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Gabriel Byrne And The Art Of Listening
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of TV show, âIn Treatmentâ)
Mr.Â GABRIEL BYRNE (Actor): (as Paul) I think you should know that the
kind of therapy that I practice, itâs not a quick fix. Itâs a process,
and eventually change happens, but it does take time.
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) I have to tell you, I donât
have a lot of time.
GROSS: Iâve been watching the HBO series âIn Treatment,â and Iâve been
enjoying Gabriel Byrneâs portrayal of a psychotherapist so much, I
started thinking maybe I should go into therapy. And then I thought, no,
no, no, what I should do is interview Gabriel Byrne.
So my guest is Gabriel Byrne. On âIn Treatmentâ he plays Paul Weston, a
therapist whoâs brilliant at seeing past the layers of defense
mechanisms and self-delusions of his patients. But he has problems in
his own personal life. Heâs now separated from his wife, he misses his
children. Those are some of the reasons, not to mention a malpractice
case against him, that Paul is in treatment himself.
Gabriel Byrne grew up in Dublin and became known in the U.S. for his
roles in movies like âMillerâs Crossing,â âLittle Womenâ and âThe Usual
Suspects.â Letâs start with a scene from âIn Treatment.â In this scene
his patient, played by Hope Davis, is a lawyer whoâs very successful
professionally, but the only person sheâs close to is her elderly
father. Sheâs had affairs with many married men, including a married
colleague who just broke up with her. Sheâs been talking to Paul about
(Soundbite of TV show, âIn Treatmentâ)
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) You make him sound perfect.
Ms.Â HOPE DAVIS (Actor): (as Mia) Is that bad?
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) Can you think of a downside to it?
Ms.Â DAVIS: (as Mia) A downside to having a father who loves me? No. The
problem is, I canât find anybody as good as him. You think thereâs
something wrong with that, donât you?
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) Well, for one thing, your fatherâs married to your
mother. Do you think thereâs any connection between that and your
picking married men?
Ms.Â DAVIS: (as Mia) I said that I was done with that.
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) You did. But you also asked me what that pattern
Ms.Â DAVIS: (as Mia) Now youâre going to tell me that my father molested
me? Because he didnât.
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) I didnât think that. But your father has been an
essential comfort for you. For as long as you are his favorite, you
wonât ever be alone. Iâm getting the feeling that the tight bond isnât
Ms.Â DAVIS: (as Mia) What do you mean?
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) Well, look at this morning. You came in, you
crossed a boundary. It made you feel special, but I think it also
rattled you. Your speech was fast, graphic. You tried to provoke me. You
Ms.Â DAVIS: (as Mia) The spill was an accident.
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) Maybe. But what Iâm saying, Mia, is that itâs not
always a simple thing to be special. I was thinking of the feeling that
you had when you were eight, after the robbery in your fatherâs store,
and he held you. It was too tight. It was life and death. Do you think
itâs possible that to separate from your father is to risk being
entirely alone, but to stay with him is to be uncomfortably close?
Ms.Â DAVIS: (as Mia) Why are you doing this? My dad is all I have.
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) No one else?
Ms.Â DAVIS: (as Mia) Colleagues, acquaintances.
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) Is he your closest relationship? Are you his?
Ms.Â DAVIS: (as Mia) I feel sick. I ate too much. This is like anti-
therapy. I walk in here feeling great. Iâm going to leave feeling like
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) Sometimes that happens.
GROSS: Thatâs Gabriel Byrne and Hope Davis in a scene from âIn
Treatment.â Gabriel Byrne, welcome to FRESH AIR. You are so good in this
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â BYRNE: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Are people coming up and confessing their problems to you or
talking with you, you know, about their therapist? Because youâre so
convincing and so sympathetic as a therapist, not always in your
personal life in the series, but as a therapist.
Mr.Â BYRNE: Yes, one or two people have come up to me and engaged me in
conversation about their - in one case - very private life, and I
hastened to reassure these people that Iâm actually not real. I donât
have a practice in Brooklyn and that they should actually seek
GROSS: I think another reason for the seriesâ popularity is itâs like a
mystery story, but instead of it being like a cop or detective series,
where the mystery is whoâs the murderer, the mystery here is whatâs the
motivation for the behavior. You know? And youâre constantly trying to
get to the bottom not of the crime but of the character.
