Image-Makers and Their Discontents: Lady Gregory and the Abbey Theatre Audience
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Image-Makers and Their Discontents:
Lady Gregory and the Abbey Theatre Audience

In Ireland we are not a statue-building people. Few of our immortals live either in stone or bronze.

The Nation, 1888

Ten years after The Nation made this declaration,1 a wave of statue madness indeed spread across Ireland in anticipation of the centenary celebrations of the 1798 Rising against the British. As statues to the "immortals" of 1798 went up across the country, the huge, public events that often developed around the dedication of these bronze and stone images began to compete with the rich tradition of the Irish oral ballad and the political speech for cultural currency. More than a general passion for civic memorial was at work here: various nationalist groups were competing for the potential energy this revered, yet failed, rising might have for their present political interests. History and its representation became very palpable things in a high-stakes game over the ownership of Ireland's cultural memory. As poet W. B. Yeats wrote at the time of the 1798 commemorations, "Ireland was appealing to the past to escape from the confusion of the present."2 Indeed, a "confusion" of nationalist-leaning groups with different agendas and ideas vied to determine just what the Irish "nation" might become. Appeals to the past would take varied forms—from memorial parades, to ballads, to dramas—but what I would like to focus upon here is the tension between forms of performance associated with the past and the image-makers of those forms.

In 1909, Lady Augusta Gregory wrote The Image, a play now omitted from most theatre histories of the period.3 My contention is that this often-neglected play, which centers on a failed attempt to create a memorial, offers a unique opportunity to study the effects various audiences had on Gregory's dramaturgy. Through my investigation of several of her works, culminating with The Image, I hope to highlight an [End Page 56] anxiety made manifest during the wave of nationalist sentiment that swept turn-of-the-century Ireland, specifically the tension between more "open" forms of performance that allowed more liberty with regard to audience behavior (such as memorial procession and melodrama) and the literary modernism of the Abbey and Lady Gregory. As Susan Bennett has aptly noted, audiences themselves "read according to the scope and means of culturally and aesthetically constituted interpretive processes," 4 and turn-of-the-century Ireland offered a variety of modes of performance participation apart from the "proper" practices traditionally associated with literary modernism.

Gregory, one of the more famous figures of the Irish Literary Revival, was mindful of the cultural import of the centenary: she had written extensively about the rich, nationalist tradition of folk ballads. She did not, however, spend 1898 processing with the crowds through Dublin, or commissioning statues, but helped instead to found the Irish Literary Theatre (in 1899), which would go on to become the Abbey and later the "National" Theatre of Ireland. She was, however—along with the directorate of Edward Martyn, William Butler Yeats, and George Moore— quite interested in becoming an "image-maker," as she put it, but in a field more closely linked to the rich tradition of oral performance in Ireland than was cold, chiseled marble or (perhaps even more alarmingly) the immense, sometimes unruly crowds that gathered around the laying of foundation stones for these monuments. The oft-quoted founding charter of the Irish Literary Theatre laid out its perceived role as a sort of educational memory machine for Dublin audiences:

We hope to see certain plays performed in Dublin . . . which whatever their degree of excellence will be written with a high ambition, and so to build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature. We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory, and believe that our desire to bring upon the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland will ensure for us a tolerant welcome. . . . [W]e will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the...


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