One of the ironies of literature is that the Stage Irishman -- a parody of the real thing -- should have been the creation of Irish writers. But Irish though they were, these writers saw themselves as broader figures. British, or in some cases, citizens of the world.
It could be said that the English comedy of manners from the Restoration to the rise of Romanticism was the creation of brilliant Irishmen, George Farquhar, William Congreve, Charles Macklin, Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The only sign of ‘Irishness’ in these writers was their affection for that comic personage - bibulous, irascible, generous, eloquent and sentimental - who came to be known as the ‘stage Irishman’.
These writers were typically educated at Protestant grammar schools and Trinity College Dublin. They gravitated to London, centre of the literary universe, and quickly became absorbed into that imperial consciousness. Swift, Steele, Burke and Sheridan were active in British politics. When Burke wrote about the miseries of Ireland it was in terms of a global responsibility that took in the French Revolution and the revolt of the American colonies. It was the duty of Augustan literature ‘with extensive view to Survey Mankind, from China to Peru’, and that perspective is reflected in the essays of Steele and the fiction and poetry of Goldsmith - though some critics have seen the withering of an Irish peasant community in his Deserted Village (1770).
Something of the same social dynamic may driven Barack Obama's portrayal of the Stage Pennsylvanian. His remarks before an upscale, California audience painted a picture of an instantly recognizable stereotype.
"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them," Obama said. "And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
The Stage Irishman was invented by some Irish writers in part to create a mythical society to which -- thankfully -- they did not belong. A pointed contrast to themselves. But the fact the stereotype was a fictional creation did not prevent it from being taken seriously. As described in the paragraph below the Stage Irishmen came to places where a real Irishman might never be seen. It would be interesting to study how much of the actual perception of Irishness was colored by fiction.
All the rage on London stages and in English music halls during the Irish Diaspora that followed the famine of the 1840s, this version of the Stage Irishman reached new heights of popularity—and new audiences, including theater-goers in Dublin and New York—in the plays of Dion Boucicault, the Anglo-Irish theater impresario, who wrote The Colleen Bawn (1860), Arrah-na-Pogue (1864), and The Shaughraun (1874)—each of which provided him a star turn as the wily, sentimental Irish peasant. Due largely to the pervasiveness of Boucicault's plays, versions of this stock character, by the early twentieth century, had become a staple of the American stage and of vaudeville across the country.
Fiction taken as fact can be dangerous. It is now nearly forgotten that in the years leading up to World War 2, Allied soldiers were told that Japanese soldiers would shoot badly because of their poor eyesight. Doubtless they believed the Japanese had buck teeth too and would have difficulty eating. Singapore's last governor, Sir Thomas Shenton, was alleged to have told the British Army, on being told that the Imperial Japanese Army had landed in Malaya, 'well, I suppose you'll (the army) shove the little men off.'" The reality was rather different. It was not until 1942 that Allied navies achieved night-fighting parity with the Japanese Navy -- and that, only through the use of radar.
So the two questions raised by Barack Obama's Stage Pennsylvanians are a) does he believe in the existence of the stereotypical reality and b) does he need to believe it? Those are two separable questions which are both interesting in their own right.
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