María Gaviña-Costero
University of Valencia, Spain

Creative Commons 4.0 by María Gaviña-Costero. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

When bringing together essays on such a long period of Irish literature (1716-2016) there is always a risk of lack of coherence and completeness. The present work, divided into two volumes due to the size of the enterprise, attempts to counter this with the metaphor of the “golden thread” from Lady Gregory’s play Grania (1912), a mystical line linking in time the artistic output of a kind of sisterhood made up of Irish women playwrights, as well as the use of chronological order to present each play under discussion. The disparity in the number of plays for which sufficient archival material is available has forced the editors to offer two quite different volumes: the first covers 1716 to 1992, almost three centuries, and the second 1992 to 2016, just over twenty years. This, of course, reflects the state of both theatre-based research created by women and, more generally, Irish women’s writing for most of our history. However, despite this asymmetry – a consequence of greater gender inequality in the past – the wealth of plays covered in the second volume undoubtedly provides a glimmer of hope for future theatre practice and scholarship.

This being the case, such a publication cannot help but produce the impression that the plays studied may not always be the most representative of the respective authors. Nevertheless, its undeniable value lies in the effort to cover a very long period and to recover many valuable plays from a genre-induced oblivion, even if the information has to be accessed from newspapers and archives because the original plays were not published and have inevitably been lost, as editors Clare, McDonagh, and Nakase state when describing the position in which these playwrights have been placed with respect to the canon: “Over the years they have been exiled from their own stages, neglected in academic criticism, and often excluded from the narrative of ‘Irish theatre’ altogether” (1).

The introduction to the first volume describes the three causes that have led to the canonical exclusion of women playwrights in Ireland: the difficulties in getting their plays produced in their time; the fact that most of them could not get published, which meant that they were erased from literary history; and -unfortunately still the case today- the absence of revivals of their plays, even when they were commercially successful. In the introduction to the second volume, the editors outline its timeframe: from Glasshouse Production’s 1992 “There Are no Irish Playwrights” showcase, to the 2016 #WakingtheFeminists campaign, sparked by the under-representation of women playwrights in the “Waking the Nation” programme for the centenary of the Easter Rising at the Abbey Theatre. They also illustrate the urgency and necessity of this collection considering that, after the shake-up of the 1992 showcase, everything reverted to the status quo. Therefore, with this book the editors hope to raise the visibility of the plays of these contemporary women playwrights and thereby encourage revivals, publications, and critical discussion. However, I find in both introductions some regrettable oversights in terms of pioneering academic publications in the study of Irish women playwrights: on the one hand, Lisa Fitzpatrick’s works, both the landmark book Performing Feminisms in Contemporary Ireland (2013), and her recent monograph on the representation of gendered violence on stage, Rape on the Contemporary Stage (2018); and, on the other, Political Acts: Women in Northern Irish Theatre (1921-2012), by Fiona Coleman Coffey, a comprehensive survey of theatre written and produced by women in Northern Ireland. That said, because of the length of the work, I deem it necessary to divide the review into two parts corresponding to the two volumes.

Volume 1 (1716-1992)

In the inaugural chapter of this volume Marguerite Corporaal asserts Mary Davys’s rightful place as a pioneer of Irish drama written by women, even though the play she discusses, The Northern Heiress; Or, the Humours of York (1716), is neither set in Ireland nor has Irish characters. On the other hand, Conrad Brunström’s reappraisal of Frances Sheridan’s dramatic work, overshadowed by her son’s theatrical success, sparks interest, as does his appreciation of Sheridan’s sentimental comedy The Discovery (1763). In her article, Clíona Ó Gallchoir sets out to prove that Elizabeth Griffith’s The Platonic Wife (1765) is a nationalist play. She makes an illuminating comparison between the manuscript and the published play to show how its poor reception led to changes to make it more commercial.

The next chapter is a very engaging review of a youth play by Maria Edgeworth, The Double Disguise (1786), in which Sonja Lawrenson shows how the writer plays with disability as a political metaphor in the figure of the protean soldier Westbrook. Fiona McDonagh and Marc Mac Lochlainn are Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) practitioners, and their chapter proposes an adaptation of Edgeworth’s The Knapsack (1801). It is a compelling project that makes us wonder why it has not yet been staged.

