Echoes Down the Corridor

Irish Theatre - Past, Present and Future

by Patrick Lonergan (Volume editor) Riana O'Dwyer (Volume editor)
©2007 Edited Collection X, 214 Pages


This collection of fourteen new essays explores Irish theatre from exciting new perspectives. How has Irish theatre been received internationally – and, as the country becomes more multicultural, how will international theatre influence the development of drama in Ireland? As Ireland changes, how should we think about the works of familiar figures – writers like Synge, O’Casey, Friel, Murphy, Carr, and McGuinness? Is the distinction between popular and literary drama tenable in a Celtic Tiger Ireland where the arts and economics are becoming increasingly intertwined? And is it time to remember less established Irish writers? Drawing together a range of international experts, this book aims to answer these and many other important questions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction (Patrick Lonergan / Riana O’Dwyer)
  • 1 ‘Echoes Down the Corridor’: The Abbey Theatre 1904-2004 (Christopher Murray)
  • 2 A Synge for Our Times? Yeats’s enquiring man revisited (Mary C. King)
  • 3 Staging the Aesthetic: The Vagrant Artists of Padraic Colum and Seumas O’Kelly (Joan FitzPatrick Dean)
  • 4 Shoyo Matsui, A Japanese Lennox Robinson: The Irish National Theatre and Japanese New Drama (Chiaki Kojima)
  • 5 Wessex to Geesala: Hardy and Synge (Irina Ruppo)
  • 6 Sean O’Casey and The Abbey Theatre: A Conflicted Relationship (Paul O’Brien)
  • 7 Observe the Sons of Ulster: Historical Stages (Helen Lojek)
  • 8 ‘Am I a con man?’: Brian Friel’s idea of the self-reflective artist, viewed in the light of Adorno’s aesthetic theory (Christa Velten-Mrowka)
  • 9 ‘A Voice and little else’: talking, writing and singing in The Gigli Concert (Alexandra Poulain)
  • 10 Spatializing the Renewal of Female Subjectivity in Marie Jones’s Women on the Verge of HRT (Mária Kurdi)
  • 11 The Present through the Prism of the Past: Frank McGuinness’s Dolly West’s Kitchen (Donal E. Morse)
  • 12 ‘Grow a Mermaid’: A Subtext for Marina Carr’s Dramatic Works (Mika Funahashi)
  • 13 Beyond Ryanga: The Image of Africa in Contemporary Irish Theatre (Jason King)
  • 14 Nation and Myth in the Age of the Celtic Tiger: Muide Éire? (Lisa Fitzpatrick)
  • Bibliography
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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The papers published in this book were originally delivered at the 2004 Conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures (IASIL), which took place at National University of Ireland, Galway. The editors wish to thank their fellow conference organizers, Kirry O’Brien and Lesa Ní Mhunghaile, for their assistance with this project. Thanks are also due to our colleagues in the English Department of NUI Galway, and to the executive membership of IASIL. We wish to thank our panel of independent peer reviewers, whose advice on all of the papers submitted was invaluable. Finally, we wish to express our gratitude to Lilian Chambers, Dan Farrelly, and Eamonn Jordan of Carysfort Press, who supported this publication from an early stage.

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This collection of fourteen new essays on Irish drama arises from the 2004 conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures, held at National University of Ireland, Galway. As we prepared for the conference during 2003, we became increasingly aware that the following year would be the occasion of a remarkably large number of Irish literary anniversaries: the hundredth Bloomsday, the centenary of the birth of Patrick Kavanagh, the centenary of the foundation of the Abbey Theatre in December 1904, and countless others. While the conference was on a broad theme related to all aspects of Irish literature, we felt it might be useful if IASIL 2004 provided a forum for our members to celebrate and interrogate these anniversaries; we also hoped that participants would use their explorations of the past as a way of pointing us towards new methods of studying, producing, and enjoying Irish literature in the future. In particular, we encouraged participants to reconsider the story of the Abbey Theatre’s first hundred years.

Although we were aware of the recent growth in scholarship on Irish drama, we were surprised by the positive response to this call: of the 230 papers delivered at the conference, more than half were on Irish theatre, with papers being offered not only from scholars based in Ireland, but also by IASIL members from Australia, Japan, Korea, Poland, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, the UK, the United States, South Africa, and many other countries. We saw this enthusiasm and geographical spread as evidence of the way in which Irish drama is widely known throughout the world – and of the extent to which the study of Irish drama can be deeply enriched by the inclusion of voices from different theatrical and academic cultures.

Equally surprising, however, was that while the conference was underway, the Abbey Theatre’s centenary programme appeared to be ← 1 | 2 → experiencing both a financial and artistic crisis – one that seemed at odds with the conference delegates’ interest in the theatre and its repertoire. Throughout the year, the theatre had failed to generate sufficient levels of enthusiasm for its centenary programme amongst audiences, prospective sponsors, or the media; and two productions planned for the final quarter of the year (Paul Mercier’s Smokescreen and a revival of Lennox Robinson’s Drama at Inish) were cancelled due to financial problems. Attendance figures from January to May 2004 were considerably lower than the theatre’s management had expected, and its fundraising committee had, according to some commentators, failed to meet its targets. The resulting sense of crisis led to an announcement one month after the IASIL conference that up to one-third of the Abbey’s staff were to be made redundant, while there were many calls for the dismissal of the theatre’s Artistic Director Ben Barnes from his post. Crisis threatened to become catastrophe with the leaking of an email from Barnes to his international colleagues, criticizing the Theatre’s Board.

Key to this problem was the perception of many commentators that the ‘abbeyonehundred’ programme was decidedly conservative, placing too much ‘emphasis on large-scale productions of existing Irish plays’.1 Certainly, considered as a statement by the Abbey of its achievements during the previous century, the programme sent out confusing messages. Although it included acknowledged Irish classics such as Portia Coughlan (Carr, 1996), Purgatory (Yeats, 1937), The Playboy of the Western World (Synge, 1907), The Gigli Concert (Murphy, 1985) and Observe the Sons of Ulster (McGuinness, 1985), the programme also featured I Do Not Like Thee Doctor Fell (1979), the first play of former Abbey Board Member Bernard Farrell, whose works, while popular, would not generally be regarded as among the best Irish plays of the twentieth century. Also notable was the theatre’s unwillingness to risk new drama on its main stage during 2004, which seemed disappointing for an institution that prides itself on a tradition of nurturing new Irish writers.

The messages conveyed by the theatre’s omissions were also criticized. Only two of the full productions in the abbeyonehundred programme – Paula Meehan’s Christmas play for children The Wolf of Winter and a revival of Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan – were by female authors, both of whom were being produced on the Abbey’s Peacock stage, a smaller space used for experimental work and new writing. Although full productions by Yeats and Synge featured, the only work in the programme from the theatre’s third figurehead Augusta Gregory was a once-off staged reading of Spreading the News in September 2004. Commentators also noted that only three of the year’s full productions were directed by women. Also criticized was the theatre’s omission of plays in the Irish language, its failure to undertake meaningful Irish tours, and many other features of its artistic policy. Finally, the theatre’s management of the centenary programme itself was criticized, both during the summer of ← 2 | 3 → 2004 when it was forced into a number of unplanned rearrangements of its line-up, and from September 2004 onwards, when the theatre’s management structures were subjected to intense media scrutiny.

Most of these criticisms of the Abbey seem to have been grounded in a belief that, as a national institution, the theatre confers value on dramatists and their works by including them in the national repertoire. Thus, the abbeyonehundred programme was not seen simply as a collection of plays, but as an act of public memory: a statement of what Ireland, as a nation in 2004, valued from its past. This explains the disappointment many felt about the lack of work in Irish or by women writers from the centenary programme. It should be noted that the Abbey produced three plays by women in 2003,2 and produced four well-regarded plays in the Irish language under the Artistic Directorship of Patrick Mason.3 Media commentary implied that the exclusion of both from the centenary programme was, however, a serious oversight that both reveals and reinforces many of the prejudices of Irish society. These criticisms appear to be derived from the belief that the power of a national institution to confer value is a responsibility that was neglected in the construction of the abbeyonehundred programme.

