Why do we tell stories – really?
James X, a one-man show from Ireland that I saw last week in a downtown Manhattan theatre space, appears to be a story about cruelty, suffering and shame – and to whom shame properly belongs. It’s an indictment of the Irish social welfare and juvenile justice system – of a state and a church and a society that collaborated to perpetrate terrible cruelties on young children placed in its purported care, and then further collaborated to hide those cruelties from society. The form of the play is a monologue – by James, a character waiting to testify at a hearing about his abuse as a child. Before he goes into the hearing, he tells us his story.
And it’s an at least somewhat familiar Irish tale of the hard life – shiftless father, raging mother, too many children, not enough food, lousy schools, beatings, imprisonment – told in a familiar style of grandiose self-pitying humor. And I sat there listening to this, and thinking: really? Didn’t Flann O’Brien take the piss out of this sort of thing decades ago? And I’ll admit, I got restless in my seat.
We wander through the character’s adulthood – failure to find steady work, brief shot at fame as a rock singer, then descent into drink, another collection of Irish cliches – until we come back to the present.
And then the character stops, turns to us, and tells us that what he’s been telling us – the entire show to this point – was just so much chin music. Just a “story” he tells, part of his armor to shield himself from a direct confrontation with what happened to him.
And then he unfolds a piece of paper – his testimony – and reads it to us. Reads about being raped by the first priest he met upon arrival at the Christian Brothers’ school he was shipped off to in Connemara to “straighten him out” at the age of ten. Reads about subsequent rapes at the school, and about a beating so bad that he wound up in the hospital and required multiple surgeries to save his life. Reads about further horrific brutalities in prison – all delivered in a plain, affectless style. Just the facts. No blarney. Even knowing this was coming – since the framing at the opening of the show lets us know we’re going to hear a story about child abuse – the testimony comes as a shock.
The play is supposed to be an indictment of the Irish state and society, and it is that. But it is also, and perhaps more effectively, an indictment of Irish culture, and of much of Irish literature, an indictment of a distinctly Irish way of talking about suffering, a way that was, perhaps, a reasonable coping mechanism, but has also proved to be a screen that prevents people from seeing when suffering is inflicted, and by whom, and taking action to respond.