Theatre Stuff

Critical Essays and Contemporary Irish Theatre

by Eamonn Jordan (Volume editor) Ger Fitzgibbon (Volume editor) Eamonn Jordan (Volume editor)
©2009 XLVIII, 328 Pages
Series: Carysfort Press Ltd., Volume 752


Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction (Eamonn Jordan)
  • A Generation of Playwrights (Thomas Kilroy)
  • Who The Hell Do We Think We Still Are? Reflections On Irish Theatre and Identity (Declan Hughes)
  • Classics as Celtic Firebrand: Greek Tragedy, Irish Playwrights, and Colonialism (Marianne McDonald)
  • Theatre History and the Beginnings of the Irish National Theatre Project (Lionel Pilkington)
  • Gender, Authorship and Performance in Selected Plays by Contemporary Irish Women Playwrights: Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy, Marie Jones, Marina Carr, Emma Donoghue (Anna McMullan)
  • Irish Theatre: The State of the Art (Fintan O’Toole)
  • The State of Irish Theatre (Bruce Arnold)
  • Theatre of war? Contemporary drama in Northern Ireland (Ashley Taggart)
  • Theatre — Act or Place? (Caoimhe McAvinchey)
  • Come Dance With Me in Ireland: Current developments in the independent theatre sector (Joseph Long)
  • (Un)Critical Conditions (Jocelyn Clarke)
  • Brian Friel’s Dialogue with Euripides: Living Quarters (Redmond O’Hanlon)
  • Politics, Language, Metatheatre: Friel’s The Freedom of the City and the Formation of an Engaged Audience (Bernice Schrank)
  • Theatre as Opera: The Gigli Concert (Declan Kiberd)
  • Bodies and Spirits in Tom Murphy’s Theatre (Anne F. Kelly)
  • Unionism and Utopia: Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy (Terry Eagleton)
  • The Seven Ages of Henry Joy McCracken:Stewart Parker’s Northern Star as a History Play of the United Irishmen in 1798 (Akiko Satake)
  • Tom MacIntyre’s Text-ure (Deirdre Mulrooney)
  • From Playground to Battleground: Metatheatricality in the Plays of Frank McGuinness (Eamonn Jordan)
  • Billy Roche’s Wexford Trilogy: Setting, Place, Critique (Christopher Murray)
  • The Poetic Theatre of Sebastian Barry (Ger Fitzgibbon)
  • The Imagination of Women’s Reality: Christina Reid and Marina Carr (Riana O’Dwyer)
  • Dermot Bolger’s Drama (Martine Pelletier)
  • A Cautionary Tale: Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats (Melissa Sihra)
  • Barabbas at Play with The Whiteheaded Boy (Eric Weitz)
  • Songs of possible worlds: nation, representation and citizenship in the work of Calypso Productions (Victor Merriman)
  • The Gothic Soap of Martin McDonagh (Karen Vandevelde)
  • Homo Fabulator: The Narrative Imperative in Conor McPherson’s Plays (Scott T. Cummings)
  • Biography of Contributors
  • Index

←viii | ix→


When it comes to this book, there are many people to thank. First of all, I would like to thank all of the contributors for their response to my request for articles and I would like to acknowledge their support for this project. Thanks to the Arts Council for its moral and financial backing. I am indebted to Christopher Murray for his support and advice over the years. I would like to thank my former colleagues at the Drama Studies Centre, NUI, Dublin, especially Hilary Gow. I would like to say thank you to Redmond O’Hanlon for all of his keen insights and provocations. I am grateful for the support I received from colleagues and staff at the Sligo Institute of Technology; Eamonn Fitzpatrick, Dermot Layden, Francis O’Regan and Pat Scanlon, with whom I share an office, and especially Michael Barrett, Diarmuid Timmons, Dermot Finan, Perry Share and John Kavanagh. I would like to acknowledge gratefully the backing of Lilian Chambers and Cathy Leeney. Thanks to Dan Farrelly for his substantial contribution to the proofing and preparation of this text. Likewise, a huge debt of thanks is due to my family, friends and relations. Finally, for my own part, I am indebted to the students with whom I have discussed many of these issues and with whom I continue to share a deep passion for Irish Theatre.

