Kilroy, Thomas 1934–
Kilroy, Thomas 1934–
PERSONAL: Born September 23, 1934, in Callan, County Kilkenny, Ireland; son of Thomas and Mary (Devine) Kilroy; married Patricia Cobey, 1963 (marriage dissolved, 1980); married Julia Lowell Carlson, 1981; children: (first marriage) Hugh Benjamin, Lorcan Thomas, Desmond Patrick; (second marriage) Hannah May. Education: University College, Dublin, B.A., 1955, higher diploma in education, 1956, M.A., 1957.
ADDRESSES: Home—Kilmaine, County Mayo, Ireland. Agent—Alan Brodie Representation, 78 New Oxford St., Fairgate House, 6th Fl., London WC1A 1HB, England.
CAREER: Stanford College, Dublin, Ireland, headmaster, 1959–64; University of Dublin, University College, Dublin, Ireland, assistant lecturer in English, 1965–73; School of Irish Studies, Dublin, Ireland, lecturer, 1972–73; University College, Galway, Ireland, professor of modern English, 1979–89. Examiner in modern English at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, and Thomond College, Limerick, Ireland, 1983. Visiting professor, University of Notre Dame, 1962–63, Vanderbilt University, 1964–65, Sir George Williams University, 1973, McGill University, 1973, University College, Galway, 1975–76, 1979, Dartmouth College, 1976, University College, Dublin, 1977–78, and Bamberg University, 1984.
MEMBER: Irish Academy of Letters, Royal Society of Literature (fellow), Aosdána.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fiction Prize, Guardian, 1971, Booker Prize shortlist, 1971, and Heinemann Award for Literature, Royal Society of Literature, 1972, all for The Big Chapel; Irish Academy Prize, 1972; Royal Academy of Letters/Allied Irish Banks Award, 1972; American-Irish Foundation Award, 1974; Arts Council of Ireland bursary, 1976; Bellagio Study Centre grant, 1986; Rockefeller Foundation residency, 1986; Kyoto University Foundation fellowship; Prix Nikki Special Commendation; Irish Times/Electricity Supply Board Theatre Awards, 2004, for lifetime achievement.
The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche (first produced in Dublin, Ireland, at the Olympia Theatre, 1968; produced in London, England, 1969; produced in New York, NY, 1978), Faber (London, England), 1969, Grove (New York, NY), 1970.
The O'Neill (first produced in Dublin, Ireland, at the Peacock Theatre, 1969), Gallery Press (Loughcrew, Ireland), 1995.
Talbot's Box (two-act; produced in Dublin, Ireland, at the Peacock Theatre, and London, England, 1977), Proscenium Press (Delaware), 1979.
Tea and Sex and Shakespeare (first produced in Dublin, Ireland, at the Abbey Theatre, 1976), revised edition, Gallery Press (Loughcrew, Ireland), 1998.
The Seagull: After Chekhov (first produced in London, England, at the Royal Court, 1981), published as The Seagull: A New Version, Eyre Methuen (London, England), 1981.
Double Cross (first produced in Dublin, Ireland, at the Abbey Theatre, February 3, 1986, and in London, England, 1986), Faber (London, England), 1986, reprinted with new introduction by Kilroy, Gallery Press (Loughcrew, Ireland), 1994.
(Adapter) Ghosts (based on the play by Henrik Ibsen), first produced in Dublin, Ireland, at the Peacock Theatre, 1988.
The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre (first produced in Derry, Ireland, by the Field Day Theatre Company, 1991; produced in New York, NY, 1992), Methuen (London, England), 1991.
(Adapter) Six Characters in Search of an Author (based on the play by Luigi Pirandello), first produced in Dublin, Ireland, at the Abbey Theatre, 1996.
The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde (first produced in Dublin, Ireland, at the Abbey Theatre, October, 1997; produced at the Melbourne Festival, 1998), Gallery Press (Loughcrew, Ireland), 1997.
The Shape of Metal (first produced in Dublin, Ireland, at the Abbey Theatre, 2003), Gallery Press (Oldcastle, Ireland), 2004.
My Scandalous Life, Gallery Press (Loughcrew, Ireland), 2004.
