Frank McGuinness: From Creativity to Legacy

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INTRODUCTION This exhibition, From Creativity to Legacy examines Professor Frank McGuinness’s journey from the early spark of his boundless creativity to the continuing and enduring endowment he has left to future playwrights, authors, poets and scholars through his work, teaching and archive. The themes of the exhibition which are represented by the archival material are: Creativity, Collaboration, Production, Reception and Legacy. In response to these themes McGuinness personally chose five of his poems to be exhibited on the exhibition panels. McGuinness was born in Buncrana, Co. Donegal and his first play, The Factory Girls, was produced in 1982 at the Peacock Theatre, proving to be the first of many critically acclaimed dramas. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme won the Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright and his version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House won a Tony Award in 1997. International success followed: Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me was not only produced on Broadway but also garnered Tony nominations and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award while Dolly West’s Kitchen produced at the Old Vic in London was nominated for an Olivier Award. McGuinness has been adept at working across media and across genre. His impressive body of work for TV and film includes the adaptation of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, while his first collection of poetry, Booterstown, was published in 1994, followed by The Sea With No Ships (1999), The Stone Jug (2003), Dulse (2007) and In a Town of Five Thousand People (2012). The archival material and memorabilia in the five exhibition cases comprises material from the Frank McGuinness archive in UCD Special Collections and the private archive of Philip Tilling. McGuinness was Professor of Creative Writing at UCD from 20072018.

right: Frank McGuinness (photo: Amelia Stein)



This exhibition was curated by Rachel Fehily, BL, MA.

CREATIVITY To be creative requires diverse attributes: courage, tenacity, a spark, curiosity and a questioning spirit. The Frank McGuinness archive showcases this diversity, encompassing a range of work that covers a huge territory, intellectually, geographically and chronologically. The subjects that occupy his thoughts and inspire his writing tackle numerous issues such as the role of women in Irish society, inequality and repression, war and conflict, the dynamics of dysfunctional families, the contrarieties of national and sexuality identity and alienation in all its forms. McGuinness started writing poetry when he was fifteen. As a young man he was influenced by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. The first poem he wrote, The Anniversary was about his Grandfather’s death and his first play, The Factory Girls was inspired by his mother, aunts and grandmother who all worked in a shirt factory in his home town of Buncrana, Co, Donegal. McGuinness does a huge amount of research before he writes and works with literal translations for his adaptations. He likens the creative process to kindling a fire and waiting for a spark to come, preferring to ponder over the subject matter for a long time. He candidly acknowledges that during the process he doesn’t know exactly where he is going or who will be coming with him. While renowned worldwide as one of the most successful playwrights of his generation, McGuinness’s creative output in other forms is also prodigious, extending to poetry, novels, short stories, screenplays, translations, a libretto and even occasional lyrics for Marianne Faithfull. Teaching from an early stage and recently retired as Professor of Creative Writing at UCD where he gave invaluable encouragement and guidance to generations of students, McGuinness’s creative output is far from diminishing. Some of his most recent works include Paprika, a collection of short stories and The Wedding Breakfast, a collection of poems.



right: Carthaginians, Abbey Theatre production, 1988 (photo: Fergus Bourke)


right: Oedipus, Olivier Theatre production, 2008 (photo: Geraint Lewis / Alamy Images)



McGuinness is generous in his acknowledgement and appreciation of the enormous influence that collaboration with other artists has had on his work. His first key collaboration which has endured over his whole career in theatre was with the director, Patrick Mason. He credits Mason with helping him to develop his rough draft of The Factory Girls. They went on to work together on Baglady, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Innocence and more recently on Signatories, UCD’s response to the anniversary of 1916. He says he judges every other director by the standards of Mason. If it is possible to collaborate with a dead writer McGuinness has done so in his long and involved relationship with the writings of Ibsen. McGuinness says that Ibsen has an enormous amount to teach and using literal translations to create versions of his work has allowed him to gain intelligence from Ibsen’s great mind. The creative contribution of many local and world renowned actors to his plays has undoubtedly enhanced productions of his work. When he wrote a version of Electra he created the role with the phenomenal range and the high notes of Zoe Wanamaker’s voice in his mind. In 1990 Sinéad Cusack joined her sisters Niamh and Sorcha, and their father Cyril to act in McGuinness’s award winning version of Chekov’s The Three Sisters at the Gate Theatre. This unique and successful production later transferred to the Royal Court Theatre in London. At the height of his acting career Ralph Fiennes gave a critically acclaimed performance in the title role of McGuinness’s version of Sophocles’ Oedipus at the Olivier Theatre, London, in which Oedipus is portrayed as an arrogant figure brought to humility through suffering. From his early days of rehearsal with Maureen Toal who acted in his classic memory play, Baglady, McGuinness has acknowledged the influence and the virtuosity of actors. Cathy Belton, Barbara Brennan, Michelle Fairley, Rosaleen Linehan, Marsha Mason, Geraldine McEuan, Janet McTeer, Stephen Rea, Alan Rickman, Kirstin Scott Thomas and Joan Sheehy are among the many talented actors who have been associated with McGuinness’s productions. He has also worked with many great costume and set designers including Bunny Christie, Bob Crowley, Robert Jones and Joe Vanĕk.

