Brian Singleton’s Masculinities and the Contemporary Irish Theatre opens with an anecdote about the 2007 launch of Melissa Sihra’s edited collection, Women in Irish Drama: A Century of Authorship and Representation. At the launch, actress Phyllis Ryan made a joke about what it might be like to read a book on the history of men in the Irish theatre, the obvious punchline being, as Singleton puts it, that “twentieth-century Irish theatre practice is remembered almost exclusively for its contributions and inventions by men” (1). However, the powerful argument at the centre of Singleton’s book is that, while this assertion may be true, too little attention has been paid to a critical study of masculinity within the Irish theatre. Therefore, he seeks to “tear apart the notion that masculinity is a pre-ordained fixed identity and to pluralize the construction of that identity, exposing the numerous masculinities at play in contemporary Irish society, and not all of them dominant, hegemonic, or upholders of the national and nationalist meta-narrative” (3).
Masculinities and the Contemporary Irish Theatre delivers fully on this remit, as Singleton adopts what he terms a “socially relational” approach (8) through a deep excavation of various configurations of masculinity, race, ethnicity, class, religion, and sexuality as performed not only in Irish theatres but also in Irish culture at large. At the heart of Singleton’s project is “to recover those practices that have been left out of previous narratives, and to look beyond the middle-class preserve of the theatre,” a move that will “valorize performances (both inside and outside conventional theatre) as well as performance acts in the political and wider spheres” (21). The authors that Singleton examines range from the usual suspects (Brian Friel, Marina Carr, Conor McPherson, Frank McGuinness), to perhaps less cited playwrights (Sebastian Barry, Mark O’Rowe, Thomas Kilroy), and finally to fringe or emerging writers and artists (Donal O’Kelly, Bisi Adigun, George Seremba). In addition, he spends significant time on key television series aired in the Republic and the North.
Singleton’s treatment of this broad swath of work results in a varied, yet detailed, study, focusing on 1994–2007 as a key period that saw major shifts, such as the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, the theoretical conclusion of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, and changes in migration patterns that resulted in a newly racially and ethnically diversified population. Singleton notes himself, however, that these years are, to some extent, false markers, as he addresses, for example, the looming legacy of the Irish Literary Revival – one that troubles easy periodization – through a revisiting of touchstones J. M. Synge and Sean O’Casey. Notably, this study also deftly incorporates analyses of work made in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a feat accomplished by few major monographs on contemporary Irish theatre.
Overall, the book divides itself thematically, first taking on “Canons,” then “Patriarchy,” then “Monologues and Masculinities” (the sole chapter [End Page 264] focusing on a discrete genre of theatrical practice), and finally “Quare Fellas,” “Male Races,” and “Protestant Boys.” Yet the figures and concerns of the different chapters weave in and out of one another. For example, Bisi Adigun and his African-Irish theatre company, Arambe Productions, first appear in “Contesting Canons,” where Singleton looks at Adigun and Roddy Doyle’s controversial 2007 production of Playboy of the Western World: A New Version and then return, as major figures, in the chapter on race. Likewise, class cross-cuts all of Singleton’s analyses, perhaps serving as the central interpretive rubric that unifies his study of masculinity. Class, Singleton suggests, serves as a powerful and drastically under-utilized tool for reading across the spectrum of Irish masculinities and has been almost entirely neglected as a category within Irish theatre and performance studies.
At the same time, the book remains most focused on the thematic or literary content of dramatic or television works, not on the conditions of their instantiation. Arguably, Singleton’s class critique could have been even better...