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date: 26 June 2019

(p. 1) Introduction

(p. 1) Introduction

The most important word in the title of this book is ‘theatre’. The familiar narrative in the field has most often been that of the Irish dramatic movement from the foundational work of W. B. Yeats, Augusta Gregory, and J. M. Synge to contemporary figures such as Martin McDonagh, Marina Carr, and Enda Walsh, sometimes including (although more often excluding) the major dramatists who made their careers abroad: Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett. These playwrights are, of course, given detailed analysis in the Handbook. However, our aim has been to extend the conspectus to take in the full phenomenon of modern Irish theatre. So, for example, we have two sections of the book devoted to performance, in which there is an examination of the often neglected work of directors and designers in what has been a text-centred tradition, an exploration of the acting styles and playing spaces that contribute to defining any period of theatre. While the Abbey, as Ireland’s national theatre, has been of central importance, chapters in this book bring out the contesting voices of women in a male-dominated arena, the position of Irish language theatre, and ‘little theatres’ that challenged the hegemony of the Abbey. The middle of the twentieth century saw what amounted to a new revival of Irish drama with the emergence of a generation of playwrights responding in innovative ways to a modernizing Ireland. This, however, was again diversified by the changes in the structure and funding of Irish theatre from the 1970s on, resulting in the establishment of regional companies and alternative dramaturgical directions. The contemporary period in Irish theatre has been a particularly rich one, featuring both continuities and disruptions of inherited dramatic tradition, a movement beyond scripted plays to more experimental work. In its international success, also, this more recent work affords the opportunity to look beyond Ireland itself to the impact and interactions of Irish theatre with a wider world in the UK, Europe, and the United States.

Modern Irish theatre is generally dated from 1897, the manifesto of the Irish Literary Theatre of that year mapping the way towards the 1904 establishment of the Abbey with its claim to a new national status. However, although the leaders of that national theatre movement were in reaction against the earlier forms of nineteenth-century Irish melodrama, such forms persisted as an often unacknowledged substrate of modern Irish drama. And Wilde, who was to become something like a house dramatist of the Gate Theatre from the 1930s on, can also be seen to express nineteenth-century European styles and themes. An Irish national theatre was thus created out of the multiple and often conflicting forces that sought to conceive an independent national culture in early twentieth-century Ireland, (p. 2) expressed both in power struggles within the Abbey itself and in other competing theatre companies. A representational realism, almost inevitably based around the rural cottage kitchen or pub, in which the small town stands in (more or less explicitly) for the country as a whole, was to win out as the dominant style of Irish theatre from 1910 on. But it was not inevitably or unequivocally so. Yeats persisted in experimenting with a variety of non-naturalistic modernist styles, and through the 1920s and 1930s theatrical influences from outside Ireland shaped the practice of the Gate Theatre, which was to become the principal dramaturgical alternative to the Abbey. Indeed, even going back to Synge’s work at the Abbey in the first decade of the century, there is an argument that his work, like that of Yeats, can be just as plausibly read in the context of international modernism. At the same time, Shaw, so often written out of the narrative of Irish theatre, provided in the discussion play of ideas another model of key importance to Irish dramatists. As the country moved through revolution towards an independent national state, the urgencies of political conflict had to find expression in the theatre. For the revolutionaries themselves, drama was a crucial medium both for propaganda and for the imagining of their objectives. In the aftermath, this produced a reaction particularly in the work of Seán O’Casey, whose sceptical urban vision challenged the unifying ideals of transformative revolution. After 1922 the national theatre in the postcolonial state found itself in a new and sometimes uneasy relationship with that state and its self-image.

All three of the first Directors of the Abbey Theatre—Yeats, Gregory, and Synge—were writers, none of them with a practical background in the theatre. For the productions of the Irish Literary Theatre (1899–1901), acting companies had to be recruited from England. It was the coming together of the leaders of the aspirational national theatre with the small troupe of largely amateur or semi-professional actors trained by William and Frank Fay that gave concrete reality and an acting style to the Abbey. That style was to blossom into a practice that allowed individual invention to exist within the ensemble playing that was a necessary feature of repertory, with results that can be seen in the inspired work of actors such as Sara Allgood, F. J. McCormick, and Barry Fitzgerald. In the Abbey initially, there would have been no separately credited ‘director’ for a production; this was still a time when the concept of the director as the shaping figure who controlled all aspects of a theatre production was only beginning to evolve. But Yeats, with his interests in the theories of Adolphe Appia and Gordon Craig, raised awareness of stage design, and extratheatrical pageants and spectacles in the 1920s added a new dimension to the idea of performance. The collaborative work of Hilton Edwards as director and Michéal MacLiammóir as designer at the Gate yielded productions in which lighting, costuming, and movement were integrated into a coherent whole.

