Introduction to Select Irish Literature and Film/The Importance of Irish Theatre



Ireland has been home to many world-famous playwrights, including George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, Lady Augusta Gregory and William Butler Yeats. Their works have been adapted and performed by theatre companies across the world, but the common denominator that links these playwrights is that they all had their start at the Abbey Theatre. The Abbey Theatre opened its doors on December 27th, 1904, opening with three one-act plays; On Baile's Strand and Cathleen Ní Houlihan, written by W.B. Yeats, and Spreading the News, written by Lady Gregory. [1] Modern Irish drama is usually classified into three major varieties--allegorical plays, folk history plays, and peasant plays. Each variety has its own representation in the literary revival. Yeats is associated with allegorical plays, often recognized as the “dreamer and poet”. Lady Gregory is associated with folk history plays, and is usually recognized as more of the observer of social conditions, and finally Synge with the plays of the peasantry, known for his bitter humour and wit. [2] An avid fan of the Abbey Theatre and friend to the directors, Joseph Holloway wrote in his journal, “Synge is the evil genius of the Abbey and Yeats his able lieutenant. Both dabble in the unhealthy. Lady Gregory, though she backs them up when they transgress good taste and casts decency to the winds, keeps clean in her plays". [3] It is with these different representations of Ireland and these very different playwrights that the literary revival was able to be advanced, and at its core was the Abbey Theatre.

Abbey Theatre


The birth of what would become the Abbey Theatre occurred in the summer of 1897, at a home on the Southern shore of Galway Bay. It was here that Edward Martyn, Lady Augusta Gregory and William Butler Yeats discussed the formation of a society dedicated to the renewal of Gaelic literature, language and culture. [4] The authors felt as though a literary revival was necessary in order to ensure the survival of Irish traditions and of the Gaelic language.

From there, Lady Gregory published an outline of aims and requested financial support from fellow literary enthusiasts. It appeared that many literary enthusiasts had the same vision of renewing Irish culture, as financial support was lent by Emily Lawless, W. E. H. Lecky, J.P. Mahaffy, and Aubrey de Vere, amongst others. With this, the society that became the Irish Literary Theatre came to be. Eventually, the Irish Literary Theatre evolved into the Irish National Theatre Society. [5]

The Abbey Theatre opened in 1904 as a project of the Irish National Theatre Society, the directors of which were Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge and W. B. Yeats. Yeats had wanted to open a theatre for quite a few years, but didn’t have the resources to do so. Yeats met Gregory in August of 1896, just a few months before he met John Millington Synge in December. Gregory and Yeats instantly became friends, and together they travelled the cottages of Killartan Cross collecting folktales, an experience in which Yeats found a great deal of inspiration. Yeats met Synge in Paris after visiting the Aran Islands and saw potential in the young writer, encouraging him to forget Paris and instead visit the Aran Islands for inspiration. It was on this advice that Synge did so, and the Aran Islands provided inspiration for three of Synge’s plays; Riders to the Sea, In the Shadow of the Glen, and The Playboy of the Western World. The three writers were also similar in their predominantly socialist political views and sympathies. Their compatibility is what allowed for them to form an alliance and bring forth a new generation of literature. [6]

The building that would become the Abbey Theatre was purchased for the society by a wealthy English patron of the arts, Anne Horniman, who was persuaded into the investment by Yeats’ involvement.[7] It was with Horniman’s financial support that the amateur company was able to turn into a Limited Company in 1905, giving the directors complete financial and artistic direction of the company, which was previously held by the leader of the Irish National Dramatic Society, W. G. and Frank J. Fay.[7]

In 1910, Lennox Robinson became the manager of the Abbey Theatre. By a miscommunication, Robinson kept the theatre open on May 7th, the day of Edward VII’s death. This infuriated Miss Horniman, who insisted that Robinson be fired for the indiscretion. When Yeats refused to fire him, Horniman withdrew her monetary support and ended her friendship with Yeats. (13) This resulted in severe economic instability for the theatre, and after many years and negotiations with the Minister of Finance, Ernest Blythe, the theatre became the first state-subsidized National Theatre in the English speaking world in 1925.[8]

