Theatre Review: The New Electric Ballroom
“Branded, marked and scarred by talk. Boxed by words.” This is the fate of the characters of Enda Walsh’s drama. Three sisters live isolated within their house, the elder two telling and retelling the story of their humiliation at The New Electric Ballroom, many years ago. In this way, it seems much like Endgame, as the lonely monotonous existence of the characters is punctuated and enlivened by their recital of past pleasures and regrets. The youngest of the three, Ada, seems at first to be the jailer of the other two, marshalling their recitals, dressing them in the faded finery of their dancing days and urging them on when they falter at the painful moments, or linger too long in their brief pleasures. But it becomes clear that she too is trapped by the story, even though she has no place within it.
The story they tell is of The New Electric Ballroom, a local nightclub on a night where a touring show-band returns, having left them both, as young adults, with the promise of romance, an escape from the petty dreariness and tawdry sexual opportunities of their small fishing village. The romantic exoticism invested within the show-band exemplifies the painful boredom and petty existence the sisters face as they move into adulthood, and they load the leers of the leading singer with all the weight of their lives’ ambitions. The touring show-band brings the tantalizing prospect of a different life through rock-and-roll music, swinging hips and shiny suits. Billy Fury’s ‘Wondrous Place’ drifts dream-like from a stereo during these stories, and the music seems to express the story’s conclusion aptly; the promise of escape that had drawn the sisters to the dancehall becomes poisoned, forcing them to flee their public ridicule and entomb themselves within their own house and their own stories, never venturing out into the outside world.
Review continues after the digital jump…
That this outside world exists at all is only apparent in the occasional deliveries of Patsy, the fishmonger, who disrupts the rituals with clattering entrances and chatters inanely, looking desperately for some sort of company. The social forces of small-town gossip that are claimed to have pushed the sisters into seclusion are nowhere to be seen; they are referenced, but not visible. Indeed, the seclusion in which the women live is shown as being constructed through their own ritualised recitations of past regrets. This is a constant tendency within the play, the retrospective story of the tragic night at the New Electric Ballroom takes on narrative dominance, shaping not only the lives of the 3 sisters, but the progression of the plot itself.
The youngest of the three, having never faced the possibility of a better life must be presented with such a chance and, due to the logic of such tragedy, it must fail and, in doing so, reveal her inability to make their own life. Here, the possibility of escape does not come about through the fact of individual freedom, but from the internal logic of the story that dominates the narrative. The escape is offered to Ada in the form of Patsy who seems to offer the chance of a better life, of genuine love and companionship. This fails, as it must, but it does not do so because of Ada’s weakness, but that of Patsy; she is never presented with a choice, but with a fleeting glimpse of possibility. Moreover, the potential of Patsy to show such an escape is only created by his unwitting participation in the sad story of The New Electric Ballroom and his inability to follow through on the offer is likewise bound to this narrative logic. The story makes the people in this play, rather than vice versa.
In this way, a comparison with Beckett is interesting, for while storytelling in his work offers purely distraction and amusement in the face of the absurdity of the world, Walsh’s play reveals people and world constructed by stories. It seems a writer’s conceit, for what is fundamentally unsatisfactory about The New Electric Ballroom is this overarching dominance of narrative, even, and especially, over those who narrate. Ada’s failure to escape, and the entombment of the sisters in general, offers little social insight, for it is bound up in the logic of the story already. The characters do not fail in the exercise of freedom, since they’re not really free to begin with.
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