Bringing the Big House down

It has taken 75 years to stage The Big House in the Abbey Theatre, but the play's message resonates as strongly as ever, writes…

It has taken 75 years to stage The Big House in the Abbey Theatre, but the play's message resonates as strongly as ever, writes Sara Keating

One of the perennial ironies of the Abbey Theatre's history is that it was founded by a pair of Anglo-Irish Protestants who were committed to the creation of a national theatre that would reflect the emerging independent Irish state. Of course, when that state finally came into being in 1921, it was defined by values which excluded the very people who had driven the cultural revolution that had enabled Ireland's political freedom.

Written in 1926, The Big House, by Lennox Robinson, which opens at the Abbey Theatre tonight, engaged directly with the complexities of the Irish identity that was emerging throughout this turbulent period in Irish history. Set in the fictional Ballydonal House in Co Cork, the drama of The Big Houseunfolds in tandem with key political events: Armistice Day, 1918; the Black and Tan guerrilla war in 1921; and the end of the Civil War in 1923. Robinson's sympathetic portrayal of an Anglo-Irish family forced to choose between their country (Ireland) and their culture (English Protestantism) presents an alternative perspective on the narrative of the emerging nation.

However, the Abbey Theatre's new production of the play asks questions about the monolithic nature of the Irish theatrical canon too. Despite being the most prominent playwright at the Abbey throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Lennox Robinson's work is rarely produced for contemporary audiences (although Drama at Inishwas produced at the Abbey in 2004).


Robinson's reputation for whimsical bourgeois social comedies, such as Drama at Inishand The Whiteheaded Boy, means he has been neglected by the canon, despite the important part that he played in Irish theatre history as manager, director, producer, actor and resident playwright at the Abbey during its formative years. Robinson was a driving force in expanding the conservative social-realist repertoire that dominated the Abbey's early years. He was responsible for establishing the Dublin Drama League in 1918, which performed international work at the Abbey on Sunday nights, and was instrumental in founding the Abbey's experimental wing, the Peacock Theatre. His own plays (23 in total) ranged from political dramas and satirical comedies to fantasies and farce, often incorporating the international influences (such as expressionism and psychological realism) that he sponsored at the Peacock.

The Big Houseitself, a realist tragic drama, has not been performed for 75 years. As the Abbey's literary director Aideen Howard explains: "There are theories that it may not have suited the politics of the Abbey at a certain point in time, theories that it was either wilfully or casually suppressed. But really, we don't know why [ it was not produced for so long]." Conall Morrison, who is directing The Big House, elaborates: "The last time the play was produced was just before the Eucharistic Congress took place in Ireland, after which Ireland was formally declared a Catholic state. After that, The Big Houseseemed too much of a political pot-stirrer. It was asking, what is this new country going to be? Is it going to accommodate difference? Or is Protestantism going to be forced to go underground?"

It seems ironic, Morrison admits, that The Big House's"cry for pluralism" should end with "Robinson burying the play". In fact, Robinson, an Anglo-Irish Protestant himself and the son of a staunchly unionist Church of Ireland minister, was an ardent supporter of Irish nationalism. In light of his prolific career at the Abbey, it seems fitting that Robinson's conversion to both nationalist politics and drama was inspired by a performance of Kathleen Ni Houlihanby visiting Abbey Players at the Cork Opera House. "Certain natural emotions and stirrings, hidden from my family," he wrote, "were crystallised by Kathleen Ni Houlihan . . . the conversion was complete, was done in the 20 minutes that Mr Yeats's play lasted . . . [ It] made me an Irish dramatist." Some of his own earliest work included a trio of political plays: Patriots, The Dreamers(based on the life of Robert Emmet) and The Lost Leader(which imagined an Ireland in which Parnell had never died).

The Big Housewas not received as an anti-nationalist play though, as Morrison explains, "it was hugely popular. The Irish Times [at the time a publication reflecting Anglo-Irish interests], said it was better than O'Casey's work." Even the Irish Independent, a staunchly nationalist newspaper, praised the production, although it did suggest that Robinson was a bit naive in his political prognosis for the future of Ireland.

The actor Michael MacLíammóir, whose own "Irish" public persona had political resonances, professed a deep hatred for the play, but one which reveals his real admiration for what Robinson's play had achieved. MacLíammóir "hated its perfect presentation of what, to me, was the most maddening of all human beings, the intelligent West Briton . . . I hated the tolerance and understanding with which the, to me, intolerable and incomprehensible figures of the play were drawn . . . [But] the seeing of it remains to this day in my mind as one of the theatrical events of my life."

Morrison insists that The Big Houseis an important play, both in Robinson's oeuvre and in the Abbey's historical repertoire. "I'm very interested in the Abbey's back history, and did a lot of reading of old Abbey plays. It was a fascinating thing for me as a theatre-lover, but I didn't come across much that would stand up today. I came across a lot that would be interesting to theatre historians - plays that really spoke to their moment - but it takes a lot for a play to stand the test of time. You've really got to take it out the back alley and beat it with a stick to see if it will stand up to a modern audience's tastes and demands." Howard agrees: "We call it 'reading the repertoire', and it's literally a process of trawling through scripts. But it also describes the type of reading that we're doing; we look at these plays through the hard focus of a lively, producing theatre."

The Big House, Morrison believes, is a play that has "lasted" - not just in its form, which showcases Robinson's "dramaturgical skill, his ability to create high drama from real events", but also in the way in which it speaks to the contemporary moment too, "to today's argument about the issue of pluralism. With the influx of immigrants, Ireland has to remake itself. We have to ask, are we strong enough within ourselves to allow a diversity of beliefs and cultures to exist within our country? But also, in Northern Ireland, with the political parties coming together at Stormont, we have the beginnings of a proper toleration of difference. It's been a long time coming and we've a long way to go, and [ The Big House], with its portrait of people interacting with their period, struggling with their culture, speaks down the decades 75 years after it's written.

"Yes, it is a lament for the loss of an old order, but there is optimism in it too. Its lead character Kate - one of the best female characters in 20th-century Irish drama - maintains her connection with [the house], and the idea that she thinks it holds is rather inspiring. A place is what you make of it, how you relate to it. The play does have a tragic fall, but there's a gritty sense of uplift to it too."

The Big Houseopens tonight at the Abbey Theatre and runs until Sept 8