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Internationalising Irish Drama: A Global Stage

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This chapter examines the records of performance that document cultural change in Ireland during the 1950s and within Irish theatre more broadly. During this period, new theatre ventures, such as the Globe Theatre, the Pike Theatre and other productions by the then relocated Abbey company, responded to increasing international cultural influence and, in particular, American and Irish-American influence. Figures such as Siobhán McKenna, the Belfast-born actor and associated with the role of Saint Joan in George Bernard Shaw’s play, also greatly contributed to not just the internationalisation of Irish theatre, but the export of an authentically Irish cultural brand. Actor Genevieve Lyons was a founding member of Dublin’s Globe Theatre Company in 1954. In starring in a number of key roles, such as Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera (1956), Lyons and the Globe Theatre brought new globalising influences in programmes and acting to Dublin audiences. These works and events sought to rejuvenate the image of Irish drama and its depiction of its broadening cultural and international influences. Similarly, by examining play materials within the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, the Pike Theatre archive and other papers from the period, it is possible to identify a dependence on American popular culture as a primary medium through which national consciousness and identity was expressed at a time concurrent to how modern Ireland was being redeveloped.

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-74548-6_3
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  1. 1.

    It was followed by a Shakespearean variety show, Lovers, Villains & Fools, with Helen Hayes; Dame Sybil Thorndike and Sir Lewis Casson in their World Famous Dramatic Recitals; Eugene O’Neill’s Before Breakfast with Eileen Heckart; and Langston Hughes’ Soul Gone Home and Shakespeare in Harlem with Isabelle Sanford and Godfrey Cambridge ( Accessed 09 June 2020).

  2. 2.

    The Chalk Garden by Enid Bagnold opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 7 November 1955, directed by Albert Marre.

  3. 3.

    The revival of Shaw’s Saint Joan, and marking Siobhán McKenna American stage debut (as Joan) opened on 11 September 1956 at the Off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre, New York, and transferred to the Coronet Theatre on 25 December 1956 and ran for a combined seventy-seven performances.

  4. 4.

    “Theatre: Distaff Hamlet—Review”, New York Times, 29 January 1957. 27.

  5. 5.


  6. 6.


  7. 7.


  8. 8.

    T20/416 Programme from Hamlet, Siobhán McKenna Archive, NUI Galway.

  9. 9.

    T20/416 Prompt Script, Hamlet, Siobhán McKenna, NUI Galway. 1.

  10. 10.

    T20/416, Prompt Script, Hamlet, Siobhán McKenna Archive, NUI Galway, 41. Other examples include annotation around tone and are recorded by McKenna on the script as ‘sarcastic’ or ‘thoughtful’ (7), and “Don’t drag out but make more forceful” (8).

  11. 11.

    In the days and weeks that followed the fire at the Abbey Theatre in July 1951, offers of subscriptions, benefit events and fundraising were offered to the Abbey Theatre by members of the Irish theatre community, such as the Management of the Belfast Empire Theatre, who offered £250.

  12. 12.

    Hugh Hunt, The Abbey: Ireland’s National Theatre, 1904–1979 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 188.

  13. 13.

    Jaquarello (2016, 24).

  14. 14.

    For more on this topic see Mary E. Daly, Sixties Ireland: Reshaping the Economy, State and Society, 1957–1973 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

  15. 15.

    “West Coast of Ireland: A travelogue visiting various locations on the west coast of Ireland”, British Pathé Archive, Accessed 30 November 2020.

  16. 16.

    Chris Morash, A History of the Media in Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 176.

  17. 17.

    Maria Szasz, Brian Friel and America (Dublin: Glasnevin Press, 2013), 244–250.

  18. 18.

    The Solid Gold Cadillac opened at the Belasco Theatre, 5 November 1954 and was produced by Max Gordon. It ran for 526 performances on Broadway. Accessed 12 January 2018.

  19. 19.

    Siobhán O’Gorman, Scenographic Interactions: 1950s’ Ireland and Dublin’s Pike Theatre, Irish Theatre International 3.1 (2014), 5.

  20. 20.

    In terms of new Irish design and scenography of this period, an important figure was Sean Kenny. Kenny outlined his treatise for a radicalisation in stage design, away from fixed static large-scale sets, to flexible and fluid design, modern is their functionality, minimalist where needed and suggestive in and through their form. Kenny graduated architecture in Dublin, but had not initially focused on design for the theatre. Kenny later studied with Frank Lloyd Wright in Arizona, where Kenny first worked on architecture work for the theatre. In describing the experience, Kenny stated, “The marvellous thing was that we had no reverence for the theatre at all … I had seen the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and it was full if rubbish. All the ‘shuffling and spit’ acting that goes on on the stages of Dublin. I hated that.” Plays and Players Magazine, April 1961, Lyons Archive, NUI Galway.

  21. 21.

    Lyons Archive, NUI Galway.

  22. 22.

    Interview with Godfrey Quigley, 20 February 1953, Sunday Press, Lyons Archive NUI Galway.

  23. 23.

    “Rags to Riches with a Dose of Soapy Sex”, Evening Herald, 28 August 1986, 18. Lyons Archive, NUI Galway.

  24. 24.

    One such comment was a review of A Little Winter Love by Alun Owen at the Gaiety Theatre produced by the Globe company. “The cast of seven act with a sense of teamwork and brilliance.” Evening Herald, n.d. [1955] Lyons Archive. NUI Galway.

  25. 25.

    Hunt, 184–185.

  26. 26.

    Roche (2017, 8).

  27. 27.

    Carole Holohan, Reframing Irish Youth in the Sixties (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018) 11.

  28. 28.

    Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 87–88.

  29. 29.

    Mary E. Daly, “The Emergence of an Irish Adolescence: 1920s–1970s”, in Adolescence in Modern Irish History, eds., Catherine Cox and Susannah Riordan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

  30. 30.

    Catherine Cox and Susannah Riordan, eds., Adolescence in Modern Irish History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 2.

  31. 31.

    Cox, Riordan (2015, 3).

  32. 32.

    Judt (2011, 87–88).

  33. 33.

    For more on the pageantry and performance of An Tóstal festivals, see Joan Fitzpatrick Dean, All Dressed Up: Modern Irish Historical Pageantry (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2014) and also notes and correspondence from Professor G.A. Hayes McCoy archive (A35) JHL, NUI Galway.

  34. 34.

    John Murphy, The Country Boy (Dublin: Progress House Press, 1960), Preface.

  35. 35.

    Abbey Theatre. The Country Boy, 18 May 1959 [programme]. Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, NUI Galway, 3707_MPG_07 p. 2.

  36. 36.


  37. 37.


  38. 38.

    Linda King, “Life Cover—Sybil Connolly”, Modern Ireland in One Hundred Artworks, Fintan O’Toole, ed. (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2016), 112.

  39. 39.

    Abbey Theatre. Correspondence re:General correspondence with the Abbey Theatre. 1959–1959. Abbey Theatre Digital Archive at National University of Ireland, Galway, ADM_00005864, p. 12.

  40. 40.

    Clair Wills, The Best Are Leaving (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 9.

  41. 41.

    The Enemy Within by Brian Friel depicts the solitary life of Saint Columba in the sixth century upon the isolated island of Iona. Ria Mooney was also the first person to direct a Brian Friel play at the Abbey Theatre with The Enemy Within, 1960.

  42. 42.

    Murphy (1960, 1).

  43. 43.

    Anthony Roche, The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899–1939 (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 86.

  44. 44.

    Murphy (1960, 1).

  45. 45.

    Murphy (1960, 2).

  46. 46.

    Murphy (1960, 2).

  47. 47.

    Christopher Murray, The Theatre of Brian Friel: Tradition and Modernity (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 25.

  48. 48.

    No Friel play after The Doubtful Paradise (1960) until Translations (1980) premièred in Northern Ireland—all other plays premièred at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

  49. 49.

    Interview with Alan Simpson, Irish Times, 22 September 1962, 10.

  50. 50.

    Murphy (1959, 1).

  51. 51.

    Shaun Richards, “Brian Friel: Seizing the Moment of Flux”, Irish University Review, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Autumn–Winter, 2000) 254–271.

  52. 52.

    Murphy (1960, 1).

  53. 53.

    Wills (2015, 17).

  54. 54.

    Murphy (1960, 4).

  55. 55.

