Plays and Controversies

Abbey Theatre Diaries 2000-2005

by Ben Barnes (Author)
©2008 Monographs 460 Pages


In diaries covering the period of his artistic directorship of the Abbey (2000-2005) Ben Barnes offers a frank, honest, probing account of a much commented upon and controversial period in the history of the national theatre. These diaries also provide fascinating personal insights into the day to day pressures, joys and frustrations of running one of Ireland’s most iconic institutions. For over a century now the Abbey has conducted its love/hate relationship with the Irish public and the wider international audience, and in Plays and Controversies Ben Barnes illuminates his own eventful chapter in that absorbing story.

Table Of Contents

great hatred little room

W.B. Yeats

for us there is only the trying. the rest is not our business

T.S. Eliot

everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world

- Ailred of Rievaulx

1 Brendan Conroy and Fiona McKeown in Translations 2000

2 Janet Moran in Barbaric Comedies 2000

3 Fiona Shaw in Medea 2000

4 Mark Lambert in Barbaric Comedies 2000

5 Mark Lambert in Barbaric Comedies 2000

6 Olwen Fouéré in Chair 2001

7 Dawn Bradfield and Marie Mullen in Big Maggie 2001

8 Laura Rogers in Blackwater Angel 2001

9 Catherine Walsh in Blackwater Angel 2001

10 Julia Lane rehearsing Blackwater Angel 2001

11 Pauline Hutton and Ensemble in Iphigenia at Aulis 2001

12 Tom Murphy with the casts and creative teams for The Tom Murphy Season 2001

13 Owen Roe in The Gigli Concert 2001

14 Cathy Belton and Simon O’Gorman in The Plough and the Stars 2002

15 Aengus Óg McAnally and Pat Leech in The Plough and the Stars 2002

16 Final Tableau of The Plough and the Stars 2002

17 Tom Murphy in Henry IV Part 1 2002

18 Helen Carey in All My Sons 2003

19 Rosaleen Linehan and Olwen Fouéré in The House of Bernarda Alba 2003

20 Ruth Negga in Doldrum Bay 2003

21 Ingrid Craigie and Paul Hickey in rehearsal for Aristocrats 2003

22 Ben, Milena, Elishka and Julia. Milena’s Birthday 2003

23 Elishka with Pongo in Saltmills

24 Milena and Elishka, Saltmills 2004

25 Mimi Kovarova at Kilfane 2004

26 Danuta Stenke in Festen 2004

27 Unknown, Ben Barnes and Bill Conner at Columbus Metropolitan Club 2004

28 Cathy Belton, Ben Barnes and Maeliosa Stafford in rehearsal for The Playboy of the Western World 2004

29 Maeliosa Stafford, Olwen Fouéré, Brendan Conroy and David Herlihy in The Playboy of the Western World 2004

30 Monica Frawley’s costume design for Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World 2004

31 Brendan Conroy, David Herlihy, Cathy Belton and John Olohan in The Playboy of the Western World 2004

32 To the Lighthouse, Hook Head, Co. Wexford

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When my younger daughter recently asked me the question, ‘What does an artistic director actually do?’ I was tempted to give a facetious reply like ‘dodge bullets’ or ‘very little without the proper resources’, but in deference to the earnestness of the question and the tenderness of her years (not yet nine), I explained that an artistic director selects plays and chooses people to put them on. ‘Out of all the plays in the world?’ she asked. ‘Well’ I said, ‘there is a way you must go or a way you choose to go and that reduces the number of plays you get to pick from’. ‘So is that the direction then?’ she asked. Smart girl wanted.

Well, you will see from my diaries what my ‘way to go’ was: bringing new work to the stage (thirty-three new plays in all), ensuring that the mainstage was not just the preserve of the elder statesmen among our writers, promoting an artistically open and inclusive ethos, linking the Abbey with the European mainstream, challenging its central artistic remit and attempting to grapple with its outdated administrative and delivery mechanisms.

It is for others to judge the degree to which this agenda was delivered on, but it is probably fair to say that an evaluation of the artistic success, or failure, of my administration at the Abbey was obscured by the loud and lengthy controversies which dogged my time there and the financial powder keg which finally imploded towards the end of 2004 with unhappy consequences.

Nevertheless, whatever about artistic success or failure, which was ongoing, I was slow to recognize that tinkering around the edges of institutional reform was tantamount to what I call in my diary ‘moving deckchairs around the Titanic’, and by the time I had grasped the need for radical, root and branch reform, it was too late.

I have published these diaries for four reasons:

to give my account of a highly volatile, controversial and much scrutinized phase in the history of the national theatre,

to help me understand my own central role in that drama,

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to restore some balance following the largely hostile and misrepresentational media coverage of my directorship

and to put the whole thing decisively behind me.

If there is a fifth reason it is the relative paucity of literature about the Abbey from those most intimately bound up in its century of drama. The insiders.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2008. XXXII, 490 pp., 32 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Ben Barnes (Author)

Ben Barnes is an international theatre director. He lives in his native Co. Wexford, Ireland with his wife, Julia and daughters, Elishka and Milena.


Title: Plays and Controversies