The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In The Workhouse Ward, Mike McInerney and Michael Miskell, former neighbors, are confined to neighboring beds in an Irish poorhouse. The old men are alone during most of this twenty-minute comedy, the other inmates having gone to Mass, and the action is limited almost entirely to talk. As the play opens, they trade extravagant physical complaints in a rich Kiltartan dialect, moving quickly to invective and a rehearsal of all the quarrels they have had with each other during nearly seventy years of living side by side. Each blames the other for his present poverty, having spent his money building barriers and protecting his property to no avail; Michael’s pigs still ate Mike’s gooseberries, and Mike’s dogs still attacked Michael. Each impugns the other’s ancestry and boasts of his own, as measured by the number of generations buried at the Seven Churches or the screeching of the banshee at the death of a family member. They reveal a history of lawsuits and petty grievances, they bemoan the fact that they are doomed to spend the rest of their lives “chained” together in this place, and they wish each other dead. Mike McInerney’s exclamation is typical of both men:And I say, and I would kiss the book on it, I to have one request only to be granted, and I leaving it in my will, it is what I would request, nine furrows of the field, nine ridges of the hills, nine waves of the ocean to be put between your grave and my own grave the time we will be...

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The Workhouse Ward Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The most characteristic device in The Workhouse Ward, other than the dramatic language discussed above, is its economy of means. The play has been deliberately pared to its essentials: three characters; a spare set consisting of two beds, two blankets, and a night stand; and a swift, efficient development of character and situation. Writing the play encouraged the refinement of these qualities.

The Workhouse Ward was adapted from Tea na mBocht or The Poorhouse (pb. 1903), a Gaelic play by Douglas Hyde based on a lengthy scenario by Lady Gregory, which in turn grew out of her charitable visits to Gort Workhouse near her estate at Coole Park. The Poorhouse had five characters as well as several offstage voices representing other inmates of the ward, and somewhat looser dialogue; according to Lady Gregory, it “did not go very well. It seemed to ravel out into loose ends” and was not popular with the actors or the audience.

When the Abbey Theatre needed a new, easily produced play, Lady Gregory rewrote The Poorhouse for three actors, recasting the dialogue and tightening the structure. In her version, the old men emerge cleanly, without wasted words; their characters are bolder and more forceful, and Mike’s rejection of his sister’s offer is more resonant. The play is swift, concentrated, and delicately balanced. With a few brief speeches, Lady Gregory creates the world of the old men,...

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The Workhouse Ward Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Adams, Hazard. Lady Gregory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1973.

Ellis-Fermor, Una. The Irish Dramatic Movement. 2d ed. London: Methuen, 1967.

Fay, Gerard. The Abbey Theatre: Cradle of Genius. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

Kohfeldt, Mary Lou. Lady Gregory: The Woman Behind the Irish Renaissance. New York: Atheneum, 1985.

Kopper, Edward A. Lady Isabella Persse Gregory. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Mikhail, E. H. Lady Gregory: Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1982.

Mikhail, E. H. Lady Gregory: Interviews and Recollections. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977.

Saddlemyer, Ann, and Colin Smythe, eds. Lady Gregory, Fifty Years After. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1987.