    Irish Times, 9 October 1960, 8.

  56. 56.

    Emile Pine, “The Homeward Journey: The Returning Emigrant in Recent Irish Theatre, Irish University Review, 2008, Vol. 38, No. 2. 311.

  57. 57.


  58. 58. Accessed 19 February 2016.

  59. 59.

    Abbey Theatre. The Country Boy, 11 May 1959 [stage management files]. Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, NUI Galway, 3706_SM_0001, p. 31.

  60. 60.

    Murphy (1960, 5).

  61. 61.

    Brian Singleton, Masculinities and the Contemporary Irish Theatre (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 55.

  62. 62.

    Christopher Murray, ed., Brian Friel, Essays, Diaries, Interviews: 1964–1999 (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 2.

  63. 63.

    Mary E. Daly, O’Donnell Lecture, The Irish State and the Diaspora, National University of Ireland, Dublin, 17 November 2008. 11.

  64. 64.

    Brian Friel, Philadelphia, Here I Come! (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), 94.

  65. 65.

    MS37, 047/1, Brian Friel Papers, NLI, Dublin.

  66. 66.

    MS37, 047/1, Brian Friel Papers, NLI, Dublin.

  67. 67.

    Judt (2011, 85).

  68. 68.

    MS37, 047/1, Brian Friel Papers, NLI, Dublin.

  69. 69.

    Friel (2000, 96).

  70. 70.

    MS 37, 048/1 Brian Friel Papers, NLI, Dublin. Friel is persuaded to remove this additional scene by Tyrone Guthrie and advises the author that: “I think the epilogue is a mistake. It adds nothing and would look, I believe, a little pretentious in performance. The last scene could, if you removed the epilogue, easily be given a bit more of a ‘dying fall.’” This is a multi-page letter in which Guthrie gives detailed feedback to Friel on many aspects of the play, regarding structure, language, characters and the split personality of Gar. In a later typescript copy of the same letter, Friel adds in a manuscript note that “I carried out all his suggestions”.

  71. 71.

    MS 37,048 /1, Letter from Brian Friel to Oscar Lewenstein, 21 October 1964, Brian Friel Papers, NLI, Dublin.

  72. 72.

    Dáil Éireann debates Vol. 191, No. 1, Tuesday, 4 July 1961) reveal that air travel from Ireland to countries outside of the United Kingdom. (i.e. the United States) doubled the number emigrating by ship, between 1958 and 1960s, the years when John Murphy’s emigrant play was written and first staged.

  73. 73.

    Abbey Theatre. Philadelphia, Here I Come! 30 October 1972 [audio]. Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, NUI Galway, 11009_A_001.

  74. 74.

    Helen Lojek, “Stage-Irish-Americans in the Plays of Brian Friel”, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2, December 1991. 78.

  75. 75.

    Kenny (2003, 147).

  76. 76.

    It is unclear from the letters what the exact reasons were regarding the breakdown in agreement made for Phyllis Ryan to produce Philadelphia! It can, however, be argued that Hilton Edwards, as a more prominent director and with more established contacts both through the Gate Theatre and elsewhere, such as in America, could have given Friel the international outlet and billing for the play he had hoped for.

  77. 77.

    MS 37,048/1 Letter from Oscar Lewenstein to Brian Friel, 1 June 1964, Brian Friel Papers, NLI, Dublin.

  78. 78.

    MS 37,048/1 Letter from Oscar Lewenstein to Brian Friel, 8 June 1964, Brian Friel Papers, NLI, Dublin.

  79. 79.

    MS 37, 048/1 Letter from Suzanne Finley to Brian Friel, 16 June 1964, Brian Friel Papers, NLI, Dublin.

  80. 80.

    MS 37,048/1 Letter from Brian Friel to Oscar Lewenstein, 21 October 1964, Brian Friel Papers, NLI, Dublin.

  81. 81.

    Lionel Pilkington, “The Little Theatre of the 1950s”, The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Theatre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). 302–303.

  82. 82.

    These efforts were led by the literary agents who were representing Brian Friel, namely Spencer Curtis Brown and Oscar Lewenstein.

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Houlihan, B. (2021). Internationalising Irish Drama: A Global Stage. In: Theatre and Archival Memory. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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