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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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Criticism: Major Figures

Lennox Robinson (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: Robinson, Lennox. “Lady Gregory.” In The Irish Theatre: Lectures Delivered During the Abbey Theatre Festival Held in Dublin in August 1938, edited by Lennox Robinson, pp. 55-64. London, Great Britain: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1939.

[In the following essay, first delivered as a speech for the first Abbey Theatre Dramatic Festival in 1938, Robinson—who served as a manager, producer, and director at the Abbey Theatre—describes Lady Augusta Gregory's contributions to the Abbey Theatre.]

To understand Lady Gregory fully it is necessary to visualise her background. She was born in a big country-house in Co. Galway in 1852, and married in 1881 Sir Richard...

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Ronald Ayling (essay date spring 1972)

SOURCE: Ayling, Ronald. “Sean O'Casey and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.” Dalhousie Review 52, no. 1 (spring 1972): 21-33.

[In the following essay, Ayling examines the complicated relationship of playwright Sean O'Casey to the Abbey Theatre.]

“All art is a collaboration”

J. M. Synge1


Irish writers and comics, possibly begrudging Sean O'Casey's exceptional popularity, have claimed that much of this success in his native city can be attributed to the acting of the Abbey company and the active collaboration of the theatre's directors in writing and revising his plays. I remember vividly on my first...

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Ann Saddlemyer (essay date September 1981)

SOURCE: Saddlemyer, Ann. “J. M. Synge on the Irish Dramatic Movement: An Unpublished Article.” Modern Drama 24, no. 3 (September 1981): 276-81.

[In the following essay, Saddlemyer discusses an unpublished essay by John Millington Synge that demonstrates Synge's commitment to Yeats's artistic principles and the ideals of the early Abbey Theatre.]

During the last week of April, 1906, the Irish National Theatre Society visited the north of England for the first time, performing in the Midland Theatre, Manchester, on April 23 and 24 before proceeding to Liverpool and Leeds. As the only Director based in Dublin, Synge had been taking increasing responsibility for Abbey...

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Sheila Gooddie (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Gooddie, Sheila. “The Abbey Theatre.” In Annie Horniman: A Pioneer in the Theatre, pp. 59-68. London: Methuen, 1990.

[In the following essay, Gooddie examines the complicated and thorny relationship between Yeats and Annie Horniman, the first financial backer of the Abbey Theatre.]

In 1904 local authorities started to tighten up their fire regulations in theatres, following a serious fire in a theatre in England and an even worse one in Chicago where people lost their lives. Some small back-street theatres were forced to close, among them the Hibernian Theatre of Varieties in Abbey Street in Dublin, which had been unable to make the alterations required by...

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Criticism: Plays And Controversies

Lady Augusta Gregory (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: Gregory, Lady Augusta. “The Fight Over The Playboy.” In Our Irish Theatre: A Chapter of Autobiography, pp. 109-18. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1913.

[In the following chapter from her autobiography, Lady Gregory reflects on the controversy that resulted from the Abbey Theatre's staging of John Millington Synge's peasant play The Playboy of the Western World.]

When Synge's Shadow of the Glen was first played in the Molesworth Hall in 1903, some attacks were made on it by the Sinn Fein weekly newspaper. In the play the old husband pretends to be dead, the young wife listens to the offers of a young farmer, who asks her to marry him in...

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Lady Augusta Gregory (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: Gregory, Lady Augusta. “The Fight With the Castle.” In Our Irish Theatre: A Chapter of Autobiography, pp. 140-68. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1913.

[In the following essay, Lady Gregory describes the contributions that playwright George Bernard Shaw made to the Abbey Theatre, along with the resulting battle over censorship.]

In the summer of 1909 I went one day from London to Ayot St. Lawrence, a Hertfordshire village, to consult Mr. Bernard Shaw on some matters connected with our Theatre. When I was leaving, he gave me a little book, The Shewing up of Blanco Posnet, which had just been printed, although not published. It had, however, been...

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Robert G. Lowery (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Lowery, Robert G. Introduction to A Whirlwind in Dublin: ‘The Plough and the Stars’ Riots, edited by Robert G. Lowery, pp. 3-7. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, an introduction to a book-length collection of reviews of Sean O'Casey's play The Plough and the Stars, performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1926, Lowery compares the Abbey audience of 1907, when the audiences rioted in response to Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, with the 1926 audience that vehemently protested the Abbey's production of O'Casey's play.]

O'Casey is considered by many the only Irish playwright who can thus far...

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David Cairns and Shaun Richards (essay date autumn 1987)

SOURCE: Cairns, David, and Shaun Richards. “Reading a Riot: The ‘Reading Formation’ of Synge's Abbey Audience.” Literature and History 13, no. 2 (autumn 1987): 219-37.

[In the following essay, Cairns and Richards argue that the nationalist ideology and mythologized nostalgia that produced the Irish Literary Revival to some extent “scripted” the ways in which the early twentieth-century Dublin audience responded to Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World.]

The Playboy ‘riots’—along with those of Hugo's Hernani, Jarry's Ubu Roi, O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars—are among the few undisputed ‘facts’ of literary...

