Irish Drama Analysis

Anglo-Irish Precedents

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Through most of the nineteenth century, Ireland retained some regional vestiges of mumming, a traditional folk drama that ritually reenacted significant events in the memory of the community, but it was not until the early seventeenth century that literary drama set its first roots in Irish soil with the founding of a small theater on Werburgh Street in Dublin in 1637, followed later in the century by the Smock Alley Theatre. Thereafter, the city had a continuous theatrical presence, and many provincial centers had seasonal houses. From its beginnings to the end of the nineteenth century, however, Irish drama was primarily of colonial character, only in minor ways distinct from what could be seen on the stages of London or provincial England. With the collapse of the Gaelic social and political order at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the cultural traditions of Ireland were abandoned, and no Irish institutions remained to graft that inheritance to the life of the cities and the new institution of the stage. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the only contacts with the ancient civilization available to the serious artist were relatively inaccessible relics in the folklore of the countryside and in the manuscript rooms of the museums and academies. These repositories held a rich lode of heroic, romantic, and folk legends that bore witness to a sophisticated, indigenous Celtic civilization.

It is not surprising, therefore, that although many of the most distinguished dramatists writing in English between 1700 and 1900 were born in Ireland, their works were written according to the idiom and conventions of the English stage. Neither the spirit of the times nor the conditions in Ireland were conducive to reflections on what were considered accidents of birth. Scions of the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy, these writers typically attended an Irish grammar school and Trinity College, Dublin, before emigrating to London to pursue professional or theatrical careers. Many of them were Grub Street hacks, writing...

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Irish-National Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

By the late nineteenth century, however, the Irish Literary Renaissance had introduced to the stage the resources of Ireland’s long-neglected cultural tradition. The father of this movement was the poet William Butler Yeats. Under the influence of John O’Leary, an aging revolutionary and littérateur, the young Yeats turned from a career begun in the spirit of late Victorian English letters to the folklore of the west of Ireland and the heroic legends of Celtic literature that were, by the end of the nineteenth century, becoming available in contemporary English translation. In the company of Lady Augusta Gregory , a folklorist and folk dramatist, and Edward Martyn , a landed gentleman with strong affinities for Henrik Ibsen’s social, symbolic drama, Yeats founded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899, which within several seasons became the showpiece of the national literary movement: Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

The founders of this theater took their cue from the presence of several European precursors: Ole Bull’s in Norway (established in 1850), André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre in Paris (1887), Germany’s Freie Bühne Theater (1889), J. T. Grein’s Independent Theatre in London (1891), and the Moscow Arts Theatre (1897). In contrast with these antecedents, however, Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Martyn were beginning as pioneers. Although this group had a diversity of talents, sensibilities, and inclinations, they agreed on the necessity to replace the caricature of Irish life on the stage with serious and authentic drama, drama that would be at once popular yet not ruled by political orthodoxies, and they committed themselves to experimentation with an imaginative and poetic drama that would harness heroic legend to the demands of the modern stage. Yeats developed his dramas from indigenous folk and mythic materials, the French Symbolists, Ibsen’s poetic dramas, and, later, Japanese N drama; Martyn modeled his work on the more social and realistic of Ibsen’s works; and Lady Gregory drew on folklore, local history, and heroic sources that she herself collected or translated, shaping these materials with the techniques of French comedy.

The Irish Literary Theatre opened in May, 1899, with Yeats’s poetic play The Countess Cathleen (pr. 1899) and Martyn’s problem play The Heather Field (pr. 1899). This initial double bill was to foreshadow the character of the Irish theater’s repertoire during the ensuing decades. The low-key naturalistic acting style of the company, led by William and Frank Fay, and the financial patronage of Annie Horniman soon won for the Irish Literary Theatre a solid reputation. By 1904, it had found a permanent home on Abbey Street (thus the name Abbey Theatre), and the dramatic movement was attracting many talents in the rising generation, including John Millington Synge, George Fitzmaurice, and Padraic Colum. Meanwhile, under Bulmer Hobson, the Ulster Literary Theatre was providing in Belfast what the Abbey Theatre had begun in Dublin.

