Irish National Theatre

free essayThe Irish National Theatre had a long time of development. It became a proof that the country passed an era of rebellious and sometimes revolutionary acts. For the founders, the theatre demonstrated that Ireland moved away from the violence and riots. With its illuminated stage, darkened auditorium, and naturalistic acting, the theatre presented a model for an ideal society. In 1899, Yeats wrote that “a mob becomes a people” (Pilkington 5). The theatre became an improving cultural phenomenon that is crucial to the development of the country. Before, during, and after Ireland’s political independence, the Irish National Theatre functioned as an institution that did not just perform plays, but also was a place that supported the idea of democracy. Great opportunities persuaded many Irish talented actors all over the country to return to Ireland and support the Irish National Theatre.

The current paper aims to explore the period of the establishment of the Irish National Theatre and determine a chain of events that had an impact on the history of theatre in Ireland. To achieve this goal, the paper is divided into several sections that show important steps relating to the creation of the national theatre: from the establishment of the Literary Society to the first play in the Abbey theatre in Dublin. However, in Ireland the theatre is not only about acting, but it is also about approving the norms of behavior. Thus, one more important thing that should be examined is main features of a newborn theatre, including its purpose, vision, and impact on the audience.

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The Irish Literary Society Formation. The literary society in Ireland was established during the period of the revival of literature at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. A famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats with a group of actors, writers, and producers became founders of the Irish Literary Society. Among the participants, there was famous Irish nationalist, songwriter, and poet Francis Fahy, Irish academic and linguist Douglas Hyde, and poet Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (Francombe 6-8).

The Irish Literary Society supported production of the Irish national art and followed the rule of aesthetic freedoms of writers and performers. However, not all members of the society had the same way of thinking. Controversial views posed a range of important questions that developed the theatre such as whether the production should show the ideals of identity or reality; whether writers should focus on urban or rural settings; and whether the audience or the playwright should answer all the questions (Hill 4). In 1903 and 1904, the activity of the society brought lots of Irish actors to London to represent plays of Yeats and Lady Gregory. In 1910, the number of members in the society reached up to 400 members. According to the manifest of Yeats, the main goal of the society was “build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature” (Francombe 28). In general, the Irish Literary Society created and developed the centre of social and literary intercourse and became the first step for the establishment of the Irish National Theatre. Therefore, the cultural movement created an equally important organization for the purpose of promoting the study of the Irish language, history, music, and art.

The Gaelic League Organization. The integral part of the nation is its native language. Thus, establishment of the National Theatre in Ireland was impossible without its native language. In the middle of the nineteenth century, near half of the population in Ireland spoke the Irish language, but in 1891 this number significantly reduced. Most people who spoke Irish had a low social status and were uneducated, while powerful figures like judges, landlords, and politicians preferred to use the English language (Trotter 5).

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The growth of cultural nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century reflected a growing national interest in Ireland’s history and language. In 1892, Irish churchman Douglas Hyde gave a lecture called The Necessity of De-Anglicising the Irish People (Francombe 8). He said that the Irish disappeared and could not be called a nation. Thus, in 1893 Hyde and Irish scholar Eoin MacNeill set up the Gaelic League. The main goals of this league were to preserve and revive Irish as a spoken language in order to encourage publishing of literature in the modern Irish language. The Gaelic League’s enthusiasm also gave the possibilities for the theatre (Francombe 70). First of all, the Gaelic League was able to bridge gaps between various social classes. It also encouraged interest in the Irish culture and, as a result, in the Irish theatre as well. The league included all classes: urban, rural, men, and women. It was a place where people of all kinds could gather. Therefore, the same idea was applied by Lady Gregory for the development of the Irish National Theatre (Trotter 3-8). The formation of the league had a huge impact on the society and became one more step towards the moment of opening the national theatre in Ireland.

The Great Opening of the Abbey Theatre. The Irish Literary Revival as a large cultural movement created the Irish Literary Society and the Gaelic League. However, it was only a beginning. After the establishment of the society and a great success of the league, one of the founders, Lady Gregory, declared; “I said it was a pity we had no Irish theatre where such plays could be given” (Hill 6). This statement was supported by members of the society: “we propose to have performed in Dublin…certain Celtic and Irish plays, which whatever be their degree of excellence will be written with a high ambition…we will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment” (Francombe 28).

Thus, in December of 1904 the Abbey Theatre in Dublin was opened. This theatre became an ideal setting for Ireland to show its cultural identity. Yeats contacted William and Frank Fay that represented the working class and had a small amateur production company. Lady Gregory preferred them to English actors as they were authentic Irishmen who were in love with the history of their country (Trotter 175). Thus, the Abbey theatre became a place where the audience, members of various classes, and artists of many forms and talents were united in one Irish National Theatre (Hill 6).


The Main Features and Rules of a New-Born Theatre. One of the founders of the Abbey theatre, William Butler Yeats, supported authentic writings that were a personal and individual experience of Ireland. He gave such instructions to playwrights: “a play to be suitable for performance at the Abbey should contain some criticism of life, founded on the experience or personal observation of the writer, or some vision of life…” (Hill 9). At the same time, Yeats admitted that the politics had a great influence on people’s life and under those circumstances this sphere was quite important for the representation. However, such kinds or performance must come out of artist’s free expression, but not as a form of propaganda, “we do not desire propagandist plays” (Hill 9). To create a proper national theatre, Yeats set three main rules. First of all, the theatre had to be a place where the mind would go to be liberated. The second and the third rules focused on the importance of speech in the theatre. Thus, there had to be nothing that could distract attention from the speech in the play. In general, plays in the Abbey theatre should show real emotions and characters through lyrical texts (Hill 10-11). Therefore, Yeats and the Abbey’s founders noticed that the main responsibility of the Irish theatre was to provide the field of experimentation in order to liberate the minds of artists (Trotter 11). Hence, when all the rules were established, the Abbey theatre was recognized as a national theatre. Thereby, one more important responsibility was to represent the whole nation on stage (Hill 11).

The First Play of the Abbey Theatre. The history of the Abbey theatre has never been smooth. Besides financial crises, there were constant debates among dramatists. Thus, there were two groups of dramatists at that time. One group preferred to play Irish legends and classical history. Another group supported dramas of ideas. But both of the groups were against the commercial theatre (Trotter 12).

The first performed play on the Abbey stage was Cathleen Ni Houlihan. It was a patriotic play that encouraged the Irish men to fight for the freedom of their country. This play was quite symbolical as the main character was an old woman named Cathleen who was a symbol of Ireland. She requested Irish young men to free her from slavery. In the play, the youth agreed to sacrifice their lives for freedom (Francombe 45-46). This play helped the Abbey theatre to establish itself as a national theatre with national ideas. Therefore, the Abbey theatre also made a huge contribution to the Ireland’s national and artistic identity issues by producing plays like The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 and The Plough and the Stars in 1926 (Hill 31). Representing such controversial plays, the Abbey theatre positioned itself as a generator of reforms and progress of the theatrical life in Ireland.

From examining the history of Irish theatre, it becomes evident that the most significant event of the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century was the formation of the Irish National Theatre. The main steps towards creation of a new theatre were formations of the Irish Literary Society and the Gaelic League. Both events became crucial for the history of Irish theatre. This period was called the Irish Literary Revival. The result of all these attempts was opening of the Abbey theatre in Dublin in 1904. Such names as William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, Francis Fahy, Douglas Hyde, William and Frank Fay, and many others will forever stay in the history of Irish theatre as names of great founders. At that time, establishment of the Irish National Theatre united the whole nation and demonstrated that Ireland became a modern and ambitious country with its own history, nation, language, and theatre.