September 17, 2013 — Tanya Dean

Theatricalism at Play in Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom

In Saint Genet: Actor & Martyr, Jean-Paul Sartre observes that, “For Genet, theatrical procedure is demoniacal. Appearance, which is constantly on the point of passing itself off as reality, must constantly reveal its profound unreality.” This demoniacal element finds itself embodied in Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom. Both plays are exemplars of theatricalism at play. The two investigate themes of performance as ceremony and the generation of simulacra through reciprocity in imitation. Both plays fit neatly within the rubric of Manfred Pfister’s theory of levels of fictionality; “a primary dramatic level, whose ontological status is characterized by the fictionality of dramatic presentation, contains within it a secondary dramatic level that introduces an additional fictional element.”

Walsh’s dramaturgy frequently focuses on storytelling as a mode of performance (for example,The Small Things, Bedbound). With both The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom, Walshconstructs a play and a-play-within-the-play, demarcating the theatricalist notion of the “Real” (a world within (or without) the play that constitutes the theatrical incarnation of reality) and the “Illusory” (a performative sub-world which is highlighted by and contrasted to the Real). Of course this is contrasted against the Real of the theatre itself with its seats and audience, and the Illusory of the playworld with its sets and actors. Walsh replicates a basic pattern in the two plays: the audience enter the playworld on a day when a new element enters to change the endlessly repeated, endlessly identical play-within-the-play. For the families in both plays (the emotionally stunted men of The Walworth Farce and the toxically nostalgic women of The New Electric Ballroom), performance serves as both the sustaining structure of their lives but also as a trap, confining them to seemingly inescapable roles. The catalytic act (the arrival of Tesco checkout girl Hayley in The Walworth Farce, the revelation of new information by Patsy in The New Electric Ballroom) fatally destabilizes the frame of the Illusory.