Friday, March 23, 2012

Derek Mahon. Irish poet. Born in Belfast (1941).

After The Titanic .

They said I got away in a boat
And humbled me at the inquiry. I tell you
I sank as far that night as any
Hero. As I sat shivering on the dark water
I turned to ice to hear my costly
Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of
Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,
Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime. Now I hide
In a lonely house behind the sea
Where the tide leaves broken toys and hat-boxes
Silently at my door. The showers of
April, flowers of May mean nothing to me, nor the
Late light of June, when my gardener
Describes to strangers how the old man stays in bed
On seaward mornings after nights of
Wind, takes his cocaine and will see no-one. Then it is
I drown again with all those dim
Lost faces I never understood. My poor soul
Screams out in the starlight, heart
Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.
Include me in your lamentations.

by Derek Mahon.

Joseph Bruce Ismay survived the sinking of the Titanic. He was the president of the White Star Line, the company that built the ship.  This poem is about the sinking of Ismay as much as it is about the sinking of the Titanic. He lived or should I say existed after the death of the ship and the huge loss of life of those who left our shores on that doomed vessel.  The poem seems to suggest that although Ismay survived in the physical sense he was a broken man both in spirit and in mind. He was emotionally and mentally destroyed because of his actions on that fateful day and he died a broken man, his reputation in ruins, his nights haunted by the screams of the dying as they appeared to him in his dreams.
The inquiry that followed suggested that he acted in the manner of a coward. It would have been expected of him to ‘go down with the crew’. The adult male’s on board, both crew members and passengers sacrificed their life’s to save others and were called heroes. Ismay stood accused of ‘running away’, he rejected this but it did him no good and he was to carry the shame with him to the grave.  It has been said that Ismay didn’t escape the sinking of the Titanic as it stayed with him emotionally for the rest of his tormented life. His name destroyed, his conscience causing him great pain and the pain and suffering of the third class passengers resulted in a living death for him.

Derek Mahon seems to have got into the mind of Ismay. His poem reflects the isolation and disgrace that Ismay carried with him. His poem portrays Ismay as a man who feels he has been wronged by his peers, the media and the inquiry. It is as if he wants you to feel some sort of sympathy or empathy for the character of Ismay. You begin to think that Ismay feels that he has been unfairly treated and that the only way he would have been accepted by the public is if he had drowned with all those others who died in the North Atlantic.  Ismay actually wants you to believe that he lost everything that day as he saw his life’s work disappearing beneath the waves: ‘I tell you I sank as far that night as any hero’. He feels that the drowned were praised for drowning yet those who survived were condemned for being alive.

Does he actually believe that he is a victim? Are we to feel sorry for him because he lost his investment?

Some would say that Ismay went into hiding to escape from his persecutors. Those who would hunt him down. The press, the public, the families of those who died. He hides away in his fishing lodge located in Casla, in Connemara on a secluded part of the coastline. Believing that even there the Titanic is mocking him. The incoming tide brings with it reminders of those lost at sea, the women and children ‘the tide leaves broken toys and hat boxes silently at my door’. Ismay has become a paranoid broken man with no joy left in his life, unable to face people. He donates huge sums of money to charities that support retired seamen.
He has taken to using cocaine to block out the visions, the nightmares of people he never knew or even understood.  They came from a different world, one of poverty, he moved in higher social circles. He was a rich man, what care he for those in third class ‘Lost faces I never understood’. Having read this poem I felt that Ismay felt abandoned by his god, it is as if he has lost his soul as well as his faith. Ismay has the last word for he feels so guilty, so distraught; he makes one last request to those who mourn the victims when he says: ‘Include me in your lamentations’.

There were around 120 Irish passengers on the Titanic most of whomwere emigrants hoping for a better life in America. Most of them did not make it.  However, Anna Kelly who had gone up on deck to investigate what had happened, survived in lifeboat 16.  She later became a nun.  There were 706 third class passengers on board-462 men, 165 women and 79 children.  178 third class passengers survived the disaster-75 men, 76 women and 27 children. (

In first class over a third of the men, almost all the women and all the children survived.  In second class it was less than 10% of the men, 84% of the women and all the children. In steerage/third class 12% of the men, 55% of the women and less than one in three of the children survived. The figures show that despite the "Women and children first" rule, a greater proportion of first class men survived, than third class children.  So it wasn't just Ismay that could be described as a coward. Some third class passengers were denied initial access to the lifeboats by the crew who forbade them to enter the first class area. These included three IUrish girls. ( I'm not suggesting that there was a deliberate policy of class distinction being operated by the company in regards to lifeboat seat allocation. I will let you decide after you have read the historical accounts. 
Upper Image: Derek Mahon.
Middle image: J. Bruce Ismay.
Lower image: RMS Titanic.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Samuel Beckett. Irish Author (13 April 1906 – 22 December 1989).

Krapp’s Last Tape.

