- The Political Trajectories of Contemporary Irish Performance
Irish theatre has undergone a radical transformation in the past thirty years, with the initial emergence of the first theatre graduates into a very small and poorly funded professional scene that, up to the 1990s, was located for the most part in Dublin and constituted by the two major institutions, the Abbey Theatre (Ireland’s National Theatre) and the Gate Theatre, which played the Irish, European, and American canon to an older audience. The [End Page 473] theatre graduates first from Trinity College in 1988 and then over time from most tertiary institutions on the island of Ireland in the 1990s emerged into a fast-growing economy that enabled them to remain at home, set up their own companies, and experiment with subject and form. Before theatre courses at the universities had begun, two independent companies had already evolved out of university drama societies: Druid Theatre Company in Galway in the 1970s, and Rough Magic Theatre Company in Dublin in the 1980s. They had positioned themselves in their respective decades as the avant-garde, neither director of either company for very long submitting or succumbing to the safer environs of the two older and more highly funded institutions. By the 1990s, these two companies had established enviable international reputations.
What the various drama, theatre, and performance courses in the colleges and universities of Ireland did for theatre was to challenge existing hierarchies of theatre-making and, later, the paradigms of Irish theatre scholarship. In addition, practitioners who had trained abroad, in the schools of Jacques Lecoq and Étienne Decroux and others in dance and corporeal mime, returned in the late 1980s and early ’90s to set up companies (Barrabas and Blue Raincoat among them) that eschewed the supremacy of the spoken word. Of the multiple companies from the universities that were established in the 1990s, few survived, but all contributed to a radical rethinking of what theatre is and how it should be made, and even more importantly, who should see it and how. Thus of the five books that constitute this review essay, four are the results of collaborative research projects led by two editors, and the other, by a solo editor, is a collection of plays whose multiplicity of voices lies in the selection of plays published. All of them speak to the major preoccupations of both practitioners and scholars in contemporary Irish theatre studies: first with history and memory, since the theatre in Ireland was bound so tightly to the cultural wing of the nationalist project at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth.
Residing in a very young country with a collective memory of colonization, famine, and emigration, one that later emerged from a rebellion and a bitter civil war, and since 1922 has lived with a partition that divides its peoples into two states, Irish theatre is indelibly marked by memory. And through the decade of economic success and a flourishing theatre scene, there emerged a new generation of theatre artists who saw themselves equally as world citizens as they were Irish citizens. Some traveled overseas to study, while many learned from the import of international theatre practitioners and new ways of thinking about, making, and experiencing theatre. Some of the new theatre work that was to emerge challenged the notion of theatre in traditional buildings, and instead sought to work off-site and reclaim the public and private spaces of Irish cities. And while the content was not always political, the reclamation of...