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Views of the Irish stage and beyond: one hundred years and counting.


A Century of Irish Drama: Widening the Stage

Indiana University Press, 2000, npg.

A CENTURY OF IRISH DRAMA: WIDENING the Stage arises from the May 1999 symposium, "Nationalism and a National Theatre: 100 Years of Irish Drama," held at Indiana University, Bloomington. As Eileen Morgan points out in her Introduction, while the symposium certainly celebrated a meaningful centennial, the Irish Literary Theatre's initial date being 1899, the essays selected for publication contribute "to a re-valuation of Irish theatre spurred by the recent success of the 'third wave' of twentieth-century theatre" (xii). Morgan thus utilizes the metaphor popularized by Fintan O'Toole to designate the generation of playwrights post the generation of Brian Friel, Hugh Leonard, and Tom Murphy. Attention should be directed to the linguistic shift between the title of the Bloomington conference and the title of the volume in question. The principal thrust of the published essays is a re-examination of 100 years of Irish theatre with modernized lenses. The contributors have not thrown the rose-colored glasses through which one often views nationalism to the dust heap, but they have clearly laid them aside to try on an updated prescription and embark on a re-vision. Lest I sound like I am oversimplifying or generalizing the work of numerous scholars, let me quote Morgan, who declares a unified purpose in the collection. She writes: "The contributors' efforts to recuperate a heterogeneous early theatre (rather than a predominantly nationalist one) and to acknowledge alternative, theatre companies and traditions are motivated... by their shared desire to demythologize the national theatre and recognize that, at least as a concept, it has outlived its privilege" (xii). While she takes pains to indicate that this is not to imply that the contemporary Abbey is purposeless, she solidifies a unanimity among the scholars whose work appears in the volume. She emphasizes:

The contributors to this collection share O'Toole's sense of the new opportunities for Irish drama that have resulted from the decentralization of Irish theatre. While only a few explicitly rehearse the narrative of the Abbey's decline, it is in many ways the foundation and impetus for most of their re-readings of Irish theatre.... The collection as a whole responds to the shift in the past three decades in the relations of Irish dramatic production, which has been thrown into relief by the recent success of the third wave. The collection also mounts a related argument about the need to recognize the heterogeneity of Irish theatre over the past 100 years. (xxii-iii)

I am a bit unclear as to the rather tepid title of the symposium, given the pointed direction of the resulting volume. The foundations of both enterprises seem clear. However, I am here to review the book, not the symposium. The editors note that space constraints limited the number of essays included; they further mention the generosity of several renowned scholars who presented papers at the symposium but deferred their essays in the interests of "younger colleagues."

Part I of the volume, "Challenging the Received View of Early-Twentieth-Century Irish Theatre," opens with John P. Harrington' s perceptive distinction between theatrical practices and theatrical works, which leads him to his valid conclusion that "internationalism and denial of it were fundamental to the national theatre project" (15). Nelson O Ceallaigh Ritschel, emphasizing the plays of the Theatre of Ireland and the later Irish Theatre Company, explains the "urban aesthetic (which) represented the first challenge to, and alternate direction for, the Abbey" (32). Laura E. Lyons adds valuable insights to the existing criticism on the Ulster Literary Theatre, operating in Belfast from 1904 through the 1930s. She convincingly argues that the plays of the ULT "insist that the North of Ireland, no less than the celebrated West of the Abbey, represents a crucial domain of the Irish cultural imagination. In so doing, these dramas agitate against the naturalization of the national status of the Abbey Theatre and a dmonish scholars of Irish culture not to ignore the history of contestation that lies behind the consolidation of 'national treasures' like the Abbey" (36). All three essays succeed in providing a foundation for the remainder of the volume. Complexities attendant to theatre in early-twentieth-century Ireland, heretofore not investigated, are strikingly presented and thoroughly evaluated.

Part II consists of "Theorizing and Historicizing Theatre Controversies." Lucy McDiarmid innovatively ascribes to controversies the category of genre and the attribute of intertextuality: "they refer to one another, they copy forms and styles and modes of expression" (59). She cleverly discusses the controversies over Shaw's The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet (1909), the Philadelphia performance of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World (1912), and the Abbey debate over Shaw's O'Flaherty VC (1915). McDiarmid contends that controversies are "micro-units of social change" (71) and ably proves her point via the examples explored. Susan Cannon Harris has a new "take" on the infamous Playboy riots: "Synge's audiences protested in part because they were profoundly disturbed by the fact that so many of the Irish bodies he put on stage were diseased, decrepit, or dead. Synge's play was dangerous because it mobilized the discourse of infection, filth, and degeneracy promoted by eugenicists in England--a vocabulary that both the play's defenders and its detractors recognized" (73). Harris's occasionally humorous tone is anchored by her firm awareness of Playboy criticism and understanding of the eugenist movement. Shakir Mustafa's essay discusses O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy, seeking to prove that:

by presenting nationalists as pretenders destructive to self and others, O'Casey does not allow them to make their case adequately or persuasively, and he thus denies Irish nationalism a narrative sequence. Nationalist politics becomes a peripheral activity in his plays, since it fails to contribute positively to the lives of his characters. As an incoherent, destructive, and irrelevant narrative, nationalism in the Dublin trilogy lacks justification and legitimacy. (96)

Overburdened by numerous references to the critical work of others, Mustafa too often restates past scholarship rather than concentrate on proving his thesis.

