An Underground Theatre: Major Playwrights in the Irish Language 1930-1980, by Philip O’Leary, UCD Press, 2017, xv + 383pp, €50, ISBN: 978-19108205
Irish Studies scholars are familiar with Philip O’Leary’s work as a critic and historian of modern Irish-language literature, and particularly as author of four major book-length studies of Revival and post-Revival Irish-language prose. His latest book shares with these works a research methodology that combines an exhaustive account of a wide range of original texts with a critical sensitivity to the political and cultural context and the linguistic and aesthetic challenges facing playwrights working through Irish. Unlike the earlier books, where a thematic approach is applied and where the work of lesser-known authors is discussed side by side with the achievements of major writers, An Underground Theatre: Major Playwrights in the Irish Language 1930-1980 focuses on the work of five acclaimed authors, Máiréad Ní Ghráda, Séamus Ó Néill, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, Seán Ó Tuama and Críostóir Ó Floinn. Each chapter opens with a biographical and critical introduction, followed by a chronological account of the author’s dramatic works, including production histories, critical reception and detailed plot summaries.
Of these five authors, Máiréad Ní Ghráda is undoubtedly the most well-known as a dramatist, due to the canonical status of her most renowned play An Triail (first staged in An Damer in Dublin in 1964). Unlike most of the plays discussed in the book, this powerful exploration of Irish society’s attitudes towards unmarried mothers has been staged regularly over the years, mainly due to its inclusion on post-primary Irish syllabi. One of O’Leary’s objectives in this book, however, is to draw readers’ attention to important works that have been ignored or neglected, and to make claims for their inclusion in a more extensive and ambitious Irish-language theatre repertoire. This would include works by Máiréad Ní Ghráda, such as her one-act play on the theme of dementia, Lá Buí Bealtaine (which premiered in the Abbey Theatre in 1953), and her political satire Breithiúnas (staged in the Peacock Theatre in 1968 but never subsequently revived), a play similar in form and style to An Triail, and still effective as a hard-hitting critique of the cult of personality in Irish political culture. Similar claims for recognition are made for works by the other four authors, and one is struck in particular by the prescience and sophistication of historical plays such as Seán Ó Tuama’s Gunna Cam agus Slabhra Óir, set in sixteenth-century Donegal (which was staged for one night only by the Abbey in the Queen’s Theatre in 1956), and Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s Lá Fhéile Míchíl, set in the garden of a convent south of Dublin during the Irish Civil War (first staged in 1963 in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast by the Cumann Gaelach of Queen’s University Belfast). These plays explore cultural and political ideologies and the conflict between idealism and realism at crucial junctures in Irish history. They provide rich insights into the challenges of political negotiation and compromise and would be most deserving of revivals during the decade of centenaries. Worthy of note was the successful revival last year of Ó Tuairisc’s Fornocht do Chonac, a play written at the height of the Northern conflict ‑ it premiered at An Taibhdhearc in Galway in 1979 ‑ that explores the complex legacy of Pearse and the political role of the artist in Irish society.
While it is important to bear in mind that Philip O’Leary is an academic, and that a theatre practitioner might not share his enthusiasm in every instance, nevertheless this book gives the lie to the notion that there are no plays in Irish worthy of performance and O’Leary does the spade work for any theatre director interested in exploring the material that is at hand, much of it in published form. Moreover, the plot summaries, the translations of excerpts from relevant critical commentary and the sound critical judgments offered by the author himself open up this neglected corpus of dramatic texts to scholars of Irish drama who are not Irish-language experts, thus providing ample material for comparative research. While I found the chapter on the plays of Séamus Ó Néill the least compelling – Ó Néill is arguably better known for his two ground-breaking novels and much of the discussion in this book focuses on the shortcomings of his playscripts ‑ nevertheless even in this instance O’Leary identifies two plays that he considers “should be part of any Gaelic dramatic canon”. One of these, Iníon Rí Dhún Sobhairce (which premiered at Taidhdhearc na Gaillimhe in 1953), is based on the medieval tale of tragic love and kin-slaying Fingal Rónáin, while the other, An tSiúr Pól (first performed on stage at An Damer in 1963), deals with the question of mixed marriage and the pressures on personal and inter-community relationships associated with the Ne Temere decree of the Catholic church, a theme explored also in Ó Néill’s novel Máire Nic Artáin (1959). Ó Néill’s treatment of historical subject matter in Feall ar an bhFeart (based on eighteenth century Northern Protestant interest in Gaelic culture, and the first Irish-language play to be staged in the new Peacock Theatre in 1967) and Iníon Rí na Spáinne (based on Henry VIII’s relationship with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, published in 1978 but never performed) is worthy of attention, if only as a basis for comparison with the treatment of similar historical themes in modern Irish fiction. A question outside the remit of the book, but worthy of further investigation, is the potential for dramatic adaptations or new versions of some of the playscripts discussed, especially the comedies, where much of the material has become dated.
