Book Review: The Brother, By Flann O’Brien

On June 16, 1954, Flann O'Brien 'invented' Bloomsday with a round in honour of James Joyce's Ulysses; here Dublin on stage

TVR Books | Brigitte Petrisch | July / August 2011

The Life and Opinions Of ‘The Brother’

The Brother haunts Dublin’s pubs: he has an opinion on everything, from French art to the danger of eggs, doctors or whiskey. The Brother also does everything himself, operating on his friend’s kidneys or his own nose.

But while his presence looms over Dublin’s pub conversations, he never actually appears. His exploits are instead extolled by his brother, a jovial but garrulous working-class man and staple of Dublin life, whose simplicity and diverting narration becomes increasingly absorbing to his companion. Not that the other is being offered a choice: the well-educated man has just finished his omelette and is proceeding to enjoy The Irish Times with a dram of whiskey, when he is inundated with tall tales of The Brother.

The Brother, a two-man-show adapted and performed by Gerry Smyth and David Llewellyn, takes its inspiration from Brian O’Nolan’s weekly newspaper column "Cruiskeen Lawn". Its author, who is better known under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien, published it in The Irish Times under yet another pseudonym, Myles na gCopaleen.

First written in Gaelic but then slowly drifting into English, the column appeared almost every day from 1940 until the writer’s death in 1966. Alongside the role of The Brother, it featured popular characters such as ‘Keats’ and ‘Chapman,’ the ‘Plain People of Ireland’ and Myles’ so-called Dublin bores: ‘The Man Who Buys Wholesale,’ ‘The Man Who Does his own Carpentry and Talks About It’ or ‘The Man Who Spoke Irish at a Time When It was Neither Profitable nor Popular’. The episodes revolving around The Brother are set at a bus stop and consist exclusively of the dialogues between the two men waiting for their respective conveyances – the ‘Dublin’ local trapping his upper-class listener with one or another extraordinary story from his eccentric family.

These stories were first adapted for stage by Eamonn Morrissey as a one-man show in 1974. But with 2011 marking Brian O’Nolan’s hundredth birthday, actors Gerry Smyth and David Llewellyn and producer Andrew Sherlock have staged a new adaptation; that will be performed again in July as part of the so-called ‘Fringe Flann’ which accompanies the 100 Myles: The International Flann O’Brien Centenary Conference taking place in Vienna from Jul. 24-27.

Similarly to Eamonn Morrissey production, they selected a number of episodes involving ‘The Brother,’ including also the celebrated ‘pome’, "A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man" from Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds, transferring the action into a pub, but retained the episodes’ original dialogue. Well conceived, the adaptation lacked the biting satire that characterized Myles’ column. Instead of disparaging stock Irish vices and character types, this new adaptation seems to celebrate ‘Irishness’ rather than to make fun of it, sentimentalizing what was originally satire. But perhaps this was necessary to cross the culture barrier, to make the work accessible to a Viennese audience.

Judging from the skill and liveliness of the performance, however, it is surprising to learn that both Gerry Smyth and David Llewellyn’s careers go well beyond the footlights. Smyth has earned academic accolades for his publications on Irish cultural history and has a successful musical career under the name Gerry McGowan. Llewellyn is also a playwright and has an academic career as a scholar of Ethno-Drama. Both actors work currently at Liverpool’s John Moore University – Smyth reading cultural history at the English Department and Llewellyn as Head of the Drama Department.

Performing in their own adaptation, they easily infuse Myles’ characters with new life: Gerry Smyth engagingly embodies the jovial and simple-minded working class man, speaking a light-hearted Dublin slang and emptying one pint after the other. As he delivers and acts out the most far-fetched tales with absolute conviction, he intrigues his listener and endears himself to the audience.

Llewellyn convincingly transforms the educated man’s initial disinterest into genuine absorption, becoming a worthy partner in the dialogue. While he first responds to the tales with condescending disbelief, he ends up utterly spellbound: not only does he mistake fiction for reality, he even starts acting the tales out himself.  When the ‘Dublin’ character reminisces about once considering murdering a man reading a newspaper in a pub, his listener genuinely fears for his life.

The boundaries between fiction and reality are not only blurred within the fictional world of the play itself. With Charlie P’s Irish Pub on Währinger Straße as the locale, script and setting are perfectly blended to recreate the unique atmosphere of Brian O’Nolan’s Dublin. And while stage and audience remain clearly separated, the latter find themselves in the same position as Llewellyn’s disbelieving but captivated listener: in amused incredulity, one cannot help but be riveted by the Dublin man’s tales and anecdotes.

When Smyth intones the refrain "A Pint of Plain is your only Man" for the third time, they just manage to resist the temptation to join in. Not that anyone would have objected: producer Andrew Sherlock announced in his opening speech that the play would take one hour if the audience laughed, and twelve minutes if they did not.

Needless to say, they play lasted the full sixty minutes, with everybody contributing in their own manner. The Brother the convincing performances and engaging humor, along with the nice little extras of Irish music and real-life pub setting – all worked together to win over the audience in a heartfelt experience and presented the perfect ambience to celebrate both Flann O’Brien and Bloomsday.


The Brother

By Flann O’Brien

Jul. 24, 20:00

Charlie P’s Irish Pub

9., Währinger Straße 3

+43 (0)1 4097923 (pub)

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    the vienna review July / August 2011