THE IRISH THEATRE
By JOSEPH HOLLOWAY.
The Irish theatre and secular drama may be said to begin with the production of James Shirley’s historical play, St. Patrick for Ireland, in Werburgh Street Theatre, about 1636-7; and though Dublin was a great school for acting, and supplied many of the best players to the English stage, such as Quin, Macklin, Peg Woffington, Miss O’Neill, and hosts of others, it never really possessed a creative theatre (save at the Capel Street Theatre for a few years during the Grattan Parliament) until the modern movement in Ireland came into being and the Abbey Theatre became its headquarters.
Of course, innumerable plays by Irish writers were written, but most of them were not distinctively Irish in character; and the names of Goldsmith, Sheridan, O’Keeffe, Farquhar, Sheridan Knowles, Oscar Wilde, and dozens of others will always be remembered as great Irish writers for the stage. And when fine impersonators of Irish character like Tyrone Power, John Drew, or Barney Williams arrived, there were always to be found several clever writers to fit them with parts, the demand always creating the supply.
Even before Dion Boucicault took to writing Irish dramas of a more palatable and less “stage-Irish” character than those of his immediate predecessors, some excellent plays, Irish in character and tone, had from time to time found their way to the stage. However, Boucicault sweetened our stage by the production of The Colleen Bawn, Arrah-na-Pogue, and The Shaughraun, and showed by his rollicking impersonations of Myles, Shan, and Conn, how good-humored, hearty, and self-sacrificing Irish boys in humble life can be. He had great technical knowledge of stagecraft, and that has helped to make his Irish plays live in the popular goodwill right up to today.
A revolt against Boucicault’s Irish boys, all fun and frolic, and charming colleens, who could do no wrong, has made our modern playwrights go to the other extreme; so that now we find our stage peopled with peasants, cruel, hard, and forbidding for the most part, and with colleens who are the reverse of lovable in thought or act. Neither picture is quite true of our people. What is really wanted is the happy medium, which few, if any, of our new playwrights have yet given us.
If our great popular Irish drama has yet to come, I think the Fays have made it possible to say that a distinct and really fine dramatic school has arisen in Ireland, evolved out of their wonderful skill in teaching, producing, and acting; and if we are not always really delighted with what our playwrights give us, the almost perfect way in which the plays are served up by the actors invariably wholly satisfies. It is the actors who have made the Abbey Theatre famous, and not the plays. Such acting as theirs cast a spell over all who see them. What pleasing memories do the names of W.G. Fay, Frank J. Fay, Dudley Digges, Sara Allgood, Arthur Sinclair, Maire O’Neill, Maire ni Shuiblaigh, J.M. Kerrigan, Fred O’Donovan, Eileen O’Doherty, Una O’Connor, Eithne Magee, Nora Desmond, and John Connolly recall!
With the production of W.B. Yeats’s poetic one-act play, The Land of Heart’s Desire, at the Avenue Theatre, London, on March 29, 1894, began the modern Irish dramatic movement. When the poet had tasted the joys of the footlights, he longed to see an Irish Literary Theatre realized in Ireland. Five years later, in the Antient Concert Rooms, Dublin, on May 9, 1899, his play, The Countess Cathleen, was produced, and his desire gratified. The experiment was tried for three years and then dropped; plays by Yeats, Edward Martyn, George Moore, and Alice Milligan were staged with English-trained actors in the casts; and a Gaelic play–the first ever presented in a theatre in Ireland–was also given during the third season. It was The Twisting of the Rope, by Dr. Douglas Hyde, and was played at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, on October 21, 1901, by a Gaelic Amateur Dramatic Society coached by W.G. Fay. The author filled the principal part with distinction.
