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The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama

The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama

by Shaun Richards (Editor)

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The essays in this collection cover the entire range of Irish drama, from the late nineteenth-century melodramas (anticipating the rise of the Abbey Theatre) to the contemporary Dublin of theater festivals. In addition to studies of individual playwrights, the collection includes an examination of the relationship between the theater and its political context as


The essays in this collection cover the entire range of Irish drama, from the late nineteenth-century melodramas (anticipating the rise of the Abbey Theatre) to the contemporary Dublin of theater festivals. In addition to studies of individual playwrights, the collection includes an examination of the relationship between the theater and its political context as reflected through its ideology, staging and programming. Including a complete chronology and bibliography, this collection will be an important introduction to one of the world's most vibrant theater cultures.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The excellent essays in this volume cover topics ranging from the birth of 'the literary theatre' in 1899 to a contemporary version of the Irish 'literary revival.' Highly recommended." D. Seelow, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, CHOICE

"[An] impressive, extensive, and significant collection of nineteen essays regarding the whole range of Irish drama from the past century."
Text & Presentation, Kelly Younger, Loyola Marymount University

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Cambridge University Press
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Cambridge Companions to Literature Series
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5.98(w) x 8.98(h) x 0.83(d)

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The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama
Cambridge University Press
0521804000 - The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama - Edited by Shaun Richards



Plays of (ever) changing Ireland

The idea of 'nation', as both theme and setting, has haunted the development of Irish theatre. From the originary Irish National Theatre Society to the present National Theatre Society Limited, Irish theatre is marked by the 'national' appellation and all its implications. Whether the specific 'national' theatre is that of Britain, the United States, France or Ireland, the assumption is that its role is to stage the pressing concerns, or historical foundations, of the nation and, as in the case of the origins of the national theatre of Ireland, define the characteristics according to which the aspirant nation could be identified and distinguished. As observed by Lauren Kruger, the impulse to 'theatrical nationhood manifests itself fully only in the course of the nineteenth century'1 and particularly as 'representations of the ruling bloc confront the (counter) hegemonic claims of emergent groups' (The National Stage, 6). Ireland shares the nineteenth-century onset of this phenomenon, and while the Irish case differs somewhat from that of Europe and the United States in that the confrontation is of national rather than specifically class factions, it parallels their use of the stage in the contest for economic and political power. While Ireland had already enjoyed theatre as an art form and entertainment for several centuries, drama in its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century manifestation sought to define and determine the basis of Irish claims for political independence from Britain. What this involved was a complex series of definitions and exclusions which resonate across the practice and criticism of Irish theatre. Any study of this terrain is necessarily engaged in a consideration of the basis for the original definitions and their implications for the theatre - and state - which subsequently evolved up to, and into, the contemporary moment.

The relationship between England and Ireland was for centuries one of ruler and ruled which, despite the advances made across the nineteenth century with regard to ameliorating its most negative aspects, continued up to the establishment of the Free State in 1922 and, from a republican/nationalist perspective, continues in Northern Ireland to the present day. At the heart of this relationship were images circulated through 'histories', travel writings, 'scientific' studies of race, cartoons, and plays which suggested the inferiority of the Irish at worst, their infantile dependency at best. The late eighteenth-century image of Ireland portrayed in David Hume's History of England captures the brutal end of this spectrum: 'The Irish from the beginning of time had been buried in the most profound barbarism and ignorance . . . distinguished by those vices alone to which human nature, not tamed by education or restrained by laws, is for ever subject.'2 In the same period an apparently less offensive portrayal is that of Sir Lucius O'Trigger in Sheridan's The Rivals (1775), but it is one whose comic illogicality makes it only a less condemnatory complement to Hume's derogatory judgement.

Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish nationalist intellectuals were alert to the implications of such negative representations for any attempts to mobilize the population to assert its independence. In an explicit acknowledgement of the political dimension of theatre, the nationalist polemicist D. P. Moran asserted, 'The English mind has had for many years a mighty weapon in the stage for one of its great enterprises - the conquest of the Irish mind.'3 The fact that Irish audiences willingly attended the performances of plays which were exhibitions of 'vulgar, pointless, uninteresting drivel'4 only increased the demands for, and expectations of, a truly Irish national theatre. As declared by the founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, in 1902, 'We look to the Irish National Theatre primarily as a means of regenerating the country. The Theatre is a powerful agent in the building up of a nation. When it is in foreign and hostile hands, it is a deadly danger to the country. When it is controlled by native and friendly hands it is a bulwark and a protection.'5 What was then required was a substitute for a theatre which was perceived as antinational and the institution of a stage which would cultivate 'Art as the handmaid of Irish nationalism.'6

It was against this backdrop of cultural-political expectations and the perceived inability of the contemporary stage to achieve their realization that Lady Augusta Gregory, Edward Martyn and W. B. Yeats met in 1897, when their 'talk turned on plays'.7 The result of this discussion was a letter composed by Lady Gregory and Yeats which sought funding for a theatrical venture whose stress is explicitly on the issue of representation: 'We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism' (Our Irish Theatre, 20). While the impetus behind the venture was perhaps more concerned with the perceived artistic inadequacies of a commercially driven mainstream theatrical world than it was with any overt political agenda, the political context of a frustrated demand for Irish Home Rule, coupled with the nationalist perception that theatre was a prime mover in the subjugation of any separatist impulses, meant that whatever the intention, the initiative which was to culminate in 1904 with the establishment of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, could not be immune to the complex political realities of the moment.

These were what D. P. Moran described as 'The Battle of Two Civilizations' in which the members of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, who enjoyed economic and political power as a result of their physical, property-based, representation of British interests in Ireland, would necessarily be removed. The full implications of this for theatrical representations of Ireland are revealed in the response to Yeats's The Countess Cathleen (originally The Countess Kathleen, 1892) which was to share the bill in Dublin on 8 May 1899 with Martyn's The Heather Field in the first performances to be realised after their initial 1897 discussions.

The play is set in a famine-struck Ireland of the sixteenth century which, although historically distant, is given a more contemporary charge by its evocation of the Potato Famine of the 1840s through images of people with mouths 'green from eating dock and nettles'.8 That the Famine was popularly believed to have been caused by British malevolence made it a highly emotive subject. In this politically charged context Yeats's drama concerned the attempts of two merchants who take advantage of the desperation of the starving peasants by offering them money to purchase food if they will only commit their immortal souls to their master, the Devil. Here, Yeats's play carried an allusion to the practice of 'Souperism' by which starving Catholics were offered sustenance at the price of converting to Protestantism. And as a final blunder into the sensibilities of a Catholic/nationalist audience Yeats had the Countess Cathleen offer her soul in place of those of her peasant tenants, who acknowledge the significance of this gesture of munificence because their souls 'are not dear to God as your soul is' (Variorum Plays, 146). Given that the landowners of Ireland were predominantly Anglo-Irish and Protestant, Yeats was exacerbating nationalist sensibilities by suggesting that the social hierarchies on earth were given divine confirmation in heaven. The response to the published version of play expressed in the pamphlet 'Souls for Gold' is a useful insight into the complexities of dramatic representation at the foundational moment of an Irish national theatre.

As summarized by the pamphlet's author, F. Hugh O'Donnell, 'Out of all the mass of our national traditions it is precisely the baseness which is utterly alien to all our national traditions, the barter of Faith for Gold, which Mr. W. B. Yeats selects as the fundamental idea of his Celtic Drama!' (Our Irish Theatre, 261). And following on from a scathing condemnation of Yeats's ignorance of Irish actuality, the extent to which O'Donnell's anger was derived from what has been termed 'colonial discourse' became clear: 'Mr. W. B. Yeats seems to see nothing in the Ireland of the old days but an unmanly, an impious and renegade people, crouched in degraded awe before demons, and goblins, and sprites, and sowths and thivishes, - just like a sordid tribe of black devil-worshippers and fetish-worshippers on the Congo or the Niger' (264).9 While Yeats and Lady Gregory were 'confident of the support of all Irish people, who are weary of misrepresentation' (20), O'Donnell's pamphlet reveals the problematic nature of such claims.

