In a generous review by Gerald Nicosia of my hybrid memoir, “Confessions of a Shanty Irishman,” Nicosia mentioned 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 Sean O’ Casey to Samuel Beckett. Modern theater patrons can see the viciously funny work of Martin McDonagh, who wrote the Academy Award-nominated film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” 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 four 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. The Irish going back to the ancient Celts have had a strong oral tradition that included myths and storytelling. The Irish have also used theater as a weapon, from “The Playboy of the Western World,” which caused riots, to the plays of Bernard Shaw, a man who used wit to satirize society. Samuel Beckett wrote the ultimate timeless look at absurd empty time, “Waiting for Godot.” (One cannot leave a good production of Godot unchanged.)
Years ago one summer in Dublin, my wife and I 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 on Easter Monday. 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 on the floor, shot by a sniper.
The performance we saw remains 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” at the Magic Theatre. Those productions 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. The direction was invisible but powerful, and the Irish actors that night inhabited the angry lyrical spirit of Sean O’Casey’s drama. Leaving the theater and walking past the bullet-marked post office where the Easter rising began added an irony to the evening’s drama.
In addition to the Abbey, there is The Gate, the “other” famous Dublin theater, and justifiably so. A trip to Ireland must include a trip to the theater. To not experience the Irish theater would be like visiting Rome and missing the Sistine Chapel.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.