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Lucy McDiarmid (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: McDiarmid, Lucy. “The Abbey and the Theatrics of Controversy, 1909-1915.” In A Century of Irish Drama: Widening the State, edited by Stephen Watt, Eileen Morgan, and Shakir Mustafa, pp. 57-71. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, McDiarmid argues that three early controversies—the censorship of Shaw's The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, the American response to Synge's Playboy, and the debate over whether to produce Shaw's play, O'Flaherty VC—helped the Abbey define itself artistically and strategically as a national theater.]

The history of the early Abbey Theatre offers a good means of understanding...

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Criticism: Artistic Vision And Significance

Peter Kavanagh (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: Kavanagh, Peter. “A Poetic Theatre.” In The Story of the Abbey Theatre, pp. 81-90. New York: Devin-Adair Company, 1950.

[In the following essay, Kavanagh describes Yeats's interest in producing poetic works and the Catholic Church's suspicions of the Abbey's early plays.]

During the early years of the twentieth century the minds of the Irish people were occupied with problems of business and politics. They were thinking only of how they might get on in the world. In the evenings, the peasants would gather round their fires—not to tell stories of romantic Ireland but to listen to someone read The Freeman's Journal, which told them of the struggle...

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Liam Miller (essay date October 1970)

SOURCE: Miller, Liam. “W. B. Yeats and Stage Design at the Abbey Theatre.” Malahat Review, no. 16 (October 1970): 50-64.

[In the following essay, Miller—a stage designer—discusses the “pioneering work in stage design” that occurred at the Abbey Theatre during the Irish Literary Renaissance.]

Among the earliest published works of W. B. Yeats are three dramatic poems, “Mosada,” privately printed for the poet's father in the 1880's with a frontispiece showing Yeats at the time, “The Island of Statues” and “The Seeker,” none of which had been attempted on the stage, when, on July 1, 1887, he wrote from London to Katharine Tynan:


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James W. Flannery (essay date May 1972)

SOURCE: Flannery, James W. “W. B. Yeats and the Abbey Theatre Company.” Educational Theatre Journal 27, no. 2 (May 1972): 179-96.

[In the following essay, Flannery considers the political context in which the Abbey was established, focusing particularly on conflicts about the artistic vision the Abbey was to follow.]


From the very outset of his dramatic endeavors Yeats was determined to have his own theatre. After unsuccessful attempts to produce his plays in London during the 1890s and in Dublin with imported English professional actors at the Irish Literary Theatre (1899-1901), he set out to...

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Hugh Hunt (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Hunt, Hugh. “The Free State Theatre, 1923-1932.” In The Abbey: Ireland's National Theatre, 1904-1979, pp. 119-44. Dublin, Ireland: Gill and Macmillan Ltd., 1979.

[In the following essay, Hunt—the director of the Abbey Theatre from 1935 to 1971—recounts the plays performed in the early years of the Irish Free State, which was formed in 1923 as a result of the Anglo-Irish War.]


Ireland in 1923 was not just a nation once again, it was a very different nation from the one about which the founders of the Abbey had written their plays. No longer a romantic anachronism perched on the fringes of western...

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Ann Saddlemyer (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Saddlemyer, Ann. “The ‘Dwarf-Dramas’ of the Early Abbey Theatre.” In Yeats, Sligo and Ireland: Essays to Mark the 21st Yeats International Summer School, edited by A. Norman Jeffares, pp. 197-215. Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom: Colin Smythe Ltd., 1980.

[In the following essay, Saddlemyer discusses contemporary artistic and political reactions to the poetic and peasant plays produced by the Abbey Theatre during the early years of the Irish Literary Renaissance.]

‘No one act play, no dwarf-drama, can be a knockdown argument’.

With these words James Joyce dismissed...

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Adele M. Dalsimer (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Dalsimer, Adele M. “Players in the Western World: The Abbey Theatre's American Tours.” Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies 16, no. 1 (1981): 75-93.

[In the following historically-grounded essay, Dalsimer argues that the Abbey's American tours between 1911 and 1914 (at the height of the Irish Literary Renaissance) and between 1931-1938 consolidated the Abbey's international reputation but alarmed Irish nationalists, who feared that the Abbey's representation of Ireland and the Irish would adversely affect American support for Irish independence.]

Between 1911 and the outbreak of World War II, the Abbey Theatre made seven tours of the United States and...

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Cara B. McClintock (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: McClintock, Cara B. “‘It Will Be Very Difficult to Find a Definition’: Yeats, Language, and the Early Abbey Theatre.” In W. B. Yeats and Postcolonialism, edited by Deborah Fleming, pp. 205-19. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, McClintock explores Yeats's changing attitudes toward the Irish language as a nationalist who insisted on “art over politics.” The author argues that Yeats's written dialogue attempts to capture the rhythm and sound of the Irish language in English, which both resolved and created certain difficulties for performers and their audiences.]

In her introduction to the correspondence of W. B....

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Further Reading


FitzGerald, Mary. “How the Abbey Said No: Readers' Reports and the Rejection of The Silver Tassie.” In O'Casey Annual No. 1, edited by Robert G. Lowery, pp. 73-87. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan Press, 1982.

Explores the politics and personalities behind the Abbey Theatre's rejection of Sean O'Casey's 1929 play The Silver Tassie in the waning years of the Irish Renaissance.

Peterson, Richard F., and Gary Phillips. “W. B. Yeats and Norreys Connell.” In Yeats Annual No. 2, edited by Richard J. Finneran, pp. 46-58. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Considers the...

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