Sunday 19 November 2017

Review: Buffoonery and Easy Sentiment: Popular Irish Plays in the Decade Prior to the Opening of the Abbey Theatre by Christopher Fitz-Simon

Carysfort Press, €20.00

Emer O'Kelly

Those who see themselves as opinion-formers in this country have almost always had a joyless approach to the arts: popularity is suspect. And this has been compounded in recent years by the definition of "access for all".

It's been a frantic race downwards to the lowest common denominator in search of larger audiences, a search which has done the opposite by squeezing life, rigour, intellect, and indeed comedy, out of the arts.

But it can be argued that the Abbey theatre's detractors have what they themselves might see as an honourable provenance. The same people who shudder "oh God, don't you long for something worthwhile at the Abbey?" but have never seen any production outside Ireland (and few at the Abbey) are happy to proclaim deliberately crowd-pulling, unchallenging, provincial-English, repertory-style comedies as "world class" in other venues. Their frantic pursuit of social status is mirrored by Christopher Fitz-Simon's new book Buffoonery and Easy Sentiment: Popular Irish Plays in the Decade Prior to the Opening of the Abbey Theatre in the views of that scion of the (very minor) gentry Lady Augusta Gregory, from whom the quotation comes. It was a sweeping condemnation of the undiscriminating hordes of Dubliners (and others) who filled the 6,000 theatre seats available in the capital nightly in the years leading up to the establishment of the Irish Literary Theatre, later the National Theatre Society.

Never mind the fact that the plays she condemned so airily appealed across the social classes and across widely differing political viewpoints, from Dublin Castle officials and the professional classes, which included Joseph Holloway, the legendary chronicler of playgoing, to workmen in cloth caps such as Sean O'Casey and back up to the Lord Lieutenant and his wife.

Admittedly, neither Gregory nor Yeats had any desire to create a popular theatre, that is, a theatre that appealed to theatre-goers. Their artistic endeavour was entirely self-regarding, and as with all snobs, empty seats in a theatre intimated "artistic success" for them. The Irish Literary Theatre was a personalised toy, facilitated by the servants: Gregory treated the actors as she treated her housemaids at Coole: badly and distantly.

Yeats simply ignored them as he ignored anybody who was not an oxygen pump for his ego. Further, the common people existed to endorse his low opinion of them (a fascist notion he shared with contemporaries such as Ezra Pound). There's a satisfied crow in the famous call during the riots: "You have disgraced yourselves again." Just as he expected, he might have added.

By the Thirties, the founders of the theatre had seen the Abbey develop into at least a working theatre, albeit a narrowly focused and increasingly anti-intellectual one. Although it was during that decade that Shaw wrote in a newspaper article that the: "Abbey Theatre was a noble undertaking, but it was never, and never will be, a theatre." However, in 1904, he had written John Bull's Other Island specially for the Abbey. His reward was to have it ignored by Yeats and Lady Gregory until 1916. It was left to one of the companies dedicated to "buffoonery" to rescue Shaw's kindly gesture and little gem from oblivion: Granville Barker staged it highly successfully in 1910.

Dr Fitz-Simon's text is hugely entertaining, his trademark sense of irony never far from the surface as he explores the half century in general, and the decade in particular prior to the burgeoning of what has come to be claimed as the birth of a "truly national" theatrical tradition. And the breadth of his research is impressive, displaying a determination and dedication to rescue Irish theatre from its self-defined nationalist revisionism and navel-gazing.

He has catalogued the plays and companies which made their way through the Dublin, Belfast and some provincial theatres of the time, exploring their motivations, painting unforgettable pictures of the men (nearly always men) who headed them and wrote for them, with their wildly inflated egos, their canny commercial sense, and their unfailing ability to satisfy and feed the audience appetite, whether with "easy sentiment" or artfully intelligent manipulation that subverted their surface populism.

The Lord Chamberlain's writ of censorship did not run in Ireland in the years prior to independence, and many Irish managements, which enjoyed international repute and status (and this book proves there were many), used the loophole of Ireland to produce plays of a fair degree of social subversion. Having enjoyed successful runs in Dublin, it was much easier to convince the Lord Chamberlain's office of their harmlessness. And more often than not, a robust theme of political, social and religious anti-authoritarianism lay at their heart.

Their heroes were frequently the heroes of previous Irish struggles such as Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, painted in glorious colour, but never merely in one dimension, and usually in a manner that invited some serious thought about independence versus loyalism. But fatally in the eyes of Yeats and Gregory, they were not unequivocally and joylessly nationalist.

Equally, when the Lord Chamberlain's office had qualms about the plays, it was frequently because they might offend the sentiments of Irish people living on "the mainland" or indeed the sentiments of the Catholic clergy, "disestablished" although they were.

What emerges in chapter after fascinatingly documented chapter is a picture that absolutely denies the existence of an iron fist of either religious or political censorship, while censorship in terms of "decency" is remarkably lenient for its time.

In fact, a picture emerges of a theatre that truly deserves the title "national" in that it was outward and international-looking in its focus rather than narrow and exclusive. Its "sin" seems to have been that it was popular.

Indeed this book proves that the extraordinary genius of JM Synge, and later O'Casey, was far closer to the despised vernacular of popular Irish theatre in their day than it was to the vision of their patron/producers. Which of course, also accounts for the other interesting fact that has been written out of post-independence national cultural history: that the "popular rioters" against the early Abbey plays could be better described as nationalist/political agents provocateurs rather than as "ordinary decent theatre-goers".

Buffoonery and Easy Sentiment is not just a marvellously entertaining read, it's an unarguably learned rebuttal of the received history of Irish theatre since independence.

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