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  • Modern Irish Drama
  • Brian W. Shaffer
Sanford Sternlicht . Modern Irish Drama: W. B. Yeats to Marina Carr. Second Edition. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010. 186 pp. Paper $19.95

No other English-speaking nation matched Ireland for the quantity of world-class drama it produced in the last century. The great "British" dramatists of the early- and mid-twentieth century, almost without exception, were Dubliners (think Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, and Oscar Wilde, the first three of whom were Nobel Prize winners). Add to this impressive roster Irish playwrights of the period who explored specifically Irish themes (Brendan Behan, Sean O'Casey, and John Millington Synge, for example), and Ireland's standing as an unparalleled begetter of modern drama seems even more assured. The Irish have remained a force on the English-language stage in the latter part of the twentieth century as well. Works by such living practitioners as Sebastian Barry, Marina Carr, Brian Friel, Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh, and Enda Walsh are frequently staged and garner critical and popular acclaim across the English-speaking world.

Sanford Sternlicht's Modern Irish Drama: W. B. Yeats to Marina Carr, now in its second edition (first edition, 1998), traces this phenomenal century of Irish playwriting economically and judiciously. Although this slim volume breaks no new ground and therefore is unlikely to [End Page 118] be of use to scholars, it makes for a fine introductory guide to modern Irish drama and, in its broad sweep and useful contextualization of the major figures and plays, a valuable supplementary text in undergraduate courses on the subject.

Sternlicht divides his book into two parts, "Backgrounds" and "Playwrights and Plays." "Backgrounds," the far shorter of the two, is divided into four chapters, the first three of which sketch in broad outline the history of Ireland from prehistoric times to the present as well as the key literary and language movements on the island, among these the Celtic Revival and the Celtic Twilight of the early-twentieth century. The fourth and final chapter of Part One, "The Irish Theater," is more substantial and useful. It explores both Irish dramatic creativity and the theater scene in Ireland from the seventeenth century to the present. Of particular interest is Sternlicht's discussion of the history of theater companies in Ireland, and especially its capitol city, Dublin, from the early Theatre Royal, or Smock Alley Theatre (founded in 1692), located in the Temple Bar neighborhood of Dublin (where a theater company of the same name was recently resurrected, surely in homage to this long-defunct early exemplar), to the world-famous, stillextant Dublin houses established in the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth century—the Gaiety, Abbey (Ireland's national theatre, founded by Yeats and Lady Gregory), and Gate. Sternlicht here also treats important and influential theatres outside the Hibernian metropolis, among these Belfast's Ulster Literary Theatre and Derry's Field Day Theatre, both now defunct, and Galway's thriving and innovative Druid Theatre, founded and still directed by the visionary Garry Hynes.

The much longer Part Two of Sternlicht's study, "Playwrights and Plays," constitutes the heart of the volume. In his brief introduction to this part, Sternlicht groups plays not chronologically but thematically. Among the key themes he identifies in twentieth-century Irish drama are nationalism, the Unionist-Republican conflict, land ownership, exile and emigration, poverty, misogyny, "the marriage wars," and "the stagnation of provincial life." This short chapter concludes by addressing a key schism in the drama of this period, that between more and less "realistic" modes of dramatic presentation:

In the broadest terms, Irish drama in the twentieth century ... has followed two paths, the path of realism or naturalism and the path of expressionism. Despite the influence of Yeats's romanticism, lyricism, and mysticism, the Abbey Theatre has followed primarily the realistic path pioneered early in the century by Lady Gregory, Martyn, and Colum and continued with such early 1920s masterpieces as O'Casey's Anglo-Irish [End Page 119] and Civil War trilogy [Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars].

It has fallen largely to other Irish theater companies in the last century...


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