- Play title: Boys and Girls
- Author: Dylan Coburn Gray
- First performed: 2013
- Page count: 43
Boys and Girls is a theatre piece in verse by Dublin playwright, Dylan Coburn Gray. There are just four characters who are economically named A, B, C, and D. They speak in separate monologues, but their stories are united by their quests for fun, alcohol, sex, and satisfaction during one singular night in the city. A and B are starkly opposite young men, one is dominant, brash, and lustful while the other is soft spoken, timid, and conscientious. D is a young woman already in a steady relationship with a boring, even if adoring boyfriend, while C is a loud-mouth ladette who endeavours to reclaim the controversial c-word. This work is a snapshot of youth culture in Ireland’s booze-drenched capital city circa 2013 with all the appropriate slang, curse words, and some cultural references to boot. Coburn Gray’s writing is clever, sexually explicit, engaging, crass, energetic, and it rhymes too. Themes addressed in the work include seduction, self-expression, misogyny, drink and drug culture, and young adulthood.
Ways to access the text: reading
It is possible to purchase this play and others by Coburn Gray on the Nick Hern Books website. Alternatively, one may access the playscript for free via Perlego or Scribd (both offer free trials).
Please note that while the text is reader-friendly, it is written in ‘Dublinese’ aka the dialect of Dubliners so some vocabulary may be unfamiliar, but it can often be guessed from the context.
Why read Boys and Girls?
A slice of night life.
The play encapsulates all the energy and madness of a young person’s night out. There is the quick witted, macho guy; the sensitive, naïve lad; the girl who’s already in a relationship; and the girl who is painting the town red just like one of the boys. Each character tells their own individual story about their pals, crushes, lovers, and how the night ends. The theme of the play may be summed up in Daft Punk’s 2013 hit, “Get Lucky.”
“She’s up all night ’til the sun
I’m up all night to get some
She’s up all night for good fun
I’m up all night to get lucky”
Post reading discussion/interpretation.
“Dublin by Strobe Light and Black Light!”
Dylan Coburn Gray took the unusual decision of writing Boys and Girls in verse. Maybe not so unusual when one takes into account that he is a spoken word artist as well as a writer. There is a YouTube video of D.C.G. (his initials) performing a piece named “If I Were a Dog” that ponders the concept of now, the current moment, in objective and subjective terms. One will find the same trademark, assured style of monologue in Boys and Girls. The attraction of the play is not pinpointable to one single thing but is the combination of tongue-in-cheek coolness, modernity, intellect, and a touch of crudeness. The message is cleverly packaged so that it will appeal to a young audience, a contemporary audience of the writer’s peer group. Spoken word artists have a particular skill with the presentation of narrative so that an audience may be easily hooked and thus engaged in the topic at hand. Boys and Girls is a testament to this skill, but it remains a play that one may nevertheless discard as frivolous or obscene. D.C.G. arguably just prettifies modern, youth culture through clever verse which only mirrors rather than seeks to critique the status quo. This does not mean that the work is without merit, far from it, because highlighting a historical moment, even one as recent as 2013, reveals a certain stubborn inflexibility in social attitudes when viewed retrospectively. This essay will delve into what D.C.G.’s play reveals by focusing on the effect of the work and the conundrums it raises. Nested within this modern play is something quite old and familiar.
D.C.G. studied music at Trinity College Dublin, and this may have been a key motivation for his choice of verse over prose for his play, combined with his experience of spoken word. It is worth acknowledging that reading Boys and Girls is a deprivation of sorts since, as Cecilia J. Allen writes, “if you have truly heard, even once, you know there has been a dimension lacking in the dramatic poetry which only your eye has perused” (556). This valid point raises an associated problem, namely that Boys and Girls is not the formal verse of Shakespearean plays which Allen has in mind. Instead, the play is presented in informal, modern verse. Yet, D.C.G. as a spoken word artist brings ‘positive baggage’ with him when he enters the realm of theatre since informality has value too. Scott Woods, writing about poetry slams, seems to sum up the transformational potential of modern poetry – “Poetry slams are a device, a trick to convince people that poetry is cooler than they have been led to believe by wearisome English classes and dusty anthologies” (18). Boys and Girls similarly sells verse to the masses precisely because it is made accessible and engaging. In 1980, William G. McCollom wrote that, “The declining visibility of verse drama in this century raises the question whether the verse medium can again attract large numbers of playgoers” (99). Modern plays show how this may be achieved through diversification and adaptation. Woods makes a point about poetry slams that is equally relevant to the theatre world, but which bears repeating – “art belongs to people and not institutions or fashion-makers” (19). Understanding how D.C.G. hooks his audience, via poetic sounds that are informal enough to avoid alienation yet formal enough to earn admiration, is inextricably linked to the work’s message. The play speaks in a familiar, common language that flatteringly mirrors modern society rather than negatively distorting it or puritanically correcting the scene.
