Irish Theatre in England

Irish Theatrical Diaspora

by Richard Cave (Volume editor) Ben Levitas (Volume editor)
X, 316 Pages
Series: Carysfort Press Ltd., Volume 223


Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Illustrations
  • Introduction (Richard Cave and Ben Levitas)
  • 1. These Islands’ Others: John Bull, the Abbey and the Royal Court (Ben Levitas)
  • 2. ‘Stranger in the House’: Alienation and History in The Land of Heart’s Desire and Cathleen ni Houlihan (Michael McAteer)
  • 3. The Irish Players and the Conquest of London (Peter Kuch)
  • 4. Folds in Dispersion: Yeatsian Remnants in London (Jonathan D. H. Statham)
  • 5. Reclaiming Sam for Ireland: The Beckett on Film Project (Graham Saunders)
  • 6. Understanding Loyalty: The English Response to the Work of Gary Mitchell (Tim Miles)
  • 7. Traditional Routes: Challenges and Re-affirmations in the Representation of the Ulster Protestant (Wallace McDowell)
  • 8. The English/Irish Ring and Its Victorian Popularity (Jerry Nolan)
  • 9. An Irish Jig? Edris Stannus, Ninette de Valois and the English Royal Ballet (Elizabeth Schafer)
  • 10. Not-So-Gay-Young-Things: Mary Manning’s Youth’s the Season—? as staged in 1930s London (Cathy Leeney)
  • 11. Doublings: Problematic Identities in Thomas Kilroy’s Double Cross and The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre (Carmen Szabó)
  • 12. The Transience of the Visual Image in Touring Theatre: Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa (Enrica Cerquoni)
  • 13. Chronological Table Of Irish Plays Produced In London 1920-2006 (Peter James Harris)
  • Contributors
  • Index

←viii | ix→


The editors would wish to acknowledge the generosity and help of a number of institutions and individuals who made possible the conference on which this book is based: the staff of the National Portrait Gallery; Derek Hannon, Cultural Attaché, Irish Embassy in London; Warwick Gould and the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Studies, University of London; Colin Smythe; Gerald Lidstone and David Wiles, respectively Heads of the Department of Drama at Goldsmiths and of Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway; Rachel Levitas; Maire Davies, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Royal Holloway.

Thanks are due to the Board of the National Library of Ireland for permission to cite in Michael McAteer’s essay letters from Frank Fay, Willie Fay, and Annie Horniman held in its manuscript collections; to A.P. Watt Ltd. on behalf of Michael Yeats for permission to include citations from Yeats’s plays; to Nick Hern Books for their permission to publish the image of the cover of Gary Mitchell’s Trust; to Field Day Theatre Company for their permission to publish the images from their production of Thomas Kilroy’s Double Cross; to Joe Vaněk and the Gate Theatre, Dublin, for their permission to publish the images accompanying Enrica Cerquoni’s essay. We extend grateful thanks to the contributors to this volume but also to all the delegates at the conference: their contributions and questions greatly assisted the authors in redrafting their papers for publication and the editors in achieving order and coherence in presenting their endeavours.

R.C. and B.L.

←x | 1→

Introduction: Irish Theatre in England

Richard Cave and Ben Levitas

It is now almost a cliché to state that English theatre would be vastly impoverished by the elimination of the Irish presence from its stages: Irish playwrights, directors, actors, managers, dancers, musicians, and singers have continually been assimilated within the theatrical and cultural hegemony centred on London. To Irish nationalist sensibilities such theatre practitioners form a long roll-call of renegade talent. To those Irish practitioners themselves, however, success on the London boards in theatres, opera houses, and concert halls has generally been viewed as a major goal, a sign of having arrived in terms of one’s career. The situation has a long history that is as true of James Shirley and George Farquhar in the seventeenth century as it is of Peg Woffington in the eighteenth or Tyrone Power in the nineteenth; Yeats and Lady Gregory were not content with the establishing of their proto-national theatre until the troupe had found acclaim in London and Oxbridge; and even today there are dramatists who prefer to premiere their works on English stages and actors who choose to harness their talents to London performers’ agencies till Hollywood calls and cinematic success brings an income allowing a triumphant return to the homeland. The gap between national and professional sensibilities, however, opens an enticing area for discussion.

This collection of essays dwells on the peculiarly complex set of cultural dynamics brought into play when what declares itself to be specifically Irish is performed to an English audience. The richly diverse array of theatre offered within the category, Irish Theatre in England, is well evidenced by the material covered here; but above all it emerges as a reflexive category, continually scrutinized as it is made manifest. While ←1 | 2→the essays here tend to return time and again to shared considerations, they are most resonant in their common questioning of identity, identity in and of performance that tests repeatedly each category our title assumes: ‘Irish’, ‘Theatre’, and ‘England’.

