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Building Worlds and Breaking Meaning in Enda Walsh’s Work

Enda Walsh, world-renowned playwright, is jealous of musicians and visual artists because they’re not tied down by words. He bemoans verbosity as a consequence of his form. “As soon as someone starts talking onstage,” he playfully laments, “an audience goes, ‘I must be able to understand this talking thing because I deal with talking every day and it’s a literal thing and it makes sense.’ Well, fuck that,” he continues. “It shouldn’t! It should be a little bit bigger than that and a little bit stranger and a little bit more opaque.” Enda Walsh wants his plays to go straight to your heart. He wants you to feel them in the pit of your stomach. He wants to make your palms sweat. And he does.

He relies heavily on the emotional intelligence of his audiences to do so. Empathy connects us to his characters when situational relatability is often thin. Hopefully we can’t relate to a character who’s been trapped in the same room since childhood, or whose dreams are being mined by some government overseer, or whose immortality condemns him to a life of isolation. But we can empathize.

What we would regularly reject as ridiculous makes sublime sense in Walsh’s worlds. He creates allowance for lack of logic, and we find ourselves along for the ride and completely accepting of whatever is to come next, regardless of how absurd.

Walsh weaves complex emotional journeys for his characters—journeys that he himself often discovers as he writes, and then a second time as he directs. In all aspects of his work—story, direction, and design aesthetics—he lets his characters lead him. But not too much. That might make him too comfortable. “I do lose myself in the characters,” he admits, “but there’s a part of my brain that knows that I’ll disrupt their journey so that they’re not leading me too much.” He places these characters—or do they place themselves?—in what are essentially snow globes. They do not know what exists beyond their tiny worlds, if anything even does, yet they have an insatiable need to escape, and since the feeling of being trapped is so primal and so universal and so deeply ingrained within our animal brains, we begin to inhabit their cabin fever. Cue the sweaty palms.

In Ballyturk, one of Walsh’s newest plays staged at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in January of 2018, two men in a doorless, windowless room live out their frenetic daily routine to the soundtrack of ’80s one-hit-wonders. They shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, listen to the voices of the outside world through their walls, and reenact the imagined lives of the citizens they believe they hear. They’re content in their ignorance of what’s beyond. But a simple housefly breaks their routine. Their existence is not as hermetically sealed as was once believed, and through the smallest crack in consistency seeps doubt. Eventually those cracks bust the room open as the upstage wall falls away revealing what lies beyond. But what’s beyond is nothing, because the nameless characters have not conceived of anything beyond their daily routine, and so it does not exist.

Mikel Murfi and Tadhg Murphy in Ballyturk at St. Ann's Warehouse. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

To create more of their worlds, Walsh’s characters talk. They carry on. John Haidar, director of Disco Pigs, currently running at Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan, explains:

Nobody in Enda’s plays has control over anything and nothing exists until they say the next thing. Fear of silence is pervasive. If you stop speaking you might stop living for a moment, and then who are you, and what are you, and what future do you have?

Worlds are built moment by moment, word by word. It’s a dream-like sensation, and that unpredictability and tension felt in dreams carries us beyond linearity and what should or should not be. What we would regularly reject as ridiculous makes sublime sense in Walsh’s worlds. He creates allowance for lack of logic, and we find ourselves along for the ride and completely accepting of whatever is to come next, regardless of how absurd.

His technique to permit us to accept these non-sequiturs is immediate destabilization. While many other playwrights allow us the opening minutes to sink into our seats and prepare to be told a story, Walsh allows for no such passivity. As his plays begin, he often jars us with startling or unsettling sound or imagery. Lazarus, with a book by Walsh and music and lyrics by the late David Bowie, opens with a cacophony of sounds akin to flicking through television channels, seemingly at the loudest volume the theatre’s speaker system safely allows. Coupled with mismatched projected images of static, violence, the mundane, and/or incomprehensible distortion, it’s a really uncomfortable way to begin a theatre-going experience. It set me on edge from minute one, and I spent the next three songs or so attempting to get my heart rate down with very little success. Once our adrenaline begins flowing, it’s hard to get it to stop, and we learn not to trust. Walsh has shown us that we are not safe in these worlds, just like his characters, and so our empathy for them grows even further.

These destabilizations continue to occur throughout the show. Remember when you wondered why that pyrotechnician was credited in the program? It’s because that birdhouse is going to burst into flames. Where did that character get a crowbar? It’s been hidden on the sparse set the whole time, and now he’s wailing on the television with it, the only set piece on stage. And he’s really whacking at it; pieces of plastic are flying off of it. That window on the stage left wall? Someone’s jumping out of it, of course.

Michael C. Hall and Sophia Anne Caruso in Lazarus. Photo by Jan Versweyveld for New York Theatre Workshop.

