Abbey Theatre in the Irish Literary Renaissance Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.