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Find a New Language, Construct New Worlds

Aaron Carter: I’ve read that you’ve had no formal training in playwriting. How did you come to be a playwright? Enda Walsh: I was, I suppose, bullied into becoming a playwright. In my early twenties I had notions of being an actor. I joined a new theatre company in Cork called Corcadorca. I had trained in film and worked as a film editor, but I loved live performance and the freedom theatre can give you—as opposed to the terrible literalism of film. AC: What inspired you to reinvent a section of The Odyssey? EW: I have a 15 year relationship with a German dramaturg called Tilman Raabke. He moved to a small theatre in Oberhausen. They had commissioned five European writers to take on various sections of The Odyssey —and I straight away went for the suitors. I read the book as a boy and when I returned to it I still found them intriguing, devious, desperate men. I wrote Penelope in autumn 2008 during the early stages of Ireland’s financial ruin. There were a lot of stories of desperate, spent men in the newspapers and there was a small part of me that wanted to respond to that—though the play became other things. AC: It’s easy to be drawn into very serious talk about the ancient classic The Odyssey. But your very funny version includes men in speedos and a Taunton Deluxe Barbecue that can’t cook sausages. Would you call your take irreverent? EW: The conceit is Homer’s: this self-imprisonment. So I set up a more detailed situation. Men in their back gardens around barbecues is something I find funny; I started there, knowing that it would ultimately be a play about death. For me it all became physiological. What are these men’s bodies like? It’s morning-time and hot, the swimming pool is drained of water, they’ve seemed to encamp there because it’s cooler—but they’re drinking cocktails and peacocking around a defunct barbecue and running out of conversation. Something has to give. Some omen needs to arrive. AC: And an omen does arrive, in the form of a dream that features cooking men on that very barbecue. Despite such a potent sign, do the men believe they can escape their fate? EW: I think the men believe that they have the ability to change fate—but they are deluded. They are doomed anyway. You can deceive yourself all you want—but you can’t escape death. Quinn believes that by winning Penelope, Odysseus will be struck by the Gods and left shipwrecked, but I am listening to that and thinking this is a desperate man here. But you know this is theatre, so perhaps Quinn is right and perhaps these men can die and yet live in another way. AC: Many of your plays deal with characters who are trapped in circumstances or places that they’ve created. Why do you think this theme figures so prominently in your work? EW: It’s how I feel to be honest. I’m exhilarated and terrified by life. I’ve somehow found myself living the life of a playwright, and like many jobs it’s a bastard for routine. Getting up every morning and belting away at a story and trying to hone it and say something honest. I fell into this world, am stuck in this world, feel totally inadequate in it most times…and yet I’m able to lie to myself enough to continue doing it. Much like my life outside writing, really. AC: In the text of the play, you are quite specific that the suitors range in age from 30s to 65. Are you exploring the stages of man and masculinity? EW: Yes. There’s a lot of bluster early on, a lot of one-upmanship. But it starts to become a play about lives squandered and how these men can salvage something. These are very unlikely heroes. Apparently there were over a hundred men on that island trying to woo Penelope and they are the last four. Can you imagine what the other men were like?! Are these the four best? But I can see that I wanted them to be good, or do some good— for once. Faced with their deaths, this may have come across as a desperate attempt to atone for their sins—but the men find a new language, construct new worlds and somehow find life by doing that. AC: You’ve observed that Irish playwriting remains so potent because you’re “looking at a country trying to find out who we are, trying to find its identity on the stage.” Is Penelope an Irish play? EW: I don’t know what it is. I feel like an Irish playwright. I have huge respect for our playwriting tradition and I feel like I’m having conversations with the great ghosts of Irish theatre. But a lot of my growing up and influences are actually German. But I don’t like to think about what I am too much. The characters are the thing—I just get out of the way and trust that I’m somehow speaking through them all. I am a man before being an Irishman...I’m pretty sure of that. AC: The suitors are loquacious wordsmiths. Do you possess the gift of gab in person? EW: As a boy I didn’t talk much apparently. I hated the sound of my own voice. I remember that. If I had to stand up and read in school my voice would cave in on itself. Although I don’t hate the sound of my voice anymore, I often find myself talking appalling shit when I do talk. People read my silence as shyness, but you see really it’s vanity. AC: It’s said that politics is war by other means. In your play, seduction of Penelope is war by other means. What does victory look like? EW: Like a very long, restful sleep.