Swift Seminar 2007

Jonathan Swift and Poetry, Theatre, Politics in Ireland

Conducted on 19-20/10/2007 at the Deanery of St. Patrick's, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair

Denis Johnston's Swift Project:

"There Must Be Something Wrong with the Information"

Chris Morash, NUI Maynooth

[Note on CV of author]


I want to begin by proposing that we use a convenient phrase - the "Swift Project" - as a shorthand for the linked series of works that Johnston wrote about Jonathan Swift:

Weep for Polyphemus (Radio) BBC Northern Ireland tx. (i.e. transmitted) 19 June, 1938;
Weep for Polyphemus (Radio) BBC Northern Ireland [Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir present the Dublin Gate Theatre Players in Weep for Polyphemus; tx. July 29, 1939;
The Dreaming Dust (Theatre) Gate Theatre, March 25, 1940 [Revived 1955 and Sept 22, 1959 to coincide with publication of In Search of Swift]
Weep for the Cyclops (Television) BBC London tx. August 21, 1947
In Search of Swift [Book] (Dublin: Hodges Figgis, 1959).
The Dreaming Dust (Television) Dir. Michael Barry; RTE, tx. April 25, 1967.

However, I would also argue that the Project includes all of Johnston's own reflections, revisions and commentary on this extended work in progress over more than three decades. Apart from the obvious continuities - entire scenes and passages of dialogue repeated through the various incarnations of the project - I think that this concept of a single project is useful, insofar as it allows me to pursue the specificity of the four media through which Johnston guided the project: radio, stage, television and print. And it is as an extended exploration of the specificity of media that I want to consider the Swift Project this afternoon.

In the interview he gave in 1973 with George Henderson, Denis Johnston had this to say about his "Swift Project", effectively repeating comments he had made over the years:

"I found that I couldn't make sense of the characters as described in the standard books on the subject. Not just Swift himself, but practically all the other characters too, and in particular the women in his life. None of them behaved like people, and when I find that happening I always feel that there must be something wrong with the information, rather than with human nature."(1)

Like so many of the interviews that Johnston gave later in life, there are a number of things packed into these few lines, which open up for me the key issue for Johnston: the possibility of a universal, transhistorical human nature. It would, of course, take far more time than we have here this afternoon to work through the outlines of a debate on human nature; whether it is a dangerous form of essentialism, and as such a limit on human freedom, or the very thing that makes human freedom a possibility. However, for our purposes today, this assertion that his attraction to Swift's biography centres around Swift as a test case for the extremes of human nature.

We can put this in a wider context by recalling that Johnston's life straddles those events that have made us question the value or even the possibility of a human nature over the past century. Born in 1901, his near contemporaries fought and died in the trenches of the First World War. Later, as a war correspondent, he was among the first journalists to enter Buchenwald concentration camp after the Second World War, and to walk unprepared through the hell of those sheds stacked with "living creatures, some of them stirring, some of them stiff and silent, but all of them skeletons, with skin drawn tight over their bones, their heads bulging and misshapen from emaciation".2 In short, Johnston is one of first to bear witness to that moment that above all continues to make us wonder if there is any possible adequate definition of human nature that must not also include the inhuman.

In some ways, I think it could be argued, Johnston's whole career is an attempt to salvage the concept of the human amidst the wreckage of human history; and I would argue that it lies at the heart of the Swift Project as a whole. Again, let us remind ourselves of the chronology: it begins on the eve of the War in 1938; Weep for Polyphemus was rebroadcast the month the war began, September 1939, The Dreaming Dust was written and staged in the first year of the War, and Weep for the Cyclops is produced less than two years after Johnston stepped back into the sunlight from the barracks in Buchenwald.

