When I lived in New York, my apartment was on East 22 Street, just a few blocks from the Irish Repertory Theatre at 132 West 22 Street, founded in 1988 by Ciarán O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore, and still going strong. It hosted Mr. O’Reilly’s production of Marina Carr’s Woman and Scarecrow through June 24 and is showing Ms. Moore’s production of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever until mid August.
As the latter musical suggests, the Irish Rep occasionally runs shows by non-Irish authors. I once enjoyed a retrospective Noël Coward revue there. But most of its productions have been of works by Irish and Irish-American playwrights since it opened in 1988 with Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. These productions have included plays by George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Synge, Brian Friel, Thomas Murphy, and many other classic and aspiring Irish writers.
It was terrific treat having a good repertory theater with high standards on my own street; I went quite often (though not, I now think, often enough); and I miss it. For some unaccountable reason, there’s not a great deal of English-language theater in Budapest.
The Irish Rep came to my mind two weeks ago when I was writing “The End of Irish Exceptionalism” for NRO, on the significance of the Irish Republic’s constitutional referendum liberalizing abortion law and on the celebrations that followed. My piece began with a quotation from Shaw’s great play John Bull’s Other Island, which gave a picture of the Ireland of the early 20th century. This picture was, among other things, a bracingly realistic correction to the Celtic revival drama of Yeats and Lady Gregory. Shaw was prophetic in seeing that Ireland was unlikely to wander permanently in a Celtic mist. And as I was writing, it occurred to me that the history of Ireland from the 1904 production of Shaw’s play to the present could be brilliantly presented through a cycle of four or five plays written and produced in those years and made to live in a way that even the most imaginative historical writing can’t quite manage.
But what plays? Any choice would be have to be a personal one — mine, in this article, but presumably also that of Mr. O’Reilly and Ms. Moore if they were to embark on such a quixotic enterprise. Obviously the cycle would have to start with John Bull’s Other Island. It describes Ireland in the West British years of Home Rule’s false dawn, which ended in 1916. Following that is the tragic period of the Anglo–Irish war and the Irish civil war, and here I believe Sean O’Casey simply grabs the role of their dramatic chronicler. Since the Irish Rep began with The Plough and the Stars, I would suggest The Shadow of a Gunman, which is a powerful prophecy of the seedy and tragic consequences to which a romantic culture of violence usually leads.
The next period covered would be the longest — from the conclusion of the civil war to the retirement of Éamon de Valera, who was the dominant political leader in those years. This Ireland, “Dev’s Catholic Republic,” is wonderfully (and not unfairly) satirized in Louis D’Alton’s great play This Other Eden. D’Alton was an actor, novelist, and playwright who toured as a performer extensively through Ireland, and his plays show an intimate knowledge of Irish society in those years and so give a less sentimental picture of it than we see in, for instance, The Quiet Man. He died quite young, in 1951, but it’s a mark of his reputation at the time that the Abbey Theatre ran three of his plays posthumously, including the 1953 premiere of This Other Eden.
It’s a remarkable play — a play of debate, with a structure very obviously based on John Bull’s Other Island, and today it would probably be described as an homage to Shaw or a reply to him. Its brilliant debate on the hypocritical realities of Church and state in the De Valera years is sandwiched into a light comedy about an Englishman who arrives in an Irish town, intending to live there, but he becomes suspected of blowing up a statue to an IRA hero on the day before its unveiling. He’s innocent of that — and narrowly escapes a lynching by reciting to the mob a slightly amended version of John of Gaunt’s great speech on England — but like several characters, he has other secrets to reveal.
The play was filmed in 1959 by Ardmore Studios, with a stellar cast of fine Irish actors, including Milo O’Shea, Norman Rodway, and the young Audrey Dalton, who interrupted a successful career in Hollywood to make it. It has the young Leslie Phillips, escaping also his usual typecasting, in the role of the Englishman who meets and marries Miss Dalton’s character, almost a Shavian New Woman, who amuses herself by repeatedly correcting his romantic fantasies on, among other things, how wonderful Ireland and the Irish are. The film is an entertaining one, with excellent performances, and it’s more subtle than it first appears. (Pay attention to the views of rural Ireland seen from a railway compartment that accompany the conversation between Ms. Dalton and Mr. Phillips.) Inevitably, however, it can’t accommodate the full debate, on Ireland and its future, that makes the play outstanding. This Other Eden needs to be seen in full.
