The Dramaturg: Dramaturgy Case Study: J.M. Synge, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and The 1999 British Open

Golf is the best sport to watch hungover. I’ve researched this myself. The pace is unhurried. No one speaks above a whisper. And the dominant image is of small groups of nicely dressed people strolling through vast expanses of manicured lawns. Every golf telecast is like a very long, pastoral lullaby. On the other hand, as a narrative device, golf is capable of creating insane amounts of dramatic tension, as much as any sport can. This is mainly because golf’s narrative always boils down to one man against the elements. Technically, yes, golf is a competition among many participants to see who can complete 18 (or 72) holes with the least amount of swings. But at any given moment, it’s about one person battling against topography and wind and water and sand. Against Nature and Fate and God. Which makes golf sound way more epic than it really is and believe me any sense of majesty in golf is reliably offset by its adherence to bizarro tradition and custom. Nevertheless, it’s that scope, even the way professional golf’s geography–the lone man hunched over the ball, hundreds watching silently from a distance–suggests a certain existential heroism, that I think makes it particularly appealing to rich people with too much time on their hands.

One would imagine that John F. Kennedy, Jr. was into golf. Most of his life appears to have been spent dicking around with similar flights of fancy. Some were noble (he was a pretty good philanthropist with a healthy sense of social responsibility), some misguided (I’m a shade too young to have fully appreciated his magazine, George, but by all accounts it was a little embarrassing; a thousand bad ideas about politics-as-lifestyle hatched around Ivy League dining club tables realized in one glossy) some just amazing (He dated Apollonia! And Princess Stephanie of Monaco! And Molly Ringwald! Nice ’80s troika, dude). Looking back though, none of it adds up to anything. It’s somehow revealing that when you go to jfkjr.com and click on the Photos link, this is the first one that comes up, with that caption. It’s like he existed only to suggest a certain life and not to lead it. It’s like he knew that too, like he knew it in the way that anyone who was born famous would know it. So of course, his death would be in an unseen and yet surely spectacular plane crash and of course he would be piloting the plane and of course it would be his hubris, his belief that he could fly at night, by instruments only, when in fact he could not, that would be the reason for the crash. And of course it would be off the coast of fucking Martha’s Vineyard.

John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s plane went down in the early hours of July 16, 1999. Two days later, a French golfer named Jean Van de Velde blew the British Open in absolutely riveting fashion. Prior to that year’s Open, Van de Velde was not a golfer of much distinction. He turned pro at 21 after a decorated amateur career in France and then joined the European Tour two years later in 1989. He had won exactly one tournament prior to 1999 but was keeping his head above water, basically grinding out a career by the time he arrived at the Carnoustie Golf Links in Angus, Scotland for the 128th Open Championship. He shot a 68 in the second round to move up to the lead at +1, and a 70 amidst blustery winds the next day to push his lead to five strokes. Even after a mediocre Sunday, approaching the 72nd and final hole, Van de Velde still had a three stroke lead. He would go on to post a triple-bogey seven for the hole, giving up the entire lead and putting him in a playoff that he would promptly lose.

About his decision to use a driver on the final hole’s tee-shot rather than the safer iron, Van de Velde would later say, “Why would I hit a seven-iron when I know I could hit a driver 270 yards down the fairway?” Fair enough. Of course, he doesn’t hit it 270 yards down the fairway. Instead he hits it way right, into the rough and right up along the edge of a creek known as Barry Burn that snakes through the hole. This occasions a glib shrug from the Frenchman. From there, everything comes slathered in more tasty, tasty hubris. Van de Velde passes on pitching back on to the fairway and instead opts to aim for the green. That shot ricochets wildly off the grandstand, off the stone wall guarding the Burn and back into even deeper rough. He promptly aims for the green again only to this time hit the ball right into the Burn itself. So there Van de Velde stood, shoeless and ankle deep in Scottish pond water, a mildly bemused look on his face as he contemplated his half-submerged ball and the rest of the world stared on, hands over their mouths, eyes lit up, concerned whispers passing between grimaces.

Kennedy was apparently something of an aspiring actor, vaguely pursuing it in his 20s after appearing on stage at Brown University in, among other plays, Playboy of the Western World. J.M. Synge’s 1907 ode to Irish barroom morality tells the story of Christy, a young man who stumbles into a pub off the coast of Ireland to announce that he is on the run after murdering his overbearing father. The bravado, anger and vitality this suggests turns Christy into a kind of rebel celebrity in town and the object of desire for local ladies Pegeen Mike and Widow Quin. You want to say that Kennedy shouldn’t have played Christy, that it would be too smugly perfect to have a Kennedy, this Kennedy, playing the titular Playboy. But then, you have to have Kennedy play him (and, of course, he did). If he had any sort of natural talent at all, he probably aced it. The play is really about storytelling and mythmaking and is fascinatingly self-loathing to read now, in a way that I’m sure Kennedy could appreciate, himself born right in the bowels of the American mythmaking machine, himself having already become attracted to a profession in which one’s responsibility is to a role and to a story.

 

The retrospectives and interviews with Van de Velde are great to watch. His arrogance is so perfectly French (“What did I lose? I lost nothing!”). He’s like Napoleon from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But just like Napoleon, the grandeur of that ego is entrancing and it creates, all but demands, a towering arc. It’s an arc not unlike that of a small, white ball sailing into a creek or, for that matter, a small, white plane sailing into the Atlantic Ocean. “I’m playing to win as a big dreamer,” says Van de Velde. Pegeen’s father Michael says it in a different way in Playboy: “A daring fellow is the jewel of the world.”

Filed Under: dylan southardFeaturedPonderings

Dylan Southard About the Author: Dylan Southard is the co-Artistic Director of Needtheater and the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company. He has worked with The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Theatre @ Boston Court, Centerstage Baltimore, Native Voices at the Autry, the Network of Ensemble Theatres, Theatre Dybbuk, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble and LoNyLa among others. He can be found @dylansouthard.

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