Sebastian Barry has done an incredible thing with The Steward of Christendom. He has taken the skeleton out of his family’s closet, given it muscle and a voice and created the most moving, beautiful play out of a man who was mythologised as a monster.
Barry’s great-grandfather was a Catholic, rising high in the (Protestant) Dublin Metropolitan Police. He was also the man who ordered the charge against protesting trade unionists: killing four men in the process. The shame his family felt over his history was such that Barry did not even know his great-grandfather’s first name.
All he had was a historical event and a few shreds of stories. From these insignificant beginnings, The Steward of Christendom was born. (I’ve categorised this play as biographical, even though that is stretching the term. It is a work of fiction, based on some historical facts and an almost forgotten family member.)
Thomas Dunne is old. He has been consigned to a mental asylum where past and present merge for him. He is visited by his memories of his children when they were younger and by the only daughter to still see him, Annie. He also has the sometimes brutal ministrations of the hospital staff to enliven his days.
In one of his memories of the past, his daughter Annie asks him why she has a hunched back and whether she will ever find a husband.
ANNIE: I see the prams going by in Stephen’s Green, glistening big prams, and I look in when the nannies are polite, and I look in, and I see the babies, with their round faces, and their smells of milk and clean linen, and their heat, and Papa –
THOMAS: Yes, child?
ANNIE: They all look like my babies.
The play needs an exceptional older actor for the role of Thomas. He has many beautiful soliloquies and is on stage throughout the two acts. It’s a terribly sad but beautiful piece: the sort that stays with you and lodges in your heart. So many crimes have been committed by people who were ‘just following orders’ or doing what they thought they should in times of turmoil. Look inside any monster and you’ll find a lonely human being.
THOMAS: And I would call that the mercy of fathers, when the love that lies in them deeply like the glittering face of a well is betrayed by an emergency, and the child sees at last that he is loved, loved and needed and not to be lived without, and greatly.
Publisher: Methuen Drama
Cast: 4M, 4F