The Abbey and the genius of Irish theatre

As Dublin’s celebrated Abbey Theatre celebrates its centenary, Kevin Haddick Flynn looks back at its place at the heart of Irish cultural identity, and asks where drama is headed

THIS YEAR marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Abbey, Ireland’s national theatre and an institution justly recognised as one of the world’s great centres of dramatic art. Its contribution to the dramatic canon both in terms of acting style and the producing plays of lasting value has been out of all proportion to its resources and to the modest number of patrons it could call upon in a small country.

The Abbey’s success is all the more remarkable when it is appreciated that Ireland has a national theatrical tradition little more than a 100 years old. The turbulent history of the country and the depressed circumstances in which people lived until the end of the 19th century inhibited the development of a native theatre. While playwrights from the Ascendancy attained distinction on the English stage from the 17th century onwards and are rightly honoured, their plays were essentially English.

For instance, when William Congreve in the 1680s neglected his studies at Trinity College, Dublin, to frequent Smock Alley, the plays he saw there bore no relation to the country from which he had come, and from 1693, when his first play — The Old Bachelor — was produced in London, until his death in 1729 the content of his works was no more Irish than the Drury Lane in which they were staged.

The same is substantially true of Farquhar, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Wilde and Shaw. Some of these used Irish characters, chiefly comic ones; but it was essentially — with the exception of one Shaw play — an English scene they depicted. Until the advent of an indigenous Irish theatre in 1889 — the year that the Irish Literary Theatre was founded — storytelling around the fireside, helped with song and music, was the principal dramatic outlet for the imaginations’of ordinary people. The Seanachí with his vast store of tales delivered with all a natural actor’s tricks of narration, stood high in the esteem and affections of local communities.

When the movement for the preservation and revival of the Irish language gathered force from the 1890s onwards it stimulated intellectual activity in both Irish and English. One of its effects was to turn the young writers of the time to their own cultural inheritance for inspiration and to the lives of their own people for the raw material for their writings.

The imagination of the young William Butler Yeats was so fired by the wealth of Irish mythology and folklore that he resolved, as he said, “to create a whole literature, a whole dramatic movement based on it”. After a number of years of experimental work the founding of the Abbey in 1904 by Yeats, Lady Gregory and the Fay Brothers marked the consolidation of a native theatrical tradition.

Yeats and Lady Gregory continued as the new movement’s eminent grises for a number of years, always ready to add others to their list of disciples. The most significant recruit was almost literally conscripted by Yeats. The poet had met John Millington Synge in Paris in 1896 and had persuaded him to re–discover the unknown Ireland of West Wicklow and the Aran Islands. After residence among the peasants of the West, Synge obtained an uncanny command of their musical cadence and speech, and this, allied to his sense of the theatre, made for success in the young dramatist.

The Playboy of the Western World (1904) is Synge’s greatest work and one which holds its place honourably among the world’s greatest comedies. Provoking riots in the Abbey at its first appearance, its satire upon the more vulnerable aspects of Irish character is shattering. It is hard to resist the story of the lovely Pegeen Mike, who throws over her bethrothed for the mysterious playboy who comes out of nowhere proclaiming that he has killed his father. He is acclaimed as a hero — until his ‘murdered da' reappears.

Synge’s strength, like that of Cervantes’, lies in the juxtaposition of the most earthly realism with the most exuberant flights of fancy. The patriot hysteria which greeted the play’s early performances in Dublin rested on the conviction that no decent Irish country girl could admire a murderer. Yet, this is to ignore that there is a primitive element in all human nature that is ready to rejoice in the heroic, amoral act — until civilised inhibitions clamp down.

All of Synge’s plays, except Riders to the Sea (1903), are characterised by a sprightly humour. In this play he focuses on the ever–looming presence of death, a pre–occupation all the more poignant because of the brevity of his own life.

In 1906 he became engaged to Molly Allgood (who had been the original Pegeen Mike under her stage name Maire O’Neill) but recurrent illnesses prevented their marriage before his death in 1909. His passing had consequences beyond the merely personal: it was the greatest single blow to the Abbey in its early years.

There is a measure of similarity between the work of Synge and the next dramatist to come from the Abbey and who attained an indisputable international reputation.

Sean O’Casey was also familiar with the speech patterns of ordinary people, being an autodidact from the Dublin slums. Born into an impoverished Protestant family, he grew up amidst destitution and squalor; physically frail, his eyes became diseased, causing him great pain as a child and near–blindness as an adult. His formal schooling was brief. Beaten by his teacher, the tempestuous ‘Johnny’ reciprocated by smashing a ruler “on the pink, baldy, hoary oul’ head of oul’ Slogan”, as he later wrote in his autobiography.

