Modern Irish Drama
Modern Irish drama was initiated in 1897 at a meeting of three people: William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and Edward Martyn. In 1903 they founded the Irish Literary Theatre, now called the Irish National Theatre Society, and in 1904 opened the Abbey Theatre with a double bill of Lady Gregory’s Spreading the News and Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand. From its inception, the Abbey was dedicated to cultural nationalism and committed to staging native plays with Irish themes. Rather than simply serving as a stage for British imports (Dublin had long been a stop on the eighteenth-century circuit of London, Bath, Dublin), the Abbey was and is still today a central venue for shaping modern drama. In fact, the history of modern Irish drama is inextricably linked to the history of Irish theater.
Many of Yeats’s plays were based on Irish mythology and legend, in accordance with the Abbey’s celebration of Ireland and Irish traditions. Those of Lady Gregory were based on her interest in Irish folk tales and mythology. According to theater historian Oscar Brockett, Lady Gregory “virtually invented the Irish folk-history play based primarily on oral tradition” (p. 454). For example, her Kincora (1905) revolves around a mythic Irish king. Thematically, both Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s plays were in reaction to the stereotypical “stage Irishman” character so often the object of ridicule in plays imported from England. Lady Gregory’s plays were very popular with audiences but were not given the critical praise that Yeats’s have received.
In 1906 Edward Martyn withdrew from the Abbey in disagreement with the policy of excluding non-Irish plays; he went on to help form the Theatre of Ireland and later started the Irish Theatre Company (1914–1920). He was replaced at the Abbey by a future star of modern Irish drama, John Millington Synge. In 1908 the talented Fay brothers (Frank and W. G.), who had been important figures in the work of the early Abbey, left to work in England and the United States.
Although Yeats had envisioned an ideal theater that would be separate from politics, the fervent Irish nationalism that led to the birth of the Irish Free State also brought changes to the Abbey. In the early 1900s, the Abbey became a center of Irish cultural and political friction. Audience protests at the Abbey occurred due to differing artistic and political attitudes and also reflected tensions in society. The nationalists protested certain plays that they felt did not represent an accurate view of Irish life. The artistic staff of the Abbey was interested in promoting new Irish writing on a variety of themes. The public wanted plays that presented positive views that countered the stereotypes of the stage Irishman. The peasant plays of the Abbey were the “bread and butter” (Owens and Radner 1990, p. 7) of the theater. If a character was felt to portray the national character in a negative way, that character, play, and playwright were subject to protests.
The Abbey was the site of Synge’s early work, including The Playboy of the Western World, whose initial production in 1907 provoked the infamous Playboy riots that started when some audience members objected to his portrayal of the national character and his mention of the word shifts (female undergarments). Others objected to the play’s depiction of the Irish peasantry. Despite the lasting influence of his work (his plays continue to be staged in the twenty-first century), some critics believe that Synge, in his peasant characters and invented peasant language, created unflattering stereotypes of the Irish people. Other scholars consider his Riders to the Sea (1904), which deals with a mother’s loss of her fishermen sons, to be one of the best short plays ever written in the English language.
Between 1904 and 1930, the Abbey continued to produce new plays on Irish themes (family life, Big House stories, social issues), culminating with Sean O’Casey’s trilogy of Dublin life during the Irish Civil War: The Shadow of the Gunman (1922), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926). This last play provoked protests by those who felt that O’Casey was mocking Irish patriotism and the Irish people. Just as Synge was criticized for his portrayal of the Irish common people, O’Casey was criticized for showing the gritty hardships of Dublin city life, particularly prostitution. Although O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy is realistic, his later plays such as The Silver Tassie (1928) are expressionistic. His change in style led to a break with the Abbey, and O’Casey, like Shaw before him, moved to England.
In 1914 George Bernard Shaw’s 1904 play about British imperialism in Ireland, John Bull’s Other Island (1904), was finally produced. Shaw, like his fellow expatriate O’Casey, became and remains one of the major figures of world drama. Although he left Ireland and most of his plays do not have Irish settings, he took great pride in his Irish heritage. Using comedy as a tool to explore and promote social issues, his plays are full of the political ideas of the day. In Major Barbara, a munitions manufacturer is found to be a greater humanitarian than his daughter, a member of the Salvation Army. Arms and the Man questions, through the mode of comedy, romantic attitudes about love and war.
In addition to O’Casey, other playwrights of note in the early twentieth century include Theresa Deevy (Katie Roche, 1936), Lennox Robinson (The Whiteheaded Boy, 1916), Padraic Colum (The Land, 1905), Denis Johnston (The Old Lady Says No! 1929), and St. John Ervine (Mixed Marriage, 1911). Deevy’s The King of Spain’s Daughter (1935) deals with a young woman who escapes reality into a fantasy world, and Ervine’s Mixed Marriage deals with the problem of mixed Roman Catholic and Protestant marriage. Thematically, these plays reflect social concerns that continue to be examined in contemporary plays.
