The Shadow of a Gunman
WORKING THROUGH THE TEXT IN A PRACTICAL WAY
THE OPENING STAGE DIRECTIONS AND CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS
The play begins with a detailed description of the setting. Look carefully
at the first paragraph, which details the furnishings. Davoren and Seumas'
'return-room' [rented room] is the only setting throughout, so it needs to
be both interesting and practical in terms of the action through the play.
a] On a large piece of paper, first of all work out a ground plan according to O'Casey's own description. Apart from the table and a single chair, most of the sparse furnishings are around the edges of the room,
making sure that there is enough space for all the action of the play.
b] Using such rostra and furnishings as you have in your drama space, map out this same layout on your performing space. There is only one entrance and exit in the play, which O'Casey places up stage right, above Seumas' bed. Try bringing a number of people at a time into this space where the door would be and see what it reveals about the layout and general acting space. Might it be better to have this door both angled, towards the audience, and raised? How far, if so, would you want the raised area to jut into the room? Enough for a number of people to stand on and be seen? Or enough for a couple of people to hover on and still be seen whilst others stand on the floor just below? Later on in the play, such a decision could be important and allow for easier manoeuvring and crowd visibility. An angled door allows incomers to be `framed' and gives them extra focus and prominence on their entrance.
Is the table in the optimum position or does it cut-off too much useful acting space? Experiment with this.
Carefully record all decisions made - and the reasons for them.
c] O'Casey was familiar with the techniques of naturalism and the setting proves this. It is clear he envisaged a `box-set' - a room actually built on the stage, which gives the atmosphere and feeling of a largeish house, divided up into
similarly rented rooms and of the outside world of slum-area Dublin.
Either working in groups or individually, try to create a model box-set with the scaled dimensions of your performance space. Try to show the shabbiness of the room through the colours you choose for its walls.
What is visible through the door? A dingy corridor? What is visible through the windows? A `yard' as suggested? Or the street? Decide whether the room is on the ground floor or higher up and how your decision will affect the view through the window.
d] Individually research the period. Go to a library or the internet and see what photographs of Dublin in the early part of the last century you can find. Then convene with such information as you have found and discuss what dressings the set would need to add atmosphere. O'Casey has made clear the need for the Roman Catholic accessories. These are important to place the audience firmly into context. Would you have the windows dirty? Curtained or uncurtained? If curtained - just a filthy piece of netting? The view through the window gives the audience an opportunity to see other tenement buildings, such as this one, and what they look like from the outside - i.e. our view of the building they are living in can be given a further dimension in this way perhaps. Every decision made should be justified.
O'Casey mentions the mess; how would you achieve this without endangering the space requirements too much? An open cupboard door helps, of course.
What floor covering would you have? A rag mat on darkstained wood, perhaps?
e] Having explored the naturalistic option and come up with solutions, discuss if any other form of setting would work. For instance, might a more symbolic set help? Keeping the furnishings of the room the same, could you suggest that, instead of walls, the characters are hemmed in by ... what? Anger? Poverty? Propaganda? Religion? How could you show such ideas? Could the perimeters of the space be made from something else? Corrugated iron and barbed wire, perhaps - like the structures that are built round police stations and pubs in Belfast, for instance? [I haven't visited Belfast since the 1980s, but this was the case then.] Or screens on which can depicted `pictures' of the outside, including photographs of the Irish Troubles from throughout its history?
Once again - whatever you come up with, check for its practicability and that the action is not minimised by too much extraneous material. Careful decisions need to be made here. For instance, you might decide to keep the setting simple and drab - though without a box-set [which is rarely used nowadays] - keeping the idea of a back-wall, for instance, with two free hung windows - which can act as screens at the end of the play - or at useful times - to display `real' photos. Or there can be a permanent cyclorama with tenement buildings etched on it, the `windows', like empty frames hung close to it. The wall-less room could be simply defined by the furnishings alone. A more open space like this could give rise to more interesting entrances, where we can see people before they come into the room, congregated in the street outside, at the back of the stage. This would add excitement, especially to the ending, with the soldiers visible in this way before their official 'entrance'.
A performance in the round might also be an option and is worth discussion. This would make for added involvement from the point of view of the audience and the single entrance would then be through the audience itself. The fly-on-the-wall aspect of the round can add claustrophobia, as the audience create the walls. Discuss carefully. Some of the furnishings suggested might not be practicable here. Would that matter? If you feel it does, perhaps an Arena setting, with the audience on three sides would be an answer, allowing essential larger items to be on the free 'wall'.
Hopefully, the above, which gives some options and suggests their implications is a starting-point. Whatever personal decisions you make, remember that they must all be justified. Your setting will be revisited in further work at a later time. Your decisions at this time do not need to be final. Keep an open mind at this stage and as you explore the play further, you may find a final decision becomes easier.