Part III deals with "Reconstructing Drama During the 'Fatal Fifties'." Here, Christopher Murray stakes a claim to the importance of O'Casey's The Drums of Father Ned, not as a neglected masterpiece, but as a valuable marker. Murray notes the play's strategic place in Ireland's cultural history, at the juncture where de Valera's provincial and parochial Ireland was "about to yield to the new, pragmatic, progressive world of Sean Lemass and T. K. Whitaker in 1958" (118). Placing the play in context, Murray carefully shows how it "may be read metonymically as a more effective critique of the dominant culture than most of the Irish plays staged at the Abbey in the decades before its reopening in 1966" (118). Murray's discussion of the controversy attendant to The Drums of Father Ned neatly supports McDiarmid's earlier essay. Stephen Watt reconsiders Brendan Behan, dubbed by journalists "the Irish Jean Genet" (133), and Genet himself. Watt meanders a bit before arriving at a thesis, but eventually concentrates on the performative aspects of their plays and their cultural significance placed in the context of their times. He argues that Behan's works, positioned at the beginning of the atomic age, representing multiplicity of sexual desires, and implying society's need for tolerance and acceptance of differences, are valuable cultural constructs. Watt makes a valiant effort to mine significance in Behan's oft-belittled Richard's Cork Leg. Judith Roof closes this section with the delightfully titled "Playing Outside with Samuel Beckett." She states: "Things Irish in Beckett's plays are neither setting nor subject, but rather they function as structure in a dramatic practice that depends upon exteriorization, distance, removal, and alienation. Beckett's structural deployment of things Irish suggests that nationality is a tool, one of several mechanisms for enabling and defining alienations" (147). Roof concentrates on Krapp's Last Tape, That Time, and Rockaby, which she aptly calls Beckett's "three recording-apparatus pl ays," to present her argument (149).

"Contemporary Theatre Companies and Revivals" serves as the headnote for Part IV. Mary Trotter commences with "Translating Women into Irish Theatre History," in which she astutely examines how Marina Carr and Christina Reid "have subverted one of the central tropes of Irish realism, a convention which I will call the 'family memory play,' to place women's experience in the narrative foreground." (165). Trotter perceptively analyzes Can's The Mai and Reid's Tea in a China Cup and The Belle of the Belfast City as translations in that they replace the traditional patrilineal narrative of the family memory play with matrilineal narratives. Christina Reid's plays undergo further analysis in Carla J. McDonough's thought-provoking essay. McDonough believes that "Irish theatre has in some sense exacerbated the political turmoil in Northern Ireland since the late 1960s by casting political struggle as something inherently consumed with manhood" (182). Tea in a China Cup and The Belle of the Belfast City ingeniously sh ift the focus to the younger generation of women in Northern Ireland. Such women are, like the legions of male protagonists who precede them, affected by familial, national, and local history; however, Reid strikingly empowers her female characters. McDonough concludes: "Reid explores the delicate balance of both accepting the past and moving beyond it to a better way of life, of neither embracing the martyrdom of foremothers nor validating the oppressive authority of forefathers" (191). Her essay substantiates that by designating women, very precisely and complexly drawn women of Northern Ireland, as achievers of this delicate balance, Reid's plays secure a noteworthy place in contemporary theatre. Christie Fox's essay deals with the largely neglected (but occasionally produced in the late twentieth century) 1930s plays of Teresa Deevy. Fox historicizes Katie Roche and The King of Spain's Daughter adequately. However, she announces her plan to utilize Arnold Van Gennep's 1960 theory of ritual in her efforts to provide feminist readings of the two plays, which will culminate in ironic endings. Fox promises more than she delivers. Her references to Van Gennep are not enough to fully explain or apply the theory. Jose Lanters's essay, "Playwrights of the Western World: Synge, Murphy, McDonagh," is first rate. Her superb analysis of Synge grounds the essay, and she skillfully interweaves additional and relevant information on Synge into her discussions of Tom Murphy and Martin McDonagh. She defines her title precisely:

their focus on the West of Ireland as a locus of displacement from the center and the norm allows them to act as agent provocateurs in the national debate. What makes them part of a 'Western' tradition is an attitude of contrariness to accepted pieties and an ability to use the Irish arts of controversy and conversation... to raise questions about the representation of identity, including Irish national identity. (222)

