Frank McGuinness on Writing The Factory Girls

One of Ireland's leading playwrights recalls how his inspirational mother informed his play The Factory Girls

The next time you watch a performance in a theatre, listen slowly to what the actor is saying. Then take a moment to think about how long each one of those words may have taken to craft. For Frank McGuinness, the process of completing a work of drama varies with every project he works on.

'I brood for a long time,' explains the Buncrana-born playwright, now aged 59. 'There is no telling how long a play may take me to write. Some take three weeks, others take ten years. The only thing I can say is that three weeks is too short, and ten years is too long.'

It’s 10am, and we are sitting in a hotel in Covent Garden, drinking tea. McGuinness is in London to make an appearance at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, for the press screening of his latest play, The Matchbox.

Back home in Northern Ireland, a McGuinness classic, The Factory Girls, is currently touring, having received positive reviews when it ran at the City Factory on Patrick Street, Derry~Londonderry, in a site-specific production as part of the UK City of Culture celebrations.

First performed in 1982, The Factory Girls tells the story of five working class female factory workers (and a few of their male counterparts) who face redundancy at a time when the industry is dying a death, and decide to stage a lock-in at their Donegal workplace.

This realistic tale of the gritty factory life, which is filled with humour, charm and pathos, was highly influenced by McGuinness’ mother, who died 16-years ago. It was her powerful personality, McGuinness explains, which led him to begin writing the play that kick-started his career in the theatre.

'My mother was a very funny person and had a very powerful sense of humour,' McGuiness recalls. 'In cultural terms, that was probably her biggest influence on me. She taught me to always see the potential for the subversive. She was also a very hard working woman. She left school when she was 14, and went into a shirt factory.

'She really put an awful lot of skill and imagination into her work. So that was certainly a gift that she gave me. The courage and strength she showed is very much reflected in the women who I admire and wrote about in The Factory Girls.'

The Factory Girls

 

McGuiness's latest work, The Matchbox, is a monologue which tells the story of a young single mother, Sal, from Liverpool who contemplates the murder of her 12-year-old daughter. The Times has described the play as 'so brutally powerful it knocks the breath from your body'. I ask McGuinness why anxiety and violence seem to pervade so much of his work.

'Well, inevitably if you are writing for theatre, you are writing about conflict and war all the time,' he answers. 'So it’s always going to be a violent medium, where things happen, and where people alter how they feel about themselves. There is always going to be that terrible shock involved in theatre.

'These shocks can manifest themselves in very subtle and strange ways. Chekhov is the master of that – you think that nothing is happening, but in fact, there are gigantic forces operating that are going to transform people’s lives enormously.'

In The Matchbox, the pressures of living as a single mother impede upon Sal. In The Factory Girls, the forces of economic change hamper the workforce's struggle for justice and equality. And in McGuinness's 1985 play, the seminal Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, the forces of nationalism transform an entire continent.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme describes the fate of eight men from the 36th Ulster Division who fought on July 1, 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. It is told through the recollections of the sole survivor, a gay, upper class Protestant named Pyper.

First produced in Dublin in 1985, at the height of the Troubles, the play then took on a life of its own when it was performed in Belfast. McGuinness, who hails from a staunchly Republican background in County Donegal, has previously stated that in writing the play, he wanted to confront his 'own bigotry'.

He now confesses that he felt extremely uncomfortable with how critics portrayed him at the time as a result of the play – as a political playwright attempting to use art as a means of building bridges across the sectarian divide.

'I did feel that an awful lot of the conventional writing on the play actually missed the point about it as a piece of theater,' says McGuinness. 'I began to be looked at as some kind of "guide" as to how Catholics and Protestants could get on. I didn’t like being seen as ambassador of good woe. That’s not what I’m about. Nor is it what the play is about.

'I was too young at the time to stand up and say "stop this". What the play is really about is terror, and the horror of the First World War. It’s about deep acceptance of other human beings, and it’s also about examining your own culture and seeing what it’s doing to you.'

Now considered a heavyweight of Irish theatre, McGuinness admits that he came to writing plays relatively late in life. As a young adult, he made his living lecturing in English at the University of Ulster in Coleraine. Then, at 27-years-old, his fate was sealed in becoming a full-time writer when he decided take a trip to the west of Ireland.

'I went to a workshop in Galway that the Arts Council put on in 1980, and I wrote a play,' he recalls. 'My life could have gone in a whole variety of directions. When I look back at those events, I didn’t actually know it, but I was making these decisions myself. I was going down the road I wanted to go down. That is the way I always feel about it anyway.'

Such were the forces that shaped the young playwright's life – positive forces directing him towards a life in the arts. If McGuinness hadn’t made that journey westward, perhaps he would still be a repressed writer, lecturing to a classroom of aspiring authors, poets and playwrights, rather than inspiring them with his many acclaimed works.

As it is, McGuiness now inspires us all – perhaps to re-evaluate our lives, perhaps to consider subjects and issues that we might otherwise have ignored, but certainly to appreciate the talent of skill of one of Ireland's greatest living playwrights.

The Factory Girls runs at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh from May 24 – 25. The Matchbox runs in the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn until June 1.