Published: Oct. 1, 1998 By

[1]  Recently, on an electronic discussion list operated by the American Conference for Irish Studies, one of the members posted a request for information on "the alleged homosexuality of Michael Collins," one of the primary leaders of the Irish struggle for independence in the early twentieth century and a major player both in the Anglo-Irish War and in the negotiation of the peace treaty that partitioned Ireland. In very short order a number of listmembers, some historians and some literary scholars, posted replies. Several argued that these "charges" had been trumped up by Collins's British contemporaries in an attempt to discredit the republican movement. Others took issue with the assumption, shared by most of these writers, that suggesting that Collins might have been gay was necessarily equivalent to character assassination. As the discussion unfolded comparisons were made to the still-current debate about the sexuality of Padraig Pearse, leader of the 1916 rebellion in Dublin that catalyzed Irish resistance to British rule and eventually led to the Anglo-Irish war.1 In hopes of heading off a potentially hostile confrontation, someone at last posted the inevitable question: What difference does it make?2

[2]  This paper will use two works by Frank McGuinness, one of Ireland's leading contemporary playwrights, to answer that question. While not going so far as the listmember who theorized that Collins's acceptance of the 1922 treaty was the direct result of a lovers' quarrel with De Valera, I will argue that the forces that have shaped Irish attitudes toward sexual orientation have also influenced its political history, and continue to exacerbate the lingering effects of colonialism and partition in Ireland. As the Collins discussion indicates, one reason questions of personal sexual orientation become politically charged in Ireland is that anxieties about sexuality and gender identity have historically been exploited by the British in an attempt to justify the colonization of Ireland. From Spenser's attempt to portray the Irish as "hypermasculine and hyperviolent" and thereby justify England's campaign of brutal repression to Arnold's depiction of them as "feminine victims and romantic failures" to Margaret Thatcher's dismissal of the H-block hunger strikers as "men of violence" out to "prove their virility," the attempt to enforce particular constructions of Irish masculinity/femininity has been integral to the process of imposing and maintaining imperial rule in Ireland.3 For McGuinness, then–a playwright dealing with the legacy of occupation and partition in Northern Ireland, and often engaging it specifically through the experiences of queer Irish protagonists–the question of what sexual orientation and political orientation might have to do with each other, and how heterosexist and imperialist systems might collude, is a major concern.

[3]  McGuinness's suggestion that in Ireland sexual and national politics are related, and that the relationship is worth investigating, is not new; from the obsession with personifying Ireland as an idealized female figure that marked turn-of-the-century art and literature to the 1937 constitution that wrote woman's role as wife and mother indelibly into Irish law, Irish nationalism has long linked national security and cultural integrity with the maintenance of traditional gender roles. The long-term results are clearly visible in the divisive and intense battles in the Republic of Ireland over the 1994 "X" case (in which a fourteen-year-old rape victim was prevented from leaving the country to seek an abortion) and the 1986 and 1995-6 divorce referenda.4 Drama has traditionally been one area in which public battles over the status of gender in Irish culture have been fought, the most famous example being the riots that erupted when the Abbey Theatre's 1907 production of Synge's The Playboy of the Western Worldchallenged prevailing conceptions of Irish femininity.5 But while a growing body of important feminist scholarship has explored the consequences, both for Irish women and for Irish national politics, of this insistence on preserving the patriarchal family, there has been less attention paid to the fact that this conflation of family and nation also seeks to enforce heterosexuality.

[4]  McGuinness's work, by foregrounding the issue of sexual orientation, suggests that the restrictive structures that define political opposition are dependent on those that uphold the distinction between hetero- and homosexuality, and that by subverting one of these structures it might be possible to subvert the others. By focusing on that interaction between sexual orientation and political allegiance, I hope to shed light on an important aspect of McGuinness's work that has so far been sadly under-discussed, but also to suggest that applying queer theory to questions of national identity may help identify new strategies of resistance to both heterosexist and imperialist prescriptions and prohibitions.

[5]  For these reasons, I will focus here on the two plays by McGuinness that deal most explicitly with political conflict in Northern Ireland. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme, McGuinness's first major critical and popular success, tells the story of eight soldiers, all recruited from Ulster and all Protestants, awaiting their slaughter at the Battle of the Somme during the first world war.6Justly celebrated as an original and imaginative attempt on the part of a Catholic playwright to engage Protestant Unionist Irish history and culture from a "critical but sympathetic" perspective, Observe also features a queer protagonist named Pyper, whose homosexuality has usually been treated by critics as either invisible or incidental.7 Carthaginians, set in a cemetery in contemporary Derry, explores the impact of British occupation on the Catholic community–specifically, the long-term effects of the 1972 massacre known as Bloody Sunday, in which British paratroopers shot and killed thirteen unarmed Derry civilians. While this play's protagonist, a young drag queen named Dido, makes questions of sexual identity rather more difficult to ignore, most commentators tend to subordinate them to the play's treatment of political history, rendering Dido just one more oddity in the traumatized group of "pungent crackpots" inhabiting post-Troubles Derry.8Although many of McGuinness's other published plays also feature queer characters–Innocencefocuses on the Italian artist Carvaggio, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me highlights the relationship between a heterosexual Irish journalist and a possibly bisexual British academic being held hostage in a basement in Lebanon, Mary and Lizzie suggests but does not fully develop a homoerotic relationship between Karl Marx and Frederick Engels–Observe and Carthaginiansare the two in which these characters are not only queer but Irish, and in which the intersection of sexual and national identity is most fully explored.

Deconstructing Ulster

[6]  What sets Pyper and Dido apart from their fellow-characters, aside from their sexual orientation, is a flair for drama. As characters in McGuinness's plays, of course, both Pyper and Dido are performances created by actors for the benefit of the audience in the theater, but within that staged reality Pyper and Dido are also shown creating their own performances for the benefit of their fellow-characters, and it is primarily with this kind of performance–the kind of self-construction that Pyper engages in when he adopts his exaggerated personae or that Dido engages in by adopting feminine dress and a feminine name–that this reading will be concerned. The fact for both characters this self-conscious self-presentation involves playing on the other characters' (and, by extension, the audience's) preconceived ideas about gender and sexuality suggests that because they share desires that have been defined as homosexual, both also share the knowledge that their identities are, and can only be, performative–rhetorical, constructed, assumed, in flux–rather than essential (intrinsic, fixed, innate). 9

[7]  Each is, as Helen Lojek argues, an "existential outsider" who is "conscious" of his position, having been forced to confront the fragility and incoherence of sexual identity.10What Eve Sedgwick calls the "chronic crisis of homo/hetero definition" – the cultural attempt to structure a rigid, impassable difference between homosexual and heterosexual identities – leads to a prevailing conception of homosexuality that is "fractured" by so many "potent incoherences" that any identity based on it can only be contradictory and tenuous.11 Pyper and Dido arrive on stage having already been subjected to this act of definition and denied the kind of stable and integral ego that is apparently enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts. Both use self-dramatization to convey the understanding that their identities as gay men are not constituted by any innate, biologically-based sexual orientation so much as constructed by others' interpretations of various markers that are tacitly understood to indicate that orientation. Pyper deliberately manipulates those markers, underscoring the arbitrariness of their relationship to what they supposedly signify; the irony that thus enters the text then becomes a savage force which is dangerous to other attempts at definition and which, thanks to the peculiar circumstances created by the performance of homosexual meaning, eventually spreads to "recruit every signifier in the text" for its challenge to "the notion of a fixed…identity."12

[8]  McGuinness pursues this challenge with Dido's more radical self-construction inCarthaginians, which influences the conception of national identity through a redefinition of gender difference as well as sexual orientation. While Pyper, by mounting his attack on the binarisms perpetuating the split at the root of Ulster's neurosis–Protestant/Catholic, Republican/Unionist,13 Orangeman/Papist–blows apart the structures that have defined identity for his comrades, he is not free to realize this briefly enacted alternative; Dido, whose parodic deconstruction of gender eventually disables the narratives that claim to construct Irish identity, may come closer to moving through the collapse of the old conception of Irishness toward something different.

