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Loneliness, storytelling and community in performance: the climate of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s America in selected plays by Eugene O’Neill, J.P. Donleavy and Frank D. Gilroy

Farrar, Ruth (2012) Loneliness, storytelling and community in performance: the climate of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s America in selected plays by Eugene O’Neill, J.P. Donleavy and Frank D. Gilroy. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

This thesis examines the selected dramatic works of three second-generation American-Irish playwrights in the twentieth century: Eugene O’Neill, J.P. Donleavy, and Frank D. Gilroy. Key texts of O’Neill’s late period, including The Iceman Cometh (1940) and Hughie (1959), are assessed in Chapter 1; Chapter 2 evaluates Donleavy’s plays The Ginger Man (1959) and Fairy Tales of New York (1960); Chapter 3 concludes the analysis by examining plays including Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses (1964) and Any Given Day (1993). The form and content of these playwrights’ work are shown increasingly to revolve around notions of loneliness, storytelling and community, and these aspects of the plays are found to be shaped by the ideological influence of the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which, I argue, was itself a highly theatrical and performative operation. The tenure of HUAC spanned 1938-1968; its effects lingered longer. The plays are not political interventions or critiques in any straightforward way, though; indeed, the thematic content of these writers’ work appears to become increasingly small, personal and autobiographical as their careers develop. However, my contention is that the plays operate as “indirect allegories” – subtle, often unconscious responses to the ideological climate of the time. My analysis of the plays applies the works of critics as diverse as Louis Althusser and Erving Goffman to show that themes such as loneliness reappear as manifestations of HUAC’s increasingly negative impact on community formation and cohesion. Likewise, recurrent formal devices such as storytelling function to dramatise the paradoxes surrounding such self-performance in the era of HUAC – narrating the self is both a nourishing, self-defining act, and also, in this context, potentially incriminating. In this way, the thesis starts to plot a developmental trajectory of second-generation American-Irish playwriting and its indirect allegorisation of the HUAC era.

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