Irish Theatre Environments

by Lisa FitzGerald (Author)
©2017 Monographs X, 214 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 84


What role does nature play in the cultural world of the theatre? Is the auditorium not a natural environment, and how can theatre and nature aesthetics co-exist in the productive expression of performance? Re-Place: Irish Theatre Environments proposes a new way of thinking about Irish theatre: one that challenges established boundaries between nature and culture and argues for theatre performances to be seen as conceptual ecological environments. Broadening the scope of theatre environments to encompass radiophonic and digital spaces, Re-Place is a timely interrogation of how we understand performance history. This book examines the work, both as text and in production, of three canonical Irish playwrights, J. M. Synge, Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel, and looks at how theatre documentation can further the idea of a natural performance environment. The questions under consideration extend Irish theatre history into the field of the environmental humanities and draw on new materialist discourse to offer exciting and innovative ways to approach performance.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1: Introduction: Conceptual Ecological Environments
  • Chapter 2: J. M. Synge and the Emergence of Irish Ecodrama
  • Chapter 3: ‘Oh to be in Atoms’: Samuel Beckett’s Material Exchanges
  • Chapter 4: Ballybeg and the Conceptual Fifth Province
  • Chapter 5: Digital Environments and Performance Documentation
  • Chapter 6: Making a Space for Ecological Thinking
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →


The years spent on this project would not have been possible without the support of family, the academic support that helped me progress and advance my work, and the funding that allowed me to complete it. I would like to thank my doctoral supervisor, Professor Patrick Lonergan, whose advice has been invaluable over the course of this research project. It has been a privilege to have him oversee, critique and offer stimulating and productive analysis. My growth and development as a scholar is a testament to his mentorship. This research would not have been possible without the financial support of the Digital Arts and Humanities (DAH) PhD programme. The opportunity that I have benefitted from, to study, travel, liaise with scholars and present my ongoing research is thanks to the generosity of this funding body. Special thanks to Dr Trish McGuire and Dr Justin Tonra for reading over initial drafts and giving me invaluable feedback. The research that was conducted on the Ouroboros/Making History tour is thanks to Dr Elaine Sisson and Denis Conway. My gratitude goes to Dr Bernie McCarthy and Dr Emma Bidwell of West Cork College for their help with the proof-reading of this material. I finished this project as a fellow at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich. The support of my wonderful colleagues was invaluable. Finally, I am grateful for the endless support and resolute goodwill of my family. Special appreciation goes to my parents, Matt, David, Maria, Emma, Breda, the wee baby Séamus, and – in the non-anthropocentric spirit of this study – extended to my lovely dog Molly.

I am indebted to you all. ← vii | viii →

← viii | ix →


Landscapes push back, shaping our bodies as we move through our lives. It is ‘written into your senses’, as Seamus Heaney wrote, ‘from the minute you begin to breathe’.1 I was raised in Kerry on the west coast of Ireland and that, no doubt, has shaped me. Land positioned on the Atlantic seaboard means a mild and moist climate, battered peninsulas, and roaring tides. It’s where red fuchsias blanket the hedgerows, where ridged and furrowed lazy beds are etched into the landscape. It, too, is etched into and on to my body. Environmental narratives are produced as the space around us bears down on our skin, into our senses and on to our minds. Our stories are our engagements with our natural worlds. This book will focus on that interchange: the unseen transfer between matter and the infinitesimal exchanges that pass us by.

I chose theatre as a locus for my exploration of environmental narratives. Theatre is a visceral art medium that involves the artist’s body merging with its surroundings. Bodies and space are engaged in the production of a performance; that environment is under review here. Why write a book on Irish theatre environments? Because arguing for the active agency of nonhuman matter in theatre environments – that is, narratives, histories, spaces and landscapes – is an argument for the force of materiality, the power of things, rather than of people. Theatre frames that idea of a body in space. It is a social form of situating the body in its environment; culture becomes ‘a sort of second breath’, as Artaud writes.2 The theatre can be extended beyond the realm of the cultural to speak to a vital materiality. In writing this book, I sought to capture the interplay between theatre environments and the bodies that inhabit them. Theatre environments that consist of audiences and auditoria; the memories that are etched on the bodies of ← ix | x → the performers; the scripts that are endlessly replayed and the archive that gathers up the traces of the past. Theatre is a great tool for environmental thinking because each performance is a small world; its life-filled sets offer ways of critically engaging with spatial practice and history.

Searching out my own space, I’ve since exchanged the periphery for the cosseted centre. I’ve slowly huddled my way in from the outer perimeter of the European landmass to Germany and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. My move has been for my work, but its greatest impact has been on my sense of who I am: the realization that I am definitely from the fringes of a place. My path to the environmental humanities has been perforated by doubts as to the importance of aesthetics in a time of crisis. But how we envision and frame the world is my point of entry into environmental issues. I hope that its value lies in the exploration of framing and narration that is such a large part of how we categorize nature.

And finally, this book is an experiment: a move into digital theatre environments. Digital theatre history is a new phase in performance. The last chapter in this book might raise many questions as to what defines theatre, but digital culture is very much a part of new and innovative performance practice. In nature there is no normal, but a constantly evolving system of flourishing. Seeing how theatre and digital technologies mesh is an attempt to overcome strict demarcations between real, live and simulated environments. Overcoming the live/performed dichotomy, this book will be a challenge to the notions of authenticity, framing and reproduction that have been a thorn in the side of both theatre and environmental narratives.