[9]  In both plays, reaching that goal proves to be difficult and perhaps impossible. While suggesting that the characters–and the audience–must reach an understanding of their identities as performative before they can reconstruct them, both also clearly imply that self-consciousness per se will not be enough. As Judith Butler concedes in Bodies that Matter, a subject's understanding of gender as performative does not magically liberate him/her from the regulatory norms that govern gender construction, or change the fact that his/her "existence is already decided by gender;" and McGuinness's protagonists, even after using their understanding of gender and sexuality as performative to reveal political and sectarian identity as performative, do not thereby escape the effects of the equally potent regulatory norms that enforce that identification.14 The agency that Pyper and Dido make available to their comrades on stage and to audiences in the theater is limited by history (their own and that of Ireland), by contemporary social and economic conditions, by their communities, and by their own nostalgia for the coherent, stable identity that has been denied to them. But by making room–however temporarily, and under whatever restrictive conditions–for agency in the process of identity construction, Pyper and Dido suggest a possible strategy for rewriting the script within which they are trapped.

Rare Boyos

[10]  Unlike Dido, Pyper is closeted; although his dialogue is loaded with innuendo and implication he never explicitly declares his sexual desires. At the same time, by conspicuously acting as he knows his fellow-soldiers expect a gay man to behave, Pyper deliberately choreographs for the other recruits what Sedgwick calls the spectacle of the closet–the view of "a closet with a homosexual concealed, with riveting inefficiency, in its supposed interior."15 It is precisely the "riveting inefficiency" of Pyper's self-containment that makes the closet useful; Pyper compels the other characters' gazes through his "glass closet" to the "radical and irreducible incoherence" around which his enactment of both the closet and the homosexual is organized.16

[11]  Pyper begins by evincing exaggerated squeamishness at the sight of his own blood and asking Craig to "kiss it better."17 When Craig responds by appealing to the courage that is supposed to define their identity as soldiers–"you'll see a lot more than a bleeding thumb before you're out" (14)–Pyper screams and protests that this allusion has "really scared" him (14). He proceeds to push toward inappropriate intimacy ("Call me Kenneth"), impersonate Eve with the apple he has cut himself peeling ("I can't tempt you?"), and stare at Craig as he undresses (14-15). All of this is enough to bring Craig to declare–not that Pyper is gay–but that he is, if not "a madman," then "a rare buckcat, anyroad" (15). Moore and Millen, who are the first to hear from Pyper that his skin is "remarkably fine for a man" (17), and Anderson and McIlwaine, who are greeted with the same line, refuse as Craig refuses to use denotative language, relying instead on the same connotative terms–Pyper is either a "rare boyo" (19) or a "mad bastard" (36), depending.

[12]  Sedgwick's discussion of rarity and madness as attached to Claggart in Billy Buddargues that both taxonomic terms are applied in an attempt to get one character's male-directed desires "quarantined off and minoritized as against the male-directed desires of the men around him."18 This need to minoritize same-sex desire springs, paradoxically, from "the universalizing [view] that sexual desire is an unpredictably powerful solvent of stable identities; that apparently heterosexual persons and object choices are strongly marked by same-sex influences and desires."19 Pyper's performance poses the interpretive problem that Sedgwick identifies in Billy Budd–it informs both audiences (his comrades on stage and the spectators in the theater) that "[t]here is a homosexual in this text–a homosexual person, presented as different in his essential nature from the normal men around him," and that "at the same time, every impulse of everyperson in this book that could at all be called desire could be called homosexual desire."20

[13]  Just as the insistence on Claggart's rarity in the narration of Billy Budd inevitably "interpellat[es]" any "'normal nature' as part of the creation of the homosexual," the use of "rare" and "mad" by the characters inObserve to minoritize Pyper's desire is inverted by Pyper until the "forms of knowledge by which majority and minority, illness and health, madness and sanity are to be distinguished" disintegrate.21Eventually, Pyper's rhetoric transforms these terms until, paradoxically, everyone is "rare." "Are you rare, David?" he asks when Craig coins the term, eliciting the admission, "When I want to be" (16). When Moore asks, "What's a rare boyo like you doing in an army?" (19) Pyper answers by repeating the question verbatim back to Moore. Pyper's play creates an environment in which being "rare" is in fact extremely common; "rare" fastens onto the subjects using it as well as its intended object, universalizing its impact while preserving its minoritizing meaning. This finally evacuates the term, leaving Moore's question– "If I'm rare, what does that make you?" (19)–unanswerable. If "rare" comes to be as applicable to Moore as it is to Pyper, there will be no way to know exactly what that makes Pyper–no way to conceptualize his desires as fundamentally, intrinsicallydifferent from those of Moore or any of the others. And if the other characters catch Pyper's infectious rarity, they must also succumb to other contagions.

[14]  If connotation has a "particular aptitude…for allowing homosexual meaning to be elided even as it is also being elaborated," and is thus a practice peculiarly well suited to the circulation and preservation of the open secret of Pyper's sexuality, it also has a way of introducing into a "totalizing, tantalizing play" that catalyzes the decomposition of the boundaries connotation was supposed to preserve.22 Pyper's play upon the other characters' dialogue demonstrates connotation's corrosive effect on the supposed "integrity" of any "truly other subject position," rendering the other characters' professed identities just as performative as Pyper's.23Pyper's initial conversation with Roulston shows how this works at the interpersonal level:

ROULSTON: Pyper?PYPER: I hoped you'd never forget my face.

CRAIG: Yous two know each other?

ROULSTON: We schooled together.

PYPER: But we never shared together. Roulston's best friends were always much younger.

ROULSTON: You've kept your tongue.

PYPER: Are you asking to see it?

ROULSTON: I've heard little of you.

PYPER: Impossible. You've heard everything.

ROULSTON: I try to avoid scandal.

PYPER: Then what do you preach against? (25)

Implying a former or continuing crush on Roulston, Pyper's first line interpellates Roulston as a past or potential object of Pyper's "rare" homoerotic desires. His responses turn each of Roulston's lines into a declaration of latent homosexuality: Roulston has a penchant for younger men, harbors a secret desire for Pyper's tongue, gets vicarious gratification by consuming the reports of Pyper's exploits, and in fact is dependent upon them as the context that structures his performance as preacher. Roulston can only escape from the "play of connotation" by performing an instant identity change: "I no longer preach." This statement frees Roulston to define himself into a "truly other subject position," but only by "simply declaring that [he] occupies such a position."24 Roulston's identity, either as preacher or not-preacher, has caught the infection of performativity from Pyper's.

[15]  Tracing the process by which Pyper's performance inevitably accomplishes "the implicit homosexualization of almost all the other male characters" would be easy enough, but that is not, in itself, the project of this reading. Connotation infects the other cast members not only with homosexual desire, but with the incoherences that accompany it.25 The homosexualization of Roulston, Crawford, Anderson, McIlwaine, Moore, Millen, and of course Craig, reveals their identities–not just as "men" or as "heterosexuals" but as "sons of Ulster," as Protestants, as Orangemen–as performative. Once Pyper's desires are no longer quarantinable, once it becomes clear that all the other characters are also rare boyos, the "something rotten" (44) that, in Anderson's words, defines Pyper's erotic relationship with Craig infiltrates the identities of the others, transforming itself into "something rotten" (44) that eats away at the idea of a coherent, "real," essential Ulster.

