Edward Martyn Martyn, Edward - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Edward Martyn 1859-1923

(Full name Edward Joseph Martyn) Irish playwright and novelist.

The following entry provides criticism on Martyn's works from 1899 through 1997.

A dramatist and patron of the arts, Martyn is remembered as a contributor to the Irish Literary Renaissance of the early twentieth century. His play The Heather Field (1899) was the second production of Dublin's Irish Literary Theatre, a forerunner of the Abbey theater, and he later served as president of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican political party. Influenced by the social dramas of Henrik Ibsen, Martyn combined naturalistic settings with symbolic elements in his works. In addition, he provided financial support for numerous programs promoting Gaelic language and culture, Republican political aims, Irish music, and the Catholic Church.

Biographical Information

Martyn was born on January 30, 1859, in the county of Galway, in Ireland, to wealthy Catholic landowners John Martyn and Annie Josephine Martyn. His father died the following year, and Martyn remained at the family home, Tulira Castle, until entering Belvedere College, Dublin, when he was eight years old. In 1870 the family moved to London, where Martyn attended Beaumont College and later studied at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1877 to 1879. There his budding literary interests were fed with the prose of John Ruskin and Walter Pater, and upon leaving Oxford Martyn traveled abroad with his cousin, the novelist and aesthete George Moore. On the Continent, Martyn came into contact with contemporary art, music, and the theater, including the paintings of Edgar Degas and the music of Richard Wagner. In 1890 his first literary effort, the satiric novel Morgante the Lesser, was published. Together with Lady Augusta Gregory and W. B. Yeats, Martyn founded the Irish Literary Theatre in Dublin in 1899. In addition to contributing the company's second production, The Heather Field, Martyn provided financial support for the venture. He ultimately resigned from the theater in 1902, quarreling with Yeats over policy decisions, including the number of plays focusing on peasant subjects. Following his resignation, Martyn turned his attention to other areas of Irish culture. A political nationalist, Martyn served as president of Sinn Fein from 1904 to 1908 and provided generous financial support for programs advancing Gaelic arts and culture. Wealthy and unmarried, Martyn gave abundant sums to the Catholic Church and the Gaelic League, particularly supporting music programs and the revival of the Gaelic language. In 1914 he founded the Irish Theatre as a venue for Irish-language plays. He died on December 5, 1923.

Major Works

Throughout his life, Martyn sought to balance the contrary impulses of Catholicism and hedonistic cosmopolitanism. This conflict first expressed itself in Morgante the Lesser, a satiric work in the manner of Jonathan Swift. However, Irish culture and political independence were the dominant wellsprings of his literary imagination and the direct motivation behind The Heather Field and Maeve (1900). Tyrell, the protagonist of The Heather Field is a landlord who becomes obsessed with reclaiming an unaerable heather field for productive farm use. In his single-minded pursuit of his ideal, he loses his wife's loyalty, his fortune, and his sanity, and the play ends ironically when he is given a bouquet of heather by his son. Maeve focuses on a young girl who symbolizes Ireland under British rule. Visited in a dream by her ancient Celtic ancestor Queen Maeve, the girl rejects her English fiancé and loses her life in entering the ideal fairy world of her ancestors. Martyn's next dramatic offering, The Tale of a Town (1905), was rejected by Yeats and the Irish Literary Theatre. After being rewritten by George Moore, the play was produced as The Bending of the Bough. Martyn, however, rejected Moore's version and would not allow his name to be listed among the credits. His later plays include Grangcolman (1912), a pessimistic study of a family in decline, and the satiric The Dream Physician (1914). His final play, The Dream Physician includes barely concealed character assassinations of Yeats and Moore. In the play, Yeats is seen conducting an absurd seance while one of his cohorts plucks a banjo.

Critical Reception

Although his plays had only marginal commercial and critical success during his lifetime, Martyn was perhaps the first to combine ideals of European social drama with quintessentially Irish subjects and characters. However, Martyn's quarrels with Yeats and Moore left him on the losing side of Ireland's literary heritage, and he remains best remembered for his first two works, The Heather Field and Maeve, of which William J. Feeney has concluded: “These plays are permeated by a sense of tragic joy, of escape, through madness or death, from a world too full of weeping. Structure is coherent, the conflict of idealism and practicality is carefully developed, and dialogue, despite some creakiness, is forward-moving.”

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Morgante the Lesser: His Notorious Life and Wonderful Deeds [as Sirius] (novel) 1890

The Heather Field (play) 1899

Maeve (play) 1900

The Place Hunters (play) 1902

An Enchanted Sea (play) 1904

The Tale of a Town (play) 1905

Grangcolman (play) 1912

The Dream Physician (play) 1914

Privilege of Place (play) 1915

Romulus and Remus (play) 1916

Regina Eyre (play) 1919

The Bookman (review date March 1899)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Heather Field and Maeve, by Edward Martyn. The Bookman, 15, no. 90 (March 1899): 183.

[In the following excerpted review of The Heather Field and Maeve, the critic praises Martyn's subjects while faulting his presentation.]

