Fintan O’Toole is Literary Editor of The Irish Times and Leonard L. Milberg Visiting Lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton. His books include Shakespeare Is Hard But So Is Life. (November 2015)

Finding a Lost Ireland

Connemara, Ireland, 1972; photograph by Thomas Hoepker
It seems rather apt that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger spent the years of World War II in Dublin. Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment in which a cat is simultaneously alive and dead might have been devised especially for Irish writing of the period. A kind of suspended animation, a state of …

Behind ‘King Lear’: The History Revealed

King James I of England, in a portrait attributed to John de Critz, circa 1606; William Shakespeare, in a portrait attributed to John Taylor, circa 1610
That such a play is possible at all is one of the great wonders of human creation. That it was written by a liveried servant of a Calvinist king who devoutly believed in salvation and damnation, and performed at his court, seems almost inexplicable. Or at least it seemed inexplicable before James Shapiro’s wonderfully illuminating The Year of Lear.

Auden: Cranky, Cautious, Brilliant

W.H. Auden, 1953; photograph by Cecil Beaton
When Wystan Auden wrote his long poetic “Letter to Lord Byron” in 1936, the author was on his way to being almost as famous as the addressee had once been. At twenty-nine, Auden had already established himself, not just as a literary but as a political presence. Soon, his name …

The Explosions from Wolf Hall

Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn and Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall Part Two: Bring Up the Bodies, on Broadway this spring
In the mesmerizing BBC/Masterpiece television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s phenomenally successful novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, we can get some notion of what is in Cromwell’s head by tracing the flickers of fear or triumph or humor that the camera catches on Mark Rylance’s long, melancholic, and otherwise impassive face. On stage, that simply can’t be done. If it is to be more than a high-class pageant, the stage version has to find some other way to get under the skin of the story, some richness of language or some wonder of theatrical invention that, for all its impressive technique, the RSC’s production does not possess.

Peter Carey’s Hidden History

Peter Carey in northwestern Australia, circa 2015
It is not hard to see Felix Moore, the supposed writer of Amnesia, as an alter ego of the novel’s actual author, Peter Carey. Moore is a muckraking Australian journalist, but also a sometime novelist, most notably of the soon-to-be-filmed satire Barbie and the Deadheads. He is, throughout the book, …

Beckett in Love

Avigdor Arikha: Samuel Beckett au verre de vin, 1969
At its simplest, the big thing that happens to Beckett’s work in the years from 1957 to 1965 is the arrival of female voices. It would be crude to suggest that this crucial shift is merely or solely a response to Beckett’s exploration of his feelings for Ethna MacCarthy. But it is obvious that those feelings have a profound effect on the way Beckett allows his female figures to bring into his world memory, erotic desire, even tenderness.

Samuel Beckett: The Private Voice

Georges Pelorson, who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett’s, recalled a walk they took together in Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1929 or 1930, when Beckett was twenty-three or twenty-four: After a few hundred yards I noticed Sam was walking almost like a duck. I said to him “What’s …

The Rape of the Narrator

Eimear McBride, London, July 2008
“The English,” wrote Kenneth Tynan when reviewing Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, “hoard words like misers; the Irish spend them like sailors.” This is, however, exactly what Irish writers are afraid of. Much of modern Irish literature can be seen as a struggle to, in Seamus Heaney’s phrase, govern the tongue.

The Genius of Creative Destruction

Cover illustration for Gulliver’s Travels by Grandville, 1838
Early in the twentieth century, a collector of folklore spoke to a farmer in County Cavan, near to where Jonathan Swift had written much of Gulliver’s Travels almost two hundred years earlier. The farmer told the folklorist that there were still people called Bradley living in the area and that …

Seamus Heaney (1939–2013)

Seamus Heaney, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991
While the Nobel committee was looking for Seamus Heaney to tell him that he had won the 1995 prize for literature, he was driving through, of all places, Arcadia in southern Greece. This was doubly apt. Heaney was surely the English language’s last great Arcadian poet, the last whose memory …

‘The Master of the Unsaid’

J.M. Coetzee, Solothurn, Switzerland, 2006
In two of his letters to Paul Auster, written in the fall of 2009 and recently published in Here and Now,* J.M. Coetzee considers the idea of “late style”: It is not uncommon for writers, as they age, to get impatient with the so-called poetry of language and go …

The Real Men of England

Patrick Stewart as the Soviet spymaster Karla and Alec Guinness as the British spy George Smiley in the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Smiley’s People, 1982
Interviewer: Where does this pessimism come from? John le Carré: From my observations. —Les Nouvelles Littéraires, September 1965 In the official morality of states, treason and patriotism are poles apart, as starkly opposed as love and hate, right and wrong. David Cornwell, writing as John le Carré, has spent …

Waking Up the Half-Dead

Will Self, Paris, 2001
A strange thing happened last October after the ceremony to announce the winner of Britain’s most coveted fiction prize, the Man Booker. A stock photograph of the nominees, posed in front of the sponsor’s logo, holding their books and wearing the forced smile of solitary authors obliged to sparkle like …

The Great Actor Who Hated Acting

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, 1962
Richard Burton’s diaries are not those of a man afraid to take a harsh look at himself: “How dumb and boring I must have been for the greater part of my life”; “I am, I think, sublimely selfish”; “I could have cut out my vile tongue with a blunt razor. From what twisted root did that bastard tree grow?”; “I do, of course, choose my moments well to shout at my wife, like after her father’s funeral.” He accuses himself of “savage ill humour,” “absolutely unstoppably filthy moods, insulting everybody left right and centre,” and “venomous malice.”