As D.C.G. is a spoken word artist too, it is worth mining the links to theatre for significance. Susan Somers-Willett, explains that in slam poetry, being perceived as ‘authentic’ is evaluated as a mark of success. She writes that, “If a slam poet performs, for example, a poem about being a black male, those who judge that poem on the criterion of authenticity must compare that identity with other expressions of black masculinity” (Somers-Willett 56). D.C.G. achieves authenticity in Boys and Girls by credibly ventriloquizing the voices of a young generation, paying particular attention to their vocabulary, attitudes, and motivations. In the 2019 edition of the play published by Nick Hern books, D.C.G. wrote that he aimed for “stylish sincerity” (4) in Boys and Girls. He admits that he would not write the play in the same way now, given the sometimes-sexist voices of the male characters and the fact that specific cultural references were obsolete almost as soon as ink was committed to paper. Yet these ‘obstacles’ were intrinsic to the authenticity of the piece since the playwright aimed for a depiction as close to real life as was possible. Indeed, the comparisons between D.C.G.’s work and slam poetry go much further. D.C.G. wrote the four monologues in the very style of slam poetry, it is just that the performance takes place in a theatre instead of a competitive environment.
Take for example, the staging mechanics of D.C.G.’s play where each character faces the audience when divulging their inner thoughts so that there is consequently no interaction with the other players. Somers-Willett analyses the effect of this when used in slam poetry, as follows.
“Because most slam poems engage a first-person, narrative mode which encourages a live audience to perceive the performance as a confessional moment, one of the most defining characteristics of slam poetry is a poet’s performance of identity and identity politics.”(Somers-Willett 52)
D.C.G.’s warts-and-all portrayal of four young people requires the monologues to be somewhat confessional. Since A, B, C, and D are apparently homogenous i.e., white, Irish, and heterosexual, then the identity politics is primarily about youth identity, and this is defined by drinking, drugs, and sexual exploration. In short, youth identity is about the exercise of freedom. For a young audience, these characters are immediately relatable.
Elements of slam poetry are brought to the stage by D.C.G., but does this wholly justify the verse form he utilizes? In an essay by William G. McCollom in which he analyses different examples of verse drama, he comments that, “slangy realism arranged iambically does not constitute poetry” (107). What then should one think of D.C.G.’s humorous line about a young man watching porn when he reads an online advert for a penis extension – “a pop-up offers a top-up on my penis” (10). The line has the distinctive iambic rhythm of stressed syllables followed by unstressed syllables but is it just a derivative art form? In a bygone era, McCollom argued that verse drama was superior to prose drama because, “Visions of human reality that are at once vivid, profound, and comprehensive are poetic visions or, what is more to the point, are poetry” (100). Beyond the possible goal of popularizing poetry (with a small p) for a contemporary audience, does D.C.G. actually need poetry in his play or would prose have been just as effective? Is verse a way to achieve a particular vision or merely stylistic excess?
In 1950, T. S. Eliot gave a lecture at Harvard University entitled, “Poetry and Drama.” It is illuminating to juxtapose someone like Eliot with Coburn Gray because one finds quite unexpected areas of common ground. One of Eliot’s key points in his lecture was that “Whether we use prose or verse on the stage, they are both but means to an end” (12). Eliot elaborated on this as follows.