A recent controversy has given a prominence to these plays [The Heather Field and Maeve] with which their own merits or demerits have nothing to do. The controversy took its rise from the Introduction Mr. George Moore unfortunately wrote for the volume, an Introduction which only dealt casually with Mr. Martyn's work, and which otherwise is a monument of preposterous criticism and bad taste.

The two plays did not need any sensational aid to win the attention that is their due. They are notable, but not for their literary quality. They are genuinely poetical, and that is always notable. They are not poetry. The poetry in them has been given utterance by a man of sentiment, who is not a master of language, save at very rare moments. But he is nearer being a poet than a clever man of letters. His ordinary style is inflexible and even a little prim. Of his stage-craft it is not my business to speak, but I think he has learnt his trade well enough to keep the attention of the few who would be attracted by his matter. Both plays move one with a sense of deep feeling stirring beneath them, of a deep love for...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

John MacDonagh (essay date January 1924)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: MacDonagh, John. “Edward Martyn.” Dublin Magazine 1, no. 6 (January 1924): 465-67.

[In the following obituary tribute, MacDonagh offers personal reminiscences of Martyn.]

Ireland can ill afford at any time, and particularly just now, when the voice of intellect is so faint among us, the loss of a man of such fine character and noble ideals as Edward Martyn.

It was my privilege for some years to spend hours each day with him, discussing plans, principally for The Irish Theatre, which he founded in 1914 with Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett, and in which I acted as Manager and Producer. These hours will remain long with me in happy...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

A. E. Morgan (essay date 1924)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morgan, A. E. “The Irish Pioneers.” In Tendencies of Modern English Drama, pp. 147-52. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1924.

[In the following excerpt, Morgan discusses Martyn's major works and assesses his place in the development of modern Irish drama.]

The Irish Literary Theatre was founded by Mr. Yeats in conjunction with a few other enthusiasts. From the start Mr. Edward Martyn and Lady Gregory were valuable coadjutors, and the little band of enthusiasts were soon to be strengthened by the adhesion of Mr. George Moore. Mr. George Moore's dramatic contribution was not considerable, nor was it typically Irish, but the work of both Mr. Martyn and Lady...

(The entire section is 2101 words.)

Ernest A. Boyd (essay date 1928)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Boyd, Ernest A. “Edward Martyn.” In The Contemporary Drama of Ireland, pp. 12-31. London: Little, Brown, and Company, 1928.

[In the following essay, Boyd surveys Martyn's major dramas from The Heather Field to The Dream Physician.]

George Moore's veracious essay in indiscreet autobiography, Hail and Farewell, contains no figure more interesting than Edward Martyn, who survives the ordeal of fictional reconstruction as successfully as A. E., and John Eglinton, in that all three emerge undiminished. Those three volumes of Irish literary history drew attention to the personality of many writers who would have preferred to let their own books...

(The entire section is 5170 words.)

Patricia McFate (essay date spring 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McFate, Patricia. “The Bending of the Bough and The Heather Field: Two Portraits of the Artists.” Eire-Ireland 8, no. 1 (spring 1973): 52-61.

[In the following essay, McFate discusses how “the complex psychological and imaginative kinships among the writers of the Literary Revival” are revealed in George Moore's The Bending of the Bough and Martyn's The Heather Field.]

For all his humor and pose, George Moore set forth in Hail and Farewell! a picture of the Irish Literary Revival that goes far deeper than mischievous portraiture. In presenting his allies and rivals, Moore recognized that they were fighting in a small arena...

(The entire section is 3752 words.)

Wayne Hall (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hall, Wayne. “Edward Martyn (1859-1923): Politics and Drama of Ice.” Eire-Ireland 15, no. 2 (1980): 113-22.

[In the following essay, Hall examines the ways in which Martyn's political beliefs influenced his presentation of heroic ideals in The Heather Field and Maeve.]

In the novel he published in 1890 under the ponderous title of Morgante the Lesser: His Notorious Life and Wonderful Deeds, Edward Martyn described an island-city called Agathopolis, a “majestic iceberg which soars aloft in its cold purity amid the abominable seas of the world … the ideal commonwealth for uncloistered monks of all time.”1 Martyn himself clung...

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Adrian Frazier (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Frazier, Adrian. “Queering the Irish Renaissance: The Masculinities of Moore, Martyn, and Yeats.” In Gender and Sexuality in Modern Ireland, edited by Anthony Bradley and Maryann Gialanella Valiulis, pp. 8-38. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Frazier discusses Martyn's relationship with George Moore in an examination of the connections between aestheticism, homosexuality, and the Irish Literary Revival.]

Something interesting has been happening in recent years in Victorian studies that has not until lately made much of a dent in studies of the Irish Literary Revival. Scholars engaged in women's studies,...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Feeney, William J. “Edward Martyn (1859-1923).” In Irish Playwrights, 1880-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by Bernice Schrank and William W. Demastes, pp. 206-17. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Includes information on premieres, significant revivals, and book publication of Martyn's dramas, a list of his periodical publications, and a bibliography of reviews and critical writings about Martyn.


Gassner, John. “John Millington Synge and the Irish Muse.” In Masters of the Drama, 3rd rev. and enlarged ed., pp. 542-74. New York: Dover Publications,...

(The entire section is 165 words.)