2. Now read the character description of Donal Davoren. O'Casey describes
Davoren in terms of two sets of polarities: weakness and strength; activity
and `rest' He suggests that the `war between weakness and strength' is `eternal'
and that the `tendency towards rest' is `unquenchable', negating the `desire
for activity'. We thus get the impression that Davoren is in a constant state
of paralysis, pulled between two opposing extremes which will cause him to
achieve nothing. On top of this, O'Casey quotes from George Bernard Shaw's
`A Doctor's Dilemma' to describe the idealistic view that beauty redeems all
aspects of life, which is Davoren's ruling belief. It is interesting that
the playwright gives the actor only inner states to work with; of the outer
description, we only have that he is about thirty and that he has had a hard
life which is `written' on his body - as are the sufferings of the creative
life - also `written' upon him.
Discuss in what ways physical deprivation and `the struggle for expression' could affect the body. Is he thin? Gaunt? Too pale? Does he suffer eye-strain from studying in poor light? Does he have a tendency to mouth words, as if trying out `forms of self-expression'?
Which of the above can actually be translated into the actor's physicalisation of the character? Since thinness etc. cannot be acted as such, can the deprivation of his upbringing be suggested in his stance? the way he walks? sits? any mannerisms?
As a solo activity, play with these ideas physically - though beware of ending up with too cluttered a portrayal. You don't want to end up with a character that is a twitching mass of nervous tics!
Sometimes it is helpful to try some physical theatre approaches, exaggerating
certain things. Out of such exaggeration an inner state can be identified
and the exaggerated movements of over-physicalisation can be pulled back into
a more naturalistic form of expression. Bearing this in mind, try the following
Solo: Imagine being physically pulled in one direction and then the other. [Up/down; side to side; front to back.] Show this with your body. Make it comical. Then make it look agonising - tragic.
Now imagine being pulled in both directions at the same time - the body will be still, but with every muscle engaged in tension. Again - try this with a comical expression and with a tragic one.
Go back to the idea of being physically pulled in two directions, but show how the body alters dependent on the direction in which it is travelling: from weakness to strength and back again; then from energy to apathy and back again.
Do these for long enough to gain a definite feeling about the state being explored. It may be that you simply feel exhausted - or frustrated. I think you will have discovered an important fact: being unable to make your mind up about things is extremely tiring. You are in a constant state of tension.
Hang onto this thought and the feelings you have stirred up in yourself.
Can you see some ways in, now, to Davoren's characterisation? Tense nervy
movements, perhaps, contrasted with moments of complete lack of energy; sharp
frustrated fingers brushing through the hair contrasted with hunched rounded
shoulders, head in hands.
To help your exploration further, try a short solo in which Davoren is alone and trying to write a poem. He searches for the right words; he divides his time between searching for inspiration with energy and slumping into frustrated despair.......
3. Next comes the character description of Seumas Shields. Here we have
more description of externals. What does O'Casey's vision of him suggest?
'heavily built', 'dark-haired and sallow-complexioned'. Of course, this does
not mean a thin blonde actor cannot act Seumas - but a certain type is being
suggested here and that type can be acted by anyone, with enough thought.
Couple it with the suggestion that 'the superstition, the fear and the malignity
of primitive man' is `frequently manifested' in him and what do you come up
It is clear from reading Seumas' speeches that over this primitive side there is a veneer of learning; Seumas doesn't speak like an uneducated man - he is full of smatterings of knowledge, probably gleaned from the sound Catholic education administered by monks that most Dublin boys went through. Lest we should be lulled by this into thinking that Seumas is more than he is, O-Casey gives us the description of him that he does at the beginning. It should serve as a caveat for the actor playing him.
So what O'Casey is telling us is that Seumas has no more than this
skin of education; under it he is a mass of superstitions, fears and 'malignity'. Certainly the superstition becomes evident in the play, and the fears. The word `malignity' may give a clue as to how his behaviour with the landlord and Maguire should be motivated - also his frequent rantings against 'the Irish'. This is the kind of man who blames the world for his own inadequacies - and he has the Irish gift of the gab with which to pour out his malice.
There are a number of physical ways of looking `heavy' and `thickset' through
acting alone. Try the following:
walking as if you have huge heavy weights in the soles of your feet
the weights are in the base of your stomach
the weights are pressing between your shoulders at the base of your neck
your head is twice as heavy as normal
Try combinations of the above too and move around the room, sitting, lying down, getting up again.
When you have come up with a type of movement through weight redistribution, try to give the character an expression that shows it's always someone else's fault. This tends to make the eyes a little shifty - always looking for the catch in whatever happens or whatever anyone sends. Next try adding a suitable voice.
As a solo, show Seumas entering a pub, looking around for someone to pay for his drink, finding no one and reluctantly going to the bar to pay for his own.
4. While these two characters are still freshly stirring in your minds, try
a pair improvisation, where Seumas and Donal Davoren meet for the first time
in a pub. Donal is looking for somewhere to stay.
Try to work out what it is that draws the two characters to each other.