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Willis ADM

Taxonomy of Man: 27 April 1993


Masculinity in Kilroy’s The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche

In his The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche, Thomas Kilroy addresses


traditional Irish dramatic themes such as change and tradition, alcohol,
and honor, but he intertwines these and other themes to comment on the
Irish notion of manhood. The lower-middle to middle class characters in
the play tend to be protective and conservative of what defines a man.
First, the characters’ reluctance to change and their dwelling on times
ten years past indicate a static idea of normalcy. For many of them, to
deviate from the beliefs of the past is to reduce one’s masculinity.
Their philosophy — their taxonomy — of manhood is further rooted in two
elements of their younger days: alcohol and women. Alcohol seems to be
the stable of their diet that alternately leads to and washes away their
sorrows with women. The men generally reduce the role of women to
objects worth only a “stretch” and a “good squeeze” and, for the most
part, they forget the emotional support and companionship that women can
offer. Strangely, the idea of what is acceptable companionship are
subject to a tacit agreement among the friends, even though as
individuals, one might reject them. It at times seems no one truly
believes the philosophy the group espouses. It is simply an amalgamation
of scattered, empty beliefs about what manhood should be. At bottom, the
character’s notion of manhood derives from their highly self-referential
and xenophobic group mentality. What is like them in age, taste, and
experience is manly. Whatever differs is womanly, or at least sexually
ambiguous, and by extension, worthy of domination and ridicule.
It is clear from the start of the play how rooted in the past many of the
characters are. In his descriptions of the players, Kilroy notes that
Kelly “wears essentially the same clothes every day until they become
unwearable” (Kilroy, 7). The audience soon learns that Kelly also
behaves essentially the same way until it becomes unbearable. Kelly
himself seems aware of this in his opening speech as he approaches his
apartment, but he sees his unchanging nature and environment as
“consolation that the sky is the same as before. Same sky. Same street.
Same keys” (10). His life is satisfactory but in stasis. The return of
his friends after a long absence is only more of an excuse for Kelly not
to change in their presence, he can regress two years, even ten, and they
surround him with the same habits, the same nostalgia, the same stubborn
beliefs. With some irony, Kelly waxes to his friend Seamus that “Them
were the days...Things haven’t been the same since” (11). For Kelly,
though, to say that things aren’t the same doesn’t seem tantamount to
saying things have changed. It is not difficult for the audience to
imagine the friends gathering years earlier and behaving in virtually the
same way they do this Saturday evening. They all appear to have had the
same jobs, the same positions for years. Even Jeremy, “about forty”, has
remained in school so long Kilroy swaps his Christian name for a more
telling appellation: “the Medical Student.” Only two developments seem
to have chastened the mens’ activity somewhat; namely, Seamus’ marriage,
and the unavoidable process of aging. “The age is creeping up one me,”
Kelly confides. But in their actions they attempt to deny even these
changes. Kelly assures Seamus that after two years Seamus “got out in
time” (12) and their adolescent frolicking with women of easy virtue and
singing of lewd verses is more emblematic of men a full generation
younger. Kelly’s commentary on marriage (“Tis alright for the first
stretch Then it wears off.”) evidences their immature outlook on
permanence and commitment. They have grown older, but cling to the same
values.
The most obvious manifestation of this proto-men’s-movement is their
shared passion for drink and talking or acting lasciviously. By
flaunting their sexuality, they reassert their masculinity. Generally,
he who is most forward about his urges is most “masculine.” The Medical
Student enthusiastically conflates drinking and women with his opening
lines as he belts out a drunken round of “Four and Twenty Virgins” (12).
Myles is quick to supplement his friend’s mood as he suggests they “go to
a hop in the Metropole” (12). It is perhaps a foreshadowing comment on
his own lack of sexual confidence that Kelly asks his overtly desirous
friend to “Tie a knot in it” (12). It is also appropriate that the
conversation then turns to another sexually questionable character,
Kevin, who later in the play is victimized only because of his young age
and his association with Mr Roche.
The mentality of the men towards those with less ostentatious manliness
