Claire Hennessy: The Feminist Goes to the Theatre

Twenty-four hours before I go see The Train, I’m poised with a glass of pinot grigio in hand, trying to explain to a friend exactly who/what internet comedian Cian Twomey is. “His whole thing is basically, like… women are crazy? There’s a whole thing about shoes…”

“Look, I mean… Sexism is one thing. Problematic. Obviously. But shit comedy? That, that really offends me.”

And then the following night, it’s off to the musical about the 1971 contraceptive train – an Irish feminist act of rebellion, bringing then-forbidden contraceptives from Belfast to Dublin and flaunting it– written by two men. I’m waiting for them to fuck up. Music man Bill Whelan was responsible for Riverdance, for God’s sake. He seems like a better candidate for disappointment than writer Arthur Riordan, whose ‘Céad Míle Fáilte, Bitch’ from 1992’s The Emergency Sessions charmed me even before I heard about this show.

As soon as I sit down in the packed theatre, my great love for laughter wars with my critical feminist side. This is everything I’ve ever wanted in a show: Irish women! A musical! Feminism! Humour! But also: why are there two middle-aged men telling this story and why is my brain already attuned to hunt for the bits that sound problematic?

Answer to the first: they are telling the story because they can, because they’re (relatively) privileged (come on, they work in theatre; I’m not placing them in the same category as bankers), because they have a proven track record.

Answer to the second: because this is what so often happens. This is the norm. Something will creep in that nudges the ‘haha’ to a sickening shuddering ‘oh, wait…’ that reminds you that so much of comedy is predicated on the notion that women are crazy or irrational and that this is utterly hilarious.

You don’t want to be pulling everything to pieces, ‘reading too much into’ everything you watch and read and witness. You don’t want to be ‘looking for a fight’. You like a good laugh. You tell dirty jokes, even!

But maybe it’s the valuing of humour that makes you watchful; you think it does matter, actually, what and why and when we laugh at something. The cultural historian Robert Darnton says that ‘getting’ a joke of the past means ‘getting’ an important part of that culture; when you don’t get the joke, it’s indicative of the distance separating you from those people.

If we don’t find something funny, maybe it’s not so much that we’re ‘uptight’ as it is we’re spotting that chasm between the person delivering the joke and the people listening.

I want to laugh at this show. I want to be able to laugh at it. The reviews seem to suggest it’s not really a show you’ll take seriously, but I sense –rightly, as it turns out – they’ve confused solemnity with seriousness. This is Ireland in the early 1970s. This is one of the main characters praying to God and wondering what exactly she’s supposed to do with her nine honours in her exams, in a world that has no real interest in smart women and where the civil service’s marriage ban is still in place. This is bright colours and music and a certain amount of silliness, because it is a musical and heightened and because you have two choices with this subject matter, really: go melancholy or go ridiculous.

It goes ridiculous, without ever making the female characters ridiculous. They are archetypes without being clichés – the super-lefty one, the breathy networking journalist, the earnest newcomer – and humanised with both individual numbers and a song that has a number of them wondering what their mothers might think. In another world, I roll my eyes at this reductive sense of what it is to be a woman, but by the time it arrives in this musical, it adds rather than subtracts to the sense of each character. I still worry about disappointing my mother. It is bred, not quite built, into us, to fear letting our mammies down.

I’m searching for the fault lines until I’m not. Until it’s the second act and one of the characters echoes, eerily, a conversation I have with a friend at the interval: it is real, this thing on stage, immediate and relevant. Until I have my fingers pressed against my mouth, the way you do when you know you’re in danger of crying.

The train gallops through the rest of the seventies, the eighties, the nineties. I crack up almost before the punchlines land. I do that a lot, in this audience. It’s funny. It’s properly hilarious. And then it jabs at you with a knife – suddenly it’s the mid-80s and there’s an Ann Lovett reference that leaves the audience silent.

Nowhere in the play and in the brief recap of the years between 1971 and today is Savita Halappanavar mentioned. I wonder if this decision to represent the twenty-first century with an angel who – if you squint – is the image of Breda O’Brien is a way of avoiding ‘tainting’ the show with references to abortion as distinct from contraception.

And then I wonder if Savita isn’t hovering over the whole damn thing; she is too present, too much a part of the ‘epic present tense’ referenced in the show, to need a name check. She is not funny, and she is also not distant enough to benefit from that sleight of hand where comedy turns dark and punches you in the gut.

I think everyone in the audience knows damn well what happened to Savita Halappanavar almost three years ago. I think almost everyone is thinking about it. The eighth amendment hangs over us all.

But this is funny, this is bright. This are clerical choruses echoing ‘Semen!’ and a modern-day Eve writhing on the floor, a snake round her neck, about to sample the forbidden fruit of the contraceptive pill (her husband notes how Irish women have such a high rate of menstrual irregularities). This is ‘Mary feckin’ Robinson… you’ll be hearing more about her’ and metatextual songs exploring what it means to be an archetypal Irish woman in ‘Written By A Man’. This is mostly hilarious with a few punches. And how else, exactly, do you tell this story?

Because it is sad. It is so sad. It is a story about a world not nearly distant enough from our own as we would imagine – we still get their jokes. It is a story not yet finished. It is heart-breaking and anger-inducing. But we know this. We know this already. Or if we don’t, we should, or we will.

––

Self-indulgent flashback: I’m eighteen, a couple of years into a newfound awareness of international (read: American) politics, in college one November afternoon. The lecturer alerts us just before we begin: John Kerry has officially conceded in the American presidential election. Bush is back in. How are any of us supposed to concentrate after that?

That whole-body sense of the world being wrong and sad and evil hits me: for the first but not the last time. How do we live in a world where we can’t – sometimes immediately, sometimes ever – fix this wrong?

That week, I follow my usual Friday-night routine (I’m not the wildest of undergrads); tea with Have I Got News For You on the telly. I feel it, physically feel it – some of the cracks are starting to heal, just a little. The panelists aren’t making the wold better. They’re just acknowledging the awfulness, the craziness. They’re turning it into something you can laugh at. Nothing is undone. But it taps into the despair and reassures me. Not that everything’s okay, but that I will be.

The capacity to laugh at something you’re so angry about or so hurt by isn’t indicative of not taking it seriously. It’s a survival strategy for the soul. I think this when I watch Amy Schumer’s ‘Football Town Nights’ sketch about rape, or Tara Flynn’s ‘Judge, Jury & Obstetrician’ critiquing restrictive abortion law in Ireland. I think this as I sit in the audience of the feminist musical written by two men that knows that none of us are too distant from the 1970s capers and hypocrisy. The (Crazy! Irrational! Ridiculous!) women of the contraceptive train aren’t the joke. Fortunately. Not just because that’d be offensive, and sexist, and problematic, but because it wouldn’t be funny. Or it’d be a different kind of funny, the kind you can’t laugh at unless you’re safely removed from it all, cocooned in privilege.

There is always such relief in finding the comedy that actually expects your feminist critical side to turn up, waiting, alert, instead of being temporarily smothered to facilitate inane snorting at tired stereotypes. Another stereotype for you: we have a choice between being ‘politically correct’ and laughing. Either/or. But when someone says, hey, that’s not funny, maybe, actually, it isn’t? Maybe you just need a better, smarter joke.

Claire Hennessy is a YA writer, creative writing facilitator and editor from Dublin. She spends too much time tweeting @clairehennessy.

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