←x | xi→


Eamonn Jordan

Irish Theatre has never been so successful, yet at the same time never more in need of rigorous evaluation. Many of the plays by Brian Friel, Hugh Leonard, Thomas Kilroy, Thomas Murphy, Frank McGuinness, Sebastian Barry, Anne Devlin, Conor McPherson, Bernard Farrell, Martin McDonagh (London-Irish), Marina Carr, Billy Roche and Marie Jones have won substantial awards. The much praised and lauded directors Garry Hynes, Patrick Mason, Ben Barnes, Lynne Parker, John Crowley and Conall Morrison have worked at some of the best theatres in the world and with some of the best theatre talent available. Likewise, Irish administrators, actors and designers have had numerous successes. Overall there is evidence of increased urgency, focus and professionalism. These need to be encouraged and celebrated.

It was a privilege to be able to bring together such a range of critical and dynamic voices from many different countries and backgrounds. We have contributors from Ireland, England, France, Canada, Japan and America, comprising playwrights, directors, journalists, theatre practitioners, critics and academics. Most are not confined to any one single field. On offer is a range of essays with no unifying coherence or argument, and no attempt was made to establish that. Each contributor takes an approach which is passionate, idiosyncratic and refreshing. Astuteness is the hallmark of all of the work. Little is taken as given, and most things come under the critical spotlight. The insistence in the writing is consistently to challenge, provoke, position and to connect. The assessments are not about congratulations and back-slapping; neither are they exercises in begrudgery. All of the essays, in one way or another, hints at the magic, urgency and ephemeral qualities of good theatre.

Irish Theatre has changed both fundamentally and radically on so many fronts. Funding has always been a huge issue, but there was never so much money available to the Arts Council and this has liberated the theatre sector. Infrastructurally, huge changes have come about over the last number of years with new theatres springing up all over the country. The Abbey Theatre, Gate Theatre, Rough Magic Theatre Company, Passion Machine, Field Day and Druid Theatre Company to name but a few, have all toured internationally with great success. (The Abbey Theatre itself, under Patrick Mason’s stewardship to the end of 1999, has had a relatively stable period.) In addition, the need for professional theatre training has been given a more substantial base, and, academically, a number of theatre departments have sprung up around ←xi | xii→the country, encouraging a vast quantity of quality undergraduate and graduate research that remains substantially and unforgivably unpublished. Rapid changes in printing have affected the publication of plays, by making it easier and less costly to do so. The demise of Theatre Ireland was one of the great losses to the Irish Theatre sector and it is great to see the Irish Theatre Magazine emerge as an influential forum for debate and analysis. Definitely, there is a small but significant move away from text-based theatre to improvised scripts, a shift away from verbally driven productions to a greater conscious emphasis on the visual dimension, a switch from what is perceived to be formal theatre spaces to less formal ones. But again what is totally new in that?

These essays are not so much about the intellectualising of theatre practice as about encountering theatre in different, passionate ways and about the challenges facing those who make meaning in theatre. As well as this, some of these essays confront the lip service paid to the role of the director, designer, theatre space and performer in the making of meaning within theatre. Long gone are the days when drama and theatre were just a component of English Literature and this is something that the new Leaving Certificate Syllabus is attempting to address. Clearly, today’s audiences are more sophisticated and demanding in their encounter with a performance. In addition, these essays remind the reader of the gender challenges facing theatre practice. The slow emergence of women writers, unlike the advancement of women in theatre administration, production and performance, is part of the ongoing troublesome debate. Not everything could be covered, not every invitation to writers to contribute was accepted and, occasionally, what was promised was not delivered for numerous reasons. Nevertheless, there is no perfect balance and not everybody will be comfortable with certain absences, but the objective with this book was never to be all-inclusive; instead the intention was to be somewhat representative of what is going on now.

Watching some daytime television recently, I saw two programmes that fascinated me. Jenny Jones’ show offers men and women the opportunity through DNA testing to establish the paternity of a child. DNA testing is as accurate as can be. The results were announced “on air” and the viewer could bear witness to the instant responses of the panellists. The other programme was Ricki Lake’s. A mother and daughter were on this particular show. Communication between mother and daughter was fraught. (Guests hardly ever hide their identities behind a screen as you might find on a RTE or BBC programme.) And in order to address the difficulty, the young woman had agreed to take a lie detector test off camera; the findings of which would be related to her mother, who posed the questions to be answered.