So, let us go back to what Johnston said in 1973. If figures from the past - note how he refers to them as "characters" - behave in ways that that contradict "human nature", he claims, "I always feel that there must be something wrong with the information, rather than with human nature." In other words, when there is so much palpable evidence of human beings behaving inhumanly, we must either revise or reject the possibility of human nature; or, we must find "something wrong with the information." In that word "information", we can hear the voice of Johnston the barrister, Johnston the seasoned journalist, speaking. The past, and the lives of others in the past, can exist for us only in the form of "information;" hence, the possibility of human nature lies, for Johnston, not in a quasi-theological defence that starts from the assumption that human nature must exist because life becomes meaningless or cruel if we assume otherwise; instead, it proceeds from an exploration of the nature of information itself, because it is through information that we come to know what it is to be human.


Denis Johnston was never simply a playwright who worked in radio and television because playwriting did not pay very well; he was a broadcaster, who, it should be remembered, was working in 1938 in a medium that had only been in existence for sixteen years (approximately the same amount of time that we have had the internet, to put it in context). In 1938, when Johnston made Weep for Polyphemus, radio was a medium that was established, ubiquitous (there were just over 200,000 radio licenses in the Republic of Ireland that year, and many more unlicensed sets), but nonetheless it was still new, and still full of the sense that its full possibilities lay ahead. When he moved to BBC television a few years later, Johnston was a world pioneer in the most important medium of the twentieth century, a figure who would have a place in media history even had he never darkened the door of a theatre. What is more, he entered the new medium, television, with an acute sense of its specificity as a medium. "What is television?" he would later ask. "Is it keyhole play production, or news with unnecessary vision? Or like the movies - a talking picture? I could say that it was none of those things, but an entirely new thing with its own rules."(3)

Similarly, in a way that only really makes sense in terms of the anomalous history of Irish theatre in early twentieth-century, he was a pioneer. While the paradigm-shifting decade in modern European theatre is the 1890s, the searching exploration of theatrical form that had taken place on other European stages did not really take place in Ireland in any sustained way until the 1920s. Certainly, there were debates - fascinating, heated debates - about the nature of theatre in Ireland in 1900; but they tended to be debates over subject matter (peasant life, mythology, contemporary social conditions), not over theatrical form per se, some of Yeats' writings aside. That exploration had to wait until the 1920s, and the formation of the Dublin Drama League. And, of course, out of the Dublin Drama League came the Gate Theatre, who effectively adopted their audience; and it was at the Gate that Johnston staged his first play, The Old Lady Says 'No'; and it was the Gate company of Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir who staged The Dreaming Dust in 1940.

There is a moment in the development of any medium in which its formal properties show themselves with a strange clarity that is often difficult for later generations to recapture. So, for instance, I have always thought that any attempt to explain The Old Lady Says 'No' as a form of Surrealism, or even of Expressionism (in spite of Johnston's well-documented interest in German Expressionist theatre) is simply wrong. In he Old Lady, as in The Dreaming Dust, there may be characters or situations who are irrational; but above it all, there is a cold, clear rationality, the barrister's awareness that the form and structure of the argument are as important - or, indeed, more important - than the facts in the case. And, what is more, I want to argue this afternoon that that these moments of clarity occurred to Johnston at each stage along the way on the Swift Project in three different media.

For some time now, I have considered one of the most remarkable documents in an early twentieth-century Irish theatre not given to self-reflection (although rich in self-recrimination) to have been that which Johnston published in Motley in April of 1933, just five years before he made "Weep for Polyphemus." Motley was the fascinating, if short-lived, in-house magazine of the Gate Theatre. Johnston was a regular contributor, writing under the Teutonic pseudonym of E.W. Tocher, he joined Hilton Edwards and other contributors in arguing against the realist orthodoxy that had become the norm at the Abbey. The problem, Johnston argued, was that theatre had failed to define its own specifically theatrical qualities; in attempting to create a theatre of realism, he argued, theatre practitioners had failed to recognise that they were fighting a battle that had already been lost; by 1933, cinema could be realistic in ways that would never be possible with theatre. The solution, he argued, was for theatre to become, once again, theatrical. And so, in 1933, he laid down six axioms (and here again we hear the voice of the barrister), of which the most important are arguable the third and fourth:

3. The theatre is at its best when it is most theatrical...
4. The theatre cannot exist on plot alone. In pure narrative it cannot compete with literature. Matter is of minor importance when compared with method.(4)

This might seem the final bulwark of a playwright desperately holding the barricades against the onslaught of a new medium, cinema; in retrospect, it is the reflection on one medium, theatre, of a man who was about to move into a second, radio, and who was later to play a key role in developing a third, television. "The theatre is at its best when it is most theatrical." This could be multiplied: "The radio is at its best when it is most fully radio;" and "Television is at its best when it is must fully television."


