«Mirror up to Nature»

The Fourth Seamus Heaney Lectures

by Patrick Burke (Volume editor)
©2010 Conference proceedings VIII, 120 Pages
Series: Carysfort Press Ltd., Volume 782


Ours would appear to be an era of unprecedented variation in the mediation of meaning – television, computer, the older forms of radio and print.
Since, however, such profusion of resources has not of itself guaranteed enhanced profundity or sophistication in our modes of understanding – psychological, sociological, philosophical, historical, and theological – the issue of the continued relevance of cultural forms, dependent both on the human voice and on ritualization, presents itself for consideration. How may modern people most tellingly relate to such overwhelmingly verbal processes as teaching, be it an erudite lecture or a classroom lesson with infants? Is singing, in the words of Tom Murphy, ‘the only way to tell people who you are’? What, in particular, is the contemporary usefulness for the building of societies of one of our oldest and culturally valued rituals, that of drama?
The Fourth Seamus Heaney Lectures, ‘Mirror up to Nature’: Drama and Theatre in the Modern World, given at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, between October 2006 and April 2007, addressed these and related questions. The gifted play director, Patrick Mason, spoke with exceptional insight on the essence of theatre. Thomas Kilroy, distinguished playwright and critic, dealt with the topic of Ireland’s contribution to the art of theatre. Two world authorities, Cecily O’Neill and Jonothan Neelands, gave inspiring accounts of the rich potential of drama in the classroom. Brenna Katz Clarke, Head of English at St Patrick’s College, offered a delightful examination of the relationship between drama and film. Finally, John Buckley, internationally acclaimed composer, spoke on opera and its history, while giving an illuminating account of his own Words Upon The Window-Pane.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 | Keeping Faith: ‘It is required. You do awake your faith...’ The Winter’s Tale
  • 2 | The Irish Connection Thomas Kilroy
  • 3 | The Mythic and the Mundane: The Transforming Power of Theatre and Process Drama
  • 4 | Mirror, dynamo or lens?: Drama, children and social change
  • 5 | From Boucicault to Beckett: From Real to Reel (1894-1920)
  • 6 | like a bell with many echoes: drama and opera
  • Index

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Introduction: ‘The Mirror up to Nature’

Between October, 2006, and June, 2007, St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, a college of Dublin City University, sponsored a programme of seven lectures on drama and theatre, under the less than totally imaginative title, The Mirror up to Nature. This is the fourth in the highly successful Seamus Heaney Lecture Series, inaugurated by the College and supported generously by its President, Dr Pauric Travers. They have been held biennially since 2000, each addressing themes of educational, cultural, political or artistic importance in the broad context deriving from the educational and humanities mission of the College. St Patrick’s is most appreciative of the support and interest consistently shown the series by its patron, Seamus Heaney, a dedicated educator, an outstanding poet, and, be it remembered in the context of The Mirror up to Nature, a significant dramatist – The Cure at Troy (1990) and The Burial at Thebes (2004), versions, respectively, of Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Antigone.

The content of the seven lectures is summarized below, while readers’ versions of six of them are reprinted in the present volume. (Professor Ania Loomba, who spoke on drama and politics, had already pledged her contribution to another publisher.) Sadly, one of the planned lectures, to be given by that outstanding teacher, John Devitt, formerly Head of English at Mater Dei College, was overtaken by an illness which was to take him from us in June of 2007.

The first of the lectures, ‘The Magic of Theatre’, given by Patrick Mason, former Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre, as well as a world-class director of drama and opera, was a tour de force. Drawing imaginatively on plays such as Hecuba and The Winter’s Tale, their undimmed capacity to speak truth in eras of inadequate ←1 | 2→language such as our own, dominated by what he termed ‘MBA man’, he moved beyond mere discussion of theatre and brought us with him into theatre.

The occasion of the second lecture, ‘The Irish Contribution’ by Thomas Kilroy, was graced by the attendance of Brian Friel, whose father was an alumnus of the College. In characteristically penetrating style, Kilroy grounded his argument on the philosophy of the stage articulated by Yeats, his equal unease with the showiness of post-Restoration English comedy and with the visionary restrictiveness of the work of the emerging catholic nationalists such as Padraic Colum and T.C. Murray. He provocatively related that argument to the more recent work of Eugene O’Brien and Marina Carr.

Professor Ania Loomba, University of Pennsylvania, in the third lecture, spoke on the politics of drama and the drama of politics. From an initial discussion on concepts of race, nation and outsiders in some of Shakepeare’s plays – Othello, Shylock – she moved on to related issues of personal and social identity both in his and later work. An impressive feature of this occasion was the lecturer’s exceptional adeptness in the question-and-answer session.

At the heart of the series, reflecting the centrality of St Patrick’s as a College of Education, was a pair of lectures given by two recognized world authorities in the area of drama in education. In ‘The Mythic and the Mundane: the Transforming Power of Theatre and Process Drama’, Professor Cecily O’Neill, stressing the primacy of imagination in education and the related importance of story and myth, argued clearly as to how they could be illuminatingly addressed through ‘Process Drama’, a form of drama.

Complementing that lecture in many ways was Professor Jonothan Neelands’s contribution, ‘Mirror, dynamo or lens? Children, drama and social change’: with wit and profundity, he deployed the three images in his title (one of which, of course, he was borrowing from the overall series title) to interrogate the potential of drama in terms of photographic realism, as catalyst of social change and as vehicle of self-exploration. And so to the penultimate lecture. For over a century now, a major competitor with theatre for the attention of audiences has been film. In a wide-ranging, well-researched lecture, ‘From Boucicault to Beckett: From Real to Reel (1894-2007)’, Dr Brenna Katz Clarke, Head of English at St Patrick’s, addressed, with characteristic élan, identifying dynamics of both media, supported by well-chosen film clips, ←2 | 3→notably from the marvellous Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Kelly and Donen, 1952), a theme of which is, of course, the pivotal transition from silent to talking movies. Given her expertise in both media, it was gratifying to lovers of the stage to be informed that, if hard choices had to be made, Dr Katz Clarke’s would be for drama!


VIII, 120
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. VIII, 120 pp.

Biographical notes

Patrick Burke (Volume editor)


Title: «Mirror up to Nature»