It was while rehearsing this play that the thought came to Fay: “Why not have my little company of Irish-born actors–the Ormond Dramatic Society–appear in plays by Irish writers instead of in the ones they have been giving for years?” And the thought soon ripened into realization. His brother, Frank, had dreamed of such a company since he read of the small beginnings out of which the Norwegian Theatre had grown; and just then, seeing some of “Æ’s” (George Russell’s) play, Deirdre, in the All Ireland Review, he asked the author if he would allow them to produce it, and, consent being given, the company put it into rehearsal at once. “Æ” got for them from Yeats Kathleen-Ni-Houlihan, to make up the programme. Thus it was that this company of amateurs and poets, now known as the Abbey Players, came into existence, and at St. Teresa’s Hall, Clarendon Street, Dublin, gave their first performance on April 2, 1902.
Shortly afterwards they took a hall at the back of a shop in Camden Street, where they rehearsed and gave a few public performances. On “Æ” declining to be their president, Frank Fay suggested the name of W.B. Yeats, and he was elected, and in that way came again into the movement in which he has figured so largely ever since.
The company played occasionally in the Molesworth Hall, and produced there, among other pieces, Synge’s In the Shadow of the Glen (October 8, 1903) and Riders to the Sea (February 25, 1904); Yeats’s The Hour Glass (March 14, 1903) and The King’s Threshold (October 8, 1903); Lady Gregory’s Twenty-five (March 14,1903); and Padraic Colum’s Broken Soil (December 3, 1903).
On March 26, 1904, the company paid a flying one-day visit to the Royalty, London, and Miss A.E.F. Horniman, who had given Shaw, Yeats, and Dr. John Todhunter their first real start as playwrights at the Avenue, London, in March-April, 1894 (Shaw had had his first play, Widowers’ Houses, played by the Independent Theatre in 1892), saw the performance, and was so impressed that she thought she would like to find a suitable home for such talent in Dublin, and fixed upon the old Mechanics’ Institute and its surrounding buildings, and there the Abbey Theatre soon afterwards–on December 27, 1904–came into existence.
In writing of this Irish dramatic movement, one must always bear in mind that it was Yeats who first conceived the idea of such a movement; the Fays who founded the school of Irish acting; and Miss Horniman who, like a fairy godmother, waved the wand, and gave it a habitation and a name–the Abbey Theatre–and endowed it for six years.
Play followed play with great rapidity, and dramatic societies sprang up all over the country, playing home-made productions in Gaelic and English. All Ireland seemed to be play-acting and play-writing; so much so that Frank Fay was heard to say that “he thought everyone had a play in his pocket, and that anyone in the street could be picked up and shaped into an actor or actress with a little training, Ireland was so teeming with talent!”
Dramatic Ireland had slumbered for a long while, and awoke with tremendous vigor for work. New dramatists sprang up in all parts of Ireland; The Ulster Literary Theatre started in Belfast; The Cork Dramatic Society, in Cork; The Theatre of Ireland, in Dublin; and others in Galway and Waterford soon followed. In Dublin at present more than half a dozen dramatic societies are continually producing new plays and discovering new acting talent. There are also two Gaelic dramatic societies. And nearly every town in Ireland now has its own dramatic class and its own dramatists. All this activity has come about within the last ten or twelve years, where, before, in many places, drama and acting were almost unknown.
Many Gaelic societies throughout the country put on Gaelic plays by Dr. Douglas Hyde, Pierce Beasley, Thomas Haynes, Canon Peter O’Leary, and others; and the Oireachtas (the Gaelic musical and literary festival) held each year in Dublin usually presents several Irish plays and offers prizes for new ones at each festival.
