Donagh MacDonagh Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In addition to writing plays, Donagh MacDonagh collaborated with A. J. Potter in a ballet, Careless Love, and an opera, Patrick, neither of which has been published. MacDonagh published two essays—one on his father, Thomas MacDonagh, in 1945, and one on James Joyce, in 1957—and was the author of several short stories. He often wrote new lyrics for old Irish ballads, some of which are collected in The Hungry Grass (1947) and A Warning to Conquerors (1968), two volumes of his poetry. With Lennox Robinson, MacDonagh coedited The Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1958) and, at the time of his death, was working on a dictionary of Dublin slang, which remains unfinished. The dictionary and the rest of MacDonagh’s personal library and papers became the property of the Irish University Press.

Most important is MacDonagh’s poetry, published in four volumes: Twenty Poems (1933), Veterans and Other Poems (1941), The Hungry Grass, and A Warning to Conquerors. Even his earliest poems are essentially dramatic and therefore foreshadow his later plays. Some, such as “Dublin Made Me” and “The Hungry Grass,” are essentially mood pieces calculated to evoke in the reader precise feelings, such as patriotic allegiance to a proud, unbowed city or the nameless, all-encompassing fear of straying into a cursed area. Other poems are character sketches or dramatic dialogues apparently...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although Donagh MacDonagh was a poet, playwright, and scholar, a writer of ballads and short stories, the coauthor of a ballet and an opera, and a skillful and knowledgeable editor of Irish poetry, his real achievements are hard to gauge. This is true for two reasons. First, scholarly analysis of the Irish playwrights and poets who followed William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, George Russell (Æ), and Sean O’Casey is insufficient. Consequently, no complete history of modern Irish drama, no adequate bibliography, and few good anthologies exist. Indeed, many important plays of this period, at least one of which is by MacDonagh, remain unedited and unpublished. Other than a brief but trenchant study by Robert Hogan, the dean of modern Irish studies, few scholarly evaluations of MacDonagh have appeared. The second reason for the neglect of MacDonagh’s work is more personal. His father, Thomas MacDonagh, has been the subject of numerous articles and two critical biographies, and the political and historical importance of the father has tended to overshadow the literary achievements of the son.

Some tentative judgments of Donagh MacDonagh, however, can be made. He was a better poet and playwright than his more famous father, and he, along with T. S. Eliot, deserves pride of place for attempting to resurrect poetic drama in the modern theater. In fact, MacDonagh’s verse is more flexible and lively than Eliot’s, and it has a much broader range, from ballad forms to rhyming couplets, from blank verse to colloquial Irish expressions, à la Synge. Happy as Larry is the best-known Irish verse play of recent memory, and some of MacDonagh’s other plays, though almost completely unknown, are even better. His plays are notable for their deft characterization, whether sketched in detail or painted with a broad brush. Fame largely eluded MacDonagh during his lifetime, although he was elected to the Irish Academy of Letters, saw his verse play Happy as Larry translated into twelve European languages, and gained great popularity as a broadcaster on Radio Éireann, where he sang and recited folk ballads and ballad operas, often his own, and where he explained the significance and importance of Irish songs and poetry to a large and enthusiastic listening audience. Selected by Robinson to help edit The Oxford Book of Irish Verse, MacDonagh also contributed a learned and insightful introduction to the collection.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Browne, E. Martin, ed. Introduction to Four Modern Verse Plays. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1957. One of the plays selected is MacDonagh’s Happy as Larry. Browne discusses the play’s particular sense of poetic drama in terms that provide a useful approach not only to the work in question but also to MacDonagh’s distinctive language and dramaturgy. The discussion also draws attention to differences between MacDonagh and other modern writers of verse plays.

Hogan, Robert. After the Irish Renaissance: A Critical History of the Irish Drama Since “The Plough and the Stars.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967. MacDonagh’s background and career are described in the context of experimentation in verse drama by the generation of Irish playwrights who immediately succeeded William Butler Yeats. All MacDonagh’s important plays are examined, and their distinctive poetic origins and attainments are assessed. Contains bibliographical information concerning the plays.

MacDonagh, Donagh. “The Death-watch Beetle.” Drama, no. 12 (February, 1949): 4-7. MacDonagh provides a succinct account of the rise, and what he considers the imminent fall, of the Abbey Theatre. His views are revealing in the light of his own status as a playwright, the orientation and tone of his plays, and the production of his works by companies other than the Abbey.

MacDonagh, Thomas. Literature in Ireland: Studies Irish and Anglo-Irish. Rev. ed. Tyone, Ireland: Relay Books, 1996. This volume by Donagh MacDonagh’s father sheds light on MacDonagh’s heritage and work.

Norstedt, Johann A. Thomas MacDonagh: A Critical Biography. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980. A biography of Donagh MacDonagh’s poet-patriot father, which is essential reading for a sense of MacDonagh’s background and his work’s relationship to his illustrious heritage. Includes limited information relevant to an evaluation of MacDonagh’s work for the theater. Also contains a full bibliography.

Wickstrom, Gordon M. “Introduction to Lady Spider.” Journal of Irish Literature 9, no. 3 (1980): 4-82. A first publication of MacDonagh’s least-known work, based on the well-known Irish legend of Deirdre. The work’s place in the canon of plays dealing with the Deirdre legend is evaluated, thereby providing a brief, instructive introduction to MacDonagh’s dramatic imagination. The text comes complete with editorial annotations.