Irish theatre, in Christopher Murray's phrase, may be 'a mirror up to nation', but 'the mirror does not give back the real; it gives back images of a perceived reality.'10 This is strikingly demonstrated in the scene in J. M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World (1907) when Christy Mahon gazes into a mirror. Encouraged by the idolization (and idealization) he receives from the villagers as a result of supposedly killing his father, Christie rejects the mirror he had used at home as 'the divil's own mirror . . . would twist a squint across an angel's brow'. Now he sees the 'truth&': 'Didn't I know rightly I was handsome.'11 However, the play's comic celebration of savagery constituted the most fundamental challenge to what nationalist audiences deemed an acceptable representation of Ireland. Typical of the many letters of protest received by the Dublin press is that from 'A Western Girl' who claims that being as she was 'well acquainted with the conditions of life in the West' she could authoritatively assert that 'this play does not truly represent these conditions'. Her rhetorical question, 'Could any Irish person accept this as a true picture of Irish life?'12 implied that to do so was to exclude oneself from all claims to being Irish. While riots greeted the inadequacy of representation in Playboy, Synge had first-hand experience of a performance which audiences did accept as an adequate representation of their reality: Douglas Hyde's Irish-language play Casadh an tSúgáin (The Twisting of the Rope) (1901), in which it is the peasant community, rather than the savage outsider, whose success is celebrated. In his review of the evening for L'Européen, Synge noted that, during an interval, the enthusiastic nationalist audience reacted with emotional tears to the singing of old Irish songs, and he felt as if 'the soul of a people' had entered the theatre.

Here, theatre creates a self-enforcing loop in which image accords with audience desire for self-representation in which only validated images are deemed to be 'in the true'. As defined by Marco De Marinis, these are 'closed performances' which 'anticipate a very precise receiver and demand well-defined types of "competence" . . . for their "correct" reception.'13 The danger here is the potential for cultural and dramatic stasis in which the audience-stage loop permits no alternative images to those approved, and prescribed. Dipesh Chakrabarty poses the question which pertains to all decolonizing contexts: 'How could one reconcile the need for these two different and contradictory ways of seeing the nation: the critical eye that sought out the defects in the nation for the purpose of reform and improvement, and the adoring eye that saw the nation as already beautiful or sublime?'14 This tension was to run throughout the early years of the Irish national theatre, in which only 'the adoring eye' was admitted and only one scene was acceptable.

The dominant play style at the Abbey Theatre was 'the peasant play'. However, although the sets were accurate with regard to physical dimensions, and often stocked with genuine artefacts, this was far from gritty realism. Rather it was an idealised representation of the life felt to be expressive of the very core of the nation; a connection between the present and a precolonial authenticity which could not be severed (or mocked) without, by implication, polluting the fountain source of the nation itself. As Brenna Katz Clark observes, 'Many of the audiences, only a generation removed from the land, looked to the Irish peasant as a symbol of their lost identity . . . A national theatre must be popular, and the peasant play met the requirements of that demand.'15 For '[w]hat is given in the theatrical space is never an image of the world, but the image of an image. What is "imitated" isn't the world, but the world recast according to the fiction and in the frame of a culture and a code' (my translation).16 This 'code' expressed the state which was to develop after 1922, and the plays which it deemed adequate representations of its self-image. In Terence Brown's account the Irish Free State was deeply informed by the often inhibiting values expressed through the peasant play in which individual desire was subordinate to communal dictates. What emerged was an 'attitude of xenophobic suspicion' of all manifestations of modernisation and a 'deep reverence for the Irish past'.17 This was a petit-bourgeois state culture informed by 'the prudent and inhibiting values of farm and shop' (136).

As a result there was an effective consensus as to what should be represented, and Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars (1926), which critiqued the Easter Rising through a savage inversion of the call for self-sacrifice in Yeats's and Lady Gregory's Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), was condemned as bitterly as Playboy had been two decades earlier; and in almost identical terms. It was not, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington argued, an adequate representation of 1916. Above all she objected to the fact that it was 'a supposedly national theatre, which held up to derision and obloquy the men and women of Easter week'.18 However, O'Casey's critical realism was more an echo of an earlier, failed, phase of a theatre based on the 'critical eye' than a prelude to a new phase of national self-analysis. Theatre progressively came tacitly to support the new state where oppositional forces had hardened into a mirror-image of the colonial structures they had so recently displaced, even outdoing them in censoriousness and repression as a rigorous conservatism held sway over all debate.

