Irish drama

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Afterplay

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

1920s Moscow, a small run-down café. Uncle Vanya's niece, Sonya Serebriakova, now in her forties, is the only customer. Until the arrival of Andrey Prozorov, the put-upon brother from Three Sisters.

Afterplay revisits the lives of two characters from Anton Chekhov's plays. It was first produced, with The Bear (also after Chekhov), at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, in March 2002.

Alice Trilogy

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Alice Trilogy is a haunting triptych of disappointment and gnawing sadness. Three acts, closer to monologues than conversations, show three ages in the life of Alice, an unhappy housewife.

1980, in the afternoon murk of her attic, with whiskey in her coffee, is she losing her grip on reality?

1995, she has summoned a lost love to meet her by the gasworks wall.

2005, at the airport, a tragedy presses to the surface of her internal monologue.

Alice is a mesmerising creation, existing only half in her domestic married life, and half in a dream-like world of alter-egos and strange detachment.

Alice Trilogy premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2005.

Andersen's English

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Celebrated children's writer Hans Christian Andersen arrives, unannounced, for a stay at Gad's Hill Place in the Kent marshes – home to Charles Dickens and his large, charismatic family.

To the lonely and eccentric guest, the members of Dickens' household seem to live a life of unreachable bliss. But with his broken English, Andersen doesn't at first see the storms brewing within the family: undeclared passions, a son about to go to India, and a growing strangeness at the heart of Dickens' marriage.

Andersen's English by Sebastian Barry premiered at the Theatre Royal, Bury, in February 2010 in a production by Out of Joint.

Ariel

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Fermoy Fitzgerald, a Irish midlands politician, haunted by the ghosts of the past and enthralled by dreams of the future, will sacrifice everything in pursuit of power – even the lives of his wife and family. On the day of his daughter Ariel's sixteenth birthday, he makes a terrifying bargain with God

Ariel was first performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in October 2002.

Arlington

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Enda Walsh's play Arlington (subtitled 'A Love Story') is a story of love and oppression set in a dystopian world of entrapment, isolation and surveillance. It was first performed at Leisureland, Salthill, Galway, on 11 July 2016, as part of the 2016 Galway International Arts Festival.

The play is set in a 'realistic waiting room – of no fixed time or place'. Isla, a young woman, is trapped here, waiting for her number to be called on a prominent LED number display screen. Her only human contact is with a Young Man who sits in an adjacent control room operating the cameras that keep her under constant surveillance and listening to the stories she invents about the outside world. Both characters are victims of a tyrannical system, as is the Young Woman who, in a long, wordless, central section, dances her way to her own death. The play, however, concludes on a note that suggests that the human spirit can withstand oppression.

The Galway premiere was directed by Walsh with choreography by Emma Martin, music by Teho Teardo and designs by Jamie Vartan. It was performed by Charlie Murphy as Isla, Hugh O’Conor as the Young Man and Oona Doherty as the Young Woman, with additional voicework by Eanna Breathnach, Olwen Fouéré, Helen Norton and Stephen Rea.

Arms and the Man

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Although Arms and the Man derives its title from a translation of Virgil’s phrase ‘arma virumque’ in the Aeneid, it does not reflect the subject or mood of the classical epic poem about mythic heroes waging war. Rather, the play is a light-hearted mixture of domestic and romantic comedy. Additionally, although the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885 provides a backdrop for the play, and military action is often discussed amongst the characters, it is never enacted.

The play predominantly deals with class conflict and twisted love affairs, detailing the illicit romance between Raina Petkoff and fugitive Swiss officer Captain Bluntschli, and the equally salacious relationship between Raina’s fiancé, Major Sergius Saranoff, and housemaid Louka. Despite the secrecy of these flirtations, there exist two very obvious tokens of the couples’ respective affection onstage – Saranoff’s coat that Raina gives to Bluntschli, and the bruise that Saranoff leaves on Louka’s arm. As such, George Bernard Shaw renders his somewhat commonplace plot line more interesting with a satirical self-awareness, imbuing the text with obvious theatricality, whimsy, and even burlesque. Rather than imparting a sense of realism, Shaw’s comedy is illusory, fictional, and overtly performative.