O’Casey’s early plays were rejected by the Abbey, but with increasingly warm encouragement. Soon he produced an outstanding trio: Shadow of a Gunman<.em> (1923), Juno and the Paycock<.e>(1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926). All were tragi–comedies depicting tenement life and set against a backdrop of recent political events.

The Plough, it has been suggested, was deliberately written to stir up trouble, and achieved this objective on its fourth night when a rowdy element took offence at the author’s handling of the 1916 Rising and rioted. The stage was invaded — the actor Barry Fitzgerald sent one of the protestors sprawling with a heavy punch to the jaw – and stink bombs were thrown as the police arrived.

Yeats, canny in all things, anticipated the fracas and had earlier delivered to the Irish Times the text of a speech he proposed to deliver above the din. O’Casey’s reputation was made.

The second major theatrical development in modern Ireland came nearly a quarter of a century after the Abbey’s foundation. In 1927 two young actors met in a touring company run by Anew McMaster, a fabulous theatrical figure who travelled the country with a repertoire ranging from Oedipus Rex to East Lynne. They were Michael MacLiammoir, who had learnt his trade under Sir Beerbohm Tree at His Majesty’s Theatre, London, and Hilton Edwards, who hailed from north Finchley.

MacLiammoir, whose talents ran from acting and painting to writing in Irish and English and talking with wit and fluency in every European language, was an idolater of Yeats and came to Ireland to try and put into practice his own ideas on the theatre, derived in part from Yeats.

In 1928, MacLiammoir and Edwards founded the Dublin Gate Theatre Studio. Their first productions were staged in the Peacock Theatre, a 102–seater experimental annex to the Abbey. Here, on a stage not much bigger than a Victorian dining table, they produced Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, Wilde’s Salome and other modern plays.

“The real business of the Gate”, MacLiammoir wrote, “was with methods of acting, production and create a vision of certain phases of national life other than that of the cottage or the tenement”. It was not, one would have thought, the happiest time to start an art theatre; Ireland was not a land of milk and honey and had just emerged from an agonizing civil war, besides at the time the cinema was beginning to attract growing audiences.

Yet the Gate flourished and in its early years held a reputation similar to that of Stavinlavsky’s Moscow Arts Theatre at the turn of the century.

Apart from concentrating on works of contemporary European and American dramatists, the Gate sought new Irish playwrights. Of these Denis Johnson, whose The Old Lady says ‘No!’ was produced in the second season of 1929, was the most successful. Johnson, in fact, was the first to successfully introduce German expressionist techniques to the Irish theatre.

‘The Boys’, as MacLiammoir and Edwards were called, were fantastic characters, and MacLiammoir in particular delighted in flamboyant behaviour and stirring up reaction in the rigidly straight–laced Dublin of the mid–twentieth century. For years he claimed to have been born in Cork, but recent biographers have established that he was born in Willesden, London, and originally named Alfred Lee Willmore, and probably of Jewish descent.

As a youth, MacLiammoir became fascinated with the Irish language and sought out and joined a London branch of the Gaelic League. He spent hours in Finchley Road Library combing Dineen’s Irish–English Dictionary and with his innate linguistic gifts made excellent progress.

When he settled in Ireland the untranslatable Willmore became MacLiammoir, literally ‘son of big William’. The new version caused pronunciation problems outside Ireland, but rolled sonorously off the tongue and looked good on a playbill. It also denoted its bearer’s sustained enthusiasm for the language. The six books and three plays he wrote in Irish are today considered minor Gaelic classics.

It should also be noted that the first theatre MacLiammoir founded in Ireland (with Professor Liam O’Briain) was an Irish speaking one, the Taibhdhearc (from taibhreamh, ‘dream’and dearc, ‘eye’) in Galway. This significant institution went on to feature names like Siobhan McKenna and the actor–novelist Walter Macken. It opened in August 1928 with MacLiammoir’s own interpretation of the legend Diarmuid agus Grainne.

Hilton Edwards, who never spoke a word of Irish, was its masterful stage–director. Although MacLiammoir’s talents were wide–ranging and impressive, it was his one–man show, The Importance of Being Oscar which finally brought him international renown. His interest in the ill–starred Oscar Wilde was of long standing (at his instigation a plaque was placed on the Dublin house where Wilde was born) and it was no accident that his high camp style was imitative of Wilde’s own. Fittingly, the show which was first staged in 1960, was to rehabilitate Wilde’s reputation and spark a fresh interest in his work.

Over the years there have been many writers of tragedy, melodrama, comedy and farce who, though little known outside Ireland, have provided staple fare for both actors and audiences at home. Unusual among them was Brendan Behan, whose works were turned down by the Abbey, (though after his death a dramatisation of his Borstal Boy became a hit at that theatre). Noted for his drunken roistering – and for arguing on stage with actors performing his works (a tactic which he claimed helped the receipts!) – Behan’s drama has numerous vaudeville features but is highly theatrical. Critics are divided about his work: some have denigrated it as talented wisecracking; others have hailed it as brilliant, if often undisciplined, playwriting.

An almost matchless array of talent followed Behan. Brian Friel acquired a world reputation with Philadelphia Here I Come (1964), a play which had an extended run on Broadway. It features the “two selves” technique (played by two actors) and its author reached new heights with The Faith Healer (1979), arguably the greatest tragedy in the Irish repertoire. Further success came with Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), a play that intriguingly investigates the sexless lives of a group of spinster countrywomen disturbed by the return of a missionary priest from Africa.

Galwayman Tom Murphy came next, scoring a palpable hit with Whistle in the Dark (1961) which was followed by his brilliantly experimental Gigli Concert (1983). Another successful playwright is Hugh Leonard (the pseudonym for John Keyes Byrne); aside from his acclaimed adaptations of the work of James Joyce – particularly Stephen D (1962) – he has conquered London and New York with two marvellous sister plays, Da (1973) and A Life (1980). In recent years, Dubliner Sebastian Barry (born 1955) has won critical acclaim with such works as Prayers at Sherkin (1990) and The Only True History of Lizzy Finn (1995). His more recent The Stewart of Christendom (1997) is widely seen as one of the best plays to come from a contemporary pen. The story focuses on the fate of a distinctly rare group – Catholic loyalists. The central figure, a former Dublin Metropolitan Police superintendent, is incarcerated in a lunatic asylum and relives family tragedies. The new Ireland, born in 1922, had little room for such 'West Britons' who clung to a doomed vision of Ireland within the British Empire. Barry cleverly portrays their displacement in a changed society.

Adifferent vision is provided by Martin McDonagh, born in London of Irish parents. He revisits the world of Synge and discovers equally poignant story lines, but now all the old charm has disappeared and post–modernism has taken root. The ideals of the literary revivalists are seen as either tarnished or bogus; we are given a “base realism” and the language, unlike that of Synge, is not “flavoured as a nut or an apple”. McDonagh’s most interesting play, The Lonely West (1997) belongs to a group which includes A Skull in Connemara and The Beauty Queen of Leenane and known as the Leenane Trilogy; these plays show a crude and harshly tragic–comic perspective. Some have dismissed his oeuvre as a reworking of old stereotypes; others see him as an exciting young dramatist.

An account of Irish theatre would be incomplete without mention of the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, built in 1871 as a touring venue. An ornate Victorian playhouse with boxes, stalls and seating for over a thousand patrons, the Gaiety was for generations a Mecca for those who would not be seen dead at either the Abbey or the Gate. In its early days, the Gaiety hosted such luminaries as Sarah Bernhardt, Lily Langtry and Beerbohm Tree; it was where Wilde, Shaw and O’Casey first became dazzled by the footlights, and where such later figures as Jimmy O’Dea, Maureen Potter, Cecil Sheridan, Danny Cummins et al began treading the boards.

For years O’Dea was Ireland’s finest comedian, known for his characterisation of the archetypal Moore Street fruit–vendor ‘Biddy Mulligan, the Pride of the Coombe’, based on original sketches by his partner Harry Donovan.

By the mid 1950s, Ireland’s often disregarded amateur dramatic movement had reached a robust strength, spurred on by the ennui induced by the closing of dancehalls during Lent. A surge in the 1960s gave rise to at least one major playwright, John B Keane. It was the triumphal progress of his folkplay Sive(1959), originally written for the Listowel Players that made his name known outside his native Kerry. The play won a festival competition at Athlone but was rejected by the Abbey, and not performed professionally until taken up by the Southern Theatre Group in Cork.

Keane or ‘John B’, as he was known, was quickly seen as a new talent and dutifully turned out successes during the 1960s and 70s. Most of his work is firmly set in his native county and combines melodrama with earthly realism. The dozen or so plays which came from his pen before his death in 2002 have passed into the repertoire of the people and, whatever their faults in the eyes of the sophisticated, have made their impact upon thousands whose lives would otherwise be untouched by the theatre.

In common with the other arts, theatre in Ireland has immensely enlarged its appeal. In recent decades it has got through to more and younger people in a wider range of social groups. It has also reflected the uncertainties of a period when the whole country is in a state of transition. Despite the appeal of television and other attractions it continues to thrive and develop. What the future may bring calls for a prophet, but not necessarily a Cassandra.

Kevin Haddick Flynn is a London–based writer and lecturer. His most recent book, Sarsfield and the Jacobites, is published by Mercier Press. W B Yeats, possibly the most influential figures in Irish theatre

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-10-07 12:02:49.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2004 Kevin Haddick Flynn