The Workhouse Ward is, on the surface, a slight play intended primarily for entertainment. Several reviewers dismissed it as farce when it was first produced, and Lady Augusta Gregory herself modestly stressed her motive in writing this and similar “peasant comedies” as a response to the need of the Abbey Theatre for brief, easily staged, crowd-pleasing plays to serve as curtain raisers or to put on at the end of verse plays. However, as Lady Gregory said, “farce is comedy with character left out”—in this play, character is brought in, expressed in language which implies a sense of community, however skewed, a need for intimacy, a connectedness with the land and with tradition, and a fertile mythmaking imagination. The theme of the play lies in this rich and complex vision of the Irish people.
Such a vision was part of the author’s purpose. At this point in the history of the Abbey Theatre, Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats sent a notice to aspiring playwrights reading, in part, “A play to be suitable for performance at the Abbey should contain some criticism of life, founded on the experience or personal observation of the writer, or some vision of life, of Irish life by preference, important from its beauty or from some excellence of style. . . . For art [is concerned] with realities of emotion and character that become self-evident when made vivid to the imagination.” The Workhouse Ward, though brief, fulfills this purpose admirably, and it does so primarily through the reverberations of the language.
Lady Gregory, along with Yeats and others involved in the Irish Literary Movement, had a vision of Ireland which she wanted to impress upon those who did not share it and to reinforce in those who did. Her aim was, broadly, to restore the ancient dignity of Irish life, to rescue the old legends and folktales from oblivion, to reassert a sense of sacredness in the mundane, to recover pride in rural traditions, and in general to resist British obliteration of Irish culture. One way these purposes found expression was in her interest in Gaelic, which she learned only after persistent effort and never well enough to write fluently, though well enough to understand and translate. For her, Gaelic embodied a deep sense of national identity. Specific projects included collecting stories about and poetry by the last Irish bard, Raftery, as well as collecting and translating Gaelic legends. She could not write in Gaelic, however, nor was Gaelic understood by a wide audience, so she developed her Kiltartan dialect, a version shaped for dramatic dialogue of the Gaelic-influenced speech of the common people she had lived among since childhood. Before her use of this speech, it had been considered vulgar and inartistic; she displayed its beauty and made it acceptable as literature.
This Kiltartan dialect is the language of The Workhouse Ward , and conveys in its texture a sense of the community from which it springs, a community reflecting Lady Gregory’s view of the Irish. It is a timeless language steeped in the land and the small farms, in family pride, and in folklore. It is a language strongly differentiated from standard English, as the culture of its speakers is proudly resistant to English-imposed customs. Its effective use requires skill and practice, and...
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