Lislea Dramatic Players captured the imagination

Hugh A Murphy saw familiar faces turned into stars at the annual play

The only cultural event in Lislea during my early years was the annual play staged by Lislea Dramatic Players.

This was an occasion much anticipated by us, and one that always gave rise to a great deal of discussion. All we would have would be the name of the play – The Playboy of the Western World, Mungo’s Mansion, The Plough and the Stars, Riders to the Sea etc – but that was sufficient to whet our appetite.

In the weeks coming up to the production, many hours would be spent debating what might be the theme of the play.  As the weeks turned to days, the level of excitement grew, until eventually the great night arrived.

It is difficult to describe the feeling as we at last headed down the road in the dark , towards Lislea Hall, with the entrance money clutched in our hand.  The Hall was a tin structure situated along the main road just below the chapel. The level of anticipation was second only to the magic of Christmas night , when the waiting was at last over and the great man himself was about to arrive.

As I entered the hall I was always struck immediately by the special aroma associated with the place, a smell of antiquity, warmth, mystique. Wooden foldaway chairs were laid out in two wide rows the full length of the hall, with a passageway left in the centre and along both sides. This added to the sense of size, which to us seemed enormous.

Along both walls were rows of oil lamps turned up full, which made the hall quite bright and caused the waxed floor between the chairs to glisten. Along the front of the stage were the footlights, again a row of oil lamps, which were concealed on the audience side by a wooden V-shaped canopy, the inside of which was backed with tin to throw the light outwards onto the stage.

At the front of the hall closest to the stage were two rows of forms for the young people. It was on these that we sat, with a direct, unimpeded view of the stage.

From behind the curtain, strange noises would always be emanating, the sound of sawing, hammering, and objects being dragged across the stage, as the seats in the hall gradually filled up. These noises added to the sense of mystery and it was all that we could do to resist moving across the short distance from the forms and peep behind the curtain. However, we knew that such an act was completely taboo in Lislea hall and that the penalty would be instant death!

Eventually the noises would begin to die down until they gradually ceased. By this time the hall would be filled to capacity. This was an event in Lislea that no one ever missed, including a number from outside.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the great moment would arrive. The producer, Terry O’Hanlon, would put his head out through the curtain – only his head – with the curtain held tightly beneath his chin less anyone might get even a glimpse of what lay beyond, and announce the magic words:

‘Would Mickey O’Neill put out the lights, please.’

Mickey O’Neill would duly get up with a small stool in his hand and proceed from the top right hand corner of the hall to extinguish the lights one by one. As he moved on his excruciatingly slow course around the hall an eclipsing darkness followed him and the sense of mystery, excitement, and anticipation closed in ever tighter.

Eventually the hall would be in total darkness, the only lights left being the footlights, casting a shimmering glow on the curtains. Gradually these would begin to move slowly sideways, revealing piece by piece the magical world that lay beyond.

We always identified completely with the characters in the play and with the evolving plot. For me it became completely real and the actors assumed the status of heroic figures. Although these were people whom I knew well, and many of whom I saw daily, they were transformed completely on stage as I was drawn deeper and deeper into the plot.

It might be 20 minutes into the play before I realised that the old man sitting in the corner was Pat Hannaway, or that the unkempt beggar was Francis McParland, my own uncle, and that the angry man with the stick was Brian McCann.

The sorrow of Pegeen Mike as the image of her heroic playboy disintegrates before her eyes, or Captain Boyle and Joxer sitting on an empty stage gazing at the stars, or the tragedy of the corpse carried in from the sea wrapped in a tarpaulin and laid out on the table were real, living events.

The thing that fascinated me most was the magic of the words, the way they could create and define the characters and weave the story, with joy, sorrow, love, or tragedy emanating from them. The thought of one day being able to send words dancing across a stage, or lilting down a page, filled me with awe and longing.

When the play was over, I always felt a sense of anticlimax when the actors moved out from behind the stage to mingle with the audience. It seemed much too soon for them to come back to the blood and flesh of reality. I would have much preferred for them to remain in the world which they had created for us.

However, they were raised in my esteem, and would be for many weeks. They were the sowers of deep-planted seed, the heroes of the hour, and the heroes of my days.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation