by HAYLEY HUNTLEY
the same day I saw John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar at the Geffen Playhouse, Adele released her new album, 25. By then, though, a couple of Adele’s singles had already breeched the surface, like the first divers in a lake yelling, “Come on in, the water’s sad and intense!” When the song Hello debuted, it was met with a chorus — the fans, the press, the friend in my passenger seat — all asking, “Who is this song about?”
Adele told the magazine, i-D, “…it’s not about anyone specifically. It’s about friends, ex-boyfriends, it’s about myself, it’s about my family. It’s also about my fans as well.”
That’s an example of an artist lying, though, because it’s mostly about an ex-lover, isn’t it? ISN’T IT?
I accept that some art is meant to be experienced rather than understood, like that big huge rock at LACMA. (Right? Does someone know something I don’t?) But I also get the urge to know what certain works of art are “about.” I can’t help it. I fall for “Carly Simon Finally Reveals Who’s So Vain” every time.
One week before I saw Outside Mullingar (my timeline doesn’t matter, except accumulating these micro-experiences was like when you haven’t heard the word “unbeknownst” in years and then one day you hear it three times), I listened to the elusive author Margaret Atwood do a sassy interview. I love her tone — she’s not impolite, but she lets us know when a question feels totally beneath the point. When an interviewer asked about her novel’s buried meaning, Atwood — like a parent responding to a child for the hundredth time — answered: any meaning is supplied entirely by the reader.
Bullshit. There’s meaning. There’s always an “about,” and I’ll find it.
(I plan to spoil a central mystery in Outside Mullingar, so don’t read on if you want to uncover the surprise on your own. Also, it’s only one of many satisfying surprises in the play, so maybe this can be your Bingo Free Space.)
Outside Mullingar is a love story that takes place on neighboring Irish farms. Over the span of several years, against a rich backdrop of family history, we witness lifelong neighbors Anthony Reilly and Rosemary Muldoon in their slow crawl towards togetherness.
Rosemary has been waiting for Anthony to make a move her whole life, but he has a secret that’s stopped him. It’s a secret so big that Anthony’s father swore an oath to keep it, despite making a hobby of listing Anthony’s faults. It’s a secret that drove Anthony’s first love away when he told her. It’s a secret Anthony wears like a physical burden, one he fears burdens everyone he’s ever loved.
Finally, in the last scene, with Rosemary on her proverbial knees, it comes out. Anthony at last confesses: “I believe that I am a honeybee.”
“I believe that I am a honeybee.”
Is it a metaphor for how he likes the outdoors, wishes to fly, doesn’t fit in with people? Rosemary (sort of) gets to the bottom of it: Anthony actually thinks of his house as a hive, actually believes he can fly, actually thinks he’s a bee and therefore is mad and therefore shouldn’t marry. “But,” she asks, “If you know it’s odd that you think you’re a bee, are you not sane?” He doesn’t answer. Rosemary doesn’t mind, and we all get swept up in the sentimentality of the moment:
ROSEMARY: I don’t care if you ARE a bee. I’m half dying with living for you. But wait, do you think I’m a bee?
ANTHONY: No. . . .
ROSEMARY: May I know what I am?
ANTHONY: You’re a flower. The most beautiful bloom that grows.
Big kiss, curtain down, lights up, happy crowd. But I’m not satisfied. I’m still squinting. This honeybee business floats puzzlingly, surreally above the ground that is the rest of the play. Somebody bring Shanley on stage, get the man a microphone, over here, way in the back, me, I have a question. What was that ABOUT?
On the night of a friend’s funeral service in college, I sat with my best friend, Julia, on my twin bed. My hands were soaked with sweat, my muscles tightened, my eyes avoided hers. I felt exhausted from having kept a secret so long, and there was no room for it now that grief was in the picture, so I decided to tell her: I was not sure if I was totally “straight.”
In the rearview, that’s a pretty benign and stereotypical secret (I was in college, I was twenty, who is “straight?”), but I grew obsessed with knowing a thing which (I now feel) laughs at my attempts to know it. It gave me untold anxiety, hollowed out my confidence, isolated me, dunked me in depression. I was even ashamed at the inherent homophobia that felt involved in having such a debate. It was a real banana split of every dark feeling I’d ever known.
Julia replied, except I have no memory of what she said, because it lacked surprise. We hugged. We stood up. Nothing exploded, she didn’t turn to stone, I didn’t sprout wings.
Since then, the file labeled “Darkest Thing About Me” has changed contents several times over, at the approximate rate of once a year. The file’s always full of something that feels unbearable until I take it out to show someone, or turn it over in the light to examine it myself.
This is what I think the Honeybee Part is about. “Honeybee” is a placeholder for the thing that you decide makes you weird, makes you broken, makes you unlovable — the thing that, when put into words and uttered to someone you love, might as well sound like “I think I’m a honeybee” for all its relevance to the business of loving and living. I’m a bee, you’re a bee, we’re all bees, it’s fine. Tell someone you love, see if they care.
Outside Mullingar is a Madlib. Anthony’s secret is so absurd, we have no other choice but to supply our own meaning and make it personal (touché, Margaret Atwood). I say this with all the clarity of someone playing records backwards on her bedroom floor: in figuring out what the Honeybee Part was “about,” I determined it is indeed “about” something, something that could be anything, something that ultimately means nothing.
That, and Hello is about ex-lovers and ex-lovers only.