Mr.Â BYRNE: Thatâs interesting that you should say that because I think
that the journey inward can be as exciting in many cases to observe as
the journey outward, and I think weâre at a stage now where â I was
talking to a friend of mine recently who said to me, you know, that this
series kind of reflects a cross-section of American society and that we
have a real need now in these times to be listened to. And I think when
people identify with these characters or reject them, they feel
connected in a way that sometimes they donât in these fractured
communities that we live in.
GROSS: So let me bluntly ask you the question that I know everybody
probably always wants to ask you, which is in preparation for this role
did you go into therapy, or had you already been in therapy and
understood what the process was like?
Mr.Â BYRNE: I had never been in therapy. I had known a few
psychotherapists but never actually took part in the process myself. But
I understood that it was about listening, and listening, I think, is one
of the most profound compliments that you can pay to another person, to
truly listen, and to feel that youâre heard is deeply fulfilling in a
deep human way.
I knew it was about that. The thing was how to make drama out of
listening, and so therefore television, because it uses the close-up so
frequently, allows you to do that, because by some magic alchemy, if
youâre thinking something or feeling it, the camera will capture it.
GROSS: You said this is a series thatâs in part about listening, that
your job, your role, your performance, is in part about listening.
Thatâs one of the reasons why I love the series, because itâs about
listening and often about asking good questions. Thatâs theoretically
what Iâm supposed to be doing on the show. So itâs like youâve
heroicized the act of listening.
Mr.Â BYRNE: Yes. I think that itâs â as I said, listening is a really
profound thing to do. I mean, we hear sometimes, but we donât actually
really listen, and when we start to listen, itâs the beginning of a
GROSS: But you know what? But listening isnât a great visual - like
watching somebody listen isnât usually a great visual experience. I know
from the very few times I did television, that when the camera would
come on me when I was listening to somebodyâs answer to my question, I
would look, you know, inert, which you canât â you as an actor canât
afford to look on camera. So what do you need to do to make listening an
action, an action that the camera can really pick up?
Mr.Â BYRNE: Well, if youâve ever observed a child listening, theyâre so
engaged in the act of listening. I was in a cafÃ© about two years ago,
and I saw these â I saw a man and a woman at a table by the window, and
she was so absorbed in everything that he was saying.
He was talking about, obviously, something that was personal to him, but
in the act of engaging with him by listening, she was outside herself,
and I looked at that moment and I thought thatâs what listening is, when
youâre absolutely absorbed in what the other person is saying.
The challenge of acting is that you donât hear everything just once. You
have to hear it several times because you have to do take after take
after take, but to constantly be absorbed and to try to be outside
yourself so that youâre not aware of listening, because really, truly,
profoundly listening is to be unaware of yourself at a deep level.
So you asked me if I had done any research for this. I had seen priests
in confession. Obviously being a Catholic brought up in Ireland I had
seen how they sometimes perfunctorily listened, because thereâs many
ways of pretending to listen. And I also find that very interesting to
observe, the way people fake listening and fake engagement.
I knew that if this thing was going to succeed, it had to be â that had
to be convincing, first and foremost. And I watched - you talk about
yourself as an interviewer. I watched Dick Cavett tapes, and I was very
keenly interested in the way that he didnât always have the right
question, and sometimes he got a little bit uncomfortable, and sometimes
his body language was a little uncomfortable as well, and that to me
looked like real as opposed to, you know, letâs, you know, convince
everybody that Iâm totally comfortable and everything is going smoothly.
Sometimes silence is more powerful than the actual words that are
spoken, and silence something that, say, somebody like Harold Pinter or
Beckett in the theater really truly understood, that words sometimes are
not more powerful than silence.
GROSS: Now your character is so good at being a therapist, although he
sometimes makes some pretty serious mistakes. But on the whole, heâs
such a sensitive and just really engaged therapist. But your characterâs
also in pain in his own life. His own life isnât going well. I mean
right now heâs separated from his wife, he misses his children. Theyâre
in Baltimore. Heâs moved to Brooklyn. and youâve made other mistakes in
your private life too in the series.
So you have your own therapist, and one half-hour of each week is
devoted to sessions with your therapist, whoâs named Gina and is played
by Dianne Wiest. And years ago she used to be your supervisor. So let me
just play a brief clip from one of your sessions with your therapist.
(Soundbite of TV show, âIn Treatmentâ)
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) I hate my life. Itâs broken. Every day it hurts.
Iâm not getting anything from my family, so I try to get it from my
patients. I know itâs wrong, but who else do I have?
Ms.Â DIANNE WIEST: (as Gina) Who else do you have to get what you need
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) Nobody. Okay, I have you, but you canât give me
what I need. See, itâs not your job.
Ms.Â WIEST: (as Gina) Letâs talk about what you need.
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) Do you have any water? Youâre supposed to have
water for your patients.
Ms.Â WIEST: (as Gina) Paul, youâre so convinced that I wonât have any
water for you, you donât see it. Itâs sitting right there.
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) Thanks.
Ms.Â WIEST: (as Gina) So can you tell me what you need?
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) I donât need anything special, just what everybody
Ms.Â WIEST: (as Gina) Well, you have food. You have clothing. You have
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) Well, sort of. I have a den with no other bears. Is
Ms.Â WIEST: (as Gina) You need some other bears?
Mr.Â BYRNE: (as Paul) Uh-huh, yeah. I miss them. You know what Iâm
talking about. I know you do.
GROSS: Gabriel Byrne, you want to just explain what the reference to
Mr.Â BYRNE: I think the reference is to his children and to an intimate
life, and that although he deals in one way in a very intimate way with
patients, itâs a poor substitute for the intimacy of his family, which
heâs separated from.
He also is without a relationship in his life and without a partner. So
heâs a vulnerable, compassionate, angry man, and I have to say here
that, you know, I can bring those qualities of compassion and anger and
vulnerability and whatever to the character, but I wouldnât be able to
do that if it wasnât for the writing. And the writing, you know, if itâs
not on the page, itâs not on the stage, and Warren Leight, who heads up
the writing team, I think they just did a spectacular job in making this
seem very ordinary conversation at times but yet very real.
GROSS: My guest is Gabriel Byrne. He stars in the HBO series âIn
Treatment.â More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Now, you grew up in Dublin and didnât come to the United States
till you were about, well, in your late 30s. Shortly after coming to the
States you made âMillerâs Crossing,â a film in which you played a
gangster. Correct me if Iâm wrong in this. You were educated by the
Irish Christian Brothers? Is that a Jesuit - a Jesuit group?
Mr.Â BYRNE: No. Thereâs â the Jesuits, theyâre a much more sophisticated
outfit altogether. The Christian Brothers were a teaching order, and
they were known for their strictness, rigidity and Victorian approach to
discipline. Spare the rod and spoil the child was their, was their kind
of philosophy, and sometimes that resulted in inhumane and cruel
treatment of people who were in their charge. I say that not with any
anger but just as a fact.
GROSS: What did you have to experience?
Mr.Â BYRNE: I think everybody that I know who was brought up in those
times expected that that was just the status quo, certainly cruelty on
an almost daily basis. I was just looking at a kind of - a diary that I
had kept, like a kind of childâs diary at the time, and I confided to
this diary that I didnât know why I was being hit because I didnât
understand, you know - if Jack has three stones in his pocket, and Tom
has four stones in his pocket, how many stones does the Bishop of Cork
have if he lives in Paris, or something meaningless like that, youâd say
I have no idea what that means, and theyâd hit you anyway.
So I didnât understand why I was being hit, and I remember, not to be
too Dickensian about it, but I do remember winter mornings with one of
these men, you know, whoâd had a brain operation and now read everything
upside-down. So we all had to learn to read things upside-down on the
blackboard so that we wouldnât, you know, rise his anger.
And this guy would just give you what he called 12 of the best on each
frozen hand, I remember, in wintertime. That may sound a little, you
know, Dickensian and dramatic, but it was the truth.
GROSS: That also sounds bizarre.
Mr.Â BYRNE: Yes. Well, when you have men who have taken a life oath of
celibacy and they are denied the basic comfort of human connection and
warmth, and celibacy is something that I absolutely detest within the
Catholic Church, I think itâs an appalling outrage against humanity, to
make people â itâs not like - Iâm not really a religious person, but
itâs not like Christ came down from heaven and said, look, okay, youâve
all got to be celibate. It was something that was introduced in the 11th
century so the church wouldnât have to pay the dependents of priests who
So celibacy is a man-made thing. And so you had these people who give up
the possibility of human contact and warmth, and you have them in front
of 50 kids, and theyâre told that they can hit with impunity and that
discipline is to be meted out for any transgression or perceived
transgression. So the stage was set for all kinds of abuse, both
physical and sometimes more than that.
GROSS: I think Iâd read that you had also studied to be a priest, that
for a period you planned to be a priest. Is that not right?
Mr.Â BYRNE: Yeah, I spent â at that time thereâs a very strange thing
that was â you know, they used to recruit young boys. I mean, I was 11
years of age, and this guy came into the school one day and he showed
these slides on the wall about, you know, working in Africa, and I
thought, wow, that looks really nice, thereâs rivers and horses and
smiling kids, and the guyâs got a straw hat on. That looks like a good
And at the end he said, well, how many boys would like to do that? And I
said, Iâd like to do that. So I found myself leaving from Dublin on the
mail boat to go to England when I was 11 to study to be a priest. And at
that time to be a priest was to be called by God. It gave great honor
and blessing to the family whose son was called to be a priest.
And I went there and spent four-and-a-half years and lost my vocation â
vocation, I say. But they made the mistake, the priests who ran the
place, they made the mistake of inviting a traveling â a group of
traveling players to the school, and these traveling players included
two girls, one of whom was in a black slip with black stockings.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â BYRNE: How she got in, I donât know. But anyway, she was on the
stage and she created havoc and chaos among the 200 to-be priests, and I
have a memory just of a gaslight and her standing under this lamp light
with her leg showing and me thinking, now, thatâs what I want.
And when they left, we were all hanging out the dormitory windows, all
these so-called, you know, apprentice priests, and she waved from the
little bus that they got into, and she waved to me, and I waved back to
her and I blew her a kiss, and she got in the bus and disappeared. And
then I looked and I saw there was 200 other guys hanging out the window,
and they all thought the same thing. But many vocations were lost that
night, and I often wonder who that woman was because I thank her.
GROSS: Gabriel Byrne will be back in the second half of the show. He
stars in the HBO series âIn Treatment.â Iâm Terry Gross and this is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross, back with Gabriel Byrne. He
stars as a psychotherapist in the HBO series âIn Treatment.â He is from
Dublin and didnât come to the U.S. until he was in his late 30s. He
became known here for his roles in such films as âMillerâs Crossing,â
âLittle Womenâ and âThe Usual Suspects.â He was educated by the
Christian Brothers and spent several years in the seminary. When we left
off, he was describing how he lost his vocation and left the seminary
after seeing a pretty actress in an acting troop that was invited by the
So was it really after that that you decided you in fact werenât called
and that you wanted to leave? Or was there another precipitating
Mr. BYRNE: Well, I was caught in the graveyard smoking, smoking on
Tip(ph) cigarettes. And I remember the priest walking up and down the
aisle and he said, I smell tobacco; if the culprits donât stand out
immediately, weâll have to take to measures to ensure that that, you
know - so he brought us all up. And of course we surrendered at the last
moment. And there was three of us who were found guilty. And theyâd said
that my conduct up to then had not been appropriate for somebody about
to be a priest.
And my cigarette smoking, my fascination with the town, which was three
miles away along the canal bank, and my unhealthy obsession with the â
with the actress under the lamp light were all deemed to be things that
did not constitute what they envisioned a priest should be.
GROSS: So when, you know, obviously you were serious enough about
religion to spend several years in the seminary. When you were invited
to leave the seminary, did you leave God behind?
Mr. BYRNE: Not immediately, but I suppose I had what they call a crisis
of faith. And I remember once saying, God, if youâre up there and, you
know, strike me down if I say something bad against you. And I said, I
donât like you, God, or something to that affect, something kind of
adolescent or childish, and nothing happened. And I thought, well, maybe
thereâs nobody really up there. And life took over, just the thrill and
excitement of being 17, 18 years of age, being able to walk through the
streets of London and seeing things like, you know, a guy standing
outside these strip clubs saying come on in, come on in.
GROSS: And you had permission to go. There was nothing holding you back
Mr. BYRNE: Yeah, there was nobody there to say â well, those little
voice in my head saying, you know, youâll be damned forever in a mortal
hellfire. But it kind - when you weighed it against the possibility of
seeing a naked woman, you kind of said, well - so that was my crisis of
faith, was naked women or hell forever.
GROSS: But at some point you didnât have to choose between the two.
Mr. BYRNE: No.
GROSS: At some point Iâm sure you realized you could have naked women
and if you wanted you could have some sense of God in your life. Did you
choose to keep one and were you kind of done with that?
Mr. BYRNE: I was done with that kind of God. My life since then, I
think, has been a better search for some kind of God. And I wouldnât say
that Iâm religious in any way, but I think that I moved towards some
version of being spiritual.
GROSS: Other aspects of your training that you could use to suit that
purpose now, even though you wouldnât â it wouldnât necessarily even be
in a Catholic way, but still you understand what meditation is?
Mr. BYRNE: Iâve a great respect for people who are on a spiritual quest
and Iâve a great respect for people who, you know, are looking to â I
mean in the end it boils down to that whole - was it Aristotle or Plato
who said, Who are we, why are we here, and where are we going? So I try
to live my life with those three questions. I donât know that Iâve come
up with any answers. But you know, one thing that the Catholic Church
did give me was a tremendous sense of appreciation of the theater,
because they truly understand theater.
I mean if youâve ever stood in St. Peterâs Square and watched the pope
come out onto that balcony, or if you watched the funeral of the last
pope, he was himself a former actor in Warsaw, in Poland, you know,
dressed like that, with that hat on him, going out surrounded by
thousands of extras on the set designed by Michelangelo and Bellini - I
mean he had the greatest gig of all time. And the church truly
understands what theater is and what it is to control and manipulate -
sometimes for good, sometimes not - vast crowds.
GROSS: What made you understand how important theater and acting was to
you and made you want to do it?
Mr. BYRNE: Well, about a year ago I was having dinner with a friend of
mine here in New York and we were talking about why we became actors in
the first place, you know, our very, very early days. And he told me
that when he was at school, he would go and pass through three road
blocks, because the troubles in the north of Ireland were rampant then.
The IRA, the UVF, the British Army, whatever, and heâd say - theyâd say,
Where are you going? Heâd say, Iâm on my way to do a play, Sean OâCasey,
and theyâd wave him through.
In 1976 in Dublin, a car bomb went off and many, many people were
injured and killed. And I had just joined a little group called the
Dublin Shakespeare Society, where we performed Shakespeare with itchy
black polo(ph) necks and wooden swords. And I had a choice as to whether
I should stay at home or whether I should continue this fascination that
I had with the theater. And I realized that I was willing to walk past
parked cars that potentially, could potentially be car bombs to get to
this small theater.
So that kind of - you know, one of the things that I love to see in a
young person is when they find their passion and theyâre just, theyâre
just - thatâs what they want to do. And no â nobody can really derail
you from that. Itâs a wonderful feeling. And if I had known probably
then what I know now about the world of acting and the world of theater,
maybe I wouldnât have done it. Butâ¦
GROSS: Why not?
Mr. BYRNE: Because I think itâs a very, itâs a very â itâs a very tough
business to be in, because so much of it is about rejection, and so much
of it is about just being, you know, in work, being able to work, being
in competition. But the thing about it is that Iâve learned not to
define myself by what I do, and thatâs a very big lesson for - sometimes
for young actors to absorb. Youâre not your job.
