Making Theatre in Northern Ireland: Through and Beyond the Troubles

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Making Theatre in Northern Ireland examines the relationships between theatre and the turbulent political and social context of Northern Ireland since 1969. It explores in detail key theatrical performances which deal directly with this context. The works examined are used as exemplars of wider approaches to theatre-making about Northern Ireland.
The book is aimed at a student readership: it is largely play-text-based, and it contains useful contextualising material such as a chronological list of Northern Ireland’s plays in the modern period, a full bibliography, and a brief chronology.
Students find it hard to obtain any detailed and informed perspective on this key element of the theatre of Ireland and Britain: Northern Ireland’s theatrical traditions are normally discussed only as an adjunct to discussions of Irish theatre more generally, or as so exceptional as to be beyond comparison with others. This book sets out to fill this gap.

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Tom Maguire is Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Ulster

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Making Theatre in Northern Ireland

Through and Beyond the Troubles

By Tom Maguire

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2006 Tom Maguire
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-930-7



Staging Northern Ireland

In a televised broadcast on 9 December 1968, the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Captain Terence O'Neill, announced that 'Ulster is at the crossroads'. He identified that moment as the last opportunity to avoid a descent into violent political conflict, in asking directly:

What kind of Ulster do you want? A happy and respected province, in good standing with the rest of the United Kingdom? Or a place continually torn apart by riots and demonstrations, and regarded by the rest of Britain as a political outcast? ... Make your voice heard in whatever way you think best, so that we may know the views not of the few but of the many. For this is truly a time of decision and in your silence all that we have built up could be lost.

(1969: 140–6)

Little could he know then that it would not be until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that a negotiated resolution to what would prove to be thirty years of conflict would become possible: Ulster once again at a political crossroads. Yet still, as I am writing, media images of street riots across Belfast reinforce around the world the sense of over three decades of undifferentiated violence. 'Northern Ireland' and 'The Troubles' have become synonymous. The residual image is of cars burning on street corners: bonfires at the crossroads.

It is ironic, of course, that in writing a book about stage representations of the Troubles, I may well be contributing to the persistence of this imagery. This work cannot include the diversity of work which has emerged over the last thirty years about life in Northern Ireland which has not addressed this particular political dimension. I am, nonetheless, acutely aware of Connolly's reminder that 'an implicit assumption that the "real" politics equals institutional politics ... mars more complex evaluations of the articulation of alternative politics' (1999: 252). Images of bonfires and street riots contribute to a hegemonic narrative of strife between two equally entrenched tribal communities separated by religious and ethnic identity. This narrative has been accepted across the world and internalised by many of the people of Northern Ireland. The theatre has played its part in generating and repeating such images. Such depictions occlude the variations in involvement which people have had in the violence and their experience of it. Such variations can be attributed, for example, to differences in place, social class (Coulter 1999; Finlayson 1999) and gender (Fairweather et al. 1984; Aretxaga 1997; Sales 1997; Roulston and Davies 2000). Instead, the causes of the conflict are presented as cultural, such that:

the roots of the conflict in Northern Ireland lie in a cluster of abnormal and problematic values, beliefs and attitudes. These include: an obsession with the past conceived in mythical terms, extreme nationalism, religious intolerance, an unwillingness to compromise and a willingness to use or condone political violence. Each side is said to be in a timewarp, out of touch with present-day reality, entrapped in a mythical view of the past which leads to an endless repetition of old tribal conflicts. (Ruane and Todd 1991: 29)

Such cultural views hide the involvement of successive governments in Northern Ireland, Britain, the Republic of Ireland and the United States whose policies and practices have implicated them deeply in the causes, continuation and, latterly, resolution of the conflict (Dixon 2001). Bell notes that 'Over the last twenty-five years the British state has sought to represent itself as an honest broker seeking to mediate between two ethnic traditions locked in an ancient struggle' (1998: 239). Playwrights too have reinforced this interpretation. In Stewart Parker's Northern Star (1984), Henry Joy McCracken describes the situation as: 'A field, with two men fighting over it. Cain and Abel. The bitterest fight in the history of man on this earth' (Parker 1989: 57). The image of the burning car and the cultural interpretations underpinning it upstage too the social, legal and political changes within the state which have moved Northern Ireland far from its origins in the establishment of what Lord Craigavon had once described as a 'Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people' (cited Hennessey 1997: 122).

