Thursday 19 April 2018

How The Bard continues to influence Irish dramatists

A promotional poster for the Abbey Theatre's production of Twelfth Night.
A promotional poster for the Abbey Theatre's production of Twelfth Night.
Brian Friel.
James Joyce.
Marina Carr.
Professor Anthony Roche of UCD.
WB Yeats.

Professor Anthony Roche

Shakespeare's influence is worldwide. But it is particularly profound in countries sharing the same language, which as they are generally former British colonies have had English take the place of native languages. Twentieth-century Irish playwrights writing in English had to take on the formidable legacy of William Shakespeare. If Shakespeare's influence has to be acknowledged, it has almost equally to be resisted. Irish playwrights are not respectful to a Shakespeare play; the approach is a radical appropriation of what they need for their own purposes. In adopting a smash-and-grab approach, they are honouring the 'upstart' spirit of Shakespeare himself.

In May 1901, with an eye to the founding of the Abbey Theatre, W.B. Yeats paid a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, the nearest England had at that time to a national theatre. In viewing a season of Shakespeare's history plays, he wrote that 'the theatre has moved me as it has never done before'. In Richard II, he famously read the 'sensitive', deposed Richard as Ireland and the pragmatic, 'successful' Bolingbroke who takes his crown as England. There is a prescient anticipation in Yeats's remarks of the 'failure' of the sensitive poet/playwrights who led the Easter Rising to overcome the 'successful' British Army, and yet achieving the ultimate victory.

Many of the 1916 leaders were drawn to English literature (Thomas MacDonagh taught the subject at UCD) and to Shakespeare in particular, so much so that historian Richard English described them as 'paradoxically very British rebels, in some respects'. Yeats, the year after visiting Stratford-Upon-Avon, wrote his own history play (with Lady Gregory), Cathleen ni Houlihan, set during the 1798 rebellion, of which he was later famously to write: 'Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?'

While an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1888 to 1892, John Millington Synge took classes in Shakespeare and attended a visiting production of Hamlet. Favourite lines and couplets written down in Synge's college notebooks resurface decades later in his plays.

In the library chapter of Joyce's Ulysses (1922), Stephen Dedalus leads a discussion intertwining Shakespeare's life and art. When Buck Mulligan arrives halfway through and is told who is being discussed, he responds: 'Shakespeare?... To be sure, he said, remembering brightly. The chap that writes like Synge.'

One of the speakers earlier points out that 'our young Irish bards... have yet to create a figure which the world will set beside Saxon Shakespeare's Hamlet.' The implicit suggestion that Christy Mahon is an Irish Hamlet is borne out in The Playboy of the Western World (1907) when his own father, whom he believes to be dead, turns up unexpectedly halfway through. Far from being a ghost, Old Mahon is all too alive and seeking retaliation for his son's attempted parricide rather than revenge.

The presence of Shakespeare continues to loom large on the contemporary Irish stage. He is namechecked in the title of Thomas Kilroy's 1976 comedy, Tea and Sex and Shakespeare, where the central character tries to overcome his writer's block by telephoning The Bard for inspiration; Shakespeare's advice is to throw in a love scene and a happy ending. Frank McGuinness's Mutabilitie (1977) records the 'fact' that William Shakespeare briefly visited Ireland in the company of two fellow actors. Where the English poet Spenser is increasingly barricaded in Kilcolman Castle, Shakespeare is the one to make brief if meaningful contact with the native culture.

Although Marina Carr's plays have been most likened to Greek tragedy, the ghosts that stalk her stage have a Shakespearean aspect. It is no accident that the first name of the central character in Portia Coughlan (1996) derives from the heroine of The Merchant of Venice. Carr's own first name, Marina, is that of a character in one of Shakespeare's late romances, the daughter of Pericles.

In Tom Murphy's Conversations on a Homecoming, Michael in the last stages of the play suddenly quotes Prince Hal on his drinking companions: '"I know you all and will awhile uphold the unyoked humour of your idleness"'. But Michael's reflections reveal how (unlike Shakespeare's Prince) he differs little from his disillusioned middle-aged companions, so far from the idealism of their youth. It is in Brian Friel's most political play, Translations (1980), that the late playwright engaged most fully with Shakespeare and his history plays, with their tussles over language as power.

On Friday, April 11 2014, Ireland's President Michael D Higgins concluded his state visit to England on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon. Surrounded by Shakespearean actors in costume, President Higgins said: 'Today I want to acknowledge a great truth: the English language that we share, if it was once the enforced language of conquest, is today the very language in which we have now come... to share our different and complementary understandings.'

No small part in that enhanced understanding between Ireland and England has been achieved by the dialogue between Irish playwrights and the dramas of William Shakespeare.

Professor Anthony Roche (UCD) is the author of The Irish Dramatic Revival (2015). Details of the upcoming 2016 UCD/Abbey Theatre talks can be accessed at

Irish Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment