For the student of drama, Lady Gregory’s major significance is as cofounder of the Abbey Theatre, with William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn, and as its continuing godmother, providing direction, ongoing supervision, money, political support, even costumes and food—and plays. Though she had previously written in several other genres, she began writing plays only in her fifties to fit specific needs at the Abbey and to promote specific nationalistic aims. These parameters should not suggest that her plays are mechanical, merely utilitarian, or thesis-driven; on the contrary, once she discovered this form she found both a talent and a desire for drama itself, and quickly became the most prolific of the Abbey dramatists. The spoken language and the interaction with a notoriously responsive audience brought out her genius. She loved the challenge of appealing to a popular audience, and said that if she had not had the Abbey, she would have been drawn to the music halls of England.
The Workhouse Ward assumes its first importance in this context; it is representative of the one-act plays she wrote during the Abbey’s first six years, plays whose popularity helped build an audience, whose brilliance inspired a number of imitations, whose view of the Irish people had a political effect, and whose roots in actual life helped move the Abbey toward a broad-based realism rather than a more esoteric mythic drama.
Her work in general is also valued for its influence on the dramaturgy of Yeats, John Millington Synge, Sean O’Casey, and others. Although they are certainly not imitators of Lady Gregory, all of them were influenced by her handling of language and tight dramatic structure. The practice she gained in writing one-acts—Spreading the News (pr. 1904), Hyacinth Halvey (pr., pb. 1906), The Jackdaw (pr. 1907), The Rising of the Moon (pb. 1904), and The Gaol Gate (pr. 1906), as well as The Workhouse Ward—also contributed to her own success in three-act comedies, tragedies, and folk-history plays.
Aside from its importance to the Abbey and to the Irish Literary Movement, The Workhouse Ward and others of Lady Gregory’s one-acts have been important in the little theater movement in the United States and Europe, both creating interest and providing material. Although they lose some degree of resonance when translated or performed out of their cultural contexts, they are nevertheless effective, popular, and easily produced.