The focus of this book is not, however, the analysis of the history of the crisis. Rather, it is to consider the ways in which the circumstances of the crisis have been mediated in theatrical representation and the ways in which such representations may have been operative. This is timely given the ways in which the political dimensions of the conflict have come under negotiation within the most recent peace processes, which culminated in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 (see Chapter 8) and on 28 July 2005, the announcement by the Provisional IRA of the end of its armed struggle with its final act of decommissioning being undertaken two months later. However, the devolved government of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its power-sharing Executive which the Good Friday Agreement ushered in collapsed in November 2002, with a return to direct rule from Westminster. In this context, cultural representation has become an area of contestation (Rolston 1998a). Representation is contested, for example, between those wishing to resolve the conflict by creating new images of unity (Murtagh 1995; Neill 1995; Shirlow and Shuttleworth 1999) and those who believe that only by acknowledging the historical manifestations of the conflict will resolution be achieved. Representation is contested too as communities of identity and interest (see Chapter 7) seek to legitimate their stake in a new political dispensation (often by recourse to narratives of victimhood). Moreover, the resources and prestige unlocked by the Good Friday Agreement's insistence on parity of esteem between different ethno-nationalist identities are the prizes in such conflicts by proxy. Within this context, the public staging of representations of the political situation becomes crucial in determining the sense which people in Northern Ireland have of themselves and in the ways in which they are regarded externally.

Theatres have long been and continue to be used as places where people will gather and recognise themselves as a community or nation through the stage representation (Kruger 1992; Trotter 2001). Such stagings often invoke a metonymic substitution of the part presented for the whole being represented. Thus, part of my enterprise is to explore these metonymic substitutions on the stage and their relationship to the wider whole. This interest in theatrical representation derives from the importance laid by all parties to the conflict on winning what has been termed 'the propaganda war' (Curtis 1984; Miller 1994). The ways in which the conflict has been mediated publicly have contributed and continue to contribute to the determination of how it has developed; how it is experienced; and moreover, how it is perceived both within and beyond the borders of the Northern Irish state. Whilst much of the propaganda on Northern Ireland has been the result of deliberate and sustained policies from all sides, it is important that the fundamental ideological functions of cultural representation are identified if we are to understand in greater depth the relationship between culture and conflict. As Mcllroy notes, 'culture and politics are intertwined in Ireland in such a way that no artefact can easily escape into art for art's sake' (1998: 7).

The role of intellectuals likewise (O'Dowd 1991) can be subjected to closer scrutiny, once it is recognised that they function ideologically in their valorisation and criticism of cultural works: that 'political agendas are built into interpretations of culture' (Hohenleitner 2000: 254). While attention has been paid to the perceived politics of Field Day Theatre Company, for example, this dimension of the historiography of the theatre in Northern Ireland has largely gone unremarked. However, especially in the case of Field Day, there has grown up an orthodoxy around which productions are worthy of attention, an orthodoxy which itself has created a distortion of both theatre history and of the realities which the theatre has sought to represent. Within the mass of critical literature, a small number of works by a smaller number of playwrights have dominated. The discussion here seeks to fill out existing criticism in this respect.

Terms and Definitions

The act of naming is a recurrent focus for drama concerning Northern Ireland. Its consequences as a socio-political act are explored most notably in Brian Friel's Translations (1980). The play highlights the centrality of nomenclature to the current conflict, in 'a culture inundated with labels' (McDonough 2000: 191) where, in the title of Anne Devlin's short story (and later film), 'Naming the Names' (1995) is a political act. To name is to claim authority, to become an agent in the world and to signal membership of particular communities, to be involved in what Silverstein (1992) calls a 'scheme of identification'. It is important therefore to explain which names are to be used in this book and why.

Already I have used a number of terms to cover the political violence in Northern Ireland since the late 1960s: 'the conflict', 'the crisis', 'The Troubles'. The last of these is the most generally used term, but its use carries with it a caveat. The euphemism of 'The Troubles' does not disguise the fact that from the protests of a peaceful civil rights movement against the injustices of the unionist state in the 1960s (Purdie 1990; Shirlow and McGovern 1997), a sustained three-way war developed: between republican militants; the security services of initially the Northern Irish government and then the wider British state; and loyalist paramilitaries. The security services of the Republic of Ireland too have been drawn in, albeit more sporadically. The criminalisation of paramilitary combatants was a specific counter-insurgency measure adopted in public by successive British and Irish governments (Pilkington 2001b: 195); while at the same time other more covert initiatives legitimated the status of the conflict as a war (Hennessey 1997: 250ff.; Dixon 2000: 114–17). The analysis of the conflict within this book assumes an acceptance of its fundamentally political basis. That many of the rights to equality within the state have been delivered through the intervention of external political and legal institutions (such as the European Parliament and European Court of Justice) is indisputable; it does not negate the fact that it has been only after sustained campaigns of political violence by republicans that direct negotiation with them has taken place from which in turn further rights have been enshrined within the structures and operation of the state (Patterson 1996). My emphasis rejects narratives of ethnic or religious barbarism which seek both to explain the relentlessness of the violence and to reassure those sections of Irish, British and Northern Irish society who wish to distance themselves from it through processes of what Cornell terms 'psychological withdrawal' (1999a: 71). She identifies this as a particular issue for the British public since:

Throughout the 1980s representations of Northern Ireland in British television drama impeded efforts to end the violence by encouraging a form of 'psychological withdrawal' from the North on the part of the British public. By depicting Northern Ireland not only as 'alien' but as in fact antithetical to Britain in every way, these representations complemented a political agenda that sought to deny responsibility both for creating the conflict and for failing to bring it to a swift conclusion.

