The Abbey is currently touring the US with a play of bestial depravity. And not for the first time.
The tour of Mark O'Rowe's ferocious play Terminus (which arrives in Chicago next week) marks the 100th anniversary of the Abbey's first tour of the US. O'Rowe's play is -- literally -- bestial and depraved. Its story tells of a psychopath, a deal with the devil and a winged serpent. It is stomach churning at times; and yet audiences have not objected to it.
One hundred years ago, the story was very different. The Abbey brought a repertoire of 20 plays on tour to the US, and opened in Boston with The Playboy of the Western World. A pamphlet was circulated claiming this and the other plays were "photographs of bestial depravity and stupidity".
Irish-American groups objected, and petitioned the Mayor of Boston to prohibit the play. The mayor sent a censor to review it, but the censor endorsed the play. The Irish groups then went to the play, and attempted to boo it off the stage -- but were thrown out. The play received rave reviews, and its run in Boston was extended by two weeks.
In New York, the reception was fiercer still. There was an attempt to drown out the play with hissing, but the protesters were, in turn, drowned out by applause. Then the protesters threw eggs and potatoes at the actors, and 10 protesters were arrested. In Philadelphia, though, the protesters won a brief victory -- the Abbey players were arrested. They were charged with putting on an immoral play, but the case was thrown out.
WB Yeats, the director of the Abbey and ever a wily publicist, knew precisely what would happen -- the arrest would "merely result in giving the play another huge advertisement", he said. He had travelled to the US with the company, where he was treated with reverence by the US press.
He denounced the Irish-American protests against The Playboy as being motivated by an "ignorant" patriotism.
Yeats honed in on the pamphlet that had been circulated denouncing the Irish plays. It was produced by a Catholic group called The Aloysius Truth Society, and quoted the well-known London newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette, as having reported that the Abbey's plays were "photographs of bestial depravity and stupidity".
There was just one problem, Yeats noted. The claim was a lie. The Pall Mall Gazette had never said that of the plays, and had in fact reviewed The Playboy as being "amongst the masterpieces of dramatic literature".
Yeats seized the opportunity to help define, and advance, his sense of the emerging Ireland.
He was, initially, scathing: "Ireland was once a nation of soldiers. Today, it trembles before a play or a report of a divorce case. Our nationality and our purity are, it seems, such fragile things that they perish at a shadow."
But he had words of reassurance: "It is only a passing fit of panic. Ireland will recover its courage."
Today, Ireland is more likely to tremble before an economist than a playwright. But in bringing its wares to America (with Culture Ireland support), the Abbey is telling a different story to the one of the economic basket case that graces their front pages. And with that confidence, it echoes its founder's message to its public, and the world: "Ireland will recover its courage."