Read this brilliant Q&A with playwright Fionnuala Kenny, author of Elvis’s Toenail.
Born in Dublin, Kenny joined the Abbey Theatre in 1968. She graduated UCD and continued working at the Abbey until 1974.
High points of her early career were working with The Dubliners in “Richard’s Cork Leg” and working with Thin Lizzy (and the great Phil Lynott) at the Peacock Theatre, being in the premiere of two Tom Murphy plays, and playing Nora in the RTE production of “ Riders to the Sea” starring Siobhan Mc Kenna.
She moved to London in 1974, married stage designer Voytek, and took up a career teaching literature in Adult Education. Head of Faculty of Arts in West London College until 1997. She relocated with her daughter, Taya, to the United States to take up a position as Artistic Director of STOP-GAP, an interactive Theatre company in Southern California.
Now a full-time writer, she lives in Long Beach, California. With her dog.
Where did the idea come from for the play (the toenail), and how long did it take you to complete it?
I suppose, like many things, that this play has been with me for most of my life. My Mother, Ann Kenny, had a clothing factory (and a shop) built by my Father, Brian Kenny, in working-class Dublin. The factory workers were girls from the surrounding areas of Sundrive, Crumlin and Drimnagh. They were fun, stylish, sharp, and had fantastic banter in the true Irish style. A lot of the workers were ‘Teds’ – teddy girls who dressed in the height of fashion, with stilettos, tight drainpipe trousers or huge flared skirts with cinched waists, backcombed hair in high beehives, and heavy make-up with pale lips and dark, dark eyes. They loved music and dancing. I was always fascinated with their stories, their fashion, their easy way with wit and laughter. On Saturday nights, they’d work late making dresses to wear to the dance, and they’d send out for chips, before getting ready. I can still smell the vinegar, the hair lacquer and the perfume.
But there was a dark side. Occasionally, a girl would ‘disappear’ – to England, or ‘down the country’. Her machine would lie idle, then a new girl would come and take her place. Questions were shushed, and fingers would be laid on lips to signal silence. I knew early on that something bad had happened, because when a girl left to get married or to take another job, there would be a goodbye party. It was years before I began to recognize that in all probability, someone had gotten ‘into trouble’. I wanted to write about both sides of that story, the light and the dark. The publication of the Ryan report was a milestone, and as I read it, things that I had witnessed all those years ago began to make sense. I started to write. The play took about six months to finish.
Do you think plays should provide some sort of social commentary as well as entertain?
I think it’s great if a play lends itself to social commentary, and it was a defining moment for me when I realized that this was an important aspect of Elvis’s Toenail but not all plays do. Plays are basically about people; the most important thing for an audience is that they care about what happens to the people onstage. Some of my favourite plays – “The Seagull” or “Streetcar” for example, have no obvious social commentary, but we get completely involved in the lives of the characters. I love to hear an audience laugh, that release is the greatest sound in the world. You know when an audience is listening, because the power of their concentration is so strong. That’s what makes live theatre transformative and unique. So, plays may or may not have a social commentary, but the dilemma that the characters are facing must be compelling. That is the most important thing for me.
What you think your play says about Ireland at that time?
Elvis’s Toenail is set in Dublin in 1961. I chose that period because it was a time of great change and excitement. Elvis had just been released from the army, President Kennedy was in the White House, Billy Fury had performed an act so scandalous in Dublin that they had brought the curtain down, and the Pope had called an ecumenical council. In 1961, there was also a slight spike in the numbers of children committed to reformatories; the “Mother and Baby” homes were still active, and adoption of Irish children by foreign parents was not yet illegal.
It’s hard to reconcile the Ireland of today with the Ireland of that time. It’s difficult to convey, from this perspective, how intensely anxious a society Ireland was during the 40’s and 50’s. Irish people were terrified of being overtaken and corrupted, seeing Ireland as the last bastion of Catholicism in a godless world. Protecting the status of Ireland as a Catholic country became a paramount national concern. Legalities became intertwined with religious belief to the detriment of individual rights, and there was much public and private fretting about the dangers of losing Ireland’s identity as “The Island of Saints and Scholars.”
In the play, the representatives of the “established order” are trying to preserve the “status quo” against youngsters eager to embrace change. In the middle, we have the realists with a foot in each camp, the people who ‘know and don’t know’ what really goes on, but are reluctant to speak out for fear of being branded troublemakers. The resulting battle between the conflicting camps forms the heart of the play, and – hopefully – the capacity of the Irish to see the funny side of everything lets us explore the issues without getting too bogged down.
Were you concerned about putting it on for a US audience initially?
Yes, because originally I thought the forced removal of children from parents was a problem particular to Ireland. When I was researching Elvis’s Toenail, I learned that it was more widespread than I had ever thought. Even in Canada from 1890 to 1960, the children of First Nation Peoples were routinely removed from the birth families and sent to residential schools. According to the reports, abuse and neglect in those institutions was frequent and forced adoptions common. It seems that the events in Elvis’s Toenail have, unfortunately, wide applicability.
However, the encouragement for the play from this side of the water has been fantastic, from the Sidewalk Studio Theatre who performed it in LA to the Toronto Irish Players who have been committed and supportive and are now producing the play. The audiences so far have been wonderful, getting every joke, even the ones where the vernacular is very local. Many people seem to have experience of been educated by a religious order, so the recognition is universal. I’m delighted that I will get to see the Toronto Irish Players perform; their reputation is stellar. The fact that my sister, Cliona, a long time member of TIP, is directing and my nephew, David Dickie, is playing Christy is an added bonus!
Are you working on anything new and if so can you share a little of what it is?
Yes, I can talk a little about it because it is nearly finished – normally talking about work is not a good idea. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the fun of talking, instead of doing the work of writing. I am just finishing a collection of short stories, called “Irish Accents.” Each story explores an aspect of growing up in Ireland and it includes “ The Orphanage” – the story that was the model for “ Elvis’s Toenail”. I am also working on a new play, but I’d prefer not to say anything about that right now as it is still in the planning stages.
What’s the state of Irish new writing/theatre at the moment, in your opinion?
The Irish, wherever they are living, have a genius for taking an individual experience and making it a collective one. We grow up hearing brilliance all around us, in plays, in songs, and in stories. That can be daunting; it’s a huge mountain for any writer to climb. The challenge is to avoid being intimidated by that immense body of work and just get on with your own.
Thankfully, every generation produces their own inspirational geniuses – Murphy, Friel, and Keane were followed by Carr, Farrell, Roche and Barry; they’ve been joined by such phenomenal writers as McDonough, Mc Pherson, and Walsh. That’s just in my lifetime! Irish Theatre also continues to be provocative and exciting. I wish that I’d had the opportunity to see the “ Monto Cycle” by ANU productions at the Dublin Festival. I’m very glad that such innovation and brilliance continues. It’s an inspiration.