David Clare’s chapter demonstrates in rich detail the reason why Mary Balfour’s Kathleen O’Neil (1814) should be considered a significant text in Irish studies, as it is the first play to use Irish mythology as a plot source. Ciara Moloney, also drawing on mythology, applies the archetype of the triple goddess – maiden, mother, and crone – to the character of Mabel in Anna Maria Hall’s Mabel’s Curse (1837) to reveal the play’s complexities.

The author of the next chapter has perhaps the least in common with the other contributors. Mark Fitzgerald is a musicologist and, as such, has focused on women’s participation in nineteenth-century Irish opera. Unfortunately, his research has necessarily been based on secondary sources, as there is no written record of the three comic operas composed by Elena Norton and Mary Heyne between 1876 and 1879. For her part, Justine Nakase discusses how Clotilde Grave’s A Mother of Three (1896) exposes a curious case of cross-dressing in the cultural context of the late-nineteenth century in which clothing acts as a political and social symbol.

In performance studies, reception is too often neglected. This is not the case with the next chapter, in which Anna Pilz describes the public response to Lady Gregory’s The Rising of the Moon (1903) and its history prior to its premiere at the Abbey theatre, as an amateur performance in London and its publication in an Irish American magazine. Still discussing Lady Gregory, the next chapter deals with Grania (1912), which, although considered by some to be her best full-length play, and despite the playwright’s pivotal role at the Abbey theatre, it has never been performed there. Shirley-Anne Godfrey believes that this is because her protagonist is a woman who is open about her sexual needs. Godfrey debunks the myths surrounding both the playwright and the play.

We are now into the twentieth century, where the change in the status of women becomes apparent in the number of plays available for consideration: the book contains nine chapters in total for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and twelve for the twentieth century. Moreover, as can be seen in the article by the scholar and theatre director Thomas Conway, productions begin to engage openly with politics; indeed, Conway draws on the political stance of the suffragette playwrights Geraldine Cummins and Susanne R. Day to support the claim that their play Fox and Geese (1917), despite its ostensible comedy, was in fact a proto-feminist play aimed at the intellectual audience of the Abbey Theatre. Ruud van den Beuken, for his part, provides an illuminating analysis of Mary Manning’s play Youth’s the Season? (1931) in which he addresses the liminal position of a doomed social class in the Free State, that of affluent young Protestants.

The next chapter presents for the first time in the book the analysis of the adaptation of a play, with a rigorous study of the elements used in the transformation of Teresa Deevy’s The King of Spain’s Daughter (1935) into a vehicle for exploring the double discrimination suffered by Irish deaf women. Úna Kealy and Kate McCarthy describe the interpretation by Amanda Coogan and the Dublin Theatre of the Deaf under the title Talk Real Fine, Just Like a Lady in 2017. Ciara O’Dowd describes, based on archival information, the premiere of Elizabeth Connor’s (Una Troy) Mount Prospect (1940). O’Dowd argues that this should be considered a “national” play, that is, “a play composed to speak to the hearts and minds of the nation” (213).

In the following chapter, Kevin O’Connor draws a connection between the play Tankardstown (1948) by one of Gate’s patrons, Christine Longford, and the Celtic Tiger. O’Connor argues that this is her most celebrated work and that it is prophetic in its denunciation of the country’s corruption. Still discussing plays related to the Gate Theatre, Cathy Leeney and Deirdre McFeely consider that Maura Laverty’s “Dublin Trilogy” (1951-1952) has long been neglected despite the importance of the first two plays, Liffey Lane (1951) and Tolka Row (1951), to the Dublin stage of the 1950s and the Gate Theatre’s economy. Leeney and McFeely highlight the originality of Laverty’s approach, engendered by her own political agenda. For his part, Feargal Whelan blames the inclusion of Máiréad Ní Ghráda’s play An Triail/On Trial (1964) in the A-level Irish language syllabus in Northern Ireland and in the Leaving Certificate in the Republic for its lack of resonance, as, in his view, this inclusion has meant the categorisation of the play as an object of study for young adults, and therefore of little interest.