←xii |

The polygraph test would measure heartbeat, pulse, breathing rates and the conductance of the skin in order to distinguish between what is true, what is false and what is inconclusive. What is truth, what is fantasy and what is fabrication? Despite the voyeurism, and taking into account the performative opportunity afforded to guests on the show and the chance to realise some escapist fantasy, there is a belief that television is the court of appeal and that “truth” can be ascertained and verified publicly, by the spectacle of the chat show. Is there some ultimate truth that a heightened pulse or an escalated blood pressure can somehow confirm? And can in effect, physiological feedback or DNA testing be equated with truth. What is the relationship between fact and truth? Is there any need to establish one? Most of all, what has social class got to do with it all? I make some of these comments in light of Prime Cut’s recent production of Problem Child by the Canadian playwright, George F. Walker, which dealt with some of these issues.

What once was the ritualisation of truth in theatre and performance becomes the spectacle of truth, voyeuristically framed by the perverse quest for verification and authenticity within the chat-show format; a quick fix in both meanings of the word. Neither the resolution of issues in private nor the recourse to expertise beyond the frame of television is enough. The transaction is a complicated one, but the guests, though not victims in a narrow sense of the word, still perform some act of self-laceration. Often on such shows, the pain is spectated, made spectacular and numbed by the presence of the camera and made offensive by an intrusion that is invited from the studio audience, which often attempts to determine the value and worth of an individual’s pain and of his/her behaviour. It becomes a show-trial by (the usually female) chat-show host and her studio audience. (It is unknown, in my experience, for the host and audience not to share relatively similar responses, and as such the guests are judged according to some common value system that is without complication and driven by nostalgia and sentiment.)

The bigger deception, however, is the lie of compassion promoted by programme makers in the name of ratings and profit. It seems as if there is no emotion and no feedback accommodated, without the presence of the camera and no substance or validation of identity without the intervention of the public. What does it mean to play to the public gallery?

A specific type of television is selling us one reality and what are our playwrights peddling? Written texts are funny things. What is a text’s status? What is the relational dynamic between a production and a written text? Who makes meaning and who controls meaning? These are hard and serious questions. All writing emerges from specific contexts and to any observer the society from which Irish writing has sprung over ←xiii | xiv→the last forty years has been a swiftly altering one. This not only impacts on the content of the writing but also on form; what stories are told and how are they told? New ways of telling must be continually sought. Fundamentally, the concerns, ideas, dramatic practices and audiences’ expectations have altered substantially since Brian Friel, Hugh Leonard, John B. Keane and Tom Murphy began to work in the theatre. The references, allusions, modes of understanding and of relating have all adjusted radically. The values of one generation are certainly not those of another; the concerns of one specific group fail to impact on another. That said, for comparative purposes it is impossible to say that there are no continuities. Only the innocent or the naive would prompt that. Within a vastly altering Ireland new relationships are the governing reality. That is both the task and dilemma facing the administrator, writer, designer, director and performer.

From here there is a broader question. What is the standing of contemporary writing practice? Why have Irish plays abroad been so successful, especially since 1990 with the acclaim granted to Dancing at Lughnasa? Clearly, we cannot deny the huge success of Irish drama of late. But what is the truth of it? How do we evaluate that success? Is it the number of awards garnered, by playwright, production or performer, is it the length of the run and the scale of the audiences attending, is it measured by the substances of critical responses, or by the translation of texts into other languages and contexts? Is it too immediate to assess or is a play truly of merit, only after it has been through many new productions and many interrogations before a broad spectrum of spectators? The answer to such a series of questions is complex.