Lanters elegantly proves that "Storytelling as a 'Western' device is what ties Synge, Murphy, and McDonagh together, but through that device, each dramatist reflects the concerns and anxieties of his age" (221). Synge precedes modernism and deals with the "transformative qualities of language" (221) in the construction of one's identity. Murphy crystallizes more personal situations, including psychological breakdowns, in which storytelling accompanies the move to healing. McDonagh, the postmodernist, rejects the possibility of healing; for him, "language and identity themselves are in crisis... storytelling is not a means but an end in itself" (221-2). Lauren Onkey's piece, "The Passion Machine Theatre Company's Everyday Life," presents interesting information on the history and avowed purposes of the company, whose productions focus on urban Dublin life. She uses three Passion Machine productions, Roddy Doyle's Brownbread and War and Paul Mercier's Buddleia, to substantiate her discussion.

The final section of essays tackles the formidable subject of "Irish History on the Contemporary Stage." Kathleen Hohenleitner gets the topic off to an impressive start with a clever use of pairings. She reads Brian Friel's Making History, the subject of much controversy, in tandem with the controversy around the compilation of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, which was underway when the play premiered in 1988. Hohenleitner compares Lombard's biography of Hugh O'Neill, whose manuscript lies at center stage during Making History, with The Field Day Anthology. In a complex but well-organized argument, she offers probing insights into the biographies of O'Neill, history v. historiography, The Field Day Anthology, and the larger Field Day project. She concludes:

Making History expresses the orality and multiplicity of Irish history without exclusion or calcification while centering the performance around the text in question. Friel's play performs the story of Hugh the way that the anthology performs the nation. Both productions place the text at the center of the stage, and both refuse to limit their subject to what the text dictates, but rather, they find the expression of their subject in the competing narratives about the subject that each performance generates. (254).

Equally compelling is Marilynn Richtarik's erudite explication of Stewart Parker's Belfast history plays. Richtarik analyzes plays ranging from Parker's early radio work to his first professionally staged drama, Spokesong (1975), to the more familiar Northern Star (1984) and Pentecost (1987). She deciphers how the staggering impact of Northern history on modem day Belfast informs Parker's work. Moreover, Richtarik elucidates the playwright's very conscious perspective on the role of the artist in a fractured society. She writes: "Parker's entire career, by means of which he deliberately wed himself to his native place through an imaginative engagement with its history, was a declaration of faith in people's capacity to be educated into tolerance and appreciation of each other" (274). She closes with a bittersweet quote from Parker's 1986 lecture, Dramatis Personae, in which he decries the failure of politicians but acclaims the responsibility of dramatic artists to help troubled Belfast. The subject shifts to "Frank McGuinness and the Ruins of History" in James Hurt's essay. His piece is intriguing in its use of the historiography of Walter Benjamin. I wish, though, that he had limited his discussion to a select few McGuinness plays rather than a total of six (The Factory Girls, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme, Innocence, Carthaginians, Someone Who'll Watch over Me, and Mutabilitie). Trying to cover all of these sometimes yields a catalogue effect: stating a point and then quickly noting, almost listing, without development, how it applies to a number of the plays. Closing the volume is Scott T. Cummings's treatment of the work of Sebastian Barry. Cummings aims to "define (his) sense of Barry's 'millennial urge,' a persistent trope in his dramas of transcendence and hope" (202). He undertakes thorough analyses of Barry's recent plays, The Steward of Christendom and Our Lady of Sligo, followed by briefer comments on two earlier plays, Prayers of Sherkin and The Only True History of Lizzie Fin n. Cummings would benefit from a clear definition of "millennial urge" early in the essay rather than leaving the essay's development to yield one. However, he does arrive at a conclusion that clarifies his intentional exploration of the recent plays first, the earlier plays later. He writes:

If the past is characterized as a broken promise in the two plays set after 1922 (Steward and Our Lady), then the future can be seen as a promise waiting to be broken in the two plays set before 1922 (Prayers and Lizzie Finn). Proleptically and retrospectively, the foundational moment of the modern Irish state, the period from the Easter Rising through the War of Independence and the Civil War to the ascension of "King De Valera" (as one character refers to him in The Steward of Christendom), looms over the lives of Barry's characters like a dark cloud. It is a history, or history yet to be, which is so ever-present as to engender a millennial urge for deliverance. (298)

Cummings ultimately differentiates between "millennial urge" and the "direct image of apocalypse" (298) theatrically presented by American playwrights Tony Kushner and Jose Rivera, and his argument falls into place.

Upon completing A Century of Irish Drama, I am reminded of the view one finds when photographing with a new, wide-angle lens. Several familiar objects that one has viewed before are still in sight, but one's perspective on them has shifted. Beyond the familiar view, in a few different directions, lie new objects and new areas that expand the picture. The scholars of A Century of Irish Drama have figuratively gone to their chosen camera shops, and each has purchased a wide-angle lens. I urge you to become acquainted with the resulting panorama.

St. John's University
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Author:Lynch, Vivian Valvano
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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