Review of Nicholas Grene, The Politics of Irish Drama (Cambridge UP), 312pp.,
in The Irish Times (11 March 2000) [Weekend].

Thinking back in old age on his early nationalist potboiler [sic] Cathleen Ni Houlihan, W. B. Yeats famously asked “Did that pay of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” which, in these less romantic times, Paul Muldoon replied with the rhetorical question, “If Willie Yeats had saved his pencil lead / Would certain men have stayed in bed?” The self-important delusions of writ; who believe that they shape political ends merely by imagining them invites a kind of comic deflation. And yet, Yeats’s question was not entirely a product self-delusion.

Modern Irish history has indeed been influenced both by the images of Ireland invented by poets and playwrights and by the failure of reality to live up to those ages. Cathleen Ni Houlihan may not have sent Patrick Pearse into the GPO in 1916. Pearse himself wrote plays and imagined the Rising as a dramatic ritual, part religious sacrifice, part street theatre. And in the year of the Rising he wrote, as Nicholas Grene reminds us, that if he had seen Cathleen Ni Houlihanas a boy, he “should have taken it not as an allegory but as a representation of a thing that might happen any day my house”. The line between Irish theatre and Irish history is not so clear after all.

The truth, in other words, lies somewhere between Yeats’s overstatement of the power of art on the one side and Muldoon’s puncturing pinprick of scepticism on the other. Nicholas Grene’s lucid, subtle and insistently insightful new book comes closer to capturing this complex relationship between politics and theatre in 20th-century Ireland than anyone else has done.

His notion of politics is, admittedly, rather narrow, for what he is concerned with here is the politics of nationality. Issues of class, gender, ethnicity, the urban-rural divide and so on, feature only insofar as they relate to Grene’s exposition of “Irish drama that is self-consciously concerned with the representation of Ireland as its main subject’. This is, moreover, a very severe limitation, excluding as it does Farquhar, Sheridan, Wilde, almost all of Shaw and Beckett and such angular playwrights as M. J. Molloy, Teresa Deevy, John B. Keane, Paul Mercier and Marina Carr.

More subtly, the focus on the representation of Irishness tends to privilege some plays by writers Grene does examine in depth over other, equally important, works by the same playwrights: Brian Friel’s Translations rather than Faith Healer, Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire instead of The Gigli Concert; Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom rather than Prayers of Sherkin.

And what, in any case is a theatrical representation of Ireland? Grene, for example, follows most critics in regarding John Bull’s Other Island as Shaw’s only significant “Irish” play. But might not, say, Pygmalion, which anticipates Translations in its concern with language, representation and cultural dominance, be an even more profound reflection on the Irish situation even though all of its characters are English?

In this sense, Grene can be said to perpetuate a conservative and narrow definition of what constitutes Irish theatre. Yet, such is the vigour and acuteness of his writing, he also provides a framework within which that very definition can be dismantled.

For what he comes back to again and again is the way Irish theatre is shaped by its peculiar situation of being directed, at one and the same [time], to “us” and “them”, to both Irish and foreign audiences. It is, he argues, seldom concerned to represent its own audience to itself. At home, it tends to show people from the margins of Irish society to people who live at the centre. Abroad, it shows the exotic Irish to the British American metropolitans.

“Where Irish drama”, he writes, “is received abroad as different by virtue of its Irishness, in Ireland that difference is turned on a gap in social milieu between characters and audience … The spaces of Irish drama, like the language of its people, are predicated as being authentic, truly reflecting the speech and behaviour of a reality out there […]. But it is always out there, somewhere other than the metropolitan habitat shared (more or less) by playwright and audience alike.”

Grene, as I have suggested, makes this argument easier to sustain by excluding in advance those plays that might challenge it. Nor does he ask how specific to Ireland this theatrical Othemess really is. What, for example, are Sam Shepard’s avocado farms and deserts to a New York audience if not “out there”? Isn’t the desire to see people unlike ourselves an inherent aspect of the whole theatrical impulse? How many of the Greeks who watched Oedipus or the Elizabethans who watched Hamlet were themselves kings or princes?

Yet Irish drama, with its long relationship to London and its wildly disproportionate international dimension, is undoubtedly an extreme example of these universal conditions. It is true, as Grene argues, that Irish theatre never had the phase of urban middle-class self-reflection that most European cultures had. It didn’t manage to develop, as other theatrical cultures did with their own versions of Ibsenism, a space in which the audience was assumed to be, looking at itself. Grene is undoubtedly right to see this as a crucial factor in the constitution of what is generally understood to be Irish theatre.

And within the terms he has set himself, Grene applies his argument brilliantly. His sharp awareness of the multiple contexts of Irish plays makes for superbly stimulating readings of classic texts such as The Shaughraun, The Playboy of the Western World, Juno and the Paycock, Translations, The Hostage, The Old Lady Says No!, All That Fall, and Bailegangaire. (Grene, refreshingly, recognises and reflects the centrality of Tom Murphy to 20th-century Irish theatre.)

Grene’s intelligence, erudition and mostly jargon-free lucidity make this, in fact, the best survey of 20th-century Irish playwrighting yet written. It completes so authoritatively, indeed, the job of telling one kind of story about modern Irish drama that it clears the ground for a whole new look at what that story is or might be.

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