Humour is not resigned, it is rebellious.
Monsters, Dinosaurs, Ghosts is a comically subversive play which succeeds completely in making its audience laugh at things we are certainly not supposed to be laughing at. Civil war is not funny. Bombs are not funny. A political hunger strike is not undertaken for the craic. Yet during this play about bombs, our interrupted Civil War, hunger strikers, and all the rest of it, the audience in the packed house in The Peacock laughs almost uninterruptedly throughout the one hour fifty minutes, with interval, of the play. The laughter is a tribute to the impressive performance by all four actors of what is a complex script on an extremely complicated subject.
Famously, according to Freud and many more after him, laughter gushes forth at the mention of unmentionable things, at the smashing of idols, at the breaking of taboos.
Numerous taboos to do with the Troubles are broken in this play, for the first time in my experience at least, and it is to the credit of the playwright that they are smashed apart with such comic affect, and in a bona fide language telling of deep immersion in and careful consideration of the issues involved.
The central character is a member of the provisional IRA who, having laid down arms in 1996, (though still under army oath in 2015), is haunted by two kinds of ghost. The ghosts of the British soldiers he killed come to him at night to show him their stigmata and ask him for his excuse for remaining alive. Copious vodka and valium quieten those ghosts for while.
The other kind of ghost is allied to these avatars of palpable trauma, but is more abstract, more general, and appears in the form of an eternally recurring question we could call History’s Ghost – what is human suffering and struggle for? All the vodka and downers in the world won’t shut up that ghost
History is a nightmare from which neither the living nor the dead can escape. It seems, in Damascus and Cape Town as much as in Belfast, that all apparent escape routes, all rebellions against the status quo of horrors, lead to even greater nightmares, even greater outrages. The great human Pourquoi is asked, is being asked, wherever lives are or have been sacrificed for ‘freedom’ .
Why did the IRA fight, kill, and die? So that Gerry Adams could cosy up to the global elite, and Martin McGuinness implement welfare cuts? If the young men and women who took up arms against the combined forces of the British and Irish state, first in dozens, and then, after internment and Bloody Sunday, in thousands, could have seen for an instant into the future accommodationist course of militant republicanism, it’s questionable whether many of them would have bothered getting involved atall.
The laughter then is partly self-directed – a sincere rebel laughing at how stupid he has been in squandering his life and causing great and irredeemable harm for a cause which turns out in the end, from his point of view at least, to be indistinguishable from what he thought he was fighting against – class injustice and imperialist aggression.
The deeper, ontological point, is that one sincere rebel stands in for all sincere rebels, everywhere.
Why has anyone anywhere at any time, from Spartacus to Pussy Riot, ever bothered fighting for justice if history leads to the triumph of neo-liberalism, to endless disgrace and limitless exploitation, to Putin and Berlusconi and Cameron and Clinton and Denis O Brien and all the bilderberg bilge?
Is utopia dead? Is the enlightenment over? Is there any way forward or out, or do we always end up back where we began, at systemic oppression, gyring and gyring to an ever greater, ever more dismaying scale?
Life’s most serious questions are, straightforwardly, is there anything progressive left to collectively struggle for, and, if so, how should we struggle for it?
Arguably, any artist or intellectual who is not in their own way asking these questions in their work and attempting to stimulate public discussion of them is being flippant, and perhaps even adding to the neo-liberal atmosphere of cynicism, coupled with anomie, which leads the young, in disgust with old and the existing, to suicide, and if not suicide (in which i include not only self-murder but all the varieties of self harm), murder in the name of an exhausted cause and a dead-end strategy – revenant armed republicanism being our local variety.
The Northern Troubles are not over, merely lidded for the time being. They boil away, out of sight for the most part, and will burst through again, blowing the arse off all who sit on the pot, whenever history heats up again beyond a certain boiling point.
Monsters, Dinosaurs, Ghosts is a vital play which draws attention to taboo and under-acknowledged truths about the unresolved social injustices of Northern Ireland – and everywhere else on the planet – and at the same time entertains from beginning to end. A great example of how drama can be a living part of public discourse on topics which, no matter how oppressors green, white or orange, seek to repress them, will end up forcing us to talk about them one way or another. Go see it if you are able.