Monday 22 October 2018

Opening night evokes echoes of past protests

A 'bawdy, explicit' play is celebrated at The Abbey, where once it may have sparked a riot

The old Abbey Theatre Dublin, scene of angry protests
The old Abbey Theatre Dublin, scene of angry protests

Joe Dowling

Brilliantly dubbed by the late Harry Brogan as "a pilgrimage to Knock", opening nights at The Abbey Theatre are occasions where the great and good of Dublin's literary, political and social society gather, with varying levels of enthusiasm, to witness and opine on the latest dramatic offering.

Usually, negative opinions are offered privately with a modicum of civility and good order. But there have been those famous occasions where the audiences shed their politesse and good manners and erupted in riot to protest some act of supposed immorality or political heresy.

In 1907, John Millington Synge's masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World had a rocky start. Angry nationalists objected to the spectacle of Irish maidenhood being corrupted by a self-confessed father-killer. Boos, hisses and sundry projectiles rained down on the actors and Arthur Griffith later declared the play "a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform".

The opening of Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars in 1926 saw a similar reaction with WB Yeats pontificating that "the cradle of genius" had been rocked and that this play was Sean O'Casey's "apotheosis". Sean later admitted that he had to consult his dictionary to discover what the hell Yeats was talking about.

In 1947, poet Valentine Iremonger and playwright Roger McHugh used an opening night to publicly excoriate the "utter incompetence of the present directorate". Iremonger declared "Having seen what they did to O'Casey's masterpiece tonight in acting and production, I, for one, am leaving this theatre as a gesture of protest". Ernest Blythe banned them both from the theatre but the impact on public opinion resonated and lasted for many years.

I was personally involved in the most recent public demonstration. In 1970 I was assistant to Tomas MacAnna for his production of the revue A State Of Chassis in The Peacock. Songs and sketches were used to satirise the emerging political situation in Northern Ireland. It was not a particularly good show but on opening night, in a pre-planned demonstration, journalist and activist Eamonn McCann stormed the stage accompanied by a BBC camera team. I was horrified to see some intruders push members of the audience down the stairs towards the stage. I am not a violent person but I had great satisfaction in frog-marching a Christian Brother, who seemed to be instigating much of the violence, out of the theatre. Our resourceful lighting designer, Leslie Scott, foiled the BBC plot by unplugging their camera! Tomas Mac Anna seized his moment to deliver a Yeatsian riposte: "All we can say is to echo the words of Byron: 'If we laugh at any mortal thing, it is that we may not weep'."

These reflections are prompted by the recent opening night of Dermot Bolger's vivid and excitingly modern distillation of Joyce's, Ulysses. Graham McLaren's production was accurately described by Emer O'Kelly as "vibrant" and "tumultuous". Joyce's bawdy, scatological, sexually explicit reflections of his native city are brought to exuberant life on the Abbey stage. Actors perform actions and use language that, in a previous era, would have led to mass walk-outs, if not to a night in Mountjoy Jail.

Molly Bloom's lubricious affirmatives are lovingly shared. Leopold's encounter with Gertie McDowell on Sandymount strand is hilariously explosive in its onanistic fervour and Bella Cohen is a randy transvestite with straying hands. How refreshing it is to see this innovative version unashamedly presented in our National Theatre and to watch a delighted audience leap to its feet in celebration. We have come a long way since Lady Gregory's telegram to Yeats about the Playboy protest "Audience broke up in disorder at the word 'shift',". In this Abbey production, Molly's shift, drawers and all are on proud display!

It is sobering to consider that, within the lifetime of many of that Abbey audience, in May 1957, a courageous theatre director, Alan Simpson, was arrested and faced the full weight of Irish law for producing Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo at the Pike Theatre. That this powerful work by one of America's best playwrights might be considered obscene came as a shock to Simpson and his wife Carolyn Swift, owners of the theatre. The sole objection was that one of the characters dropped a condom on the floor. The fact that the offending object was mimed by the actor led to the dismissal of all charges. But the effect of this outrageous, unprecedented legal interference in a Dublin production created a frightened atmosphere in Irish theatre which destroyed the Pike, one of the most innovative companies in the Irish theatre. Our current welcome artistic freedoms were dearly bought.

Joe Dowling is a former artistic director of The Abbey Theatre

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