Something Rotten

[16]  This corrosive effect is clearest in the scene that follows Anderson and McIlwaine's attack on the allegedly Catholic Crawford, an incident which shows how sexual and political orientation have become fused in this social context. By physically assaulting a Catholic almost as soon as they enter the barracks, Anderson and McIlwaine immediately establish themselves as Protestant Unionists by proving that they are aggressive, masculine, and therefore, according to the prevailing paradigm, heterosexual; the attack provides "evidence" in support of their initial declaration of masculinity ("No cause for panic, ladies. The men are here" [33]) just as it identifies them as the play's primary proponents of anti-Catholic bigotry and Orange extremism.26In answer to this assertion of heterosexuality through sectarian violence, Pyper calls their attention to his "remarkably fine" skin, and Anderson responds as expected by calling him a "milksop" (34-5). Instead of letting this definition stand, Pyper subverts it in an ironic move that hits Ulster where it counts:

PYPER: Now, I want to show you how someone with my remarkably fine skin can perform magic. A trick. A wee trick…Two bare arms. I clench each fist like this. Inside one of my hands something has appeared. I'll give it to whichever one of you guesses the correct hand. Come on, guess.(Silence.)

Come on, guess. Guess. Guess.

(ANDERSON touches PYPER's right hand. PYPER punches him in the groin. ANDERSON screams.)

MCILWAINE: You dirty bastard!

PYPER: That makes three of us. (35)

Pyper claims that this act of aggression is enabled by the "remarkably fine skin" that supposedly marks him as effeminate and vulnerable. His ironic and contradictory use of homosexual signifiers allows him to fight dirty, or, as he puts it, to "perform magic"–magic being the concealment of hard muscle under fine skin, the separation of identity markers from what they appear to mark, the "trick" that does away with the possibility of an identity constituted by anything other than word and gesture.

[17]  Pyper's blow to Anderson's groin is the most literal manifestation of the assault mounted by Pyper's rupture of the homo/hetero binarism upon the binarisms that structure the identity that Anderson and the others claim as sons of Ulster. The magic trick that drags Anderson and McIlwaine kicking and screaming into the community of rarity and madness ("That makes three of us") also renders their identities as Protestant Unionists as "rotten"–as evacuated of "real" meaning–as performative as Pyper's identity as a homosexual. Pyper's magic trick is a retaliation against Anderson's claim that he can "smell" Catholics (33); it is his way of hinting that Anderson's conception of Catholicism is as wrong-headed and dangerous as the conception of homosexuality that Pyper's sneak attack has just refuted.

[18]  Anderson is convinced to leave Crawford alone when Millen certifies him "no Catholic" and therefore "one of ours," but implies that this declaration is unsatisfactory because it is merely performative: "He might deny he's a Catholic, but he wouldn't walk in our part of the shipyard" (34). McIlwaine and Anderson hold onto the belief in an essential Catholicism which is the defining counterpart of a Protestant identity that is equally innate, predetermined, and immutable. Crawford, who will later come out as Catholic to Roulston, accepts that construction when he describes his Catholic identity as inherited from his mother and indissoluble by any performative action (conversion, renunciation, etc.) on his part.27 But Pyper's magic does its disintegrative work on the closeted Catholic–and therefore the Protestant–as it does on the closeted queer and the heterosexual.

[19]  Before using the "remarkably fine skin" line on Moore and Millen, Pyper interrupts their introduction to Craig by impersonating a commanding officer:

I asked you why you are here, Mr. John Millen. I see I had better tell you. You are here as a volunteer in the army of your king and empire. You are here to train to meet that empire's foe. You are here as a loyal son of Ulster, for the empire's foe is Ulster's foe. You are here to learn, Mr. Millen. (17)

Millen's identity as a "loyal son of Ulster" is not merely a birthright but also something he has to be told, something he has to learn by doing. Pyper's subsequent slip into the "remarkably fine skin" persona then marks the "son of Ulster" identity as simply another rhetorical posture, as performative as Pyper's effeminacy and as ironic.

[20]  Pyper follows his Unionist act with the parable of the "Papist whore," which plays on the assumption of an essential Catholic (and thus Protestant) identity. Moore consumes the story uncritically, even when Pyper claims that this whore had three legs and died on their wedding night because he "sawed her middle leg off" (30). Moore continues to believe Pyper until he claims to have actually eaten her: "Do you not remember I was starving in France?" (30). Moore is willing to accept the story of amputation/castration/murder because it coincides with his conception of Catholicism as something biologically encoded and fixed. Pyper pushes his parable until it shows this conception to be the monstrous distortion that it is, forcing Moore to admit the absurdity of the presumption of difference on which it is based. The suggestion that this mysterious "third leg" may be a penis further underscores the connection between sectarian and heterosexist models of identity; Pyper claims that it was his "duty as a Protestant" (30) to perform the "conversion" operation that also upholds heterosexual rules by bringing the whore's biology in line with his/her gender identification and object choice.

[21]  Pyper's account of his own identity formation emphasizes his conviction that his "duty as a Protestant," if he were willing or able to fulfill it, would commit him to literalizing that allegorical story of double punishment, to brutally enforcing both Unionist and heterosexist ideologies. Pyper comes from an aristocratic Protestant family "whose proudest boast is that in their house Sir Edward Carson, saviour of their tribe, danced in the finest gathering that Armagh has ever seen" (56). Carson, the voice of militant Protestant opposition to Irish independence, was one of the leaders in the fight to keep Ireland under British control or, failing that, to carve out a separate region that would have a Protestant majority and which would remain part of Great Britain–a vision which was realized in the 1922 treaty that created the entity now known as Northern Ireland. As such, he was in large part responsible for shaping the Unionist ideologies and attitudes shared by the characters of Observe. Famous for his championship of the Unionist cause, Carson was also famous as the attorney who argued the British government's case against Oscar Wilde in the trial of the century. "Carson's dance," which through Pyper's dialogue comes to stand inObserve for the complicated process of identity production in Ulster, thus combines the propagation, through violence as well as rhetoric, of anti-Catholic paranoia with the enforcement, through imprisonment as well as legislation, of heterosexual norms.28

[22]  Throughout "Initiation" the other recruits resist Pyper's rhetoric, refusing to understand what he is driving at and holding onto their belief in an Ulster whose meaning transcends social construction and inheres in something other than human actions and words. But in "Pairings," it becomes clear to everyone that "Pyper the bastard was right" (59)–that that kind of faith is no longer possible. Each of the four scenes in "Pairings"–Craig and Pyper at the cave, Moore and Millen crossing the bridge, Roulston and Crawford in the church, Anderson and McIlwaine at the Field–depicts one pair of characters recovering from the loss of identity they experienced during their first tour of duty. Moore's struggle to cross the bridge is perhaps the most literal figuring of this attempt to cross the epistemological abyss into which their contact with death has thrown them; Anderson and McIlwaine's is the clearest depiction of what that loss involves in political terms.

[23]  McIlwaine and Anderson return to "the holiest spot in Ulster" to celebrate the Twelfth of July with the traditional Orangemen's parade. Because it is not actually the twelfth of July, however, they are out there alone. After alluding to Pyper's magic trick, McIlwaine suddenly gives up on the ritual:

MCILWAINE: Something rotten.ANDERSON: What the hell are you doing? Waste of good whiskey.

MCILWAINE: It's no good here on your own. No good without the speakers. No good without the bands, no good without the banners. Without the chaps. No good on your own. (45)

Without other performers, without an audience, the markers refuse to attach to their purported meaning; the "holy ground" is not holy. McIlwaine now knows, as Pyper always has, that the Protestant gods do not stand behind the performance of Ulster, that it is only the human audience's agreement to participate that gives the symbols their power.

