By Kelli Allred, PhD
Playwright Marie Jones has painted a canvas covered in vibrantly assorted characters, set on Ireland’s powerful Dingle Peninsula, and peppered with thematic material worthy of praise. Jones’s choice of setting and characters helps to reveal the play’s rich themes. Her characters include Irish and American, rich and poor, young and old, film stars and extras. By asking only two actors to portray all the characters in the story, Jones allows the audience to experience the stark distinctions and human similarities among her characters. In spite of the curt, pithy dialogue that moves the story along in spurts, Jones manages to capture the essence of the various assets and liabilities of being human, qualities readily recognizable to viewers or readers of the play.
Hollywood has distorted and perpetuated stereotypes of Irish men and woman for decades, but one can hardly accuse Hollywood of originating such stereotypes. Glancing back at the earliest plays penned by Irish writers provides a clue to the origins of archetypal characters who speak with thick Irish brogue; folks who live in quaint, impoverished seaside villages; a nation of people whose identity defies description. In Stones in His Pocket, Jones has created a story that illuminates the characters, the setting, and the themes from the perspectives of both Hollywood filmmakers and native Irish villagers. Indeed, the play is a contemporary link to the medieval morality play, Everyman.
Modern tragicomedy is often the story of an antihero—a character whose most obvious traits would be considered less heroic than villainous. While neither of the protagonists in Stones in His Pockets could be considered an antihero, both Jake and Charlie cling to their hopes for a brighter tomorrow in a more nurturing homeland. The play provides plenty of comic relief through the quick-change antics of the two actors; nevertheless, its serious elements reveal the modestly noble frailties of Jake and Charlie: determination, confusion, frustration, and cynicism. The playwright adeptly uses these two everyman characters to explore cultural nuances that make it easy for audiences to connect with them on a personal level by asking themselves: “Would my choices be the same as that character’s if I were faced with the same dilemma? How might that character’s choices differ if they had the freedoms afforded by another time and place? What do I have in common with that character?”The play script of a tragicomedy will usually be read more often than seen by live audiences, but theatergoers who read Stones in His Pocket after seeing it are likely to find the reading “its own joyful experience” (Mel Gussow, Introduction to Stones in His Pocket [New York: Applause, 2001], 7).
Jones sets the play in a village on the Dingle Peninsula, a narrow arm of land in the southwest corner of Ireland. Its diverse landscapes run from lush mountaintop farms to sandy beaches too cold for swimming. It happens to be the setting most commonly used by playwrights and filmmakers for over a century. British film director David Lean chose to set his film Ryan’s Daughter (1970) in the quaint Irish location of Dunquin, located on the Dingle Peninsula. He built for the film a village made of stone so that it could withstand the pelting storms. Villagers from the town of Dunquin were hired as extras. “The area was at the time economically destitute, but the amount of money spent in the town—nearly a million pounds—revived the local economy and led to increased immigration to the Dingle Peninsula” (Paul F. State, A Brief History of Ireland [New York: Checkmark Books, 2009], 318).
Between 1890 and 1980, most films originating in Ireland were produced by American companies, with American directors, writers, and actors. These early films perpetuated the romanticism of an impoverished Ireland with its quaint seaside villages, traditional music, religious devotion, thick brogues, weathered farm folk, and red haired children. Most plotlines were so rural as to be barely recognizable to city dwellers. Since the 1990s, however, the Irish Film Board has empowered Irish filmmakers (writers, directors, actors) with the backing to create genuine Irish movies.
“May your pockets be heavy and your heart be light, and may good luck pursue you each morning and night.” The sentimental Irish blessings exemplify Irish tradition as one of hope and encouragement, but the theme of hope requires a more thoughtful explication: “Hope can make the present moment less difficult to bare. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life [New York: Bantam, 1992]). Not all philosophers see hope as a good thing, as in Nietzsche’s statement that hope is the worst of all evils because it “prolongs the torments of man.” Throughout Stones in His Pocket, Charlie carries in his back pocket the screenplay he has written, hoping to deliver it into the hands of someone from Hollywood who will read it. Jake mocks Charlie’s hopeful efforts saying, “You haven’t a hope Charlie, it’s who you know in this business” (Act 1) and “You have nothing in your life, you are going nowhere” (Act 2).
Jones weaves this grim perspective into Stones in His Pockets via the pathetic, tormented Sean Harkin who, in his short life, has suffered insurmountable losses: his father has sold the family farm, rendering Sean useless and his life without purpose. He has lost his identity and all hope, and he falls into a serious addiction to drugs. When Sean dies, his cousin Jake blames himself: “I could have gave him hope!” But when Charlie assures him it was too late to help Sean, the audience can almost hear Nietzsche whispering in Jake’s ear, Why prolong the torment?
“I’ll tell you what’s a terrible tragedy, filling young Sean’s head with dreams” says Charlie, whose own dreams for wealth in America came to naught. An enthusiastic crewmember reminds the extras on set: “Remember, you’re defeated, broken men,” and “the Irish know one thing, that’s how to dance!” (Act 2). The existence of such presumptive stereotypes serve to reinforce the play’s secondary theme: that although the Irish continue to struggle past their ambiguous national identity there is more to being Irish than the rustic folk made iconic on the silver screen; that the Irish are more than the demonized villains of Hollywood’s imagination.
The author of two dozen plays, Marie Jones’ contributes to the long tradition of Anglo-Irish literature with her colorful montage of speech and characterization in Stones in His Pocket. The play’s title remains enigmatic for the audience, until the grim reality sets in during the final moments of Act 1. The theme that drives Stones in His Pockets explains the Irish belief that “the half-said thing to them is dearest” (Padraic Colum, ed. Anthology of Irish Verse [New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922; Bartleby.com, 20 Jan 2012]). Audiences will wonder at the title Stones in His Pocket, because the title is, indeed, the half-said thing. Once they have seen or read the play, that same half-said thing will resonate as a refreshing reminder that the lifelong struggle of everyman includes the need for hope and belonging. While one man may give up, countless others never lose hope for a brighter future.