Father Jack Production Diary: First close-read, part one

I haven’t written about Lughnasa in the last couple of weeks. I don’t know that I’ve been thinking much about it, other than reading the lines again and again. I have made a couple of potentially useful historical discoveries that I will write about later, perhaps when I discover if they are useful or not. At this point, though, I’m just reading the lines, again and again. Trying to get some sense of them in to my head.

But what the heck, let’s go through the scenes together. Maybe it will spark some sort of thought in my head. The first scene, though, not counting the opening tableau, which doesn’t obviously require me to make any choices, is Jack wandering in and out in about a page and a half, with eleven lines of dialogue between Jack and his five sisters.

You know what? Let’s start with the tableau. Jack is splendid in his regimental uniform as Michael, the narrator/boy, monologues. What does he say about Jack? “…my mother’s brother, my Uncle Jack, came home from Africa for the first time ever. […] now in his early fifties and in bad health … shrunken and jaundiced … …that forlorn figure… shuffling from room to room as if he were searching for something but couldn’t remember what.“ As he’s saying all this, Jack is still resplendent in the tableau, unspoiled and unbroken. When Jack comes in, fifteen minutes later, it ought to be a shock to the audience.

He comes in and says I beg your pardon…the wrong apartment…forgive me…. He is confused and disoriented. There are three things in those eleven lines that he talks about being unable to remember: the layout of the house, the word layout, and the residents of the village. They are different kinds of forgetting, of course, but forgetting—or more accurately the inability to remember—is the main topic of conversation. I think that in a memory play, that’s probably worth keeping in mind. He also calls Kate by her sister Agnes’ name.

As far as his inability to remember the word layout goes, it’s interesting. When he forgets a word, as he does half-a-dozen times over the play, he tends to try different near-synonyms. In this case, he says: I don’t remember the – the architecture? – the planning? – what’s the word? – the lay-out! His sisters never attempt to help him by suggesting possible words; he eventually lands on the one he wants and then moves on. The text explains it by pointing to the last twenty-five years, during which he only spoke English to the occasional European, his primary language being Swahili. I’m not convinced. It doesn’t feel, to me, like that sort of language loss at all. Jack grew up speaking English, and then switches to a different primary language for twenty-five years with occasional (once every few months?) needs for English, and now he is back home with English speakers. He doesn’t have problems with grammar or word order, nor does he slip and use a Swahili word instead of an English one at any point.

What it actually seems like, to me, is a sort of mild anomic aphasia, of the kind occasioned by a minor stroke or tumor. I don’t mean to say I’m qualified to diagnose the medical condition of fictional characters, but I have sometimes found it helpful, as an actor, to specify to myself a bit of physical history that affects the character. I think in this case it may be helpful to think of the struggle for words as anomic aphasia, rather than the passing of time. I think that Jack believes that it’s just forgetting words, and his sisters do as well, probably. And the boy. It’s a memory play, after all, so the Michael’s experience of it all should be central. On the other hand, he’s not a very reliable narrator.

Anyway, that’s pretty much the scene. All five of the sisters are there, and all of them except Rose speak to him. He largely addresses them all as a group, rather than as individuals, and he calls Kate by Aggie’s name. Can he tell them apart at all? What sort of relationship is forming? Does he know, yet, anything about the relationships between the sisters? Who is in charge, where the tensions are? He jests with them, a little, feebly; can he tell what their reaction is to his attempts? Does he care? Does he know what they want from him, and does he want to bring and to be what they want?

Those are the real questions to be worked out, I think. The medical stuff and the place of memory and forgetting is secondary to that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

4 thoughts on “Father Jack Production Diary: First close-read, part one

  1. Dan P

    I don’t know this play, so take this with the proverbial sodium chloride, but this whole post and especially your last paragraph here make a haunting case, to me, for a wide-ranging and progressive agnosia.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      Plausible! Although I wouldn’t read too much in to his inability to tell his sisters apart; he hasn’t seen them for twenty-five years. When he left, the oldest was fifteen. Still, I think there is reason to believe that there is more to his medical state than malaria.

      In a later monologue, Michael says that “Father Jack’s health improved quickly and he soon recovered his full vocabulary and all his old bounce and vigor. [… a year later] he died suddenly of a heart attack.” So while a minor stroke is plausible, a progressive tumor doesn’t seem likely.



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