I’ve been writing a play about Dr. Noel Browne, the controversial Minister for Health who brought down the Irish government back in 1951.
A strange subject, you might say, and hardly relevant. Oddly enough, the era is redolent with familiar catch cries such as “socialized medicine,” “powerful health lobbies,” and “separation of church and state.”
Ireland, to some degree, has come to terms with these issues but it’s a rare day they don’t make the news in this country.
However, let’s skip such thorny issues and deal with a more mercurial subject – playwriting; and, in particular, how do you write a play?
It’s a question that arises frequently, for it’s a rare person who doesn’t think they’ve got at least one play in them. And they’re probably right.
“Sure isn’t it all about words?”
Actually it’s more about cutting words and retaining only as many as will allow the actors to tell the story. That story, however, better be universal and deal in some substantive manner with the complexities of the human condition.
One more small item - you’ve got to furnish your actors with distinct and meaningful characters that stay true to the subject matter and times of the play.
So some sixty years later how am I supposed to portray Noel Browne and his era? Well, there are many books on the subject, and contemporaries of the good doctor still living. Yet you can read and ingest information until the cows come home but in the end you must be able to state the “spine” of any play in one active sentence.
In this case, “Noel Browne brought down the Irish government because his family suffered from Tuberculosis.” In essence, he was haunted by their deaths and vowed to eradicate a blight on the nation long accepted by church and state.
There are other resources one can turn to. Images are always helpful in coming to terms with time and place. Black and white photos from 1951 can instantly place you back amongst characters in belted overcoats, felt hats, and Brylcreamed “short back and sides.” Clothes indeed make the man – not to mention the woman.
But family is your trump card when it comes to playwriting. My mother, like many women of the time, had a great affection and respect for Noel Browne despite the invective hurled at him by political, religious and medical establishments.
He was handsome, of course, despite his own battles with tuberculosis, and a courtly man with impeccable manners. But their loyalty to him ran much deeper – he cared about the women of Ireland and was outraged by their second-class status in society. But most importantly, he was determined to reduce the shockingly high infant mortality rate.
There was so little money in Ireland back then; some of my more senior immigrant readers will knowingly nod their heads when recalling just how hard it was for small farmers to eke out a subsistence living. How fathers held on to farms to the bitter end reducing older sons to poverty while younger brothers and their sisters were forced to emigrate.
Such was the case with my own father, working long hours for my grandfather, a cattle dealer – never sure just how much he’d be doled out at the end of the week.
Noel Browne must have seemed like a savior to my mother. His Mother and Child Scheme promised free maternity care for all mothers and free healthcare for all children up to the age of sixteen, regardless of income.
It was not to be – the church and medical profession resented Browne’s encroachment on their territory; they opposed the scheme, it was withdrawn and Noel Browne resigned.
The books I’ve read on the subject are valuable in providing the facts of the matter; but the pictures of the protagonists in their belted coats or ecclesiastical finery, combined with the memory of a woman whose life could have been made so much easier, sustain me every day I face a blank page.
You do have your own play within you and similar resources to bring it to life. Get started now. You have all sorts of memories lying dormant and colorful characters only awaiting the call to strut across your stage.