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  • The Fight of the Centenary: Irish Theater in 2004
  • Diarmuid O’Brien

After playing it safe through 2003, Irish theater geared up for twelve months of celebration, glamor, and excess. God knows what strange kink in the human condition prompts our arbitrary fondness for nice round numbers, but"one hundred" has always sounded like an important sum, and in a year plagued by centenaries, the only one that really did justice to its subject matter—but entirely not in the way intended—was the big one: the centenary of the founding of the Abbey Theatre. It had been a full century years since Yeats, Lady Gregory, and that other lad gave us our very own cultural identity; even if a case could be forwarded that theater in Ireland existed before the Abbey, we did not want to hear about it. Everyone was terribly excited, even those hip cynics who question the Abbey's (somewhat self-appointed, seeing as it has existed only as a private company with a limited number of shares) function as Ireland's National Theatre. We knew it could backfire; still, we had no idea it would go so astoundingly wrong.

Whatever about being Ireland's vanguard for the theatrical arts, the Abbey has rarely failed to provide controversy and high melodrama off the stage—and what better way to recognize one hundred years of unmerciful rows than with a gloriously unmerciful row? This is the Abbey after all, and while we did not quite get the riots and baton charges that Synge and O' Casey laid on in the early days, we did get a reprise of the Abbey's history that went beyond packaged nostalgia and lavishly bound centenary brochures.

Things started off reasonably enough in January when the Abbey kicked off its "abbeyonehundred" (that is right—no capital letters and no spaces) program. There were grumblings, as usual, but the grumbling was limited to questions about why this program included no plays by women except a single reading of Lady Gregory's Spreading the News, and no plays in the Irish language except an inspired Irish translation of Synge's Riders to The Sea from the original stylized Hiberno-English, as well as tetchiness over the curious move to make the centerpiece of the year be a mammoth, "summer blockbuster" production of The Shaughraun by the producers of Riverdance. Yeats himself had dismissed Boucicault's vast—and damningly pre-Abbey—repertoire as having "no relation with literature," and now the Abbey was devoting a significant [End Page 137] slice of its centenary to it. Of course, to more tolerant souls The Shaughraun is accepted as an expertly crafted, and even knowingly subversive, comic melodrama, but this glossy, Riverdance-inflected (lots of dancing) and unashamedly "Oirish" production missed the point, and moreover, the opportunity, entirely. It was, however, an enormous success—pretty much the Abbey's only success of the year, and was later brought to the West End. Properly enough, the London audiences rejected it as a buffoonish Disney-style take on Ireland, the attitude one would have expected of Dublin audiences from the start.

The big trouble in the Abbey did not arise from the art, but from the bottom line. With Arts Council funding nationwide cut drastically for the year, and the Abbey's own grant trimmed by 15 percent, things were going to be tight. The Abbey board said that it had not enough notice of the cuts to restructure programming for 2003—yet for 2004, it approved the extravagant "abbeyonehundred" program without securing the necessary funding from the Arts Council. And, indeed, it transpires that the Abbey never did receive the extra centenary funding. Despite the hype during the year, ticket sales dropped off dramatically. All this was worsened by a catastrophic failure of accounting and accountability. The Abbey's financial department of only three people had a hard time keeping track of all the activity, both at home and away, in this most frantic of years. The Abbey was losing more money then they were aware of. While the centenary program had been expected to run at a loss, the loss turned out to be more than twice what...


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