Abbey Theatre archive to go online

Mon, Oct 22, 2012, 01:00

As an orator, Eamon DeValera delivered his speeches with a particular stoicism - a unique style, it seems safe to say, not honed during his earlier dramatic forays.

A December 1905 playbill from the Abbey Theatre reveals the young Dev, then a 23-year-old mathematics graduate, trod the boards in an amateur production of A Christmas Hamper.

The document is one of almost two million Abbey posters, prints, programmes and more which are currently undergoing digitisation by NUI Galway. When the complete collection goes online in about three years' time it will “undoubtedly be the biggest digital theatre archive in the world” said Dr Patrick Lonergan, director of drama programmes at the university.

Initially, staff, students, and visiting scholars will get exclusive access to the database, but the university and theatre will also mount projects and exhibitions for the public.

Dr Lonergan, who said the resource will “revolutionise the study of Irish theatre”, expects it to receive considerable international attention from theatre scholars in the Americas, Asia and the UK.

The collection, which contains numerous prompt scripts complete with margin-scribbled notes and amendments, will enable scholars to make discoveries not just about Irish theatre but also about Ireland, Dr Lonergan added. “One of the really fascinating things about this archive is it reveals things about Ireland’s everyday life.” The advertisements in the show programmes, for example, tell thousands of stories, he said.

A cursory glance at the items on display this morning showed ads dating from the early 20th century for McCarthy and Co.’s smart gowns for day and evening wear, and a notice to housewives from the Irish Feather Co. Limited seeking any feather beds they might be throwing out.

Aideen Howard, the Abbey literary director, said she hopes the numerous records and production notes will show how theatre is really “a broad and collaborative artform”. From a practical perspective she said the project also provides a way of protecting and preserving the records, noting that many of the pieces were charred or damaged when the Abbey caught fire in 1951.

The collection includes a 1907 note from Lord Chamberlain’s censor’s office concerning the first English tour of The Playboy of the Western World. The censor approved the tour, but mindful of the furore caused by the earlier production in Dublin, forbade “anything calculated to produce riot or breach of the peace”, including anything offensive to the army.

Ms Howard said the database will make available the material necessary for scholars to write the story of the Abbey. Historians, meanwhile, might speculate as to what course 20th century Ireland would have taken had Dev’s initial dramatic flirtations met with greater success.