Towards the end of the 1920s, the Abbey Theatre was able to obtain additional space in order to create an experimental branch of the theatre. This portion of the theatre is called The Peacock, and is often used to stage American and European plays for Irish audiences, while the main theatre is used to deliver purely Irish content. [9]

The theatre was also home to The Abbey Theatre School of Ballet for a short period of time, between 1927-1933, which was organized and run by Ninette de Valois at the request of Yeats. Valois provided a lot of the choreography for Yeats plays during that time. [10]

The original Abbey Theatre building burnt down on July 18th, 1951. The only surviving part of building was The Peacock. The theatre relocated its performances to the Queen’s Theatre for 15 years before a new building was opened, on the original spot of the Abbey Theatre, in 1966, on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion.[11] The Abbey Theatre is still a popular destination for patrons of the arts worldwide, and still strives for the same mission it did when it first opened its doors in 1904:

To invest in and promote new Irish writers and artists – To produce an annual programme of diverse, engaging, innovative Irish and international theatre – To attract and engage a broad range of customers and provide compelling experiences that inspire them to return – To create a dynamic working environment which delivers world best practice across our business.[12]

Following Yeats’ withdrawal from the theatre, the Abbey experienced an artistic decline, causing audience numbers to plummet.[13][14] After the Abbey’s reopening, however, the theatre was able to establish a much more affluent following. Since 1957, the Abbey Theatre has participated in the Dublin Theatre Festival, which aided in its revival. Today it continues to stage influential works by Irish playwrights, like Marina Carr and Tom Murphy, on its mission to keep Gaelic culture relevant for generations to come. [15]

Performance and Controversy


Cathleen Ni Houlihan and Spreading the News


As previously mentioned, opening night at the Abbey brought the debut of one of the most iconic national plays in Irish history, Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Written as a collaboration between Lady Gregory and Yeats, the play is an allegory of the 1798 Irish Rebellion, with the eponymous character being portrayed first as both an old lady and a young woman, with the “walk of a queen”. In the story, the old Cathleen Ni Houlihan arrives at the door of a family celebrating a wedding, where she tells her story of how she had four beautiful lands taken from her, the four lands representing the four provinces of Ireland. The woman requests a blood sacrifice from the young man in order to win back her land, and when this sacrifice is made, the woman transforms into a young, beautiful woman. It is evident that Cathleen Ni Houlihan represents Ireland and the play is a statement promoting Irish independence. The play is often considered the love of country allegorized. [16]

The authorship of this play has been highly debated by literary scholars over the years, such as Deidre Toomey in her book ‘Yeats and his Women’[17] and Henry Meritt in his article ‘Dead Many Times: Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Yeats, Two Old Women and a Vampire’.[18] While it’s clear that both Lady Gregory and Yeats were involved in its creation, it is unclear which had the heavier hand in its writing. The concept purportedly came from a dream Yeats had, and he asked Gregory for her help in its composition. While Yeats is given for the majority of the credit, most argue that Gregory contributed more to the writing, based on the style in which the play was written. [19]

Regardless of who had the larger influence in its creation, Cathleen Ni Houlihan was staggering in its effect on its audience. The play is widely regarded as creating an image of Ireland “worthy of worship”[20]. In Yeats’ poem ‘The Man and the Echo’, he wonders if his work inspired a revolution,[21] the poem asking, “Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?”[22]

Even before Yeats and Gregory’s play, Cathleen Ni Houlihan was a familiar symbol to patrons of Gaelic literature, with the idea of Ireland as a feminine entity in literature dating back as early as the Jacobite poets of the eighteenth century.[23] The concept of Cathleen was not an unfamiliar subject for Yeats himself, who had written about her twice before in the earlier play, ‘Countless Cathleen’, which he rewrote 4 times, and the poem ‘Red Hanrahan’s Song About Ireland’, which included the lines, “But purer than a tall candle before a Holy Rood/is Cathleen the daughter of Houlihan.”[22] Undoubtedly, however, it is the play Cathleen Ni Houlihan that was the first to take the Abbey Theatre stage in late 1904 that had the biggest influence, and consequently the symbol of Cathleen Ni Houlihan found itself on the pages of James Joyce’s ‘A Mother’ and Beckett’s ‘Murphy’, amongst other works of Irish literature.[21]