At the same time that the Abbey was developing, several other theaters were founded in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland. In 1928 Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards founded the Dublin Gate Theatre. In Galway in 1928 the Irish-language theater Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe was founded. In the North, in Belfast, the Ulster Literary Theatre was established in 1902; it was followed by the Ulster Group Theatre in 1940 and in 1951, Mary O’Malley’s Lyric Players, which acquired its home, the Lyric Theatre, in 1968.
According to Fintan O’Toole, after O’Casey’s plays were produced in the late 1920s, the great, first era of Irish theater ended and there began a “long period of decline” (p. 48). He earmarks the “second revival” of Irish theater as starting in the 1950s and continuing into the 1980s. (The first revival spanned the period between the founding of the Abbey and the end of the 1920s.) Despite the conservative atmosphere in Ireland from the 1930s to the 1950s, Ireland in the 1950s saw the work of two internationally important playwrights, Samuel Beckett and Brendan Behan. Behan’s The Hostage (1958) holds a crucial place in the annals of political theater; Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) is a landmark in theater history. In 1954 the Pike Theatre presented the first Irish production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a classic work of the theatre of the absurd, a twentieth-century movement that examines humankind’s growing isolation in the aftermath of World War II. In this and many other of Beckett’s plays, characters are unable to control a world that seems to be disintegrating around them. Like Shaw and O’Casey, Beckett also left Ireland, moving to France and settling there permanently in 1938; he aided the French Resistance during World War II and was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970.
The two most vital voices of the period between 1960 and 1980, whose plays continue to shape modern theater into the twenty-first century, are Brian Friel (Philadelphia, Here I Come, 1967) and Tom Murphy (A Whistle in the Dark, 1961). Friel’s influence cannot be denied, and his works command an international audience. Philadelphia, Here I Come and A Whistle in the Dark fall into the larger genre of immigration/emigration plays, which include M. J. Molloy’s The Wood of the Whispering (1953), John Murphy’s The Country Boy (1959), John B. Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty (1961), Dermot Bolger’s In High Germany (1990), Sebastian Barry’s White Woman Street (1992), and Charabanc’s Gold in the Streets (1986). Along with Murphy and Friel, Hugh Leonard (Da, 1973), Thomas Kilroy (Talbot’s Box, 1979), and John B. Keane (The Field, 1965) are also major and influential playwrights. The work of Tom MacIntyre (The Great Hunger, 1983; revised 1986) is also of merit, especially for its experimental aspects. Besides emigration, Christopher Murray identifies several other major themes of late-twentieth-century Irish writing: sexual identity, religious consciousness, and politics (Murray 1997, pp. 165–186). He divides the last into several subcategories: the rural-urban divide, the history play, and the political allegory. With the occupation of Northern Ireland by British troops in 1969, the atmosphere on the streets, particularly in Belfast, gave rise to the important genre of “Troubles” plays. Along with the earlier playwrights Sam Thompson (Over the Bridge, 1960) and John Boyd (The Flats, 1971), the premier dramatist was the brilliant Belfast playwright Stewart Parker. Parker’s untimely death in 1988 robbed the theater of one of its most gifted talents. He is particularly known for Spoke-song (1975) and Pentecost (1987).
1980 TO THE PRESENT
Since 1980, Ireland has seen exciting and innovative theater staged in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, and the establishment of numerous companies. In 1983 the Belfast-based Charabanc Theatre Company was founded by five out-of-work actresses. Known for the vitality and balance of their work, Charabanc’s plays, researched and developed by the company, include Lay Up Your Ends (with Martin Lynch, 1983) and Somewhere over the Balcony (1988). Until its dissolution in 1995, the company toured all over Ireland and internationally. Field Day Theatre, established by Brian Friel and Stephen Rea in 1980, had as its first production Friel’s landmark Translations, a play that is now widely produced and anthologized. Field Day disbanded in 1982, leaving a lasting legacy in the new work they created, but they were also widely criticized for marginalizing women in their directorship, their work, and their publications. With the publication of the three volumes of its work in 1991, supervised by its all-male board (four other male directors having been added), Field Day was reproached for the absence of women writers. A proposed fourth volume was to be devoted to the work of Irish women; however, after several years it was clear that the original board had no interest in seeing the women’s volume published. A group of women scholars finally brought the long-awaited volumes to press (published by Cork University Press in 2002).