Arms and the Man debuted on the London stage in 1894.

audio Arms and the Man

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

It's 1885, and Raina's bourgeois Bulgarian family is caught up in the heady patriotism of the war with Serbia. The beautiful, headstrong Raina eagerly awaits her fiancé's victorious return from battle - but instead meets a soldier who seeks asylum in her bedroom. This is one soldier who definitely prefers romance and chocolate to fear and bullets. War may be raging on the battlefield, but it's the battle of the sexes that heats up this extraordinary comedy and offers very different notions of love and war.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring Al Espinosa, Jeremy Sisto, Teri Garr, Anne Heche, Micahel Winters, Jason Kravits and Sarah Rafferty.

Featuring: Al Espinosa, Jeremy Sisto, Teri Garr, Anne Heche, Micahel Winters, Jason Kravits, Sarah Rafferty

Arrah-na-Pogue

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Written in 1864 and set during the Irish rebellion of 1798, Arrah na Pogue is an rollicking tale of romance and misadventure with rascally rebels, despicable villains and love-struck youths.

As night falls on the Wicklow mountains, the popular but incorrigible rebel Beamish MacCaul is lying in wait. He’s out to ambush the cowardly rent-collector Michael Feeny and collect some rent from him in turn. That done, he’s off to marry Fanny Power. Down in the valley, love is in the air for Shaun the Post and the play’s heroine Arrah Meelish too. But Arrah has a secret, and Michael Feeny has found it out. As Shaun and Arrah celebrate their wedding, revenge comes a-calling. Now love must conquer all – including the hangman’s noose. The play is brim-full of Boucicault’s trademark comic roguery, farce and melodrama.

Ars Longa Vita Brevis

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In their introduction to the play, authors Margaretta D'Arcy and John Arden say of Ars Longa Vita Brevis: 'This little piece is not exactly a play, nor is it anything else in particular. If we must call it something, it might well be termed "A Theme for Variations."'

A satirical play, Ars Longa Vita Brevis draws comparisons between education and military conquest, suggesting that the result of both is the suppression of individual expression, and, ultimately, the death of the individual, as seen in the life of the martially-minded art master Mr Miltiades. The free rein the authors give to the possibility for production is in marked contrast to the damning, and ultimately damned, techniques of the protagonist of the piece.

The Aspidistra Code

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Mark O’Rowe’s The Aspidistra Code, the first play he wrote, is a sinister but comic drama of honour and violence. It was selected by Ireland's National Association of Youth Drama as one of the winners of the Stage IT! Young Playwright’s Project, an initiative founded to encourage playwrights between the ages of eighteen and thirty. The play was first presented as a rehearsed reading at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, on 2 December 1995, directed by Gerard Stembridge

The play is set in an 'average-sized living room' belonging to Brendan and Sonia, who are in debt. They fear the arrival of the Drongo, a violent and unpredictable loan shark. But Brendan’s brother Joe has hired protection in the person of Crazy Horse. As it turns out, Crazy Horse and the Drongo are old mates and the crisis seems to have been averted. That is until the Drongo’s code of honour is called into question, precipitating a bloody showdown.

In his foreword to Mark O'Rowe Plays: One (Nick Hern Books, 2011), O'Rowe describes the play as 'a light, funny piece, probably most easily categorised as a kitchen-sink-crime-comedy-drama'.

