John B. Keane’s Sive was first performed by the Listowel Drama Group and won the All-Ireland Drama Festival in 1959. It was a huge success and after seeing the play for myself, I can see why. Keane expertly draws the audience into a age-old story of unrequited love. His characters aren’t especially dynamic; most of them (with the exception of the Uncle perhaps) are either all good or all bad. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I found myself wanting to call out to the actors on stage on multiple occasions because I was so invested in the story. The matchmaker and Mena are so expertly evil and greedy. I couldn’t help myself!
The plot line isn’t particularly impressive. It’s a Romeo and Juliet kind of play. Been there, seen that.
What makes Keane’s play exceptional is his ability to elicit such a strong response from the audience and the underlying Irish spin to the story. To elaborate on my second point, I thought the play showed the harshness of a typical Irish work men and women of the time. Life is about survival and there is little time for luxuries like love and sex. That is the tale of Mena and Mike. It’s a tragic and sad sort of life from my perspective, and I imagine many people faced the same harsh reality during the time. It raises the question, would Mena had been so self serving if she had not been born into such a world, is that even an excuse? Sive is the ray of light, but as the play goes on her light is slowly but surely diminished by suffocating surroundings. It’s heart breaking. The most powerful scene of the play is the last. When the grandmother is faced with the death of her only granddaughter. This is something no individual should have to endure.
Another Irish-specific part of the play is the role of the two travelers. Personally, I love these guys. They are good men and I think Keane was playing on certain contemporary perceptions of travelers by painting them as the heroes. They are kind, gentle, intelligent and ask for things in a respectable way. Thus, that are the stark juxtaposition to the greed that the “good working people” of the play portray in every instance of the play: Mena, the matchmaker, and even the uncle. This turns the traveler’s stereotype on its head, and I think it was done subtly and gracefully. Not to mention the travelers are hilarious!
Ultimately, the play wasn’t really about lovers or creepy old men. I think the play is first about greed and the evil power of it. Everyone’s heart breaks a little when Sive breaks. Second, I think the play is meant to show the hard life that Ireland’s working class faced. And further the toll it took on people. I found the Uncle’s character to be particularly disappointing because he knew full and well in his heart he was destroying something beautiful, but he was blinded by greed, and I think his hard life added to his moral weakness.
John B. Keane definitely knows how to depress a room, but regardless I thoroughly enjoyed the play. I think it resonates with people. Plus, there were some pretty hilarious parts that can’t go without mention. The grandmother y’all. So great.
I hope I get the chance to see more of Keane’s work in the future!