In 2011, Fintan O’Toole, in his Irish Times column, asked an important question regarding Irish Theatre; “Can Irish dramatists tackle the big questions again?”. His article bemoaned the fact that during the period of the Celtic Tiger no playwright, with the exception of Sebastian Barry with Hinterland, had made any effort through their work to ‘take aim’ at the Establishment ‘even with society in the throes of collective madness’(Van Winkle, 132). His point is well made, but perhaps he was asking the wrong question. O’Toole accepts ‘that the generation of Marina Carr and Sebastian Barry, of Conor McPherson and Mark O’Rowe, of Martin McDonagh and Enda Walsh is in many respects a golden one’ but never questions or even alludes to what couldn’t be more obvious in Irish Theatre at the time “who are the new generation of playwrights?”. The ‘golden’ group he talks about all emerged in the 1980’s and 1990’s and it is difficult to name one candidate that emerged as outstanding playwright in the intervening period, not to mention a ‘group’ of outstanding playwrights. The following year O’Toole ‘recognised the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival, which ran from September 29 to October 16, as “the most significant in 30 years. He described the new movement as “magic hyper-realism,” noting the frequent abandonment of “one or more of the basic elements of drama: a text, a theatre, an audience and a performer,” and the commitment to the hidden, the documentary, the physical, and the place’ (Van Winkle ,133). There is no question that the “Behind Closed Doors” Festival brought some powerful theatre to light in site-specific locations such as Louise Lowes Laundry, Mark O’Halloran’s Trade and Eileen Walsh’s magical performance in Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Request Programme. It also initiated a change away from the ‘theatre/playwright’ towards the ‘site-specific/theatre maker’ combination. In a country where the position of the playwright was already undermined by the Arts Council’s cessation of the ‘Playwright Commission’, the closure of numerous regional professional theatre companies, who were regular supporters of developing playwrights and the lack of funding for large scale productions, it was a further hammer-blow to the playwrights.
The working title of my MA dissertation is titled “The Precarious Position of the Playwright in Irish Theatre: National Identity and the Storyteller. In the opening chapter I intend to look historically at how Irish theatre has developed and the importance of the text and the actor within that genre. I intend to analyse the work of Donald Morse in his Irish Theatre in Transition: From the Late Nineteenth to the Early Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillan,2015) which opens with Christopher Murray’s essay “The Irish Theatre: The First Hundred Years 1897-1997” and his belief that ‘the Abbey was not only an Irish national theatre committed to retrieving Irish identity, but also a modernist one which was from its inception influenced by ‘Little Art Theatres’ in Europe’. Morse accepts that Murray is ‘widely recognised as the primus inter pares among Irish theatre critics’ and the book deals with analysis and comment from 15 theatre scholars to Murray’s essay under a number of rubrics that are very relevant to the present position of the playwright in Irish theatre.
While I will highlight the reasons for the present position of the playwright, I would like to concentrate on the importance of the playwrights’ contributions to the national identity as textual ‘story tellers’. I will refer to Interactions: Dublin Theatre Festival 1957-2007 edited by Nicholas Greene, Patrick Lonergan and Lilian Chambers (Careysfort Press , 2008), Christopher Murray’sTwentieth Century: Mirror up to Nation (Manchester UP, 1997) and Eamon Jordan’s Dissident Dramaturgies: Contemporary Irish Theatre (Irish AP, 2007) to analyse the important contributions that previous generations of Irish playwrights from Synge to Carr have made to Irish society with regard to national identity and the ‘mirror to nation’ ideal.
The main aim of the dissertation will concentrate on analysing the work of three contemporary playwrights, Pat Kinevane, Ailís Ní Riain and Micheál Lovett. Kinevane is one of the most important voices in Irish theatre in the past ten years. O’Toole believes that historically playwrights had a wider canvas to draw from as “There were more big narratives to draw on or to subvert; Irish Freedom, emigration, the struggle between tradition and modernity, the sexual revolution and the Northern conflict” (IrishTimes). Surely, each of these issues, many of which like the ‘sexual revolution’ are ongoing, is still very relevant to Irish society. It is possible to replace ‘Irish freedom’ with the civil right of the citizen and the ‘northern conflict’ with ‘the northern question (especially vis a vis Brexit) and add immigration and the cultural implications of same and it would appear the list is longer rather than shorter.
