Dave Duggan Publishes Verse Drama Denizen

Derry writer's ambitious new work is a written response to the dissident philosophy from a citizen’s perspective

Denizen. It’s a great word, a word that resonates, a word with late Latin roots: de meaning from, intus meaning within. It translates as 'citizen', its ancient provenance entirely apt as the title of a challenging new verse drama by Derry~Londonderry novelist and dramatist Dave Duggan.

Duggan’s work for stage, page and screen has long been heavily influenced by a combination of Irish and classical literary traditions. In a deft alliterative touch, the denizen here in question is a dissident, who stands accused of serious crimes in a court of public opinion, there to plead his own case.

The protagonist recounts his life and actions and interrogates himself about what might come next. He sets out on what Duggan describes as 'a purposeful inquiry', exploring and teeing up various possibilities for the creation of a new story.

'The play is a courtroom drama,' says Duggan, still arguably best known for his Oscar-nominated short film Dance, Lexie, Dance. 'Felony is what Denizen has been, and is, about. It's the core of his activity. He knows that.

'He knows he is guilty and acknowledges that to himself and to us. His argument or justification rests in his desire for regime change, as the militant actions of states the world over rest in a desire for regime change. Thus, if he is not exactly Everyman, he is certainly everywhere. And human.'

Duggan is never without a project on his agenda and is frequently to be found juggling several at a time. He compares the writing of this complex, thought-provoking piece to the construction of a mosaic, but does not deny that there were moments of doubt and hesitation as he tried to piece it all together.

'I had a notebook filled with numbers and notes and pages with no numbers at all. Sometimes, they would match up, sometimes they didn’t. Little by little, the thing started to take shape, until I got a bit of a run going.

'The engine which drives it, together with Denizen’s speech from the dock, is a chorus of prison guards, who challenge and question him and attempt to draw out the truth. Their contribution represents a cross-examination and is the articulation of what ordinary citizens would be saying or, more likely, thinking, as they may be afraid to speak out themselves.'

As a verse drama, the work is inevitably has classical influences, both in content and form. 'It takes up the ancient tradition of the demos, the public space,' Duggan explains, 'where a man is brought before the state and the citizenry to explain himself. On one level lies the dramatic narrative and on the other the verse itself.'

Duggan is not best known for his poetic works, nor for doing things by half. Though he does not consider himself a poet, he is satisfied with the end result of one of his most ambitious projects to date.

'This is a full scale, one-hour piece, written in a formal poetic style, with iambic pentameters and other classic verse forms. One of the interesting things that I am going to experience is the response to it of poets. Some of my work is in this genre, but apart from small pieces of poetry, I don’t consider myself a poet.

'If you think of some of the finest exponents of verse drama – TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, for example, or some of Damian Gorman’s plays – the writers are already successful lyric poets. So, yes, it was a daunting prospect but ultimately a pleasure to do.'

One wonders whether the concept came to him in a sudden flash of brilliance, or if it was more of a long, slow burn? Duggan laughingly answers that it was a bit of both, but turns deadly serious once he starts to discuss the impetus which gave Denizen its birth.

'The matter of violence in the world has been with me always, whether through guns and bombs or oppression and poverty,' he says. 'There are many ways in which violence manifests itself, all equally heinous. But there is a thing about art that is singular and specific.

'In real life, we can make generalisations on an issue while art can focus right in on it. Difficult subjects, forbidden territory, can be approached under the cover of art. George Bernard Shaw said that theatre is our most public art. This is my own artistic response to a sensitive subject, which exists right here in our midst.

'In conversation, dissidents are portrayed as things from the past, useless, monstrous creatures – all pejorative terms. In an artistic sense, the dissident here sounds very cogent, especially as his words are written in verse. Anything that can be imagined can happen in the world. In the case of Denizen, he puts the gun down.'

An artist interested in universal themes, it is not surprising that Duggan's work has traveled and been translated for audiences in other countries. 'Even in the most difficult of circumstances, people are trying to make artistic work,' he says. 'I had a play performed in Afghanistan in 2008/09. I didn’t see it myself, but thousands of people did. So in the middle of warring activities, people were making theatre and going to see plays.

'That’s the effect of theatrical imagination on matters of human interest in times of crisis. There’s no doubt that in places like Syria and countries in Africa, where terrible strife and conflict are being experienced, artists are, at this moment, making work.'

Denizen focuses in on one person and, unusually, is told from the point of view, not of the victim or survivor, but of the perpetrator. Duggan does not balk from venturing into dark corners and sickening deeds; he pulls no punches in portraying his central character as the bad man that he is, a chillingly threatening character. Denizen has done terrible things during his life and he does not deny it.

But, in turn, the writer does not shrink from exposing his humanity. The cover and publicity poster for the book highlights one of the most piquant lines from the whole piece: 'I am the pariah part of yourself.' It is worth quoting the section from which it comes, as a fine example of accessible language and imagery combined with strict poetic discipline.

Before you stands a local, wanted man.
But not by you. Not wanted. Feared? Abhorred?
As dog turds on a peace bridge are abhorred.
Avoided. 'Yuk'. Walked round. Scraped off your shoe.
Do not bring me into your cosy home.
I am the pariah part of yourself.
Not all of you. Say you are not Irish.
Say you call me a felon, as I am.
Felony is the kernel of my plan.

'Denizen is a pariah, we hate him, but if we scrape the surface we will find a little bit of him in all of us,' suggests Duggan. 'This examination of his actions and motives take us into places that none of us wants to go. In real terms, we have a police force and army who go there on our behalf, and good luck to them. But the dissidents are not aliens from another planet. They are right here amongst us. They are my neighbours.

'They live in streets not far from where I live. This adds another dimension. While most of us will not support the specific actions of this individual, there is no question that the positions he takes are widely held across Ireland and the world. You could say that there is a danger in the play of humanising him, but that’s exactly what he is – a human being, just like us.'

With Prime Cut’s Chilean Trilogy currently running in The MAC and Owen McCafferty’s Quietly all offering uncompromising examinations of post-conflict situations that are at once individual and universal, Denizen joins, with similar power and insight, the current theatrical zeitgeist. Duggan considers this emerging theme.

'Terrorism has a huge history here in Ireland, where, over a period of time, terrorists have become our leaders,' ventures Duggan. 'The Republic of Ireland is run by people who take their influence back to a revolution. There is a currently a bit of a run on dissident violence.

'And, of course, we are all well acquainted with institutional violence. There are wars all over the place. If a problem arises, then bomb it. All kinds of excuses are found – they are bad people, yer man’s a tyrant. The arguments and justifications go on and on. Meanwhile, countless people get blown to bits.'

Duggan does not profess to have all or any answers, but hopes that his new work will add to the debate and to our understanding of Ireland as the 21st century progresses.

'The debate is open-ended, it doesn’t offer any answers. It involves everybody, you, me, politicians, church leaders, security forces. The intention of Denizen is to contribute to a consideration of an oppressive public issue in such a way as to advance the cause of peace and non-violence.

'I would hope that people will be heartened by the public articulation of arguments and ideas that might lead to dissidents putting down the gun. Denizen represents a considered written response to the dissident philosophy from a citizen’s perspective, it enables us to get a wee look at it.'

Denizen is out now, published by Guildhall Press. Produced by Creggan Enterprises Limited, in association with The Hive Studio, starring Diarmuid de Faoite, Denizen previews in Ráth Mór Centre, Creggan, Derry from March 30 – 31, then moving to the Derry Court House, Bishop Street, Derry Londonderry, from April 5 – 7. Tickets will be available for the above performances via the Millennium Forum website in the days ahead.