Frank confessions: performance in the life-writings of Frank McCourt

Eaton, Margaret Mary Catherine (2016) Frank confessions: performance in the life-writings of Frank McCourt. MPhil thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This thesis focuses on the work of Frank McCourt, a writer who came to prominence in the 1990s for writing best-selling memoirs that touched upon a wider set of issues in the contemporary cultural debate: namely Ireland itself, the status of the memoir genre, and Irish-American identity. In five distinct chapters, the thesis adopts a postcolonial perspective using the theories of political performance that have been created by Victor Merriman and Joe Cleary to analyse the impact that McCourt’s life-writing and other performances have had upon global impressions of Ireland in the era of the ‘Celtic Tiger’. My thesis combines Merriman’s premise that in performance we can see the basic idea of Irish culture being resistant to modernism and, therefore, Ireland never properly decolonised with Cleary’s notion of disassociation of past and present and his concern with the social and cultural implications of Ireland’s uncritical embrace of a form of capitalist modernisation. Cleary and Merriman’s key ideas are reshaped to uncover the ways in which McCourt creates a version of ‘Irishness’ that is replete with recurrent clichés and stereotypical characters. I make the case that the performative model that McCourt adopts exposes his purpose of creating a national and cultural identity of 1930s and 1940s Ireland in which he reworks and revitalises his impoverished, traumatic childhood, revealing that the identity he expresses is a conscious performance. My analysis reveals how McCourt is engaged in a mode of life-writing that follows his journey from boyhood to manhood in a manner that mirrors the parallel process of Ireland’s journey into independence and economic prosperity when Ireland and ‘Irishness’ became desirable commodities. Throughout, I argue that McCourt utilises performance to market Irish identity successfully to a mass readership since his writing reinforces the connection between his life experience and the narrative of the nation. In turn, the thesis uncovers how McCourt appeals to his Irish and American audiences simultaneously by making use of the dual nationality and fluid identity that being Irish-American affords him, whereby he condemns conditions in Éamon de Valera’s Ireland at the same time that he exhibits a sense of nostalgia for the past. In McCourt’s writing we can recognise many tropes appropriated from films, songs, other memoirs and melodramatic themes, thus providing a meta-textual ‘framework’ by which McCourt’s experiences are organised and given meaning for an audience to understand. As a consequence, each chapter verifies that his deployment of cultural memory and performances of identity function, when ‘read’, to either deconstruct or cement essentialist notions of nationality or ethnicity.

In the first chapter, ‘Angela’s Ashes in Performance’, I use Merriman’s idea that theatre and society have the potential to interact and become a space of social transformation and utopian thought, to emphasise the overlooked performative dynamic of McCourt’s best-known text, the memoir Angela’s Ashes. The thesis begins from this structuring principle to prove that a reworking of Angela’s Ashes for performance makes visible the mediation and presentation of ‘Irishness' in the re-written text, and how this forges a relation between the past of the narrative and the present of the performance. The first part of this chapter highlights the little-known musical adaptation of Angela’s Ashes that was staged at Derby Theatre in November 2012. I make the case that this production was strikingly political, and made great efforts to speak to the situation of the Irish diaspora in Derby and to draw attention to the contemporary alienation caused by poverty in that city. The second half of this chapter scrutinises the contrasting example of Alan Parker’s film version of Angela’s Ashes, which was realised by Paramount Pictures in 1999. I argue that, in contrast with the Derby adaptation, the Parker film evaded any localising particularities that might enable a political critique of any particular nation or governmental regime to be constructed. The chapter shows that a process of construction and mediation is identifiable in the theatre text in order to appeal to particular audiences. Overall, then, McCourt is revealed to be a writer who relied upon the playhouse when creating his own memoirs, and whose writing is itself appropriate for re-adaptation back into the realm of the theatrical. Each of the chapters that follow shows the work of construction and mediation in McCourt own texts, demonstrating how ideas about re-presentation and rewriting inform the thesis.

The second chapter, ‘I’d Love To Be Irish When It’s Time for a Song’, asesses how and why McCourt’s work displays an extraordinary strong musical influence and how music intervenes when McCourt uses personal memory to return to past events. I argue that music becomes an index of McCourt’s relationship to assorted collectives such as family, community and state, providing him with a means of activating his memory in order to develop the autobiographical nature of the narrative through allusion and reference.

The third chapter, ‘Are ye Gangsters or Cowboys? […] Fred Astaire How Are You?’ reveals how McCourt uses ‘fantasy’ figures from the cinema, particularly the matinee heroes John Wayne, James Cagney and Fred Astaire. The Western hero, the ‘hoodlum’ and the dancer are shown to provide a cultural framework for McCourt when he comes to describe and explore the vexed issue of Irish-American masculinities.

The two-fold focus of the fourth chapter, ‘Melodramatic Moments’, argues that McCourt’s writing owes a debt to his literary predecessors Dion Boucicault and Seán O’Casey. I make the case that McCourt knew the work of these writers in both textual and performed contexts, and that he relied upon such melodramatic tropes in his own presentation of self, both on the page and in person.

The fifth chapter, ‘Frank McCourt’s Performance of Irishness: Joycean and Other Legacies’ broadens out beyond the four walls of the playhouse to analyse how McCourt may be relying on a set of paradigms from Ireland’s best known writer, James Joyce. As I will show, this is not simply a case of McCourt emulating Joyce’s own writings – which of course he does – but also a question of how McCourt navigates a set of expectations about how a post-Joycean Irish writer ought to perform.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (MPhil)
Supervisors: Moran, J.
Sanders, J.
Keywords: Frank McCourt, Ireland, Memoir, Irish-American Identity
Subjects: P Language and literature > PS American literature
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of English
Item ID: 32917
Depositing User: Eaton, Margaret
Date Deposited: 12 Jul 2016 06:40
Last Modified: 14 Oct 2017 08:50

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