The Chastitute – John B. Keane

Written by:
Harvey O'Brien
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John Bosco (Mick Lally) is a fifty three year old bachelor living in rural Kerry. He has been consigned to a life of celibacy by a combination of religiously inspired sexual guilt, social ineptitude and plain bad luck. His fate is not, as he explains himself, the result of a lack of effort on his part. A combination of flashbacks, imaginings, and actual happenings illustrate his endeavors with the opposite sex. His run of failure continues throughout the play in spite of the ministrations of a matchmaker (Derry Power), a smooth-talking lothario (John Olohan), and even the local priest (Eamonn Draper), all of whom are filled with parochial advice on the subject. By the time the play ends, John has reached the conclusion that there is simply no hope for him, and contemplates suicide by alcohol.

Even a cursory examination of the plot of The Chastitute shows just how dark and terrible a tale it really is. Its final scenes feature the central character on his knees and screaming as the voices in his head recite lines from dogmatic prayers, forcing him to reach first for his shotgun, then for the bottle: it is not funny at all. This is a play about an Ireland which destroyed generations of rural males in the name of principles of dubious benefit to society on the whole. The repression of natural instincts originally for the purposes of controlling land ownership eventually led to social and psychological excesses such as religious fanaticism, casual misogyny and habitual alcohol abuse. By the time the play was first performed in 1980 the social dysfunctionality of conservative attitudes towards sexuality was obvious, yet the cycle continued. Keane, in his usual fashion, chose to confront the issue through the comparatively ‘safe’ domain of comedy.

Good comedy is always socially subversive, of course, but when the story is set in rural Kerry and the dialogue is filled with idiosyncratic provincial witticisms, few seek enlightenment in the text. Keane was always able to balance humor with pointed personal and cultural concerns, and though he cultivated an attitude of provincialism, he was genuinely rooted in a sense of his immediate audience. The Chastitute delivers the requisite amount of laughs to satisfy their needs. It is filled with comic situations, bawdy one-liners, and plenty of obvious and subtle jibes at the foibles of rural Ireland. It is written with a keen ear for the rhythms of Kerry (and Cork) dialogue and infused with Keane’s precision in expression. Though the plot is relatively loose and some of the characters too closely related to those in The Matchmaker, the play provides exactly what the audience expects, namely drunken Corkonians, fire and brimstone missionaries, disco-dancing townies, a no-nonsense housekeeper, a reflective priest, the comparison of women to horses, scenes of embarrassment and immodesty involving individuals of both sexes, and various moments of comedy and satire which raise a chuckle.

The current production is able to draw on the strength of Keane’s comic writing without ignoring its depths. Mick Lally is very good in the title role. He succeeds in making the character sympathetic, which is vital to the play’s success. Though those around him are frequently less than admirable, defined as they are by attitudes which were archaic and destructive even in 1980, John Bosco is a generally earnest person. He is the victim of a culture which has paralyzed him, and his sexual misadventures are amusing because the audience can generally empathize with his situation. The actor does perhaps resort to Harpo Marx-esque facial expressions too frequently for his own good, but his flawless delivery and practiced sense of the movement and deportment of this kind of rural male are effective. The rest of the cast provide skilled support, including Nichols Grennell, Bill Murphy, Elizabeth Moynihan, and Ann Russell in multiple roles. Headlined supporting actor Mary McEvoy (Lally’s co-star on the long-running soap Glenroe) has no bigger a role than any of the others, solid as she is in the part.

Director Terry Byrne makes good use of the relatively sparsely decorated stage. The action moves from Kerry to Cork to Dublin and from kitchens to bedrooms to pubs, which ensures a great deal of physical movement. The narrative breaks down into a mixture of monologue narration and dramatic scenes between characters, which allows for welcome changes of pace and the capacity to keep the audience engaged as they view events through John Bosco’s eyes. The sense of this character’s perspective is important, especially for the ending, where the audience is forcefully reminded that in spite of the laughter, there is terror in this world.

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