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Opinion My play about adoption reflects on my family and families like us

Playwright Dylan Coburn Gray outlines the reasons why he wrote his new play, opening at the Fringe.

MY NEW PLAY, Absent The Wrong, is about adoption in Ireland. Looked at one way, it’s a history of the last 70 years. Another, it’s the story of three people who are related but have never met. From a third vantage, it’s the story of my own family – I’m the child of an adoptee and the grandchild of a Chinese medical student whose name I will probably never know.

Our search has stalled, but that doesn’t stop you wondering. This might be why I wrote a great big play in the territory – for the last two and a bit years it’s given me an excuse to wonder, to research, to ask questions, to reflect on my family and families like ours.

The play’s form is representative of what is so difficult about adoption as a topic: it is intensely personal and intensely political all at once. You have to find a way to reconcile the two scales, the extreme close-up on the individual adoptee and the extreme wide shot of the socio-politico, religion-bioethical terrain on which all adoptions occur.

Adoptees

That’s why the show has a cast of ten – it had to be about adoptees, plural, and how much variation there is in those stories. You can grow up with your birth information; you can never need or want to know it; you can look for it and be told (truthfully or untruthfully) that there’s nothing on record; you can find it under your own steam; you can never find out anything from anyone.

It’s sort of my family story, yes, but to tell it properly it couldn’t be just my family story. One reason is that it’s not exactly mine to tell – it’s my mother’s. (Which is why it’s fitting that she’s directing the play.) Another is that, without getting into it too much, we were lucky(ish). We found out that my grandfather was Chinese, but not his name. I met my birth grandmother and liked her, but she couldn’t help answer the questions about our past that I find most pressing.

Not much of a plot there! Early progress, and then a total dead-end. I could have dressed it up and stretched it out – I could have invented some obstacles, some obstructive social workers or some sensitive family members who’d prefer we didn’t dig up the past. This fits into the schema of Good Story Well Told: goal, pursuit, adversity, triumph.

A problem with this ‘good’ story ‘well’ told, though, is that it repeats the oldest gesture of adoption narrative – it centres on non-adopted people taking an adoptee’s adoption personally, as though their feelings trump the adoptee’s right to their own identity. More, it misses the big picture – where mixed-race children like my mother were less likely to be adopted in the first place, how they were more likely to end up in industrial schools. That’s something that comes up a lot in my wondering about our lives – how different and how much darker things could have been, all too easily.

Different stories

This is the crucial thing that drops out of view if you tell a story about one adoptee, however interesting the story is and however well you tell it. The fact of the dice roll is that things can so easily have gone otherwise. Ireland is still, belatedly, in the process of giving adoptee’s right to their birth information the legal footing it needs.

But remember: having no legislation didn’t mean no rules, it just meant no one tells you what the rules are. One body holding adoption information invokes the birth family’s constitutional right to privacy for everyone; one person in one such office goes against the trend and bends towards openness for all. You asked for and got access to your original birth cert instantly on 8 May 1995? Well for you. Someone else might ask the other person in that office on 9 May and get nowhere. Their discretion is at their discretion, not yours.

No one story about any one adoptee can capture this variability, because the variability is in the patterns that many stories together make. It becomes perceptible when you mark the points where those stories unexpectedly converge or markedly diverge, where they cleave or cleave. And in this respect, Irish adoption history typifies a deep problem of playwriting. Of all dramatic writing, at that: how to tell a story about a class of people? How to offer feeling and insight into both, scope and sensuality?

Some writers who would agree that this problem is a problem might disagree with my use of the word class. They might prefer to talk about the particular and the general, or the universal and the specific. Class feels a little too political. These are the writers who avoid explicit political commitment because they feel it eats away at the ambiguities of human relationships that fascinate – why we want what we want, why we do what we do, why the two don’t match up.

But I don’t think ambiguity is an end in itself. I think some writers fixate on it because of its proximity to complexity. I prefer writing plays about complex situations, places in the world where many forces meet, tangle, founder or explode. The complex is pretty much always ambiguous; when there are many pushes and pulls on a person, we can’t identify the one which uniquely determines the path they take. Because there isn’t one! Isn’t that freeing?

Conversely, the ambiguous is not always complex. And being committed to subtle, artful, languid, laconic ambiguity above all else – being the kind of writer who claims to reveal the Enduring Human Nature that subtends any given political landscape we occupy – can lead to a both-sides-ism I find cowardly. To echo a deservedly influential tweet: this war criminal killed a lot of people, but he also visited his nana in hospital so it’s impossible to say if he’s bad or not.

Absent The Wrong stages these problems. Ambiguity vs complexity, individual vs class. There are wide shots taking in different adoptees on their different journeys to their birth information; there are close-ups of small moments of intimacy.

There are family reunions, collective actions and inexplicable Mormons. My political orientation is not disguised, nor is it the point. It is what leads to me the question at the heart of the play: given our history, what would justice for adoptees even look like? If that question interests you too, then come along.

Dylan Coburn Gray’s play Absent The Wrong premieres at Dublin Fringe Festival. Produced by Once Off Productions, it will run from 10-24 September in The Abbey – Peacock Stage www.fringefest.com.

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