Up to the arrival of W. B. Yeats in the 1890s, the Irish theatre was colonial. Yeats, with a little help from his friends Edward Martyn and Augusta Gregory, made it anti-colonial. After the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922 it became postcolonial. Theatre and drama were thus not native art forms; the idea of a theatre in the conventional sense lay outside Irish culture. Its importation was part of England’s cultural imperialism in the late sixteenth century, and as theatre developed after the foundation of the first royal patent was granted in Dublin in 1662 it became a ‘semi-governmental institution’ and an expression of Anglo-Irish supremacy. Needless to say, its appeal was always to a minority audience, the vast majority of the population being excluded. What was truly vitalizing about Yeats’s modest proposal in 1897 to establish the Irish Literary Theatre in Dublin was its determination to redress 300 years of colonialist theatre in one revolutionary moment. The call was for ‘a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature’ endowed with ‘that freedom of experiment which is not to be found in theatres of England’. There were two main aims: to counteract the ‘stage Irishman’ or stereotypical view of the Irish, and to raise Irish consciousness of identity and of history by staging ‘the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland’. The project was both ambitious and idealistic, appealing to the nationalist impulses of those who had been followers of Charles Stewart Parnell and were committed to Home Rule. It had about it a certain naïveté not lost upon the sophisticated George Moore: ‘The Celt wants a renaissance, and badly; he has been going down in the world for the last two thousand years.’

Yet when the time arrived, in May 1899, for the launching of the Irish Literary Theatre George Moore had cast off his cynical reservations and thrown in his lot with the founding idealists. With his experience as playwright for J. T. Grein’s Independent Theatre in London, Moore rightly feared for the amateurism of Yeats’s plans. So he took a hand in rehearsals and tried to ensure that the programme was professional in style and production. After a visit to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford, Yeats persuaded Frank Benson and his company to stage two new plays, Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen and Martyn’s The Heather Field. If there was a certain amount of irony in these plays appearing alongside King Lear (now there’s a Celtic play!) during the week of the Irish Literary Theatre’s debut in Dublin, it was lost amid the uproar surrounding the charge of blasphemy directed against The Countess Cathleen. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin condemned the play unread (although it had been published); on opening night crowds of students from Cardinal Newman’s University College attacked the play and the police had to be summoned. This inauguration was to set the mould for the reception of controversial Irish plays hereafter. ‘Not what you want but what we want’ became the attitude of Yeats and his theatre towards the audience – and, he added with pride, ‘we were the first modern theatre that said it.’ The new Irish theatre had to be fought for. The audience may have been divided, yet the theatre’s commitment to the freedom of artistic expression carried the day from the outset. The first week’s productions (and one week was all that was planned) proved a triumph, and allowed two similar experiments to be conducted in 1900 and 1901, during which plays by Moore and Martyn in the Ibsenist mode were added to Yeats’s poetic drama (in which Moore collaborated) Diarmuid and Grania. The Irish Literary Theatre then dissolved.

Because of the incongruous involvement of the Benson Company, this venture was at best but an interesting episode. Yet while Moore and Martyn were happy to abandon the project Yeats was determined to press on in the search for a more authentic Irish theatre. A one-act play in Irish which completed the bill with Diarmuid and Grania in 1901 gave him his way forward. This was Casadh an tSugain (‘The twisting of the rope’) by Douglas Hyde, a simple peasant play in a realistic setting acted by amateurs trained by William George Fay. Yeats admired the simple acting style and made contact with Fay and his brother Frank, two enthusiasts who knew more about modern theatre than Yeats did, for they ran their own little company and were well aware of the new ideas on naturalism coming from Paris. They admired the Irish Literary Theatre but thought Yeats too immersed in vague symbolism. ‘In Ireland’, wrote Frank Fay as critic for the patriotic United Irishman, ‘we are at present only too anxious to shun reality. Our drama ought to teach us to face it. Let Mr Yeats give us a play in prose or verse that will rouse this sleeping land.’ Yeats obliged with the propagandist Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), with Maud Gonne playing the lead, staged by the National Dramatic Society formed between the Fay brothers, Yeats and the poet George Russell, who offered a verse play, Deirdre, to make a double bill.

