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.
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.
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.
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.”