Given the long history of this cultural relationship, it may be objected that this collection of essays studying Irish theatre in England pursues the story no further back than to the mid-nineteenth century. The length and sheer complexity of this branch of performance history necessitates some form of selection. This volume has grown out of a series of lectures contributed to a conference that was mounted by the Irish Theatrical Diaspora Project in conjunction with an exhibiton held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, ‘Conquering England’: Ireland in Victorian England, which explored the extent to which Irish personnel have dominated English cultural and political life. The exhibition was jointly curated by Fintan Cullen and Roy Foster.1 Again their starting point was the mid-nineteenth century. Few if any significant cultural transitions can be dated from an exact point in time, but there was a crucial turning point that considerably affected the condition certainly of Irish people in England, and that was the Catholic Emancipation Bill, once it became law in 1829. That law effected the first of a series of subtle changes in the cultural relations between the two countries; and the theatre (whether in relation to the status of the Irish performer on the English stage or to the presenting of Irish plays for the reception of English audiences) rapidly reflected or on occasion directly engaged with the political and social factors that brought about those shifts in feeling and awareness. For the historian, Ireland performing in England affords since the 1830s a barometer that is remarkably sensitive at any given time to the intellectual, social, cultural, and political climate of the two nations.

That sensitivity may be dated from what at the time was a surprising turn of events at Covent Garden Theatre. The advertised pantomime to be performed over the Christmas season in 1830 was to be Harlequin Pat; or, The Giant’s Causeway, penned by Charles Farley, and starring in the titular role a young Irish actor by the name of Tyrone Power, who since 1826 had been the theatre’s resident player of Irish parts (the names of the roles that made up his repertoire speak volumes about English theatrical stereotyping in the period and the assumptions that lay behind such an agenda: Teg, O’Blunder, O’Brallaghan, O’Trigger, Brulgruddery). Power was billed as playing the hero, Brian Boru; the part required him to ←2 | 3→execute a jig and wield a cudgel, smashing windows to left and right; warned to beware ‘a higher power’, Brian demands to know: ‘Is there a more powerful POWER than I am?’ That superior force is none other than Saint Patrick, whose arrival is preceded by a rout of dancing toads and snakes crossing the stage; he transforms Brian and the other principals into the characters from the Harlequinade, then leaves in a ‘car decorated with shamrock’ while uttering a final couplet: ‘Adieu my children – good natured be and frisky, /I go to superintend the brewing of some whisky’.2 In light of the recent Catholic Emancipation Act, the whole conception of the pantomime is crass and offensive to Irish sensibilities. Power chose to resign from the role after some four performances. His precise reasons for so doing are not recorded, but the timing is surely significant: had he withdrawn from the role on receiving the script or during rehearsals, his action would have had no impact on theatregoers whatever (and audience-sizes at Covent Garden at this date were considerable). Four days into the run when the management would be hard-pressed to train another performer into the role at very short notice would have produced the maximum amount of chaos to pointed effect. Over the next decade Power proved to be one of the major figures on the London stage (he died in 1841), though none of his later successes was played at Covent Garden; he transformed the kinds of roles available to Irish actors both through plays written for him by the likes of Samuel Lover and Eugene Macarthy and in parts conceived and scripted by himself; all that new repertoire challenged the vicious, essentializing assumptions about the Irish temperament, which underpinned Charles Farley’s pantomime and which that dramatist clearly expected to trigger English theatregoers’ merriment.3 One strategy that recurs throughout many roles in Power’s new repertoire is that at some point in the drama he is required by circumstances within the plot to play-act being a stage Oirishman; he performs the stereotype; and in consequence an audience forcefully perceives the reduction of the character’s hitherto complex personality, which is demanded by his assumption of the stereotype. These plays externalize and critique the covert ideology that shapes the creating of a stereotype. What surprises perhaps is the genial tenor with which the didactic purpose is promoted; any anger is controlled (much as later was to be the case with Boucicault’s plays and performances); the appeal is to a spectator’s intelligence and wider sympathies; that a sophisticated negotiation is taking place within the terms of the performance, however, is clearly signed.4 The exploring of such negotiations between Irish artists and English spectators at different ←3 | 4→points in historical time is the enterprise behind the essays that make up the first two sections of this volume.