[24]  When McIlwaine finally asks, "Why did we come here?" Anderson replies, "To beat a drum" (45). McIlwaine does, finally, beat the drum, hoping to recover his identity by deliberately performing an action that he knows has been emptied of any larger significance. His attempt to recover an identity by engaging in a performance that does not claim to be anything but a performance is prefigured in the gesture that closes "Initiation." As silence descends on the barracks at the end of the scene, Pyper, "ignored by all except CRAIG," deliberately slits his left hand. Craig then "attracts the others' attention" by tearing the sleeve off his shirt and bandaging Pyper's hand, so that the others hear the final dialogue:

CRAIG: Red hand.PYPER: Red sky.

CRAIG: Ulster.

PYPER: Ulster. (37)

Pyper's self-wounding–an apparently arbitrary action–now becomes a citation of Unionist iconography; but only because Craig assembles the audience and says the words that enact that meaning. Pyper resists: to Craig's invocation of the "red hand" of Ulster, Pyper answers "Red sky," implying that Craig's political symbolism is as arbitrary and empty as the superstitious assertion that a red sky symbolizes bad weather.29 But when Craig goes a step further and calls this unexplained gesture "Ulster," Pyper concurs.

[25]  By this time it is clear that Pyper knows that the performance of Ulster does not correspond to any transcendent meaning, any "reality" beyond the actions that constitute it and the histories that those actions cite–and that so far he is alone in this knowledge. Pyper has rebelled and will continue to rebel against Carson's dance and the fantasy of the "Protestant gods" (47) who supposedly organize the performance of Ulster–a performance that will include the mass slaughter of its "sons." But finally Pyper, as this scene foreshadows, agrees to participate in that performance–on his terms. The play's momentum will carry the characters through the epistemological abyss traversed in "Pairings" to the attempted recuperation, in "Bonding," of an identity that recognizes itself as performative and performed, an identity based not upon incoherent definitions and ruptured binarisms but on the power of play and the double-edged thrust of Pyper's rhetoric.

[26]  As Anderson and McIlwaine demonstrate at the Field, however, creating and maintaining that kind of identity may be impossible under the historical pressures that operate on these characters. If their individual identities are constructed by their individual actions, those actions do not take place in a vacuum; they are conditioned by, and citations of, identities that have been constructed over time through the actions of previous generations, through the histories of allegiance, violence and resistance that determine identity forObserve's cast.30 Just as, in Butler's model, the fact that gender is performative does not mean that a given subject can choose his/her gender at will or on a whim, the discovery of a performative element to political identity does not free these characters from the material and cultural forces that script that performance. While an understanding of political orientation as performative opens up some room for reinterpretation, the necessity of working within an established frame of reference–the fact that the meaning of any given performance must derive from its relationship to previous performances–means that the agency of the performer remains severely limited.

[27]  Observe dramatizes the difficulty of departing from the preestablished script by showing that its characters, even after they have accepted Pyper's knowledge about the "rotten" core of identity, are unable to avoid citing historical versions of political identity or to relinquish the faith that supports them. Anderson and McIlwaine's performance in "Pairings" ultimately fails because it has an irresistible tendency to slip back toward sincerity, to reach for that impossible faith. Pyper's acceptance of Craig's name for his gesture hints that he too may suffer from this desire for conviction, for stability, for faith in what is "more than right" (36)–and that he may help shut down the possibilities that his subversive performance opened up.

Trouble in Carthage

[28]  Dido's performance in Carthaginians also attacks political difference by destabilizing sexual difference, but uses different methods to get different results. The Protestant-identified cast ofObserve has a radically different relationship to the defining binarisms discussed above than does the urban, contemporary, Catholic-identified cast of Carthaginians. While Pyper and the other rare boyos are interested in recovering a separate and separatist Ulster, the vision that conditions the formation of political identity for the tenants of Derry's graveyard is that of a united Ireland–one that risks referring back to a precolonial, homogeneous, idealized Ireland thatCarthaginians argues never existed. Decades after Yeats's death, his "construction of an ahistorical, timeless, 'original' Ireland" still "retains a residual attractiveness" for the dispossessed of Derry.31 Though structured by the same binarisms that define the sons of Ulster's dream of separatism, the Yeatsian dream of unity through the recovery of a lost, originary, purely "Irish" culture is constituted differently and must be taken apart using different tools.

[29]  As Riana O'Dwyer contends, inCarthaginians "gender differences become a metaphor for political division;" and that metaphor is part of a long literary and iconographic tradition that genders the relationship between Ireland and its occupiers.32 This tradition of linking gender roles with colonizer/colonized roles argues a connection between the problematic gender identity narratives that Judith Butler discusses inGender Trouble and nationalist identity narratives. The Lacanian contention that the imposition of "paternal law" structures the development of the subject "through the denial of the feminine," which then becomes the "Other" parallels prevalent narratives of Irish identity in which the imposition of British law and order creates the colonial subject through the denial of what is native and Irish, which then becomes an equally disenfranchised Other.33 Butler points out that this identity narrative almost inevitably "grounds itself in a story about what it was likebefore the advent of the law," requiring its adherent to fabricate a "story of origins."34InCarthaginians McGuinness addresses his predecessors' temptation to conflate this story of gender origin with a nationalist identity narrative and pursue liberation of the repressed Irish identity by devaluing the masculinized attributes of the patriarchal/colonizing culture (rationalism, linearity, law and order, "either/or") in favor of the feminized ones assigned to the repressed female/native "Other" (mysticism, cycles, chaos, "both/and").35 Like the gender narrative with which it intertwines, this version of nationalist identity must ground itself in an originary mythology that constructs a "single, authoritative account" of "an irrecoverable past."36

[30]  Dido's performance, by dramatizing the limitations of a conception of gender identity based on the "utopian postulation of an originally predifferentiated state…which…suffers the process of differentiation and hierarchization through the advent of a repressive law," signals McGuinness's discomfort with the assumption of an indigenous, integral Irishness that preexisted the imposition of colonial rule.37 Dido's performance in Carthaginians is a two-pronged assault upon the double "myth of the origin" that underlies this version of Irish identity, a refutation of the "false sense of legitimacy" that myth gives to the various "culturally oppressive version[s]" of Irish identity inscribed on the other characters.38Dido shares Pyper's knowledge of what is rotten about definitions and binarisms, offering his audience, instead of the spectacle of the closet, the spectacle of drag. Dido's cross-dressing, however, never comes close to anything that could be described as successful mimesis, any more than his mock-melodrama The Burning Balaclavacomes close to legitimate theater. It is, in fact, an especially blatant example of what Butler calls "gender parody," one that does for gender what Pyper's performance did for sexual orientation.39 This version of drag performance is calculated to impress on its audience that "true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies;" it is not an attempt to either imitate or caricature an originary gender identity but to parody "the very notion of an original."40

[31]  Dido's self-dramatization depends for its context on a specifically Irish conflation of gender and national identities in order to turn the deconstruction of gender that drag enables into a deconstruction of originary Irishness. McGuinness's (and Dido's) use of the Aeneid as an intertext is part of an Irish tradition of "enlist[ing] the Carthaginians as progenitors," which began as a response to British attempts to demonize the Irish by making them descendants of the Scythians.41 Cullingford's detailed exploration of the function of Carthage as a metaphor for Northern Ireland in contemporary Irish literature demonstrates that the Scythian/Phoenician origin myth has been used both by British imperialists and Irish nationalists to support particular constructions of Irish identity, and that it has been useful precisely because it enables the "gendering of genealogy"–it allows its user to prop up his partisan construction of Irish ethnic identity on the comparatively solid bedrock of gender identity.42