is as much a part of their language as it is their physical provocations.
By subverting language to the development of a masculine taxonomy, they
are able to figuratively emasculate the object of their scorn. Mr Roche
is the unfortunate object of their scorn in this instant, and Myles
refers to him as “the queer, what’s his name? Mr Roche” (13). Much in
the same way Kilroy renames Jeremy “the Medical Student,” to strike
closer to his essence, Myles renames Roche “the queer.” The name is
considerably more telling than, say, “the homosexual”, because it
establishes an opposition between what is normal (the foursome) and what
is abnormal, or queer, viz. Mr Roche and in part, Kevin. The Medical
Student immediately feminizes Roche and tags him “The Queen of Dunleary”
(13). Kelly’s quick and explosive response is again defensive, but of
himself and not of Roche. He doesn’t wish to endear himself to “the
queer,” but neither does he seem to take part in the same ribbing as his
friends. Almost too fearful of insinuation, he lashes “We don’t want him
and the type he goes around with. Perverts!” Use of language to
subjugate the less masculine also allows the men to abstract the
differences between them and others, and so Kelly adds importantly, if
too emphatically, “I have me principles if others haven’t” (13)
His introduction of “principles” is crucial to the understanding of the
characters’ ideological approach to manhood. Kelly’s principles
constitute the standard to which he holds himself and, as significantly,
those around him. His friends meet his principles, but the “pervert”
Roche is an aberration from them and therefore not entitled to the same
treatment or respect as the other men. To fully understand the insecure
manhood of Kelly, one must note the inconsistency of his principles. His
postulate that “{Roche] won’t come into my flat” is rendered feeble when
he admits at Jeremy’s prompting that “Roche...has been here before” and
is quick to add, perhaps accurately, “but that was before I knew his
form” (13-14). This is the first hint that Kelly has had more
involvement with Roche in the past two years than he is willing to admit
to his friends. Later, after Roche arrives, Kelly claims “I’m as liberal
as the next man but I draw the line at perversions” (33) Myles also
pretends this false liberalism, asserting he is “more broad minded than
the average” (34). But as the action of the play reveals, neither is
able to reconcile their “principles” with their behavior. Were they as
liberal as they say, they would no doubt have found opportunity to
discuss their true feelings on sexuality.
Kelly is silent about his relationship with Roche until much later in the
play because he believes, as would his friends, that the companionship a
man receives from someone like Roche is unnatural and perverted. They
construe their own friendship as a product of nature, just as they see
the urge to “stretch” women as a natural development. Surveying Kelly’s
habitat, Myles assumes suggestively that this where Kelly “spends his
hours stretching typists out of the Department.” Were Kelly as confident
and overbearingly masculine as Myles, he no doubt would respond with some
coy remark suggesting the volume of his conquest. But unable to cover up
his insecurity and lack of prowess, Kelly blames the women for his
failure to live up to the standards, or principles, of Myles. His
excuse, though, suggests a competition, a pursuit, in which he is the
predator. “You might as well be trying to crash the sound barrier in a
kite as trying to stretch one of them Holy Marys” (14). Reminiscent of
nineteenth century American phrenologists demonstrated the superior
capacity of the white man’s skull and Third Reich surgeons measuring the
features of Jews, Myles couches himself in nonsensical academia and
explicitly constructs a taxonomy of his kind of man. “As a B.L. myself I
recognize him for what he is. Look at the eye, the mouth...” (14).
Myles links manhood to capturing women and, more subtly, to drinking.
Describing Kelly as the consummate man apparently provokes Myles to
remember his own quest for the evening, and when “nature calls” asks “are
we not after some skirt tonight,” a thought which in turn provokes a
thought of relieving himself. “Talking about nature, where’s the jacks
around here?” (14-15). The after effects of his drinking have hit him,
and his association calls to mind Freud’s discussion of urinating as a
sign of phallic domination over women and nature. Fittingly, Myles
mistakes the “Holy-hole” for the lavatory.
In addition to drinking and whoring, another requirement of manhood for
the foursome is emotional reserve. Like “lying around with any old
whore,” (20) being emotional is “bad for the image.” Even Seamus, the
sensitive intellect of the four, is reluctant even to listen to one of