“If poetry is merely a decoration, an added embellishment, if it merely gives people of literary tastes the pleasure of listening to poetry at the same time that they are witnessing a play, then it is superfluous. It must justify itself dramatically.”(Eliot 12)
There are two easily identifiable motivations for D.C.G. to use verse which interlink with his dramatic goals. First, he seeks to find a perfect equilibrium where witty, rhyming, and generally ear-pleasing monologues will counteract/neutralize the harshness of some of the views and coarse language used. For instance, had the play been in prose then the curse words and characters’ motivations would lack the sheen of what he himself referred to as stylishness (“stylish sincerity”). In this way, the bluntness of real-world vocabulary has its tone moderated so that it is more palatable to an audience, maybe even deceptively so. The second point is more of a hypothesis and is simply that D.C.G. wishes to present us with modern life not from a different and interesting camera angle, but modern life with an arresting soundscape. In this way, one can absorb it anew, and more importantly, look at it critically. The scene remains a boisterous night in Dublin, but the scene is now given the gravitas of an artwork through verse.
In his day, Eliot grieved the fact that verse was deemed appropriate only for plays whose subjects were mythology or remote historical periods.
“What we have to do is to bring poetry into the world in which the audience lives and to which it returns when it leaves the theatre; not to transport the audience into some imaginary world totally unlike its own, an unreal world in which poetry is tolerated.”(Eliot 27)
Eliot goes on to enthuse about the democratisation of poetry. He writes that if more plays were produced in verse, then “our own sordid, dreary daily world would be suddenly illuminated and transfigured” (27). Eliot’s ideas correspond to what has been achieved by spoken word artists like D.C.G. who have gone on to shape verse to reflect modern society. D.C.G. as playwright certainly engages with the sordidness of daily life and this represents a point of entry into the play’s significance.
Two key themes stand out in Boys and Girls, and these are sex and vocabulary. The four characters of the play, namely, A, B, C, and D, seek to sexually pleasure their respective partners, Laura, Niamh, Conor, and Jamie, while language, specifically word choice, is the most revealing indication of their motivations. Since this essay has focused on verse in modern theatre then it is logical to reference Shakespeare, the original crème de la crème of verse technicians. D.C.G. makes several allusions to Shakespeare in Boys and Girls, for example, a paraphrased quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These references prove enlightening. By focusing on sex and language, it is possible to reveal what D.C.G. purposefully or perhaps inadvertently communicates about modern life.
Eliot writes that “It is a function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it” (33-34). D.C.G. convincingly charts the order of events in one lust-fuelled night but there is also a deeper, primal order that is reflected in Boys and Girls. The energy that propels D.C.G.’s play to its conclusion is the animalistic, carnal drive that the characters unashamedly display. All is a quest to find sexual release and hopefully satisfaction too. The four characters’ quite separate nights are synchronised in the moments when they chime numbers that refer to increasing alcohol or drug consumption, and they chime again when they consummate their respective nights! D.C.G. thereby imposes an order in how the night is dramatically presented and this order emphasises the unified goals of the youths. Regarding language, the slang used is arguably ultra-modern but a few simple cross references, prompted by D.C.G.’s allusions to Shakespeare, show that not only has sexual drive remained unchanged through the generations (uncontroversial) but the related vocabulary is also surprisingly intact. One may quite productively analyse this covert depiction of the status quo in a play that initially appears quite of its time and even slightly taboo. If the play is cunningly showing us how all remains the same, then this insight must hold significance.
Besides Shakespeare, the other great literary names that D.C.G. references are Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Bronte. These women famously wrote of great loves in their literature. It is a reworked quote from Barrett Browning’s sonnet 43, “How do I love thee? / Let me count the ways” that unexpectedly ushers in the positively cynical tone regarding love that defines the play. D responds to her boyfriend’s premature declaration of love as follows – “Let me count the ways, fuck that like, that’s bollocks, simplest is best. Though it’s interesting that ‘I love you has come to mean less, right?” (Coburn Gray 18). The boyfriend’s love is not reciprocated and D’s musings on love render it a hollow word in the mouths of anyone under twenty years old. She breaks love down into a simple codeword that means “mutual reliance plus mutual lust” (19). Additionally, love is a permission slip to release your anger on your partner, “someone to go to town on” (19). Romance is truly dead and buried. When B is talking to Niamh, they also reference anger by an allusion to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Similar to D’s viewpoint, Niamh believes that anger is an excuse “to pull out all the stops and loose the mad wife in the attic” (27). This refers to the character of Bertha Mason in Bronte’s novel, Mr. Rochester’s first wife, who is now locked in his attic since her sexual allure has faded in light of her depraved, unhinged behaviour. Bertha becomes a legal obstacle to Mr. Rochester as he cannot marry his new love, Jane Eyre. The anger that Niamh describes is the anger of the wronged woman but also the pleasure of choleric release, “as anyone with a penis or a gun knows” (27). The literary allusions set the tone of the play, exposing the frequently insincere declarations of love by youths who prefer to scratch the surface and find the rot beneath. Relationships morph back into what they were in olden times: a game of conqueror and conquered, master and submissive, Rochester and Bertha.