The other play written by Lady Gregory that opened the Abbey Theatre was ‘Spreading the News’. This play was less significant in its political influence, but was very well-received. Critics remarked that Gregory wrote the characters of ‘Spreading the News’ “very true to Ireland”. Which makes sense, since Gregory was very well-attuned to the core of Irishness and focused a great amount of her work in restoring old myths into a familiar version of Irish Gaelic language in order to make it more accessible to a wide audience, as well as for generations to come. [24]

The Playboy of the Western World


But while the play from two of the directors of the Irish National Theatre Society gained wide acclaim from Ireland, the third director had a great influence on his audience in a very different fashion. John Millington Synge premiered his play ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ on February 27th, 1907. The play was about a young man named Christy who becomes a local hero when he travels to a small, rural Irish town and declares to its residence that he killed his father. Upon its premiere, the play was resented by Irish Nationalists who felt as though the play evoked an image of Irish peasantry as alcoholics and irrational people, so unlike those capable of running their own government, as was their goal. Riots erupted within the Abbey Theatre, and police were called in to tame the audience.[25] [20][26]

Synge, however, had a great amount of respect for the peasantry of Ireland.[27] A first hand account from Joseph Holloway, an avid patron of the Abbey Theatre who attended almost every performance the theatre put on up until his death in 1944, was recorded in his journal. Holloway wrote, “I maintain that his play of ‘The Playboy’ is not a truthful or just picture of the Irish peasants but simply the outpouring of a morbid, unhealthy mind ever seeking on the dunghill of life for the nastiness that lies concealed there.” [28] Synge would absorb himself in the lives of the peasants, and was a socialist, meaning that it was not his intention to create a negative image of the nationalist peasants within his play. Like Yeats, Synge’s political sympathies rejected his own class.[29] Ironically, ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ had a very Nationalist message. Christy is “a figure of anti-authoritarian and anti-patriarchal liberation” with overtones of the Christian resurrection,[30] as is obvious in the name Synge gave this figure, which is a form of Christ.

In the face of the conflict, Yeats stood by his fellow director. On the night The Playboy of the Western World, premiered, Yeats was visiting Scotland. When called upon to pull the play off of the stage, Yeats refused[31], stating that his theatre was a place for art, not a place for political propaganda. Gregory also stood by Synge, despite his own reservations about the play.[32] Following Synge’s death in 1909, the Abbey Theatre put on ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ again in his honour, this time opening to great acclaim, which positioned Synge as a kind of martyr for the Nationalist cause.[33]

The Plough and the Stars


Controversy hit the Abbey Theatre once again in 1926, when the company put on 'The Plough and the Stars’, written by Sean O’Casey. As the theatre was government subsidized by the time this play was put on, George O’Brien, the government appointed special director, objected to the play being put on when it was first proposed, but the other directors overruled him.[34] In the second act of ‘The Plough and the Stars’, there is a scene in which a group of characters are drinking in a pub while the words of Pádraic Pearse, an Irish national hero, drift through a window. This is contrasted with a prostitute promoting herself in the pub, drawing a likeness between the drunken lust for sex and the drunken lust for war. On the fourth night of the play’s run, with an audience filled with both Nationalists and the family of men who had sacrificed themselves in the 1916 Easter Uprising, the crowd began to riot. At this, Yeats went onstage and declared to the audience that they had “disgraced [themselves] again.” He went on to add, “Is this to be an ever-recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius? Once more you have rocked the cradle of genius.” Yeats is referencing the riots that preceded this one, at the premiere of Synge’s ‘Playboy of the Western World’.[35]As Yeats pointed out in his speech during the interrupted performance of ‘The Plough and the Stars’, a passionate reaction to performance had become a recurring theme in Ireland. This speaks to the great influence theatre has, as well as the seriousness with which it is taken.

