Tuesday 27 June 2017

Re-reading the riot acts

One evening in 1926, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington put on her finery and went out for a night at the theatre. Sheehy-Skeffington, whose husband Francis was a pacifist who had been killed at Easter 1916, had organised a girls' night out with some friends in Cumann na mBán, the republican women's organisation. They were going to the new play at the Abbey Theatre, The Plough and the Stars.

When the play began, they started to shout. Later, on a certain cue, a group of the women, with some men, made a dash for the stage, clambering up over the orchestral piano.

One of the male protesters was rewarded with a blow to the chin from the actor Barry Fitzgerald, and collapsed back into the stalls. The actress Shelagh Richards started dragging the invading women off the stage by their hair.

Yeats arrived and made a great speech, which no one heard, it was so chaotic. (Fortunately, he had already delivered it to the papers.) The gardaí arrived, and threw out some of the protesters. Things eventually calmed down.

From the perspective of the women, the night was a great success, and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington went home happy.

The following evening, while getting ready to go out, she was chatting with her son, Owen, a student. She was on her way to the Gaiety, to see another play with some friends.

Be careful, he warned her. There had been an almighty session in Trinity the previous night, and he feared there might be some drunks in the theatre.

His mother sighed. "If there's one thing I do detest," she said, with a straight face, "it's rowdyism in the theatre."

The story of the riots at The Plough and the Stars is one of the foundation myths of Irish theatre. Like all such stories, most people have a vague idea of what happened, or think they do -- but few actually know the details.

Tonight, on RTÉ Radio 1, I'll be attempting to get the core of what happened, who was involved, and why it mattered.

This is the second programme in a new six-part series, From Stage to Street, which grew from this weekly column. While writing about today's theatre here, I've increasingly been drawn to these foundation myths -- those great moments in Irish theatre that are often namechecked but rarely elaborated on.

The first, and most famous, of these events was the "Playboy riot" -- the disturbances that greeted the premiere of John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, in 1907. When I first went back to the original newspaper reports of the "riots," I realised the story was much more nuanced -- and dramatic -- than the term "riot" suggested.

This insight led to the idea of a series that would take six such events and put them under the microscope.

The first programme went out last week and was, fittingly, on The Playboy. The renowned scholar Declan Kiberd revealed the great passions and tensions within the Abbey over Synge's play.

Marie Mullen, the great actress, revealed the insights she had discovered playing both Pegeen Mike and the Widow Quinn.

Thomas Conway, literary manager at Druid Theatre Company, made the observation that Synge, who had lost his own father as a child, had written a play in which -- twice -- the father is murdered but comes back to life.

Tonight, at 7.30pm, I'll be attempting to get to the bottom of the politics, conflicts and resentments that culminated in the riots at The Plough and the Stars. Colm Tóibín joins me, drawing on the character insights he gained while writing a play about the riots, Beauty in a Broken Place.

And Chris Morash, who has written a wonderful history of Irish theatre (from which the anecdote above comes) will be there to paint a picture of the extraordinary political tensions that were simmering at the time.

Next week, we'll be investigating the incredible story of how a director was arrested, and had his theatre ruined, for staging a play in which, in one scene, a condom falls out of a character's pocket: The Rose Tattoo. The director was Alan Simpson, and I'll be joined by his daughter, Clara.

The programmes don't all deal with riots, but they do all deal with times when what was happening on stage reverberated on the streets outside.

And we'll be asking the question: at this time of tumultuous political crisis, might the theatre cause such reverberations again?

colinmurphy@independent.ie

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