In a generous review by Gerald Nicosia of my own work, he mentioned something startling about Irish literature that Irish writers dominated the 20th century in every genre: novels, plays and poetry. Considering the English in the 19th century suppressed the Irish language except for areas like the Aran Islands, it is significant that there are so many great Irish writers in English. Unlike Caliban who learned a language only “to curse,” the Irish evidently used it to conquer.
At either end of the 20th century, we have Yeats and Heaney in poetry; we have George Bernard Shaw, a giant in the theater, plus other playwrights from Synge through O’ Casey to Samuel Beckett. Modern theatre patrons can see the viciously funny work of Martin McDonagh. For the novel, there is James Joyce who wrote the most complex celebrated novel of the 20th century, “Ulysses.” For a relatively small country, Ireland has a high number of Nobel Prize winning authors. My answer to the question “Why?” is that the Irish decided to destroy the enemy with their own language.
The triumph in theater is not surprising, however. The Irish going back to the ancient Celts have had a strong oral tradition that included festivals, myths and story telling. Vocal production seems to come naturally, and the cliché of the “Irish Blarney” may be a cultural reality. The Irish have also used theater as a weapon, from Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots, to the political rebellion sponsored by the works of Shaw, a man who used wit as a weapon. Samuel Beckett wrote the ultimate timeless look at absurd empty time, “Waiting for Godot.” (One cannot leave a good production of Godot unchanged.)
One summer in Dublin, we had the chance to see Ireland’s enduring classic, “The Plough and the Stars,” at the historic Abbey Theatre. It cost 25 euros per person, which beats Broadway prices, though each patron has to buy the program. The play is revived every 10 years and for good reason, for it comes from the heat of the 1916 Irish rebellion. What is particularly striking is that the play spares no one, Irish included, as we see revolutionaries looting along with the rest of the crowd. By play’s end, a woman lies dead while English soldiers enjoy a snack.
The performance we saw was one of the few flawless productions I have seen in my lifetime and I can literally count past memorable productions on the fingers of one hand: Zeffreli’s stage production of “Romeo and Juliet,” an early American production of “Waiting for Godot” (the bar across the street did great business after each show), a Julliard production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop production of Jean Genet’s “The Balcony” and the premiere of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.” These were shows that altered my view of the world.
For “The Plough and the Stars,” the cast was perfect down to the small roles of the English soldiers whose accents sounded foreign, like invading aliens. With such a fine ensemble, it proved impossible to single out any one performance; the direction was invisible but powerful, and every dramatic note was struck. I wonder if this play can ever be done as well without Irish actors who seemed, that night, to inhabit the angry lyrical spirit of Sean O’Casey’s drama.
Leaving the theater and walking past the bullet-marked post office where the revolt began added an environmental thrill to the evening’s drama. There are other theaters in Ireland, of course, from the Blue Raincoat Theatre in Sligo dedicated to racial diversity to an Irish-speaking Druid theater company in Galway. Dublin has The Gate, the “other” famous theater, and justifiably so. A trip to Ireland must include a trip to the theater. To fail to see a play would be like visiting Rome and missing the Sistine Chapel.
Michael Corrigan graduated from San Francisco State with an MA in English and creative writing. He is a retired instructor of English and speech communications from Idaho State University. He has written several articles for various outlets, including Atticus Literary magazine online.