[32]  As Cullingford notes, Dido's multilayered use of the Carthage story in his self-construction, which involves allusions to the Aeneid, Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas, and various other pop-culture and classical texts, is significant not only because of the political parallels it draws but because it "queers the gendered binary that constructs colonizers as male and colonized as female."43 Playing the double roles of "Queen of Carthage" and "queen of Derry," providing food and sustenance to the other graveyard inhabitants during their vigil, Dido is a parodic Mother Ireland whose performance plays on the different narratives that have constructed the dream of an original, homogeneous, precolonial Ireland. Dido suggests this by inventing and narrating his own origin myth:

When he give me the flowers I was sure I'd scored and then he put his hand to my face and I thought yippee but he just knelt down on the ground…He said, 'Listen, listen to the earth. The earth can speak. It says, Cease, cease your violent hand, for I am the earth and I accept my dead but I will no longer accept your dead, given to me by your violent hand. I am a peaceful earth, give me not your dead….The earth has a dream, and I pray my dream comes true.' I said, 'I pray your dream comes true as well but failing that I'll settle for Derry City winning the European cup.' He smiled and called me Dido.44

The earth of Ireland, so persistently feminized elsewhere,45 now becomes identified with not only Dido but the "beautiful stranger" of Dido's sexual fantasy; Cathleen ni Houlihan is male and explicitly refuses the kind of blood-sacrifice that she is ordinarily supposed to demand. The story of Dido's naming, which he admits at the outset is a fiction ("I probably was [dreaming] for there was a man involved" [28]), uses the Carthaginian myth to invert and twist traditional figurations of Mother Ireland, and so begins to eat away at the idea of a suppressed, originary Ireland in which all of its children could discover their true identities.

[33]  Dido's naming myth, like the play's title, suggests at first that McGuinness is attempting to recover Carthage as an originary archetype for Derry. McGuinness would not be the first to try it; the theory that Ireland may have been originally settled by the Carthaginians was propounded as early as 1772 by Colonel Vallancey, based on a supposed (and spurious) similarity between the Punic and Irish languages. Cullingford's study traces the influence of the Carthaginian theory through the fiction of Maria Edgeworth and Lady Morgan to James Joyce's play on it in Finnegans Wake, to Brian Friel's invocation of it in the final moments of Translations,to Seamus Heaney's play on it in North.46 As Cullingford notes, however,Carthaginians is not an uncomplicated attempt to ground Irish cultural legitimacy in classical genealogy and recover an originary identity. Instead, McGuinness's use of the Carthage analogy becomes part of a highly complex system of allusion that depends on multiple intertexts and which maps Derry onto at least three distinct politico-geographic locations in three separate time periods.47 Making Dido the locus of the Carthage connection complicates it further, and allows him to use the performativity of drag to critique, rather than support, the nationalist search for a precolonial Irish identity.

[34]  The explicit development of the Carthaginian analogy is assigned to Paul, a former teacher and ex-quizmaster who is now building a pyramid out of garbage in the graveyard while he waits for the dead to rise:

PAUL: This city is not Rome, but it has been destroyed by Rome. What city did Rome destroy?GRETA: Carthage.

PAUL: Correct. Two points. Carthage.

GRETA: How are we in Carthage?

PAUL: Tell them you saw me sitting in the ruins, in the graveyard, I live in Carthage among the Carthaginians, saying Carthage must be destroyed…(17)

But this apparently simple congruence between two ancient civilizations destroyed by imperial cultures becomes complicated as Paul develops the analogy:

PAUL: I would like to see the pyramids. I'm building a pyramid. But I'm no slave. I am Carthaginian. This earth is mine, not Britain's, nor Rome's. Mine. Am I right?…Good. Who wrote The Aeneid? An Irishman wrote it. That's your only clue. (17)

The Carthage analogy is valuable and tempting because it allows Paul to claim an originary identity predating both the Roman putsch that imposed Western civilization on northern Africa (and on a Europe that had previously been Celtic) and the British drive that imposed that culture on Ireland. But when Paul grounds the analogy on the claim that an Irishman wroteThe Aeneid, this myth breaks down.

[35]  The problem is not so much that Virgil never set foot in Ireland as the fact that The Aeneidis itself an attempt to forge a national identity by generating an originary myth that has only the slightest of groundings in anything that can be called history. Virgil's text is an attempt to legitimize Roman culture by appropriating the authority of Greek culture through its use of Homer's Iliad; and Paul's claim thatThe Aeneid is an Irish text indicates that his own originary myth is as suspect, and the precolonial identity he searches for is as illusory, as Virgil's were. Paul's claim to possession of Derry, based on his status as a "Carthaginian," is therefore, like Dido's drag, an "imitation without an origin," an imitation of an imitation.48 The fact that a drag queen's self-construction provides the primary support for Paul's analogy is further proof that Paul's vision of a recoverable, originary Irish identity is a fantasy constituted by the same "vain and persistent conjuring and displacement of an idealized original" that constitutes gender performance.49

[36]  That connection between essential models of gender identity and the idea of an essential Irish identity is underscored more graphically when Hark assaults Dido:

HARK: Tell me the truth. Tell me who you're involved with. Give me names. Give me addresses. Just names and addresses. That's all we're looking for. You can walk out of here if you just give me one name and address. Tell me….I'll let you go if you tell me. Tell me what's between your legs. Is there anything between your legs? Is there one between your legs? What happens when cocks unite? Disease boy, disease. The united Ireland's your disease. Does your cock want a united Ireland? Will it tell me? Would you like it to tell me? Tell me. (20)

Hark interrogates Dido in the language of a British inquisitor confronting a Republican prisoner–language that Hark himself has been subjected to. Hark's insistence that Dido tell him "the truth" about his genitalia is mapped onto the colonizer's obsession with discovering, through torture and other means, "the truth" about its colonial subjects. The clear implication is that neither "truth" exists except in the desires of the inquisitor; like the "real" identity of the Irish subject, Dido's "real" gender is as much a construction as his drag persona. And as this passage shows, the cultural nationalist search for an originary, integral culture has a dark parallel in the actions of its colonial oppressors, who have forcibly "inscribed" their own construction of the "real" Irish identity "on the surface of [the] bodies" of Hark and his comrades.50

[37]  Hark's figuring of united Ireland as "what will happen when cocks unite" implies that he has rejected that ideal as revolting in the same way that he finds Dido revolting; and indeed none of theCarthaginians characters seems to actually hope to see Yeats's Ireland reborn in their lifetime. But if Hark, Seph, and Paul have come to reject that ideal, their identities are not any the less constituted by that narrative. The fall into disillusion has produced, not the destruction of the dream, but its transformation into a nightmare that continues to determine identity in Derry. Dido's performance, in its attempt to puncture the "myth of originality," attacks the nightmare as well as the dream.51

The Burning Balaclava

[38]  Dido's command performance as a drag queen is given in Scene Four, when he directs, produces and stars in his own mock melodrama, The Burning Balaclava.52 Dido's play attacks the Yeatsian dream of precolonial cultural unity by parodying its mirror-image, a hopelessly divided culture whose fragmentation is the inevitable and unresolvable result of a narrative of identity that assumes the imposition of colonial/patriarchal law on a previous state of cultural/gender integrity.53 Dido's characters are the offspring of a tradition that, by accepting the myth of origin, tends to "reproduce and valorize the very oppression that must be overcome" by dwelling obsessively on the fragmentation that is the only possible outcome of this identity narrative.54

[39]  Dido sets the tone by entering, for the first time, in full drag–although along with his "long, flowing skirt" and "loose blouse" he also wears "boots and a beret"–and identifying himself as the author, the patently fictional Fionnuala McGonigle. Fionnuala's national identity is, like her gender, a fabrication within a fabrication: Dido claims that Fionnuala is French, but has adopted a Gaelic name "in sympathy" with Derry's attempt to change its name from Londonderry to Derry (33-34). This characterization of Fionnuala couples political identity with gender identity, setting the stage for what will happen during the performance itself. Since, with the exception of Seph's role as Father O'Doherty and the British soldier played by Dido, all roles in The Burning Balaclavaare cross-cast, Hark, Paul, Maela, Greta and Sarah all perform in drag; but their costumes consist, like Dido's usual drag, of one or two orphaned signifiers (Hark's apron, Paul's blond wig, Sarah's cap and raincoat) at odds with their larger context. Since all the characters are named Doherty, Catholic or Protestant identity is signaled equally arbitrarily through spelling variants that distinguish the names in print but sound identical when spoken ("How am I a Protestant if I'm called Docherty?" "You spell Dogherty with a 'g'" [35]). Conventions of political iconography are subverted either through exaggeration (the "gigantic" tricolour in which Maela, as the republican "patriot and idealist" Padraig O'Dochartaigh, literally wraps herself [34]) or inversion (the crucifix and rosary wielded by Greta as an officer in the predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary [35]).

