Sacred Play

Soul-Journeys in Contemporary Irish Theatre

by Anne F. O'Reilly (Author)
©2004 Edited Collection XII, 338 Pages
Series: Carysfort Press Ltd., Volume 236


This is a book of insight and imagination. It is a literary tour de force, where 28 Irish plays are examined and their rich cultural context exposed in a way that educates and excites. To read Anne O'Reilly's analysis leaves one longing to return to theatre and to play. While the text is utterly readable, the ideas shared are profound.
The theme 'journey' is common in every play but it is explored from different angles; we glimpse understandings of the journey in search of soul, of self, of healing, of sacred meaning, of the possible, even of transformation. 
One of the captivating aspects of this book is that, while it's about plays and their stories, it also challenges the reader to rethink and re-imagine his/her own story. It is indeed a literary work of art. –Ann Louise Gilligan

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Theatre as temenos
  • Theatre as Alternative Sacred Space
  • Interpretive Lenses
  • Soul-journeys
  • Thematic Overview of Chapters
  • 1 | Journeys Through Memory
  • Baglady, Frank McGuinness (1985)
  • Bailegangaire, Tom Murphy (1985)
  • Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel (1990)
  • Tea in a China Cup, Christina Reid (1983)
  • La Corbière, Anne Le Marquand Hartigan (1989)
  • Eclipsed, Patricia Burke Brogan (1992)
  • Conclusion
  • 2 | Journeys Through Ritual
  • The Sanctuary Lamp, Tom Murphy (1975)
  • Misogynist, Michael Harding (1990)
  • Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Frank McGuinness (1992)
  • Cell, Paula Meehan (1999)
  • Wonderful Tennessee, Brian Friel (1993)
  • Conclusion
  • 3 | Journeys into the Dark
  • The Mai, Marina Carr (1994)
  • Portia Coughlan, Marina Carr (1996)
  • By The Bog of Cats, Marina Carr (1998)
  • On Raftery’s Hill, Marina Carr (2000)
  • Ariel, Marina Carr (2002)
  • Conclusion
  • 4 | Journeys of Transformation
  • Faith Healer, Brian Friel (1979)
  • The Gigli Concert, Tom Murphy (1983)
  • Innocence: The life and death of Michelangelo Merisi, Caravaggio, Frank McGuinness (1986)
  • Mrs. Sweeney, Paula Meehan (1997)
  • The Lonesome West, Martin McDonagh (1997)
  • 5 | Journeys and Vision
  • After Easter, Anne Devlin (1994)
  • Pentecost, Stewart Parker (1987)
  • Prayers of Sherkin, Sebastian Barry (1990)
  • Una Pooka, Michael Harding (1989)
  • Carthaginians, Frank McGuinness (1988)
  • Conclusion: Sacred Play and the Imagination of the Possible
  • Bibliography
  • Index


This book has grown out of my teaching and research over the past thirty years. My interpretive framework has developed from a dialogue with theology, feminist theory and the Irish dramatic tradition. A number of Irish academic environments have nurtured and sustained my own intellectual journey: The Religious Studies faculty at the Mater Dei Institute Dublin; the Theology faculty of St. Patrick’s College Maynooth; the Drama Studies faculty of University College Dublin and the Department of English at NUI Galway. I am grateful to all my teachers from these different disciplines, in particular Dr. Eamonn Jordan, who supervised my studies and who saw the possibility of this book long before I did.

I acknowledge the support of friends and colleagues who have read parts of the book in earlier formats. Many conversations have facilitated the development and clarification of my ideas. Gratitude must also go to the Religious Studies Department at St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin, who have always supported and enabled my continuing studies.

Behind the book is another journey that has brought me into dialogue with Western and Eastern mysticism, psychotherapy, and many contemporary innovative approaches to the relationship between body and spirit. The work of Dr. Ruth Doherty, (Annwn Institute) and Chloe Goodchild (The Naked Voice) deserve special mention. My ongoing soul-journey work with Kevin Harnett has been an invaluable source of insight and wisdom.

I am very grateful to all my students both past and present, with whom I have shared many of the ideas in this book. I thank my students in St. Mary’s Holy Faith Secondary School (Glasnevin, Dublin), the women from the Creative Writing classes at The Shanty Educational Project (West Tallaght, Dublin), the children and teenagers in Ireland’s Centre for Talented Youth (DCU Dublin), and most especially my Religious Studies students in St Patrick’s College, who provide me with ongoing opportunities for dialogue, reflection, creativity and play.

