Dublin Theatre Festival closed with a performance of Eugene McCabe’s King of the Castle. It was the first time that this play had been brought to the stage in over thirty years. McCabe is often seen as a faded Irish gem. The legendary and innovative theatre company Druid were the ones who decided to bring this play back to life. King of the Castle premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1964 so there is a symmetry to it being resurrected for the same festival. Perhaps it was with this in mind that the creators chose to stick closely to the original interpretation of the play?
King of the Castle is set in rural Leitrim in the 1950’s. The agricultural community had survived for generations but the threats to this way of life only ever increase. This is symbolised by the character of Matt, soon to emigrate to Canada, and most prominently by Scober and Tressa. Married for three years they have been unable to have children. Scober has risen himself up from poverty to be the main property owner in the district. The men work for him and he is the new occupant in the ‘big house’, but without any one to leave it to what is it all worth? He wants to write his family name on the mountains; to feel ownership and roots in one place. The frustration of being childless is compounded by the attitude of Maguire; a working man with an intense dislike for Scober he takes every opportunity he can to needle his boss.
Right from the off the stage directions tell us that the men stare at Tressa “lecherously, smiling”, setting the tone for the following events. This was demonstrated excellently on stage. Tressa has been giving the men food and drink as they sit around talking at the end of the working day. She is assisted by an unnamed and silent woman who only features in this scene. Maguire is continually making inappropriate and pointed remarks. Soon these begin to effect Scober. Stage directions: “the old man, has been watching her with Maguire. He crooks a forefinger towards her; she goes up to him and pours into his mug. Unlike the other men, he watches the mug filling and not her. When it is full, he nods.” The scene is silent but weighty. Tressa is not spoken to, included or acknowledged. This exchange is uncomfortable to watch. One can argue that the scene has more bite exactly because Tressa is the only female; surrounded by men who all seem to have an opinion and something to say. She is often acted upon, rather than having agency and the freedom to dictate her own actions.
It becomes clear that Scober and Tressa want children but have so far been unable to have them. It is suggested early on that this is the cause for discontent and the strained atmosphere on stage. It is also clear that it is seen as a failing of Scober’s. After the meal Maguire arranges to be alone with Tressa. His following words go on to shape the direction of the play. “What a woman for? … To drain a man – make a chile – and rear a man. ’Less she does that – she’s fat – good for nothing, but walkin’ about, chewin’ her cud, – empty – a loss…”. After making his point he digs the knife in by telling her that he is always available to solve their problem: “Empty – a loss – but that’s up to you – if he’s away – and you want service with profit – Jemmy can oblige anytime – with pleasure”. Said with a leer and so that no one can over hear these words are cruel and designed to both make Tressa uncomfortable and also to exert some influence over her. They echoed around the theatre.
One aspect of the play is treated so normally that it is almost easy to miss. It is not until the Second Act that we find out Tressa’s name. Until then she is referred to as “daughter” or “woman”. Although it was relatively common for a female to be called daughter in this part of the world by non-relative’s it is still striking that as the only spoken female role she is unnamed for such a large chunk of the play. Alongside this the only other female character only appears briefly and does not have any lines. She is a helper to Tressa during meal times. She is kept very firmly in the domestic sphere, pushed to the background by the working men.
This raises the question of could some of the background characters have been played by women? When one goes to the theatre one is choosing to suspend disbelief and be taken into a new world as the story unfolds on the stage. It is not much of a stretch from this point for typically male parts to be played by women. The Festival was criticised for the lack of female representation and this was keenly felt during King of the Castle. It is important to note that this production was directed by Druid founder and national treasure Garry Hynes, a woman who has bought to the stage some of the most exceptional plays that Ireland has seen in recent years.
One the other hand this play is very rarely performed and there is a truth in recreating the play as it was probably intended by the playwright. On top of this the treatment of Tressa shines out when she is surrounded by men. It emphasises her isolation and loneliness. Many of the comments are steeped in misogyny and cruelty. One can argue that they have greater bite when uttered by a bitter old man, face lined with stress and hard work, towards a young woman in a place that isn’t quite hers.
In a heightened conversation with Tressa Scober lashes out after hearing Maguire’s offer. His focus though is primarily on Tressa and sex. “Tomorrow – you’ll let me know our time’s up – the next day you’re bitchy, the next itchy”. In the harshness of his words his insecurity and fears that he does now really know Tressa are clear. “Below I watched you – goin’ ’bout with plates and teapots – lek as if you were stripped – on fire … You don’t sweat for me like that”. He feels betrayed and angry. His inability to father a child is a matter of personal failure, and perhaps in his mind an act of revenge upon him for his greed and the way he has exploited others for his gain.
This final jibe from Maguire proves to be too much for Scober. He sets out to solve his problem in the only way he knows how: as a business man. In a breath taking move he bypasses Tressa and approaches the young Matt. If he impregnates Tressa Matt will receive payment and Scober will raise the child as his own. His desire to not lose face in front of the working men pushes him to take this unusual step. His anger and confusion come through in his conversation with Matt. He references the fact that Tressa is thirty years younger than he. “Twenty – six on the clock when I got her – and never had a hand on her – bonnet never lifted – so she swears. But for a virgin she’s well run in. sits on secrets like a broody hen.” Even when Matt is sat at Scober’s dining table, with Tressa bought down from her room to serve them food, he still does not tell Tressa his plan. This economic transaction feels a little like the way he deals with his livestock.
The morning after, with their lives irrevocably altered, Tressa stays with Scober. She is dismissive and contemptuous of Matt. She was initially attracted to Scober because he was a man who achieved, who made deals, who got things done. The audience feel her pain at not being able to reach Scober, to share their pain of childlessness. As a domestic drama King of the Castle is ambiguous and touched with sadness. The issues it raises around female representation, the patriarchy and the role of women still resonate powerfully today.