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The Voice of Nationalism

One Hundred Years of Irish Theatre

By Stephen Watt | HUMANITIES, January/February 1999 | Volume 20, Number 1

The rise of Irish nationalism at the end of the last century has inspired generations of Irish playwrights to draw upon their Celtic 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 has delivered history lessons on such topics as Northern 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 (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), and the Galway of Martin McDonough's Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West (1997), represent a greener, more traditional Ireland that bears only slight resemblance to the accelerated pace of life 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, whiskey-swilling, 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 Fenian rising of the 1860s or the Great Famine of the late 1840s, 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. In announcing the Irish Literary Theatre's first productions in 1899, Yeats extolled the power of nationalism:

There is no feeling, except religious feeling, which moves masses of men so powerfully as national feeling, and upon this, more widely spread among all classes in Ireland to-day than at any time this century, we build our principal hopes.

The 1890s proved a crucial period for cultural reclamation in Ireland, as Yeats's observations about nationalist sentiment having spread among "all classes" by 1899 suggests. The Gaelic League, whose aim was to preserve the Irish language, was founded in 1893. Michael Collins, a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising, called this the "greatest event . . .of the whole history of the nation," because it "did more than any other movement to restore the national pride, honor, and self-respect." A few years later, Arthur Griffith founded the Cumann na nGaedheal to organize national societies and advocate Irish independence.

Throughout the closing decades of the nineteenth century, intellectuals and writers revisited Celtic mythology, creating stories and plays about epic figures in Ireland's past, such as Cuchulain, a mythic warrior from the Ulster cycle. The dramatic moments created then still surface today. For example, Cuchulain's desperate battle with whitecaps to protect his fallen son has been transported from the final moments of Yeats's On Baile's Strand (1904) to the wrenching conclusion of Jim Sheridan's 1990 film The Field. In more recent memory are the midnight oaths of allegiance to Cuchulain sworn by the bleary-eyed McCourt brothers to their inebriated father in Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes.

For many, the restoration of national honor required personal sacrifice, which was reflected in the drama. Plays like Yeats's Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902) served as a call for young Irishmen to help the metaphorical Mother Ireland evict the "strangers" from her house -- strangers who have taken her four green fields (Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connacht). She acknowledges her call as demanding "hard service," but claims that those who take up her cause will be remembered forever.

The discourse of heroic martyrdom continued during the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule and during the later civil wars of the twenties. In Act Two of The Plough and the Stars by Sean O'Casey, set in a pub during 1916, a speaker's voice wafts through a window inciting a crowd outside to action. O'Casey took the speech from the rhetoric of Padraic Pearse, a leader of the Rising:

It is a glorious thing to see arms in the hands of Irishmen. We must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms. . . . Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood.

Later, though, Nora Clitheroe, O'Casey's central character, is in no way relieved or uplifted to learn that her husband has died for the cause. And Irish audiences were shocked that, only ten years after an event which had claimed the lives of many of their loved ones, a playwright like O'Casey would dare impugn the sanctity of the nationalist project. Another riot in the theater ensued, followed by sharp public debate.

O'Casey's earlier Juno and the Paycock shares a similar view toward violence, in this instance the struggle between Irish factions during the civil war of the early 1920s. In it Juno Boyle learns of the execution of her son by his former comrades and prays, "Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets, when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets? Sacred Heart o' Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh!" Of course, other substantive issues surface in these plays -- trade unionism, the rise of socialist ideology, sexism, and so on -- but the violence of Irish history has dominated the nation's stage.

Some of the most controversial plays by those writers appearing in the 1950s and 60s include Behan's 1958 The Hostage, concerning IRA operations at midcentury, and Tom Murphy's The Famine (1964), an ironic revisiting of what may be the most devastating nightmare of Irish history.

Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1986) describes the "blood sacrifice" northern Protestants made in World War I to express their loyalty to the British Crown, Friel's The Freedom of the City (1973) offers wry commentary on the killing of peace marchers in Derry in the early 1970s, while Anne Devlin's Ourselves Alone (1986) sketches the complex positions of those Catholic women in the North either forced to wait for their IRA husbands to be released from prison or moved to take arms and join the struggle.

Some recent plays visit the past less and use contemporary conflicts as their subjects. Marie Jones's A Night in November (1994) begins with a tense World Cup soccer match between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as narrated by a single fan, a more or less average man. Its opening line, however marked by playful exaggeration -- "That day started out like every other day starts out. . . .check under the car for explosive devices" -- clarifies how in such volatile political climates even the most mundane activities contain the potential for violence and the inexorable march of an all-too-familiar history. By now, Irish playwrights have overcome the stereotypes of a century ago and are challenged to chronicle and interpret a new chapter in their nation's progress.

Stephen Watt is Professor of English at Indiana University and author of Joyce, O'Casey, and the Irish Popular Theater and Postmodern/Drama: Reading the Contemporary Stage.

This May, he will direct the conference "One Hundred Years of Irish Theatre" at Indiana University, supported by $40,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities.