Crossroads: Performance Studies and Irish Culture

The following is a version of a chapter published in “Crossroads: Performance Studies and Irish Culture” edited by Sarah Brady and Fintan Walsh (Palgrave Macmillan 2009)

“It’s beyond Candide – it’s Švejk”
– Wise Foolery in the Work of Jack Lynch, Storyteller
 Michael Wilson


Introduction: Benjamin’s model of the subversive storyteller


In 1936, as the dark cloud of Fascism swept across Europe, the German essayist and critic Walter Benjamin penned a short article entitled ‘Der Erzähler’ (‘The Storyteller’)[2]. Ostensibly it is an essay about the Russian writer Nikolai Lesskov, but running through it is an exploration of the nature of storytelling and the role of the storyteller in society. For Benjamin, ‘a great storyteller will always be rooted in the people, primarily in the milieu of craftsmen’[3] and his call is for storyteller-artisans who offer meaningful stories as ways of developing strategies for change. Benjamin’s storyteller is a subversive force, disseminating truth and wisdom in otherwise fraudulent times.

It could, of course, be argued that there have never been times that were not fraudulent, although some times may be more fraudulent than others and it is these times that particularly require Benjamin’s subversive storyteller. In part Benjamin’s essay is a response to the mechanisation of society and the commodification of culture and he bemoans the demise of ‘genuine storytelling’, as practised by the farmer (the community-based storyteller, rooted in his/her neighbourhood) and the sailor (the travelling storyteller, constantly nourishing communities with stories from afar). Whilst much of what Benjamin feared has not come to pass and storytelling is very much alive and well, his essay has found new life and resonance among the contemporary professional storytelling movement.

In his essay, ‘How Storytellers Can Change Education in Changing Times: Stealing from the Rich to Build Community Bridges’, American scholar of storytelling and fairy tales, Jack Zipes, develops Benjamin’s idea, calling for storytellers to become cunning, or good, thieves in today’s equally fraudulent times[4]. For Zipes the current threat to our communities lies in globalization and the unchallenged power of the big corporations, against which the storyteller must take a stance. He explains:

The difference between the good thief and the bad crook is that the good thief admits that we are all obliged to rob in some way and somehow wants to offset injustices and repay his or her crime by helping the disadvantaged and maintaining a subversive tradition of human compassion and responsibility, whereas the bad crook refuses to admit his or her involvement and culpability and continually seeks ways to deceive the majority of people (…) [H]e or she uses the forces of the mass media, government, and courts to gain more of a stranglehold over the minds and lives of common people.[5]

In mentioning the model of ‘the cunning thief’, Zipes is of course referring to the folktale commonly known as ‘Jack, the Cunning Thief’[6]. In the story, Jack sets out in search of his fortune, but falls in love with a gang of ruthless robbers, who threaten to kill Jack unless he is able to steal the three prize cows from the greedy farmer – a task that even the robbers have been unable to complete. Through his own skill and ingenuity, Jack manages to outwit the farmer (greed and brains are, of course, rarely found together) and Jack wins both his freedom and a bag of gold. For Zipes, the good storyteller is one who robs stories from the rich and reinvents them for the poor[7]. But he also argues that there is an additional threat that lies within the professionalization of storytelling that has taken place over recent years. On the one hand it is a phenomenon that is to be welcomed for providing highly-skilled, socially-motivated storytelling-artists, but it has also led to an inevitable commodification of storytelling, where stories can be bought and sold on the open market to the highest bidder, and therein lies the great paradox at the heart of contemporary professional storytelling – a paradox that is best solved by Jack, the cunning thief, himself.

The context of contemporary professional storytelling


In Ireland, as elsewhere, there has been a significant revival of interest in storytelling as a performance and applied art over the past few decades. Whilst retaining its own distinctive character, the ‘revival’[8] in Ireland is closely related to the revivals in the UK and, less so, in the United States. The Irish revival owes much to the work of Liz Weir, a former children’s librarian from Northern Ireland, who now works prolifically as a professional storyteller and as a robust advocate for storytelling and organiser of storytelling events. It is also partly as a consequence of Weir’s early role in supporting cross-community and cross-border storytelling initiatives that we can talk about a distinctive Irish revival as being an all-Ireland affair.

In spite of an informal network of ‘Yarnspinners Clubs’ and ‘Storytelling Houses’, the storytelling movement in Ireland has resisted too much organisation on a national level, compared to other countries, and has largely avoided some of the fierce debates around definitions that have taken place in England, Wales and Scotland. Since 1992 the Society for Storytelling has operated in England and Wales and the Scottish Storytelling Forum in Scotland and according to a recent survey[9], there are now almost four hundred professional storytellers operating within the UK, although this number no doubt includes many Irish storytellers. In Ireland a similar organisation, Storytellers of Ireland, was formed only in 2003 and now advertises the services of over fifty professional storytellers[10].

The contemporary storytelling movement originally emerged from the countercultural movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As Joseph Sobol rightly says in his survey of contemporary storytelling in the United States, The Storytellers’ Journey, in the early days the movement was driven by idealism[11]. In particular many theatre and community arts practitioners were drawn towards storytelling because of its inherent democratic nature and its ability to subvert the traditional methods of theatre production. At a time when theatre companies were experimenting with dispensing with the idea of a theatre director, in favour of a more collective model, storytellers were dispensing with props, costumes, their fellow actors, and even theatre buildings themselves[12]. The Utopian ideal of the participatory arts movement, whereby consumers of art also became the producers of art, acquired new resonance with storytelling. Everybody told stories, of course, as storytelling is “the art form of social interaction”[13], and so everybody could be a storyteller.

The growth of professional storytelling over the past thirty years is certainly a remarkable success story. Storytelling clubs and storytelling festivals attracting thousands of people have sprung up, and increasingly fewer children will go through their school education without having a visit from a professional storyteller. And the business in storytelling workshops is likewise booming as increasing numbers of people want to acquire the skills by which they too can earn their living from telling stories.

On one level this has all been very encouraging, but there is also a danger of storytelling becoming a victim of its own success. In the United States, for example, professionalization has inevitably led to commodification, which in turn has led to a hierarchy and ‘star system’ emerging amongst storytellers. In his essay, ‘The Wisdom and Folly of Storytelling’, Jack Zipes declares:

More and more storytellers have tried to transform themselves into star commodities and advertise their wares as though they were indeed magical. (…) The commodification that afflicts so many storytellers has led to a situation where there are two large camps: those commercial storytellers who perform largely for the sake of performance and who have foregone any sense of cultural mission, and those professional storytellers who continue to reflect both on their role as storyteller within the situation into which they insert themselves and on their stories and who question the value of storytelling that they urgently want to pass on to their auditors.[14]

To be this second type of storyteller is not easy. To become a freelance professional storyteller inevitably means to subject oneself to market forces, which means that it is far easier to entertain and please one’s audience (the paying customer) than to challenge or provoke them. As Walter Benjamin’s friend Bertolt Brecht might have said, ‘Food is the first thing – morals follow on’[15]. On the other hand, professionalism brings with it resources (skills and time, for instance) to develop work of the highest quality, yet in a market system, and especially in a globalized world, it is difficult to remain true to those oppositional ideals. Yet it is the second category of storyteller – s/he who has managed to retain a sense of Benjamin’s model of the subversive storyteller – that is the real subject of this essay and, specifically, Jack Lynch, one of the leading ‘Wise Fools of Irish Storytelling’.

Jack Lynch: Wise Fool

I am, in this sense, using the term ‘Wise Fool’ as an extension of the good/thief/cunning thief model proposed by Zipes. It carries the same oxymoronic qualities and it is Jack’s (the character’s) seeming lack of intelligence, whilst being able to display feats of wit and ingenuity that enable him to be the cunning thief he is.  For the Wise Fool is ultimately a subversive, what Karl Kerenyi calls ‘the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries’[16] and Ruth Stotter ‘the father of creativity’[17]. Indeed theatre scholar Joel Schechter, in his fine study of political clowning, Durov’s Pig, eloquently draws parallels between clowning or fooling and storytelling. Furthermore, Schechter’s own division of clowns into two categories – those who serve the powerful (the court) and those who serve the powerless (the people) – is broadly similar to Zipes’s own division of storytellers into the commercially-minded and the community-centered[18].

Certainly what might be defined as ‘Wise Fool’ stories (Jack Tales, Nasruddin Stories, Coyote Tales or other ‘underdog-wins-the-day-through-his/her-own-ingenuity stories) are popular amongst contemporary storytellers across the board. The sense of anarchy and Utopian vision contained within them are standard fare and may in themselves suggest a subversive stance from the storyteller. But my argument here is that this in itself is not enough for Benjamin, Zipes, Schechter, or even myself. What I am interested in here is the storyteller who adopts the persona of the Wise Fool for themselves, who brings the figure of the subversive out of the story and makes him/her the storyteller.

Jack Lynch is a Dublin-based storyteller with long experience as a stage and TV actor. Having established himself in alternative and political theatre in Ireland in the 1970s and 80s, he gradually found storytelling as a way of exploring some of the ideas he wanted to pursue as a solo performer. Influenced more by the work of Brecht and Dario Fo, storytelling was a form that allowed him to work directly with audiences in an improvisatory and subversive manner, yet also within his own cultural traditions.

Lynch’s material comes from two main sources: traditional (predominantly Irish) folk narrative and a series of riotous stories, redolent of Garrison Keillor’s ‘Lake Wobegon’ and Giovanni Guareschi’s ‘Don Camillo Stories’, centered around the invented character of P.J.Galligan, a ne’er-do-well trickster character whose ‘heart is in the right place, but his head is full of mad-dog shite’[19] and his sidekick, Quighie ‘the Feather’. The material for these stories comes principally from three sources: Michael J. Murphy’s collection of tales from County Cavan; certain amounts of local Cavan folklore (the stories are set in Cavan, the home county of Lynch’s father); jokes that Lynch has overheard on his travels.

The persona of the storyteller that Lynch adopts for the telling of these two types of stories are demonstrably different. The Lynch that tells the folktales is presented as the authentic Lynch, whereas the Lynch who narrates the P.J. stories is clearly much more of a stage character, a neighbour of P.J. and Quighie who is telling the stories as first hand accounts. Nevertheless, there are also important similarities and one might argue that they are, in fact, different versions of the same Wise Fool character.

The P.J. narrator, whose name is never revealed (except that one assumes he is also called Jack) first emerged when Lynch was working with Joe Duffy, a roving reporter on the Gay Byrne radio show. Lynch’s brief was to be on-hand to provide vox pops, folk knowledge and general advice of a dubious nature:

Say there was a news story like the ‘Floozy in the Jacuzzi’ had dried up (…). So it was a very warm summer and this dried up and so they had people out on the street and they were just asking locals for their reaction to this and that they had, you know, spot competitions and prizes and all that. But they had my character on talking about a local way of water-divining, say, This would be total nonsense, you know, and he’d be saying, “Here’s something from Quighie ‘the Feather’, who you know, Joe, don’t you?”

“Oh yes, I know him.”

“Well, Quighie taught me this one. The thing is, you get … what you need is … you need about two gallons of vinegar and you’d need a fairly robust container. Then you’d get the lead from a vacuum cleaner – the bit that goes from the cleaner to the nozzle, you know, you cut the nozzle off. And you attach this – somehow – you attach this to the container and you hold it at a certain angle and…” This, that and the other. And “I have one here and I’m going to try it.”

So I’m divining for water along Talbot Street or somewhere, you know, and there’s a huge crowd watching this and it’s all bullshit. (…) And then Gay Byrne would ask some questions, “Can anybody…?”

“Oh yeah, and it’s very handy too, cos when you’re finished, you can recycle this liquid, you know. It’s very good, I’ll tell you, Gay, it’s very good to cure schizophrenia in greyhounds…”[20]

From these beginnings Lynch developed a whole series of Cavan[21] narratives concerning the exploits of P.J. and Quighie. The neighbour/narrator remains nameless, thus allowing him to keep a distance from his protagonists, but at the same time being a reflection of them – we have no doubt that the neighbour has nothing but admiration for P.J and sympathy for Quighie and is effectively the personification of both them. In other words, Lynch is P.J/Quighie is Lynch – the narrator is merely a reflection of the characters about whom he is talking. The stories themselves are scurrilous episodes where P.J gets the better of all manner of authority, convention and the establishment, in particular politicians, the police, the nouveau-riche entrepreneurs of the Celtic Tiger economy and – especially – the clergy. And if there is any comeback, it always falls on Quighie, not PJ. Yet the pair also display a degree of naivety and are driven by a survival instinct. By adopting the character of the Wise Fool for himself, Lynch is able to show that naivety and simultaneously the semi-hidden subversive ingenuity that suggests he is not so innocent, after all.

There are a number of literary progenitors for this narrator-fool, but Lynch is clear that, if anything, it is Švejk, the eponymous hero of Jaroslav Hašek’s biting First World War satire, who stands as the best model. Švejk is a born survivor, assumed to be a half-wit by all around him, yet he is far from the idiot he pretends to be. As Cecil Parrott says, Švejk

is quite capable of making himself appear a fool to save a situation (…) [b]ut the irony underlying his remarks is always perceptible.(…) Švejk is no ignoramus. He is the brother of a schoolmaster and is clearly an educated man. Although he expresses himself in the Prague vernacular he has a rich literary vocabulary combined with an almost encylopedic knowledge, no doubt derived from considerable reading of newspapers and journals.[22]

Švejk, the Wise Fool, like Lynch’s neighbour/narrator, uses his innocence to puncture the pomposity of his so-called superiors, by resorting to relating stories about the people in his village. Hašek himself no doubt admired many of the qualities he had given to Švejk – he was a political subversive, itinerant writer, humourist and practical joker – and it is interesting that Lynch has a similar relationship with the neighbour/narrator.

There is much of Lynch in the character, but he also borrows heavily from the character’s anti-authoritarianism to create his own storytelling persona when telling traditional folktales. This persona, a mixture of the ‘real’ Jack Lynch and the neighbour/narrator, is used to deliver often quite lengthy introductions to the stories and enables Lynch to undercut the seriousness of the scholarship he likes to include in this part of is performance, as well as sometimes allowing him to be more politically daring with an audience.

Performing the footnotes

In a style redolent of Dario Fo’s Mistero Buffo, Lynch typically introduces what may turn out to be a five-minute story with a contextual framing that may be ten minutes or longer. For Lynch, as with Fo, these introductions are the opportunities to provide the historical, social and political framing necessary to enable the audience to better read the Gestus of the piece. But it goes further than this. What Lynch is doing is not simply providing contextual information. Much of the material used in these introductions is of a very scholarly nature and Lynch is keen to furnish the audience with this information, but, as a performer, is wary of the potential of scholarship to become pompous. The Wise Fool character allows him, therefore, to subvert any pomposity by ‘undercutting the seriousness’[23] of the scholarship. He turns himself into an accidental genius, as if he is simply stumbling upon the scholarly framing, completely unaware of his own erudition and intellectualism. He is effectively taking what might be the footnotes to the story and turning those into performance material in their own right. This performing of the footnotes Lynch traces back to earlier work in children’ television when he ‘used to play an Einstein-ian character on television and it involved a lot of putting across actual scientific facts in a humorous, or in a daft way’[24].

