‘Dancing As If Language No Longer Existed’

Dance in Contemporary Irish Drama

by Katarzyna Ojrzynska (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 310 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 61


This book offers a comprehensive study of the role of dance in a wide range of contemporary Irish plays and argues that dance can be perceived as exemplifying the re-embracement of bodily expression by the local culture. The author approaches this issue from a cultural materialist perspective, demonstrating that dance in twentieth-century Ireland was particularly prone to ideological appropriation and that, consequently, its use in contemporary drama often serves to communicate critical and revisionist approaches to the social, economic and political concerns addressed in these plays. The book makes a valuable contribution to current debates about the nature of Irish theatre, investigating recent changes to its traditional, text-based character. These are examined within two important contexts: firstly, transformations in the perception of the human body in Irish culture and, secondly, changes in the attitude of the Irish towards their past and their cultural heritage.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Investigating Dance in Irish Drama
  • Chapter 1: Irish Dance and its Transformations in the Twentieth Century
  • Chapter 2: Dance in Pre-Nationalist Times
  • 2.1 The Celtic Spirit versus Catholic Morality in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa
  • 2.2 “Any admittance for Captain Mummer and his men?” The Theatrical Revival of Folk Dance and Drama in Vincent Woods’s At the Black Pig’s Dyke
  • 2.3 Dance that Excites the Desires of Body and Soul – Shona McCarthy’s Married to the Sea
  • Chapter 3: Dance in Nationalist Times
  • 3.1 Dancing in the Irish “Cold Climate” – the Use of Dance in Eclipsed by Patricia Burke Brogan
  • 3.2 Dance, Violence and Homoerotic Desire in Thomas Kilroy’s Christ Deliver Us! and Brian Friel’s The Gentle Island
  • 3.3 The Swinging Sixties in Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom
  • 3.4 The Fight between Carnival and Lent: Tom Mac Intyre’s The Great Hunger
  • Chapter 4: Dance in Post-Nationalist Times
  • 4.1 If Only One Could Dance Back in Time … – Dermot Bolger’s The Lament for Arthur Cleary
  • 4.2 Dance, Sex and Violence in Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs
  • 4.3 In Search of the Lost Spirituality – Dance as a Part of the Ritual of Healing in Brian Friel’s Wonderful Tennessee and Declan Hughes’s Halloween Night
  • Conclusion: The Changing Dynamics of Irish Drama and Tradition
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Acknowledgements

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Professor Jadwiga Uchman for her guidance and support, and to Professor Ewa Kębłowska-Ławniczak for her inspiring comments on the manuscript. I am deeply thankful to Professor Irena Janicka-Świderska, whose book on dance in drama inspired me to conduct further research in this field, and to Professor Jan Jędrzejewski for his help during my stay in Coleraine, where I spent long hours at the University of Ulster Library. I am also greatly indebted to Jane Hunt for her invaluable help in polishing the manuscript and Professor Łukasz Bogucki for his financial support towards the publication of this book.

My final and most important acknowledgement is to my grandmother, parents, partner, friends and colleagues for their lasting support and understanding without which this book would never have been completed.← vii | viii →


← viii | 1 → INTRODUCTION

Investigating Dance in Irish Drama

Dance is a mythical site where the body, speechless and thus uncorrupted, plays. This is, of course, nonsense. Dancing, like speaking, is a social act, produced by and within given discourses.


Throughout the last century, Irish dance has been strongly connected with certain ideologies and practices which sought to promote a particular vision of Irishness and which informed the changing perceptions of the human body in Irish culture and society. Therefore, in order to understand fully the crucial implications that underlie allusions to dance and Irish dance culture in contemporary Irish drama, it is necessary to take recourse to the history of dance in Ireland, which offers a valuable lens through which to examine these plays. Approached from such a culture-specific perspective, the motif of dance in contemporary Irish drama is much more than a powerful means of characters’ individual expression on page and on stage. It conveys a strong political message and aims to explore in a revisionist fashion the intricate relations between the body politic and real bodies, between personal and national identities and between various clashing values inscribed onto the body of the dancer in twentieth-century Ireland. Thus, the analyses presented in this book address fundamental questions concerning the role of contemporary Irish dance and drama in revisiting the twentieth-century concepts of Irishness and in reinventing present-day Irish culture.