Men have traditionally held the power in society and continue to do so in Boys and Girls. Modern audiences are familiar with the phallic symbolism of a gun, but few know that this links back directly to the more vulgar word for penis, namely cock. References to the penis in D.C.G.’s play using a panoply of terms expose the powerplay in multiple scenes. One of the more deceptively humorous lines is C’s joke about her tall friend, “What’s pink and three millionths of a Dave long? Dave’s cock” (23). By reference to Gordon Williams’ Shakespeare’s Sexual Language, one finds that penis and cock were synonymous, even hundreds of years ago. There is also a reference to roosters which is apt given that D.C.G.’s play ends at dawn. The examples that follow are respectively from Shakespeare’s Henry V and Two Noble Kinsmen.
“cock penis. The prevailing metaphor in Elizabethan use is that found in H5 II. i. 50, where the aptly named Pistol refers to the raising of the firearm’s cock, making it ready to discharge: ‘Pistol’s cock is up, And flashing fire will follow.’…
The ancient link between the dawn crowing of the cock and phallic assertiveness provides innuendo in … ‘I must lose my maidenhead by cocklight.’”(Williams 72)
In Boys and Girls, the focus of both the male and female characters is on the male climax, and female satisfaction takes second place. Proof of this comes when even the sexually liberated C ends up reluctantly giving her partner, Conor, a high-five to celebrate his conquest as he poses “legs wide, tackle flopping” (Coburn Gray 37). Despite any protestations, the societal narrative is that she has acquiesced to his lust, has been conquered. The scene belies C’s earlier estimation of Conor when she said – “Hard to see he cares deeply but doesn’t care for right-on types and circle- jerk fawning” (25). She thought that behind his use of politically incorrect terms still hid a good guy. His post-coital bravado dashes her high hopes. C’s reference to jerk is most revealing as the word also goes back to Shakespeare’s day.
“jerkin vagina. Jerk (DSL) is a common term for coitus (thrust with a quick, sharp motion); hence jerkin is that which is jerked in.”(Williams 173)
Conor is indeed just another jerk given that his goal is no different from the type of men C normally avoids. This brings us to the final term for penis used by C when she comments on Conor’s “absurdly good, wood pressing against me, fingers send me to happy places” (Coburn Gray 33). Williams explains the connotations of the word wood by reference to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Two Noble Kinsmen.
“wood As a place where the sexual hunt may take place, the literal wood provides a powerful metaphor for lust and disorder throughout Act II of Tit. In TNK III. iii. 39, ‘A pretty brown wench’ is recalled, and ‘a time When young men went a-hunting, and a wood, And a broad beech, and thereby hangs a tale’ (cf. brown, tail 2).”(Williams 344)
The rude vocabulary of D.C.G.’s play is shown to have quite old roots in the plays of no less an esteemed author than Shakespeare. Even though the colourful references to the male penis in Boys and Girls are steeped in humour, they nonetheless expose the foundational and age-old scheme of things where men treat women as potential conquests. It is ironic that it’s the liberated, assertive woman, C, who unwittingly uses these terms that are steeped in a history of male dominance. On the other hand, one could readily counter this argument with the assertion that C uses the various terms for the penis in two quite modern ways. First, she is derogatory towards men, namely men with small penises and those she sees as jerks, and second, she is sexually assertive and unabashed when naming what she desires (wood). She wields various slang words for the male genitalia as terms of abuse. More importantly, she attempts to refashion old words to new uses, for example the notorious c-word. In this manner, C indeed tries to disrupt the status quo.
