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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Was it a Play or a Funeral? Terence Bellew MacManus on Abbey Street (Dublin, 1861)

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 05/10/06 at 12:13 PM

While reading a book on colonial India at the California E-Scholarship Editions site, I browsed my way into Adrian Frazier’s Behind the Scenes: Yeats, Horniman, and the Struggle for the Abbey Theatre (1990; full text). 

In the Preface ("Whose Abbey Theatre?"), one finds a discussion of an event that took place at the site of the Abbey Theatre forty-three years before it was actually opened by Yeats, Gregory, and company. The event is the burial of Terence Bellew MacManus, a rebel from 1848 who was sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). He and a compatriot escaped to California, where MacManus died in January 1861.

A small group of Fenians (including James Stephens) then organized a rather momentous bit of political theater, which Frazier suggests might well be read as theater proper—though his designation begs the question about what, if anything, ought to be called “theater.” Does theater exist as a kind of idealized, autonomous Form, or is the line between various kinds of spectacles (political, religious, theatrical) sufficiently blurry that any public performance using a theatrical presentation should be simply designated more generally (i.e., as “performance")?

What happened in 1861, according to Frazier (and corroborated in bits here and here): the Fenians disinterred MacManus’ body and moved it slowly, first across the continental U.S. to New York, then by ship to Cork, and finally by rail to Dublin. Barred from the putting the body on state in the Pro-Cathedral, they marched the coffin through the streets of both Cork and Dublin, with tens of thousands of supporters participating. MacManus’ coffin was then placed ‘in state’ at the Mechanics’ Institute on Abbey Street, given last rites by a renegade Dublin priest, and finally reburied at Glasnevin Cemetary in Dublin.

Here is Frazier’s analysis of the event:

Both the British authorities and the Catholic Church opposed honoring violent revolutionaries or tolerating Fenian demonstrations disguised as funeral rites, so the body, barred from the Pro-Cathedral, was placed instead on the stage of the Mechanics’ Institute in Abbey Street. Thousands entered its doors, witnessed the scene on stage, and departed with fairly precise knowledge of what the performance said. Its speech was eloquent by virtue of the view the audience took of the scene: a reverent gaze at proof that Irishmen suffer under British rule, that they fight against it, that they die for the struggle, that, finally, they are honored for their sacrifice. Collectively, the audience witnessed a generational bond tying together Irish revolutions, renewed through past failures. The muteness of the testimony was its power and clarity.

This scene, clearly, had no text. There were, however, a host of authorizing conditions: Captain John Smith conceived the idea, Mahoney and Doheny promoted it, and James Stephens openly defied the clergy, roused the audience, and wrote the graveside address, a sonorous interpretation of the meaning of what had already happened in the theatre on Abbey Street. Without their collaborative authorship, there would have been no theatrical event. However, there were still further authorizing conditions. Four men can at any time decide to disinter a body in one country, transport it to another, leave it lying on a stage, and then reinter it, without any such import at all. To create the significance of “The Last Appearance of Terence Bellew MacManus,” it was necessary to have a people who look backward in times of trouble, who have important funeral customs, who for political reasons venerate (and create at need) national martyrs, and who respond quickly to orders from secret and alternative forms of power. These factors were essential to the significance of the event; without them, the Fenian leaders would never have gotten 50,000 people to march in the Dublin funeral cortege. The authorship of “The Last Appearance of Terence Bellew MacManus” consists in the Fenians’ conception of how the event would be read and in the conspiracy of the Irish masses to read it as meaningful.