It was a deliberate choice of the editors, largely to illustrate the complexity of the Irish diasporic narrative when applied to England, not to organize the essays that make up this volume in a chronological sequence of subjects, but instead to group them into three distinct sections with the intention of highlighting recurring themes: issues of reception, identity, popularity, modes of representation, and the staging of history and its imperatives. The first section is organized around the historical, contextual dynamics of the theatrical event. Reception is caught within the specifics of time and place so any reading of it must attend to the exact defining of contexts and affixing of dates. Ben Levitas takes the contextualizing approach when examining the particular English success of Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island and the precise selection of scenes that were chosen to be given as a command performance before royalty. How exactly did that royal, ministerial, and diplomatic audience interpret the Irish characters played before them? Such questions are shown to be crucially conditioned by not only Shaw’s clever strategies of anti-stage-Oirishness, but by the specific social and political circumstances (the imperial and constitutional crises) that attended those strategies. Despite all the knowing inversion and exploration of Irish-English alterity in Shaw’s play, Levitas suggests that there is as much resonance in the theatrical experimentation of the Abbey and the Royal Court as there is opposition. Dramatic strategies are the subject of Michael McAteer’s essay, which explores how the particular staging of The Land of Heart’s Desire at the Avenue Theatre in London in 1894 influenced the writing and staging of Cathleen ni Houlihan in Dublin in ways that allow a reading of the two works as complementary, and of The Land of Heart’s Desire as more a political than a fairy play or essay in symbolist escapism. Peter Kuch starts by interpreting the word ‘conquest’ as a lead into a discussion of the grounds for applying the term to the Irish Players’ production of Robinson’s The Whiteheaded Boy at the Ambassadors’ Theatre, London, in 1920. They next embarked on a tour of Australia with Robinson’s comedy, playing before a range of urban audiences. To categorize these exploits as a further ‘conquest’ brings into play a whole new range of resonances in the context of an Irish company performing representations of Irish experience in various outposts of the Empire at a date when Ireland, far from being independent, was suffering under the ←4 | 5→tyrannies of the Black and Tans. The ironies are legion: Lady Gregory, for example, had astutely asked the Players to make charitable collections at the close of their performances in London to help relieve the Abbey’s financial predicament in having to remain dark because of the continuing curfews. Such analysis places its emphasis on constructing the cultural gap between Irish performance and English audiences in terms that are caught in complex temporal matrices: from the state of Anglo-Irish relations to the contingencies of company management and interpretation of textual nuance.

Terms and definitions are the inspiration behind Jonathan Statham’s study of the posthumous performance of Yeats’s The Unicorn From the Stars in London in 1939. There are scant archival remains of the staging of Yeats’s plays in England in the 1930s, a situation similar to that obtaining in Germany regarding the staging of his plays: what exactly is dispersed and lost, and what exactly survives to form a record from which conclusions might be drawn about reception and interpretation? As Yeats’s international reputation grew, particularly after the award of the Nobel Prize, and given his involvement in his later years with such Establishment institutions as the BBC and Oxford University Press and his long sojourns abroad for reasons of health, to what extent was he still viewed in England as an Irish poet and dramatist? Was it not preferable to appropriate his name within the canons of English literature? For all its technical brilliance and insight into a fellow poet’s craft, the one major English elegy on Yeats’s death (Auden’s) resists all Irish reference and stresses only Yeats’s international value for the art of poetry. Yeats’s plays themselves present a paradox, since they at once celebrate Irishness and yet resist its popular expression. Statham’s use of Yeats’s recurring image of the ‘fold’ appositely holds together the apparent oppositions of national identity and theatrical performance, showing them as cut from the same cloth. Such a theatre, he suggests, is ‘always already diasporic and always already returning’, always in some sense needing to acknowledge origins in the effort of escape.

Yet more intricate questions of national affiliation and categorizing surround Beckett, that most equivocal of shape-changers. Irish, French, or English: which cultural canon should he grace? The dilemma underlies the agenda structuring the Beckett on Film project with, as Graham Saunders demonstrates, both laughable and destructive consequences, once that agenda was put into practice; the situation was further complicated by the funding sources backing the concept. Ongoing promotion of the ←5 | 6→endeavour through festivals in Dublin, London, and elsewhere has tended to prove counter-productive. The cultural co-ordinates of Beckett’s work are all the more difficult to fix when tested not so much by English theatrical performance as by new media, which allows for less of an engagement with location, than with non-location and dislocation. The disembodiment of film resonates with Beckett’s existential detachment, while risking the loss of allusion to cultural memory. In an age of Riverdance, when Irishness is itself a reified commodity on global markets, Beckett’s evasive national allegiance is also what makes him a less than all-conquering mass product. His retreat from narrow cultural labels into the meta-geography of his stagings remains resistant to easy politics and easy commodification.


X, 316
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (February)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. X, 316pp., 42 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Richard Cave (Volume editor) Ben Levitas (Volume editor)


Title: Irish Theatre in England
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328 pages