Despite the crucial role of Gregory in the establishment of the Abbey as moving spirit, director, and for years their most popular playwright, modern Irish theatre history has often occluded the contribution of women. Dramatists such as Eva Gore-Booth, Mary Manning, and Teresa Deevy, actors and actor-directors Sara Allgood, Shelah Richards, and Ria Mooney, designers Dorothy Travers Smith and Tanya Moiseiwitsch have been virtually written out of the record. Almost equally neglected has been Irish-language theatre, which, in spite of the longstanding efforts of the Galway-based An Taibhdhearc and other shorter-lived companies, has struggled to maintain its presence within an overwhelmingly Anglophone population. The 1950s in Ireland is often portrayed as a period in the cultural doldrums, but it was also a time when a proliferation of small theatres and theatre (p. 3) companies in Belfast and Dublin enlivened audience experience by the difference of their dramaturgy and politics.

In the 1960s, Ireland’s long state policy of isolationism came to an end. Playwrights at this time reacted variously to the accelerating process of urbanization and modernization, whether in the conservative quietism of M. J. Molloy, the liberationist protests against repression of John B. Keane, or the satiric exposures of a new suburban life by Hugh Leonard. Two of the major figures starting to write at this period, Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, sought innovative theatrical styles to express the social, psychological, and spiritual condition of Irish men and women caught between the attachment to home and the need to escape. Thomas Kilroy, both in his theoretical writing and in his own dramaturgical practice, helped to reconceive Irish theatre of the 1960s and 1970s.

Dublin was long the dominant centre for theatre in Ireland, with venues outside the capital largely acting as receiving houses for touring productions. This began to change significantly with the establishment of Druid Theatre Company in Galway in 1975, using their western base and local acting company to develop a distinctive playing style that allowed them to produce fresh revivals of Synge and highly successful productions of work by Tom Murphy. Druid, like other regional theatres and alternative Dublin companies, such as Rough Magic and Passion Machine, were supported by the evolving cultural policies of the Arts Council, and by the opportunity of festivals at home and abroad to showcase their work. The political violence in the North demanded attention and produced an independent initiative in Field Day, established in 1980 by Friel and the actor Stephen Rea, which was to grow into an important theatre company touring out of its centre in Derry, in which Friel’s own works were central to the attempt to rethink politically divisive images of the nation. However, the violent political and sectarian conflicts threatened over time to create their own familiar, stereotyped formula of the Northern ‘Troubles’ play. Many individual playwrights and theatre groups within Northern Ireland have found means to resist such dramatic clichés, particularly in the period since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 when communities have tried to come to terms with the legacy of thirty years of violence.

Plays and playing are necessarily conditioned by the spaces of performance, spaces which carry within them the traditions associated with their past. The experiences of audiences within the Abbey, itself a reconstructed music-hall venue, over the years became overlaid with memories of former productions. At times in Irish theatre there have been efforts to work against such spatial inheritance in radical modern designs (not always realized) that attempted to create a sort of ground zero of performance. More recently, in site-specific work it has been the memories of historical actuality associated with the building that are invoked. While the spaces and circumstances of production have changed over time, so have attitudes towards direction and design, particularly in the more recent period. Directors such as Tomás Mac Anna, Patrick Mason, and Garry Hynes, often working very closely with designers such as Bronwen Casson, Joe Vaněk, and Frank Conway, have expanded the parameters of Irish scenic design

Professionalization has come relatively belatedly to Irish theatre, with full training in theatre arts emerging only in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Some of the most significant actors of the modern period learned on the job rather than in drama schools. Cyril Cusack, Siobhán McKenna, and Donal McCann served their apprenticeship in the Abbey company, playing a huge variety of leading and supporting roles, enabling them to develop the skills that make them international stars. Marie Mullen came up from (p. 4) student drama to become the leading actor of Druid Theatre Company, which she helped to found. These actors, though working also in film and television, continued to play primarily in the theatre, dependent on the live rapport with audiences established as the basis of their working practice. At the same time, Irish theatre became more international, as the sector as a whole became more professionalized. For instance, the entrepreneurial skills of Michael Colgan, the long-serving managing director of the Gate, were instrumental in putting together the hugely successful Beckett Festival in 1991, in which all nineteen of Beckett’s stage plays were produced together. Colgan saw this event not simply as a creative challenge, but equally as a market opportunity for reclaiming the playwright for Ireland, while also creating a show that drew on international directors and performers and had an extended afterlife in repeated revivals and eventually a cinematic re-creation as the Beckett on Film series.