I want to turn briefly with the radio play, Weep for Polyphemus, made for BBC Northern Ireland, broadcast in June of 1938, just before he left a few months later to join the new television service. Weep for Polyphemus is a play about Swift, Stella and Vanessa, but only at a remove. The primary mise en scene of the radio drama is not here in the Deanery; it is a radio studio in Belfast. The time of the play is not 1725 or 1731; it is 1938. A group of actors are preparing for a feature on Swift's life. However, as they enter into scenes - in many cases, the key scenes that will recur in Weep for the Cyclops and The Dreaming Dust; whether here in the Deanery, in Laracor, in London,or in Celbridge. However, as the "actors" interrupt, they remind us that they are staging a play, disputing their roles, and their characters' motivations and actions.

The most obvious antecedent for this is, of course, Johnston's own The Old Lady Says 'No', and before that Pirandello's "theatre-in-the-theatre" plays, most famously Six Characters in Search of an Author. Johnston had been involved in staging Piradello for the Dublin Drama League in the 1920s, and the playwright's Enrico IV had been playing in London to considerable critical debate while he was writing The Old Lady in the late 1920s. However, the effect of this play between the actors and the characters produces an effect on the radio which is different from that on the stage.

On the stage, while the actor/characters may shift in a beat from one reality to another, the physical environment of the stage cannot be transformed as quickly, even with a lighting transition. Hence, on the stage, the effect of having actors step out of character is to experience two sets of reality inhabiting the same physical space.

On the radio, however, it is otherwise. There is no physical reality; there is only the illusion of a physical reality, created in the listener's imagination by the broadcast sounds, and which are imagined as being distant from the listener, existing elsewhere, at the point of origin of the broadcast. When a character goes from being Swift in the Deanery to being an actor in a BBC studio, on radio the imagined space changes with the change in character. On the radio, character and imagined space are the same. That is its nature, and its power, although that power is not always fully exploited.

When Johnston began reworking this material for television in 1947, he focused on an aspect of the specificity of that medium: the fact of broadcast itself. Although there are some shots of the Cathedral, and the tomb of Swift that make use of the potential of the camera, most of Weep for the Cyclops could just as easily take place on a stage. Except, that is, for the key moment, when Swift tells Stella in the garden at Laracor that they must never marry because they are both illegitimate offspring of the same family, he of one generation, she of the next:

Stella: I can't stay here any longer. I am too humiliated and disgraced by what I have done.
(Swift turns for a moment to face the camera. With one hand he grasps her by the arm.)
Swift: Stop!
(With the other hand he strikes a rapid blow in the air in the direction of the camera.
With a malicious half-smile he turns to Stella once again and continues the action in vision. Their lips move but their words cannot be heard.
In the course of this apparent breakdown the following conversation (recorded) can be heard apparently from the Control Room.) Producer: We've lost sound.
s.m.e.: That's queer.(5)

This is television from a time when almost all television was live, and the defining feature of television was the fact of being broadcast - "one long, irrevocable take, on which it must stand or fall", as Johnston later put it. "No second chances ... no way out except by doing one's best, and then abiding by the result."(6)

He is talking here about the nature of live television; but, of course, he could equally be talking about what is happening between the characters of Swift and Stella in this scene. In Weep for the Cyclops Johnston chooses not to hide the fact that the play is television; instead, as he did with Weep for Polyphemus, he reminds the listeners of the existence of the medium, and of the apparatus of the medium, and uses what he sees as the defining features of the medium as elements of the work itself.

