It was initially, but then it rebounded into that when it became a characteristic of nationalism to be against the feminine and the feminist, with the implication left hanging that unionism would not have any such provincialising function. But obviously that was also an indication of the fact that Field Day had by then lost its grasp on where the divisions in Irish society actually were; we were missing them even as they were opening under us. By the 1990s, we could not comprehend the arguments that we were in and not just in relation to the feminist issue, but in relation to the economic issues and in relation, I think, finally to the endlessly recycled nationalist/liberal idiom, from which we made quite heroic efforts to escape but which we were always accused of reintroducing.

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