The Patrick Pearse Motel, by Hugh Leonard, is purest Franco-Irish farce, with a general atmosphere of rules being broken, moral standards outraged, pieties both national and religious overthrown, and human nature allowed to break free from its mythic Celtic-cum-Catholic respectability.
Dev’s Catholic Republic began gradually to fade away while De Valera himself was still a power in the land — Irish president until 1973 and his death. Its demise was signaled by his moving to the presidency from the prime-ministership, where he was replaced by his long-term loyal deputy, Seán Lemass. This was a bigger change than observers realized at the time because Dev was a Celtic visionary, whereas Lemass (who had fought in the 1916 uprising) was a very practical politician with a business outlook who set about making peace with the North and turning the Irish economy into a competitive one. (My not-quite-cousin, Michael O’Sullivan, the Budapest-based Irish writer, has written a fine biography of Lemass.)
This was the start of the rise of a new type of Irish bourgeoisie and of what became the “Celtic Tiger” 30 years later. As early as 1967, however, its comic possibilities were explored in Hugh Leonard’s hilarious farce The Patrick Pearse Motel — the title says it all — in which two Gombeen men, promoted to new-style Irish entrepreneurs, establish a motel in which every room is named solemnly after a hero of the 1916 Rebellion. Of course, the motel is intended to make money by providing a convenient place for adultery, not only for its putative modern customers but also for one of its enterprising owners. What follows is purest Franco-Irish farce, with compromising positions, mistaken identities, bed jumped into and out of, doors slamming, and a general atmosphere of rules being broken, moral standards outraged, pieties both national and religious overthrown, and human nature allowed to break free from its mythic Celtic-cum-Catholic respectability. The play was an enormous success both in Ireland and internationally, and it is still frequently performed.
Lemass’s attempt to create a politics of reconciliation in Ireland was fully reciprocated by the Unionist prime minister Terence O’Neill, and for about three years, there was a real prospect of the two Irelands becoming more harmonious in the national equivalent of a civil union. But before too long that optimistic prospect was blocked and reversed by the Reverend Ian Paisley and the Provisional IRA. There then followed three decades of terrorism and murder until the Good Friday Agreement. Obviously, the “Troubles” had a big impact on the Irish Republic — after all, a Dublin mob burned down the British embassy in the 1970s. But that impact was secondary in the changing character of southern Irish society that I described in “The End of Irish Exceptionalism.” And drama specifically about Northern Ireland is a rich but different topic. In the end, then, what was the secondary impact that the Troubles had on Irish sentiment? That’s revealed in the play Goodnight, Siobhan, produced in both London’s Royal Court and the Dublin theater festival in 1990, and written by the well-known Irish actress Jeananne Crowley (full disclosure: a dear friend.)
This is a two-hander, set in a Belfast hotel bedroom during the Troubles, in which a Northern woman nationalist and a Southern male reporter wonder whether to sleep together. It’s a political discussion rather than a romantic one, however, and really about whether Catholic nationalists, North and South, are any longer on the same side. She wants a clear commitment to Irish republicanism; he no longer feels that her gut hostility to the Brits makes any kind of sense. It’s a riveting play that unmasks the ambiguity that respectable Southern opinion felt toward political violence, neither embracing it fully nor able to condemn it unequivocally. That ambiguity still poisons Southern politics as the respectability of Sinn Féin reveals — but less and less.
Even in 1990, Ms. Crowley’s play reflected what was then a growing sentiment south of the border — two decades after the British embassy was burnt down — that, as Conor Cruise O’Brien put it when the Brits cracked down after an IRA bomb had killed two children in Lancashire, “ye brought it on yourselves.” That change of sentiment was one of the factors that led to the Good Friday Agreement a few years later.
It also signified that Ireland was moving away from the anti-British, “anti-partition” politics of the 20th century — though prime minister Leo Varadkar apparently wants to revive them for a European tour — and into some new kind of political and cultural identity following the GFA and the country’s entry into the European Union. But what kind of identity? If politics is downstream of culture, as Andrew Breitbart famously said, we should be looking for guidance not to the solemn white papers of politicians but to the imaginative explorations of dramatists. I’ve not seen enough recent Irish plays to offer a useful suggestion on who is catching a new Irish mood. Any suggestions?
Maybe Ms. Moore and Mr. O’Reilly can discover the next GBS.