The way was now open for the development of a form of realism which was close to the people, simple yet deeply moving, and staged with all the authenticity of setting, costume and acting style that naturalism commanded. Yet it would have to be said that the Fays’ ideas on acting, while including ensemble playing, were not altogether naturalistic (in the Stanislavksy sense) but combined an element of poetic symbolism. The style thus evolved to suit the repertory, which was predominantly realistic but never entirely so: there was always an other-worldly aspect hovering over or under the dramatic action. James Joyce, then only 22, disagreed violently with this new development of the Irish theatre and in The Day of the Rabblement (1902) accused Yeats of betraying the mission Ibsen had laid down for modern drama by turning to peasant life for theme and representation. Joyce went his own way, not acknowledging that the aim he proposed for himself in fiction, to attend to ‘the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’, was being pre-empted by Yeats, the Fays and the new playwrights flocking to the theatre. In his only play, Exiles, Joyce remained true to Ibsen but showed how far removed his preoccupations were from this theatre. Yeats, with the backing of Annie Horniman, an English admirer, went on to found the Irish National Theatre Society with premises in Abbey Street in 1904. This little theatre (capacity just over 500) and its small stage (only 21 feet at proscenium opening and just over 16 feet to back wall) was to establish a remarkable repertory of new plays of Irish life. The Fays became the main creators of the Abbey’s acting style, while the theatre itself was managed by three writers: Yeats, Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge. It was to be, first and foremost, a writers’ theatre.

Synge was the first genius to stamp the new dramatic movement with greatness. For him truthfulness and poetry were the primary ingredients for dramatic representation. Or, as he put it, ‘On the stage one must have reality, and one must have joy, and that is why the intellectual modern drama has failed.’ In his short career he compressed with Keats-like intensity a vision of life as harsh, fleeting and filled with sensuous experience. Riders to the Sea (1903), while only a one-acter, selects the lives of the Aran fisherfolk as representative of traditional and yet timeless endurance. In contrast, The Shadow of the Glen (1903) shows the mocking side of Synge’s sensibility, which enraged certain nationalists because it seemed to signal a return to the sneering comedy of former times. The Well of the Saints (1905) was more subversive: in elevating personal choice over religious authority, Synge insisted in symbolic fashion on the individual’s right to be blind rather than cured. But it was in his masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World (1907), that Synge showed himself at his most comically inventive and most iconoclastic. There is something mythic about this play, with its Oedipal implications, and at the same time something robustly anarchic and archetypal. It enacts the Irish imagination’s disdain of law and order. It caused serious riots at the Abbey, ostensibly over his use of the word ‘shifts’ (women’s slips) but actually over Synge’s exposure of the darker side of what Lady Gregory called ‘the Irish genius for mythmaking’. In spite of Yeats’s brave defence of the play, and his insistence that it continue despite opposition, Playboy divided Abbey audiences and many of the nationalists – actors, writers and supporters – seceded.

Not far behind Synge in importance as Abbey playwright was Lady Gregory, who began by supplying dialogue for some of Yeats’s plays (notably Cathleen ni Houlihan) and quickly developed a knack for farces with a local setting and dialect. These included Spreading the News (1904) and The Workhouse Ward (1908). A most versatile writer, Lady Gregory also wrote history plays, comedies, tragedies and what she called wonder plays, such as The Dragon (1919) and The Golden Apple (1920). Although her plays are now little acted, she made an enormous contribution to the Abbey repertory and influenced many in characterization and the use of dramatic speech.

The Abbey suffered a blow in 1910 when Miss Horniman withdrew her annual subsidy. The following years, up to 1923 and the arrival of Sean O’Casey, were difficult ones for the Abbey, which was often threatened with closure. Tours to the United States between 1911 and 1914 both helped it financially and also influenced the rise in America of the little theatre (as well as inspiring Eugene O’Neill). But as the political situation worsened at home, culminating in the 1916 Rising and the Anglo-Irish war, the theatre was often under curfew and constantly struggling for survival. By the time the Irish Free State was established in 1922 Yeats and Lady Gregory, the two remaining directors after Synge’s premature death in 1909, were ready to hand over the Abbey to the new government. Somewhat taken aback, the government declined the offer and instead awarded the Abbey an annual subsidy, the first such in the English-speaking world. In its jubilee celebrations in 1925 the Abbey looked back on the production of no fewer than 216 new plays (though many of them were one-acters).

