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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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CHAPTER SIXThe Freedom of the City (Royal Court Theatre, 27 February 1973) 171


Chapter Six The Freedom of the City (Royal Court Theatre, 27 February 1973) … this over-zealous determination to discredit the means and the motives of the English in the present Ulster crisis. — Milton Shulman, Evening Standard, 28 February 1973 ‘Context is everything for theatre.’ The words are those of Dominic Shellard, prefacing his discussion of the impact of the Suez crisis in November 1956 on the expectations of British theatre audiences (In Tynan 2007: 141). Less than thirteen years later London’s theatregoers were coming to terms with the involvement of the British army in another post-Imperial imbroglio. On this occasion, however, the site of the disturbance was on England’s doorstep and, unlike the Suez situation, the army’s involvement was to last for thirty years, as opposed to a few weeks. The first British troops were sent to Northern Ireland, amidst a climate of escalating civil unrest, in April 1969. Three years later the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment was respon- sible for the deaths of fourteen1 Catholic demonstrators on 30 January 1972, the day that has become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. Shocked and enraged by the events of that day, and by the subsequent spurious British government enquiry, Brian Friel responded a few months afterwards with his angriest play, The Freedom of the City, which was staged simultaneously in London and Dublin in February the following year. In this case, con- text was indeed everything, for the reactions of the London critics were 1 Although thirteen marchers died that day,...

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