From a late-nineties perspective, many of the major cultural aspirations and much sought-after freedoms of the recent past are now taken as given. Much has happened economically, politically and socially, including Church scandals, new social legislation, the growing force of feminism, two women Presidents and a slackening of the propensity to include Britain in the evaluation of Irish identities. The heightened productivity of technology alongside labour and technological alienation, new concerns about ownership and belonging, a growing redundancy of faith, an increasingly assertive intercultural penetration and a previously unknown dynamic economy have all led to a society in serious transition. Effectively, the confusions and confidences delivered by a period of social liberalism, the collapse of political difference with the demise of left-wing alternatives, the apparent confluence of political thinking and the influence of politically correct ideology have ensured that difference has been submerged and the impact of oppositional energies diluted. We have modified through a period of accelerated history and an accumulation of intensities that have changed radically the structures of Irish society. These changes have impacted on the writing. So the social ←xiv | xv→and political shifts, new dramaturgical influences and the complicated intersection between the post-colonial and the postmodern have all resulted in intricate and elaborate writing practices. Tom Kilroy argues in his essay in this collection, written in the early 1990s:

It is only in the past decade that Ireland has become truly urbanised in the late-twentieth century meaning of that term, in other words, characterised by great mobility, using highly complex, far-reaching systems of communication, with increased secularisation and the break-down of the old bonds of familial, tribalistic society. We have yet to have a theatre of this Ireland because it is as yet incompletely formed but we are getting plays that reflect the confusion attending those changes.

Change is fundamental to a dramatic practice and the challenge facing all of our present dramatists is to match and map the experiences, confidences and demands of a changing society. Kilroy raises a number of substantial issues in his essay. First are aspects of a tradition that still shape his own writing and the writing practice of his own generation that grew up in a “virtually cashless society”, with a “containable, endurable poverty everywhere”. It was a situation marked by “isolation, repressiveness and dreariness”. How different is Kilroy’s description of his economic reality to the one presently on offer to a substantial part of the population? For Kilroy, out of the dour circumstances of 40s and 50s Ireland emerged a “new writing” and a “new sensibility”, a writing practice which profited from aspects of “distancing”, “self-consciousness” and “artifice”, as were laid down by playwrights mainly from the Anglo-Irish tradition. It was a writing style that was “alive to the dislocating perspectives of the mid-century and the fluidity of expression possible on stage with modern lighting, design and direction”. Yet it still took his generation, according to Kilroy, to bleed dry certain forms; namely, the “Irish peasant play”, the “Irish Religious play”, the “Family Play” and the “Irish History play”. Kilroy delivers a warning, stating that “Within the metropolitan centres there is always a nostalgia for cultures which are untouched, untainted by the ennui, the busyness, the crowdedness of the centre”. Finally Kilroy ends with the statement that “nostalgia may no longer be enough, indeed it may not even be necessary as Irish drama begins to locate itself more in the present”.

Nostalgia is the note upon which Kilroy ends, and is also the concept against which Declan Hughes rails. Hughes charges against a tradition and the expectation of a tradition that inhibits and in a way paves a space for the distinctiveness, integrity and originality of his own generation. Hughes’ essay is a moral and visionary one, versed more in the cultural practices of America than that of an Irish tradition. For him, an overly cosy consciousness of being “Irish” is suffocating in its own right, even ←xv | xvi→if it seems as if the world wants to be “Irish too”. People are too satisfied in “being Irish with themselves”. He wonders why “does contemporary Irish Literature ignore contemporary Ireland” in the main. Instead Hughes argues that we are still processing in our writing an “Ireland that hasn’t existed for years”, perhaps even an Ireland that never existed in the first place. The Irishness for which we once generally opted, as much out of an oppositional defiance perhaps as anything else, has been substantially eroded. Moreover for Hughes we have to acknowledge the impact of popular culture on both our consciousness and on how our writing is now being increasingly shaped.

This popular cultural impact has been significant of late. A blatant model of contrast would compare the wild dancing in Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa to the beat of the traditional Mason’s Apron to the dancing inspired by the sound of Bullet with Butterfly Wings by the Smashing Pumpkins used in Hughes’ own Halloween Night (1997) (both dances were partially performed on top of tables), would oppose the operatic influence on the structure of Murphy’s The Gigli Concert (1983) with the effect of the television soap opera format on McDonagh’s work and would differentiate between the significances of the King James’ Bible, Shakespeare or Mikhail Bakhtin’s underworld of the carnival to McGuinness’ writings and the influences of Quentin Tarantino, Irvine Welsh and The Simpsons on the work of Alex Johnston.

Hughes perceives very clearly the fetishisation of authentication and views that to be a dangerous cul-de-sac of sorts. For Hughes, “What used to be creativity, inspiration, energy has congealed into tradition. What is tradition anyway? Habit in fancy dress. An excuse for thought. A mindless worship of the past”. He ends his essay with a question, if the Celts never really existed, and if the versions of Irishness we feed ourselves are an illusion, a fabrication, how liberating might that be? How much easier it might be to resolve certain tensions, but perhaps it is this confidence trick that has prompted the freshness and vision of what has emerged in so much of the writing of late.