[40]  The Burning Balaclava thus introduces its actors to a reality in which gender, sectarian, class, and national identities are obviously, comically, and equally performative. Dilemmas usually presented as tragic become comic when Dido's script reduces identity to a few lines declaring who the characters are and why they are tormented ("'What are you worried about son?' 'Oh, the agony of being a working-class boy sent here to oppress the working class'" [38]). Paul's attempt to assume the character of Mercy Dogherty simply by donning a highly unconvincing wig and saying "I am a beautiful woman" becomes no more and no less laughable than Dido's canned justification of the British soldier's assassination of the heroine: "What could I do? I'm only a soldier. A working class boy, just a boy" (43).

During the climactic shoot-out, each assassin justifies his murder by labeling his victim with one of these reductive splinter identities:

(MAELA shoots PAUL.)MAELA: Blasphemer, you've shot a priest.

(GRETA shoots MAELA.)

GRETA: Catholic bastard, you've shot my daughter.

(HARK shoots GRETA.)

HARK: You murdering RUC madman. (42)

Violence in this play thus results from the characters' failure to realize that the differences that structure their stated identities are inscribed by the performative assignment of one or another fragment of the origin story either to the aggressor or to the victim–by the characters' citation of predetermined identifications constructed for them by their histories and communities. The fragmentation bemoaned by the tragic literature parodied in The Burning Balaclava is as much a construct as the Carthaginian origin myth, the byproduct of, on the one hand, imperial insistence on an essential, knowable Irish identity, and on the other a stubborn desire for the recovery of a mythical homogeneous Ireland.

[41]  If Dido intended the cast ofThe Burning Balaclava to learn from it that their own identities are as performative as their characters', he fails. Hark unhesitatingly pronounces The Burning Balaclava "shite," an assessment with which the rest of the cast emphatically concurs. But what is it that Hark and the others could have taken from this experience? What happens once the fall from a stable ego is achieved? How wide is the scope of the performer's agency, and within the constraints of historical and contemporary oppression how much room is there for redefinition? Can McGuinness, can the audiences watching them use the knowledge communicated to them by the performances of Pyper and Dido?

Relapse, Recovery, Reconstruction

[42]  Both plays suggest the possibility that the answer is yes; but that possibility is heavily qualified. In both plays, loss of faith in an originary, integral, stable identity is the first step toward the possible recovery of a new formulation of Irish identity, one which, like Pyper and Dido's sexual identities, would be self-consciously performative. But in Carthaginians, no one but Dido is really willing to take that step; and in Observe the Sons of Ulster, Pyper's final performance and opening monologue indicate that not even he can maintain a consciousness of the performativity of his identity over the long term.

Dance Unto Death

[43]  By the final scene of Observe the Sons of Ulster, all the characters know what is rotten about their identities, have learned like Anderson that "Pyper the bastard was right…We're going to die for nothing…It's all lies" (59). The action of the final section, "Bonding," is dominated by different performances orchestrated by the cast in an effort to create, as a substitute for their exploded and irredeemable faith in a metaphysical Ulster and its Protestant gods, faith in a performative Ulster which, if it cannot lead them toward apotheosis, can at least lead them toward each other.

[44]  Unfortunately, most attempts to construct this new kind of communal identity fail, the most significant failure being Anderson and McIlwaine's reenactment of the Battle of the Boyne. It fails because although Anderson's version attempts to acknowledge its inability to connect to the metanarrative that Pyper's performance has proven to be nonexistent, it nevertheless depends for its effect on a faith in Ulster's history as something other than a story, something that refers to a higher power than human action. Although Anderson's production acknowledges sectarian and political identity as performative by cross-casting the Catholic Crawford as the Protestant King William of Orange and the apostate Pyper as his loyal steed, the players are admonished to "keep to the result" (70) predetermined by the originary myth. When Pyper trips and King William loses, the audience cannot help reacting to it as an ill omen (71), and if the actual fall is not, their consternation is; it indicates that this performance, straining as it does for a connection to something beyond the boundaries of its own language and gesture, cannot succeed.

[45]  What, then, allows Pyper to close with a prayer that invokes the Battle of the Boyne? Pyper can make his speech because it is a response, not to Roulston's demand to "preach," but to his revised request, "You believe. Believe" (79). As an answer to Roulston's plea, Pyper's speech is an invocation not of the gods that his performance has displaced, but of belief itself–a faith aware of itself as performative, as constituted solely by the words Pyper uses to bring it into being, as having no reference to anything beyond the believers' desires. Built on that awareness, Pyper's prayer climaxes in a speech act through which Ulster is reborn:

Observe the sons of Ulster marching toward the Somme. I love their lives. I love my own life. I love my home. I love my Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. (80)

"Ulster," finally, lives again in a different form–as a word repeated, first by the main characters and finally by the Elder Pyper, until it is emptied of referentiality and its meaning inheres only in its own reiteration. Self-reflexive and performative as it is, it serves to inaugurate among the cast a communal identity that may, at this moment of crisis, become a valid replacement for the "rotten" framework that originally structured their differences.

[46]  But at the climax of this performance, the Elder Pyper enters. The Elder Pyper's opening monologue has already demonstrated that in him the desire to remain conscious of "something rotting in humanity" by "preserv[ing] the knowledge" (12) that Ulster is a performance is now at war with an overpowering desire for fixed meaning and stable identity, a larger context that would allow the deaths of his comrades to make sense. This desire takes the form of a renewed, repentant commitment to the service of the Protestant gods that Pyper denies in "Initiation" and "Bonding":

The freedom of faith they fought and died for would be maintained. There would be, and there will be no surrender. The sons of Ulster will rise and lay their enemy low, as they did at the Boyne, as they did at the Somme, against any invader who will trespass onto their homeland. Fenians claim a Cuchullian as their ancestor, but he is ours…Sinn Fein? Ourselves alone. It is we, the Protestant people, who have always stood alone. We have stood alone and triumphed, for we are God's chosen. (10)

The belief in belief that Pyper achieved at the end of "Bonding" has been transformed into belief in Ulster and "the Protestant people." Instability has been replaced by rigidity, irony by commitment. He has lapsed into sincerity and agreed to become Ulster's prodigal son.

[47]  At the same time, Pyper retains enough of a sense of what is "rotten" to resist his own faith: "Leave me. Do not possess me. I do not wish to be your chosen" (10). He also remembers enough to know the roots of his excruciating ambivalence. It is impossible for him to keep faith with the performative model of Irish identity because he learned at the Somme that his final performance not only failed to prevent the slaughter of his friends in battle, but may have caused it:

Answer me why we did it. Why we let ourselves be led to extermination? In the end, we were not led, we led ourselves. We claimed we would die for each other in battle. To fulfill that claim we marched into the battle that killed us all. (12)

In Observe, finally, the pressures of history are too powerful, and for the living there is no escape from "Carson's dance." Trapped in this context, Pyper is unable to imagine a future after the collapse of the Ulster identity; as Moore discovers in "Pairing," the only thing waiting for these characters after they cross the abyss is death (54). There is, finally, no escape. The death of Ulster inevitably implies the death of its sons.

