The Abbey Theatre, 1899-1999: Form and Pressure

The Abbey Theatre, 1899-1999: Form and Pressure

The Abbey Theatre, 1899-1999: Form and Pressure

The Abbey Theatre, 1899-1999: Form and Pressure


A century ago this year, productions of W. B. Yeats's The Countess Cathleen and Edward Martyn's The Heather Field inaugurated the Irish Literary Theatre, which was to take its name from its home in Abbey Street, Dublin. Despite riot, fire, and critical controversy, the Abbey Theatre has housed Ireland's National Theatre ever since: at once the catalyst and focus for the almost unprecedented renaissance of drama witnessed by Ireland in the twentieth century. This is the first history of the Abbey to discuss the plays and the personalities in their underlying historical and political context, to give due weight to the theatre's work in Irish, and to take stock of its artistic and financial development up to the present. The research for the book draws extensively on archive sources, especially the manuscript holdings on the Abbey at the National Library of Ireland. Many outstanding plays are examined, with detailed analysis of their form and their affective and emotional content; and persistent themes in the Abbey's output are identified - visions of an ideal community; the revival of Irish; the hunger for land and money; the restrictions of a society undergoing profound change. But these are integrated with accounts of the Abbey's people, from Yeats, Martyn, and Lady Gregory, whose brainchild it was, to the actors, playwrights, directors, and managers who have followed - among them the Fays, Synge, O'Casey, Murray, Robinson, Shiels, Johnston, Murphy, Molloy, Friel, McGuiness, Deevy, Carr, and many others. The role of directors and policy-makers, and the struggle for financial security, subsidy, and new-style 'partnerships', is discussed as a crucial part of the theatre's continuing evolution.


This is a history of the Abbey Theatre and its plays. It begins with the foundation of the Irish Literary Theatre, and its inaugural performances in 1899, because those days in May of that year witnessed the first stirrings of the movement which led to the establishment of the Abbey Theatre in 1904.

It is a history, and a very condensed one at that. There could be, and there should be, other kinds of history, but my focus here has been on the Abbey as an arena in which the latent forces, and energies, and pressures of modern Irish consciousness manifest themselves; and on the plays which these pressures are given imaginative form.

Ireland in the twentieth century, the period covered in this history, has been a country(?), a territory(?), an island which has experienced cataclysmic change and utter transformation: revolution, independence, partition, neutrality in the Second World War, a complete alteration in land ownership, economic subsistence, economic boom, the Troubles, civil war, the Troubles again, the breakdown of government in Northern Ireland, paramilitary violence, no-go areas, the decline and revival of the national language, the relaxation of the controls exercised by the Catholic church, and so on. No culture, no country, this century has a monopoly of suffering, hardship, terror: indeed in comparison with many territories (and it would be indecent to name in this context some of the more brutalized civilizations of this last remorseless century) Ireland has enjoyed a hundred years of relative calm. Nevertheless, there have been outrages, injustices, bestialities; and there have also been accords, generosities, acts of reparation and kindness.

In all of this the Abbey, and its predecessors, has functioned as all real theatre must function: as a laboratory for testing the prejudices of the mind, the nature of emotion, the value of the spirit. Through its playwrights, directors, and actors, it has been a space in which public attitudes and private concerns have been subjected to the kind of experiential, that is to say moral, analysis only theatre can provide for society. the Abbey has been the conscience of modern Ireland, a responsibility any national theatre must discharge. the Abbey has, in the words of Patrick Mason, done the 'work', the labour of showing (in the phrase Hamlet uses to the Players at Elsinore) the 'very age and body of the time his form and pressure'. This phrase is the third wave of the thought that opens with the comment about the purpose of playing being as 'as 'twere to hold the mirror up to nature'. As ever in Shakespeare, the second phase of the thinking strikes deeper, because, Hamlet says, acting shows 'virtue her own feature, scorn her own image'. and now a third phase drives to the core, into the form theatre . . .

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