As a parent with young kids I don’t get to the theatre or cinema as much as I used to, so when it comes to getting my drama fix thanks be to the Baby Jee for DVD box-sets.
The current obsession in our house is Friday Night Lights, the NBC drama series about a small-town high-school football team. We’ve just finished Season 2 and even though I know there are three seasons left I’m already dreading the end.
For me FNL has finally filled the gap left by the end of The Wire. I came late to The Wire, snobbishly put off by the rave reviews, but was hooked as soon as I finally did start watching. And ever since then I've been on the lookout for another series that could deliver in the same way: a series with a detailed, three-dimensional world that you can enter and inhabit. FNL fits the bill exactly.
The two shows couldn’t be more different. The Wire’s a taut thriller, FNL a low-key family drama. The Wire's tough and uncompromising, FNL warm and tender. But they do have one crucial thing in common: a sense of place.
The Baltimore of The Wire and the Dillon, Texas of FNL are fully realised worlds, with their own infrastructure, their own idiom, their own rules. The fact that they're based on real places helps of course. The writers aren't starting from scratch, unlike say the writers of Doctor Who, who regularly have to create new alien worlds from the ground up. The worlds of The Wire and FNL are rooted in reality.
Both series have their origins in journalism. Famously, Wire creator David Simon was a crime reporter in Baltimore, co-creator Ed Burns a homicide cop. Together they wrote a factual account of the 'war on drugs' in Baltimore, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood, which then became a TV mini-series, a forerunner of The Wire. Similarly Friday Night Lights started life as a non-fiction account of lives in a small town in Texas, which became the basis first for a movie and then for FNL the series.
Of course, these roots in reality don't in and of themselves explain the success of The Wire and FNL. After all, they aren't documentaries. The lived-in reality of the worlds they create is as much the result of the imaginative investment of the writers, their command of form and tone, as anything else. But I suspect that their success - and I'm talking about creative success here of course: the shows weren't particularly big hits with their original audiences – does owe something to the long gestation period that took them from non-fiction to fiction. Their creators took the time to explore the worlds they were creating, to make them real.
The lesson for writers here is very clear. Know your place.
Storytellers were important figures in old Irish culture, the tribal custodians of culture and tradition. The training to become a storyteller - a seanchaí - was therefore rigorous and demanding. Would-be seanchaíthe had to train for seven years in conditions of great hardship and isolation. At the end of that time they would be tested. It’s said they were brought to the top of the highest peak in the district. From there, their mentor and examiner would point out one place after another - a farm, a well, a thorn tree - and the student would have to tell the story of that place, how it got its name, who lived there, what great deeds had been done there in ages past and present. If the student succeeded in telling the stories of every place pointed out - of every place that could be seen – then and only then he would have earned the right to be called a seanchaí.
This lore of places is known in Irish as ‘dinnseanchas’ and is still practiced today by many of Ireland’s contemporary seanchaithe: poets and playwrights and novelists. Think of Paul Muldoon, still writing about ‘Moy Sand and Gravel’ after years of living in America. Or Seamus Heaney’s constant return to his roots in rural Country Derry. Or Roddy Doyle and his obsessive recording of the language and landscape of contemporary Dublin.
I’ve always thought that ‘dinnseanchas’ has much in common with the contemporary practice of ‘psychogeography’, defined by its founder Guy Debord as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals’. I’d go so far as to suggest that ‘psychogeography’ is just another word for ‘dinnseanchas’: the study of the effect of places on people and people on places.
All of my plays are rooted in very specific places, none more so than This Other City, which focuses on Belfast during a time of massive change, as it emerges from the shadow of the Troubles and takes its first faltering steps into its future, as a modern city on the edge of Europe. The play looks at the relationship between the people and the place as they both go through these massive changes.
Since writing This Other City I’ve moved away from Belfast and now find myself living in a new city, in a new country. And I find myself once again looking around, trying to find my bearings, trying to learn the lore of a new place, so that I can begin to tell stories about it.
Because that, at the end of the day, is my job, the job I share with the writers of The Wire and Friday Night Lights, as we all, in our different ways, address the same problem: to try and make sense of our place in the world.
Daragh Carville is the author of This Other City. To purchase a copy click here
For other Oberon Irish plays click here: