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4. IRISH DRAMA D.E.S. MaxweU, A Critical History of Modern Irish Drama 1891-1980. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985. Cloth $47.50 Paper $15.95 At last a book about modem Irish drama that is neither anecdotal nor so nanowly focused as to suggest that the subject is of interest only to speciaUsts in Irish studies. Despite its misleading title (it is less a history than a critical appraisal), D. E. S. Maxwell's weU-documented analysis of plays and playwrights that have attracted world attention during the past hundred years focuses far less on chronological development, far more on characteristics that have won international audiences, than the term "critical history" might suggest. At the same time it includes historical facts concerning the shaping influence of disputes and differences among founders and leaders of various societies organized for the purpose of promoting and Êresenting an Irish-based drama that explain how the dramatic uterature of eland since 1890 came to have the qualities for which it is best known today. Maxwell's achievement is that he has placed mainstream Irish drama of the twentieth century squarely within the modemist tradition. How is it that an amateur theater frankly founded to further the cause of cultural nationalism and assert the primacy of Irish cultural traditions cradled a dramatic movement that not only attracted international audiences but influenced world theater? Easy to say after reading MaxweU: from the start it was modernist in concept and theory. In part this is a result of continental influences on Irish writers who, rejecting what they identified as English, had found models abroad, among the avant-garde; this modernism also had roots in a native tradition that shared many of the values they brought home. In the experimental theaters of France and Germany as well as in Irish cottages language was clay, the elemental substance of poetic transformations through which words simultaneously reflected and supplanted convention and reality. Eschewing literal portrayal, relying boldly on language, employing both words and silences to express indigenous experience and imagination, playwrights devised modes of presentation that were neither discursive nor sequential yet maintained Yeats's "sensation of an external reaUty." Thus they achieved self-sufficiency, created a national drama, and won a place for it on the world stage. Maxwell establishes the focus of his book within its opening pages, then strengthens his position through judicious selection of ideas previously presented in the critical and historical canon, from the early studies pubUshed by Boyd (1918) and Malone (1929), through the autobiographical recollections of Lady Gregory and Yeats, to the recent works of Peter Kavanagh, Una EUis-Fermor, Katherine Worth, and Robert Hogan. In the process he asserts several ideas of his own: that Synge's language was more amenable to the metamorphosis of art than that of Yeats; that the poetry of contemporary theater derives from speech registers restricted by Yeats. Chapter-by-chapter chronological discussions of seminal works by lesser known playwrights as well as the major works of principal dramatists presented between 1901 and 1929 follow, with history as subtext. One single chapter compares and contrasts Yeats and Synge; two others focus on Sean O Casey and Denis Johnston 229 respectively. The last chapter, which singles out Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel for final, close examination, follows chapters devoted to plays, players, developments, and experiments between 1930 and 1982. Many readers will quanel with the ranking implied by this distribution of critical attention, which would be skewed indeed if Maxwell's book were in fact a critical history. Surely such names as Brendan Behan, George Bermingham, Paul Vincent Canoll, Austin Clarke, Padraic Colum, George Fitzmaurice, John B. Keane, Hugh Leonard, M. J. Molloy, Thomas Murphy, T. C. Munay, Seamus O'Kelly, Lennox Robinson, and George Shiels would be expected to appear in the Table of Contents, with Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde, Edward Martyn, and George Moore given greater prominence. All but George Bermingham receive fairly substantial mention in the text, it should be noted (index entries also indicate that they have not been ignored), yet the selection of emphasis certainly is personal rather than comprehensive, again a reflection that this is a critical analysis of modem...


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pp. 229-230
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