[48]  The Elder Pyper's advent on stage in the final scene, then, makes it a statement of the limitations of the performative model of identity, and suggests that although subverting conventional gender constructions does subvert the political and sectarian ideologies to which they are linked, the material conditions that continue to construct them may render those structures proof against this form of resistance. The Elder Pyper reminds us that for him and the others, performance is not a way out; it ends in a death that liberates no one. As the Younger and Elder Pyper confront each other, they exchange places, the Elder repeating "Ulster" and the Younger repeating lines from the Elder Pyper's opening monologue. The play thus ends with the younger Pyper's transformation into the Elder Pyper, with the loss of instability and the shutdown of possibility, with Pyper becoming the reluctant but faithful priest who will command his younger self and his comrades to "Dance unto death before the Lord" (12).

Raising the Dead

[49]  McGuinness returns inCarthaginians to a model that might enable its subjects to elide previously insurmountable differences by accepting identity as performative, this time leaving the possibility still open though unrealized. Dido's reinvention of gender identity is more radical than anything that the closeted Pyper is allowed by his circumstances to accomplish; and while Pyper cannot avoid being haunted by his past and the Protestant gods, McGuinness suggests that Dido may have been able to use his sexuality to define himself into a position not dictated by the dream/nightmare of Derry's identity:

I know my kind, Hark. Do you want me to name them? Well, there's me. That's all. That's enough. I know how to use what's between my legs because it's mine. Can you say the same? Some people here fuck with a bullet and the rest fuck with a Bible, but I belong to neither, so I'm off to where I belong. My bed. On my own. My sweet own. (21)

As Dido's construction of his personal identity seems to have opened up an escape route that was closed to Pyper, the more sustained and outrageous attack on the Derry identity narrative mounted in The Burning Balaclavaoffers the other characters a passage through the death that ends Observe toward an alternative version of Irishness.

[50]  The message of Dido's magnum opus is summed up parodically in its final speech: "What's a Brit under the clay? What's a Protestant in the ground? What's a Catholic in the grave? All the same. Dead. All dead. We're all dead" (43). Following the tactic introduced in Observe of figuring the collapse of identity as death, Dido's play suggests room for change through the acceptance of that collapse. All the characters inCarthaginians are there because they are waiting for the dead to rise, and McGuinness's stage directions for the end of Scene 8 make it possible for the audience to infer that this may, on some level, happen. For the tenants of Derry's graveyard, death may be a passage from which they eventually emerge. By relinquishing the fantasy of precolonial integrity and its complementary nightmare of infinite and irreparable schism,Balaclava suggests, they might pass through the abyss and come out on the other side understanding each other as "all the same." For that to happen, however, the other characters would have to be conscious, as Dido is, of their identities as performative–and they resist that knowledge with more gusto than does the cast ofObserve. So Dido and his knowledge are finally exiled from the graveyard community, and his work of art remains a failure.

[51]  This second failure of the performative model may reflect some ambivalence about the power of drama itself. Dido's parody is, among other things, an indictment of Irish drama as one of the perpetrators of the various kinds of trouble plaguing Derry. The Burning Balaclavaconflates skewed allusions to both contemporary treatments of Bloody Sunday and the Troubles and to Irish Renaissance-era dramas, ranging from what may be a covert reference to Brian Friel's The Freedom of the City (which also features a middle-aged Derry wife and mother named Doherty) to a number of allusions to O'Casey'sJuno and the Paycock.55 The most significant of these is a deliberate misquotation of Juno's "Sacred Heart of Jesus, take away our hearts of stone" and "Mother of God, where were you when my poor son was riddled with bullets?" which are conflated and confounded to become "Son, son, where were you when my Sacred Heart was riddled with bullets?" The inversion implies that O'Casey's treatment of civil violence, even though it is intended as a critique, is still partly responsible for the reification of sectarian division that now renders the icon that represents mother Doherty's Catholic identification more important to her than her actual son. As Cullingford argues,The Burning Balaclava suggests that O'Casey's mistake was sharing and reinscribing nationalist dependence on exactly what Dido is working against–the "sentimental overestimation of Irish motherhood and…the essentialist myth of Mother Ireland."56 Carthaginians is an attempt to correct that mistake, but like The Burning Balaclava andJuno and the Paycock it cannot avoid participating, however ironically, in the tradition it seeks to subvert, and risking a repetition of the plot it wants to undo.57

[52]  So that Carthaginians may not share the fate ofThe Burning Balaclava, McGuinness brings Dido on stage at the end with a closing monologue that presents to the audience the challenge that Hark, Paul and the others failed to extract from Dido's parody:

Carthage has not been destroyed. Watch yourself…Watch yourself, Hark and Sarah. Watch yourself, Greta. Watch yourself, Paul and Seph. Watch yourself, Maela. Remember me. Watch yourself, Dido. Watch yourself. (70)

Dido exhorts those listening on stage and in the theater to become the audiences of their own performances, the spectators of their own spectacles, to remain aware of their identities as performative and performed. But as Dido could not count on his performers to become that kind of audience, McGuinness no longer assumes that his audience will take the hint. The suggestion is also a threat, an insinuation that violence awaits those who persist in embracing the originary myth, in refusing to "love…and leave" (70) this version of Derry.

[53]  So, if Observe suggests that the subversive power of queer identity can have only a limited impact on structures that are supported by powerful historic and material forces, Carthaginianshints that the queer hero's critique of the structures of political identification can lead to change–but only if the members of his audience understand its implications and use them to renovate their own performances, and it is not clear in either play that this is ever possible. Pyper and Dido both expose their audiences, on stage and in the theater, to an understanding of individual and political identity that may avoid "foreclos[ing]…possible articulations of the subject-position" that might offer a way out of the lethal oppositions that characterize politics in Northern Ireland, a version of identity in which "performance…preempt[s] narrative[s]" that have become too rigid and restrictive to allow change or resolution; but both throw the burden of realizing that potential onto the shoulders of an audience that may never rise to the challenge.58Pyper closes Observeby commanding himself to "Dance;" but neither the Elder nor Younger Pyper can alter the performance so that it can break the cycle of death and defeat. Dido throws his last word– "Play" (70)–into the darkness of the theater itself, where it may never light on a subject willing to engage it.



