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  • OUP's Modern Irish Theatre
  • Brian W. Shaffer
Nicholas Grene and Chris Morash, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xxix + 764 pp. $150.00

THE OXFORD HANDBOOK of Modern Irish Theatre, edited by Nicholas Grene and Chris Morash, is the most comprehensive single-volume reference text on its subject yet published. Forty-one authors in all, many of them leading scholars in the field, cover the history of the Irish stage from Dion Boucicault's mid-nineteenth-century melodramas to new work staged at the Abbey Theatre as recently as 2014. Particularly impressive is the volume's rich diversity of approaches and foci, from key playwrights and plays to key theatre companies and festivals; to key productions, actors, and directors; to such significant issues as national identity and gender equity as these relate to Irish drama. At three times the length of the 2004 Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century [End Page 399] Irish Drama, to which it will be compared, the present volume is far more comprehensive and wide-ranging. The editors of the Handbook promise a work that "displays not only the diversity of Irish theatre scholarship but also the ways in which it is evolving." They easily make good on this promise.

Following an introduction that stakes out key attributes associated with Irish theatre—"a poetic fluency of language, a mixed skein of comic and tragic emotions, a retrospective concern with past history, and a near-archaic imagined community"—the twelve-part, forty-one chapter handbook follows a roughly chronological trajectory. Doing justice in a short review to the critical riches found in this 700-plus-page volume cannot be done; I will therefore content myself with providing a map of the terrain covered within.

The first twelve chapters of the volume concern Irish theatre history from its nineteenth-century legacies through the early years of the Irish Free State in the 1920s. Following chapters on "The Inheritance of Melodrama" (Stephen Watt) and "Oscar Wilde: International Politics and the Drama of Sacrifice" (Michael McAteer) are four chapters that explore the interrelations of various cultural nationalist projects and figures (Lady Augusta Gregory, W. B. Yeats, and J. M. Synge most notably) and the birth of Ireland's national theatre, the Abbey (in 1903): "The Abbey and the Idea of a Theatre" (Ben Levitas), "Theatre and Activism 1900–1916" (P. J. Matthews), "W. B. Yeats and Rituals of Performance" (Terence Brown), and "The Riot of Spring: Synge's 'Failed Realism' and the Peasant Drama" (Mary Burke). Explorations of drama and national identity then give way to chapters that consider theatre history through the lens of dramatic form and style, specifically "Realism and Early Twentieth-Century Irish Drama" (Shaun Richards) and "Modernism and Irish Theatre 1900–1940" (Richard Cave), and then to a chapter, "Missing Links: Bernard Shaw, the Discussion Play, and Modern Irish Theatre" (Brad Kent), which treats an important Dublin-born playwright not usually associated with the Irish (but rather with the British) stage. Rounding out the volume's first quarter are chapters that explore key events in Dublin (and Irish) political history in relation to the period's dramatic production. "Imagining the Rising" (Nicholas Allen) explores the now-forgotten plays by the 1916 Rising's leaders, Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, and Thomas MacDonagh; [End Page 400] "The Abbey Theatre and the Irish State" (Lauren Arrington) looks at the early state's subsidies for and attitudes toward the fledgling national theatre; and "O'Casey and the City" (Christopher Murray) takes on the Abbey's leading playwright of the Dublin tenements, viewing the dramatist's early, unproduced The Harvest Festival as the "prologue to the three great Dublin plays [The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars] to which Red Roses for Me is the epilogue."

The next quarter of the volume explores Irish theatre following the Abbey's Golden Age (its first twenty-five or so years) and into the mid-century. From various angles the first three of these nine chapters treat the birth and evolution of the Dublin Gate Theatre (founded 1928): "Design and Direction to 1960" (Paige Remolds), "The Importance of...


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