Finally, to close friends and family, who have tolerated my absence, tiredness, and preoccupation over the past few years – thanks for your patience and practical support. You kept me grounded. Anne O’Reilly

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Introduction | Sacred Play

At first there is nothing. Nothing but the empty space. The womb that begets all life – the space of nothingness and possibility, emptiness and potential form. The trajectory of the human journey is from the source into life and back again to the source – from nothingness to separateness and back to nothingness. It is also the trajectory of creativity, of each work of art, of each participation in the play of images.

In the empty space of theatre audiences are invited to participate not simply in the performance of a particular play, but in the play of creation itself. Audiences are invited to recognize that the possibility of anything at all underlies all our attempts to create, to make, shape and invent new worlds. If theatre is one of the sacred spaces wherein we can ritually recreate the world, it can only function as such because it is part of a greater creative energy that underpins and enables everything. Martin Boroson, founder of the Temenos1 project in Ireland (which seeks to bring together the fields of ritual, theatre, creativity and play) talks of theatre as ‘a structure or set of rules that facilitate play’ (2002:66). Boroson ←1 | 2→develops his understanding of theatre from Hindu philosophy where creation is understood to have come about because of God’s desire to play (lila). As Boroson puts it:

In this view of creation, the universe is an enormous play that is conceived, written, directed, produced and designed by God. It is God in the audience, God working the lights, and God playing every role. The point of this play is to make something so convincingly tangible that it actually appears to be not-God. (66)

Boroson’s interest in theatre led to his search to ‘find a way to make modern theatre a temenos – a strong and sacred container in which people can experience the deepest kinds of play, the play of gods. Play can be fun, of course, but it can also be transcendent. Sometimes, it can be both’. (66)

We may ask who in fact is playing? Behind and beneath all our playing may lie the play of the divine. Our lives may be premised on forgetting or the source may be obscured. The illusion of separation prevents the realization that underneath the many manifestations of forms we are all connected. We breathe the same breath. The mystics east and west always had access to this kind of unified experience of existence. Kilroy’s Matt Talbot tries to talk about such an experience:

There be nuthin’ to see when Gawd comes ’cause there’s nuthin’ other than yerself ’cause yerself is wan with whah ya see so ya see nuthin ’cause ya can only see what’s separate than yerself, ya can only count what’s different, not the same, not the wan, the only. (Kilroy: 1997:58)

When he wrote of the empty space of theatre the renowned theatre director Peter Brook had in mind the theatre of the invisible made visible. Theatrical playing can open to moments of epiphany, where the source comes through, and transfigures the ordinary, making it holy. Theatre as sacred play invites a new imagining of the divine human relationship. The human impulse towards transformative play is itself a participation in the play of the divine.

The Clearing or the ritual space of theatre, also invites audiences to play, dance, sing and cry their way towards a new imagining. The theatrical space nurtures a passion for the possible ←2 | 3→and invites us to have faith in the imagination. In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved we encounter the matriarchal lay preacher Baby Suggs, who ‘opened her great heart to those who could use it’ (1987:87). Regularly she would retire to the Clearing in the forest and lead her people in a healing ritual. She would invite the children, the men and their wives to laugh and dance and weep together before she would share her great embodied wisdom with them. ‘She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine.’ (1987:88) Theatre too can become a place of embodied wisdom.

In the empty space of theatre the body performs, the body watches and the present opens to the eternal. In the now of theatre, in the space of play, the empty space becomes the container for transformation. Just as the body of the person is the container for all that the person is and may become, the space of theatre as concrete physical space, is one of the cultural containers for being and becoming. It too is a container for energies that are both human and divine, a space within which body and spirit can find a home.

