- The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899–1939 by Anthony Roche
As Anthony Roche amusingly points out, there was nothing to revive in the Irish Dramatic Revival, but there certainly was something to invent. Roche’s book tracks that exhilarating period in Ireland surrounding the dramatic political and cultural events occurring from 1899 to 1939. In his contribution to Methuen Drama’s Critical Companion series, Roche tracks the Revival from its inception, with the first season of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899, through to the death of William Butler Yeats, one of the seven major founders he identifies. This is an accessible, “right-sized” volume that provides an essential resource in Irish literary studies for anyone interested in Irish drama—whether a student, an academic, a working theater professional, an independent scholar, or a casual enthusiast.
Roche gives us a book that offers a comprehensive and discerning understanding of the major figures and forces at play in the construction of the world-class theater that created and defined Irish drama for both a national and global audience, and describes and analyzes many of the major plays produced. Roche primarily considers the players and plays of the Abbey Theatre. But he brings into his arguments the roles of other Irish playwrights and theaters of the time, and those since, that have extended the Revival’s work into the twentieth century—as Galway’s Druid Theatre has done, for instance. Roche’s work underlines that the construction of a national theater and its concomitant display of an Irish national identity were, and still are, contested areas that provided a productive challenge for successive playwrights. He highlights that dialogic dynamic as vital to Irish drama’s power and influence. He also recognizes and examines the overarching influence of Yeats on all the plays and playwrights he covers, as well as the effects of continental, English, and American dramatists on their Irish contemporaries.
Insightfully, Roche stresses the metatheatricality of the Irish movement from its inception, in the self-conscious awareness by its founders of its mission and methods, as well as in a commitment to the experimental. He recognizes that to be experimental, in essence, is to be self-conscious, self-fashioning, and, therefore, self-defining, always and already “in process.” For that reason, [End Page 141] Roche argues for the necessary inclusion of both George Bernard Shaw and Lady Gregory in the established canon of Irish dramatists of the Revival. He also emphasizes the importance and impact of work by women actors and playwrights by including a section on, for example, Teresa Deevy’s work, and by paying attention to other women figures, whether as actors. activists, or both, such as Maude Gonne and the sisters Sara and Molly Allgood.
Roche advances chronologically, with the first chapter as contextual background for the Irish Dramatic Revival, featuring the figures and work of earlier playwrights, such as Dion Boucicault and Oscar Wilde, and the influence of the cultural and creative work of Douglas Hyde in the late nineteenth century. The next chapter moves to Yeats, his foundational force in the creation of the Irish Dramatic Movement, and the significance of his plays and vision for all the writers that contribute to Irish drama, including Samuel Beckett. John Millington Synge and his work are the subject of the third chapter, where Roche displays his deep knowledge of the playwright in his trenchant analyses of Synge’s works and his “singular” (to use a favorite word of Synge’s) impact on virtually every Irish playwright working after him. In the next chapter, Roche makes the case for including Shaw in the canon of Irish playwrights of the Revival.
Lady Gregory is the subject of the fifth chapter; Roche affirms her irrefutable creative impact and indispensable support enabling the existence of both the Revival and the Abbey Theatre. He stresses Gregory’s comedic talent, her use of authentic and enchanting dialogue, and her tackling of bold subject matters in her dramas, many of them previously overlooked or given only cursory attention in Revival history. A chapter on...