- Modern Irish Drama
For two Decades Anthony Roche has helped shape the field of modern Irish drama. The author of a pioneering study Contemporary Irish Drama (1995; 2nd ed. 2009) and the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel (2006), Roche teaches in the School of English, Drama, and Film at University College, Dublin. Now, in the space of two years, he has published two monographs on key figures of Irish theatre—John Millington Synge, the essential early twentieth-century figure, and Brian Friel, arguably Ireland’s leading living writer for the stage.
Synge and the Making of Modern Irish Drama is the richer of the two and among the more important new studies on Synge to emerge in some time. One thing that sets this book apart from other studies of Synge is its focus on the enigmatic playwright’s entire career, not merely on his life following his summer sojourns on Aran. Roche provides a sustained analysis of all six of Synge’s plays “as they try out possibilities for an Irish theatre.” Another distinguishing feature of this book is the author’s interest in Synge’s impact on later Irish playwrights. “This book,” Roche explains, “may be seen as a two-way Syngean dialogue: [End Page 579] synchronically, with the artists and theatrical collaborators of his time; diachronically, with many of the Irish playwrights who have drawn most powerfully on him since: Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel, Stewart Parker, Marina Carr, Martin McDonagh.”
Roche opens a chapter on Christian and pagan elements in Synge’s work with this claim: “Of all the creative oppositions to be found in John Millington Synge, none more fully unites the man, the Anglo-Irish culture into which he was born, and the native Irish drama he did so much to bring into being than the opposition between Christianity and paganism.” This opposition, according to Roche, crystalized for Synge during his time on Aran, when his imagination “was stirred not by the Catholicism of the islanders” but by “their retention of many of the pagan beliefs predating the arrival of Christianity in Ireland.” Roche traces this creative tension in a number of Synge’s plays, most intriguingly in Playboy of the Western World, which mocks “Father Reilly and the Courts of Rome while hinting at a resemblance between Christy Mahon and Christ the Son of Man, a potential redeemer for the people of Mayo.” At the same time, Playboy “serves to reincarnate a mock-epic modern version of ancient Irish heroism.” A chapter on Synge’s connection to Germany follows. It is in Germany where the playwright spent time pursuing a career as a musician following his years at Trinity College; where he discovered the plays of Ibsen and first tried his hand at playwriting; and where he honed his facility with continental languages and literatures. Roche also explores Synge’s subsequent influence on the German theater, in particular the work of Brecht, who “manifested a lifelong interest in Synge’s work.”
The chapter “Yeats, Synge and an Emerging Irish Drama” reveals a “complex mutual influence” between Yeats and Synge over the vexed question of what form and direction the emerging Irish National Theatre should take. Roche juxtaposes numerous Yeats and Synge plays in innovative ways—and in the process illuminates the texts of both figures. The juxtaposition of Yeats and Gregory’s Cathleen ni Houlihan and Synge’s Riders to the Sea is particularly provocative for the connection it forges between the respective plays’ “poor old women,” both versions of Mother Ireland, who are “trying to move” their “sons in a particular direction.” A chapter on “Joyce, Synge and the Irish Theatre Movement” follows and is the volume’s richest. Roche’s primary purpose here is to offer a reading of the role key Irish “dramatists played in Joyce’s artistic development.” Although the Joyce-Ibsen connection is an old story, Joyce’s interest in and engagement with key figures of...