GROSS: Well, I can see how that would be particularly hard for you,
because before you even had a job, you were in the seminary training to
become a priest, so your life was completely defined by what you planned
to do, what you were training to do.
Mr. BYRNE: But I was only 16 or 17. I didnât really know what I was
doing. I was responding in a way to a fairy tale. And I was seduced by
the fairy tale. Andâ¦
GROSS: What was the fairy tale?
Mr. BYRNE: It was a fantasy about finding structure and a version of
home, I suppose, because it promised that. And sometimes I think when
people talk about heaven, what theyâre really talking about is an ideal
â an idealized version of home.
GROSS: Was your home not anything ideal?
Mr. BYRNE: Well, I think that, you know, it was a working class family
in Dublin and my father was a laborer and he had to work really, really
hard, and my mother was a nurse who had to work nights, and there were
six kids in the family. And you know, that produces its own stresses and
strains. And I used to â I remember when âThe Brady Bunchâ came out, and
I used to hate âThe Brady Bunchâ â only now in retrospect I can
understand why I might have hated it, because they seemed like such
paragons of virtue that they would say things like, Mom, Dad, can we
have a meeting? And I know if I said that to my father, he wouldnât â he
wouldâve just looked at me and said, you know: What?
You know, so they were all such happy - and every problem that they had
every week was resolved within 26 seconds by the father, the mother, the
maid who served them orange juice, and each other. So they represented a
kind of an idealized family which when I looked at not just my family
but other families around, we were coping with real life and it wasnât
just like that. So it kind of bred a kind of an unconscious resentment
in me that Iâm only beginning to understand now.
GROSS: My guest is Gabriel Byrne. He stars in the HBO series âIn
Treatment.â Weâll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Gabriel Byrne. He stars as a psychotherapist on the
HBO series âIn Treatment.â You know, part of me is wondering how come
you donât want to go into therapy, and the reason why I ask this is
having become a big fan of âIn Treatment,â like Iâve never been in
therapy. But watching âIn Treatmentâ I sometimes think, wow, thatâs so
interesting, like the process is so interesting. Maybe I should go into
therapy. It just looks so fascinating and revealing.
And I know what youâre doing is drama, as opposed to like the reality of
therapy and the two would be a little different. The revelations would
probably come a lot slower in real life. But nevertheless, thereâs
something very seductive too about the idea of somebody devoting such
complete attention to solving the mystery of who you are and why you do
what you do. So having immersed yourself in therapy as an actor for âIn
Treatment,â how come youâre not seduced by the idea? How come you
havenât wanted to go into therapy afterwards?
Mr. BYRNE: Well, I could throw a question back at you and say that you
sound almost like you want to go into therapy yourself. Youâre just
waiting for the right nudge to go in there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BYRNE: Andâ¦
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BYRNE: â¦I could do you a good rate. Iâll do you - Iâll give you a 20
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BYRNE: But for the same â for the same reasons, like you, Iâm kind
of fascinated by the notion of somebody giving their full and very
considered opinion to the narrative of my life. I think what a good
psychotherapist does, I imagine, is that they â that they help you to
write the real narrative of your life and come to terms with it. Because
I think we have a tendency when we talk about our lives to kind of
magnify certain things and give them an importance, idealize certain
things, and be in denial about other things. And looking at the
narrative of your life and how that influences who you are as an adult
cannot be but I think a good process.
GROSS: I think thatâs really well put. One of the things you did after
leaving the seminary was you went to college. You studied archeology and
linguistics. And I think this is where you learned to speak and write
Mr. BYRNE: Uh-huh.
GROSS: And I â you know, not â not growing up in Ireland or anything, I
donât know how many people are left who actually speak that language and
how much itâs considered just like an archaic or literary language. What
is the answer to that?
Mr. BYRNE: Gaelic is an ancient language and a really beautiful one.
