Critical Context

All Lady Gregory’s plays were written under the influence of Irish nationalism, in the era just before and after Ireland won independence from English rule. As one of the cofounders of the Abbey Theatre, established as a home for Irish drama and a center for nationalist expression, Lady Gregory (herself a member of the Anglo-Irish Protestant aristocracy) wrote numerous frothy one-act comedies. These feature Irish humor, Irish folklore, and Irish patriotism. A typical night at the Abbey in its early days would feature one or two Gregory one-acts, followed by the “serious” work of the evening, a Symbolist drama by William Butler Yeats or John Millington Synge. Calling herself “the charwoman of the Abbey,” in part to diminish the appearance of privilege stemming from her aristocratic background, Lady Gregory posed as a hack writer, one who wrote to suit popular taste but was happy living in the shadow of two genuinely Irish men of greatness. It is true that her comedies were popular with Dublin audiences; it is also true that she supported and nourished Yeats and Synge. If Grania did not exist, it might even be possible to view her as she wished to be viewed—as a well-meaning hack.

Grania is a complete departure from comic folk-drama. Considered by most critics to be her masterpiece, Grania is her only full-length play. Its poetry, its dynamic shaping of myth, and its intense dramatic tension make it unrepresentative of her work as a whole. Lady Gregory based Grania on a body of ancient legend which she herself had translated from the original Irish; she wrote the play when she was fifty-eight years old, and she refused to allow it to be staged in her lifetime. Perhaps its power and its passion embarrassed the author, an eccentric woman reared amid Victorian values, a woman widowed at twenty-eight who wore black till her death at eighty—a woman who cultivated an image of herself as a nonartist, a functionary, a “woman of the house, that has to be minding the place, and listening to complaints, and dividing her share of food.” In an age less hampered by ideals of womanly decorum, this play has emerged as the equal of any written in the Irish Renaissance. Since her death it has been translated into the Irish language and performed both in Irish and in the “Kiltartan” in which it was written.