This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
The New York Review’s current issue (June 10, 2021) features a new essay by Fintan O’Toole, “The King of Little England,” which recounts the ways Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, is now plagued by the same disruptive forces he pandered to in order to engineer his ascent to power.
As with his superb earlier characterization of Johnson, “The Ham of Fate” (August 15, 2019), O’Toole’s analysis is brilliantly alive to the play of public life—how integral the art of dissimulation and theatrical performance are in the merging of politics and the entertainment industry found in twenty-first-century Anglo-American culture. Johnson—in this, like Trump—acts as a showman, a braggart, and a clown in order to rule without real responsibility. And it works, for as long as the razzle-dazzle holds enough of the audience in thrall.
Such insights have become O’Toole’s signature in a series of essential essays on politics and leaders for the Review—most memorably in his portrait of Joe Biden as the mourner-in-chief, but also in profiles of Bernie Sanders and William Barr. Although O’Toole is a longtime political writer for the Irish Times, what distinguishes his work from that of other opinion columnists and the churn of Beltway commentary is its breadth of literary and cultural reference and this sense of politics-as-theater, both of which owe much to his other career, as a drama critic. I was curious to know what set him on this path.
“My father was a bus conductor [in Dublin] and one of the regular passengers on his route was the front-of-house manager at the Abbey [Theatre],” he explained via e-mail from County Clare this week. “She used to give him free tickets for quiet nights and I started going with him when I was thirteen. I couldn’t get over it, seeing O’Casey and Shakespeare and Shaw. Discovering, when I left college, that someone would pay you, however badly, to write about it seemed almost too good to be true. And I still got free tickets.”
That college was University College Dublin, but earlier he’d attended a Christian Brothers school. Was that as fearsome an experience as Irish Catholic clerical education is often reputed to have been?
Certainly for working-class kids like me, the education system in Ireland was pretty brutal. There were, of course, a lot of very decent Christian Brothers, but their overall ethos—to use a word they liked—was violent and abusive. The Catholic church, of which this system was a part, had far too much power in Ireland—and you know what they say about absolute power. It destroyed itself in the end through its own moral corruption.
One of the reasons I remain an old-fashioned social democrat is that a political decision in the late 1960s (very late but utterly formative for me) meant that I could go to secondary school without paying fees, and that in turn opened the way to university. Like so many kids of my generation, I was the first person ever in all the generations of my family to do that.
And what that gave you was a sense of wonder that perhaps does not exist for those who take it for granted. Two of my first teachers at UCD, Denis Donoghue and Seamus Deane, have died in the last few weeks. Both were world-class literary critics. Their deaths have reminded me of how blessed I was.
A strong theme in O’Toole’s writing about Britain and Brexit is a profound skepticism toward nationalism. That may be part of being “an old-fashioned social democrat,” but I asked how he saw it.
If you’re Irish, as I am, you know a lot about nationalism. It’s been the dominant political ideology in the country for almost all of my lifetime. I was ten when the Troubles started again in Northern Ireland, but even before that my childhood was steeped in the epic martyrology of the Irish struggle for independence. I think from all of that, you learn two things.
One is that nationalism has a claim, in one way or another, on all of us. It’s not rational, but it is undeniable. The Ireland I grew up in was something of a basket case, yet I would still never have wanted to go back into the UK. But the other thing most of us in Ireland learned the hard way is that nationalism can very easily slip into a kind of nihilism where “us” is merely “not them.” It’s always easier to define yourself by what you are not. Once you go down that road, you’re open to ridiculous distortions of your own identity and to hatred of whoever happens to be the Other.
I have no quarrel at all with the right of English people to be proud of their country or with the idea of England itself as an imagined community that people might want to belong to. The problem is that from the seventeenth century onwards, Englishness was wrapped up in two other concepts: the Empire and the Union. The first of those is gone and the second is, to say the least, under strain. Englishness is re-emerging but it is a love that dare not speak its name. There is no coherent idea of what it might mean in political or cultural terms.
So it is all too easy to manipulate. It became, with Brexit, a kind of parody of a national liberation movement with the EU standing in for the imperial oppressor that must be overthrown. That is innately absurd.
There again: politics as burlesque, farce, and, too often, tragedy. It was the theater connection that first brought O’Toole to the US, when he was hired as a theater critic for the New York Daily News by Pete Hamill—“He was fired a few days before I arrived, but they were stuck with me.” He’s been going back and forth ever since, living in Ireland but also teaching at Princeton, and, of course, becoming acutely literate in American, as well as Irish and British, political drama.
“A piece of theatre, even a bad one, is a very complex event—it’s slippery and transient, and you have to pay a lot of attention,” he said. “So I think drama criticism is a good testing ground for any kind of writing in which you are trying to get behind a shifting moment and make some sense of it for a reader.
“You don’t want to feed cults of personality or fall into the ‘great men’ mode of history,” he went on, “but I’ve published some biographies over the years, and I do think that the way the personal and the political overlap in certain public lives can be illuminating for both arenas.”
Those biographical works include studies of the Irish dramatists Tom Murphy, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and George Bernard Shaw. And O’Toole himself worked for a spell at the Abbey Theatre in its early 1990s heyday, when it was achieving international renown with Garry Hynes’s productions of plays by Murphy and Brian Friel, in particular.
“I was supposed to be a kind of dramaturg, but I mostly just spent my time watching her [Hynes] with the actors in a kind of awe,” O’Toole recalled. “The highlight for me was being involved in her very radically revisionist production of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Easter Rising, which in turn is the context of the play. It really upset a lot of people by restoring the shock of poverty and violence to what had become a period piece.”
Such a bracing sense of discovery is often a reward of reading O’Toole’s own work: his current essay opens with an aperçu of Nietzsche’s about revenge, used here to devastating effect. Besides such great stage writers as he’d already named, I wanted to know who O’Toole’s other intellectual lodestars were.
I grew up with the cold war and in that very divided intellectual climate where you had, on the one hand, the evils of Stalinism and, on the other, the United States doing terrible things in Vietnam, Cambodia, and then in Latin America. You were supposed to choose between them. It was crucial to me to discover writers who forced you to think more broadly and deeply about the way power worked in the world: Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Walter Benjamin, Frantz Fanon, George Orwell, Susan Sontag—all those who were at once urgently engaged and undogmatic. And then when it came to writing criticism, there were Kenneth Tynan and the incomparable Joan Didion.
One other writer, perhaps, in that firmament might be Seamus Heaney—whose biography O’Toole is resuming work on, after the past year’s disruption by the pandemic. What does Ireland’s great poet mean to him, I asked.
Yeats said that Ireland was “great hatred, little room,” but Heaney had no hatred in him and he made the little room of the familiar place so imaginatively expansive. I think most Irish people feel genuinely grateful to him for the way he kept that space open even in the worst times—I know I do.