(1999a: 71)

In seeking to meet the challenge of such a position, this work is aligned with the aspiration expressed by the directors of Field Day Theatre Company that the company 'could and should contribute to the solution of the present crisis by producing analyses of the established opinions, myths and stereotypes which had become both a symptom and a cause of the current situation' (Deane et al. 1985: vii). Thus, the conflict is presented not as some inevitable result of ethnic or sectarian hatred but as a failure of the state to accommodate all its citizens due to its 'differential relationship with Irish nationalism on the one hand, and Ulster unionism on the other' (Rolston 1998b: 272). While there is clearly an underlying issue of religious prejudice, this is not just a matter of individual bigotry; 'sectarianism persists not simply because of personal weakness or moral vice but because it is imbricated in real structures of power' (Cleary 1999: 510). Nonetheless, it is important to note that there may be as many positions in relation to the conflict as there are identities within it and experiences of it. Paramilitary organisations have long been linked to general criminal activities (extortion, smuggling and drug dealing, for example) and a large number of incidents of murder and destruction have had a basis only in bigotry, breeding in their turn hatred and an appetite for revenge. The conflict itself has shifted through different phases over the period, further reorientating positions, occasionally so radically as to resemble a political and deadly Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

A further consequence of this insistence on the political basis of the conflict is that I will use predominantly the terms 'unionist' or 'nationalist' to refer to the two major identity blocs within Northern Ireland, rather than 'Protestant' or 'Catholic' respectively. Unionists are those whose political identity is predicated on the continuation of the link with Britain (Aughey 1996), although there is a variety of reasons which underpin this position. Sales notes that unionism

may also encompass a number of other dimensions: cultural (linked to notions of 'British identity'); religious (the preservation of the Protestant religion and the Protestant settlement in the Union); supremacist (epitomised in the slogan 'we are the people'); or 'progressive' (emphasising economic ties and links to the British labour and trade union movement).

(1997: 47)

There are divisions within unionism from which a range of competing interests have striven to claim to themselves the position as the authoritative voice of unionism (Finlayson 1999). For example, Todd differentiates Ulster loyalist and Ulster British ideological positions. She notes that 'the essential characteristics of Ulster loyalist ideology are that its primary imagined community is Northern Protestants while its secondary identification with Britain involves only a conditional loyalty' (1987: 3). McIlroy glosses this by suggesting that loyalists 'give conditional allegiance to Great Britain as long as their Protestant religion and civil freedoms are supported and protected' (1998: 10–11). Todd describes Ulster British ideology as one whose 'imagined community is Great Britain, although within this there is a secondary regional identification with Northern Ireland. Religious values are not primary in the structure of Ulster British thought although moral principles are important in defining their community. This ideology may be either integrationist or devolutionist at the level of political programmes' (1987: 11).

Just as unionism contains a range of diverse and often competing interests, so too does nationalism (Patterson 1996; Coulter 1999). 'Nationalists' are united, however, in the desire to see a reunification of Ireland and in regarding themselves as primarily Irish. As McIlroy suggests, nationalists believe 'that the geographical limits of the island of Ireland encompass a nation which has been prevented by British imperialism from achieving its natural development and destiny' (1998: 8). Republicans share the nationalist aspiration for the reunification of the island. They are distinguished both by a tradition of armed struggle and, within the context of the current Troubles, a greater commitment to social equity (ibid.: 8) since the republican movement has been strongly rooted within the nationalist working class (Coulter 1999: 90).

'Northern Ireland' is used to refer to the internationally recognised territory upon which the Troubles have been focused, rather than 'Ulster' or the 'North of Ireland'. The latter are more evocative of political aspirations than descriptive of a recognisable political entity. 'Ulster' is motivated by a unionist desire to be seen as separate from the rest of Ireland, politically and culturally (although its use refers to only six of the original nine counties which make up the province). The 'North of Ireland' serves the contrary purpose of asserting that Ireland is one unit, with no more than geographically distinct regions. It is a nationalist denial of the legitimacy (and to some extent reality) of the border. The state of Northern Ireland came into existence with the passing into British law of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 which partitioned Ireland. The Act called into being what A.T.Q. Stewart has identified as 'the narrow ground' in which members of the two major identity blocs are forced to live together, despite 'their diametrically opposed political wills' (1989: 180).


Excerpted from Making Theatre in Northern Ireland by Tom Maguire. Copyright © 2006 Tom Maguire. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of illustrations, vi,
Acknowledgements, vii,
List of abbreviations, viii,
Chronology of key events, ix,
1 Introduction: Staging Northern Ireland, 1,
2 Direct Engagement, 21,
3 Authentic History, 44,
4 Failed Origins, 60,
5 Utopian Myths, 77,
6 Gendered Troubles, 97,
7 Let the People Speak: Community and Theatre, 118,
8 Theatre after the Cease-fires, 137,
9 The Art and Politics of Staging the Troubles, 158,
Notes, 173,
Bibliography, 184,
Playography, 206,
Index, 215,

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