Even though Yeats, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, is mainly remembered for his poetry, with iconic poems such as ‘The Falling of the Leaves’ and ‘To a Child Dancing in the Wind’,[36] Yeats did not discount the effect that writing drama had on both his work and his career. In accepting his Nobel Prize for Literature, Yeats famously stated, “Perhaps the English committees would never have sent you my name if I had written no plays, no dramatic criticism, if my lyric poetry had not a quality of speech practiced upon the stage.”[37]

Mythology in Cathleen Ni Houlihan


The character Cathleen in Yeats’ play Cathleen ni Houlihan may be a reference of Ériu (modern Irish Éire). Ériu was the wife of Ma Greine and was one of the Tuatha De Danann (“the people of the goddess Dana”), the last generation of gods to rule Ireland before the invasion of the sons of Milesius, the ancestor of the present-day Irish.[38] When the Milesians invaded, Ériu and her two sisters, Banba and Fotla, greeted them[39] All three asked the Milesians to name the island after her. Amairgen, druid and son of Milesius, promised that Ireland would be named after Ériu. [40] Ériu became to represent Ireland as a woman which fueled Yeats’ representation of Cathleen Ni Houlihan.

Oscar Wilde and The Importance of Being Earnest


In Context


The Importance of Being Earnest was written by Irish author Oscar Wilde. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Willis Wilde [41], was born into an Irish Protestant family in Dublin on October 16th, 1854 . During his time Wilde was an extremely controversial figure due to his sexuality, and his imprisonment because of his homosexuality [42]. Wilde was the second of three children, with his elder brother being his mother’s favourite, and his younger sister being the "pet of the house". [41] Wilde grew up surrounded by literary figures, as “[t]he Wildes entertained a wide circle of professional and literary friends”. [43] In 1874 Wilde left Dublin and began his career as an undergraduate student at Magdalen College, Oxford. [44] During his time at Oxford, Wilde was able to become well acquainted with and observe the upper class English society. A fellow Irish author William Butler Yeats “believed that by adopting the pose of an Englishman, Wilde devised a clever strategy for challenging English prejudices about the Irish” [45]. This is important in understanding Wilde’s representation of the English in The Importance of Being Earnest because Wilde is a figure that understood English, and in general, nationalistic identity and the ways that it can be changed to suit any given situation. Identity is a subject that Wilde spent a large amount of time focusing on in both his works, and life, and his connection to this issue comes through in The Importance of Being Earnest.

At height of Oscar Wilde’s popularity, the political situation between England and Ireland was very tense, with hostility present on both sides (Sloan, 39). Language played a vital role in the conflict between England and Ireland, and how nationalism operated. [46] Language played a vital role in adding to the conflicts of British and Irish nationalism that were present in the late 19th Century, and this issue can be seen throughout the literature that was being produced by Irish authors, with Oscar Wilde being no exception. The nationalistic discourse that is seen through Irish literature is important to understand because it shows the power that language can have, and language can be used for many purposes. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest plays with the idea of the identity of British upper class through the language he creates for his characters. Wilde was raised in a house that held strong nationalistic ideals [47], which could easily be seen to impact his views. Wilde is seen by many modern scholars as a symbol as an ‘Irishman.’ For instance, Irish Studies Review had a Oscar Wilde special edition in 1990. [48] Wilde is an essential Irish literary figure, and the presence of Irish political issues can be seen throughout his work, especially in The Importance of Being Earnest. Irish nationalistic ideals, and an attack on the English upper class is seen throughout this work. Furthermore, there is a great importance to the satire within Wilde’s play within the context of the Irish - English political conflict of the time.

