Lady Augusta Gregory’s beginnings as a dramatist were modest. Her first efforts involved contributions of pieces of realistic dialogue and plot to Yeats’s early poetic drama. Even when she began to write her own plays, she claimed that they were only to serve as brief comic relief from the more serious work of the poet. This situation, however, did not last long. Lady Gregory’s plays soon became important in their own right to the Abbey Theatre and to the Irish dramatic movement, and they remain a significant part of one of the most seminal periods in modern literature.
The central motivation behind all that Lady Gregory did is found in her statement that she and others worked “to add dignity to Ireland.” Some of the ways in which her plays contributed to this lofty goal are suggested in her remarks on the desired impact of her historical plays, comments that at the same time give telling clues to the nature of her own work:I had had from the beginning a vision of historical plays being sent by us through all the counties of Ireland. For to have a real success and to come into the life of the country, one must touch a real and eternal emotion, and history comes only next to religion in our country. And although the realism of our young writers is taking the place of fantasy and romance in the cities, I still hope to see a little season given up every year to plays on history and in sequence at the Abbey, and I think schools and colleges may ask to have them sent and played in their halls, as a part of the day’s lesson.
One sees here much that finds dramatic expression in Lady Gregory’s plays, including the desire to have her work both spring from and appeal to the common people of Ireland; the intention to recover and respect Irish history, particularly as it is found in the stories and songs of the people rather than in the books of academics; the unapologetic combination of didacticism and entertainment; the wish to preserve romance, myth, and imagination in an increasingly skeptical, political, and materialistic age; and the hope that Irish drama could be a natural part of the education and life of the Irish people.
These desires find expression in each of the three categories into which Lady Gregory’s plays are usually divided: comedy, tragedy and tragicomedy (including the historical plays), and plays of wonder and the supernatural. Lady Gregory’s first plays were comedies. Like most of her drama, they were largely one-act works that combine a skillful command of structure, plot, and dialogue with genuine insight into human nature.
In their formal character, Lady Gregory’s plays can most readily be understood, following critic Ann Saddlemyer, as classical treatments of largely Romantic subject matter. The plays demonstrate economy and balance, are very linear and simple in construction, and generally observe the classical unities of time, place, and action. The tendency to sameness and predictability in structure is relieved by her storyteller’s gift for local color and suspense, and by her effective adaption to the stage of the Irish-English dialect that she called Kiltartan (after the district in which she and her peasant models lived).
Lady Gregory was not a great playwright. She was not considered so at the time, by herself or by others, and is only in recent years being rescued from the oblivion into which her reputation fell following her death. She deserves great respect, however, as one of a lesser rank who made a significant contribution at a crucial time and in so doing served both her art form and her country well.
The recurring locale for Lady Gregory’s comedies is the rural community of Cloon, a fictional version of the real town of Gort, near which Lady Gregory lived on her estate, Coole Park. The poor peasants and only slightly less impoverished townspeople with whom she mingled from her earliest childhood became her characters. She tried to capture not only their speech and mannerisms but also the quality of their lives that transcended their poverty and sometime clownishness. That quality had to do with their closeness to the spiritual heart of life, to myth and legend, to a sense of the past and of community, and to other dimensions of reality that Lady Gregory feared were disappearing from Ireland and from the world.
These characters are not idealized. They are often fools, simpletons, and ne’er-do-wells. Hers are not the heroic poor of some literature, yet beneath their gullibility, love of gossip, and simplemindedness is a closeness to the core of life that Lady Gregory admired and tried to capture. This accounts for the consistent sympathy for her comic creations. Lady Gregory laughed with, not at, her characters, and she did not set herself apart from the human foibles that they portray.
One of those foibles, both a weakness and a strength, is the Irish love of talk. This very human desire to share lives manifests itself comically (and sometimes tragically) in Lady Gregory’s plays in an unquenchable thirst for gossip, a penchant for exaggeration and misrepresentation, a disposition to argument for its own sake, and an irrepressible urge to know their neighbor’s business. This foible is at the heart of two of her most successful works, Spreading the News and The Workhouse Ward.
Spreading the News
The skillfully structured Spreading the News turns on the eagerness of...
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