 A Review:
The play opens with Krapp sitting on his own behind an old desk. Aged 69, a writer filled with sadness and regret.  Since his early childhood Krapp has yearned for happiness.  Upon reaching adulthood, on each birthday he has made an annual tape recording of his activities the previous year.  The day on which the play is set Krapp sits at his desk. It is sometime in the early evening.  Every year since he was 24, Krapp a failed writer, has recorded his impressions on tapes which he has catalogued in a ledger and locked in a box.  The play depicts Krapp as a weary old man, a clown like figure. He is wearing trousers that are too short for him, a sleeveless waistcoat, and a dirty looking white shirt without a collar. Upon his feet there is a pair of dirty white boots, very long, very narrow and pointed.  He has a pale face that seems to accentuate his purple nose.  He begins eating a banana, throwing the skin onto the floor he begins to chew, staring into the distance.  He turns and walks, slipping on the banana peel, clown like.  This is a bit of comic relief but the play is also tragic as you soon realise you are looking at a lonely old man, unfulfilled, full of regret, full of bitterness.

Krapp sits at his desk and begins to look in his ledger.  He is looking for a particular set of events. He finds what he seeks, box three spool five.  He speaks, “box three, spool five, box three, spoooooool fivvvve” and laughs at his own little joke.  His eyesight is not what it used to be, after all he is 69 and the years of writing in dark rooms have done him no favours.  Peering at the journal he begins to read an entry made 30 years previously when he was 39.  He fails to remember the events of which he has written.  “Memorable equinox”? “Farewell to love”, as he listens he peers into the distance, a blank look upon his face.  He reflects upon the past, he begins to relive the past while still in the present.  He start the tape running, “39 today, sound as a bell apart from my old condition” he hears his younger self begin.  As he listens he tries to forget while at the same time remembering. He tries to manipulate the spool, stopping and fast forwarding in order to block out events.  Krapp drinks a lot, maybe he is hoping to block out the past or the visions that haunt him?  “Viduity” he hears the voice say, what does that mean? Krapp looks in a dictionary, “Viduity. That state or condition of being or remaining a widow or widower” Being or Remaining, these words seem to have an effect upon Krapp and we will return to them again.

Krapp listens to his younger self describe an episode in a punt with a young lady, was this his one chance of love? He stops the tape as he tries to remember, rewinding the tape he replays it, he begins to relive the night as he listens to his younger self describe the events of the night.  He appears to bend over the tape machine, hugging it; touching it with his cheek in a display of intimacy he closes his eyes. Reaching out he turns off the tape, slowly he sits up, and looking into the distance he wipes his eyes and sobs.

Krapp takes out his watch from the pocket of his waistcoat, peering at its face.  A look of loss and regret is written upon his face and he pours another drink.  He begins to load an empty spool onto the tape machine as he prepares to record his latest tape.  He reaches into the pocket of his waistcoat and pulls out a slip of paper, looks at it but puts it down.  He turns on the machine and begins to speak.  “Hard to believe I was as bad as that”, he looks into the distance and begins to remember the girl in the punt, “the eyes she had”.  Once again he stops the tape.

Starting the tape once more he begins to speak, his voice full of frustration, “Maybe he was right, maybe he was right” he says. He stops the tape.  Once more he looks at the slip of paper, screws it up and throws it away.  He starts the tape, speaking into the microphone he realises his failure as a writer.  “Seventeen sold of which eleven were at trade price”.  He realises he has sacrificed his life and soul for nothing and each new day brings nothing but new tears and a step nearer to death.  He could have been happy with her; instead he has attempted to find solace with banana’s, alcohol, and old whores.  This he realises is his last tape, “leave it at that, leave it at that”

“Be again, be again”  The play ends with Krapp listening once more to spool five and the nights events spent in a punt with the love he could have had.  A look of despair upon his face as he realises his loss.  “Be again, be again.”

Time and memory are constant themes throughout Beckett’s play’s, they seem to stress the importance of ‘being’ within the human psyche. Being involves thinking and remembering. Remembering involves thinking of things that are not happening now, but happened before. We therefore exist both in the past and in the present. This is why time and memory are absurd.  Beckett allows the viewer/reader to interpret human existence with all its pains and joys while at the same time refusing to be drawn on his own thoughts.  What you see is what you get, there is no more. In many ways Krapp is everyman for we all have regrets.  How many of us would not turn the clock back if we could?  Beckett also uses light and darkness within many of his plays to emphasise the passage of time.  Light and darkness is also used to open and close the performance rather than the use of the curtain as seen in traditional theatre.  The use of light and darkness is a theme that runs throughout the play and we see it in the white dog playing with the black ball. On another occasion we hear Krapp reminiscing about the stark white uniform of the young woman pushing the black perambulator. This absence of colour draws you into the play and in some ways you begin to feel connected to the character.        

 Shakespeare wrote “to be or not to be”.  Krapp sits listening to silence.  He will inevitably die and his voice will also be silenced.  He will no longer be and he will no longer remain.  This play is longer than the text would first suggest as it is full of stops and starts and periods of silence.  These periods allow you to reflect upon the theme of Beckett’s play and marvel at the actor’s portrayal of this comic yet profoundly tragic figure.  You too are left with a feeling of loss for the character of Krapp.
Upper image = John Hurt in a potrayal of Krapp.
Middle image = John Hurt in a portrayal of Krapp.
Lower image = Samuel Beckett.
My apologies to those who follow this blog for my silence over the past few weeks. Upcoming exams are my excuse. May I wish you all a glorious Spring Equinox. I hope you enjoy my little review of Krapp's Last Tape. For those who wish to view some of Samuel Becketts play's they can be accessed on You Tube and I highly recommend you do so.