Of all the Irish playwrights who have arisen in recent years, Lady Gregory has produced most and W.B. Yeats is the most poetic. He is more a lyric poet than a dramatist, and is never satisfied with his work for the stage, but keeps eternally chopping and changing it. His Kathleen-Ni-Houlihan, though a dream-play, always appeals to an audience of Irish people. Perhaps his one-act Deirdre is the nearest approach to real drama he has done. Some of Lady Gregory’s earlier one-act farces, such as The Workhouse-Ward, are very amusing; The Rising of the Moon is a little dramatic gem, and The Gaol Gate is touched with genuine tragedy. Synge wrote only one play–Riders to the Sea–that acts well. The others are admired by critics for the strangeness of their diction and the beauty of the nature-pictures scattered through them. His much-discussed Playboy of the Western World has become famous for the rows it has created at home and abroad from its very first production on January 26, 1907. William Boyle, who gets to the heart of those he writes about, has produced the most popular play of the movement in The Eloquent Dempsey, and a perfectly constructed one in The Building Fund. W.F. Casey’s two plays–The Man Who Missed the Tide and The Suburban Groove–are both popular and actable. Padraic Colum’s plays–The Land and Broken Soil (the latter rewritten and renamed The Fiddler’s House)–are almost idyllic scenes of country life. Lennox Robinson’s plays are harsh in tone, but dramatically effective, and T.C. Murray’s Birthright and Maurice Harte are fine dramas, well constructed and full of true knowledge of the people he writes about. Seumas O’Kelly has written two strong dramas in The Shuiler’s Child and The Bribe, and Seumas O’Brien one of the funniest Irish farces ever staged in Duty. R.J. Ray’s play, The Casting Out of Martin Whelan, is the best this dramatist has as yet given us, and George Fitzmaurice’s The Country Dressmaker has the elements of good drama in it. St. John G. Ervine has written a very human drama in Mixed Marriage. He hails from the north of Ireland; but Rutherford Mayne is the best of the Northern playwrights, and his plays, The Drone and The Turn of the Road, are splendid homely county Down comedies.
Bernard Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island, as Irish plays go, is a fine specimen; Canon Hannay has written two successful comedies, Eleanor’s Enterprise and General John Regan–the latter not wholly to the taste of the people of the west. James Stephens and Jane Barlow have also tried their hands at playwriting, with but moderate success. Perhaps the modern drama that made the most impression when first played was The Heather Field, by Edward Martyn. It gripped and remains a lasting memory with all who saw it in 1899. But I think I have written enough to show that the Irish Theatre of today is in a very alive condition, and that if the great National Dramatist has not yet arrived, he is sure to emerge. When that time comes, the actors are here ready to interpret such work to perfection.
An article, however brief, on the Irish Theatre, would be incomplete without mention of the world-famous tragedians, John Edward MacCullough, Lawrence Patrick Barrett, and Barry Sullivan; of genial comedians like Charles Sullivan and Hubert O’Grady; of sterling actors like Shiel Barry, John Brougham, Leonard Boyne, J.D. Beveridge, and Thomas Nerney; or of operatic artists like Denis O’Sullivan and Joseph O’Mara–many of whom have passed away, but some, fortunately, are with us still.
John Genest: Some Account of the English Stage from the Restoration to 1830 (1832; vol. 10 is devoted to the Irish Stage); Chetwood: General History of the Stage, more particularly of the Irish Theatre (Dublin, 1749); Molloy: Romance of the Irish Stage; Baker: Biographia Dramatica (Dublin, 1782); Hitchcock: An Historical View of the Irish Stage from its Earliest Period down to the Season of 1788; Doran: Their Majesties’ Servants, or Annals of the English Stage (London, 1865); Hughes: The Pre-Victorian Drama in Dublin; The History of the Theatre Royal, Dublin (Dublin, 1870); Levey and O’Rourke: Annals of the Theatre Royal (Dublin, 1880); O’Neill: Irish Theatrical History (Dublin, 1910); Brown: A Guide to Books on Ireland (Dublin, 1912); Lawrence: The Abbey Theatre (in the Weekly Freeman, Dublin, Dec., 1912), Origin of the Abbey Theatre (in Sinn Fein, Dublin, Feb. 14, 1914); Weygandt: Irish Plays and Playwrights (London, 1913); Lady Gregory: Our Irish Theatre (London, 1914); Bourgeois: John M. Synge and the Irish Theatre (London, 1913); Moore: Hail and Farewell, 3 vols. (London, 1911-1914); Esmore: The Ulster Literary Theatre (in the Lady of the House, Dublin, Nov. 15, 1913); the Reviews, Beltaine (1899-1900) and Samhain (1901-1903).