← 1 | 2 → The issue that provides a convenient starting point for the investigation of the role of dance in contemporary Irish drama is the correlation between the modern history of Irish theatre and the history of Irish dance, since both of these fields of culture have been fundamentally shaped by the local attitude towards the human body. As regards the former, what has been perceived as the most distinctive feature of Irish theatre since the Celtic Revival is its literary rather than physical character. In the introduction to the article in which he analyses Friel’s language plays (Faith Healer, Translations and The Communication Cord), Richard Kearney states:

There has been much discussion in recent times about the verbal character of Irish theatre. Some argue that since the Irish are “great talkers” off stage it is logical that their “way with words” should be creatively explored on stage. Others claim that the Irish dramatist’s preoccupation with language is a curse that hampers the genuine medium of theatre: the immediate, physical presence of actors performing in front of an audience. (237)

In their revisionist approach, some contemporary writers, practitioners and commentators critically approach the wordy nature of Irish drama and theatre and point to certain misconceptions that inform the modern trends that privilege traditional storytelling, seen as an indispensable element of Irish playwriting, over other forms of expression. For instance, Irish folk drama, which has recently received more scholarly attention, attests to the fact that words were not always the predominant means of presenting stories in Ireland. The physical component was not alien to local customs, and yet was intentionally neglected in the twentieth century. The revival of Irish culture, with a particular focus on the tradition of storytelling, was one of the major ideas that lay at the heart of the Irish Literary Theatre – the first Irish national theatre, which was founded in 1899 (later be coming the Abbey Theatre). This concept was fully developed in tandem with the establishment of the independent Irish state and frequently led to the sidelining of certain physical aspects of human existence, which were perceived as sources of evil and corruption, in works written for the stage.

The subsequent theatrical conservatism and aversion to experimentation accurately reflected the nationalist and Catholic values of the times. Most importantly, these tendencies substantially informed the policies of the most influential Irish theatrical institution in the twentieth century – the ← 2 | 3 → Abbey. Seen as a stronghold of tradition, the Abbey Theatre followed the religious and nationalist ideas promoted by political authorities, and served as a peculiar organ of ideological propaganda. As O’Toole comments on the relationship between the state and the theatre in the early years of its existence,

in 1924, Ernest Blythe as Minister for Finance … made the Abbey the first state-sponsored theatre in the English-speaking world, creating the possibility of an alliance between the State and its most important cultural institution that might have harnessed the genuine creative energies of the theatre for an official ideological project. Instead, the Abbey became, in effect, a withered arm of the State itself. … By 1941, Blythe himself had become the managing director of the Abbey, completing a process of bringing Irish theatre under the direct control of conservative politics. But that control was almost entirely negative. It was exercised essentially by not putting on plays, by creating a vacuum filled only by an astonishing mediocricity. (Ex-Isle 104)

This meant that the Abbey was for a long time “a graveyard of theatrical invention” (O’Toole, Ex-Isle 105) in terms of both form and content, while sporadic, but significant, instances of physical experimentation and the subversion of established patterns and cherished values2 frequently met with either the unfavourable opinions of theatre authorities, as in the case of Denis Johnston’s The Old Lady Says “No!”,3 or with strong opposition on the part of the audience, whose tastes and expectations were largely shaped by the nationalist atmosphere of the times, the best example of this being the (in)famous “Playboy Riots,” provoked by the staging of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Permeating both Irish culture and social life, such restrictive inclinations, along with other reasons, led to Samuel Beckett years later stating that “he preferred France at war to Ireland at peace” (Harrington 168), which may be seen as a definite act of renouncing his homeland as a country where the playwright’s innovative approach to theatre would not have a chance to fully develop.

← 3 | 4 → Apart from O’Toole, the problem of the literary character of Irish drama and theatre, heavily deficient in physical expression, has recently been addressed by a number of critics including Bernadette Sweeney (in Performing the Body in Irish Theatre) and Anne F. O’Reilly, who in her book Sacred Play: Soul Journey in Contemporary Irish Theatre states that what still constitutes a “missing link” in the process of reconstructing the integrity of the traumatized and wounded Irish psyche is the body. As she further argues, “There has been a significant mind/body dualism running through Irish experience and literature. The neglect of the body is essentially the legacy of a patriarchal imagining where mind, and spirit are valued over body and flesh. … Until this wounding is brought to consciousness and integrated no healing can occur” (20). Still, the task of healing is not an easy one, since the wound seems to be very deep and to reach far beyond the Irish stage.

It follows from the above that the element that seems to have suffered most from the proliferation of conservatism was the human body, since the strict Catholic morality of early twentieth-century Ireland condemned it as sinful and impure. The effects of this negative attitude could be observed in various spheres of Irish culture and social life. Apart from theatre, another example that offers a good illustration of this fact is the asexual posture which became the hallmark of Irish dance in the twentieth century and which will be analysed in greater detail in the first chapter. As I will demonstrate, the tendencies to tame the human body and to keep a watchful eye on its movements could be found not only in Irish competitive dance, but also social dances, due to the introduction of a number of official regulations and informal rules in this field. With regard to the latter category, it needs to be stressed that, as Janet Wolff maintains,

although, in the case of social dance or untrained performance dance, the body is not “produced” in the same way [as in a choreographed performance], it is important to insist that even here the movement is socially learned … even where there is no sustained or professional training in dance technique, dancing is still coded, stylized and appropriated in social and cultural contexts. (245)

My investigation of the dance culture of twentieth-century Ireland will therefore be informed by the analysis of the specific social, political and cultural factors that influenced its shape.

← 4 | 5 → Generally, it was not until the past couple of decades that Irish audiences became more exposed to corporal expression as well as to the sensual and erotic presentation of the human body on the stage. One of the factors that contributed to the rediscovery of the physical element in Irish theatre in the 1990s was the international success of Riverdance and Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. It may be argued that the Irish body, formerly desexualized, restrained and harshly disciplined, is now in the course of finding its way onto the Irish stage. Former Riverdance soloist Colin Dunne supports this view in his commentary on contemporary Irish dance, which is no longer a competitive discipline governed by strict Catholic norms. He states:

Irish dancers are only just beginning to learn what we can do in the theater. … What we need to do is develop a structure, maybe a training academy that teaches theatrical as well as academic technique, and that encourages experimental choreography. We can learn from other dance forms how to be expressive, how to take our traditions forward, instead of just passing exams and winning trophies. (qtd. in Parks and Parry)

In more general terms, these words are relevant to Irish theatre as a whole, since they call for the reintroduction of corporeal expression onto the Irish stage and the exploration of its full potential. This corresponds to one of the principal aims of this book, which seeks to investigate the use of dance in contemporary Irish drama, seen as an instance of the reopening of the local culture to the bodily element. I wish to explore the way in which certain dramatic representations of dance, dance venues and events, set in various times, reflect and comment on the changes in attitude towards the corporeal aspect of human existence which are closely connected with social, political and economic transformations in Ireland in the twentieth century.

The book is divided into four chapters, organized according to a thematic key rather than in the chronological order in which the plays were written and staged. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 investigate references to Irish dance culture in a selection of dramatic texts set in three consecutive periods: the pre-nationalist period, the nationalist period and the post-nationalist period. The proposed temporal scope extends from the nineteenth century to contemporary times. The term “pre-nationalist period” refers to the years prior to 1937, when the sovereign Republic of Ireland was established, and is characterized by the plurality of coexistent dance traditions which ← 5 | 6 → were later weeded out or appropriated to serve the nationalist purpose. I propose this date as a point demarcating the boundary between pre-nationalist and nationalist periods in Ireland also because this is when de Valera’s Constitution, which largely determined the parochial and patriarchal character of the Republic, came into force. Of course, it has to be remembered that the changes in Irish social politics and in the economy did not take place overnight, thus it is possible to see the years preceding the introduction of the Constitution as a transitional period in which the nationalist mentality has not yet replaced pre-nationalist customs and ways of thinking.


VIII, 310
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (November)
local culture ideological appropriation heritage
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 310 pp.

Biographical notes

Katarzyna Ojrzynska (Author)

Katarzyna Ojrzyńska is an assistant lecturer in the Department of  Drama and Pre-1800 English Literature at the University of Łódź. Her research interests include drama and performing arts, Irish studies, body culture studies and disability studies.


Title: ‘Dancing As If Language No Longer Existed’
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