- Synge and Edwardian Ireland ed. by Brian Cliff and Nicholas Grene
In his characteristically stylish foreword to Synge and Edwardian Ireland, R.F. Foster, Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford, praises the volume for re-situating the great Irish dramatist John Millington Synge in the context of his times. The book, he states, "evad[es] the judgements sometimes applied to Ireland after Parnell via theoretical constructs which at best put new labels on old bottles, and at worst do scant justice to the complexity of the pre-revolutionary era" (xv). This statement leads the reader to assume that the book will give prominence to crucial historical developments in Ireland during the reign of King Edward VII (1901-1910). While Synge was never a political dramatist in the manner of Sean O'Casey, these developments shaped the Irish contexts within which he established his reputation as Ireland's leading dramatist.
One would expect to find numerous references in the book to the following developments. In 1902, one year after Edward's succession to the throne, a second Local Government Act became law, extending the remit of the 1898 Act. Heated debate over the Catholic university question continued through the decade until the creation of the National University of Ireland under the Irish Universities Act of 1908. The Agriculture and Technical Instruction Act of 1902 helped accelerate the growth of Horace Plunkett's Irish cooperative movement throughout the island. Arthur Griffith founded Sinn Féin in 1905 to promote Irish political independence within a dual monarchy arrangement, one based on the Austro-Hungarian model of the 1870s onward. Following the Land Conference of 1902, the Wyndham Land Act of 1903 brought about the most complete land transfer from landlord to tenant since the introduction of the first British government reforms of the land ownership system in Ireland. Less than a year after the Abbey Theatre opened its doors in Dublin, the Ulster Unionist Council was founded, which would develop the political forces that eventually took the form of Belfast's Stormont Parliament in 1921. Yet most of these developments are not even mentioned in the wide range of essays that are included in this volume; when they are alluded to, they are only mentioned in passing (with the exception of Julie Anne Stevens's piece on Somerville and Ross). This lack of engagement with political developments is particularly noticeable in the first part, "Edwardian Ireland," [End Page 413] where the focus lies instead on themes arbitrarily selected and often only tenuously related to King Edward or to Synge.
The lack of reference to major political changes in the period underlines two fundamental problems with the overall concept of this book. First, though it may be an interesting coincidence that Synge begins to make his impact in Ireland just as Edward VII takes to the throne and that Synge dies a year before the death of the King, that coincidence hardly amounts to anything else. Adrian Frazier even concedes this point in his essay on Synge and Edwardian drama, which is perhaps the best essay in the collection (45). By assuming some deeper significance to this historical conjuncture of the two men's careers, the book is undone by its own essays, which constantly take the focus back to the era of Victoria or ahead to that of George V. A second major shortcoming is precisely that which Foster praises as a strength: namely, the lack of a theoretical architecture through which the diverse perspectives on such questions as music, folklore, painting, photography, and typing could have been brought into dialogue with one another. Instead, the essays contain persistently vague invocations of "modernity" as a conceptual point of reference. Most noticeably, the volume lacks any theory of the state and state-modernization, in the sense of a complex regulation of commercial and cultural life at local and national levels, during this period. Such conceptualization is surely pre-requisite to a volume that defines a major writer in relation to an era specifically characterized...