Environments needle their way into our minds, becoming the settings for our stories but also telling their own tales. Several years ago as a Fine Art undergraduate I tried to paint pictures that captured that interplay between the body and its subjective environmental experience. I was (in my own mind) painting that effervescent vitality that goes beyond words. Theatre, too, is both transient and permanent, fleeting and yet endlessly replayed. My aim here is to present theatre history as an environmental story. I want to argue for a theatre practice that provides a critical point of engagement for pressing environmental issues, digital spaces that can inspire deep reflection on new natures and, above all, a performance space where culture is something we breathe.

1 James Randall, ‘An interview with Seamus Heaney’, Ploughshares 5/3 (1979), 17.

2 Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, tr. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 8.

← x | 1 →


Introduction: Conceptual Ecological Environments

How we image a thing, true or false, affects our conduct toward it, the conduct of nations as well as persons.


The rawhide sandals (pampooties) worn by the Aran Islanders were adapted for use on a specific terrain.1 The coarse animal hair on the outside of the sandal offered better traction on the bog and shoreline topography while the soft sole protected the animal hides that stretched over the wooden frames of the local fishing vessels or currachs. But the most curious feature of this footwear was the fact that they needed to be ‘wetted with water before being put on’ and, during the course of their use (which averaged about a month), they were to be kept damp to ‘preserve their flexibility’.2 These sandals were what John Millington Synge insisted on bringing to Dublin for the 1904 opening production of his play Riders to the Sea. For the author, the play was about an authentic rendering of a declining way of life. In the original Abbey production that diligence was illustrated in his determination to forgo Dublin-made costumes in favour of having authentic clothing sent from the islands.3 Although these were destined to be theatrical props which, by their very nature, are for symbolical rather ← 1 | 2 → than practical use, their relevance lay in their authenticity: they were the actual items used on the island. Rather than painting a backdrop or creating costumes, theatre was to become the arena where a landscape and its people could be evoked not as representative but real.

The purpose of this book is to integrate Irish theatre history into a wider environmental aesthetics discourse and, in doing so, probe the performative spaces that emerged from key productions in the Irish theatre canon. When the objects designated for use on the Aran Islands end up on a Dublin stage, does it really create an authentic performance of place? How do we experience the spatial environment in Irish theatre and the performing arts more generally? What makes theatre aesthetics environmental? I want to address a gap in the understanding of theatre as both art object and natural environment. This study argues that performance (that is, the exploration of space, bodies, time, movement, ritual, gesture, etc.) helps us to think inclusively about bodies and environment. Combining new materialist thinking and theories of space and place, I contend, firstly, that grouping the selected theatrical, radiophonic, and digital landscapes under the umbrella term conceptual ecological environments will offer a way to examine disparate performative spaces thematically. Secondly, that this thematic amalgamation, with its emphasis on inclusivity, helps to bring ideas around nature and culture together in a spirit of non-binary performativity. That is, it can challenge (at least on a performative level) the human/nonhuman dynamic that has facilitated the collapse of nature in the face of anthropocentric narratives. I intend to analyse the performances (and the corresponding digital documentation) as a material response to the environment it depicts, reading, as Serenella Iovino writes, ‘matter as a text, as a site of narrativity’.4 In examining the environmental (rather than theatre’s traditional cultural enclave) in these plays, this book will challenge the polarization of both.

Conceptual ecological environments are the central idea around which I build this research and so need a definitive explanation before continuing. ← 2 | 3 → The analyses in this book are ecologically driven: that is, they aspire to capture the human and nonhuman aspects of the plays and performances. Ecological thinking is the holistic understanding of the interconnectedness between all entities and I intend to establish an environmental narrative of materiality in the plays and productions under review. Whilst not suggesting that these playwrights deliberately sought to create this type of narrative, I have adopted the term ecological environments because these performative spaces are not only representative of natural environments, but, I argue, are natural environments in and of themselves. Instead of critiquing in terms of difference, ecological thinking is about reading the interplay involving the myriad actors in an environment. Theatre is the place where the exchange between bodies in space exists enframed and in practice. I will embrace the dictum of thinking ecologically (and its materialist implications) and read the following plays, performances, and productions as projects emerging from a shared and complex world. That includes all the material generated in its production, from the authors’ first description of landscape, to the medium of transmission, to the new environments that various types of digital documentation create. Ecological thinking is important as a tool for all-inclusivity; as Timothy Morton writes, it is about having a ‘radical openness’ to an immeasurably diverse collection of factors.5 This diversity is evident in the narratives emerging in performative cultural practice. The measuring, visualizing and narrating of bodies in space is not only a central part of theatre research but also a key component of an environmental narrative. The reason that ecological thinking is beneficial to Irish theatre history is that it expands the range of knowledge from the social sphere (where theatre arguably resides) to an amalgamation of cultural and natural environments.


X, 214
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (August)
Irish Theatre History Environmental Humanities Ecocriticism irish theatre
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. X, 214 pp.

Biographical notes

Lisa FitzGerald (Author)

Lisa FitzGerald is an environmental historian and ecocritic whose research interests include the role of nature in theatre and performance, environmental art practice, eco-digital art, urban ecologies and the relationship between nature and technology. She holds a PhD from the National University of Ireland, Galway and is a fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, LMU Munich. Her forthcoming project, Eco-Digital Art: Nature and New Media Aesthetics, examines the ecological implications of artistic representations of the natural world in digital and new media art and the emergence of «new natures» from within the digital sphere.


Title: Re-Place
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