Padraic Colum Drama Analysis
Padraic Colum was a major figure in the Irish Literary Renaissance both because he was the first to deal realistically with the Irish peasant farmer and because of the influence his plays had on the playwrights who followed him. Something of the pervasiveness and power of his influence comes through in the open letter that Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory in 1919, in which he announced that he was giving up public theater for a more private theater of the drawing room. Yeatswrote that while he had sought to create a poetic drama, the Abbey playwrights, following Colum’s lead, had instead succeeded in “the making articulate of all the dumb classes each with its own knowledge of the world, its own dignity, but all objective with the objectivity of the office and the workshop, of the newspaper and the street, of mechanism and of politics.” It was, nevertheless, the realistic drama of peasant life that won for the Abbey Theatre its international recognition.
Colum himself did not claim to have been the inventor of the peasant play; he said that he shared the distinction with Synge. “My Broken Soil and Synge’s In the Shadow of the Glen were produced within a month of each other,” he wrote. “These two plays inaugurated the drama of peasant life. Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan, in which the characters are peasants, was produced first, but Cathleen ni Houlihan is symbolic and not a play of actual peasant life.” “A play of actual peasant life” aptly describes what Colum sought to write, and it was with this type of play, in his view, that Ireland began to have a truly native drama—plays he described as being “authentic in idiom and character” and expressing “the sum of instincts, traditions, sympathies that made the Irish mind distinctive.” Probably the most important concept in Colum’s view of drama was that plays should express Irish life. Synge and others poeticized the life of the peasant; Colum saw a poetry within that life and expressed it realistically. In doing so, he saw his work as being distinctly “democratic, not only because it deals with the folk of the country and the town, but because it is written out of recognition of the fact that in every life there are moments of intensity and beauty.” Other Irish playwrights wrote about peasants, but none accepted them on their own terms. They saw them as outsiders would see them: Yeats’s peasants are romantic idealizations, Lady Gregory’s are caricatures—only slightly less broad than the nineteenth century “stage Irishmen”—and Synge’s, for all the richness and beauty of their language, are exaggerations of the Irish peasant. Of all the early Abbey Theatre playwrights, only Colum, who grew up among peasant farmers and small-town merchants, accurately reflected their character, their language, and their concerns.
Because of their realistic portrayal of Irish life, Colum considered The Land, The Fiddler’s House, and Thomas Muskerry to be his most important and most influential plays. Most literary historians agree with this judgment. What gives each of the plays its dramatic vigor and depth of characterization is the tension inherent in Colum’s view of Ireland. Each presents a pair of characters whose energy or imagination is too strong to be held back by the dreary inertia of Irish country life. Matt Cosgar and Ellen Douras in The Land, Maire Hourican and her father, Conn, in The Fiddler’s House, and Muskerry and Myles Gorman in Thomas Muskerry all experience a conflict between their feelings of responsibility to something in this spiritually cramped existence and a deeper need to rise above it. The attention that Colum gives to realistic detail in the plays is a means of emphasizing the part in the conflict played by everyday life in Ireland. Permeating the three plays as a motivating force and linking them thematically is the struggle for freedom that is resolved in Thomas Muskerry’s final triumphant symbol, Myles Gorman, whom Colum described as “a man of energy set free on the roads.”
Because he considered these plays so central to his reputation as a playwright, Colum revised them frequently throughout his life. He first gathered them together as Three Plays in 1916 and later published revised editions of the collection in 1925 and 1963. With the exception of The Land, which received only light revision, the plays in the 1963 edition differ significantly from the versions that were staged nearly a half a century earlier. The Land was inspired, Colum said, by the Land Act of 1903, which enabled Irish tenant farmers to purchase their land. The play’s central conflict is between two generations: the farmers, who have fought to win their land, and their children, who are tempted by the call of the larger world outside. The younger generation prevails in the end, with Matt Cosgar and Ellen Douras departing for the United States and leaving their claims to their fathers’ farms to Ellen’s less imaginative brother Cornelius and Matt’s slow-witted sister Sally.
Although Colum referred to it in 1910 as only “a sketch for a play” and wrote in 1963 that “if staged these days The Land would have to be played as an historical piece and for character parts,” the play is notable for its strong characterization of Sally and the two fathers, Murtagh Cosgar and Martin Douras. It also has a strongly unified plot and a clean story line. By unfolding his plot against the larger historical backdrop of the farmers’ progress from tenants to landowners, Colum managed to reinforce the irony of the exodus of Ireland’s most gifted young people at the very time when the country had something to offer them.
The Land plays well on the stage—when the Dublin International Theatre Festival was inaugurated in 1957, it was the only early full-length Abbey Theatre play selected—but it is inferior to Colum’s other two realistic dramas. The plot is perhaps too neatly constructed and the characters too conveniently paired off; the son and daughter of Murtagh Cosgar wed the son and daughter of Martin Douras, and six young emigrants to the United States in act 2 are balanced against six farmers who commit themselves to the land in act 1. Matt and Ellen, moreover, are too thinly characterized for the parts they play, and Cornelius’s curtain speech is too obviously propagandistic. Nevertheless, because of both the popular support it won for the Abbey and its value as a commentary on social and political changes, the play has undeniable historical importance. The Land, in fact, is the only one of the three plays about which it can be said with any justice that historical value outweighs literary worth.
The Fiddler’s House
The Fiddler’s House is similar to The Land in both theme and plot: An aging fiddler, Conn Hourican, leaves the farm that his daughter Maire has inherited to follow the roads, playing at festivals and in public houses. Maire, whose increasing sense of affinity with her father is matched by a...
(The entire section is 2935 words.)