Theatre as temenos

Theatre as container shares a function like that of the sacred container within traditional alchemy, the crucible within which the raw materials of the alchemists were refined, distilled and transmuted into gold. These women and men shared roles that encompassed magic, mystery, conjuring and philosophy. While allegedly engaged in the transmutation of base metals into gold they were in fact more often philosophers of the human spirit, and the alchemical vessel became a symbol for their own spiritual transformation. Their search for the philosopher’s stone often indicated the extent of their own soul journeys as they purified, and distilled the essence from the raw material of their lives. Jung’s work in the study and interpretation of traditional alchemical texts led to his interpretation of the alchemical wedding as a metaphor for the integration of different energies within the human psyche. Theatre can work in a similar way as such a sacred container for transformation. Within culture it can become a place that holds the different energies that seek integration. Like the individual human ←3 | 4→journey these energies whether male or female, conscious or shadow, need to be brought to awareness and integrated in order for wholeness to occur at a cultural level.

One of the central images within the Celtic tradition is ‘the cauldron, the vessel of heat, plenty and inspiration’ (Matthews, 2001:222). The cauldron was also a central image in the poetic schools, and symbolized sources of inspiration and creativity. In fact in the early Celtic creation stories the cauldron was the source from which all life came, in a manner reminiscent of a cosmic womb. Within the poetic tradition it was believed that within the body there were three cauldrons. The first cauldron was located in the belly and was the vessel of physical health and vitality, the second was located within the heart or solar plexus area and was the vessel of psychic health, the third was located in the head and was the vessel of spiritual health. This model of the interrelation of body, mind and spirit provides a useful way to understand the flow of physical, artistic and spiritual energy. ‘The trinity of soul, heart and mind are strong in harmony, yet they can be shattered if not in union. Doubt, distrust and neglected observances are the pathways to madness, heartsickness and soul fragmentation’ (302). Soul loss or fragmentation which can be caused by illness, assault or shock manifests itself in ‘vitality depletion, mental disorientation and dispiritedness’ (304).

Irish theatre can become a similar cauldron for transformation, where the alchemy of spirit can continue. Like the tradition in the great Bardic schools, the theatre can also function as a house of memory and place of dreaming incubation, where new visions are forged. Theatre as container also shares many of the features associated with healing and transformation that we find in the ancient Greek tradition of Asklepios. In contrast to the Hippocratic tradition this model of healing was more holistic, open to the unconscious, and took place in the sacred precincts of the temple. Dreams were integral to this healing, and the person in search of healing spent much time in the dark waiting for a dream that the temple priests could interpret, and which might lead to healing, or transformation in their life’s direction. In a similar way theatre can be a place of dreaming, where the audience comes in search of healing and transformation.

←4 |

Theatre as alternative sacred space

While the traditional sacred space provided by Christian worship has been abandoned by many, others are seeking new ways to access the mystery. Theatre for many playwrights has become an alternative sacred space. The empty space of theatre can function as a rough or holy space. It can enable access to the mystery, it can allow an otherness to emerge. In the fluid shape-shifting space of theatre one can play with what is not yet. One can discover what may be. It is this sense of theatre as the space of possibility that allows identification of theatre as an alternative sacred space.

Where theatre creates the kind of sacred space traditionally reserved for religious ritual it can create a sense of community and enable access to transformation and vision. The ritual aspects of theatre have long been noted from its earliest associations with the Mystery Religions, the medieval attention to the celebration of the Mystery Plays and the contemporary need to access mystery. The participation of the audience can be understood and assessed in different ways. Theatre can be interpreted as an alternative sacred space for the performance of identity.

In this study I am interested in a poetic theatre that functions in a way that is similar to ritual. In the space of theatre an audience finds itself in a space of heightened awareness. A readiness for what is about to transpire is a prerequisite of all ritual. The play as a poetic text can offer images and symbols to the imagination, that can be transforming. When one leaves the theatre it is the image that one carries that has the most effect. Theatrical texts can offer ways of seeing and hearing our cultural story that is healing. Each of the plays in this study has a story to tell, but also forms part of the cultural narrative that is our inheritance as Irish people whether at home or abroad. When the stories are told, the place of memory is important. So too is the journey that the characters undergo in the course of the play. When the playwright does not resist the journey into the dark (whether personal or cultural) the wound can be uncovered and brought to consciousness and language. But there is also the pull of the future. The impulse of drama is towards the future. It is what is possible when the story is told. Where drama forgets its connections with play, the world of ←5 | 6→as if, it remains in the past, determined by the wound, and unable to heal. The truly liberating space is that of play, which can turn the world upside down, and enable a new imagining.


XII, 338
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2004. XII, 338 pp.

Biographical notes

Anne F. O'Reilly (Author)


Title: Sacred Play
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