  1. In Pearse's case this discussion is complicated by the accusation of pedophilia. Sean Farrell Moran'sPatrick Pearse and the Politics of Redemption: The Mind of the Easter Rising, 1916(Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994), provides a basic summary of the debate before entering into it.back
  2. This discussion took place from approximately July 15-20, 1996, on
  3. Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, "Dismantling Irena: The Sexualizing of Ireland in Early Modern England," in Nationalisms and Sexualities, Andrew Parker, et al., eds. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 161; Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, "British Romans and Irish Carthaginians: Anticolonial Metaphor in Heaney, Friel, and McGuinness," PMLA 111 (1996), 227; David Beresford, Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Hunger Strike (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987), 212.back
  4. For a discussion of female figurations of Ireland in nationalist iconography, see Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Gender and History in Yeats's Love Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); on Article 41 of the Irish constitution, the eighth amendment, the "X" case and their legacy for contemporary Irish women see Ailbhe Smyth, The Abortion Papers: Ireland (Dublin, 1992); on the 1986 divorce referendum see Michele Dillon, Debating Divorce: Moral Conflict in Ireland (Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 1993).back
  5. Other, less famous battles include the protests against Yeats'sCountess Cathleen in 1899, the nationalist opposition to Synge's In The Shadow of the Glen in 1903, and nationalist objections to the character of Rosie, the Irish prostitute, in O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. A more recent parallel can be seen in the controversy over the underrepresentation of women in theField Day Anthology of Irish Literature, which although not, obviously, a dramatic work itself was produced under the auspices of the Field Day Theatre Company, an organization founded by playwright Brian Friel.back
  6. One of the characters is actually "half-Catholic," an issue that will be discussed in more detail below.back
  7. Cullingford, "British Romans," 228. The main exceptions are Helen Lojek's "DifferenceWithoutIndifference: The Drama of Frank McGuinness and Anne Devlin,"Eire-Ireland 25.2 (1990) and "Myth and Bonding in Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme" Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 14 (1988). Anthony Roche discusses Pyper's sexuality inContemporary Irish Drama from Beckett to McGuinness (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1994), but beyond arguing that "questioning…the norms and stereotypes of sexual identity" is an integral part of McGuinness's "treatment of traditional political allegiances and oppositions" (271), he does not treat the subject at any great length.back
  8. Patricia Craig, "A Graveside Manner," Times Literary Supplement July 28, 1989: 824. Claire Gleitman's discussion of Dido in "'Isn't it just like real life?': Frank McGuinness and the (Re)writing of Stage Space,"Canadian Journal of Irish Studies20 (1994) also reads Dido's drag as one of many equally significant ingredients in Carthaginians' postmodern cocktail, an attitude reflected by Craig's review. A significant exception to this trend is Elizabeth Butler Cullingford's "British Romans and Irish Carthaginians: Anticolonial Metaphor in Heaney, Friel, and McGuinness," which will be discussed in more detail below.back
  9. "Performative" is a slippery term, and is still to some extent under construction; my usage of it is primarily informed by Butler's use of it in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990) and Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex"(New York: Routledge, 1993), in which it describes the production of subjectivity through the subject's citation, through his/her speech, dress and behavior, of preexisting regulatory norms.back
  10. Lojek, "Difference," 57-8.back
  11. Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick,Epistemology of the Closet(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 1-2.back
  12. D.A. Miller, "Anal Rope."Representations 32 (1990), 120; Roche, 270.back
  13. "Republican" refers to someone committed to working for a united and independent Ireland; "Unionist" refers to someone committed to maintaining Northern Ireland as a province of the United Kingdom.back
  14. Butler, Bodies that Matter, xback
  15. Sedgwick, 231.back
  16. Ibid., 20.back
  17. Frank McGuinness, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the SommeLondon, 1986), 14. All other references to this work will be cited parenthetically in the text.back
  18. Sedgwick, 122.back
  19. Ibid., 20.back
  20. Ibid., 92.back
  21. Ibid.,121-122.back
  22. Miller, 118, 121.back
  23. Ibid., 121.back
  24. Ibid.back
  25. Ibid., 120.back
  26. "Orange" refers to the Orange Order, a militant Protestant and Unionist organization with a strong anti-Catholic bias. The name derives from William of Orange, the monarch who defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne, an event which has taken on tremendous significance in Protestant culture in Northern Ireland.back
  27. Before his "confession," Crawford makes it clear that he is neither devout nor observant: "I don't believe in Christ. I believe in myself" (48). Despite this apostasy he still identifies himself as "half Catholic" (54).back
  28. Terry Eagleton's Saint Oscar(Oxford; Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997), a play based on Oscar Wilde's life which includes a dramatization of the trial, plays on this connection more explicitly in its characterization of Carson, who appears in the final scene dressed as a contemporary Protestant paramilitary and, attended by a chorus of gunmen in balaclavas, explains the connection between his ideological agenda and his participation in Wilde's trial (61-4). This scene was cut from the 1989 Field Day production.back
  29. This proverb has already been discussed (20) and declared "silly chat" by Millen and Moore.back
  30. I use "citation" here in the sense that Judith Butler uses it to describe the performance of gender in Bodies that Matter–gender is constituted by an individual's actions, but those actions are always-already constructed because in order to have meaning they must cite previous performances of gender.back
  31. Gleitman, 61.back
  32. Riana O'Dwyer, "Dancing in the Borderlands: The Plays of Frank McGuinness" in The Crows Behind the Plough: History and Violence in Anglo-Irish Poetry and Drama, Geert Lernout, ed. (Amsterdam; Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1991), 101.back
  33. Judith Butler, "Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoanalytic Discourse" inFeminism/Postmodernism, Linda J. Nicholson, ed. (New York: Routledge, 1990), 326.back
  34. Butler, Gender Trouble, 36. Butler has published "Gender Trouble" in two forms, once as an essay and once as a book. I realize that to cite both is to court confusion and dismay on the part of the reader, but because each makes a different contribution to the discussion I have forged ahead and done so anyway. Citations of the article are indicated by quotation marks; citations of the book are italicized.back
  35. On the female allegorization of Ireland, see Eavan Boland, A Kind of Scar: The Woman Poet in a National Tradition (Dublin, 1989), 6-8. On the valorization of antirationalism, see Richard Kearney, "Myth and Motherland" inIreland's Field Day, ed. Field Day Theatre Company (London: Hutchinson Education, 1985), 63; Seamus Deane, "Civilians and Barbarians" in Ireland's Field Day, 33-42 passim.back
  36. Butler, Gender Trouble, 36.back
  37. Butler, "Gender Trouble," 330.back
  38. Ibid.back
  39. Butler, Gender Trouble,138.back
  40. Ibid., 136, 138.back
  41. Cullingford, "British Romans," 223-4.back
  42. Ibid. Cullingford primarily explores Irish recuperations of this myth; for a fuller treatment of Spenser's imperialist use of it in A View of the Present State of Ireland, see Jones and Stallybrass, "Dismantling Irena."back
  43. Ibid., 222.back
  44. McGuinness, Carthaginians and Baglady (London, 1988), 29. All other references to this work will be cited parenthetically in the text.back
  45. For a fuller discussion of the feminization of the land in the Irish tradition and its effects on Irish culture, see Cheryl Herr, "The Erotics of Irishness," Critical Inquiry17 (Autumn 1990).back
  46. In addition to Cullingford's thorough and insightful treatment of the Carthaginian myth in Irish literature I am also indebted to Robert Tracy's paper "Colonel Vallancey in the Punic Wars: The Search for Irish Origins" (1994 National Meeting, American Conference for Irish Studies, Omaha, April 30, 1994), which first drew my attention to the history behind McGuinness's allusion.back
  47. Cullingford, "British Romans," 223.back
  48. Butler, Gender Trouble,138.back
  49. Butler, "Lana's 'Imitation': Melodramatic Repetition and the Gender Performative." Genders 9 (1990): 1.back
  50. Butler, Gender Trouble,137.back
  51. Butler, "Gender Trouble," 338.back
  52. A balaclava is a ski mask associated in the public imagination with members of the IRA, who wear them to conceal their identities.back
  53. Butler, "Gender Trouble," 327.back
  54. Ibid.back
  55. Hark and Paul's discussion of the "Derry renaissance" also parodies the Field Day Theatre Company and its cultural nationalist mission. McGuinness's relationship with Field Day, an organization founded by Brian Friel and Stephen Rea for the purpose of producing Irish plays in rural areas, has been complicated by many of the issues discussed in this essay. Field Day rejected Observe "for reasons that have never been fully explained" and McGuinness withdrewCarthaginians from production (Cullingford 228).back
  56. Cullingford, "British Romans," 234.back
  57. In fact, Cullingford argues that Carthaginians enforces its own version of essentialism on its female characters, although the men are allowed to escape it ("British Romans" 234).back
  58. Butler, "Gender Trouble" 327, 339.back