The performance of footnotes, however, is not restricted to the introductory material, although that is where it is to be found at it most substantial. Lynch will also step aside from the telling of the story itself to add a footnote. He is able to do this because as a performer he is able to remain separate from his material and the characters in the story and move between his roles of footnote-performer/narrator/storyteller. It is this separation of performer and role, a defining feature of Brecht’s model of epic acting, that allows Lynch to step outside of the story in order to comment upon it as the Wise Fool.

A story which Lynch calls ‘Caoilte the Mighty Runner’ is a case in point. In the story the High King requires an athlete to perform a job that requires great swiftness and invites each applicant to describe their quickness. Caoilte is the third, and final, applicant and declares that he could perform the task ‘quicker than it takes for a woman to change her mind’. And so he is given the job.[25] At face value this punch-line to the story might appear to be sexist, but Lynch cleverly turns it around into a piece of positive political commentary. As soon as he has delivered the punch-line, he steps away from the story into his footnote-performer persona and says, ‘Now, I noticed that not all the women were laughing tonight”, so acknowledging the potential problematic nature of the story and, in doing so, eliciting more laughter. Then, in a manner that is redolent of Brecht’s claim for the right ‘to rethink everything anew’ (alles neu nachzudenken)[26], Lynch proceeds to explain that he considers the ability to changes one’s mind, to adapt one’s thinking to suit ever-changing contexts, is not only a virtue, but a necessity if one is going to act with political and social effectiveness. Having made the serious point, however, Lynch then counterbalances it with another self-deprecating joke: ‘As long as women have that talent for changing their minds, who knows, some day there may be hope for a wretch like me!’ This is then further followed up with a comment directly at the audience: ‘Do you think I got away with that?’ In this way he is constantly playing with the audience and simultaneously drawing the audience’s attention to the subversive nature of his performance and also to its primary function of entertainment, inviting them to continually question and interrogate what he is saying and the intention behind it.

Subversiveness and Conclusion

During the course of a performance, it is a defining feature of storytelling, that the storyteller will be required to manage a series of transitions between different personae, as the performance moves from introduction to story and back to introduction. In the case of Jack Lynch he is managing a particularly complex set of identities, whether that is the Jack Lynch who is mingling with and befriending the audience before the shoe, Jack Lynch, the footnote-performer, Jack Lynch the storyteller of folktales, Jack Lynch the neighbour/narrator or Jack Lynch the neighbour/narrator as storyteller. All of these personae are in part reflections of his non-performer self and they are all variations on the Wise Fool figure. It is this figure, combined with the ability to move between personae and, thus, stand apart from the story that allows Lynch to play the subversive storyteller, challenging hegemony, exposing hypocrisy and, in Brechtian fashion, drawing ‘the audience’s attention to everything worth noticing’[27].

Furthermore, Lynch exemplifies a key feature of effective storytelling, which is the apparent effortlessness of the performance. There is nothing laboured about Lynch’s storytelling work, no open display of artistry, but an informality and  lightness of action that appears careless, but is, in fact, most careful. The transitions between personae seem natural, not managed. It is the lightness that is evident in Fo’s performances of Mistero Buffo or in Ken Campbell’s one-man shows, the lightness which Italo Calvino describes as embodied in ‘the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world’[28]. It was also a quality which Brecht recognized and admired in his poem in praise of Charles Laughton’s belly[29] or which he wrote about in his final memo before his death in 1956 to the Berliner Ensemble, as they prepared to tour Britain:

This is not a question of hurry, but of speed, not simply of quick playing, but of quick thinking. We must keep the tempo of a run-through and infect it with quiet strength, with our own fun. In the dialogue the exchanges must not be offered reluctantly, as when offering somebody one’s last pair of boots, but must be tossed like so many balls[30].

Underpinning Lynch’s multiple personae is also a subversive critique of the derogatory stereotype of the ‘Stage Irishman’ as a vulgar, uneducated and uncultured itinerant. Whilst Lynch may feign foolishness, he is not a gullible greenhorn, but is literate, well-read and able to live on his wits, thus undermining the stereotype and ultimately turning prejudice on its perpertrators. As Lynch himself says, ‘It’s beyond Candide – it’s Švejk’[31].