The three chapters which close this volume examine plays that deal with traumatic events in Ireland’s recent history: the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries in the Republic. Emilie Pine analyses the uses of memory in Northern Irish playwright Christina Reid’s three plays: Tea in a China Cup (1983), The Belle of Belfast City (1989), and My Name, Shall I Tell You My Name? (1989). Pine argues that the plays show the binding yet dissolving power of memory in family and community. Anne Devlin is, along with Reid, the most important Northern Irish playwright of the twentieth century, although she has only performed two plays on stage; however, she has written extensively for radio, a medium she considers well suited to an intimate experience of the spoken word. Megan W. Minogue looks at one of her least-known plays, The Long March (1984), which was first broadcast as a telefilm and has recently been recovered in a publication alongside Ourselves Alone (1985). Taken together, these two plays have in common different perspectives on the Troubles depending on the gender of the characters. Finally, we find a study of the first staging of a witness to the inhumane practices that took place in the Magdalene Laundries. Patricia Burke Brogan’s Eclipsed (1988/1992) is considered a brave document by Patricia O’Beirne, especially as it dares to grant a voice to the nuns who worked and ran the place.

In the coda concluding the first volume, Cathy Leeney explores the reasons for the invisibility of theatre written by women, even when the play has been successful, because commercial success does not usually mean revivals. She presents as one of the reasons the way in which women have adopted the male gaze and demonstrates with Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles (1916) how women do see differently.

Volume 2 (1992-2016)

The second volume begins with Fiona McDonagh’s exploration of one of Marie Jones’s plays for children, Don’t Look Down (1992), in which the playwright addresses disability. McDonagh praises the play as ground-breaking, although she is careful to expose its shortcomings as seen from today’s perspective on the handling of disability. Still focusing on non-normative communities in the late-twentieth century, the next chapter takes on Emma Donoghue’s stage adaptation of the coded diaries of a Regency woman, Anne Lister, I Know My Own Heart (1993), which depicts the double exclusion of lesbian women. Shonagh Hill examines how the playwright counters heteronormative discourse with a subversion of theatrical realism.

Nelson Barre’s article on Gina Moxley’s Danti-Dan (1995) argues that the play goes beyond the depiction of women’s oppression in puritanical 1970s Ireland to address society’s culpable ignorance of teenage sex and the terrible consequences of that ignorance. From the localism of the previous play, we move on to cultural globalisation with this chapter by director Sarah Jane Scaife on her experience of staging Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats… (1998) for a Chinese audience. She details the whole process of translation and negotiation of meaning and the difficulties encountered due to cultural and linguistic interference. These are already the years of Celtic Tiger’s once-celebrated economic success, which has had a corresponding representation on the Irish stage. Shane O’Neill examines the ways in which it can be traced in Ursula Rani Sarma’s Blue (2000).

As can be seen, the chapters in this volume demonstrate the special sensitivity of the female gaze when representing marginalised groups. In her article, Mary Burke exposes a reality that has remained hidden for too long: the discrimination suffered by the Traveller community. Using Rosaleen McDonagh’s The Baby Doll Project (2003), Burke discusses the difficulties faced by the Traveller population and, in McDonagh’s case, exacerbated by two other factors of discrimination, her gender and her disability. On the other hand, and returning to the Celtic Tiger theme, Clare Wallace argues in her chapter that, although Stella Feehily’s O Go My Man (2006) is an accurate portrayal of the creative class during the Celtic Tiger years, as a social indictment it is somewhat flawed. The next play discussed is at the opposite in tone and subject matter, since it deals with the Protestant working class in post-conflict Northern Ireland. Carole Quigley’s article addresses “toxic masculinity” as depicted in Abbie Spallen’s Pumpgirl (2006).

