Stage Struck: It’s been a bleak midwinter of artistic battles. Are they useful?

Even as dismal months go, January was a horrible one for the arts - Is it possible to sum up without reheating any grievances?

Protesters outside the Department of Justice calling on the government to release peace activist Margaretta D'Arcy. Photograph Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Protesters outside the Department of Justice calling on the government to release peace activist Margaretta D'Arcy. Photograph Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times


And so, January comes to a merciful, bitter, unloved end. Even as dismal months go, it was a horrible one for the arts, which seemed to be in perpetual crisis. Is it possible to sum up, without reheating any grievances?

First, Limerick City of Culture saw the departure of its artistic director and two advisers. A war of words ensued between the board and its critics, the process characterised by Fintan O’Toole as “casually insulting to artists”. In the Examiner, Gerald Howlin shrewdly interpreted the blame game under the headline “A portrait of the artist as childish, reckless and dangerously subversive”.

Within seven days, the CEO had stepped down, the board reconfigured and an interim head appointed. A week, it turns out, can actually be quite a short time in politics.

That would have been enough to create the impression of an embattled arts sector. But the arrest of Margaretta D’Arcy, the 79-year-old playwright and peace activist, gave any abstract sense of artistic conflict a singular protagonist: principled, dauntless, urgent.

D’Arcy, who has Parkinson’s and is undergoing treatment for cancer, is now serving a three-month prison sentence after she refused to guarantee that she would no longer disrupt US military flights through Shannon Airport. In her support, hundred of artists staged protests and signed petitions seeking a pardon. It became everybody’s fight.

So, when The Irish Times published details of reports, obtained under FOI, by an independent panel of assessors appointed by the Abbey to evaluate the theatre’s productions, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that the reaction was equally embattled. To publish them was “cruel”, asserted Abbey director Fiach MacConghail. Any cruelty lay in their commissioning, replied Fintan O’Toole.

Elsewhere the narrative developed quickly into one of attack – of “hand grenades”, of “lines in the sand”, of “defending the Abbey”, of “standing shoulder to shoulder”.

If it sounds hysterical (or expedient) to link the Abbey story to Margaretta D’Arcy to Limerick City of Culture or even to criticism of RTÉ for censoring (and later apologising for it) the views of gay rights advocate Rory O’Neill (who performs as Panti), those stories seemed to conflate in internet discussion: “I’m supporting the Abbey because of what’s happened with Limerick, and Panti, and Margaretta D’Arcy (not that I am comparing all of those directly).” “They come for Panti, they come for Margaretta D’Arcy, they come for the Abbey.” In a war against “Us”, whether real or imagined, it’s never a good time to be “Them”.

Some of the heat died down following a measured and insightful article by Druid’s Garry Hynes, although entrenched positions and raw feelings make it hard for meaningful debate to take place.

Conflict, though, has always been the soul of drama; that’s why theatre thrives on the stuff. Conflict also demands resolution, but it’s a necessary process. Pride and anger have always been the energies of drama, war provides more material than peace, and a crisis leaves more room for transformation than stability.

Still, I’m hoping for a quiet February.

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