his friend’s outpourings. The traditional, perhaps outdated, view that
strong men never show their tender side is prevalent among the men.
Early in the play, as Kelly laments passing time, Seamus urges, “Ah,
Kelly, don’t go soft on me.” Kelly, however, is insistent on revealing
certain feelings, perhaps more to compensate for those he keeps secret
than to form a truer bond with his friends. He is eager to pronounce his
affection for Seamus, but is silent or defensive regarding Roche until he
thinks the latter man is dead. “That’s right! I’m not afraid to
broadcast it. I’m not ashamed of my feelings” (15) Despite this
declaration, it soon becomes clear how ashamed Kelly is. To fit in with
his friends, especially with Myles, Kelly often sacrifices his principles
to ingratiate himself by, for example, gamely suggesting that marriage is
simply a device to “get it.” He is like the fat boy trying to win the
favor of club’s teenage leader. “That’s right, Myles. One of the lads
that gets it regular, isn’t that right, Myles, ha?” (16). Much later in
the play, when Kelly begins to openly question his potency and virility,
both Myles and Seamus are quick to suggest reductively, “There’s nothing
wrong with you a good squeeze wouldn’t cure” (55). Ironically, it is the
sensitive companionship Roche offers that Kelly rejects. It does not
figure into the parameters of proper manly relations as established by
his friends.
When Kevin and Mr Roche arrive, the group immediately insults and soon
assaults them. Again, the four use language to subjugate those who are
(literally) outside of what Myles calls the “happy little group” (28).
“My name is Mr Roche,” Myles mocks. “I like boys and bottoms.” Kelly is
as adamant, but “near hysterically” defensive. “Get him away, away to
hell. Dirty, filthy pervert.” Only Seamus is the quiet voice of
moderation and says only “I mind my own business” (28). As three of the
men stuff Roche into the bathroom with an ill Kevin, Seamus can only
reflect, “All mad. All mad,” a lament that reflects their loss of
reason, their loss of manliness and their descent into beastliness. He
toasts ironically “To the men of Ireland.” Their only excuse is “Twas
only a joke” and they lewdly apologize for the lack of “room to manœuvre”
available while they were “trying to do him a favor” (32). Their abuse
of Kevin is equally disrespectful and emasculating. Because he can’t
hold his liquor, and because he has a meaningful and reciprocal
relationship with Roche, Kevin must face the jingoistic ravings of Kelly.
“Why don’t you learn how to hold it, boy, ha? Why don’t you get a bloody
grip of yourself instead of galloping more than ya can keep down?” (36).
He adds later, again shifting the blame from himself, “if you were at
home with your mother where you ought to be this wouldn’t have happened”
(41). Myles’ repeated reference to Roche as “Agatha” underscores the
belief underlying his linguistic subversion that Roche is not a man, but
merely “female substitute” (35). He maintains that Roche, as a non-man,
has neither the wisdom nor the strength of real men. “Leave this to the
menfolk,” he advises (36).
The “menfolk” derive and maintain that status largely through image.
When they “kill” Roche by stuffing him (again fittingly) into the Holy-
hole, Kelly’s only concern is that the bad press will compromise his
manly image. “It’s the terrible reputation we’ll get, that worries me.
Prison I can take” (57). Kelly’s worry about the looks and the headlines
suggests that the status of manhood is not an objective one. By the
foursome’s own admission, Hollywood seems to have manufactured their
standards of manhood. Myles dreams wistfully about “perpetual motion”
with exotic women “suntan[ned] in forbidden places.” “That’s real
living!” he concludes (65). Kelly, for his own part, assumes the tough
demeanor of cowboys and gangsters, but cannot even accept blame for the
death of Roche. “It wasn’t really our fault. We were visited by him”
(69) he offers pathetically, and he fears the press and public will
emasculate him should the investigation uncover his prior relationship
with the gay victim. “Anything like that sticks to your back like tar,”
Kelly points out (59). Roche, on the other hand, spitefully and
contemptuously doubts the manhood of his oppressors. “Men!” he mocks
bitterly (36).
In the end and perhaps throughout the play, it is Roche, not Kelly, who
had companionship, who had principles, who had self-respect. Upon his
final confrontation with Roche, Kelly is reduced to insisting “I’m not
dying! I’m not dead!” (78). Roche has experienced with the rising sun
“the beginning of life again” (72). As the others go off to mass to
continue their constant, unchanging routine, having won the contest and
redefined the opposition, a man lingers in Kelly’s habitat. (2423
words)

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