As might be expected, Marina Carr is the playwright most often featured in this volume. José Lanters compares her play Woman and Scarecrow (2006) with the body of medieval Christian texts Ars Moriendi (1415), to show how Carr’s play is a reinterpretation from a feminine and secular point of view of the preparation for the good death. In the next chapter, the theme of minds on the edge is also addressed. David Clare’s study of Lizzie Nunnery’s Intemperance (2007) is certainly thought-provoking in its exploration of Irish-descended playwrights portrayal of Irish immigrants as mentally unstable. Clare’s well-researched documentation demonstrates the fact that the Irish population in Britain suffers much higher rates of mental disorders due to hardship. Thus, in his opinion, both Nunnery and the rest of the playwrights mentioned are merely staging a truth with a very empathetic eye.

While volume 1 includes a study of one of Anne Devlin’s little-known plays, another of her neglected works features in Graham Price’s chapter in the second volume, an unpublished radio drama, The Forgotten (2009). Price explores the use of memory in this play as both necessary and traumatic for both the individual and the community. On a different note, Brenda O’Connell discusses the representation of three social invisibilities in Amy Conroy’s I (Heart) Alice (Heart) I (2010), in which the characters are two older lesbian women. While O’Connell is keen to demonstrate the relevance of this mock-documentary play in revealing these marginalised positions and in the accurate representation of age and agism on the page, she is also highly critical of the director and playwright’s choice to use young actors rather than actors closer to the ages of the characters.

The embodiment of the different faces of motherhood is the driving motif of Dorothy Morrissey’s study of Deirdre Kinahan’s Moment (2011). She argues that all three female characters are contained in one form or another in traditional tropes of motherhood, and that the playwright has created a “kitchen-sink” drama to subvert patriarchal tradition. The next chapter moves away from the naturalism of Kinahan’s drama to explore the theme of disability anew, now by means of the freak as metaphor in Lynda Radley’s Futureproof (2011). Siobhán Purcell contends that the performance of the play reveals how the audience’s gaze in the theatre is similar to that of the freak show audience. And back to the study of family relationships, Mária Kurdi discusses the representation in Nancy Harris’s Our New Girl (2012) of parental and marital failure, comparing the play to Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlin (1996) and Martin Crimp’s The Country (2000). Drawing on intersubjectivity theory, Kurdi delves into the different “new girls” exemplified in the stranger who subverts our understanding of the play.

“Toxic masculinity” is again the main theme in a play by another contemporary Northern Irish playwright, as evidenced by Justine Nakase’s discussion of Stacey Gregg’s Shibboleth (2015). Nakase bravely criticises director Pirie’s decision in his 2015 performance to stage Wall’s character in the play as female rather than as it appears in the text, since this characterisation places the blame for the violence of the male characters on women. Brian Ó Conchubhair’s article repeats the accusation already noted of the double discrimination suffered by women playwrights writing in the Irish language when analysing Celia de Fréine’s Luíse (2016). This chapter presents a difficulty for non-Irish speakers, as none of the quotations have been translated.

The second volume also concludes with a coda, written by Melissa Sihra. She declares Lady Gregory the matron of this sisterhood of theatre professionals and, by relating her work to that of Marina Carr, develops the theory of the hag – the witch/wise woman – and her connection to the supernatural, a recurring theme in the works of many Irish women playwrights. 

Conclusion

This is one of those indispensable works that will influence the future of performance studies and feminist criticism. The number and variety of voices on display, the effort in the reconstruction of the canon by adding women playwrights who had been erased in the past, and the declared ambition to draw attention to and create the conditions for revivals and publications of plays created by contemporary women playwrights make this extensive compilation more than recommendable. Although from a very subjective perspective, I also find the use of the footnotes useful because, in my opinion, they help to facilitate the reading flow and allow us to benefit to the maximum from the large amount of data provided in such a diligent manner. All in all, a very enjoyable edition, which makes for a rewarding read and provides essential information.

Works Cited

Coffey, Fiona Coleman (2016). Political Acts: Women in Northern Irish Theatre, 1921-2012. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Fitzpatrick, Lisa (2013). Performing Feminisms in Contemporary Ireland. Dublin: Carysfort Press.

_______ (2018). Rape on the Contemporary Stage. London: Palgrave Macmillan.