Shadows over Ireland

Article excerpt

The century's newest crop of Irish playwrights, led by Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, is cocky, cosmopolitan and conservative in form - and gloomy by nature

The most obvious reaction to the fact that Irish playwrights are currently in vogue in both New York and London is to ask, "What else is new?" With Martin McDonagh's Tony-winning The Beauty Queen of Leenane making it on Broadway and Conor McPherson's The Weir due to follow suit in the fall, this is certainly a good time for Irish dramatists. But for well over two centuries, their predecessors have held the stage in the English-speaking world. Without Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O'Casey and Samuel Beckett, theatrical history would look very different. No nation of Ireland's size - the current population of the island is 5.5 million - has so consistently played such a leading role.

Yet referring back to such a distinguished past is not necessarily the best way to approach the current crop of young playwrights. It implies a sense of continuity and tradition that is not really appropriate. McDonagh, McPherson and their contemporaries like Sebastian Barry, Marina Carr and Frank McGuinness do have a relationship to tradition. But it is a much more fraught, more playful and more complex one than a long sweep from the 18th century to the end of the 20th might imply.

Some of the contrasts are obvious. The great names of Irish dramatic history shared some striking characteristics. They were all Protestants from Dublin. They all had an uneasy relationship with the Catholic majority in Ireland. Most - the exceptions being Synge and, for a time, O'Casey - chose to live in exile and write primarily for audiences in London and Paris rather than Dublin or Belfast. To one degree or another, all were outside the mainstream of Irish culture. They wrote about Ireland, if at all, from various positions on the margins of society.

None of this is generally true of the present generation. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds in Ireland (or, in McDonagh's case, from the Irish community in London). They move quite comfortably between Irish cities like Dublin or Galway, not to mention London and New York. They don't see being Irish as either something that has to be self-consciously embraced (as Synge did) or as something to be avoided at all costs (as Beckett did, going so far as to write in French). They have, in a sense, nothing to prove, at least as far as their place in Irish culture and society is concerned. There's a kind of simple confidence in their work that comes from being able to take for granted the idea that "Irish" is an adjective that covers a multitude of differences.

To understand what they're up to, though, it is necessary to remember that they represent, broadly speaking, a third wave in 20th-century Irish theatre. The first and most famous was the Irish Literary Revival that crystallized in 1904 with the founding of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Its preeminent figures - Synge, William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory - were essentially engaged in an exercise in cultural nationalism. Their central notion was that Ireland needed a distinctive kind of theatre reflecting its own myths and legends and its own contemporary life. This impulse produced an extraordinary flowering for about 25 years, marked by some great, verbally rich plays and by the development of a style of heightened naturalism that was internationally influential.

The Abbey, though, suffered the fate of many institutions that are too successful for their own good. Its ideas of national distinctiveness fed into a broader and more potent Irish political nationalism that culminated in the foundation of an independent Irish state in 1922. The theatre had thrived as a counter-cultural force, in opposition to a dominant British ethos. After 1922, it became the mainstream, the official national theatre of an increasingly conservative Catholic state. …