The other day I was flicking through Joseph Holloway’s Abbey Theatre, the book of his Dublin theatre-going diaries from 1899 to 1926, when I came across his entry on the riots that surrounded the opening run of J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Holloway joined many in their condemnation of the play. In his entry for the opening night of the play on the 26th January 1907 he writes:
“On coming out, Lady Gregory asked me, ‘What was the cause of the disturbance?’ And my monosyllabic answer was, ‘Blackguardism!’ To which she queried, ‘On which side?’ ‘The stage!’ came from me pat, and then I passed on, and the incident was closed. […] I maintain that his play of The Playboy is not a truthful or just picture of the Irish peasants, but simply an outpouring of a morbid, unhealthy mind ever seeking the dunghill of life for the nastiness that lies concealed there…Synge is the evil genius of the Abbey and Yeats his able lieutenant.”
And yet, despite the initial outpouring of disgust from audiences, The Playboy of the Western World, and a number of Synge’s other works, have found themselves safely entrenched in the Irish theatrical canon. Why?
St. Patrick’s Day is on its way, plastic shamrocks spill from the shelves of the pound shop, pints turn gaudy green, and people flock to Ireland to experience our national holiday. But it’s about much more than the shelves of bright green plastic in shops - it’s about marching in the parade with the Brownies, your GAA club or your drama group, it’s about the excitement of eating sweets in the middle of Lent, it’s about celebrating home, community, history. Or at least, that’s what it is for me. Just as Leprechauns are not the cute jolly fellows that you see on St. Patrick’s Day decorations, the spirit of Irish theatre does not come from a lilting, nostalgic place, but rather from mischief, from honesty, from pushing it. It is the troublemakers and the interrogators that have made the best of Irish theatre. Synge wrote characters that did not suit the romanticised Irish narrative that the leaders of the Irish literary revival had crafted, and so his play was denounced with cries of “This is not Irish life!”
I was at the opening night of The Country Girls at the Abbey Theatre recently, where Edna O’Brien took to the stage to say a few words at the end. It was a special experience, seeing O’Brien, whose first novel caused such a stir that it, and its sequels, was banned and copies were burned in her home parish, speak about her work on our national stage to rapturous applause. Like Synge and The Playboy of the Western World, O’Brien was writing about Ireland in an honest way that was not often seen in print. She wrote away from the constraints of an Ireland dominated by the restrictive rules of the church, just as Synge wrote away from the carefully constructed image of Ireland that was pushed by the Irish literary revival.
Today, the best works on our stages come from people who are doing the same thing decades later, from the pot-stirrers, the question-askers. One of my favourite theatre companies, Malaprop, have been questioning, provoking and creating for only two years, but in that time they have left their mark on Irish theatre with productions that, as Lyn Gardner put it, “grapple with the complexities of a world where the ground is constantly shifting beneath our feet and where what we believe can be recalibrated not just on a daily basis but minute by minute.” Similarly, THISISPOPBABY’s production RIOT which is returning to Dublin as part of Dublin Dance Festival in May was a hit at Dublin Fringe Festival back in 2016 because it brought artists and activists onto the stage of the Spiegeltent in a, well, riotous cabaret challenging the audience and presenting new possibilities for change in Ireland. Project Arts Centre began in 1966 as an artist centred venue that pushed against the status quo and looked to shape the future with art. The New Theatre next door consistently brings challenging pieces that call for change and progress, with productions like Astronaut at Dublin Fringe Festival 2018 which was altered mid-run to account for events that happened during the run and which encouraged people to go straight from the theatre to housing protests that were happening just a few minutes away, and with upcoming productions such as Dagogo Hart & Felicia Olusanya’s Boychild, which explores evolving masculinity, and Enigma Theatre’s Good Love, which asks how we love in a digital world and what effect artificial intelligence may have on how we interact.
In rehearsal rooms across the country, at writing desks in every province, on stages in every county, the best sort of troublemakers are at work creating the best of Irish theatre, and this St Patrick’s Day I’ll raise a (not-green) glass to those mischief-makers and truth-tellers that bring life to our stages.