- Women in Irish Drama: A Century of Authorship and Representation
In 1902, Maude Gonne made a sweeping entrance into the Abby Theatre minutes before she was to take the stage in the title role of the iconic production Kathleen ni Houlihan, written by W. B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory. This production, loaded as it was with political, social, and cultural meaning, serves as a focal point for the contributors in Women in Irish Drama"to interrogate the signification of 'woman' as idealized trope of nation and to look at the ways in which the work of later Irish dramatists either contests or perpetuates this legacy" (1). In doing so, the writers examine a wide range of representations of "woman" on the Irish stage by male and female Irish playwrights. Their examinations are simultaneously acts of feminist recovery through their expansion of the male canon, and of interpretation as they investigate the ways in which gender and nation collide.
The essays in the collection provide reflective analyses of previously marginalized work and fresh perspectives on acclaimed work. More importantly, however, they indicate the diverse avenues from [End Page 348]which other scholars might approach the intersections of feminism and both cultural and national identity. In addition, the excellent commentary that connects the essays (termed "Interchapters" by Sihra) contextualizes and highlights the advancements of theatre criticism in relation to female representations onstage.
Sihra's work in both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland contributes to a view of Irish theatre that is geographically diverse, rather than Dublin-centered. Accordingly, the thoughtfully assembled articles are written by eminent scholars based throughout Ireland: Eamonn Jordan, Cathy Leeney, Anna McMullan, Paul Murphy, Anthony Roche, Velma O'Donoghue Greene, Lisa Fitzpatrick, Mark Phelan, Brian Singleton, Rachel O'Riordan, and Enrica Cerquoni. In addition, the book is flanked by two added bonuses: a foreword by Marina Carr, and an appendix listing more than 250 Irish women playwrights dating from the seventeenth century to 2007.
Although the volume is likely to best serve those who are well versed in Irish theatre history and scholarship, it also contributes to general discussions of Irish nationalism and politics, feminist dramaturgy, and "performance interventions," making it appealing to a broad readership. Sihra acknowledges, however, that the book does not "consider in any depth the extraordinary legacies of Irish women designers, directors and actors" (12). This is a regrettable omission, though the volume is not merely a traditional text-based study of Irish theatre. One of the most enlightening essays in the collection, Mark Phelan's "Beyond the Pale: Neglected Northern Irish Women Playwrights," chronicles the work of Alice Milligan, a "centrifugal figure" of the Northern Revival who conceptualized and produced political tableaux vivant, the "embodied politics" of which, writes Phelan, "manifested a sophisticated kind of corporeal dramaturgy as the convoluted narratives of ancient myths were broken down into simple, imagistic snapshots" (113). These tableaux became popular with both upper- and working- class audiences and provided an early opportunity for theatrical collaboration among women.
Artistic collaboration is a theme that connects many of the essays in the collection, including Velma O'Donoghue Greene's "Writing Women for a Modern Ireland," which analyzes the "collision between, conformity to, and subversion of, conventional dramatic and social mores" (43–44) in Geraldine Cummins and Susanne Day's co-written 1914 one-act Fidelity. Sihra's chapter, "The House of Woman and the Plays of Marina Carr," also highlights the bond that united women involved with productions of Carr's plays during the 1990s. This was not simply a creative bond among theatre artists, but a social bond made evident by Irish president Mary Robinson's attendance at the premiere of This Love Thing(1991) and by the commissioning of Portia Coughlan(1996) by the National Maternity Hospital, paid for entirely by the donations of eighty-nine high-profile women.
Sihra's emphasis on the "disintegrated domestic scenes" (211) in Carr's plays contributes to the...