Terry from Derry: Lured: the curse of swans
by Terry Boyle
Over the past year, I have been working on a new play. My interest has always been with the re-telling of myths. Initially, I began with the 14thCentury Mystery plays. These plays were not medieval whodunnits in which you guess who the killer is, but rather religious plays that were used to teach the illiterate masses.
If you can imagine life before the printing press, when most people could not read or write, then you have some idea of why these plays were performed. The Catholic Church needed some way to educate their congregations on the mysteries of their faith.
Playwrights were enlisted to write dramas based on biblical stories. These early dramas later gave way to the morality plays. Dramas of these sort, the most famous being Everyman,were used to show people how to live a good, moral life.
So, while these works are heavily didactic, they can also be very entertaining. Their popularity continues and you can still find them performed somewhere in England.
My own attraction to this genre lies in their love of metaphysical to explain human problems, and not with their emphasis on religious instruction. Plays of this sort should make us think about the human condition.
Reflection on our mortality, the possible existence of an afterlife, and the meaning of life can produce an existential crisis, especially for those of us are not sure of anything. For the modern person, the idea of a secure belief system appears erroneous and relies on too much wishful thinking that couches itself in the concept of faith.
A person who feels their ‘faith’ is under attacks resorts to, ‘I believe it, therefore its true,’ as if that is defense enough against their attacker. I am more comfortable with ‘I am not sure. I would like it to be true, but I can never be completely confident it really is.’
My own take on creating contemporary versions of these classics was to reinterpret them in a modern context. My death and resurrection of Christ happens in Derry in 1998 during the Good Friday Agreement; the Herod play takes place in a bar in New York; while Cain and Abel story is re-told as part of a drag act.
As you can tell, I like to add my own quirky spin to the stories. I have enjoyed my foray into the distant past as a way of exploring the present, but, as of yet, I have not touched Irish myths.
Those familiar with W.B Yeats will know how much of his work was influenced by his love of Irish myths and legends. He and Lady Gregory took to advocating Irish writers explore and renew these stories in a modern context in the late 19thCentury.
While I might be a bit late to the game, I was particularly interested in the story of Lir and his swan children. There are a few versions of the same story around, so my summary may not fit the one you are acquainted with.
In this tale, the fusion of druidism and Christianity is beautifully interwoven and syncretized. Beginning in ancient times, the idyllic lives of a king, a queen, and their four children are devastated when the queen unexpectedly dies. Distraught and forlorn, the king marries Aoife, his wife’s sister.
Aoife soon becomes jealous of the king’s affection for his children and conjures up a spell that changes the king’s offspring into swans. For the next 900 years, the children of Lir are condemned live out their lives as swans. Since they retain their human abilities, they are able to relay their plight to the king, who quickly sentences Aoife to exile.
Unable to break the spell, the king devotes the rest of his days to listening to his children sing. It is during this first stage of their enchantment that their father dies.
After three hundred years of making the best of a bad lot, the children of Lir must spend the next three hundred years in turmoil. Far from their home, bereft of their father’s protection, the storms raged against them, as they experience times of isolation from each other.
The hardship of their spellbound existence bears its toll. The pathos of the story climaxes during the third stage of the spell, when they must move to another part of the island of Ireland. On hearing the ringing of a bell, a Christian bell, they journey towards the unusual sound.
A Christian man offers them sanctuary and cares for them until a greedy king, desirous of their ability to sing and speak, tries to take them by force. His plan, to abduct the children of Lir, fails when a mist from the lake transforms the swans back to human form. Aging rapidly, the children, once duly christened, die in the faith, and their tale becomes legend.
My play is loosely set on the Lir myth, but set in present-day Chicago. Three women, a mother and two daughters, are about to embark on visit to Ireland. The proposed visit coincides with the tenth anniversary of the father/husband’s suicide. All three women have had a decade to interrogate the circumstances of their tragic loss. Each of them has grown apart, allowing misperceptions of the tragedy to isolate them from each other.
On stage, they occupy three individual spaces. As much as they try to keep a distance, to avoid the painful reality of the suicide, they cannot remain apart. The impending trip poses itself as a time for unveiling the truth and breaking the spell of silence. While the family struggles to be close, there is also a desire to remain separated. The human condition is contradictory.
The play attempts to present the urban experience of loneliness and isolation. Psychological ties to perpetuating the lies they tell themselves binds each character to a psychological vortex that threatens to drag them under. The illusion of self-sufficiency, independence etc. is dispelled throughout the duration of the play, when the presence of the bizarre, in this case a mentally unstable man dressed up as Jesus, is introduced. The enchantment breaks when characters experience the presence of something greater; a mystery couched in grotesque form.
The title of the play, Lured: the curse of swans, is a play on the way Lir is pronounced, especially if, like me, you are Northern Irish. The hard ‘r’ sound makes Lir sound like lure, which I like, since the play itself explores the idea of appearances and how we seem to be one thing but really something else.
Right now, the play is in rehearsal and will be performed at Loyola University, Chicago in March and later at the Athenaeum, Chicago.