These coups de théâtre—sensational and sudden turns of events—have the potential to be incredibly off-putting. They’re often points at which Walsh tends to lose portions of his audience. “Some people would rather have knives stuck in their eyes than watch my work, and I understand that,” he jokes. But he’s grateful for those who stay committed to his characters and revel in their chaotic journeys for clarity. Because even though these non-sequiturs often turn a play on its head, once it occurs, it somehow feels as if nothing else would have made sense. “There’s something incredibly weird about these images he’s throwing together,” John Haidar muses, “but they also feel incredibly profound and moving and startlingly human.” Walsh puts his characters through experiences that we would never encounter in our world, and thus treats us to unique human reactions to chaos, and that’s what sets us on edge. Nothing is out of the question, yet everything that occurs makes perfect sense in that moment, as ridiculous as it may feel at the time.

At this point in the experience I’ve learned to trust nothing, so I begin to try to solve the clues to predict what’s next as a coping mechanism of sorts. So when Ballyturk opens with a character menacingly holding a knife, Chekhov's gun immediately comes to mind. I filed that knife away for later, mentally preparing myself for the moment when a character is going to stab the only other person in the room with him, or maybe himself. As the play wears on, the knife makes a few more appearances, but each one is distinctly stabbing-free, and I remembered that Walsh doesn’t play by Chekhov’s rules, or anyone’s rules—even his own. Walsh was rather amused when I expressed my dread about the presence of the knife:

For some reason, it became this incredibly loud thing on stage, and that was surprising for us because there are many, many, many things on that stage. There are a lot of ingredients, so it’s extraordinary when you give a little bit to one of them. The force of it begins to change, which is exciting, I think.

The clutter and mountains of stuff allow for endless possibilities, yet those objects that we focus and fixate on might be as meaningless as the next one, while the object that’s been sitting in the corner innocuously for ninety minutes has the ability to change the whole course of the play and therefore a character’s whole existence.

While a wide array of props increases the conceivable number of possibilities for characters to choose their own adventure, they are by no means a requirement. In fact, a bare stage may be even more liberating, because the world-building takes place in the characters’ minds and isn’t tied down to any concrete object or setting. John Haidar’s production of Disco Pigs is played out on a bare stage, save for a television set whose ultimate misfortune I’ve already described. The characters themselves become the props and physicality becomes central to establishing settings. “When you don’t have anything onstage,” Haidar explains, “you create all of those worlds with your bodies and create the environment that you’re in entirely through movement and the shapes that you create.” Haidar and Movement Director Naomi Said worked closely together to ensure Runt and Pig, Disco Pig’s only characters, moved in geometric and synchronized step.

Born in neighboring hospital beds one minute apart, Runt and Pig have spent seventeen years pushing companionship to its most dangerous codependency. “The questions I asked myself from the start were: why are they locked into this space and why are they locked into each other?” explains Haidar. “They were locked in this purgatorial space they couldn’t escape from and were going through the same routines day after day, but then on this day something happens and it breaks their routine.” This routine-breaking moment is a kiss, and anyone who has tried to kiss their best friend can likely assure you that it’s all downhill from there. And so, when Pig kisses Runt, their entire precarious existence begins to topple. Here again we see Walsh playing with simple intrusions that explode open these closed worlds. As Runt begins to pull away and find her independence, she begins to literally fall out of step with Pig. As Pig tries more and more desperately to get Runt to love him, he begins to embody the chaos of the most Walsh-ian of characters. As Haidar so eloquently puts it, Runt and Pig “fall apart together.” Their inextricability carries through their destruction despite Runt’s desperate pull. They pull apart only to snap back again, and the force of each rebound is more and more painful. It is not until an ultimate act of destruction—Pig kills a man outside the disco for daring to flirt with Runt—that they can completely sever ties. But the scars that are left in the wave of the chaos are so raw and human that we ache with these characters we’ve rather grown to dislike over the last ninety minutes. “We’ve all had to grow up,” Haidar says, “we’ve all had to cut ties with people we love or have loved. I think in spite of yourself you see quite a universal humanity in those characters.” Despite our dislike, we hope they find solace in their independence.

So, the ultimate questions remains—why do these oftentimes totally unrelatable characters still earn our empathy? Why does Enda Walsh have the power to make us feel his plays in the pits of our stomachs? Walsh himself finds it difficult to venture a guess but points to his characters’ quest for clarity as something we all admire and understand. “There are many many moments of disruption and heartache and anxiety towards reaching a truth,” Walsh muses. “What we’re watching is them trying to reach some moment of clarity or acceptance or pause or an end.” That desperate search for a moment of pause, a moment of understanding, is within each of us, and if you’re willing to endure the chaos, if you’re willing to let your heart beat faster, and if you're willing to let your palms get a little sweaty, you’ll ultimately be rewarded with a sense of humanity that you never saw coming. It takes a moment to let the dust settle, but when it does, you’re ready to exhale and wish Enda Walsh’s characters the best of luck in finding peace beyond the pages of the script.

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