The Door (radio play), BBC Radio, 1967.
The Big Chapel (novel), Faber (London, England), 1971.
(Editor) Sean O'Casey: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1974.
The Man, Bracken (radio play), BBC3, 1986.
Also author of television screenplays, including Farmers, 1978, The Black Joker, 1981, and Gold in the Streets, 1993. Contributor to books, including J.M. Synge Centenary Papers, 1971, edited by Maurice Harmon, Dolmen (Dublin, Ireland), 1972; Myth and Reality in Irish Literature, edited by Joseph Ronley, Wilfrid Laurier University Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1977; Literature and the Changing Ireland, edited by Peter Connolly, Colin Smythe, 1980; Denis Johnston: A Retrospective, Colin Smythe, 1981; Goldsmith: The Gentle Master, edited by Sean Lucy, Cork University Press, 1984; The Genius of Irish Prose, edited by Augustine Marin, Mercier (Dublin, Ireland), 1985; Culture in Ireland, Diversity or Division, edited by Edna Longley, Institute of Irish Studies, 1991; and The Achievement of Brian Friel, edited by Alan Peacock, Colin Smythe, 1993. Contributor to periodicals, including Irish Times, Studies, PMLA, and Irish University Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Irish playwright Thomas Kilroy is a difficult writer to categorize, having written plays ranging from the conventional The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche to more technically innovative and avant-garde works such as Talbot's Box and The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde. Nevertheless, common thematic concerns run throughout many of his plays, including the issue of personal and cultural—specifically, Irish versus English—identity and the mythologizing of the past. Best known as a playwright, Kilroy is also the author of the Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Big Chapel, and he is a former professor of modern English and American literature.
Kilroy began his career in Dublin as the headmaster at Stanford College, followed by eight years at University College. While at University College, his first play, The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche, was produced to great success at the Olympia Theatre. While it contains much humorous dialogue and situation comedy, the play is, at its heart, a serious look into the masculine identity of the lower-class Dublin man. The play centers on Kelly, a thirty-something working man who invites a bunch of his drinking friends over to his place one night. During the course of their conversation, it is gradually revealed how, while none of the group is a total failure in life, all the men feel that they have come up short of their goals. "Doc," a failed medical school student, now works in a mortuary; Seamus comes to realize that he is not completely happy with his marriage; Myles has found himself working as a lowly used-car salesman; and Kelly longs to return to the youthful exuberance of his twenties.
It also becomes clear that Kelly is a homophobe, and when Roche, an older man who is a known homosexual, arrives with his young friend Kevin, Kelly rallies his buddies to torment him. In the process of their teasing, they lock Roche in a cellar. The gag goes awry when Roche becomes ill and passes out; Doc declares him dead, and Kelly, in a panic that he will be charged with manslaughter and, worse yet, be embarrassed socially for having Roche in his home, gets his friends to try to hide the body. While they are gone, Kelly confides to Seamus that he has had secret homosexual feelings for some time and even allowed Roche to "handle" him once. The confession greatly disturbs Seamus, who feels that such things should be kept a secret, and the friendship between Seamus and Kelly is compromised as a result. The surprise then comes when Roche reappears, alive and well, his illness having obviously been misdiagnosed by Doc. For the rest of the play Kelly tries desperately to reestablish the male bond he had with his friends, but he knows that things can never be the same between them again. "The ending is strangely ambiguous," wrote Michael Mangan in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "On the one hand, it seems that there will be little change in Kelly, that he has done his best to learn nothing from the experience…. On the other hand, the final image of the play is of Roche sitting serenely on Kelly's sofa, with 'an enigmatic smile [on] his face.' He has, on one level at least, taken possession of Kelly's space."
