Saturday, January 20, 2024

Irish Poetic Drama

Prior to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, Ireland did not have a recognized independent state, but even before the country was recognized as a nation, activists strove to create a national Irish theatre.

In 1897 a trio of artists, Isabella Augusta Gregory, William Butler Yeats, and Edward Martyn, published a manifesto calling for an Irish literary theatre that could present high-quality drama on Irish themes. The three teamed up with the writer George Moore to officially establish the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899, renting concert rooms to put on Yeats's controversial verse drama The Countess Cathleen.

From the beginning, the Irish Literary Theatre was involved in controversy. A critic circulated a pamphlet condemning The Countess Cathleen, and the highest-ranking catholic prelate in Ireland wrote to newspapers attacking the play. Many Irish nationalists supported the piece, however, and so many supporters and detractors showed up on opening night that the police were called in as well, just in case there was trouble.

The Irish Literary Theatre produced a play co-written by Yeats and Moore, Diarmuid and Grania, and later regrouped under the name of W.G. Fay's Irish National Dramatic Company. This theatre presented Cathleen Ni Houlihan, another controversial play by Yeats in which he credited Gregory as a collaborator. Though at first glance the play appears to be naturalistic, its title character personifies Ireland itself, first as an old, worn-out woman, and then as a young girl who walks like a queen.

The following year, the company reformed again with funding from the theatre manager Annie Horniman, establishing what came to be known as the Abbey Theatre. In addition to reviving Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the Abbey premiered another Yeats play, On Baile's Strand, along with a play by Gregory, Spreading the News, and a new play called In the Shadow of the Glen by a previously unknown writer named John Millington Synge.

Synge's plays became an important if controversial part of the Abbey's repertoire. His one-act drama Riders to the Sea depicted the lives of poor fishing families in the west of Ireland, and his full-length comedy The Playboy of the Western World offended so many people that the audience rioted when the Abbey premiered it in 1907. Tragically, Synge died two years later, his life cut short at the age of 37.

After Ireland gained independence, the nation fell into a civil war between rival factions. The new nation's turbulent history was recorded in the plays of Sean O'Casey, whose trilogy of plays set in Dublin, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars, recount political events with both humor and pathos.

These plays retain much of the poetic lyricism of Gregory, Yeats, and Synge. Yeats continued to write verse drama, and finished his last plays, The Herne's Egg, Purgatory, and The Death of Cuchulain, shortly before he died in 1939.