Oscar Wilde said about English, he said, The English stole our language
and we learned it returned it to them with â with great beauty. I mean
it was a little bit Oscar Wildish to say that, but the truth is that up
until 18, say, 60 or 65, almost everybody in Ireland spoke Gaelic. And
within a hundred years Ireland, adopting English as its premier
language, produced Shaw, Yeats, Wilde, Beckett, OâCasey, Synge, some of
the greatest writers of the 20th century. Yeats redefined poetry, Joyce
redefined the novel, and Beckett redefined theater.
That was all in a hundred years. It is a most complex and beautiful
language, and with a wealth of great poetry and prose that most people
donât really know about. Itâs a beautiful language thatâs being revived,
and people are beginning to take a new interest in â in it, just like
they did with - for a long time Irish dancing was reviled and, you know,
disregarded, and now itâs like the hip and cool thing to do. To speak
your own language is a very hip and cool thing to do, and to be robbed
of your language is to be robbed of the way you think.
GROSS: Can you maybe recite a few lines in Gaelic from a poem you
particularly love and translate it for us?
Mr. BYRNE: Okay, thatâs a hard one. Okay, Iâll try. (Gaelic spoken) Itâs
a half-remembered fragment from Patrick Pearce, who was one of the rebel
leaders of 1916, and translated it means because â going back to naked
women - Ireland stands in for, a naked woman stands in for Ireland and
he talks about, naked I saw you, beauty of beauties, and I blinded my
eyes that I would not see you, my ears I closed that I would not hear
you. (Gaelic spoken) Thatâs the last two lines of it, and it says, And
in this road before me I gave my face. In other words, I turned my face
towards this road before me.
GROSS: You know, as an actor youâve played all kinds of characters,
some, you know, very reflective and gentle, father figure, some like
very brutal, like in âMillerâs Crossing,â and â and also youâre a
criminal in âThe Usual Suspects.â Having grown up, like come of age in a
seminary, was it at all difficult to get in touch with the brutal side
of yourself, to unleash that? Were you comfortable unleashing it when
you had to for roles?
Mr. BYRNE: I think we all have within us the capacity to be angry and
accessing anger. Itâs interesting, that what I sometimes go to and I
look at drama students, you know, working, becoming actors, the first
place that the men go to is anger. And the first place that the women go
to is tears. Itâs just an interesting thing that itâs easiest to access
for them, whereas men accessing tears seems to be more difficult,
possibly because the culture doesnât endorse the notion of men and
But anger seems to be an accessible emotion. Repressed anger is
something I, you know, I have worked with in - in my work. And I find it
a safe place to let it out there, because I think that anger is a real
emotion and, you know, I try not to be afraid of it. I heard a woman the
other day â I sometimes go to this church in Brooklyn and there is a
woman, the preacher was talking about how our bodies are repositories
for our feelings and how we store anger in our bodies. And I thought
that that was quite a good point to make.
GROSS: You said you sometimes go to this church, but you also told us
that you no longer really practice religion. Why? Why do you go to
Mr. BYRNE: Because I think that to be encased in silence for three
quarters of an hour in that way is - I find it nourishing and relaxing
for the soul. Itâs a nice church, they sing nice hymns, thereâs
beautiful stained glass, flowers, thereâs usually a good sermon, and the
seats are comfortable.
GROSS: Gabriel Byrne, itâs really been great to talk with you. Thank you
Mr. BYRNE: You too, Terry. And if you go to therapy, I will.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Iâll let you know.
Mr. BYRNE: Okay, Iâll check it with you again, make sure. Okay.
GROSS: Good deal.
Mr. BYRNE: Yeah, okay.
GROSS: Okay. Bye, bye.
Mr. BYRNE: All the best.
GROSS: Gabriel Byrne stars on the HBO series âIn Treatment.â New
episodes are shown Sunday and Monday nights.
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A Recently Rediscovered Page-Turner Of Nazi Berlin
TERRY GROSS, host:
More than a half a century after the fall of Adolf Hitler, people remain
fascinated by what it was like to live in Nazi Germany. Thatâs one of
the subjects of âEvery Man Dies Alone,â a recently rediscovered and
newly translated novel by Hans Fallada based on the real life story of
Otto and Elise Hampel, an ordinary couple who quietly tried to fight
Hitler. Primo Levi called it the greatest book ever written about the
German resistance to Hitler. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says that
itâs a riveting portrait of ordinary life and ordinary heroism in the
face of a ghastly dictatorship.