While An Underground Theatre does not purport to be a comprehensive history, the introductory chapter ‑ drawing on the work of Pádraig Ó Siadhail in particular ‑ does provide historical context by outlining the various attempts made over the years to develop a professional community of theatre practitioners through organisations such as An Comhar Drámaíochta, which was established as a theatrical management and promotion organisation in 1923 but later assisted in the implementation of Ernest Blythe’s Irish-language policy in the Abbey Theatre. The lack of dedicated theatre spaces was an ongoing problem and the most significant developments were the establishment of Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe in Galway in 1928 and the establishment in Dublin of An Damer by Irish-language organisation Gael-Linn in 1955. An Taibhdhearc is still in existence (though its production schedule is sporadic). An Damer continued to operate under the auspices of Gael-Linn until1976, and later re-emerged as an independent theatre company in , in which guise it was to function for a further three-year period.
The role played by the Abbey Theatre in promoting the work of Irish-language playwrights is seen as consistently negligible, never meeting “even the most modest expectations of those with an interest in Gaelic drama”. The most sustained Irish-language initiative by the Abbey was the production of popular bilingual Christmas pantomimes in the period 1945 to 1969. Máiréad Ní Ghráda produced one-act plays in the period 1953 to 1966 in response to Ernest Blythe’s policy of presenting unpublicised one-acters in Irish after the main English-language feature, and, when the Peacock Theatre was established as an alternative production space, plays by Ní Ghráda, Séamus Ó Néill, Críostóir Ó Floinn and Eoghan Ó Tuairisc were successfully staged there. The book’s title derives from a comment made by Críostóir Ó Floinn at the opening of the Oireachtas Drama Festival in the newly-opened Peacock Theatre in 1967, where he remarked on the appropriateness of the venue, referring to it as “an catacóm seo faoi thalamh”, “this underground catacomb”. There was an expectation that the smaller auditorium would serve as a regular venue for Irish-language plays, but that expectation was never fulfilled. Nevertheless, Irish-language drama did experience a high point of activity in the 1960s, and the chapter on Críostóir Ó Floinn in this book opens on a celebratory note with a reference to May 1968, when three of his plays were running simultaneously, with premiers of Aggiornamento at An Damer and Is É a Dúirt Polonius at the Peacock, while his earlier play Cóta Bán Chríost was playing at An Taibhdhearc.
Each of the authors discussed in this book worked in a number of genres, and the biographical sections situate their dramatic output in the context of writing careers that encompassed fiction writing, poetry, criticism, literature for children, translation and editing. A central theme in the book is the perennial challenge of building a theatre-going audience from among a relatively small and dispersed Irish-speaking community in the cities. Related to this are the issues of bilingualism and non-realist forms of theatre practice. Though Irish/English bilingualism was appreciated by Dublin pantomime audiences, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc was compelled by An Damer’s language policy to keep the use of English to a minimum in his musical drama Carolan (produced in An Damer in 1979), despite the obvious advantages of using a bilingual script to represent the cultural reality of the eighteenth century social milieux inhabited by the blind harper Carolan. Ó Floinn’s Mise Raifteirí an File (which premiered at the Peacock in 1973), on the other hand, is a consciously bilingual dramatic study of the nineteenth-century blind poet Raifteirí and his influence on writers of the Revival period. Bilingual scripts were not the only solution to the challenges posed by the sociolinguistic realities of Irish subject matter or the linguistic abilities of Irish theatre audiences. In an important essay on the future of Irish-language drama written in 1940, “Drámaíocht Ghaeilge san Am atá le Teacht”, Micheál Mac Liammóir suggested that the Irish language provided a wonderful opportunity for a non-realist theatre of the imagination, an artistic stance also held by director Tomás Mac Anna. Often hailed as being responsible for introducing Brechtian stagecraft to the Abbey Theatre, Mac Anna claimed in his autobiography Fallaing Aonghusa: Saol Amharclainne that it was the challenge of producing Irish-language plays ‑ and not the influence of Brecht or Meyerhold ‑ that shaped the non-realist directing style for which he became well known.
An Underground Theatre: Major Playwrights in the Irish Language 1930-80 is a very welcome publication, especially in the light of recent public debate about theatre politics and practice in Ireland. It will no doubt encourage further debate and research about the role of the Irish language in modern and contemporary Irish theatre. It includes a comprehensive bibliography as well as an endnote with information about online resources that would be of use to those interested in reading or producing any of the plays discussed in the book. The book is elegantly written and very finely produced by UCD Press.
Máirín Nic Eoin is emerita professor of Irish, Dublin City University. She is co-editor, with Aisling Ní Dhonnchadha, of Aois na hÓige: Díolaim Próis (2017).