The character C makes a strident case for the reclamation of the c-word. It occupies an extended section of her monologue and is a standout moment in the play. The topic arises naturally since the c-word is bandied about during an informal conversation between girls. C lists some of the other derogatory terms for female genitalia but decisively concludes – “But then, I like cunt. Try to contain yourselves. I like that it’s unsellable in a world where sex sells” (Coburn Gray 15). She states that the word has an undeniable air of aggression, even the sound is harsh, and most importantly, it is not a sexy word. In fact, the c-word is an unfailing passion killer, a deflator of male tumescence. The negative power of the word comes from the hate with which it is imbued – “Cunt means his hate, and hate’s the hard drug that’s gatewayed by his fear” (16). C theorizes that men’s fear of women is conditioned in them from the time they are breast fed. Church teachings about sexual restraint and abstinence add to the problem. She posits that “Cunt is insecurity” (16), specifically the insecurity felt by men who do not measure up to the gender ideal of a fittingly, masculine male.
“cockito ergo cunt ergo hateful denigration of all undicked.”(Coburn Gray 16)
D.C.G. employs clever wordplay in the above quoted line which mimics an aphorism by French philosopher, René Descartes, who wrote – “cogito, ergo sum,” which means ‘I think, therefore I am.’ The statement is the essence of human existence because thinking is proof that one exists. D.C.G. swaps cogito for cockito with the suffix ‘ito’ meaning small so the problem belongs to the small-cocked man who employs the word ‘cunt’ as revenge, a compensation for his own lack of power. Of course, the new quote also equates the male genitals with the organ of human thought – the brain!
The chief difficulty, as C admits, is the toxicity of the c-word. She comments that “Boys may use it, can’t own it, can’t make it less” (15). The paradox is that women own the word, but it is a hateful inheritance, something that needs to be detoxified. C considers the dilemma and says, “So take it! (Cunt.) For fuck’s sake, own it. Best fucking way to dethrone it!” (16). The argument is bold and almost convincing but like the other words already mentioned, the c-word has a long history which hinders any attempt to reclaim it.
Williams gives the example of Hamlet’s vitriolic attack on Ophelia in Hamlet where the young prince refers to ‘country matters’ which is a coded reference to the c-word (5). There is also an example in Twelfth Night which is refenced by Williams in his glossary of Shakespeare’s sexual language. The example appears like an Early Modern version of ‘see you next Tuesday.’
“cunt vagina (taboo evaded by disguise). In TAfII. v. 85, Olivia’s supposed letter provides scope for equivocal comment: These be her very c’s, her u’s, and her t’s, and thus makes she her great P’s’ (cf. P).”(Williams 87)
How does one counter such a long history of directly using a word, or implying it, to refer either to sex or curse someone out? It seems unfortunate that D.C.G.’s linguistic crusader has the initial C, just as the character D seems a loaded name choice for a woman who discusses bra sizes – “apocalyptic double Ds” (Coburn Gray 18). Is the play just a play on words because what you think you are getting is constantly undercut by an older, unchanging agenda? The following example where a character playfully avoids the c-word is a confirmation that all roads inevitably lead to Rome regardless of the intention.
“Leah says recently her ma’s been using ‘ladygarden’ as a joke.”(Coburn Gray 15)
The deliberate avoidance of the c-word by employing a seemingly innocuous term instead still manages to backfire. The explanation rests in Williams’ glossary with the entry – “garden used like park, [is] another Renaissance commonplace, to render woman as sexual landscape” (138). In Boys and Girls, character A gleefully engages with the same gardening terminology, “Haven’t seen her [Laura] in weeks and you could literally plough with the hard-on I’m harbouring” (Coburn Gray 12). Williams references Shakespeare’s Pericles to enlighten readers as to the age-old connotations of plough – “plough coit with. In Per xix. 169 (IV. vi. 144), a virgin is threatened: ‘An if she were a thornier piece of ground than she is, she shall be ploughed’” (240). The thorny ground is indicative of danger. Representations of the female vagina as dangerous are nothing new as outlined in an essay by V. Braun and S. Wilkinson entitled, “Socio-Cultural Representations of the Vagina.” They write that “Lederer (1968) uses the `fairytale’ Sleeping beauty, with its impenetrable wall of dangerous and deadly thorns, as one Western illustration” (24). D.C.G. also alludes to this typical representation of the vagina as dangerous, especially if the man foolishly seeks love rather than just sex.