Pat Kinevane’s trilogy of plays; Forgotten, Silent and Underneath deal with a plethora of issues with an emphasis on the marginalised in society, the ‘old’, the ‘homeless’ and the ‘physically deformed’. Joan Fitzpatrick Dean’s well-wrought essay explores Pat Kinevane’s performance plays, Forgotten (2008) and Silent (2011), which were developed by Fishamble. As with the works examined in part three of the collection, Dean emphasises the theatricality of Kinevane’s plays, bringing out the Beckettian and Syngean elements of these grim portrayals of the marginalised (Morse, 157).
Irish theatre has found it difficult to categorise Kinevane. From critics, to scholars to journalists he is referred to as an actor/playwright, an actor-writer and a performance artist but never as a playwright. Yet, he has spent many years, firstly, as a stage actor and then as a playwright honing his skills. His play Forgotten was first produced by Fishamble in 2006. Kinevane is extremely fortunate to have the support of Fishamble; The new play company’ and their intuitive director Jim Culleton. The world of theatre recognised Kinevane’s talents in 2016 when he won an Olivier award for Silent, a play dealing with homelessness and mental health issues. His most recent play Underneath deals with physical deformity particularly with respect to the female lead character. Kinevane’s first play The Nun’s Wood was produced by Fishamble in 1997 and won a BBC Stewart Parker Trust award. Fishamble then produced his second play The Plains of Enna for the 1999 Dublin Theatre Festival. I will argue that Kinevane’s early work deserved to be nurtured by the National theatre which would have cemented his position as one of the most powerful voices of his generation. While some might say the theatre-going public might have lost his trilogy if he had been nurtured by The Abbey, it is far more likely that Irish theatre would have had an even more powerful body of work to engage with. For the dissertation I will analyse all of Kinevane’s work and use Eli Rozik’s Generating Theatre Meaning (Sussex AP, 2008) and Robert Knopf’s Script Analysis for the Theatre (Bloomsbury, 2017) as aids to interpretation.
Ailís Ní Riain did her undergraduate degree in Music at UCC and a Masters in Composition at York University. Her first play Beaten (Published as Tilt, Nick Hern, 2007) was produced at the Granary theatre in Cork and the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. She followed with Cell at the Manchester Literary Theatre in 2010 and Desolate Heaven (Bloomsbury, 2013) at the Everyman, Cork in 2012. Corcadorca did a rehearsed reading of her play The Tallest Man in The World in 2013 and her play Ostrav was produced in London at Theatre 503 in 2014. In the short period that she has been writing plays, Ailís has been shortlisted for the 2014 James Tait Prize for Drama for Desolate Heaven and as well as numerous Bursary awards including the BBC North Writers Bursary, she was a finalist at the Eugene O’Neill Playwriting Conference. She, like Kinevane, is also a powerful voice of her generation and more importantly, in a country that has so few women playwrights, she is a ‘female’ voice of her generation. Many of her plays deal with the power of sexuality both from a female and a male perspective. She is presently writing a new play called Bitterweed which is based in Sarajevo and deals with rape in both war-torn Serbia and a rural Ireland setting. I intend, in the dissertation, to analyse her work most particularly with regard to feminine issues in Ireland over the past decade.
Micheál Lovett is from a small village, Kilworth, in North Cork. Having spent a number of years with the local drama groups as an actor he began writing plays in the late 1990’s culminating in the production of his first play The Deadman’s Beard at the Everyman Palace in Cork in 2001. He was writer-in-residence at the Everyman from 2000-2002 and moved to London to further his career. His next play Tricky, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third was produced by Blood in the Alley at Richmond Studio and transferred to the Courtyard in King’s Cross. Lovett is heavily influenced by John B. Keane but he has a cutting edge which is far darker and his text is even more layered. He has been described by one reviewer as a ‘cross between John B Keane and Tarantino’. His next play This Ebony Bird opened at the Half Moon Theatre, Cork Opera House in 2005, was critically acclaimed and was nominated for a Stewart Parker prize for best new play. Lovett’s Macbeth at the Gates was produced in New Orleans by the English Rep company Dem Boys in 2008. Blood in the Alley produced his next play Jumping the Sharks at Smock Alley in 2010. Lovett is presently working on a new play titled Goddess which will be produced in Cork in 2018. I have worked closely on all of Micheál Lovett scripts but always with a view to production. I intend to analyse the writing with regard to the Oedipal sense of the writing. None of Lovett’s play have yet been published.