Indeed, in Lennox Robinson's Drama at Inish (1933), theatre's socially transformative power becomes the source of comedy rather than the dynamic of a national liberation. While the manager of the small repertory company sees Irish theatre as the inheritor of the socially conscious dramas of Ibsen, Strindberg and Tolstoy, the result of these productions is to induce a destructive bout of self-condemnation in their audiences. The point is serious, but the conclusion is comic, as the owner of the town theatre decides that gritty naturalism will be replaced by a circus. The play ends as the music of the circus band coincides with the outbreak of sunshine to dispel the rain which has accompanied the theatre of social engagement. Theatre's representation of society, Robinson is satirically observing, is required to fall far short of any socially corrective accuracy.

The implication of this freeze-framing of the stage representations of Irish society is that it could not accommodate aspects of a modernity which was inimical to the self-image of the state. The issue had already been debated in the pages of Dublin's Daily Express in 1899 when Yeats overruled John Eglinton's declaration in 'What Should be the subjects of a National Drama?' that Ireland's theatre should 'exchange the patriotism which looks back for the patriotism which looks forward'.19 While Eglinton rejected 'the forms and images in which old conceptions have been embodied - old faiths, myths, dreams' (Literary Ideals 26), Yeats stressed that the arts should be liberated from 'their age', and be more concerned with the revelation of 'a hidden life' (36). Yeats's repeated conception of this life differed significantly from that envisaged by the architects of the new Irish state, but it united with them in excluding the supposedly anti-Irish qualities of modernization.

The classic expression of this is the 1943 St Patrick's Day radio broadcast of the Taisoeach (Prime Minister), Eamon de Valera, which evoked an Ireland embodying the qualities that the Abbey Theatre introduced into the discourse of the nation through its plays and stage sets. It was an essentialist vision of both the nation and the social, political and economic structures that sustained that dearly achieved authenticity, with 'frugal comfort' enjoyed around the 'firesides' of 'cosy homesteads' set in 'fields and villages'; an Ireland which would be 'the home of a people living the life that God desires that man should live'.20 By the end of the next decade it was glaringly obvious that this dream was not to be realised: 'De Valera's "dream" Ireland had never existed.'21

De Valera's broadcast was made in the 1940s, but the economic tensions within the state, and their effect on the drama, had already been signalled in the 1930s as economic problems forced the nominally self-sufficient Irish state into what many regarded as a Faustian pact with the all-consuming capacity of an increasingly Anglo-American global economy. However, from the American perspective of Curtis Canfield the theatrical consequences of social change were to be celebrated for forcing the theatre away from 'the picturesque naiveté which was so much a part of Irish plays twenty years ago'.22 What was changing Ireland, he argued, was the importation of mass communication and entertainment systems which smoothed away the differences between Dublin, London and New York; and the most significant indicator of these changes was the hydro-electrification of the River Shannon. The emblematic significance of this event, which had been planned from the earliest years of the Free State, cannot be overestimated, for while the new state had taken the lifestyle and economy of the west as expressive of its authentic reality, the hydro-electrification scheme was opposed by the embodiments of that authenticity, the salmon fisherman of the Shannon who resisted this enforced erosion of their long-established lifestyle. According to Canfield, 1930s Ireland was becoming modern in its economy and experimental in its drama, but, as demonstrated in Denis Johnston's Shavian The Moon in the Yellow River (1931), the tension between economic, as opposed to cultural, necessity was a vital aspect of a debate which was to run into the 1960s - and beyond.