In 1990 Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa was a great success not only at the Abbey but also in London and New York and in other theaters around the world. Besides Friel, until the late 1990s the other most widely produced playwright was Frank McGuinness, known particularly for his Someone to Watch Over Me (1992) and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching toward the Somme (1985). The 1980s also saw the success of playwrights Anne Devlin (Ourselves Alone, 1985) and Christina Reid (Tea in a China Cup, 1982), both from Belfast.
The second half of the 1990s saw a tremendous surge and success in Irish dramatic writing. Marina Carr (Portia Coughlin, 1996) was one of the few women to have her plays produced at the Abbey (the lack of women playwrights at the Abbey has been decried by feminist critics, especially during the 1990s). Sebastian Barry’s plays (for example, The Stewart of Christendom, 1995) were noted for their autobiographical bent. Marie Jones, a founding member of Charabanc, has been internationally successful with her 1999 Stones in His Pocket. The Leenane Trilogy (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, 1996; A Skull in Connemara, 1997; and The Lonesome West, 1997) by Martin McDonagh has made him one of the most widely produced Irish playwrights of the late 1990s. Like Marina Carr, McDonagh often explores the dark side of Irish life, but unlike Carr’s plays, which can be emotionally bleak, McDonagh’s dramas in their violence satirize the peasant world of J. M. Synge. In McDonagh’s The Lonesome West, the priest Father Welsh is a man so insignificant that no one can remember the correct pronunciation of his name. Defeated by his inability to reach his parishioners, Welsh has become a drunk who eventually kills himself. Like Friel, who often sets his plays in the imaginary depressed small town of Ballybeg, Marina Carr has a favorite location for her plays, the Irish midlands, and in this setting she takes often disturbing looks at the dark underbelly of Irish life. The leading character of The Mai (1994) kills herself; By the Bog of Cats (1998) is a reworking of Medea, with the Medea character Hester Swane killing not only her child but also herself at the end of the play; On Raferty’s Hill (2000) is about a cycle of incestuous abuse.
Dublin has been a dynamic center for new theater companies and new writing. Particularly outstanding is the Rough Magic Theatre Company (artistic director Lynne Parker), which has had a strong commitment to new writing. Also based in Dublin is Conor McPherson, a writer known for his monologues who has earned praise for his modern ghost story, The Weir (1997). Galway is the home of the celebrated Druid Theatre Company and its artistic director Garry Hynes, the first woman to win a Tony Award for direction (in 1998); Druid first produced the work of Martin McDonagh and of Vincent Woods (At the Black Pig’s Dyke, 1992). Also based in Galway is Patricia Burke Brogan, whose Eclipsed (1992) helped to expose the tragedy of the Magdalene laundries. Unwed mothers and troubled young women were “committed” to these laundries that were attached to Roman Catholic orders and were more or less indentured to the church; their babies were taken from them and in many cases adopted by Catholic families. One of the newest voices in modern Irish drama is Gary Mitchell (he calls himself British rather than Irish) whose prize-winning examinations of Northern Protestant life in Belfast can be seen in his In a Little World of Our Own (1997) and The Force of Change (2000).
Modern Irish drama was born at the end of the nineteenth century; at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Irish drama (modern, postmodern and contemporary) still holds a central position in the arts and the culture of the island, capturing the imagination of audiences worldwide with its power, diversity, and vitality.
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Fairleigh, John, ed. Far from the Land: Contemporary Irish Plays. 1998.
Fitz-Simon, Christopher, and Sanford Sternlicht. New Plays from the Abbey Theatre, 1993–1995. 1996.
Griffiths, Trevor R., and Margaret Llewellyn-Jones, eds. British and Irish Women Dramatists since 1958: A Critical Handbook. 1993.
Harrington, John, ed. Modern Irish Drama. 1991.
Irish Women’s Writings and Traditions. Vols. 5 and 6 of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. 2002.
Jordan, Eamonn, ed. Theatre Stuff: Critical Essays on Contemporary Irish Theatre. 2000.
Leeney, Catherine, ed. Seen and Heard: Six New Plays by Irish Women. 2001.
McGuinness, Frank, ed. The Dazzling Dark: New Irish Plays. 1996.
Murray, Christopher. Twentieth-Century Irish Drama: Mirror up to Nation. 1997.
O’Toole, Fintan. “Irish Theatre: The State of the Art.” In Theatre Stuff, edited by Eamonn Jordan. 2000.
Owens, Cóilín D., and Joan N. Radner, eds. Irish Drama, 1900–1980. 1990.
Roche, Anthony. Contemporary Irish Drama: From Beckett to McGuinness. 1994.
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Charlotte J. Headrick
Copyright © 2004 by Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation.