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«Mirror up to Nature»

The Fourth Seamus Heaney Lectures


Edited By Patrick Burke

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.

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Introduction: ‘The Mirror up to Nature’


to which the lecture took its beautiful title, ‘like a bell with many echoes: drama and opera’. The lecturer’s fine discourse was complemented by the artistry of actress Imelda McDonagh, who read to fine effect some of the ‘Stella’ passages from Yeats’s play, and that of soprano Collete McGahon, who, with assured accompaniment by Roy Holmes, sang Buckley’s versions of the same passages. As a bonus, the composer’s librettist, Hugh Maxton, was present. A delightful conclusion to the series.

It would be facile to suggest that what was deliberately constructed as a wide-ranging series – attempting to encompass, within a mere seven lectures, some of the many concerns of writers, theatre directors, classroom teachers, historians, experts in art forms other than drama – might issue in an accessible taxonomy of drama. Nonetheless, certain ‘echoes’ resonate rather more hauntingly than others from the ‘bell’ that was the series. One of those, uniting Patrick Mason, Cecily O’Neill, Jonothan Neelands and perhaps Ania Loomba, was the heuristic potential of drama, its power as a medium to illuminate, with unique honesty, complex considerations in philosophy, history, theology; this may be as valid for a senior infant class as for a cast embarking on Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. Another ‘echo’ (in Kilroy, O’Neill, Loomba) had to do with what might be described as ‘renewable tradition’ – the equal importance of preserving and interrogating heritage: as our distinguished guest, Brian Friel, has Hugh, the hedge-school master, phrase it in Translations, while his familiar world is collapsing:...

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