PRODUCTION Over his long career McGuinness’s work has been produced widely and eclectically. His writing has international resonances, relevance to many cultures, transcends categorisation and is open to interpretation by theatre companies and directors, leading it to be constantly produced and communicated worldwide. As exemplified by Carthaginians, McGuinness’s moving response to Bloody Sunday, and his depiction of Caravaggio’s flawed nature in Innocence, different theatre makers and the passage of time affect new productions allowing audiences the space to revisit and reinterpret his work in light of social and political changes. Outside of theatre his work attracts production and publication in other forms such as opera, television, novels and poetry books. Within Ireland, his work has been produced by all of the leading Irish theatres. He has had a long and fruitful relationship with Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey, and his work has been produced at the Gate, Druid, Lyric and Project Arts theatres. His work has transferred from Ireland to theatres all over the world including the Old Vic in London, the Lincoln Center in New York and the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, Paris. The London Coliseum was the location for McGuinness’s first libretto for the production of the opera Thebans, an important collaboration with the composer Julian Anderson. McGuinness has also written screenplays for two BBC television productions based on true stories. A Short Stay in Switzerland, directed by Simon Curtis and starring Julie Walters tackled the difficult subject of assisted suicide and A Song for Jenny, sensitively adapted Julie Nicolson’s book about the death of her daughter in the London underground bombing.



right: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Abbey Theatre production, 1994 (photo: Amelia Stein)


right: Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Abbey Theatre production, 1993 (photo: Tom Lawlor)



Since first gaining prominence as a playwright and winning the London Evening Standard’s Award for Most Promising Playwright for Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme in 1985, McGuinness has been the recipient of a continual stream of awards and of public, critical and academic acclaim both in Ireland and abroad. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme won a host of other prizes including the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, Harvey’s Best Play Award, the Cheltenham Literary Prize, the Plays and Players Awards, the Ewart Biggs Peace Prize and others. Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, a Broadway hit and his most commercially successful play, received Olivier and Tony award nominations and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1992. His adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House which also ran on Broadway was nominated for four Tony awards in the Best Play Revival category and the actress Pauline Flanagan won an Olivier award for her performance in Dolly West’s Kitchen at the Old Vic. Outside of theatre his work in other forms has been well received. McGuinness’s adaption for film of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa in 1998 starring Meryl Streep was nominated for several awards and won an IFTA. His television drama A Short Stay in Switzerland was nominated for a BAFTA in 2010. His first novel Arimathea set in Donegal in the 1940s and more recently The Woodcutter and his Family, a reimagining of the last days of James Joyce were nominated for many awards and well received by critics and readers. McGuinness was honoured with the Irish PEN award in 2014 for his outstanding achievement in Irish literature. His prolific creative output has inspired many academics to write books, essays and studies, including Eamonn Jordan’s The Feast of Famine: The Plays of Frank McGuinness, Hiroko Mikami’s Frank McGuinness and his Theatre of Paradox, Helen Lojek’s essay collection: The Theatre of Frank McGuinness: Stages of Mutability, David Cregan’s Frank McGuinness’s Dramaturgy of Difference and the Irish Theatre and Kenneth Nally’s “Celebrating Confusion”: The Theatre of Frank McGuinness.

