- Irish Drama and the Other Revolutions: Playwrights, Sexual Politics and the International Left, 1892–1964 by Susan Cannon Harris
Irish Drama and the Other Revolutions: Playwrights, Sexual Politics and the International Left, 1892–1964. By Susan Cannon Harris. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017; 280 pp.; illustrations. $125.00 cloth.
In March 1894 at London's Avenue Theatre, two Irish playwrights altered the course of leftist theatre by staging a fairy play and a drawing-room comedy. Both failed—W.B. Yeats's The Land of Heart's Desire was misunderstood by audiences and critics, while John Todhunter's A Comedy of Sighs proved career-ending—and their failure is precisely the point in Susan Cannon Harris's new monograph. By broaching the then-volatile phenomenon of queer female desire, the plays precipitated a reactionary heterosexism in late-19th-century English drama and socialist politics that would persist for decades to come. [End Page 171]
Irish Drama and the Other Revolutions explores a series of short-lived moments wherein Irish drama, progressive gender and sexual politics, and the international Left converged upon the European stage. Connected by a belief in the revolutionary potential of radical eros, this "web of influence and inspiration" sought to remap human society along utopian lines (1). Each of Harris's five chapters dwells at the cusp of a turning point in this history, where hope and failure are suspended in dialectical tension. That dialectic serves as both the organizing principle and ethical imperative of the study. It is only by returning to the theatrical and historical archives of the late 19th and 20th centuries, Harris insists, that we can appreciate the vibrancy of what she terms "queer socialism" as well as the magnitude of its loss. Drawing on Jack Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure and José Esteban Muñoz's concept of "queer futurity," Harris's book dwells on the luminous potentiality of these thwarted moments in order to combat the sense of inevitability etched into histories of socialism, queer politics, and the Irish dramatic revival. "If we lose our memory of [queer socialism's] vision and of [its] obstacles," she cautions, "then all we can do, when presented with post-revolutionary despair, is assume it was always like this" (133).
Harris focuses on Irish playwrights, but her approach is notably international. Chapters 1 and 2 examine the development of George Bernard Shaw's socialist drama within the contexts of fin-de-siècle English theatre and the rise of Fabianism. Chapter 3 traces the syndicalist movement in Ireland, focusing on strike plays of the 1910s by St. John Ervine, A. Patrick Wilson, and Daniel Corkery, while chapters 4 and 5 move further afield, exploring J.M. Synge's reappearance in the Spanish Civil War drama of Bertolt Brecht and Sean O'Casey's flirtation with Soviet Communism during his experimental phase in the 1930s and '40s. The epilogue turns to the postwar US Left, showing how the drama of O'Casey and Samuel Beckett helped shape Lorraine Hansberry's staging of political self-reckoning in the post-McCarthy era. In its archival coverage alone—Harris consults unpublished plays, abandoned drafts, programs, press clippings, correspondence, journalism, and theatre records—the book adds considerably to our knowledge of this chapter in dramatic history.
The book's methodology is equally noteworthy. By situating Irish dramatists within international socialism, Harris breathes new life into the often hermetic narrative of Irish modernism. She takes a deliberately decentered approach to Irish drama, positioning both familiar and long-forgotten playwrights within a political and artistic network held together not by W.B. Yeats or the Abbey Theatre but by a disparate cast including the English actress Florence Farr, socialist intellectuals William Morris and Edward Carpenter, Irish labor leader Jim Larkin, utopian reformer Ebenezer Howard, actress and artistic director Helene Weigel, Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, and the ghost of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Irish Drama and the Other Revolutions affirms the national specificity of theatre all...