Background to The Importance of Being Earnest


The Importance of Being Earnest was written while Wilde was staying in a sea-front house in Worthing, England Page text, [49] and was first performed in London, England at the St. James Theatre on February 14th, 1895 at 9 pm, with the lead role of Jack Worthing being played by George Alexander. [50] Wilde was living in London at the time of the opening night, and was fairly well known by audiences at the time due to his previous works. The play was met with high praise and “unrestrained, incessant laughter from all parts of the theatre, and those laughed the loudest whose approved mission it is to read Oscar long lectures in the press on his dramatic and ethical shortcomings.” [49] Moreover, the actor Allan Aynesworth who first played Algernon Moncrieff stated that “In [his] fifty-three years of acting, [he] never remember[ed] a greater triumph than the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest. The audience rose in their seats and cheered and cheered again." [49] Following the 1895 opening night, the play was then published in 1899, with the subtitle “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” Since the publishing of this play, the work has been immensely popular, spawning many adaptations.

The Importance of Being Earnest tells the story of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and lying for the purpose of hiding true identity. This play follows the story of two British upper class friends, Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing, who both play around with false identities, and the impact that has on their lives, particularly with the females in their lives. The pun in the title of this play suggests both the importance within the plot of the characters being Ernest as well as the importance within life to be ‘Earnest.’

In addition, the pun within the title questions the idea of identity and dishonesty that is abundantly present within the play, and that is the question of whether or not an individual can be truthful, or ‘earnest,’ about anything. In the 1830s the word earnest began to represent a devotion to a moral and civic duty, and the word became immensely popular as a male name. [51] By the time that Wilde’s work was being performed, this name was very recognisable to British audiences. [51] Wilde had been known to use this name, as in a previous work of his, ‘The Critic as Artist,’a young man was also called Ernest. [51] The subtitle for this work was “With some remarks upon the importance of doing nothing” [51], both works bring attention to the absurd conventions that structure society. [52]



While some may believe that Wilde’s work “proves vexing to critics for it resists categorization, seeming to some merely a flimsy plot which serves as an excuse for Wilde's witty epigrams” [53], The Importance of Being Earnest fits well into the genre of Absurdist Comedy, as well as the genre of Satire. The Oxford English Dictionary defines satire as a work “in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule. Sometimes, less correctly, applied to a composition in verse or prose intended to ridicule a particular person or class of persons, a lampoon” [54], and defines absurdity as “an unreasonable or improper action or practice.” [55] Wilde’s play is able to manipulate representations with both satire and absurdity to create a image of the upper class of British culture which points out the absurdity of that social group. As scholar Eric Bentley argues, “One does not find Wilde’s satire embedded in plot and character as in traditional high comedy. It is a running accompaniment to the [The Importance of Being Earnest], and this fact, far from indicating immaturity, is the making of a new sort of comedy.” [56] While Wilde’s time was well before the absurd movement, it is evident that he provided a solid grounding for future playwrights, and he could be argued to have contributed to the development of this movement.

The characters within Wilde’s work all place a strong importance on the trivial aspects of life, which reflects the view that many Irish citizens had of the British upper class, and the absurdity of their culture. The absurdity and satire within Irish literature, in this case The Importance of Being Earnest, serves as an outlet for the Irish culture to deal with their cultural past. As Tom Boland argues, “the worldview of satire is that the world is absurd and unjustifiable. Thus, there is no sense to the world, and any action within it and any attempt to give it a meaning can only be ridiculous. Within such a worldview, laughter is the only possible response.” [57] The heavy weight placed upon trivial aspects of life, such as names in The Importance of Being Earnest plays within the social critique that Wilde is making in this text. During the second act of Wilde’s work there is a moment between Algernon and Cecily, taking place after their first meeting when Cecily believes Algernon to be Ernest, which clearly expresses the idea of satire that the British Upper class is absurd. In this exchange Cecily explains to Algernon, a man she just met and does not yet know his true identity, that they are already engaged to be married. Moreover, Cecily explains to Algernon in this moment that during their correspondences with each other, Cecily had been “forced to write [his] letters for [him].” [58] That just being one example, satire and the absurdity of the British upper class that Wilde is pointing to is abundantly present throughout the text.

