The great challenge in writing a play about an iconic figure such as Michael Collins is trying to find something to say that hasn’t already been said.
After all, almost everyone has their own take on the man, and depending on the household they were raised in; Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, it’s a safe bet that the narrative bequeathed by each generation brought with it layers of embellishment and exaggeration, that by the time we’ve reached his centenary all that’s left are broad, black and white brush stroke, bereft of the important grey areas that gives a truer and more complicated picture of a man you either loved or loathed.
For me it began with confronting the three great clichés that have come to define Collins.
“He sold Ireland off with the Treaty”, “He started the Civil War”,” He was shot by one of his own.” If I were to consider writing even a word then they would have to be rigorously interrogated and if found to be true then there was no point in going forward, the facts are the facts, and I had better stories to tell.
But soon into my research I came across (what should have been told to us in school, and not left hidden away ) a number of facts that I wasn’t fully aware of.
Facts, that if I could weave them into a play, would shatter the ground, no matter what side of the Collins debate you found yourself on. Because that’s the heart of playwriting, not the theoretical type academics and dramaturgs peddle, forever placing their cart before the playwright’s horse.
For the heart of real theatre lies in emotion. It’s the first thought before you pick up a pen; what can I make someone feel as the play ends; angry, happy, sad? And just as the characters you meet at the start of a play should be different at the end, so too it is with the audience.
Something in their world needs to change, however slightly. The world they perceived walking into the auditorium has shifted a little as they leave.
With that in mind marriage of the facts and emotion of the Irish Civil War and the death of Collins lent itself to a powerful opportunity to bring the Decade of Centenary to an end, for me at least, having begun it 10 years earlier with a commission from the Abbey to reimagine the facts witness statements from 1916 and the emotion they left in their wake.
It’s important that plays don’t answer questions, that’s for the audience. All a playwright can hope for is that they manage to start new conversations or reignite and old ones. The Chief won’t be the last word on Michael Collins, but the black and white of it now will have quite a few shades of grey thrown in, leaving a richer and more accurate portrait of a man and of an event in our history that we have yet to reconcile ourselves with.