The writers who had emerged since 1910 were mostly in the grimmer realistic vein, such as Lennox Robinson and T. C. Murray; the only writer in any way to emulate Synge’s exuberance was George Fitzmaurice, with such strange folk plays as The Dandy Dolls (1908) and The Magic Glasses (1913). Then Robinson suddenly provided what was to be his most successful play, The Whiteheaded Boy (1916), a well-made comedy of rural family conflict. Its strong characterization and good-humoured style created the mould for ‘Abbey comedy’ for a whole generation. Robinson, who was manager at the Abbey, and director from 1923, contributed over 20 plays during his long career, many of which were subsequently produced in London and New York. In Ireland, where his reputation sadly declined after his death in 1958, the highly successful revival of The Whiteheaded Boy in 1998 by the inventive, mime-based Barabbas the Company showed young audiences just how clever a playwright Robinson was.

The colonial period came to a violent end with the birth of the Free State and the ensuing civil war. At this point Sean O’Casey, arguably the greatest playwright Ireland has produced, had his first play, The Shadow of a Gunman, accepted by the Abbey. O’Casey moved resolutely from the peasant play to the modern urban play set in the tenement homes of the working class. Once Lady Gregory pointed out to him that his strong point was characterization, O’Casey was able to subordinate didacticism to creation of colourful characters. In Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926) he gave to the world roles of Shakespearean vigour in Joxer Daly and Captain Boyle, Juno, Fluther Good and the Covey. These plays have held the stage since, not only at the Abbey, where the number of performances of each is far above that of their nearest rival, Synge’s Playboy, but internationally. In the 1920s O’Casey’s plays were enormously popular in Dublin, attracted huge new audiences and saved the Abbey from bankruptcy. A major factor in the success of these three Dublin plays was the strength of the Abbey company at the time, for whom O’Casey particularly created the roles they played. These included Barry Fitzgerald, F. J. McCormick [Peter Judge], Sara Allgood and Maureen Delany. However, because of its demythologizing of the 1916 Rising, The Plough and the Stars was received with riots to equal those which had greeted the Playboy 20 years earlier, and although Yeats once more defended artistic freedom at the Abbey it became clear to O’Casey that his future as playwright lay elsewhere. Moving to London, he wrote his anti-war play The Silver Tassie in 1928, intending it for the Abbey. Its rejection caused a great controversy and ensured O’Casey’s permanent exile in England where his later, more experimental plays were written.

As Ireland’s first great postcolonial playwright, O’Casey showed that historical revisionism and ironic deconstruction were the keys to the new realism. His contemporaries tended to be less iconoclastic. T. C. Murray and George Shiels showed that rural tragedies and comedies were by no means defunct, in Autumn Fire (1924) and Professor Tim (1925) respectively. This conservative streak in Irish drama was to persist for another generation, during which the Abbey repertory dwindled to predictable and conventional representations of mainly rural life. A minority of writers, such as Denis Johnston and Paul Vincent Carroll, emulated O’Casey in attempting more critical and theatrically daring ways of criticizing Irish society, each, like O’Casey, finding intolerable the growing conservatism at the Abbey and taking his work elsewhere. Johnston became associated with the Dublin Gate Theatre, founded in 1928 by Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir to complement the Abbey by staging modern European and American plays in an experimental style. With brilliant use of expressionism, Johnston dramatized the nightmare of postcolonialism in The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ (1929), and thereafter oscillated between the Abbey and the Gate as playwright, unsure of his direction. In that regard he stands as key to the culture itself in the 1930s and after. Paul Vincent Carroll provides evidence that the intellectual Catholic playwright (the majority up to and including Johnston being Protestant) could also be iconclastic. His fiery interrogations of the growing Catholic hegemony, in Things that are Caesar’s (1932) and Shadow and Substance (1937), led eventually to the rejection of The White Steed,‘on the grounds that it would prove offensive to the priesthood’. The infuriated Carroll had the play staged in New York (1938). The director, Hugh Hunt, then resigned from the Abbey.

