David Ireland’s play, Ulster American, is a sharp social satire. The dialogue is stinging while caricaturing society’s modalities of power. Undertaking weighty contemporary issues ranging from identity politics, rape culture, and global politics, Ireland’s strongest scorn is directed towards essentialist cultural identity. The play shares its name with the open-air museum, Ulster American Folk Park, established to explore Irish emigration. Clearly, this is Ireland’s first indication of the drama’s focus on complicating cultural identity. Winner of the coveted Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award in 2018, Ulster American is primed to contribute to societal narratives while lampooning contemporary injustices.
The premise and setting for Ulster American are uncomplicated. The play opens to a living room where Leigh, an English theater director, is sitting and drinking with Jay, an Oscar-winning American actor. They banter about their approaches to their crafts and offer insights on global and domestic politics while professing how their progressive politics leads to their self-awareness. Their hubris is apparent and their superficial understanding of progressive ideologies is both repellent and certainly comedic.
They are awaiting the arrival of Ruth, a British playwright. She authored the play in which Jay will star and Leigh will produce. Set in Northern Ireland, Ruth’s drama depicts the legacy of oppression associated with religion, colonization, and the use of violence as a means to reclaim cultural identity. Yet Jay takes issue with the play because he assumed “it was a story about the struggle for Irish freedom, written by an Irish Catholic” (42). Nor can he tolerate Ruth’s identification as British despite growing up in Northern Ireland. According to Jay, her refusal to identify as Irish renders her “a traitor to the cause of Ireland” (42).
They are mired by absolutism and both fail to understand how the region’s complicated history directly informs their identity. Jay’s know-it-all Americanism is impeccable as is Ruth’s indomitability and Leigh’s pusillanimity. Ultimately, Ruth is positioned in a situation where she must defend herself or acquiesce. She chooses the former, which then culminates in a bloody climax.
Both Jay and Leigh identify themselves as feminists and theoretically understand the privilege derived from their race, gender, and sexual identity. Their hubris is adroitly written while their mansplaining and unawareness is an astute parody. Ireland intelligently includes references to popular culture to demarcate their laughably narrow ethos. For example, their understanding of culture is primed by white men. Leigh confuses James Baldwin as a younger sibling of Alex or Stephen Baldwin. Later in the play, they both apotheosize James Cameron “as the greatest filmmaker in the history of our art form and more than that he is a pioneer, a philanthropist, an inventor of worlds and a benefactor” (54). Likewise, their discussion of the Bechdel tests assumes the creator was male but are indifferent when they realize Alison Bechdel is actually a woman. When they refer to Ruth, they declare “this chick is the new Chekhov” (47). Despite their claimed awareness of social and cultural injustices, it’s apparent that their frame of reference is prescribed by patriarchal privilege.
Their faux-progressive diatribes are merely masking their toxic masculinity. Both are misogynists: they openly discuss rape and violence against women then threaten to take control of Ruth’s play by rewriting the narrative. Here Ireland flawlessly demonstrates the asininity in affirming progressiveness without changing actions or dismantling privilege. Throughout, Ireland carefully explores the characters’ false-consciousness.
Throughout, Jay and Leigh both enact the double standards facilitating and maintaining oppressive paradigms. As one example, they discuss the importance of empowering women and giving women the freedom to inform political and cultural narratives. Jay and Leigh support “the rise of women. The voices of Irish women. And all women everywhere. Which must be heard” (13). Yet as Ruth makes clear, they are only referring to those voices which echo their own standpoints. When they must think or act any differently, the characters seek comfort in toxic masculinity. Ireland firmly demonstrates his use of satire as a tool used to expose society’s ultimate follies.
Yet, Ulster American’s handling of rape and the acceptance of rape culture is problematic. Jay and Leigh’s initial misogyny is revealed by their consideration of which prominent woman they’d rape. Jay initiates the conversation and Leigh is initially uncomfortable but does nothing to counter Jay. Ruth immediately understands their conversation is informed by internalized toxic masculinity and acceptance of rape culture. More so, she quickly illustrates how the dialogue reestablishes their power because these women were “better than you? You want to put her in her place, is that it?” (57). That’s precisely it.
However, there are endless ways to exhibit misogyny without exploiting rape. Ireland is notorious for over-dramatizing sexual violence, as evident in his previous play, I Promise You Sex and Violence (2014) He includes sexual assault to add shock value yet fails to challenge society’s compliance with rape culture. Indeed, the rape dialogue is arguably the play’s weakest component. To make it clear, Ireland nor the characters condone rape in Ulster American. Once the characters revisit their repulsive conversation, they both retract their statements. But as so many before them, the guilty admissions are only uttered after their culpability is exposed. Still, the use of rape and sexual assault as plot development or social commentary is tired and overused.
Ultimately, Ulster American fortifies satire’s two primary purposes: to make the audience laugh and rethink dominant social, cultural, and political narratives. The play, from the opening scene to the conclusion, is both entertaining and philosophizing. Ireland’s understanding of identity is critical while his derision towards false-consciousness is essential.