The trouble with Frank McGuinness is he doesn’t fit snugly within the Irish dramatic tradition. Unlike Brian Friel he is not a textual playwright, it is not possible to read his plays as short stories that could be performed if one felt so inclined. The plays rely on visual language and choral effect. Carthaginians, written in 1987 and based on the slaughter of Bloody Sunday, borrows heavily from classical Greek drama and, true to the tragic form, reaches its haunting crescendo through stichomythia. The mood of the drama is not created by what is said, it relies upon sensitive interpretation and an accumulation of dramatic effect.
Frank McGuinness is not for the armchair theatre-goer. His plays make a huge demand on actors and audience alike. His plays centre on the raw emotions of grief, guilt and bigotry. Never more so than in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. This drama pulls no punches and gives a voice to the prejudices of young Protestant Ulster men who go to fight in the First World War against more than one enemy. They are encouraged to see the Catholics in the same light as the Germans. One character, a brutish Belfast shipyard worker, goes so far as to proclaim that ‘the enemy is not the Hun, but the Fenians and an Irish Republic!’
It is the bravery of McGuinness’ dramatic insight that is so admirable. He can be messy, he can be impenetrable but occasionally he captures the truth and it is worth cutting him slack for that.