LEGACY The extent of McGuinness’s legacy, while undoubtedly profound, remains to be seen. This is the living archive of an artist who continues to teach, engage and inspire students, scholars, academics, writers and theatre makers both nationally and internationally. UCD Special Collections holds the papers of McGuinness from 1976 to date. It contains inter alia, early handwritten drafts, rehearsal scripts, proofs, memorabilia, directors’ notebooks, literal translations, drafts and fragments of his stage plays, screenplays, lyrics and poetry. The material in this unique and valuable collection is available to research students, staff and scholars by appointment. McGuinness continues to work. He remains a powerful and influential presence in the world of theatre and writing. Perhaps the greatest legacy he has left for us, however, is his deep commitment to research and continual striving for excellence; the conviction that whatever work we do, whether it is making a shirt or writing words on a page, it should be imbued with a sense of excellence and importance. ‘Rohan: A simple piece of coloured cloth, stitched together. A unit of production that I need to see go out this factory quicker and in greater numbers if against all the odds I’m to make this hole of a place survive. Ellen: Let me tell you what I see. I see a collar. Two cuffs. Eight buttons. Eight buttonholes. Bands. A back.Two sides. A lower line.When I look closer, do you know what else I see? A couple of thousand stitches. Why do I see it? I’ve been trained to see it. I’ve trained other people to see it. That’s my job Rohan, and I know my job cannot be done in the way and the time you want it done, and I won’t do it that way.’ The Factory Girls (1982)



right: The Factory Girls, Druid Theatre production, 1988 (T2/9, Druid Theatre Archive, James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway)


For a start it is not golden Nor is it a bridge. It is an animal, It is mineral, and the question is, Does it love itself? It does, But with discretion. I adore discretion, For the heart is capable of being ripped Apart, repaired as if nothing happened, Repainted, but not golden. It is red, The heart.

from: The Sea With No Ships, Gallery Press 1999



for Sarah My father knows the water like the palm of his hand. He can read the sea as if it were his son. When I look at his face, it is salt and storm. The same face has looked for life at the Atlantic. I sometimes think he has married the ocean. This marriage has lasted longer than the earth. Bigger than the earth, if the truth were told. I have never looked at my father in the water. Were I to do so, he would disown me. This would crack my heart as a leaping stone cracks. Such sorrow is possible, as the size of the sea is possible. The size of sorrow is the size of my father. He has never looked at the palm of his hand.

from: Booterstown, Gallery Press 1994



I am the Korean archery champ. I spend my life sending arrows northwards. To each I attach a token of love: unicorn feathers, alcohol-free beer, invitations to a party of rice cakes, birthday suit, raw fish, ground-up light bulbs. This last is a delicacy reserved to improve eyesight: the bow from the quiver that travels straight from the heart to the head, heart of Korea, head of the arrow.

from: Dulse Gallery, Press 2007



You will not find the likes of Percy French being roared to the rafters nor a man called Michael or Thomas among the denizens of salary men who gather after hunting the yen in Tomato’s karaoke bar where kiss and tell is not the rage in Tokyo — don’t mention the war but look at snapshots of wives and children whose pride and joy are on the bullet train from this to the next world connecting Nagasaki to railways in Clare vanishing through limestone — a kamikaze rose.

from: In A Town Of Five Thousand People, Gallery Press 2012



I’d love to see you lose your temper and go hell for leather against a man, who crossed you in a poker game you played, for no more reason than you felt like it. How would your hands contract into fists, square and domiciled in the suburbs of towns where no woman’s safe, where buffalo stray through streets that smell of a frightened boy’s wit? Wit saved him often from the bullies’ blows, it made him laugh — he could see through their clothes. Naked and gentle, they were not transformed. As nature intended, yellow as corn, they did not embrace, they stood far apart, sensing blood in the game of spades and hearts.

from: The Stone Jug, Gallery Press 2003


Acknowledgements I would like to acknowledge the advice and support of Prof. Frank McGuinness for this exhibition. In addition I would like to thank Philip Tilling for making available material from his own personal archive for use in the exhibition. I am grateful to Prof. Eamonn Jordan, Prof. Ashley Taggart and Prof. Anthony Roche for their advice and support throughout this process. I would also like to thank the following people in UCD Library: Evelyn Flanagan, Daniel Conneally, Laura Ryan and Eugene Roche in Special Collections, Ursula Byrne and University Librarian Dr. John Howard. I am grateful to MairÊad Delaney, Abbey Theatre archivist, for providing access to and allowing use of images from the Abbey Theatre archive and to Barry Houlihan and Aisling Keane in NUI Galway archives for their help identifying images from the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive and the Druid Theatre archive. Thanks to Ger Garland who designed the exhibition panels and the booklet and to Peter Fallon of the Gallery Press for allowing use of McGuinness’s poems in the exhibition.


SPECIAL COLLECTIONS READING ROOM James Joyce Library University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4. Phone: +353 (0)1 716 7583 Email:

ISBN: 978-1-910963-36-4 © UCD, 2019

cover: Frank McGuinness (photo: Amelia Stein)