According to Brockett and Hildy:
Although Dublin has been one of the major British theatrical centers since the seventeenth century, it saw no significant attempt to create an independent Irish drama until 1898 when the Irish Literary Society was established (449).
The founders of this literary society William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939), Lady Augusta Gregory (1863 – 1935), George Moore (1853 – 1933), and Edward Martyn (1859 – 1923) aimed at galvanizing literary and creative works around Irish identity which the English world was seeking to eclipse. The leader of this group W.B. Yeats states that:
A play should tell the people of their own life or the life of poetry where everyone can see his own image. To ennoble the man of the roads, write about the roads, or of the people of romance or the great historical people.
As the Yeats’ group was championing plays with Irish flavour, another group, the Ormond Dramatic Society led by W.G. Fay, (1872 – 1947) and Frank Fay (1870 – 1931) was equally pursuing the same goal. Soon, like-mindedness drew the two groups together to form the Irish National Theatre Society. The “appearance of this new group in London in 1903 won the support of Miss A.E.F. Horniman, who acquired a building for the company and remodeled it into the Abbey theatre, which opened in
1904” (Brockett, p.449). This study unit examines this theatre that developed as part of the Irish Renaissance.
The Irish Folk Drama
The Irish Abbey theatre was established when Realism was the hub of theatrical activities throughout Europe, but this theatre followed a different pathway dedicating itself to writing and production of plays that examine Irish cultural identity. Alan S. Downer talked about the reason why the Irish theatre concerned itself with the creation and production of folk drama thus:
It was not that the Abbey management was unaware of the heritage of Ibsen or was willfully blind to the problems concerning society. But the Irish National Theater was only one part of a general literary, cultural, political renaissance intended to awaken the nation to its responsibilities and potentialities.
The folk drama is informed by “love of fantasy grounded on a sympathetic understanding of the ways of nature and man” (Downer, p.321). It examines the life of the peasants and how they grapple with natural forces. While Yeats paid attention to poetic drama, Lady Augusta Gregory – a co-founder of the Abbey theatre was fascinated by folk drama. Her one-act comedies on this genre include Spreading the News (1904), The Rising of the Moon (1907), The Work house ward (1907).
Lady Augusta Gregory’s plays are simple in plot and action. “The development of the action often depends as much upon circumstance as upon character: the original impetus to the catastrophic rumor of Spreading the News comes from the deafness of an old woman”.
In folk drama, the peasants are quick – witted, sentimental, articulate, and superstitious. It exhibits economy of action and characterisation while frankness is the hallmark of speech. In most folk plays, the idea of nature as a part of the folk spirit is pervasive. In fact, its theme is frequently the endless struggle between man and the forces of nature.
However, the Irish folk drama is not altogether non-realistic, for the events in them are very much real to the people. The Irish drama was a drama of tremendous national flavour. According to McGowan and Melnitz:
New Irish writers turned to the stage because the Abbey was there to welcome them. Their work, from the plays of Synge to the plays of O’casey, was rooted in the actualities of Irish life. (The Living Stage, p.420).
The Irish playwrights expressed both provincial and peasant experiences. They did so in remarkable Irish speech. In fact, the relatedness of the plays to the Irish lifestyle was responsible for the many riots that greeted the Abbey theatre.
Biography of John Millington Synge
John Millington Synge is a typical example illustrating that a man is not measured by the length of years he lived on earth, but what he is able achieve within his span of existence. Synge’s life on earth was a very brief one. He wrote only six plays but his name and works have remained evergreen in the discussion of English drama.
John Millington Synge was born into a protestant family of a lawyer in Dublin Ireland on 16th April 1871. He attended the Trinity College and the Royal Academy of music in Dublin. In 1895 he left music to study languages and French literature in Paris. During this period, he met a fellow Irish man W.B. Yeats in Paris. This encounter led him to refocus his attention, to the study of Irish language.
Consequently, between 1898 and 1902 he visited Aran Island his home province five times to experience life there. It was during this period that Irish dramatic movement was born. The premiere production of In the Shadow of Glen in 1902 by the Irish National Theatre society provoked wild-spread resentment because of its realistic depiction of an aspect of Irish life. Riders to the Sea, produced in the same year did not arouse resentment.
When the Abbey theatre was refurbished by Annie Horniman, Synge became one of its playwrights and directors. In 1905, his The Well of Saints was produced. The Playboy of the Western World produced in 1907 again sparked public riots and resentment, but it brought the name of Synge into limelight. Synge’s other plays include The Tinker’s Wedding, and Deirdre of the Sorrow which was published posthumously in 1910. John Millington Synge died prematurely in 1909.