Rioting in Dublin theatres is nothing new
Two new productions mirror disturbances at the Abbey over The Playboy in 1907
Panti Bliss in Thisispopbaby’s Riot globetrotting cabaret show. Photograph: Ian Douglas
Published: January 30th, 1907
The beginning of May in Dublin saw two stage productions dominate discourse in the capital. One was a returning piece, thisispopbaby’s Riot, a homecoming of sorts at Vicar Street as part of the Dublin Dance Festival. The other, TheatreClub’s It was easy (in the end) at the Abbey Theatre, divided audiences with its a bold crack at imagining the end of capitalism (via Hamlet), and captured the existential addled nature of existing in the world right now, and the noise in the heads of the stressed and oppressed. Both productions imagine different versions of a utopia. Riot sees the artist as dissident, and It was easy (in the end) confronts the audience with the Abbey’s riotous past.
On January 30th, 1907, reports continued in The Irish Times about the ongoing situation at the Abbey Theatre during JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. “There were renewed disturbances last night at the Abbey Theatre during the performance,” the report began, “In view of the disorderly scenes that were witnessed on the previous night unusual interest was manifested in the performance, and in the pit especially the attendance was very large. The stalls were also fairly well filled, and at the outset it was clearly evident that the house partly consisted of two rival factions.”
How the audience reacted to Playboy has become central to Irish theatre lore. Apart from the socio-political context, Playboy’s audience is cited as a rebuttal to perceived contemporary artistic smugness or safeness. People rioting in the stalls apparently means that audiences were somehow more passionate in the past, that theatre was more politically charged, that art mattered and was far more reflective of society, that theatre should and did provoke.
This report also shows another element of the audience dynamic, that a lot of people just wanted to watch the play, and the disturbances were exasperated by those opposed to disturbances, “Some of those in the stalls were evidently determined to tolerate no interference with the progress of the play, and to their rather ill-judged interference the commencement of the disturbance was undoubtedly due,” the report read, “Their hot resentment of anything in the shape of disorder gave rise to a succession of turbulent scenes which, for a time at any rate, equalled, if they did not eclipse, the demonstrations of the previous night, with the result that not a syllable of the first act was heard, while of the other two acts only an occasional phrase could be heard.”
The evening began with Synge’s one-act play Riders to the Sea, before a speaker appeared on stage preceding the main event, “Mr. W. B. Yeats came before the curtain and said:- A difference of opinion has arisen between the management of this theatre and some of our audience as to the character of the play which we are now about to produce and as to the policy of producing it. If any of you wish to discuss with us the merit of that play or our correctness in producing it, I shall be delighted to discuss it with you, and do my best to answer your arguments. On Monday evening next I will come here to debate it with any of our audience, and I will ask you who object to it to come up on this platform and address the audience. We will do the best on our side to see that those who object will receive fair play.” The report then detailed that a voice called out “That’s freedom.”
While the play was listened to “with comparative tranquility” for the first few minutes, when an audience member made a remark from the pit about a priest in the play, some of the occupants of the stalls jumped to their feet and “hotly demanded the ejection of the interrupter. A perfect storm of groans and cheers followed, and the disorder was, if possible, accentuated by a person in the stalls issuing a challenge to the house generally.”
About 16 police then arrived, “All attention was now directed to the rear of the building, and the extraordinary spectacle witnessed of almost an entire audience with their back turned to the stage, while the play they had presumably come to see was in full progress.”