Friday 15 December 2017

Shaw in a new critical mix for Irish dramatic history

The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939, Anthony Roche, Bloomsbury €25.50

Recognition: George Bernard Shaw's dramatic return
Recognition: George Bernard Shaw's dramatic return

Emer O'Kelly

What emerges overwhelmingly from Anthony Roche's new critical study is that Augusta Gregory was an overweening autocrat and that WB Yeats was a relentlessly self-regarding and self-promoting monster. Neither judgement is exactly new; nor does Roche extrapolate that it is. But what is new is that Dr Roche puts George Bernard Shaw firmly in the mix of what was to become our National Theatre. And it is that placement in his study devoted to Shaw which could be called the rigorous dramatic intellectual mirror held up to the arguably unreal nature of romantic nationalism.

This picture has already emerged in the published version of the letters between Shaw and Lady Gregory edited by Nicholas Grene and Dan Laurence. They offer an insight on the early Abbey overseen (most often benignly) by GBS, with Augusta Gregory seeking his advice and guidance over most decisions and certainly over every crisis.

But Shaw has been deleted from the historiography of the Abbey Theatre in popular account and (again overwhelmingly) by the formidable body of belligerently nationalist critical judgement and opinion.

Roche quotes Brian Friel from a piece he wrote for the Times Literary Supplement in 1972: "It is time we dropped from the calendar of Irish dramatic saints all those playwrights from Farquhar to Shaw - and that includes Steele, Sheridan, Goldsmith and Wilde - who no more belong to the Irish drama than John Field belongs to Irish music or Francis Bacon to Irish painting."

The view reflects what Paige Reynolds refers to in her contribution Performance and Spectacle in Roche's book, when she points to Douglas Hyde's view that the public enactment of Irish identity would advance the quest for independence, as (separately) exemplified by a letter to the Gaelic League's An Claidheamh Soluis in 1906, that nationalists intended to eradicate "baneful, suggestive foreign dances such as the polka, the waltz, the Welsh Dance, the Cake Walk, and all foreign monstrosities."

In other words, even as late as Friel's emergence as a master of Irish drama, that drama could be identified only within the "native" or "peasant" tradition, with intellectualism or sophistication regarded as a contaminant. Anything foreign was "monstrous;" and "foreign" included any Irishness which was not Gaelic.

Reynolds also posits the centrality of drama to Irish life in a wider context stemming from Daniel O'Connell's monster meetings, with this public theatre continuing right through to independence, and culminating in the theatrical celebration of what was seen as Irish identity in the Eucharistic Congress of 1932.

This analogy of religion as the national dominant under the newly-installed De Valera government is echoed in Roche's chapter dealing with the now largely neglected Teresa Deevy, whose 1930s work marked the emergence of a Catholic identity in the national theatre's plays, for so long dominated by Protestants, even after the downward class shift represented by O'Casey.

The innate requirement for theatre as part of public discourse might also explain, in part, why Yeats chose drama rather than poetry as the dominant theme of his acceptance speech for the Nobel although the prize had been awarded to him as a poet. PJ Matthews, in his contribution on Synge (whose plays Matthews reads as a critique of "a jaded and depleted Ireland") points out that it was on the stage of the Abbey Theatre that the "uncreated lineaments of Irish identity were publicly fashioned, with their details widely mediated nationally", frequently through controversy. This was recognised by Yeats, whose loftiness did not prevent him delivering to the press a copy of his "spontaneous" speech from the stage during the Plough and the Stars riots in 1926 the night before he made it.

Yet this was the man who wrote in 1919 that they had created a "people's theatre" where the audience can "expect to see a dramatic representation of the lives they lead, the people they know, and the language they speak"; and he goes on "its success has been to me a discouragement and a defeat."

So it is easy to understand why Shaw wrote that in John Bull's Other Island, Yeats "got more than he bargained for." Roche makes clear that Yeats got more than he bargained for in Shaw, and that this accounts for the shouldering out of the great Fabian.

It is a theory I have always held, and I would join with the author in his praise for the Abbey's current director, Fiach Mac Conghail, in his dedicated (and largely unappreciated) work in rehabilitating Shaw as integral to the Irish canon and the National Theatre.

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