Moreover, within Wilde’s text the character Lady Bracknell embodies all the stereotypes of a member of the British upper class that Wilde seems to be pointing to. Lady Bracknell has a strong presence on stage, or even in the text, and stands out in stark contrast to the other characters in the play. Throughout the majority of the play Bracknell has a strong opposition to Jack, and the idea of her niece marrying him. However, she does switch her opinions immediately as soon as she discovers the true heritage of Jack. Bracknell has a strong opinion regarding who can enter her social class, yet she does not see a problem once familial ties are revealed. As Jeremy Lalonde argues, “[Lady Bracknell] manifests a preoccupation with social class and an awareness that middle-class subjects can enter into the aristocratic order if they are able to cultivate the right image”. [59] She realizes that once it has been revealed that Jack shares family ties with herself, he is able to enter that class. Moreover, Lady Bracknell has a fear of the intrusion of members that she does not see fit into her social order. It is apparent that behind the fear which Bracknell expresses her understanding that the social classes are solely focused on keeping with the appearances over the actual members which populate this class. Lady Bracknell is a vital character to understanding the genre of The Importance of Being Earnest because as a character she embodies the genre, as one of a satirical absurd social critique.

However, it is also important to note that the strong satire and social critique that is present within The Importance of Being Earnest would have been recognizable to the original audience of 1895. [59]

Identity, Bunbury, and The Importance of Names


This play characterizes the British upper class as a culture focused on the superficial aspects of life. This can be seen through the character Gwendolen Fairfax. Gwendolen’s focus on names and the importance of them suggest that she is primarily concerned with the parts of society and life that are sitting on the surface. In act one of The Importance of Being Earnest, Gwendolen states,

“No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations ... I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude. The only really safe name is Earnest.”[60]

This is just one of many examples of how the superficial aspects of life are highly regarded by the upper class British characters in Wilde’s work. Gwendolen is one character of many that exhibit this type of behavior. A strong concern with superficial things, such as names, suggests that the British characters within this play are vain and cannot see past the shell, name, of a person. The way that names and identity work for characters within The Importance of Being Earnest is an even more furtherment and evidence of the social satire Wilde is using to point out the issues with the British upper class.

The issue of names is present throughout the entirety of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and this technique is very significant in the play. A name creates a grounding for audiences and for the characters, and with Wilde’s use of instability with names in this work, he is removing the stability of the character’s identities. Within this text, the importance of names and the power that names can hold is very abundant, from the title of the play, to the simple names of the characters. Wilde has “male characters nam[ing] themselves to achieve their desires and female characters name others to exert power and ultimately provide the inevitable happy ending.” [61]

Moreover, the character Jack goes through many identity changes throughout the course of this play. This suggests the idea that identity is not a concrete concept, but is a fluid part of everyone. A way in which identity is fluid in this play is the concept of being a ‘Bunburyist.’ The character Algernon explains Bunburying as

“You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable” [62]

Bunburying is the act of inventing a character to use as an excuse to get out of previous engagements. In many ways those who are a Bunburyist in Wilde’s play, become that character through the creation of them, thus showing again the fluidity of identity. Furthermore, “Modern critics have defined the fictional characters of Ernest and Bunbury as evidencing Jack and Algy's search for identity” [53] , which suggests their lack of a solid identity. The use of Bunburying in this play adds a dimension to the characters that gives the audience the impression that their identities are things that they can change themselves. In many ways Algernon becomes Bunbury when he uses him as an excuse, which suggests that Algernon can pick and choose when he can be Algernon and when he can be Bunbury. Through the concept of Bunburying within The Importance of Earnest Wilde is able to express the idea that the identity of a person is fluid rather than stable.

As suggested above, Bunburying allows for the characters to form and create their own identities, that are not what they are born into, for instance, Algernon’s creation of his version of ‘Ernest.’ Algernon’s version of Ernest gives him the power to use identity, names, and lives, in his favour to be able to make an attempt at changing his possibilities in life. Introducing himself to Cecily as Algernon and not Ernest would have prevented a possible engagement between the two, and Algernon recognizes this. Identity is used in The Importance of Being Earnest as a tool that many of the characters understand how to use to their advantage, however it is also a source of misunderstandings and an extension of the satire of the British upper class. For this text, identity is fluid for the characters, but is also fluid in how it is being used by Wilde.


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