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Reviewed by:
  • Irish Theater in America: Essays on Irish Theatrical Diaspora
  • Robert W. Snyder
Irish Theater in America: Essays on Irish Theatrical Diaspora. Edited by John P. Harrington. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. 2009.

Irish theater in America has long been defined by a tension between the innovative and the familiar. This volume, which springs from a conference at New York University's Glucksman Ireland House in 2006, establishes this point and more in thirteen essays that range from solid to excellent.

In the late nineteenth century, as Mick Moloney shows in "Harrigan, Hart and Braham: Irish America and the Birth of the American Musical," Irish theater was about depicting something new: the rise of polyglot immigrant communities in lower Manhattan. Harrigan, Hart and Braham wove an urban blend of music, drama and dance into songs and plays that depicted realities of immigrant life with humor, affection, and topical insight. Out of such productions emerged both the American musical and the stereotypical stage Irishman, whose gab and sentiment would populate movies and Broadway productions for decades to come.

If stage Irishmen grew so popular that they crowded out more iconoclastic characters, some Americans could still appreciate innovation in the works of Irish playwrights. John P. Harrington's "Becket and America" weighs the legend of the mutual incomprehension between the playwright and the Americans of the Fifties and finds it wanting. The story that "Waiting for Godot" flopped in a 1955 Miami tryout is false. In fact, the play (anticipated there as a comedy) had a full run. And it went on to New York, where it was recast, more appropriately advertised, and won a popularity that spawned other productions—in places such as Iowa City and in Alabama.

Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for certain familiar notes in Irish plays, and an Irish tendency to see success on Broadway as the pinnacle of achievement, produces a complicated [End Page 278] theatrical relationship between Ireland and America. Patrick Lonergan's "Dancing on a One-Way Street: Irish Reactions to Dancing at Lughnasa in New York" shows how a play that explores bleak sides of Irish life was in 1990 staged in a sentimental glow to mixed reviews in Dublin. The play traveled to New York in 1991, where audiences accustomed to nostalgic depictions of Ireland cheered it. Lughnasa then returned to Ireland, cloaked in American success, to win acclaim. Lonergan sees in this an Irish dependence on American validation that constrains the countries' cultural interactions.

Christina Hunt Mahony, who concludes the volume with "The Irish Play: Beyond the Generic?" argues that familiar forms of Irish theater can have their own worth and still open doors for new Irish playwrights. When that happens, she hopes that mainstream American audiences seeking Irish theater will look beyond generic productions.

Indeed, recent and historic changes—immigration to Ireland, the prospect of peace in Northern Ireland, and Irish membership in the European Union—have created an Ireland that doesn't fit some Americans' sentimental gaze. Moreover, since the 2006 conference that prompted this book, an economic collapse has wracked America and undermined Ireland's status as the "Celtic Tiger." Out of this changed situation in both countries may come new questions, new plays, and more writing that builds on the valuable essays in this volume.

Robert W. Snyder
Rutgers University, Newark


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pp. 278-279
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