Hughes sees a need to fend off tradition and elsewhere he has written of placing an embargo on the writings of an older generation, in order to allow a new generation space to prosper. To me, there is more boldness, recklessness and provocation in that statement than real desire. Essentially, as an emerging post-colonial society, we are still locked between village and city. Hughes states that: “The village is no longer the objective correlative for Ireland: the city is, or to be precise, between cities is. That space between. That’s not to say that people don’t live in the country any more, or that rural life isn’t ‘valuable’; it’s that culturally, it’s played out. It no longer signifies. Mythologically, it doesn’t resonate any more”.

←xvi |

There are three traditions of translation/adaptation in operation in Irish drama, the translation of modern European classics (McGuinness, Friel and Kilroy), the adaptations of Irish poetry best seen in the work of Bolger and MacIntyre and the re-working of Greek classics. The consistent modification of Greek classic drama is a re-invigoration of tradition, a cross-cultural absorption and adaptation of form, content and context, and an attempt to interrogate the present by appropriation. Marianne McDonald’s essay maps that vigorous approach towards the classics at a particularly sensitive time both socially and politically. McDonald notes that:

Each of these Irish playwrights has a particular approach towards Ireland’s history and political situation, some more overtly than others. Field Day Theatre first performed Tom Paulin’s The Riot Act. A Version of Antigone by Sophocles at the Guildhall, Derry, on September 19, 1984. It uses the language of the Irish North to place us in its modern locale, and the ideas expressed translate well into the issues which divide Derry.

80s Ireland was in part a world of suspicion and little compromise. Antigone was the obvious attraction here. Through this text, distance, insight, repudiation and the processing of fears and anxieties are available to the writer. Moreover, it is not just a recent Irish passion for the classics. Yeats’ attempts to appropriate the classics are duly noted by McDonald. Moreover McDonald escorts the reader from the world of politics into a specific post-colonial context, something that most definitely needs articulation.

McDonald argues that literary classics not only provide a “heightened mode of communication”, but that they can also be used to “filter personal terror, such as fear of death”. The fact that the playwrights opted for Antigone more than any other text gives an indication that the concerns are “on human rights more than on fate and identity”. A version of Oedipus Tyrannus is striking by its absence. So, in re-writing or re-working, adapting, translating, and transposing the classics, McDonald argues, the main function is to create a “literature of protest”. Justice is the quest and justice is the obligation. Overall for McDonald, “The result is not simply a political tract protesting abuse, but a passionate expression of hopes and fears”.

Towards the end of her essay McDonald quotes Seamus Heaney’s lines about the need to believe in “miracles” and in “healing wells and cures”. Such is his optimism and such is the role of the writer to step outside of the brutality of fact and into mystery and parable. The Greek connection fulfilled that in part, where curses, revenge and the bond of blood were commonplace and resolution problematic on many fronts. Irish versions of Chekhov and Ibsen in particular fulfil a not too dissimilar function.

←xvii |

Obsession, the process of change and the intense and lacerating bonds of family seem to be the attraction, apart from the need to resist the demands and imperatives of British versions of the same plays.

If tradition is problematic on a number of fronts, then Lionel Pilkington complicates it further by determinedly tracing what is perceived as being tradition and more importantly what is excluded from that. Such exclusion then impacts in a number of ways, not least of which is the relationship between tradition and institutionally formal theatre and more importantly, what is marginalized, repressed and excluded from our contemporary definitions, something which ties in with later essays by Caoimhe McAvinchey and Victor Merriman. Pilkington draws on John Harrington’s work in which he claims that even the Irish melodramas of the 19th century “functioned as an important counterweight to the misrepresentation of Irish character on the English stage and thus helped to prepare the way for the possibility of a somewhat more independent Irish theatre”.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (March)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2009. XLVIII, 328 pp.

Biographical notes

Eamonn Jordan (Volume editor) Ger Fitzgibbon (Volume editor) Eamonn Jordan (Volume editor)


Title: Theatre Stuff
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
378 pages