Not only did the event have its authorship (organizational and communal), it also had other elements of dramatic performance, such as an actor. MacManus at the time of his death was an unsuccessful San Francisco businessman; at his height of glory, he was only a minor figure in a civil disturbance requiring the attention of the local constabulary. On stage, however, he was cast in the role of martyred hero. Although there are plays by Beckett with very nearly as little dialogue and action, and hardly so much impact, the 1861 spectacle of the disinterred rebel was not a play. Staged event, enactment of an idea, propaganda ploy, performance with authors, an actor, publicity, audience, and reviews, it may have been all of these, but it was not a play because the body on stage was indeed the corpse of Terence MacManus. (emphasis mine)

Most of the force of Frazier’s language here suggests he does see the reburial of Terence MacManus as a play. He goes so far as to give the event an author and an “actor” (of sorts), and even assigns it a name (it’s his own; as far as I can tell, no one used the phrase “The Last Appearance of Terence Bellw MacManus” at the time). And of course the fact that the coffin was put on view on Abbey Street at the site of the future Abbey Theatre seems to coincidentally lend the event more theatricality.

But then Frazier pulls the rug out from underneath his own claim, stating that it couldn’t have been a play because the “body on stage was indeed the corpse of Terence MacManus.” In other words, it doesn’t count as theater because it’s not fictional enough. It seems like a strange distinction to introduce, since Frazier’s rhetoric up to this point approaches theater as defined by the manner of presentation and context. Would this event have been more like pure Theater if the coffin had been empty and the whole thing faked? I tend to think not.

I’m a little ambivalent about this approach to the problem. Wouldn’t a more modern way to think about theater disregard the questions about essence and propriety and focus on the positive interactions between theatricality, political rhetoric, and religious ritual that are all at play in the MacManus event? But there are certain dangers in that approach too, and they are not unfamiliar: if everything is theater, a purist would say, then nothing is.

[Incidentally, I talked a little about the interaction of theater and politics in a post about Orhan Pamuk’s Snow here.]


"The point of this illustration is that while the existence of author and text are by definition essential to dramatic literature, the other factors that figure in making a publicly staged event significant—the promotion, the nature of the fund-raising, the political context, the predisposition of the audience, the character of the actor, the meaning of the scene, the commentary upon the event—are so important that one may discover something very much like an authorless, textless play.”

“Spectacle” of all sorts can indeed be “something very much like” the specific type of spectacle called theater, since it can be “something very much like” any sort of spectacle besides the one it is. But I agree with you, Amardeep; it’s a procedure to feel ambivalent about. Very, very common, of course—we look at the world and find, over and over again, strikingly close approximations to our own hobbyhorse. But it can have iffy results for both the hobbyhorse-riders and the distinctions we trample.

Notably, a public funeral is also something very much like the spectacle called terrorism, which would be the analogy preferred by the British authorities of the time. And terrorism’s being something very much like an authorless, textless play has led to a great many, um, unfortunate moments in the history of art, Stockhausen’s remarks about 9/11 being a fairly recent example.

In this context, though, given how genuinely the history of the Abbey Theatre is also a history of incitements to riot, I can see Frazier’s point. I’m just not sure I’d want it extended much beyond that context.

By Ray Davis on 05/12/06 at 11:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know Art, but I used to work with his Dad.....The MacManus funeral reminded me very much of an experience I had while attending Notre Dame during 1969, the student strikes/Kent State year.....An announcement was made that a sacrifice of a lamb was to take place on the steps of the administration building, to protest the slaying of innocents taking place over in Vietnam....the campus was abuzz all that preceding week....with the football-goon squad ready to pounce and thrash these hippy animal-haters....there were also other animal lovers aghast at the idea who promised to interfere when the sacrifice went down...the announced day saw quite a crowd gathered round the steps to the Admin Bldg....hubbub levels were high....and out-of-nowhere, a group of black-hooded men and women made their way through the throng and up the stairs....shouts and catcalls greeted them as they stood there stoically...all in attendance awaited the entry of the lamb...only after what can only be termed a pregnant pause, the group doffed their hoods and proceeded to berate the crowd, questioning their degree of commitment to the life of that lamb, when compared to their evident uncaringness for the children of Vietnam.....quite an effective piece of Gureilla Theater...at least, that’s what I termed it....and, yes, there was an Art to it....and a Purpose...not unlike the MacManus funeral Happening....All Theatre Should Engender New Thought....Love and Light From Indiana

By on 10/01/06 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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