Anthony Roche, Contemporary Irish Drama

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Anthony Roche, Contemporary Irish Drama. Second Edition. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 292 pages. GBP 18.99 [pounds sterling].

Anthony Roche's Contemporary Irish Drama: From Beckett to McGuinness appeared in 1994, just as Irish theatre was entering an important new phase. In that year, Marina Carr set off in an intriguing new direction, abandoning the explicitly Beckettian style of her earlier work to give us The Mai, the first of her midlands tragedies. At around the same time, Conor McPherson, who had been producing his own plays at fringe venues around Dublin, was just starting to attract the attention of producers in Britain. Meanwhile, in a London bedroom, a young writer called Martin McDonagh had just dashed off seven plays in quick succession--six of them set in Ireland, and most of them destined for unprecedented international success. And while these events were getting underway, many established writers--Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, Thomas Kilroy, Sebastian Barry, Frank McGuinness, and others--were preparing significant new plays for production.

The subsequent rise to international prominence of many of those dramatists meant that, by the year 2000, it was being widely suggested that Irish drama was undergoing a 'third renaissance'--a period as significant as that which had seen the establishment of the Abbey in 1904, and the emergence of Friel, Kilroy and Murphy in the 1960s. Roche's book was exciting because it seemed to prepare the ground for our understanding of this new phase: he was one of the first scholars to define what contemporary Irish drama might look like--and also one of the first to demonstrate in detail that the period after 1950 was rich enough to merit significant scholarship in its own right, separately from the Abbey's golden age of Yeats, Synge and O'Casey. The global success of so many Irish dramatists during the 1990s worked to reinforce Roche's arguments, just as those arguments (particularly the decision to highlight the importance of Beckett for the Irish theatre) allowed us to understand the new generation of Irish dramatists much better.

As the growing international status of Irish plays was matched by a new burst of scholarly activity, Roche's book became a touchstone for academic critics. His treatment of gender is an obvious starting-point in Melissa Sihra's Women in Irish Drama (2007), for example--while his mapping out of the 'Troubles play' as a 'new genre' can be seen to have inspired (or provoked) such important studies as Tom Maguire's Making Theatre in Northern Ireland (2006) and Bill McDonnell's Theatre of the Troubles (2008). Scott Boltwood's Brian Friel, Ireland and the North (2007) is clearly indebted to the book (if only to argue against it), and Roche's treatment of Murphy and Kilroy has dominated the subsequent scholarship on both authors. Perhaps most significantly, Stephen Watt's Beckett and Contemporary Irish Literature (2009) enters into intimate dialogue with Roche, in order to provide a major reconsideration of how the 'Beckettian' can be understood in Irish writing generally. Similarly, Victor Merriman's response to the first edition allows him to initiate an iconoclastic re-reading of Godot in Sean Kennedy's Beckett and Ireland (2010). One sign of the impact of Roche's study is that many of the ideas he had to argue for in 1994 are now taken for granted--and, indeed, many of them have been greatly refined and deepened by other scholars of Irish drama.

This revised and expanded edition--now simply called Contemporary Irish Drama--thus achieves two important objectives. It provides us with a detailed analysis of many of the writers of the contemporary period (which, for Roche, runs from 1945 to the present). And it also gives an overview of the existing critical attitudes towards most of our major living dramatists--insofar as many of those attitudes were shaped by the book's first edition. As is entirely to be expected, it doesn't have the groundbreaking tone of the 1994 original: Roche is preaching to the already converted, after all. …