Yeats himself experimented with several dramatic styles, including peasant realism, farce, and modern naturalism, but his genius found its true métier in a highly sophisticated drama that combined poetry, dance, mask, and symbolic action to represent a world of ideals and pure passion. These plays borrowed from the Japanese N for their form, from Celtic heroic tales for their subjects, and expressed Yeats’s view of the primacy of imaginative or spiritual realities of which historical change and the differentiation of humanity are emanations. In all of his work, but most comprehensively in his plays for masks, Yeats’s enmity against modern realism can be seen. An attitude of detachment and impersonality shapes his works into intensely ritualized expressions, having affinities with both ancient religious drama and modern absurdism.

In Cuchulain, the central figure of the Ulster Cycle of Celtic tales, Yeats found a symbolic conjunction of the virtues of heroic individualism, eloquence, aristocracy, and pagan self-realization—values that he...

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Contemporary Irish Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Irish drama in the last decades of the twentieth century was healthier than in any other period since the 1920’s, despite commercial demands and the counterattractions of other media. The annual Dublin Theatre Festival, state subventions to the Gate Theatre and individual dramatists, and local amateur dramatic societies encouraged potential writers for the stage. Although there were regular complaints about excessive accommodation to the tourist trade in theatrical offerings by the main theaters, new dramatists found outlets at the Peacock and many smaller independent and provincial theaters and the national television network (RTE). A significant development has been the appearance of a considerable body of work for the stage by dramatists from Northern Ireland whose work reflects both the social disruption caused by the political violence and the questions of political and cultural identity provoked by the physical confrontations on the streets.

The three senior dramatists in the last decades of the twentieth century were Brian Friel, Hugh Leonard, and Tom Murphy. In Friel’s uvre of impressive range, from his early success, Philadelphia, Here I Come! (pr. 1964) to his large successes, Translations (pr. 1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (pr. 1990), his central preoccupation has been the relationship of Ireland’s communitarian past to its present circumstances of social and political change. The dominant mood of his plays is bittersweet, while technically he applies various nonrealistic techniques to realistic situations. In The Freedom of the City (pr. 1973) he has written one of the best plays on the conflict in Northern Ireland. Friel also founded the Field Day Theatre to develop new plays and playwrights and to accomplish on a larger scale what his plays try to do individually. Besides the encouragement to new playwrights, however, the most important contribution of the Field Day Theatre has not been a theater piece but a series of pamphlets, somewhat in the manner of fellow-Irishman Jonathan Swift in the eighteenth century. These pamphlets deal in particular with the development of theater in Ireland and with Irish problems in general. They are grouped as published, under separate titles: The first six pamphlets are collected as Ireland’s Field Day...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Clark, William Smith. The Early Irish Stage: The Beginnings to 1720. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1955. A pioneering study of Irish dramatic traditions from folk plays to the growth of Dublin theaters after the Restoration.

Etherton, Michael. Contemporary Irish Dramatists. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. With sections on Belfast, Dublin, and the provincial theaters, a general and easy-to-read survey of Irish drama between 1960 and 1987.

Fitz-Simon, Christopher. The Irish Theatre. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1983. A well-illustrated and encyclopedic survey from miracle plays to modern times presented from the point of view of a stage director.

McDonald, Ronan. Tragedy and Irish Writing: Synge, O’Casey, Beckett. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Analyzes the development and evolution of Irish tragedy via the works of three preeminent Irish writers.

Mahony, Christina Hunt. Contemporary Irish Literature: Transforming Tradition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Contains an eighty-page survey of the representation of Irish life onstage between 1960 and the 1990’s.

Murray, Christopher. Twentieth Century Irish Drama: Mirror up to Nation. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1997. A wide-ranging survey of the relationship between Irish drama and the public scene from Yeats to the mid-1990’s.

Owens, Cóilín, and Joan Radner, eds. Irish Drama, 1900-1980. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991. An anthology of eighteen representative plays with individual introductions, detailed annotations, and bibliographies.

Roche, Anthony. Contemporary Irish Drama: From Beckett to McGuinness. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. An intensive academic study of Beckett’s relationships with Yeats and Behan, but also surveying the work of Friel, Murphy, McGuinness, and the Field Day Group.

Richards, Shaun, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. This volume is an excellent starting point for further study on most any aspect of Irish drama. Covering individual dramatists from William Butler Yeats to Marina Carr and important literary movements and topics. Includes a chronology and bibliography.

Watson, George J. Irish Identity and the Literary Revival: Synge, Yeats, Joyce, and O’Casey. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994. Traces the development of a true Irish presence in the literary world by examining the contributions of four noted literary figures.