Dylan Moran’s ‘The Expedition,’ Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett
I’ve been a fan of Dylan Moran’s stand-up since I saw his first stand-up special Monster. I think I was about twelve, and the experience was utterly transformative. Moran’s misanthropic and depressive whimsy became lodged deep into my world view, and probably changed the way I behave, my sense of humour, my bearing. To this day I’m not sure if the way I speak now is my actual voice. I would obsessively Google clips in the hopes of finding bootleg gigs, as Moran has always been quite good at modifying his material to the occasion, the best example of which is his commentary on the 2011 Irish presidential election in Galway:
It was during one of these excursions into ‘Related Videos’ that I turned up a radio play that Moran wrote for the BBC, entitled ‘The Expedition,’ in which the protagonist, Aidan Clarke, addresses his absent girlfriend Isabel in a series of recordings. Their relationship seems to be reaching a breaking point, but nevertheless, Aidan updates Isabel on his progress on a hike with her brother Leonard, though, in the same manner of Eminem’s ‘Stan,’ it is uncertain how the protagonist will get the recordings to her, and why also, he renders them episodically, as though he’s going to play all of them in sequence to her when he returns from his hike.
I would be surprised if Moran didn’t have the drama of Samuel Beckett in mind here. The most obvious parallel is his 1958 play Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an ageing man, apparently a writer, pores over a directory of recordings that he has made on every one of his birthdays, and thenn makes a new one. Rather than dwelling on that which his young self seems most interested, his aesthetic realisations about life, love, art and all that, Krapp returns to recollections of sexual conquests. Krapp’s Last Tape is also far more engaged with the medium in which the recordings are contained than Moran is; the only signal we have that what we are listening to is the imprint of a magnetic field is the click-click noise that each monologue begins with.
Like Krapp’s Last Tape, however, it does chart the decline of its protagonist, from getting nippy with his partner, to psychosis and delusion in the play’s second half. It is in these sections that the whimsy that characterises Moran’s comedy enters the play, the marrying of surreal situations, such as encountering a camel in a blizzard on a mountain, with the quotidian experience of being a tourist out of water, trying to amiably make chat with a local. His increasingly choppy and erratic syntax, as well as his estrangement from conventionally expressed emotion may well recall Beckett’s later, scatty prose works: ’I want to say that I want to go home, the wind. The wind.’
It is a cliché generally observed in Irish journalism that comedians such as Moran, driven by their loquaciousness and absurdist perspectives, be compared to Flann O’Brien, in who’s writing we see similar things. And this is fine, Moran probably read him and I think Tommy Tiernan is a fan, but it ignores the fundamental aspect of stand-up, and what makes it a form worth discussing on its own terms, and this is the performative element.
Moran’s comedy is primarily character-based. We respond to his material in way that we would not, were he a more polished, Apollo Theatre type stand-up. This is because he is, in a very short period of time, capable of conveying to an audience what kind of comedian he is. In Monster, for example, he comes onstage with a glass of wine, greets the audience as if he wishes he was doing something else, and has a spot of bother with the mic stand.
This affectation of incompetence or world-weariness is what makes his observations on boozing and drugs in his first special (and, subsequently his takes on family life in his second), so good. In the former we see that he’s probably the type to have partaken his fair share of intoxicants. In the second, the absurdity is compacted, as Moran has not quite shaken off the image of the perpetually drunk sexily dishevelled raconteur. In saying so, I don’t demean character-based stand-up. As traditionally practiced comedy, requires the repetition of material, glossed with the illusion of spontaneity. It’s a contrived art-form, as all of them are.
Flann O’Brien is a very different creature. I’ve sometimes been at odds with his critical reputation in literary journalism, which seems to depend more on his columns than his novels. Seeing him as an anticipator of contemporary Irish stand-up seems to miss how withdrawn he is as an author from his work, how hermetic and alienating his style is. In The Third Policeman for example, the bicycles seem more animated than the allegedly human characters, who barely seem to have advanced beyond Syngean automata. Fintan O’Toole has spoken well on this peculiar sense of rootlessness in O’Brien’s writing, and how improbably it can seem that such an archetypal postmodern stylist succeeded in emerging from a society which hadn’t quite entered modernity yet. Which seems almost antithetical to the comedy practiced by Moran, who’s stage persona manages to be vital, even when channeling Beckett.