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The Literary Tradition in the History of Modern Irish Drama

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If it be accepted that the Irish Dramatic Movement as founded on the cusp of the twentieth century was part of the European revolution initiated by Ibsen and Strindberg on the one hand and such theatrical innovators as André Antoine, Otto Brahm and Constantin Stanislavski on the other, and therefore committed to naturalism, it must also be acknowledged that realism was never sufficient to the ideals and objectives of modern Irish theatre. Yeats put his stamp on Irish drama, and that stamp was poetic. Even though Synge and O’Casey avoided Yeats’s formal use of poetic drama, which was still tied to iambic pentameter, their use of language was “poetic” inasmuch as they wrote a heightened form of prose in which rhythm, imagery and richness of colour dominated. “In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple”, Synge famously asserted in his preface to The Playboy of the Western World (1907), and O’Casey concurred. Indeed, in an essay entitled “The Green Goddess of Realism”, O’Casey attacked realism as obsolete and insisted that “it is the imaginative transformation of reality, as it is seen through the eyes of the poet, that we desire”.

In the roll-call of significant Irish playwrights after O’Casey, from Denis Johnston and Brendan Behan through Brian Friel, Tom Murphy and Thomas Kilroy, to Sebastian Barry, Marina Carr, Conor McPherson and Mark O’Rowe, this dissident form of realism has characterized the Irish contribution to modern theatre. The premise is that this form is literary, prioritizing language over characterization or plot. Accordingly, this chapter argues that the endurance of a poetic language is traditional because indebted to Yeats’s aesthetic introduced to the Abbey Theatre, creating a form ‘beyond realism’.

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  1. 1.

    Brian Friel, Essays, Diaries, Interviews: 1964–1999, ed. Christopher Murray (London: Faber, 1999), 53.

  2. 2.

    W. B. Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”, Collected Poems, second edn. (London: Macmillan, 1950), 392.

  3. 3.

    Una Ellis-Fermor, The Irish Dramatic Movement (London: Methuen, 1964), 1.

  4. 4.

    Ibid., 8.

  5. 5.

    Ibid., 200.

  6. 6.

    Ibid., 61.

  7. 7.

    Frank Fay, Towards a National Theatre: The Dramatic Criticism of Frank J. Fay, ed. Robert Hogan (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1970), 15–20, 90–94. See also Gabriel Fallon, “The Abbey Theatre Acting Tradition”, The Story of the Abbey Theatre, ed. Sean McCann (London: New English Library/Four Square Books, 1967), 101–125.

  8. 8.

    Ibid., 62.

  9. 9.

    W. B. Yeats, “Samhain 1903: The Reform of the Theatre”, Explorations (London: Macmillan, 1962), 107, 108.

  10. 10.

    T. S. Eliot, “Poetry and Drama”, Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Faber, 1975), 137.

  11. 11.

    J. M. Synge, Collected Works, Volume IV: Plays Book II, ed. Ann Saddlemyer (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1982), 53–54.

  12. 12.

    Peter Kavanagh, The Story of the Abbey Theatre: A Facsimile Reprint, Appendix D, “Warrant for Letters Patent for a new Theatre in the City of Dublin” (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation/University of Maine at Orono, 1984), 214.

  13. 13.

    In 1906 the patron of the Abbey, Annie Horniman, proposed the German Municipal Theatre as a model for the Abbey to emulate. Synge disagreed and won over Yeats and Lady Gregory. See Ann Saddlemyer, ed., Theatre Business: The Correspondence of the First Abbey Theatre Directors: William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1982), 168–80.

  14. 14.

    Lennox Robinson, Curtain Up: An Autobiography (London: Michael Joseph, 1942), 118.

  15. 15.

    Brenna Katz Clarke and Harold Ferrar, The Dublin Drama League 1919–1941 (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1979), 19.

  16. 16.

    Peter Kavanagh, The Story of the Abbey Theatre (New York: Devin-Adair, 1950), Facsimile reprint (Orono, ME: University of Maine at Orono, 1984), 179.

  17. 17.

    W. B. Yeats, Explorations. Selected by Mrs. W. B. Yeats (London and New York: Macmillan, 1962), 414.

  18. 18.

    Lauren Arrington, W. B. Yeats, the Abbey Theatre, Censorship, and the Irish State: Adding the Half-Pence to the Pence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

  19. 19.

    W. B. Yeats, “The Irish Dramatic Movement”, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1961), 566.

  20. 20.

    Seán O’Casey, The Green Crow (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1956), 83. The essay was first published in O’Casey, The Flying Wasp (London: Macmillan, 1937), 123.

  21. 21.

    Michael O’Regan, “Nationalism and Catholicism dominated 50th commemoration”, Irish Times 16 March 2016: 4. See also Anthony Roche, “Staging 1916 in 1966: Pastiche, Parody and Problems of Representation”, 1916 in 1966: Commemorating the Easter Rising, eds. Mary E. Daly and Margaret O’Callaghan (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2007), 303–22.

  22. 22.

    Augustine Martin, Anglo-Irish Literature (Dublin: Department of Foreign Affairs, 1980), 52.

  23. 23.

    Christine Madden, “The music of the lone voice on the Irish stage”, Irish Times 3 August 2010: 9. See also Eamonn Jordan, “The Glut of Monologues: Look Who’s Talking, Too”, Dissident Dramaturgies: Contemporary Irish Theatre (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010), 218–238.

  24. 24.

    Brian Friel, Essays, Diaries, Interviews: 1964–1999, ed. Christopher Murray (London: Faber, 1999), 173.

  25. 25.


  26. 26.

    Ibid., 174.

  27. 27.

    Ibid., 110. Italics added for “adequately.”

  28. 28.

    Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (Dublin: Poolbeg, 1994), 61.

  29. 29.

    Lady Gregory, Our Irish Theatre (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1972), 62. This history was first published in 1913.

  30. 30.

    Ibid., 56.

  31. 31.

    But see also Shaun Richards, “The Work of a “Young Nationalist”?: Tom Murphy’s The Patriot Game and the Commemoration of Easter 1916”, Irish University Review 45.1 (2015): 39–53.

  32. 32.

    Tom Murphy, Plays: Two (London: Methuen Drama, 1993), 13. See also pp. 43, 49.

  33. 33.

    Ibid., 89–90.

  34. 34.

    W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (London and New York: Macmillan, 1961), 319.

  35. 35.

    Gary Mitchell in interview with Una Bradley, “A peace of the action”, Irish Times 2 January 2013: 12.

  36. 36.

    Gregory, Our Irish Theatre, 20.

  37. 37.

    Patrick Mason, Playing with Words: A Fantasy on the Themes of Theatre, the National Theatre, and Post-Modernism (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, in Association with the National Theatre Society Ltd., 2000), 20.

  38. 38.

    Thomas Kilroy, “A Generation of Playwrights”, Irish University Review 22.1 (1992): 135–41 (135).

  39. 39.

    Thomas Kilroy, Irish University Review Special Issue: Thomas Kilroy, ed. Anthony Roche 32.1 (2002): 136.

  40. 40.

    Thomas Kilroy, “Two Playwrights: Yeats and Beckett”, in Myth and Reality in Irish Literature, ed. Joseph Ronsley (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1977), 183–195 (184).


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Murray, C. (2018). The Literary Tradition in the History of Modern Irish Drama. In: Jordan, E., Weitz, E. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Irish Theatre and Performance. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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