- Two on Irish Drama
THE FIRST QUARTER of the twentieth century was a crucial period in the history of modern Irish drama. The struggle for Irish political and cultural independence from Britain and the desire to reflect and shape Irish national identity captivated a generation of playwrights and theater directors. Two recent monographs—one devoted to the urban plays of the early Abbey Theatre and the other to the Irish dramatic revival generally—contribute significantly to our understanding and reassessment of this formative era in the evolution of the Irish stage.
The more focused of the two monographs, Elizabeth Mannion’s The Urban Plays of the Early Abbey Theatre: Beyond O’Casey, is the first book-length study to explore a subgenre of the early Abbey stage that has remained in the shadow of peasant dramas set in rural Ireland: urban plays set in Belfast, Cork, and, in particular, Dublin. Mannion’s study of the urban plays produced between the founding of the Abbey Theatre in 1904 and the destruction of the original Abbey building by fire in 1951 challenges “the dominant narrative of the early Abbey repertoire,” in which the urban setting is largely insignificant and otherwise limited to the works of Sean O’Casey. Mannion’s desire to tell the early Abbey’s “urban story” grew out of her interest in O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy—The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926)—and out of “an archival [End Page 131] impulse to see how the trilogy fit into the repertoire” of the Abbey’s first five decades. This led her to read the more than fifty non-O’Casey urban plays, most of which are now forgotten, within the context of the Abbey’s broader mission. Although it is no surprise that most of these are problem plays that treat contemporary social issues, in particular urban poverty, in a largely realistic vein (with only occasional forays into expressionism), what is unexpected is “the extent to which the nationalistic movement is portrayed” in these urban plays “as failing, and in some cases oppressing, the working classes.” Another unexpected finding: many of these urban plays single out for derision Irish revivalism, leading Mannion to conclude that the Abbey was engaged in a far more “vibrant dialogue within revivalist dramatic literature” than has been understood. In contrast to most Abbey provincial peasant plays that promote cultural nationalism and dramatize the conflicts between “an ‘Irish’ us and a colonizing ‘them’” (think of Yeats and Gregory’s iconic Cathleen ni Houlihan), the urban canon “consistently rejects or deconstructs” the mythological impulse and presents “conflict within Irish society as being between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ that is two sides of one domestic coin.”
An assessment of the entire subgenre of urban Abbey plays produced between 1904 and 1951—a group of plays the author characterizes as “a mixed bag” with respect to quality and as representing “no unified ideology”—reveals “a treasure trove of commentary” on the state of Ireland. Although in the minority, this urban repertoire, according to Mannion, deserves the same attention as those works in the provincial “peasant oeuvre.” Indeed, “the plays that comprise the Abbey’s early urban repertoire demonstrate that the Irish urban experience was far from absent on the Abbey stage and that the O’Casey trilogy, although artistically and financially significant, is but a fraction of the Abbey’s urban story.”
Just how marginal was urban drama on the early Abbey stage? According to Mannion, urban plays accounted for 15 percent of the 370 plays produced and, with revivals taken into account, 20 percent of the box office takings and 34 percent of all stagings during the 1904–1951 years. Adding to the significance of an urban setting for theatre-goers of the period is the author’s observation that although rural Ireland represented the authentic spirit of the nation...