With the death of Yeats in 1939, following that of Lady Gregory in 1932, the Abbey fell into the hands of ultra-conservatives. Ireland’s neutrality during the Second World War led to a general flight from intellectual discussion. The Abbey narrowed its ambitions. Under the management of Ernest Blythe, a former minister of finance and a fanatic for the restoration of the Irish language, there was a purging from the company of actors who were not bilingual in Irish and English, and at the same time an avoidance of anything experimental in form or content in the repertory. It became more respectable for authors to be rejected by the Abbey than to be staged. When the Abbey burned down in July 1951 there were those who said it had to be from spontaneous combustion, so conspicuous was the decline in artistic standards. From 1951 to 1966 the Abbey company played at the Queen’s, an old nineteenth-century home of melodrama and vaudeville, ill-suited to the intimate style of the Abbey, and standards declined further. Long runs of established Abbey favourites became the order of the day. New writers, such as M. J. Molloy and Walter Macken, continued in old moulds, inviting laughter rather than thoughtful discussion (much less controversy). Irish drama was in the doldrums. Even the Dublin Gate had little to contribute beyond derivative plays by Mac Liammóir on the Celtic twilight and hard times in the west of Ireland. Only in the basement theatres which sprang up in the 1950s was there hope of renewed vitality.

The Pike Theatre in Herbert Lane was one of these. Founded by Alan Simpson and Carolyn Swift in 1953, this venue brought new plays of adventurous bent to its tiny stage, including Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow (1954) and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1955). Beckett asked Simpson to hold back his production until Peter Hall’s went up at the Arts Theatre in London; otherwise, the Pike would have had another English-language world première to add to the Behan. But in 1957, following a production of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, the Pike was charged under Ireland’s obscenity laws for staging an ‘indecent and profane’ play. Simpson was convicted, and the legal costs which were incurred before the conviction was quashed by the Supreme Court led to the collapse of the Pike. The case highlights the repressive atmosphere of Irish society at the time. Even though there was no equivalent of England’s Lord Chamberlain, and no official censorship of theatre as there was of film and printed matter, Ireland’s endemic conservatism worked towards the suppression of whatever might be construed as hostile to Catholic doctrine and morality. The fate of O’Casey’s The Drums of Father Ned, submitted to the second Dublin Theatre Festival in 1957, underlines this point. It was sufficient that the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin took exception to the inclusion of this play, as well as to an adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses, for a controversy to rage in the press and for O’Casey to withdraw in fury, supported by Beckett, three of whose mime plays were also scheduled in the programme. The result was the cancellation of the 1958 Dublin Theatre Festival.

Beckett, it has to be said, had little to do with the Irish theatre. He did not write either for it or about Irish matters. His work lies outside the Irish drama as such, although undoubtedly it was influenced by Synge, Yeats and O’Casey. In contrast, Behan, heavily influenced by O’Casey’s plays, wanted very much to be part of the national theatre. When Ernest Blythe rejected The Quare Fellow it was clear to Behan that his place was with alternative theatre, such as the Pike in Dublin and theatre workshop in London’s Stratford East. He was the complete outsider in an age that began to worship the outsider. Ironically, Behan was assimilated into the new revolution in the British theatre in the mid-1950s. The Hostage (1958) kicked Irish drama out of its wartime isolation at last. Its postcolonial stance was altogether mocking. A new phase of that drama, now influenced by new ideas from abroad, was about to begin.