JOHN POWERS: There are some things that history books, even good ones,
canât teach you. I was recently reading âThe Third Reich at War,â the
new and final volume of Richard J. Evansâ superb trilogy about the rise
and fall of Nazi Germany. Late in the book, Evans notes that there was
some civilian opposition to Hitler, then adds the crushing truth: it was
hopeless. The only people who couldâve changed things belonged to the
military â figures like Count von Stauffenberg, the officer played by
Tom Cruise in the movie âValkyrie.â The others, however heroic, were
just small fry.
Now, if you want to know what it was like to be small fry in that
demented reich, youâre better off going to âEvery Man Dies Alone,â the
recently rediscovered 1947 novel by the German writer Hans Fallada.
Vibrantly translated by Michael Hofmann, this story of ordinary
resistance to Nazism is at once a riveting page-turner and a memorable
portrait of wartime Berlin.
The story centers on a married couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who hear
that their son has been killed in the war. While Anna falls into rage
and despair, the normally passionless Otto â a stolid, laconic foreman
whose men think of him as a machine â decides they should act. The two
begin entering public buildings and leaving a single postcard with an
anti-fascist message for someone to find. Itâs a small act, but they
know that one mistake will mean their own doom â as well as ruin their
family and friends.
Fallada uses the Quangelâs rebellion as the launching pad for a panorama
of life under the Nazis. Thereâs the retired judge who quietly deplores
Hitler and the apartment super who robs his frail Jewish tenant, knowing
she wonât dare report the crime. Thereâs the Hitler Youth who bullies
his parents, and the postal worker who flees to the countryside in
despair when she learns that her beloved son has been seen smashing
Jewish babiesâ heads against car fenders.
The most complicated figure is Inspector Escherich, the Gestapo man
whoâs chasing the Postcard Phantom, as he calls the people dropping the
subversive messages. As he tracks down the Quangels, he goes from being
a thoughtless, sometimes violent servant of the Reich to a man who comes
to grasp that he himself is merely a replaceable cog in a society run by
If anything binds these diverse characters, itâs that they share the
paradoxical condition created by police states. Even if they feel
desperately isolated and alone, they also feel that theyâre never alone
â somebody out there is watching, or could be watching, every single
thing they do. Itâs a feeling Fallada knew first hand. He lived a life
of drug abuse, alcoholism, asylums and prison. As both a writer and an
addict, he spent much of his life trapped inside his own head, yet aware
that he was under surveillance.
Perhaps because he was himself an outsider, Fallada has a knack for
capturing the small, unglamorous, seemingly futile heroism of the
Quangels. Virtually all the people who find their postcards are either
such loyal Nazi citizens or so such cowed ones that they instantly turn
these hot potatoes in to the authorities. And still the Quangels fight
their fear and go on.
With its vivid cast of characters and pervasive sense of menace, âEvery
Man Dies Aloneâ is an exciting book. Yet like so many stories about
Hitlerâs Germany, itâs also a challenge. It compels you to wonder how
you would behave if you were in the same dreadful situation. I mean,
itâs easy enough to think that, with his position and resources, we
wouldâve been as brave as Oskar Schindler, who even had the satisfaction
of knowing he was saving lives. But what if you were Otto and Anna, with
no real power, and no way of knowing if your actions achieved anything
Without being sentimental about it, Fallada suggests that the Quangels
may not have changed the regime, but they did change themselves. The
workaholic Otto finds himself opening up to many wonderful things heâd
never bothered to notice. He becomes more fully human. As for Anna, she
has the transcendent satisfaction of knowing she fought back against
evil. She may not have been able to save the world, but at least she
tried to save her own soul.
Now, that may not seem like very much in the grand sweep of history, but
Fallada makes us understand that in frail, mortal, human terms, such
courage is more than enough.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed âEvery Man Dies
Aloneâ by Hans Fallada. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.