If Kinevane is interested in the marginal in society both Ní Riain and Lovett are constantly asking questions of the relationships within the family unit, often with strong sexual undertones. Very little has been written academically about any of the three playwrights. Through the dissertation, the aim is to investigate the interpretations of the writing of a new group of playwrights who have yet to be recognised as important and powerful voices of their generation.Fintan O’Toole’s final observation could be dangerously prophetic and what I hope to find an answer to in my dissertation.
‘Perhaps the kind of unified dramatic vision that comes from a literary playwright labouring over a text is not available in a context in which younger writers think of themselves more as “theatre makers” than as dramatists. My hunch, though, is that crisis and despair will produce the kind of ambitious public theatre that prosperity and smugness discarded. As Jonathan Swift put it, no nation needs it so much’ (Van Winkle, 132).
Works Cited and Consulted
Greene, Nicholas. Lonergan, Patrick. Chambers, Lilian ( Editors). Interactions: Dublin Theatre Festival 1957-2007. Dublin: Careysfort Press. 2008. Print.
Jordan, Eamon. Dissident Dramaturgies: Contemporary Irish Theatre. Dublin: Irish Academic Press. 2010. Print.
Kilroy, Thomas. ‘Dublin International Theatre Festival: The New Irish Plays’. The Furrow, Vol. 11, No. 10 (Oct., 1960), pp. 679-683 Published by: The Furrow. Journal.
Kilroy, Thomas. ‘A Generation of Playwrights’. Irish University Review, Vol. 22, No. 1, Serving the Word: Essays and Poems in Honour of Maurice Harmon (Spring – Summer, 1992), pp. 135-141Published by: Edinburgh University Press. Journal.
Knopf, Robert. Script Analysis for Theatre: Tools for Interpretation, Collaboration and Production. London: Bloomsbury. 2017. Print.
Lonergan, Patrick. Theatre and Globalisation: Irish Theatre in the Celtic Tiger Era. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2009. Print.
Mask, Deirdre.’ Personal and Political: Irish Theater in 2010’. New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, Vol. 15, No. 3 (FÓMHAR / AUTUMN 2011), pp. 126-135
Published by: University of St. Thomas (Center for Irish Studies)
Morse, Donald E. Irish Theatre in Transition: From the Late Nineteenth to the Early Twenty-First Century. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2015. Print.
Murray, Christopher.’ The Foundation of the Modern Irish Theatre: A Centenary Assessment. : Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS), Vol. 4, No. 1/2, THEORY AND CRITICISM [Part 1] (1998), pp. 39-56 .Published by: Centre for Arts, Humanities and Sciences (CAHS), acting on behalf of the University of Debrecen CAHS. Journal.
Murray, Christopher. Twentieth Century Irish Drama; Mirror up to Nation. Manchester: Manchester UP.1997. Print.
Nakase, Justine and Stack, Roisin. Keeping a Head Above Water. Irish Theatre in a Time of Transition. New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua Vol. 13, No. 3 (FÓMHAR / AUTUMN 2009), pp. 124-132.Published by: University of St. Thomas (Center for Irish Studies). Journal.
O’Toole, Fintan. “The New Theatre: Magical, Visible, Hidden,” Irish Times, 15 October 2011. Newspaper.
Pine, Emilie. Review of ‘Suspect Cultures: Narrative, Identity and Citation in 1990s New Drama’ by Clare Wallace. Source: Irish University Review, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Autumn – Winter, 2008), pp. 450-452 Published by: Edinburgh University Press. Journal.
Rozik, Eli. Generating Theatre Meaning: A Theory and Methodology of Performance Analysis. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.2008. Print.
Smith, Eoghan. Review of ’ Irish Theatre in Transition: From the Late Nineteenth to the Early Twenty-First Century by Donald E. Morse’. Nordic Irish Studies.Vol. 14 (2015), pp. 153-158. Journal.
Van Winkle, Kathryn Rebecca.’ You Had To Be There: Irish Theater in 2011’. New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach NuaVol. 16, No. 3 (FÓMHER / AUTUMN 2012), pp. 133-146Published by: University of St. Thomas (Center for Irish Studies)
Wallace, Claire. Suspect Cultures: Narrative, Identity and Citation in 1990’s New Drama. Prague: Literraria Pragensia. 2006. Print.