Apart from earlier religious works, the 17th century marked the first theatrical production in Ireland in Dublin Castle, with the staging of Irish playwrights Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton's Gorboduc. The play was presented by the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Lord Mountjoy, in 1601.
Most Irish playwrights and actors of note moved to London to further their careers. The famous playwright William Congreve (1670--1729), although working in London, grew up in Ireland. Congreve's The Way of the World, written in 1700, is studied and performed today as part of a canon of literary masterpieces.
Oliver Goldsmith (1728--1774) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751--1816) were Irish authors and playwrights whose plays were staged in London. Plays include Goldsmith's The Good-Natur‘d Man and She Stoops to Conquer, and Sheridan's The Rivals, The School for Scandal and The Critic. Sheridan became owner of London's Drury Lane Theater, buying it from David Garrick.
Dion Boucicault (1820--1890) emerged as a significant Irish dramatist of the 19th century, noted for his humor. However, it is Oscar Wilde (1854--1900) with his superlative literary wit whose career was most impressive. His plays were extremely successful, and include Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and the famous The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde too graced the British theater, but is known as an Irish playwright. A contemporary of Wilde, George Bernard Shaw (1856--1950), also born in Dublin, pursued his career in London. His early writing was largely political, and was not as popular as his later works. Major Barbara, Saint Joan and Pygmalion (transformed into the film My Fair Lady) are popular dramas still performed. Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925; his works were prolific.
When the Irish Literary Theater was established in Dublin in 1899, Irish theater experienced changes. Eventually becoming the Abbey Theater, plays by William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge, George Moore and Sean O'Casey were presented there. The 20th century also saw the emergence of plays written in Irish. This was particularly pertinent when a theater dedicated to Irish language, the An Taidhbhearc, was founded in 1928. In the same year the Gate Theater showed European classics to the Irish people.
By the middle of the 20th century a key figure of Irish drama emerged. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, written in 1953, brought him fame. Endgame, his second play, is also an example of what is termed Theater of the Absurd. In 1969 Beckett was the recipient of the Nobel Prize. A number of other Irish dramatists including Denis Johnston, Hugh Leonard, Tom Murphy, Thomas Kilroy, Frank McGuinness and John B. Keane were writing. Throughout this time the Abbey Theater was the most prominent address for Irish drama. An earlier prominent playwright of the 1930s and 1940s was Paul Vincent Carroll.
In the 1970s and 1980s additional companies and theater venues sprang up. Many writers who were introduced on Irish stages gained prominence in London thereafter. These included Enda Walsh, Peter Sheridan, Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Marina Carr, Jimmy Murphy and Billy Roche.
The 1990s and the new millennium produced an upsurge of innovative theater companies in Ireland to present works by the new exponents of Irish drama. Their existence is dependent on Arts Council funding. While the origins of Irish drama were nationalist, there has been an international expansiveness.
Irish drama has been largely interlinked with the politics of the country, reflecting a close mirror-like relationship between national politics and theater. The Shaughraun (1874) by Boucicault, Shaw's John Bull's Other Island (1904) and Friel's Translations (1980) each have a specific political context and offer an interpretative perspective of Ireland. Nicholas Grene, in his The Politics of Irish Drama: Plays in Context from Boucicault to Friel (2000) comments on the role of dramatist as interpreter. He writes that "what is one play's authentic spokesman becomes the next play's stage Irishman, acting out the false stereotypes of foreign expectations." Friel and other contemporary playwrights write about Ireland from the inside, talking about themselves, but their works are also intended for the outside audience.
Early playwrights such as Synge and O'Casey feature the lilt of the Irish language that is also seen in later playwrights like Brendan Behan, Beckett and Friel. Bernice Schrank and William W. Demastes, in their book on Irish playwrights (1997), suggest that this distinctly Irish stage language is an "infected dialogue that ranges between the absurd and the metaphysical."
Marina Carr (1964--), Frank McGuinness (1953--), Christina Reid (1942--) and Martin McDonagh (born 1970 to Irish parents) are among contemporary Irish playwrights.