This new phase was led by Brian Friel, Tom Murphy and Hugh Leonard. ‘We all came out from under O’Casey’s overcoat,’ Friel has said, paraphrasing Chekhov’s acknowledgement of his indebtedness to Gogol. In that sense, they were all iconoclasts, at a time when Ireland was about to undergo a massive series of social changes. Tom Murphy, the most outspoken of the three, was early rejected by the Abbey. In retrospect, it is hardly surprising that Blythe was too shocked to consider A Whistle in the Dark, Murphy’s hard-hitting play that introduced the theatre of cruelty before its time. In September 1961 Murphy then took his play to London, where it was a major success. Hugh Leonard, who actually learned his craft at the Abbey with a couple of early plays, saw success in London with his Stephen D, the hit of the 1962 Dublin Theatre Festival. Just five years after the Archbishop had seen red when Ulysses was on the programme, this theatrically inventive version of Joyce’s Stephen Hero was acclaimed. A breakthrough was at hand. Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964) followed. At first sight a fairly conventional Irish family play, this is actually a series of attacks on Irish certitudes. In particular the priest is held accountable for failing to provide the spiritual nourishment necessary to an emotionally famished family. Further, the main character is divided in two, played on stage by two actors (Private and Public), which serves to define the psychic turmoil of a society torn between worship of authority and the need to be fully independent.

These three writers developed in quite different ways from this decisive moment in the history of Irish drama. Murphy went on to write powerful dramatizations of the modern Irish spirit in search of wholeness, which involved a good deal of bitter denunciation of Irish religious authority, in plays from Famine (1968) through The Sanctuary Lamp (1975) to his masterpiece The Gigli Concert (1983). Leonard, for his part, was content to laugh at Ireland’s nouveaux riches, ludicrously aping their betters and paying self-serving homage to Irish political heroes, as in The Patrick Pearse Motel (1971) and the less successful but topical Kill (1982). Friel was somewhere in between, angry like Murphy but at the same time controlled and somewhat amused at the Ireland he saw around him, like Leonard. But Friel’s distinctive drama is metadrama, plays in which he questions whether what we apprehend as real is so, or is perhaps dream or illusion. Faith Healer (1979) is undoubtedly his masterpiece in this line, although Living Quarters (1977) and Aristocrats (1979) are not far behind.

Many of these plays saw life on the stage of the new Abbey, opened in July 1966 on the site of the old. With a similar seating capacity (628) to the old Abbey, it was geared up for the technological age. Within five years an experimental annex, the Peacock, was added (capacity 157), with totally flexible stage arrangements, and the position of artistic director was created (the first being Hugh Hunt). The gap between the Dublin Gate and the Abbey then began to narrow, as the Abbey staged Chekhov, Wilde, Shaw and Shakespeare in the best modern designs, alongside exciting new productions of Irish plays, often by new writers such as Thomas Kilroy and Eugene McCabe. Room was found for the plays of John B. Keane, whose Sive had been rejected by Blythe in 1959. A Brechtian production of Behan’s Borstal Boy reached Broadway in the late 1960s (Behan had died in 1964), and the old, hidebound days of the Abbey Theatre came to an end. A policy of grooming young new playwrights at the Peacock led to the emergence over the years of Tom MacIntyre, Graham Reid, Frank McGuinness, Sebastian Barry, Bernard Farrell and Marina Carr as major writers. Of these, McGuinness has since proved the most successful, his Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985) establishing an international reputation.

Gradually the new Abbey became a modern repertory theatre, where the emphasis was on new Irish writing but where a production of Hedda Gabler or Medea or even Kushner’s Angels in America was also a possibility. There was always to be a tension between tradition and modernity, but it has been carefully turned into a positive, energizing division by succeeding artistic directors from Hunt through Tomás MacAnna and Joe Dowling to Patrick Mason and Ben Barnes. One of the casualties along the way has been the dissolution of the Abbey’s permanent company, and with it the treasured Abbey acting style.