The construction of that programme might have implied that the theatre’s immediate priority was simple financial survival, rather than national self-representation: the Abbey entered its centenary year with an operating deficit of €800,000, which, by the end of 2004, had risen to more than €2 million. Financial necessity may also explain the one controversy that seemed genuinely to surprise management at the Abbey: the media’s sceptical response to Barnes’s decision to produce Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun, directed by John McColgan, as its major summer offering. In part, this scepticism was because McColgan had never before directed a professional piece of theatre, though he had been responsible for Riverdance. Commentators noted that he was chair of the Abbey’s fundraising committee, and that he had himself donated large amounts of money to the theatre (believed to be in the region of €500,000). McColgan vigorously defended himself against the accusation that there was anything odd about a first-time director being given a mainstage summer production on the stage of the Abbey – notably in a Late Late Show special about the Abbey broadcast on Irish television on 16 January 2004, and in other public interviews.

Even without the controversy about McColgan, the inclusion of Boucicault in the Abbey’s centenary programme reveals much about the theatre’s current situation. The inclusion of a play reviled by the Abbey’s founders in the centenary programme appears to ignore the foundational ethos of the theatre, and in particular its relationship to the production of melodrama. When the Abbey was established, melodrama was very popular in Dublin: the week before the Abbey’s inaugural production on 27 December 1904, Dublin’s Queen’s Theatre had staged The ← 3 | 4 → Shaughraun. And, as Christopher Morash points out, ‘on the same December night’ as the Abbey’s first performances, ‘across the Liffey almost two thousand people were howling for the informer’s blood’ in another Irish melodrama, J.W. Whitbread’s Sarsfield, which was also staged at the Queen’s.4 Dublin audiences in 1904 were familiar with, and fond of, Boucicault: The Shaughraun, The Colleen Bawn, and Arrah-na-Pogue had been revived every year in Dublin during the 1890s5, and were the most popular of the many Irish melodramas produced at that time. The foundation of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1898 and of the Abbey in 1904 was an attempt to offer Irish audiences something different from, and better than, these melodramas. ‘We will show’, wrote Yeats, ‘that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism.’ The Irish people are ‘weary of misrepresentation’ by writers such as Boucicault, Yeats claimed.6 This early hostility to melodrama persisted throughout the theatre’s earliest years: for example, Sean O’Casey states that he ‘instinctively kept firm silence about Dion Boucicault, whose works he knew as well as Shakespeare’s’, when he first began working for the Abbey, almost twenty years after its foundation.7

Stephen Watt points out that nineteenth-century melodrama has been undeservedly neglected, while Nicholas Grene reminds us that the authenticity of the Abbey’s representations of Irish life would soon become as controversial as Boucicault’s.8 O’Casey was not the only Irish writer to have been influenced by Boucicault, whose works were admired by Synge, Beckett, and others. Furthermore, although some Abbey personnel continued to express distaste for Irish melodrama, it became a part of the theatre’s repertoire from the 1940s onwards, notably in the work of Louis D’Alton. The Shaughraun was itself produced at the theatre for the first time in 1967, and revived in 1975, and 19909, and a production of The Colleen Bawn directed by Conall Morrison in 1998 was one of the Abbey’s greatest successes under Patrick Mason. There was therefore a tradition of Abbey productions of Boucicault before 2004, many of which combined popular appeal with critical success.

Accordingly, it is not necessarily a problem that the Abbey included Boucicault in its centenary programme. It is after all desirable for any institution to move beyond the ideals of its founders, and the Abbey could not have survived for a century without doing so; indeed, many of the Abbey’s most popular and admired plays would not necessarily have been approved of by Yeats, Gregory, or Synge. However, the historical significance of the Abbey is not that it provided an alternative to Irish melodrama, but that it sought to build upon that form to enrich and broaden the range of Irish drama. It did so institutionally: by contesting the Irishness of Boucicault’s characters, the Abbey reinvested ‘authority in new and different versions of Irishness’, which became the basis for the theatre’s subsequent output.10 The return of Boucicault to the Abbey’s ← 4 | 5 → repertoire in the 1960s should thus be seen as evidence of progression: the theatre was not abandoning its principles, but building on them to find new ways of performing and staging Irish work. The Abbey seemed aware of the continuities in Irish dramatic history in its construction of the abbeyonehundred programme. While The Shaughraun was performed on its mainstage, Stewart Parker’s play about Boucicault, Heavenly Bodies (1986), was produced in The Peacock, and following both was a revival of The Playboy of the Western World. This programming established a relationship between Synge and Boucicault and, with the production of Parker’s play, the theatre showed the relevance of that relationship to the contemporary tradition. This was an important statement by the Abbey of a sense of its place in Irish dramatic history. It was, as a national theatre, reaching back to a tradition that predated its own foundation, while also bringing into its own repertoire Parker’s play, which had never before been produced in Ireland.

These continuities, however, were more apparent in the theatre’s programming than in the production of the play itself: McColgan’s Shaughraun seemed to have been conceived without any reference to the previous century’s work at the Abbey. Twentieth-century productions of Boucicault at the Abbey tended to be notable for directors’ employment of such distancing devices as music, tableaux, and the utilization of frames in stage design, all of which were used to emphasize the notion that Boucicault’s claim to represent an authentic Ireland had been superseded. McColgan’s production was, however, conceived without any apparent sense of historical distance between the source material and its performance. Audiences were instead encouraged to view the material from an ironic or perhaps nostalgic perspective: they were, for instance, told to boo and cheer at the action by a pre-performance announcement, which meant that part of the attraction of The Shaughraun was that it reproduced the ethos of a nineteenth-century melodramatic performance: thus, the production from 27 December 1904 being commemorated at the Abbey that summer was not Cathleen Ní Houlihan, but the Queen Theatre’s Sarsfield. Furthermore, McColgan imported into the production many contemporary mass mediated images of Irishness that do purport to authenticity, including scenes of traditional Irish dancing taken directly from his own Riverdance, a show that is regarded as emblematic of contemporary mass Irish culture. The blend of a play from 1874 with the sensibility of Riverdance implied that, for McColgan, there was no difference between Boucicault’s representation of Irish culture and his own, making the two men seem like contemporaries. The positioning of Riverdance beside Boucicault used the international popularity of the former to validate the revival of the latter’s play: McColgan used the Riverdance brand to re-authenticate The Shaughraun. It is strange that the Abbey, during its centenary year, played host to a confluence that ← 5 | 6 → seemed to bypass its contribution to Irish culture during the previous hundred years.

The success of the production surprised and alarmed some commentators: Helen Meany, for instance, queried the production’s presentation of ‘ersatz Irishry’.11 In an interview with RTE Radio’s Rattlebag McColgan dismissed these criticisms as ‘academic snobbery,’12 pointing out that the production was selling-out most of its performances, and that it was likely to transfer abroad. McColgan’s view of the Shaughraun appears to have been shared by the management of the Abbey. The consensus appears to have been that financial success and international exposure should be the sole determinants of the production’s success. The production generated the theatre’s ‘highest box office returns in fourteen years’, reports Fiona Ness, which is a substantial achievement.13 However, it is unfortunate that criticisms of the play on the grounds of aesthetics and authenticity were not only ignored, but also dismissed as irrelevant. ‘I never had a doubt in my mind that John McColgan was the right person to direct The Shaughraun,’ said Ben Barnes, referring only to the commercial success of the play. ‘The theatre has been vindicated and I have been vindicated.’


X, 214
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2007. X, 214 pp.

Biographical notes

Patrick Lonergan (Volume editor) Riana O'Dwyer (Volume editor)

Patrick Lonergan lectures in English at National University of Ireland, Galway, and is an Ireland Representative for the International Association for the Study of Irish Literature. He writes about theatre in the west of Ireland for The Irish Times, and is reviews editor of irish theatre magazine. He has lectured on Irish drama at a variety of venues, including the Edinburgh International Festival, the Royal Irish Academy, and the Notre Dame Irish Seminar. He is currently working on a book on Irish Theatre and Globalization. Riana O’Dwyer is Senior Lecturer in the English Department at National University of Ireland, Galway. She has been Chairperson of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures [IASIL] since 2003 and was one of the organizers of IASIL Triennial Conference 2004 at Galway. She has lectured and published on Joyce, modern Irish drama, Irish studies, and Irish women novelists of the nineteenth century.


Title: Echoes Down the Corridor
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