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From Stage to Page

Critical Reception of Irish Plays in the London Theatre, 1925–1996


Peter James Harris

In December 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, which led to the creation of the Irish Free State and the partition of Ireland the following year. The consequences of that attempt to reconcile the conflicting demands of republicans and unionists alike have dictated the course of Anglo-Irish relations ever since. This book explores how the reception of Irish plays staged in theatres in London’s West End serves as a barometer not only of the state of relations between Great Britain and Ireland, but also of the health of the British and Irish theatres respectively.
For each of the eight decades following Irish Independence a representative production is set in the context of Anglo-Irish relations in the period and developments in the theatre of the day. The first-night criticism of each production is analysed in the light of its political and artistic context as well as the editorial policy of the publication for which a given critic is writing.
The author argues that the relationship between context and criticism is not simply one of cause and effect but, rather, the result of the interplay of a number of cultural, historical, political, artistic and personal factors.


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Introduction 1


1 that time. Of those papers five still exist, but three: the Daily Herald, the News Chronicle and the Daily Sketch have ceased publication. Amongst the information categories provided about each paper in the report are: Chief Proprietors, Appeal, Politics, Associates, Circulation, Class Coverage, and Income Group Penetration. Given that 1938 was a moment of extreme political sensitivity in Europe, due to the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, one of the most revealing aspects of the PEP’s X-ray of each paper refers to its politics. Thus, for example, the Daily Mail is described as ‘Independent Right-Wing Conservative’, and its News coverage is summarised as fol- lows: ‘Frequently carries interviews with Continental statesmen, espe- cially dictators; makes a feature of Court and Society news’ (1938: 117). A theatre critic writing a review of Lennox Robinson’s The Big House for such a paper in 1934 would inevitably have felt constrained as to how he discussed the playwright’s warnings about the rise of Fascism. This is just one illustration of the kind of detail that must be taken into consideration when seeking to understand the cultural ‘external frame’ within which a given reviewer is writing. With regard to the evaluation of Irish plays by English critics, another element in the constitution of their horizon of expectations is the prevail- ing climate in the West End of the day. What plays are enjoying most suc- cess, what is the predominant style of the plays available to theatregoers, what, in other words, does the competition...

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