The last twenty-five years in Irish theatre has been a period of unprecedented diversity of achievement and international success. To some extent this has come about through a continuation of forms of play production that have been become associated with the ‘brand’ of Irish theatre: a poetic fluency of language, a mixed skein of comic and tragic emotions, a retrospective concern with past history, and a near-archaic imagined community. An outstanding figure in this period has been Frank McGuinness, who has challenged traditional conceptions of ethnic and sexual identity, while fulfilling audience expectations of a richly layered form of Irish drama. Friel, Murphy, and Kilroy have continued to be productive, negotiating the changes in contemporary Irish society often through memory-based negotiations with the past. An Irish reputation for story-telling has been one reason for the success of a playwright such as Conor McPherson, whereas expectations of lyrical expressiveness or folklore-based drama have played into the reception of Sebastian Barry and Marina Carr. In contrast to such playwrights, who, however challenging their vision, seem to conform to traditional dramaturgical forms, there have been the sharply abrasive works of Martin McDonagh, Mark O’Rowe, and Enda Walsh. These dramatists parody conventional images of Irish theatre, and in their violent action appear to be close to a radical British ‘in-yer-face’ style. Many companies in this period, such as Pan Pan, Corn Exchange, Blue Raincoat, and ANU Productions have moved away from text-based work into theatre of movement and image, improvisational, and site-specific drama that no longer gives primacy to language. However, even in this period when so much has been changing, women’s role in theatre has continued to be undervalued. In spite of the international success of the work of Carr, and the excitement generated by the female collective Charabanc in the 1980s and 1990s (out of which Marie Jones emerged as a playwright), it has not been until well into the twenty-first century that the achievement of women as actors, directors, and playwrights have been normalized as part of the theatrical mainstream rather than ghettoized as a separate category.

It is understandable that the Irish national theatre movement emerging from centuries of colonial domination should be preoccupied with self-image and thus to some degree in-turned. But from at least as far back as the time of Dion Boucicault in the nineteenth century, Irish drama has been a presence in a wider theatrical marketplace. Beckett has, of course, been the playwright whose European and global reception has made his Irish origins all but invisible, in spite of the fact that his work has been successfully performed in Ireland since the 1950s. His supposed universalism has been a key part of his international (p. 5) standing, although there have long been critical challenges to this understanding of his work. By contrast, there has been a continuous interaction between Irish theatre identified as such and other Anglophone cultures, notably in the US, with influence and impact working both ways. The London transfer has been the aspiration for many Irish plays and productions in the modern period, and London approval the mark of success. Several contemporary Irish playwrights, indeed, choose to open their plays in Britain rather than Ireland for the greater market exposure it affords. Outside London, also, British playwrights of Irish origins have dramatized the problematic nature of national and regional identity.

Festivals have provided Irish drama with an international showcase both at home and abroad. The Dublin Theatre Festival, founded in 1957, is itself a collective performance of Irish drama, while it brings cross-fertilizing influence from visiting companies from abroad. Within continental Europe the penetration of Irish theatre has been much more uneven than in Anglophone countries. While Wilde, Shaw, and Beckett are widely produced, they are not really registered as Irish. Locally, there have been traditions of playing Synge, for instance, in the Czech lands, and O’Casey in Germany, and some contemporary playwrights such as McDonagh and Walsh have been widely translated and produced, but others such as Friel, highly successful elsewhere, are less well known in Europe. If Irish drama has not always succeeded in reaching the Continent, there has been a flourishing tradition in recent times of bringing European drama home to Ireland in ‘versions’—by Irish dramatists who do not themselves know the original languages of the plays they are rewriting—or in adaptations more fully assimilated to an Irish setting. The strong reputation of individual playwrights and the Irish theatre collectively has created a market for these more or less Hibernicized productions of classic drama from Greek tragedy to Chekhov and Ibsen.

Irish theatre has by now generated a substantial body of criticism, with theatre historians, political commentators, and cultural interpreters approaching the subject from different perspectives. Taken as a whole, the Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Theatre displays not only the diversity of Irish theatre scholarship but also the ways in which it is evolving. The long dominance of the playwright in Irish theatre has resulted in a rich tradition of critical writing focused on the dramatic text. Within the past decade and a half, there has been a discernible performative turn in writing about Irish theatre, coinciding both with new critical approaches and with an ever more varied performance culture. More recently, it has been possible to sense a new concentration on archives in the field, as major collections such as the Abbey archive have been digitized, and the papers of writers such as Brian Friel, Thomas Kilroy, and Tom Murphy have become available for the first time. All of these movements within the field can be found within this volume.

In putting together this book, we as editors were very lucky in being able to recruit some of the most distinguished Irish theatre scholars. While we mapped out the territory and planned the structural divisions into sections and chapters to fulfil our objective of representing as full an analysis as possible of Irish theatre, we also encouraged our contributors to adopt whatever approach they felt most telling for their subject. According to the principles of the Oxford Handbook series, the chapters are more or less discrete units, each tackling a separate facet of Irish theatrical practice. Inevitably, that means there are some areas of overlap and a few gaps. We have, however, restricted cross-referencing to a minimum, (p. 6) mostly in cases where another author within the volume has offered a different point of view of the same subject. Full references for all cited materials appear in footnotes, but so as not to make the Bibliography too unwieldy we have restricted it to book publications. We hope that the result is a volume that can be used for information and understanding by anyone interested in a single aspect of the subject, but also will result in a more complex, nuanced, and fully comprehensive view of what is a quite extraordinary cultural product of Ireland and an important contribution to world theatre.

Nicholas Grene

Chris Morash

Trinity College Dublin, April 2015