In 1968, when violence exploded in Northern Ireland, it seemed to many that a new Irish drama must emerge there to chart the events. There had, of course, been a strong Northern theatre prior to 1968, and writers such as St John Ervine, Rutherford Mayne and Sam Thompson had shown the gritty, intransigent side of Northern life. The Lyric Players Theatre in Belfast made a valiant effort after 1965 to establish a genuinely artistic centre but was probably compromised by its undisguised nationalism in a community with a two-thirds unionist majority. The plays of Martin Lynch, for instance, could be seen as partisan, while a Protestant writer like Graham Reid felt more comfortable writing for the Abbey. Women playwrights such as Christina Reid and Anne Devlin offered much promise but failed to reconcile themes of tribal politics and feminist issues. The Charabanc Company, mainly a women’s group, flourished in the early 1980s with vigorous community-style theatre.

Then came the Field Day Theatre Company, founded in 1980 by Brian Friel and the actor Stephen Rea, ostensibly to tour Friel’s Translations but in effect to establish a new cultural force in Ireland aiming to transform political discourse through art. With support from Arts Councils on both sides of the Irish border, Field Day toured once a year North and South for ten years. It was an exciting episode in Irish theatrical history. Combative plays were produced by Friel (as well as Translations, The Communication Cord, 1982, and Making History, 1988), Thomas Kilroy (Double Cross, 1986 and The Madame McAdam Travelling Theatre, 1991) and Stewart Parker (Pentecost, 1987), and there were interesting adaptations from the classics by Tom Paulin, Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney (who was one of the directors of Field Day). But in the end the attempt to intervene politically in the Northern problem proved too great for Field Day, always hampered by the lack of a home base with a permanent theatre. The end was inevitable once Friel offered Dancing at Lughnasa to the Abbey in 1990.

Since the ceasefire was established in the North in 1997 theatre has expanded, especially in Belfast. It is only in the wake of the violence there that a sense of identity seems to be finding satisfactory articulation on stage, as in the plays of Gary Mitchell, Marie Jones and Owen McCafferty. It is interesting to note that it is only at this point that a passionate restatement of unionist identity is taking place.

The high ambitions of the original Irish Literary Theatre would seem to have been fulfilled. Moreover, regional theatre has flourished, at Galway’s Druid and Waterford’s Garter Lane for instance, expanding the Abbey’s original idea. Irish drama is now enjoying extraordinary success internationally. The Celtic Renaissance has entered a whole new phase.

Gaelic Theatre in Ireland

Gaelic culture has a strong tradition of storytelling, poetry and music, but had none of drama, until the Irish Literary Theatre (1899–1901) produced the first Gaelic one-act play, Casadh an tSugáin (‘The twisting of the rope’), by Douglas Hyde at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, in October 1901. The Government of the Irish Free State, having subsidized the Abbey Theatre in 1925, also subsidized two Gaelic theatres in the 1920s, An Comhar Drámaíochta (The drama assembly, Dublin, 1926) and An Taibhdhearc (The image-stage, Galway, 1928), both relying on amateur players but with professional directors. From the Galway theatre came the first notable full-length Gaelic play, Diarmuid agus Gráinne by the actor Micheál Mac Liammóir. In 1941, the former finance minister in the Irish government who had granted the subsidy to the Abbey became managing director of that theatre, and proceeded to have productions in Gaelic on a regular basis, a policy which has continued at the smaller Peacock Theatre, with tours to the Gaeltacht areas from time to time. In order to have a proper Gaelic theatre in Dublin, the Gaelic organization Gael-linn founded a small theatre, An Damer, in 1955; relying for the most part on amateur players, it continued with marked success until 1975, presenting many new plays and translations and becoming fully professional in 1978, with a state subsidy, which unfortunately ceased in 1981. In 1974 Siamsa Tíre was founded in Tralee, County Kerry, as a semi-permanent Irish-language company of dancers and singers. Despite many efforts, it is true to say that the Gaelic theatre has not as yet achieved a place in Ireland comparable to that of the English theatre movement there. However, a small professional company of Gaelic players has been formed, Amharclann de hÍde (The Hyde theatre), which performs newly written plays from time to time but has not yet managed to mount a regular season.

from Christopher Murray and Tomás MacAnna, The Continnum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).