I am sure that others here this afternoon will have much to say about The Dreaming Dust, so I will be brief equally brief on my comments on that play. Suffice it to say that it adapts the device of Weep for Polyphemus in having actors who are also characters interrupt their roles, to comment on them. And, again, the moment at which the interruption is most pronounced is that at which Swift explains to Stella their blood tie. As the character of Berkeley recounts one of his witticisms about illegitimate children, the actress playing Stella steps out of character, and moves downstage, the stage directions describing here as "standing for a moment in silence":

Dean: (following her, in some surprise) What is wrong? Why are you stopping the scene?
Pride: The rest of the scene makes no sense.
Stella: I'm not Stella.
Dean: (relaxing into The Dean) Maybe not - but for the purposes of our...
Stella: I am not Stella in any sense of the word. I'm not even a credible woman. What woman in her senses would behave like this?(7)

Of course, this is not quite the same as the actors in Weep for Polyphemus stepping out of role; for these "actors" are still, to some extent, in character, from a Medieval morality play in which they have just been acting, here in St. Patrick's Cathedral. As well as allowing him to explore the nature of sin and vice (although I think this is something of a red herring), the morality play is something that could well have been staged here in St. Patrick's Cathedral, for as Alan Fletcher's work on late medieval Irish theatre has shown, there was a lively, if somewhat elusive, theatrical life in this area in the late medieval and early modern period. Hence, the point is the same as the break in transmission in Weep for the Cyclops; to remind us of the specificity of the medium, in this case by evoking a theatrical form from a stage in the development of theatre analogous to the stage of radio and television in Johnston's own time; a theatrical form that, unlike realism or naturalism, was purely theatrical: the Medieval morality play.

Conclusion: Johnston, Swift and Faulty Information

By way of conclusion, let me draw together these three moments of media-specific self-reflection. Johnston's long search for Swift, I would argue, was less concerned with finding the truth of his relationship with Stella and Vanessa; after all, what was really the point in expending so much energy on a love affair where the lovers have long since become dust (the play effectively asks us this, by placing their skulls centre stage throughout), their scandal no scandal in a century of horrors, their disinterred skulls not repulsive when placed in context with living skeletons of Buchenwald.

No, I would argue that for Johnston, the true nature of the relationship between these three people takes the form of a paradigmatic ontological problem - a test case, if you want to take a legal metaphor. Here was a figure, Jonathan Swift, who was one of the most famous men of his time, and whose reputation flourished and spread after his death. He lived, throughout his life, a very public life - ; and yet ... and yet ... in spite of all this, there remained - and remains - a fundamental mystery about the nature of the relationship of these three people: Swift, Stella and Vanessa. Their lives were public, documented, witnessed - and unknowable.

"None of them behaved like people," Johnston told George Henderson in 1973, "and when I find that happening I always feel that there must be something wrong with the information, rather than with human nature." In each of the media in which he attempts to tells this story, in a way that makes it explicable in terms of a generalised universal human nature, the medium collapses at the point of explanation. In other words, there is, quite literally, "something wrong with the information" in each of these works.

The nature of what is wrong is, of course, specific to the given medium; in live radio, the actors simply step out of character; in television, the sound transmission breaks up; and on stage, an earlier, purer theatrical form bursts through, breaking up the surface realism. And this, for me, is what makes Johnston fascinating, and a key Irish modernist writer. On one hand, he yearns for a confident belief in a unified, universal human nature; and, at the same time, he is all too aware that any such claims must be justified through a medium - whether it be the stage, radio or television - in which there are flaws, in which the transmission can be faulty. And so, in the very act of making his claim for a comprehensible human nature, he questions its possibility in ways that make us turn again to the figure who stands at the heart of this project: Jonathan Swift.

Notes and References


Chris Morash, 19/10/07

? The above paper (has appeared) (will appear) in (publication) volume, date

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