So, through his use of the figure of the Wise Fool to inform his multiple performance personae, Jack Lynch is able to maintain his roles of Benjamin’s subversive storyteller and Zipes’s honest thief. In Lynch’s own words:

I bed down with that noble tradition in folklore that mocks the master, the tyrant, the exploiter, the unjust, the cruel, the pompous, the greedy… Jack the Refusenik![32]

[1] Some of the ideas contained within this essay were developed out of a conference paper first delivered to the International Conference on the Wise Fool, Malta, December 2006, entitled ‘The Wise Fools of Contemporary Storytelling’.

[2] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (London: Fontana/Collins, 1973), pp.83-109.

[3] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, p.101.

[4] Jack Zipes, Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama for Children ( London and New York: Routledge, 2004), pp.35-59.

[5] Jack Zipes, Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama for Children, p.38.

[6] Aarne-Thompson Tale Type1525.

[7] Jack Zipes, Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama for Children, p.38.

[8] I acknowledge that the term ‘revival’ remains a contested term within storytelling circles. What has emerged within recent years is primarily a new performance art form, but one that claims its roots in a pre-industrial folk art. I have continued to use the term because storytelling practitioners continue to do so themselves, whilst recognising its ongoing problematic nature as a term.

[9] Ben Haggarty, Memories and Breath – Professional Storytelling in England and Wales: An Unofficial Report Conducted by E-mail Survey, 2004: (accessed 06.02.05).

[10] (accessed 03.06.08)

[11] Joseph Sobol, The Storytellers’ Journey (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), p.29.

[12] Michael Wilson, Storytelling and Theatre: Contemporary Storytellers and their Art (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006), pp.14-16.

[13] Michael Wilson, Performance and Practice: Oral Narrative Traditions Among Teenagers in Britain and Ireland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997) p.25.

[14] Jack Zipes, Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama for Children, p.27.

[15] Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera, translated by Stefan S. Brecht (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973) p.46.

[16] Quoted in Ruth Stotter, About Story: Writings on Stories and Storytelling 1980-1994 (Stinson Beach: Stotter Press, 1994), p.50.

[17] Ruth Stotter, About Story: Writings on Stories and Storytelling 1980-1994, p.51.

[18] Joel Schechter, Durov’s Pig: Clowns, Politics and Theatre (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985), p.11.

[19] Jack Lynch, The Humours of Breffni: Scurrilous Tales (audio cassette) (Dublin: Ojious Records, 1999).

[20] Interview with the author, 26.04.08.

[21] Lynch’s Cavan is an imagined Cavan, rather than an accurate one: “What I’m doing compared to John Campbell or Eamon (Kelly) is very postmodern, do you know what I mean? I didn’t go through those experiences. It’s a fictional geography of Cavan.” (Interview with the author, 26.04.08.)

[22] Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Švejk, introduced by Cecil Parrott (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), pp.xv-xvi

[23] Interview with the author, 26.04.08.

[24] Interview with the author, 26.04.08.

[25] Dáithi Ó hÓgáin from University College Dublin has identified the story as a late folktale from County Galway and in a tradition of stories in which Caoilte performs a task by means of his extraordinary skills (Tale Type 513) (from e-mail correspondence with Jack Lynch, 04.06.08)

[26] Best represented in the short play Der Jasager/Der Neinsager (He Who Said Yes/He Who Said No).

[27] P. W. Thomson, Mother Courage and Her Children (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.73.

[28] Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, translated by Patrick Creagh (London: Vintage, 1996), p.12.

[29] Bertolt Brecht, Gesammelte Gedichte, Band 3, (Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1976), p.875.

[30] Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, translated by John Willett (London: Eyre Methuen, 1978), p.283.

[31] Interview with the author, 26.04.08.

[32] Quoted in Michael Wilson, Storytelling and Theatre: Contemporary Storytellers and their Art, p.165.

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