Transformations. Births and deaths, sunderings and returns, time and love... Theatremaker Dylan Coburn Gray writes for Culture about his latest work, Citysong, which receives its World Premiere at the Abbey Theatre later this month.
Depending on which of my parents you ask, I'm named after Dylan from The Magic Roundabout or Dylan Thomas. Even when I preferred rabbit to poet, there was a line from Under Milk Wood I knew I liked because my Dad used to quote it:
"Alone until she dies, Bessie Bighead, born in the workhouse, smelling of the cowshed, snores bass and gruff on a pallet of straw in a loft on Salt Lake Farm and picks a posy of daisies to put on the grave of Gomer Owen in Sunday meadow, who kissed her once by the pigsty when she wasn't looking and never kissed her again though she was looking all the time."
I've loved the play since I bought myself a second-hand copy in Chapters book shop for two Euro – to see what all the fuss was about – and the things that I love are all to be found in that quote: its simultaneous breadth and compression, its directness and compassion. It’s not a whole life in a sentence, but it does give us something of that life’s overall quality or colour. It sits beautifully somewhere between drama and poetry, equally interested in resonant moments and abrupt changes.
Citysong is an Under Milk Wood for present-day Dublin, the story of three generations of one family on one day. In one sense, not very much happens to anyone. In another sense, everything that matters happens to everyone. It’s about how much the city has changed over the last 70 years, how every generation does exactly the same things their parents did but in totally different ways.
Childbirth in the 1980s is not like childbirth in 2019, partying in the 1970s is not like partying in the 1990s or 2010s, the lack of sex education in the 60s is – unfortunately – like the lack of sex education today. You could think of it as a suite of variations on a musical theme in the key of life, the melody always changing but always recognisable.
Citysong is an Under Milk Wood for present day Dublin, the story of three generations of one family on one day.
Like Under Milk Wood, it's a play for voices. It is told, through the voices of the characters themselves and by a tender narrator who carries us from person to person, place to place, time to time. A popular rule for naturalistic playwriting is show, don't tell; but, like every lens, there’s things showing brings into focus and things it can’t. (Assuming everyone was doing their job responsibly, you’ve never seen someone get punched in the face onstage. Even if you think you have.)
Showing is wonderful at change, dissolution, rupture; the old state of affairs ceases to be. It’s bad at chronic problems, where the problem is precisely that nothing changes. It’s very hard to write a naturalistic play about poverty, homelessness, racism, climate change, old age, long term illness, even harder to write one that doesn’t get glibly dismissed for one or another reason. The cruel double-bind: end without change, and you’re likely to be told that your play is relentless. End with change, and you’re likely to be told that your ending is pat, cursory, unearned.
But artistic tensions aren’t problems, they’re tools. The point isn’t to avoid the tension between showing and telling, it’s to pluck it and see what tunes you can play. Characters in showing plays tell each other stories. Characters in telling plays spontaneously gesture, as speakers have always gestured, adding physical flavour to linguistic function.
In Citysong, lots of tiny moments of action are woven together by a guiding voice into something larger than themselves. It’s a quilt, or a mosaic, or a stained glass window. Whole in pieces, telling a story of people changing or failing to, growing up or aging, being born or dying.
Citysong is at The Abbey Theatre from 25 May - 8 June, then at London’s Soho Theatre from 12 June – 6 July and Galway’s Black Box Theatre from 23 – 27 July - more details here.