While the play is set in 1927, with a plot driven by the armed resistance of 'die-hards' to the establishment of a partitioned Ireland, the thematic drive is more directly concerned with the extent to which the economy of the country expresses its innate cultural values. 'We are engaged in Kulturkampf',23 as the German engineer in charge of the electric power station declares to his opponent intent on its destruction. And this cultural struggle is explicitly related to 'The Battle of Two Civilizations' essayed by D. P. Moran, the conflict being between the engineer's intention of transforming the country 'from the sordid trivialities of peasant life to something newer and better' (Selected Plays, 121) and the Irish idealist's determination to 'keep one small corner of the globe for the unfortunate human race' (139). While opposition to 'some place-hunting industrialist with a small technical education and with neither culture nor religion to guide them' (147) is out of line with Canfield's sense that '[i]n the midst of this stirring of new forces another Ireland is merging, one which, if early symptoms are correct, is more than content to allow its romantic predecessor in the grave' (Changing Ireland, xi-xii) it is far more indicative of the indigenous cultural resistance to change which informed the period.

But it was a conservatism whose results fell short of the ecologically and politically 'green' agenda of Johnston's finally defeated idealist. According to J. J. Lee, even in the nominal heyday of independent Ireland it 'continued to be characterized by a high incidence of mental disease, by hideous family living conditions in its urban slums, and by a demoralized casual working class, urban as well as rural' (Ireland 1912-1985, 159). And far from heralding an embrace of European theatrical experimentation commensurate with the nominal social modernization, the drama of the 1930s can be seen as initiating 'a long period of decline and decadence'.24

Chris Morash's survey of theatre criticism of the 1940s indicates that conservatism continued to dominate, as a 'sense of belatedness - of living in a time after all the great dreams have been dreamed - runs through all cultural criticism of the period'.25 What was now in evidence was 'an aesthetic of strategic boredom' (79). But as it became increasingly obvious that Ireland had not engaged in a form of modernization which could sustain a viable independent state, economic conservatism came under increasing pressure, resulting in the 1958 Report on Economic Development and its wholehearted commitment to modernization and foreign investment. While the theatrical aesthetic which had informed the development of Irish theatre across the first half of the twentieth century had been based on an 'ancient idealism' and its expression in the peasant play, the new style was informed by the economic directive that '[i]t would be well to shut the door on the past and to move forward.'26 Four years earlier Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow (1954) contained the observation that 'the Free State didn't change anything more than the badges on the warders' caps'.27

All this was to change radically, for the Report marked a watershed in cultural as well as economic terms: 'New class forces, new divisions of urban and rural, new consumer choices were making themselves in Ireland, so that "Ireland" itself, as a fixed and coherent notion, ceased to exist, either in social life or in literature.'28 What sort of 'Ireland' was to be represented on stage was now a matter of fierce and continuing debate. And if the economic impulse was directed towards modernization, the stage image of the society, which for so long had suggested the essential continuity of tradition and unity of culture, had also to be contested.

While the plays of Brian Friel and Tom Murphy frequently demonstrate a sophisticated appreciation that the past has to be accommodated rather than simply rejected, they are equally alert to the necessity of reclaiming the stage for representations of the emerging Ireland. And this necessitated deconstructing an image whose power echoed through from its appearance in Yeats's and Lady Gregory's Cathleen ni Houlihan; namely Ireland as the old woman who, if redeemed by sacrifice, would become a young girl with the walk of a queen. In Friel's The Loves of Cass Maguire (1966) the invalid Cass is described as one who, if she were able to move, 'would have the authority and self-possession of a queen'29 but whose present immobility removes all positive resonances. Similarly, Murphy's Bailegangaire focuses on the bedridden and senile old woman, Mommo, who is restored to sanity by engaging with the inadequacies, rather than the glories, of the de Valerean past.

Above all, both playwrights expose the redundancy of an Ireland evoked through the perpetuation of the stage set of the peasant cottage. Recollecting the genesis of his first play, On the Outside (1959), written with his friend Noel O'Donoghue, Murphy recalled O'Donoghue's assertion that 'one thing is fucking sure, it's not going to be set in a kitchen'. Which, commented Murphy, was 'the most progressive thing anybody had ever said to me.'30 Friel's The Communication Cord (1982) goes even further in destroying the kitchen set and all its connotations. The set, that of a converted byre which still contains the posts and chains used for tethering cows during milking, is 'too "authentic" . . . an artefact of today making an obeisance to a home of yesterday'31 which ensures that it is read as an image in the 'critical eye'. The limiting and frequently hypocritical aspects of such a homage to the past are captured in Senator Donovan's accidental imprisonment in the milking chains which changes his idealization of the cottage as 'the absolute verity' into its rejection as 'that shit' (The Communication Cord, 75). All 'obeisance' before this cultural icon ends with the cottage's collapse into 'Total Darkness' (93) and the implication that the world which this set once suggested needs to be radically reappraised if theatre is to do anything more than parade shadows of the past before the audience's eyes.