“True love’s path ever did run tortuous, hatcheted through briars or hazarded with liars or both. Quoth this maven: the fires of passion will swallow you whole. Safer to safeguard the ol’ ticker and just get yer – if you follow – hole.”(Coburn Gray 10)
Once again, this is a reworking of a famous quote, this time from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Lysander says, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Keeping with the tone of Boys and Girls, love is constantly eschewed by the characters. Women become mere sexual landscapes to be ploughed and seeded. D.C.G.’s character, A, reduces the female to a mere orifice of pleasure. Braun and Wilkinson quote Shildrick & Price when discussing this idea of the vagina as an absence with the result that it is just an orifice – “Women are castrated men, their bodies marked by lack, and what is hidden is just a hole” (19).
This digression into an analysis of the term ‘ladygarden’ shows just how incredibly unwieldly language can be, especially words with sexual connotations. Even deliberately avoiding offensive words proves ineffectual since the meanings of associated words are still impossibly interlinked with the rude ones. A crusader like C is betrayed by the language she hopes to rein into submission. There is an undercurrent to the language used for sexual relations that simply privileges men over women, full stop. The battle to imbue words with new meanings or even to simply neutralize the aggressiveness of words such as the c-word, seems doomed to failure.
An analysis of the play at the level of characters is highly informative but the overarching concern remains the effect of Boys and Girls and the questions it raises. D.C.G. skilfully connects with an audience via ear-pleasing verse; the authenticity of real characters; colourful and sometimes confronting language; and a clear delineation of the structure of the night. But how does this translate when processed as an audience experience? As previously queried – is the writer simply mirroring society and thereby he is restricted from portraying an extraordinary character who sets an unprecedented, elevating example? C does not reach the threshold for extraordinariness. Is the play therefore a victim of successful verisimilitude with misogyny, excessive inebriation, and vulgarity as the required compromises needed to convince an audience that they can see themselves on stage, just in rhyme? Or, has all the talent and work that D.C.G. poured into Boys and Girls got a greater, meaningful purpose?
It is clear that D.C.G. breaks new ground within the theatre world. For one, he successfully brings a style of modern, expressive poetry which comes from slam poetry, and sets this on the formal stage. However, he also uses obscene language and even though it is basically the same vocabulary as the Bard utilised, it still raises eyebrows! Does D.C.G. deserve credit for daring to employ the language that ordinary people actually use on a daily basis? Maybe the playwright is deliberately avoiding the sort of pretentiousness linked with literature that attempts to teach or improve an audience. In an article entitled “On Obscenity and Literature,” Ed Simon refers to “the brave defenders of free speech pushing the boundaries of acceptable discourse.” Simon adds that, “In our current season of a supposed Jacobin “cancel culture,” words have been ironically re-enchanted with the spark of danger that was once associated with them.” D.C.G. certainly adds an incendiary element to the monologues by using the c-word. By focusing on this one word for just a little longer, it is possible to distil Boys and Girls down to a single, take-away message.
D.C.G. joins a long line of literary figures who daringly used the c-word in their works. For instance, this term was used by D. H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and by Jack Kerouac in On the Road (Moriarty).Circa 2001, Braun and Wilkinson noted that “Promotional material for theatrical pieces whose titles contained the word vagina has been censored in various ways” and they provide the example of “Eve Ensler’s (1998) The Vagina Monologues” which caused a media furore (20). Ensler also used the c-word in the actual monologues. Each of these writers sought to find a word that would capture the sexual/expressive/political moods they wished to portray.
It is interesting to note that D.C.G. was not the first Dublin writer to cause consternation by using expletives in his text. There was James Joyce’s Ulysses which also includes the c-word but the tradition of swear words goes back much further, as far as 1663.
