The Voice of Nationism: One Hundred Years of Irish Theater

By Watt, Stephen | Humanities, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview

The Voice of Nationism: One Hundred Years of Irish Theater


Watt, Stephen, Humanities


The rise of Irish nationalism at the end of the last century has inspired generations of Irish playwrights to draw upon their native traditions and define their country's violent political and social upheaval.

During the nationalistic fervor of the 1890s, the Irish Literary Theatre took shape as the personal endeavor of a few literary mavericks, including William Butler Yeats, Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, Edward Martyn, and George Moore. The ILT began staging native-born plays in Ireland in 1899 and soon became the Irish National Theatre Society, which finally found a permanent home as the Abbey Theatre of today. The hundred-year legacy of Irish drama reflects the nation's ideologies, inner conflicts, patriotism, and violence.

Irish literature and drama of the past century have delivered history lessons on such topics as Irish involvement in World War I and the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule, and geography lessons about an Ireland divided more by east and west than by the artificial partition made between north and south in the 1920s. On the east coast lies the Dublin of James Joyce's Ulysses and Sean O'Casey's "Dublin Trilogy" of the twenties, and the Belfast of the more recent Troubles, the site of contemporary dramas by Ann Devlin and Christina Reid. By contrast, the Donegal of Brian Friel's Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa, and the Galway of Martin McDonough's Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West, represent a greener, more traditional Ireland that bears only slight resemblance to the accelerated pace of life in its urban landscapes.

The Irish Literary Theatre is largely responsible for this vision of rural Ireland and for the ascendance of the peasant as a figure of quintessential Irishness. The peasant rose to prominence, in part, because writers like Lady Gregory hoped to revise Victorian depictions of Ireland as "the home of buffoonery" and of a blarney-speaking, whiskeyswilling, often pugnacious stage Irishman. Throughout the nineteenth century, such roles projected sinister qualities, especially when tensions between England and Ireland were most acute. At such times, comic Irish loquacity was transposed by British writers into a shrill nationalist register and used as a rationale for harsh colonial governance

During the Great Famine of the late 1840s or the Fenian rising of the 1860s, for example, when periodicals like the London Times sought to explain the origins of insurgent violence or a distressed economy, "Irishness" took on qualities of barbarism, intellectual incapacity, or moral failing.

In addition to fomenting rebellion against such stereotypes, the members of the Irish National Theatre Society contributed substantially to what is commonly known as the Celtic Revival. This spurred a return to the Irish language and Celtic mythology, and gave a renewed interest in Irish subject matter. For Synge, who wrote Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea, this meant focusing dramatic attention on the rural and peasant culture of County Mayo and the Aran Islands. Yet, Synge's racy interpretation of this topic was not universally appreciated, and riots erupted at the Abbey opening of Playboy of the Western World in 1907. Popular playwright William Boyle accused Synge of perpetuating a "gross misrepresentation of the character of our western peasantry," and actors feared the consequences of what was considered bad language in the play. Lady Gregory, who was also a student of Celtic mythology and published such books as Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, similarly, but without the vulgarity, helped cultivate what one scholar has termed the "imaginary peasant,"-a romanticized figure no more realistic than the shillelagh-wielding stereotype he replaced.

The strategy of dismantling mostly imported deprecations of Irishness and returning to more authentic linguistic, musical, and narrative sources produced a critique of colonialism and a thirst for cultural and political nationalism. …

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