- The Spaces of Irish Drama: Stage and Place in Contemporary Plays by Helen Heusner Lojek
In The Spaces of Irish Drama, Helen Lojek explores contemporary Irish theatre’s use of space, charting the form’s relationship to changing ideas of Irish national identity. She explores several levels of space: the building the audience inhabits, the stage and its design, and the imaginative world created by the play (including both the onstage space and the landscape beyond). Lojek devotes a chapter to each of four popular contemporary Irish plays, which she reads in relation to the tropes of the Irish theatre canon (particularly the romanticization of the country’s rural west) and within the context of a globalizing Irish culture. She argues that the issue of belonging to or being outside of the community—long at the heart of Irish drama—has shifted away from a binary opposition: characters now move between these states, and this fluidity is mirrored in more liminal depictions of space.
Irish theatre studies have traditionally focused on plays as literary texts, but this book is part of a recent (and welcome) shift that analyzes them in relation to other elements of performance. Lojek pays particular attention to set design, but is not primarily concerned with the choices made in specific productions; rather, her interest “is less in what productions did and more in what the text suggests they might or ought to do” (7). Working from those texts, Lojek draws on theorists Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, and Martin Heidegger to show how a specific concept in space theory (such as cartography or landscape) can open up our understanding of how each play creates literal and figurative space onstage. As she demonstrates, contemporary plays differ significantly from those associated with the Abbey Theatre’s 1904 opening (a period that continues to define Irish theatre in the public imagination). Where the earlier plays featured limited cottage settings, contemporary dramas use space in more imaginative ways.
Lojek devotes the first chapter to Brian Friel’s Translations (1980), which depicts the 1833 creation of an English map of Ireland. She argues that the play subverts the idea that cartography is objective by pointing to the ways that mapping erases local knowledge and experiences. She contrasts Friel’s characters with the more romantic representations of Irish peasants popular in the Abbey’s early plays, which generally depicted peasant life as isolated and therefore uncorrupted by contact with industrialized Britain. Friel’s peasants, on the other hand, display a sophisticated understanding of world history and geography. Thus, Lojek argues, the British renaming of Irish spaces becomes a particularly painful violation of cultural sovereignty by attempting to impose “order” on a society that already possessed a sophisticated view of itself and its position within the world.
In the second chapter, Lojek uses Conor McPhearson’s The Weir (1997) to explore changes in both the physical and conceptual landscape of rural Ireland. Although the play is set entirely in the interior of a bar, the characters’ descriptions of the surrounding countryside demonstrate a range of economic relationships to the landscape, revealing a tension between old and new understandings of space. The onstage space of the familiar Irish pub and the offstage space of the local farms are both sites of tourism, appearing to be “traditional spaces” while operating within a global economy. Again, Lojek offers a comparison to an early Abbey play: “Despite the presence of crusty old bachelors who [End Page 152] are fond of a pint, this is not the world of Synge’s Playboy, but a consumer democracy with multinational influences” (51).
The third chapter investigates the complicated representations of belonging depicted in Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats . . . (1998), in which personal relationships to space are often contradictory. The play’s main character, Hester Swayne, exemplifies these contradictions: she is a woman uncomfortable in the traditionally feminine space of the home, and a Traveller (Ireland’s itinerant ethnic minority) who refuses to leave her birthplace. Lojek argues that Carr’s creation of...