Abbey Theatre in the Irish Literary Renaissance Essay - Critical Essays

Abbey Theatre in the Irish Literary Renaissance


Abbey Theatre in the Irish Literary Renaissance

Coinciding with a period of great political turmoil and violence as the Irish sought independence from British rule, the Irish Literary Renaissance drew upon Gaelic mythology and an interest in reviving the long-suppressed Gaelic language and rural native culture to conceptualize Irish national and cultural identity as separate and distinct from that of the British. The Abbey Theatre of Dublin, founded in 1903 by playwrights William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, opened its doors in 1904. During the Irish Renaissance, which lasted from approximately 1880 until 1930, a generation of Irish writers, seeking to produce a national literature that was uniquely Irish, produced an impressive body of work, much of which was seen on the stage of the Abbey Theatre.

Yeats and Lady Gregory were nationalists and leading figures in the Irish Literary Renaissance, sometimes called the Irish Literary Revival. Prior to the founding of the Abbey Theatre, Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Edward Martyn published a “Manifesto for Irish Literary Theatre” (1897), in which they proclaimed their intention of establishing a national theater for Ireland. In 1899, they established the Irish Literary Theatre and produced such plays as Yeats's controversial The Countess Cathleen (1899), in which the heroine sells her soul to feed her starving tenants during a famine; Lady Gregory's Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902), a rewriting of an old Irish story from the Ulster cycle; and Martyn's The Heather Field (1899). Yeats's nationalistic drama, Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), was one of the most succesful productions of the Irish Literary Theatre.

Yeats and Lady Gregory founded the Irish National Theatre in 1903, and with financial backing from the British producer Annie Horniman, they purchased a permanent home for their theater on Old Abbey Street in Dublin. On December 27, 1904, the Abbey Theatre opened its doors to the public with Lady Gregory's Spreading the News (1904) and Yeats's On Baile's Strand (1904). From the outset, the Abbey commissioned and produced plays that established Ireland's literary reputation and influenced the development of twentieth-century drama. In addition to Lady Gregory and Yeats, who served as the Abbey's directors until their deaths in 1932 and 1939, respectively, and saw the Abbey through a civil war and the founding of the Irish Free State in 1923, many significant writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance contributed plays to the Abbey, among them, J. M. Synge (whom Yeats called “the greatest dramatic genius of Ireland,”) Sean O'Casey, Martyn, George Bernard Shaw, Padraic Colum, and George Moore.

According to Yeats's manifesto, his main goal in founding a national theater was to “build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature.” Although both the directors and the playwrights whose works were commissioned shared the goal of producing a uniquely Irish theatre, the question of what constituted Irish theater and how art related to national identity sparked controversy even before the Abbey was established. Of the possible influence the passionately nationalistic play Cathleen ni Houlihan may have had on the men who led the Easter Rebellion of 1916, Yeats reflected, “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” Although some plays inspired nationalistic fervor, others angered nationalists with their depiction of Ireland. The Catholic Church, for example, denounced the vision of Yeats's play, The Countess Cathleen, in 1899, and certainly at least one influential group of nationalists conflated Catholic values with Irish values. Throughout the Irish Literary Renaissance, the Abbey contributed to the conversation about Ireland's national and artistic identity by producing plays that provoked violent reactions from the Abbey's audience, namely The Playboy of the Western World (1907) by Synge and The Plough and the Stars (1926) by O'Casey. Playboy, a black comedy that mocks the pastoral, nostalgic myth-making of Irish nationalism, was greeted by jeers and angry rioting. Newspaper editorials by Irish nationalists accused Synge of obscenity and disrespect for the purity of the Irish peasant woman. Furthermore, as James Kilroy points out in The Playboy Riots (1971), many editorials claimed that the play neither represented the nation nor “reality,” and that if it did not represent the nation, then it had no business appearing in a national theater. In 1926, Abbey Theatre-goers again took to the streets, protesting the premiere of The Plough and the Stars, an anti-war play that depicted the Easter Rising of 1916 without mythologizing its leaders. As the Abbey Theatre developed, it rejected a narrowly propagandistic nationalism, embracing a thornier and more complex notion of Irish nationhood and of Irish art.

Representative Works

Padraic Colum
A Fiddler's House (play) 1903
The Saxon Shillin' (play) 1903
The Land (play) 1905

Lady Augusta Gregory
Cuchulain of Muirthemne (play) 1902
Spreading the News (play) 1904
Kincora (play) 1905
The Canavans (play) 1906
The Gaol Gate (play) 1906
Hyacinth Halvey (play) 1906
The Jackdaw (play) 1906
Dervorgilla (play) 1907
The Rising of the Moon (play) 1907
Coats (play) 1910
The Full Moon (play) 1910
The Travelling Man [with W. B. Yeats] (play) 1910
Our Irish Theatre (autobiography) 1913
Shanwalla (play) 1915
Hanrahan's Oath (play) 1918
The Old Woman Remembers (play) 1923
The Story Brought by Brigit (play) 1924
Dave (play) 1927
Sancho's Master (play) 1927

Edward Martyn
The Heather Field (play) 1899
Maeve (play) 1900
Grangecolman (play) 1912

George Moore
Journeys End in Lovers Meeting [with John Oliver Hobbes] (play) 1894
The Bending of the Bough (play) 1900
Diarmuid and Grania [with W. B. Yeats] (play) 1901
Esther Waters: A Play (play) 1913

Sean O'Casey
Cathleen Listens In (play) 1923
The Shadow of a Gunman (play) 1923
Juno and the Paycock (play) 1924
Nannie's Night Out (play) 1924
The Plough and the Stars (play) 1926
The Silver Tassie (play) 1929

George William Russell
Deirdre (play) 1902

George Bernard Shaw
The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet (play) 1909
O'Flaherty, V. C. (play) 1920

John Millington Synge
In the Shadow of the Glen (play) 1903
Riders to the Sea (play) 1904
The Well of the Saints (play) 1905
The Playboy of the Western World (play) 1907
Deirdre of the Sorrows (play) 1910

William Butler Yeats
The Land of Heart's Desire (play) 1894
The Countess Cathleen (play) 1899
Cathleen ni Houlihan (play) 1902
The Hour Glass: A Morality (play) 1903
The King's Threshold (play) 1903
On Baile's Strand (play) 1904
The Shadowy Waters (play) 1904
Deirdre (play) 1906
The Golden Helmet (play) 1908
The Travelling Man [with Lady Gregory] (play) 1910
Four Plays for Dancers (play) 1921
Two Plays for Dancers (play) 1922
The Cat and the Moon (play) 1926

Criticism: Origins And Development

W. B. Yeats (interview date 25 May 1910)

SOURCE: Yeats, W. B. “Irish National Drama.” In The Abbey Theatre: Interviews and Recollections, edited by E. H. Mikhail, pp. 98-100. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1988.

[In the following interview, originally published in 1910, one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre discusses the peasant plays of the Abbey Theatre as part of a dramatic movement “that is representative of the social life and the economic conditions of Ireland.”]

‘The side of our work with which we have achieved our greatest successes,’ said Mr. Yeats to our representative, ‘is undoubtedly the peasant comedy and tragedy. We have placed upon the stage for the first time...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)

George W. Russell (essay date 2 January 1926)

SOURCE: Russell, George W. “The Coming of Age of the Abbey.” In The Abbey Theatre: Interviews and Recollections, edited by E. H. Mikhail, pp. 136-40. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1988.

[In the following essay, first published in The Irish Statesman on January 2, 1926, Russell, an important figure in the Irish Literary Renaissance who signed his poetry with the initials “A. E.,” discusses his experiences with the Abbey Theatre at the height of the Literary Revival.]

About a quarter of a century ago Ireland began to assert and practise its right to cultural independence, making it apparent to the world that it had a distinction, a...

(The entire section is 1786 words.)

Andrew E. Malone (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: Malone, Andrew E. “The Early History of the Abbey Theatre.” In The Irish Theatre: Lectures Delivered During the Abbey Theatre Festival Held in Dublin in August 1938, edited by Lennox Robinson, pp. 3-29. London, Great Britain: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1939.

[In the following essay, originally given at the first Abbey Theatre Dramatic Festival in 1938, Malone recounts the early history of the Abbey Theatre.]

Conscious as I am of the great compliment which has been paid to me by the invitation to deliver the opening address at this first Abbey Theatre Dramatic Festival, I feel myself more than a little out of place. This introductory lecture should be...

(The entire section is 6398 words.)

W. G. Fay (essay date October 1947)

SOURCE: Fay, W. G. “How We Began the Abbey.” In The Abbey Theatre: Interviews and Recollections, edited by E. H. Mikhail, pp. 15-8. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1947, Fay, one of the original actors at the Abbey Theatre along with his brother, Frank Fay, provides his personal impressions of the founding of the Abbey Theatre.]

When Seumas O'Sullivan saw at the Antient Concert Rooms, Dublin, the first performance of W. B. Yeats' verse play, The Countess Cathleen, amongst the audience was James Joyce. What neither of them was aware of, as they watched the performance of The Countess...

(The entire section is 1483 words.)