Kilroy also deals with homosexuality and sexual taboo in his play The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde. There are only three characters in the play, Oscar Wilde, his wife, and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The action takes place at a time not long before Constance's death and centers on "an imagined confrontation between Wilde and Constance," said Mangan. By this time, Wilde has already fallen into disgrace for being outed as a homosexual. But Constance has also suffered from a literal fall: she has fallen down the stairs after having a vision of what she describes as a crouching, evil figure. In a scene acted out by Constance, puppets, and non-speaking actors, her memory of being raped by her father when she was a young girl is portrayed before the horrified Oscar; it was this memory that had caused Constance to fall. "Kilroy's skill," asserted Mangan, "is that he can write a play about Mr. and Mrs. Wilde that does not itself become absorbed, and overwhelmed, by the famous author." Identity is again a theme here, as Constance demands that she no longer be viewed "as the good woman" but rather as she really is.
Both Mr. Roche and The Secret Fall show Kilroy's interest in shattering myths about who people really are, a theme that is also central to his plays about historical figures, including The O'Neill and Talbot's Box. In The O'Neill the author writes about "Hugh O'Neill, second Earl of Tyrone, under whom the old Gaelic order mounted its last successful resistance to English colonization before being finally defeated at the battle of Kinsale in 1601," according to Mangan. Although O'Neill sided with the Irish, he was very much an Anglicized personality, having spent much of his life at Queen Elizabeth I's court. His resistance to Anglo-Saxon dominance of the Gaelic world is ultimately unsuccessful, however, as Ireland is eventually invaded and overwhelmed by the English.
In Talbot's Box Kilroy explores the myths that followed the life of Matt Talbot, a mystic who lived in Ireland from 1856 to 1925. He was a reformed alcoholic who subjected his body to self-inflicted torture in order to "know the darkness," which he defined as God. In what a Contemporary Dramatists writer called "a highly effective study of religious zealotry," Talbot's Box is a non-chronological look at a variety of scenes in Talbot's life, many of which are steeped in symbolism that is subject to the audience's interpretation. "The playwright touches a number of social bases," wrote the Contemporary Dramatists essayist. "Talbot's role in the transport strike of 1913, for example, sets his unique vision against the background of labor troubles, just as his encounters with the church demonstrate that in his zealous humiliation of the flesh he is as unmanageable as Shaw's Saint Joan."
A few years after Talbot's death, a number of his admirers formed a cult that pressed for his canonization. As Mangan noted: "The importance of the play lies not so much in what it has to reveal about the life of the historical figure Talbot as in what it shows about the construction of others of Talbot as a mythical and symbolic figure." In this way, Kilroy studies the process of how a person and his life can be mythologized and reconstructed to fit their own beliefs and perceptions.
Kilroy combines his ideas of perception, self-image, and Irish versus English identity in his play Double Cross. The main characters are two real-life propagandists—both played by the same actor—representing the opposing sides of World War II, though they both came from working-class Irish backgrounds. William Joyce was a fascist who moved to Germany to become Lord Haw Haw, a commentator who broadcast official Nazi views and propaganda over the radio; Brendan Bracken was Winston Churchill's Minister of Information. By juxtaposing these men in the two-act play, Kilroy is able to compare and contrast two people who came from similar backgrounds and yet came to very dissimilar ends. Double Cross becomes, according to the playwright himself, a study of "two men who invented themselves." As the Contemporary Dramatists essayist explained: "Both invented lives for themselves in English society, and both tried to imitate his oppressor, Joyce by his anti-British propaganda and Bracken by his very 'English' attitude toward Ireland." "In a play that says more about ideas of Britishness than it does about Irishness," attested Mangan, "Kilroy explores the paradoxes of nationhood and history, as well as of personal commitment, idealism, compromise, and betrayal."
While some of Kilroy's plays hit a lighter note than others, the common thread in most of them is the playwright's attempt to address some of the social upheavals that have occurred in Ireland in the past and present. This has been a concern of his since he was in his twenties and wrote in the 1959 essay "Groundwork for an Irish Theatre," quoted by Mangan, that his contemporaries were "inclined to shirk the painful, sometimes tragic problems of a modern Ireland which is undergoing considerable social and ideological stress." Although Kilroy has not been one of Ireland's most prolific playwrights, his plays may certainly be considered important contributions to the modern stage.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Dramatists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 233: British and Irish Dramatists since World War II, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Back Stage, November 6, 1992, Roy Sander, review of The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre, p. 38.
Irish Writers, http://www.irishwriters-online.com/ (November 25, 2002).