Marina Carr and Martin McDonagh are instructive in this context as, for their critics, their dramatizations of rural Ireland too often topple over into representations which recycle rather than critique disabling images. McDonagh in particular exemplifies the extent to which a nominal liberation effects another incarceration when, in The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997), the islanders watch a preview of Robert Flaherty's 1935 film Man of Aran which has just been shot on a neighbouring island. Filmed with financial support from de Valera's government, the film was a paean to the life of the Aran islanders as expressive of an authentic Ireland. As McDonagh's islanders sit through the lengthy shark-fishing sequence, the precocious Slippy Helen starts to complain, and she greets the end of the film with the declaration, 'Oh thank Christ the fecker's over. A pile of feckin shite.'32

While the iconoclastic urge is evident, the extent to which it was a still critical necessity in the Ireland of the 1990s is open to question, as even iconoclasm can serve to reinforce the centrality of the images it seeks to displace. Whether such impulses are overt, as in McDonagh's head-on engagement with plays of the west, or, as in work such as Enda Walshe's Disco Pigs (1996) and Mark O'Rowe's Howie the Rookie (1999), a rejection of the rural in favour of a complete emersion in the lifestyle and argot of street-level Ireland, there is the danger that one aesthetic is replaced by another which is no more accurate in its representations for being couched in the contemporary vernacular of urban rather than de Valerean Ireland.

Nicholas Grene has coined the term 'black pastoral' to describe plays which self-consciously invert the earlier idealizations of life in the west of Ireland by presenting it as brutal and unidyllic. The urban equivalent to this impulse emerged under the title of 'North Side Realism' after the works' location among the high-rise estates of Dublin's economically depressed North Side. De Valera's image of the cosy homestead set in fields and villages has mutated into the Dublin evoked in Dermot Bolger's The Lament for Arthur Cleary (1989): 'Everywhere closed except the burger huts, all the buses gone, everyone milling around drunk, taking to the glittering lights like aborigines to whiskey.'33 And to confirm the completeness of this revolution in representation, Fintan O'Toole asserted that now it is Bolger who best captures the state of a nation for whom '[s]ex and drugs and rock 'n' roll are more important . . . than the old Irish totems of Land, Nationality and Catholicism'.34

A century on from the founding of the Irish national theatre, the original model of a national theatre intent on 'articulating a unified national image and unified cultural traditions' has become socially obsolescent.35 But despite this perception '[t]he bulk of theatre work being presented in Ireland continues . . . to preoccupy itself with issues of history and national identity'.36 The most powerful articulation of the consequent crisis of representation affecting contemporary Irish theatre is Declan Hughes's essay 'Who the Hell Do We Think We Still Are?', which asserts that the rural image no longer resonates culturally, and that even in plays intent on iconoclasm, 'the iconography remains powerfully the same: half door, pint bottle, sacred heart'.37 The point is that much of the new drama is concerned with the demolition of images which are known through repetition rather than felt through lived experience, and a consideration of Hughes's own work reveals that more is required than a simple substitution of city for country in terms of set and theme. His drive is away from plays which recycle essentialism in either celebratory or cynical mode and into an embrace of the postmodern collapse of identity: 'It's the condition. Simple as that. Not only but also. The future not the past. Bring it all on' (Theatre Stuff, 14). Accordingly, the Dublin of Digging for Fire (1991) is not that of the drugged streets but that of the diaspora, for whom 'there [New York] is as much here as here is . . . and I don't believe the here you're describing [village Ireland] exists here. To me, here is more like . . . there.'38

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Shaun Richards is Professor of Irish Studies in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Staffordshire University. He is the author with Davis Cairns of Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism and Culture (1988) and has written numerous journal and book articles on Irish studies and Irish drama.

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