François-Rabelais University, Tours, France
Edited by Nicholas Grene and Chris Morash
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 764 pp.
“There is a story here, a meta-narrative, which is, we believe, hospitable to all the micro-narratives that, from time to time, have achieved prominence as the official version of the true history, political and literary, of the island’s past and present”. It is not hard to imagine that Nicholas Grene and Chris Morash, as they set about editing the wonderful and exciting volume that they have produced with the help of over 40 contributors, may have borne in mind this short extract from Seamus Deane’s introduction to the famous Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. In its own way, what The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Theatre provides is indeed a meta-narrative of sorts, based on the transformation of Irish drama into Irish theatre. But it remains hospitable to many micro-narratives such as the role of the Abbey, the professionalization of Irish theatre, the omission and later recognition of women, the place granted to Shaw, Wilde or Beckett in an Irish tradition, the slow recognition that the playwright’s text gains from, indeed depends on the work of directors, designers and actors, the globalisation of Irish drama. The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Theatre is both a comprehensive survey of modern Irish theatre, and a highly reflexive review of changing modes of writing and thinking about modernity/modernism, Irishness and theatre three key terms which all undergo thorough scrutiny though the editors make clear in their introduction that for them, “The most important word in the title of this book is ‘theatre’”. This shift is fully in line with much recent scholarship in the field as the attention of academics and critics has broadened to include not only texts but a wealth of other material. Productions, directors, designers, actors, companies, festivals, theatre spaces, programmes, posters, government agencies, personal archives all get their share of attention in many of the most original and thought-provoking chapters; but many plays, on the page or in performance also receive very insightful analyses. It would be disingenuous to claim that this is the first volume to do so or that this insight into the collaborative and multifaceted nature of theatre is totally revolutionary. But what Grene and Morash succeed in doing here is to broaden the spectrum of academic investigation in a fully comprehensive and convincing manner.
Doing justice to the impressive work of the editors and contributors in a short review is a daunting task: over 750 pages, 41 essays on a range of topics covering the history and practice of Irish theatre from the late 19th to the early 21st centuries, this Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Theatre is a remarkable scholarly achievement by any standard. The editorial work done is truly outstanding with many welcome and often little-known illustrations, a useful chronology and bibliography; but first and foremost with the division into twelve carefully titled and well-balanced parts which allow the reader to make his/her way through the wealth of material analysed and presented in the volume.
Most of the twelve parts mix the chronological and the thematic and include three or four complementary contributions. There are a few exceptions to this pattern: the first part entitled “Nineteenth-Century Legacies” has only two chapters on melodrama (Stephen Watt) and Oscar Wilde (Michael McAteer), reclaiming both a pre-history for modern Irish theatre in the form of the much disparaged old melodrama, and a key figure of the world stage too often excluded from, or marginalised in, the Irish narrative. The final part, “Critical Responses” is a single challenging essay by Eamonn Jordan synthesizing the rise and fall of modes of critical engagement with Irish theatre and concluding with an exhortation to bridge the gap between academics and practitioners, as well as to encourage more reflexive critical practices.
The four chapters of Part Two, “Theatre and Nation” revisit the influence and importance of the Abbey, first by linking drama and other forms of performance and commitment with the essays by Ben Levitas and P. J. Mathews; then with a careful analysis of Yeats’s rituals of performance as challenging the materialist world of modern science by Terence Brown, and finally, Mary Burke’s convincing reading of the Playboy riots in juxtaposition with the Paris reception of the controversial ballet, “Rite of Spring” , linking Synge and Stravinsky and concluding with Synge as “the Janus of Irish literature, looking backwards to Boucicault and forwards to Irish modernism” (102). Part Three, “Models and Influences”, further explores modernism with excellent chapters by Shaun Richards, Richard Cave and Brad Kent. Kent engages in an act of reclamation of G.B. Shaw, arguing for his importance and influence, his “haunting” of many Irish dramatists and intellectuals. “Revolution and Beyond” further engages with the story of the Abbey, Pearse’s writings and the Easter Rising, the self-proclaimed National Theatre’s relationship with the new State and ends with Christopher Murray’s analysis of O’Casey’s complex representations of Dublin, from The Harvest Festival to Red Roses For Me through the Dublin trilogy.
It is at this point that “Performance 1” moves firmly into the territory of theatre production. Paige Reynolds, picking up where Richard Cave had left off, authoritatively discusses design and direction; Eibhear Walshe focuses on the “enabling status of Oscar Wilde as house dramatist at the Gate Theatre”, with regards to the career of Micheal MacLiammoir. Walshe asks whether Wilde the dandy or Wilde the queer artist was/ is most in evidence or acceptable then and now in productions of his plays. Adrian Frazier turns to the actors who performed the many plays discussed earlier; he charts the influence of Antoine’s Théâtre Libre on the acting style favoured by the Fay brothers and brings back into the picture Anew McMaster and his connection to the Gate.
The three chapters of “Contesting Voices” deal respectively with Irish language theatre, women and Irish theatre before 1960 and the “little theatres” of the 1950s. Brian O Conchubair examines the ambivalent relationship of the Abbey towards Irish-language plays and discusses the work of several companies and playwrights in and outside Dublin before concluding that “theatre remains a litmus test of Irish as a communal language and public art form”. Cathy Leeney brilliantly demonstrates how “the cultural and social value of Irish theatre is enhanced through the inclusion of women playwrights’ work” (285). Lionel Pilkington sees the little theatres that flourished mostly in Dublin, but also in Belfast (the 37 Theatre club, the Pike, The Lyric Players…), and performed many plays by non-Irish playwrights as an extraordinary cultural phenomenon which deserves further exploration and confirms the important part played by women like Mary O’Malley and Carolyn Swift in that development.
In its three chapters, “The New Revival” turns to the flowering of Irish drama in the 1960s. Whilst Lisa Coen contrasts the rural and urban cultures informing the works and visions of M.J. Molloy, John B. Keane and Hugh Leonard, Anthony Roche looks in parallel at the two major playwrights of that revival, Tom Murphy and Brian Friel, leaving José Lanters to discuss Thomas Kilroy’s “Idea of a Theatre”. Both Friel and Murphy reappear in the next section, in different contexts namely that provided by the Derry-based Field Day (with careful research into the Deane, Friel and Field Day archives by Marilynn Richtarik) and the DruidMurphy project analysed by Shelley Troupe. Mark Phelan discusses Troubles and post-conflict theatre in Northern Ireland, and convincingly argues that “it is ‘change’ that has captured the imagination of the new generation of playwrights”. Victor Merriman looks at the growth and diversification of Ireland’s theatre culture from 1977 to 2000 with the emergence of many independent companies in and outside Dublin, and points to the role of the Arts Council funding in sustaining that diversification.
“Performance 2” takes the reader into less-often charted territory. Chris Morash’s piece on places of performance (including some beautiful architects’ drawings of never realized theatre buildings) exemplifies the spatial turn taken by some contemporary critics. Ian Walsh surveys the work of directors and designers since 1960 – notably Tomas MacAnna, Joe Dowling, Wendy Shea, Joe Vanek and Patrick Mason); and Nicky Grene’s selection of “Defining Performers and Performances” includes Siobahn McKenna and Donal McCann. The final article in this section is devoted to the “re-in-greencarnation” (to borrow Eibhear Walshe’s inventive formulation about Wilde at the Gate) of Beckett through the 1991 Beckett festival initiated by Michael Colgan.
Part Ten on “Contemporary Irish Theatre” offers five excellent chapters enabling the reader to understand and connect the most recent evolutions in theatre in Ireland. Helen Hausner Lojek’s remarkable essay on McGuinness shows his major plays as so many ways of negotiating differences in terms of nationality, class, gender, sexual orientation and religion, as they are attuned to important changes in late twentieth-century Ireland. Emilie Pine and Clare Wallace highlight both continuities and disruptions. Emilie Pine surveys the plays of Friel (with a strong focus on Dancing at Lughnasa), Murphy, McPherson, Bolger, Roche, Carr and Barry, discussing forms of reconciliation between past and present, tradition and modernity, belonging and exile. Clare Wallace turns to the interpretive challenges thrown at audiences by postmodern playwrights like Mc Donagh, Walsh and O’Rowe. It is up to Melissa Sirha to pick up the thread of women’s contribution to contemporary Irish theatre and she does so remarkably with analyses of Carr and Charabanc and an acknowledgement of the role played by professionalization and university training in the theatre in “enabling new processes and creativity”. In Brian Singleton’s masterly piece on devised theatre, what Clare Wallace identified as the new more active role of audiences is further explored with discussion of early proponents of the genre like Operating Theatre, Rough Magic and the Project Arts Center, through companies that foreground physicality (Pan Pan, Blue Raincoat, Barrabas, Corn Exchange) or site-specific work.
Nicholas Grene has been at the origin of the Irish Theatrical Diaspora project and his interest in charting the fortunes of Irish theatre outside Ireland is well-known. It is thus no surprise that the Handbook should end on a section entitled “Ireland and the World”. For arguably another meta-narrative at work in the volume from the beginning is the foregrounding of the international or globalized nature of Irish theatre. The six chapters which make up this part address the complex connections between Irish theatre and other theatrical traditions and professional networks. Beckett as a global figure is discussed by Ronan McDonald; the wealth and success of adaptations of foreign classics – Greek tragedy, Chekhov and Ibsen in particular – by Irish playwrights receives insightful analysis by Christina Hunt Mahony. Patrick Lonergan, whose ground breaking work on the globalisation of Irish theatre remains central, looks at the development of the Dublin Theatre Festival and its role in bringing Irish theatre professionals and audiences in contact with the best international companies and plays; John P. Harrington considers the circulation of Irish work in the United States and James Moran focuses on the role played by England, and particularly London, in the economy and international recognition of Irish theatre, as well as focusing attention on plays which engage with forms of Irishness in England.
Ondrej Pilny in many ways has the hardest job in this section, addressing Irish theatre in Europe, since as he points out there is a dearth of material on the subject and academic research into the reception of Irish theatre outside the UK is still too limited or not well-known. His ground-breaking essay will no doubt encourage the many scholars of Irish theatre in Europe to develop further research in this area, as was done for example with the ITD conference on the interactions of French and Irish theatres which resulted in the publication of a special issue of Etudes irlandaises (2008).
This impressive survey marks a welcome broadening of the spectrum of what Irish theatre is and of what research into Irish theatre can draw on, can do and become, and there is no doubt that this Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Theatre is a must for anyone with an interest in Irish theatre and culture, as well as a major contribution to the field.