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THEATRE AND CULTURAL POLITICS IN NORTHERN IRELAND: THE OVER THE BRIDGE CONTROVERSY, 1959 LIONEL PILKINGTON a frequently cited landmark in Irish theater history is the controversy generated by the Wrst attempted production of Over the Bridge,1 Sam Thompson ’s play about sectarianism and labor relations. The controversy arose in Belfast in May, 1959, when the chairman of the Ulster Group Theatre’s board of directors, Ritchie McKee, stopped rehearsals of Over the Bridge on the grounds that any ensuing performance would be likely to result in civil disturbances. Because McKee was also a prominent Unionist supporter , the vice president of the Stormont-sponsored Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) as well as the head of CEMA’s drama subcommittee, his suppression of the Group Theatre production was regarded by many as badly disguised state censorship. Three other Group Theatre directors—James Ellis, Maurice O’Callaghan, and Harold Goldblatt—resigned in protest against McKee’s action, and an acrimonious dispute concerning political interference in the arts took place within CEMA. This dispute, which resulted in a victory for McKee, led to the resignation of the secretary general of CEMA, J. Lewis Crosby, in October, 1959.2 Thompson himself took the Group Theatre to court in a successful legal action concerning breach of contract with Thompson arguing that Over the Bridge had been formally accepted for production by the THE OVER THE BRIDGE CONTROVERSY, 1959 76 1 Sam Thompson, Over the Bridge, ed. Stewart Parker, (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1970). Hereafter cited parenthetically, thus: (OB). 2 See Letter from J. Lewis Crosby to Ritchie McKee, 11 September 1959, PRONI D 2435/2/7K and ‘Minutes of the Standing Committee of CEMA, 12 January 1960, PRONI D 2435/2/2). These and other references so abbreviated refer to Wles kept at the Public Record OYce of Northern Ireland (PRONI). I am grateful to the Deputy Keeper of the Records of the Public Record OYce of Northern Ireland for permission to cite from the Wles listed, and I wish also to acknowledge the kind assistance of Ms. Oonagh Warke of PRONI. Group Theatre’s artistic director, James Ellis, in 1958. In the meantime, a special theater company—named Over the Bridge Productions—was established to perform the play at an alternative location. Swamped by oVers of production, Thompson had no diYculty in Wnding a venue, and in January , 1960, Over the Bridge was produced in a spectacular and lucrative production at the Empire Theatre in Belfast. Directed by James Ellis, this production was one of the most expensive in Northern Ireland’s history and attracted a total of 42,000 spectators with an average of 1,200 spectators per performance.3 That Ellis’s production was so popular and that it took place despite initial Unionist opposition is the reason why Over the Bridge is now widely considered a cause célèbre in the cultural history of the Northern Ireland state. As with Alan Simpson’s controversial production of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo in 1957 at the Pike Theatre in Dublin, the 1960 production of Over the Bridge tends to be regarded as an important turning point in the history of Ireland’s cultural modernization. Just as the Simpson production has been seen as heralding the liberal era of Seán Lemass,4 the success of Over the Bridge appears to mark the demise of Lord Brookeborough’s style of dogmatic Unionism and the emergence of the new, progressive face of Unionism under Captain Terence O’Neill.5 More importantly, both productions are viewed as establishing—or reestablishing—the inherent neutrality of theater as a social and cultural institution. McKee’s attempted suppression of Over the Bridge, like the attempted criminal prosecution of Alan Simpson , is seen as a recidivist and unusual exception. This essay proposes a substantial rereading of Thompson’s play in the context of a cultural politics of Northern Ireland in the postwar period. Far from indicating the theater’s inherent neutrality in Northern Ireland, the Over the Bridge controversy suggests the extent to which the institutional theater functioned as an instrument of hegemony for Unionism.6 THE OVER THE BRIDGE CONTROVERSY, 1959...


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