“In the OED, our good friend the dirty lexicographer Richard Head has the earliest example given in the entry for the word “fuck,” the profanity appearing as a noun in his play Hic et Ubique: or, The Humors of Dublin, wherein a character says, “I did creep in…and there I did see [him] putting the great fuck upon my wife.”(Simon 5)
John Millington Synge, another controversial Irish writer, caused a riot in Dublin in 1907. This happened because Irish nationalists were unhappy with a reference to young women dressed only in undergarments in Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. One detects a theme here because not just words but even states of undress apparently prompt thoughts of women’s privates. T. S. Eliot made a helpful observation about Synge, writing that – “Synge wrote plays about characters whose originals in life talked poetically, so he could make them talk poetry and remain real people” (19-20). D.C.G. manages to use expletives so casually for the same reason – they are taken from the mouths of everyday Dubliners. The achievement is that the work is an example of literary naturalism and commendable as such.
Yet, the c-word remains a lightning rod for critics of Boys and Girls. Given the long history of the word’s use, Mina Moriarty ponders, “Why, then, is “cunt” still considered one of the most offensive words in the Western Hemisphere?” The answer surely lies in the intent behind using the word and the context of its usage too. Braun and Wilkinson explain how, “representations are not simply `ideas’, but have material impacts on people’s lives, with implications for women’s sexual and reproductive health” (18). They refer here to representations of the vagina and D.C.G.’s play is one such representation. The view of Braun and Wilkinson “is a social constructionist one, which assumes that the meaning of the body (at any time, in any given context) is constructed by socio-cultural representations and practices, and that these develop, and change, across time and context” (17). In Boys and Girls, the representation of the female genitalia, regardless of the word chosen, is derogatory and even when C feistily uses it, it is nonetheless counterproductive. The thrust of the play (excuse pun) is that men’s desires are only consumed and quenched by the female genitalia. This is not about procreation or fun, it is simply about powerplay and language is a treacherous conspirator.
The reclamation of the c-word that character C valiantly attempts echoes broader societal trends. For example, Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues contains a section named “Reclaiming Cunt” where a character says – “I call it cunt. I’ve reclaimed it, “cunt.” I really like it. “Cunt.” Listen to it. “Cunt.”’ (Moriarty). Germaine Greer approached the problem from a different angle and tried to change not the word but how the body part was understood – “in The Female Eunuch I attempted to provide a different version of female receptivity by speaking of the vagina as if it were active, as if it sucked on the penis and emptied it out rather than simply receiving the ejaculate’” (Braun and Wilkinson 26). Greer, a Shakespearean herself, probably well understood the difficulty of attempting to reclaim or neutralise words, especially those with such a long heritage. For context, one may refer to Braun and Wilkinson who give an overview of “seven persistent negative representations of the vagina: the vagina as inferior to the penis; the vagina as absence; the vagina as (passive) receptacle for the penis; the vagina as sexually inadequate; the vagina as disgusting; the vagina as vulnerable and abused; and the vagina as dangerous” (17). Despite giving C a feisty monologue, D.C.G. fails to show her triumphing at the play’s close – instead, she high fives her juvenile, one-night stand. Thus, the vagina continues to be “represented merely as a receptacle for the penis” (Braun and Wilkinson 20). Character A misses out on sex due to a vomiting, underage drinker whom A must babysit until he is safely brought home. Ironically, this makes A the hero of the piece. D.C.G.’s play is a modern incantation of absolution for wayward, inebriated youths but the girls take second place, as ever. Writers who use the c-word always risk perpetuating the violence of language because reforming it is a mammoth task.
What D.C.G. does excellently is paint a dramatic scene for an audience. It is the story of a night, opening in the evening and closing at the break of dawn. As Eliot wrote, “it is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality” (35) and D.C.G. achieves this succinctly and daringly. As Simon writes – “Profanity is by definition profane, dealing with the bloody, pussy, jizzy reality of what it means to be alive (and thus the lowering of the sacred into that oozy realm is part of what blasphemously shocks).” Maybe it is best not to be prudish and appreciate the play as a thought-provoking piece that holds a mirror up to society so that people can laugh, or cringe, or think again about the too predictable order in which things usually play out.
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