Joyce: Heroic, Comic

James Joyce, Paris, 1934
It is hard not to suspect that Joyce is now more revered than read. The dirty, slippery, uproarious, demented, and hysterically funny Joyce of the books is one thing. The artistic martyr of the life, the hero who gives up everything for art, is quite another. Joyce the writer spent his life subverting inherited narratives of every sort. Joyce the man, on the other hand, fits perfectly into a preexisting narrative, contained within a few words of Isaiah 53:3: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

An Irish Genius in New York

Michael Glenn Murphy (Justice of the Peace), Frank O’Sullivan (Brian O’Riordan), Gavin Drea (Liam Dougan), and John Olohan (Dan O’Dea) in Garry Hynes’s production of Tom Murphy’s Famine, the third part of the DruidMurphy cycle, New York City, July 2012
Tom Murphy’s body of work is as rich and potent as that of any living playwright, but it began with a rather desultory conversation. On a Sunday morning in 1959, in the market square of the small West of Ireland town of Tuam, Murphy and his friend Noel O’Donoghue leaned …

Oblomov in Dublin

Flann O'Brien
In The Poor Mouth, Flann O’Brien’s delicious parody of Gaelic-language autobiographical peasant narratives, the hero is alone at night on the seashore when he hears a terrible, unrecognizable sound. He is then assailed by “an ancient smell of putridity which set the skin of my nose humming and dancing.” He …

What Haunted Eugene O’Neill?

It was almost obligatory for a matinee idol to lie about his age, but in the case of James O’Neill, father of Eugene O’Neill, the falsehood was rooted in something more than vanity. “It was in Kilkenny—smiling Kilkenny…,” he told the readers of Theater Magazine in 1917, “where I was …

Howling from the Sidelines

In the last play he wrote before his death in 1994, John Osborne returned to where it all began. As the curtain comes up on Déjàvu, the audience is meant to experience the sense of uncanny familiarity alluded to in the title. Two men, Jimmy and his sidekick Cliff, are …

The Saving Remnant

James Joyce’s short story “Two Gallants,” published in the collection Dubliners in 1914, is wonderfully redolent of early-twentieth-century Dublin. Though laconic and somewhat enigmatic, it could be studied with profit by any historian of the period. Its clipped, concentrated narrative of two wastrels in their early thirties exploiting the servant …

These Illusions Are Real

You are an adolescent boy, struggling with all the clumsiness and uncertainty of that awkward age. In the wide world of America, the heady atmosphere of wartime has gone to the nation’s head. The energy of danger is pulsing through the dancehalls and surfing on the radio waves, taking its …

Missing Person

In the first chapter of Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, the narrator encounters the child who will become notorious to those with no sweet tooth for sentimentality as Little Nell. He helps her to find her way home to her grandfather. Once there, the child begins the task of …

The Taming of a Terrorist

Even in Ireland, where popular culture used to be skeptical and irreverent, there are now magazines devoted to the worship of celebrities. The best-selling native equivalent of People in the US or Hello in Europe is called VIP. Its issue for September 2002 had the usual mix on the cover: …

Guns in the Family

In the first week of September 2001, before a vastly more important story of terror and violence began to break, scenes from an unremarkable stretch of road in North Belfast occupied the news pages and television screens. Those scenes were, even to reporters hardened by more than thirty years of …

Are the Troubles Over?

The scene is so stark and grief-stricken, so full of pity and terror, that it might have been created by Sophocles or Aeschylus. From time to time, the grown-up children of Jean McConville gather on the beautiful beach of Templetown on the shores of Carlingford Lough, a few miles south …

Game Without End

In his autobiography, the American director Alan Schneider recalled his attendance with Samuel Beckett at the first run of Waiting for Godot in London in 1955. Whenever a line was misinterpreted or an extra piece of stage business was added, Beckett would clutch Schneider’s arm and exclaim, in a clearly …

Our Own Jacobean

In early-seventeenth-century England, in the midst of what was supposed to be a golden age, young playwrights sounded a note of harsh discord. Against the myth of Elizabethan glory, they placed increasingly violent images of torture, of the abuse of power, and of profound psychological and political disturbance. Cyril Tourneur, …

Poet Beyond Borders

In the first five poems in Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney’s comprehensive new selection from the first thirty years of his career, the reader is arrested by the words “gun,” “grenades,” “armoury,” “blood,” and “bombs.” Since Heaney comes from Northern Ireland, a place that is only now emerging from decades of …

Mystic Scientist

Twentieth-century theater has often been at its most innovative when it has been least modern, most contemporary when it has dreamed of connecting to some ancient or timeless truth. Poetry, fiction, music, dance, and the visual arts have all gone through phases of being attracted to the outlandish and the …