Revered and reviled, often in equal measure, the Abbey Theatre is not only the national theatre; it reflects the cultural, political and social consciousness of the Irish people.
Older than the State, the Abbey was born 110 years ago today on December 27th, 1904, with a lively programme of four short plays, written by three of the Irish Literary Revival’s major players: WB Yeats, John Millington Synge and Lady Augusta Gregory.
Yeats's contribution, On Baile's Strand and Kathleen Ní Houlihan, encapsulated the call for a national literature. It merged echoes of a resurgent tradition with the sense that something radical was about to happen. It was a heady aspiration.
Synge was a new voice. Within three years he was to feature in the first controversy with which the theatre had to contend: the uproar that greeted the opening night in January 1907 of his comic masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World. The rioters incited Yeats to respond from the stage with an impromptu riposte that continues to resonate as a defining statement of artistic freedom.
Theatre is sustained by such moments. Unlike film, which captures and preserves legendary performances for posterity, theatre is fleeting; all that endures is the memory and subsequent mythology. Inspired by this, the Abbey is presenting a cross-section of great moments from its history. Drawing on its unique archive, it has created a micro-site featuring 110 moments of the Abbey Theatre through seminal productions, personalities and events such as the fire in 1951.
Up in flames
That famous fire offers a select irony all of its own. The play in production at the time of the fire, July 16th, 1951, was Seán O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, which ends with the two English soldiers singing Keep the Home Fires Burning.
A quarter of a century earlier, during the first run in 1926, a faction in the audience had objected to O’Casey’s interpretation of the 1916 rebellion. Yeats duly informed the audience: “You have disgraced yourselves again. Is this to be an ever recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?” The play has been staged at the Abbey 56 times, most recently in 2012.
Yeats's rejection of The Silver Tassie in 1928 caused O'Casey to end his association with the Abbey. The play instead premiered at the Apollo Theatre in London and was not staged at the Abbey until 1935.
King Lear was the first Shakespeare play performed at the Abbey, in a 1928 production with set and costumes designed by Dorothy Travers Smith. She later married an Abbey stalwart, playwright Lennox Robinson, who directed the theatre's first production of Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.
On April 5th, 2004, Heaney's The Burial at Thebes, a translation of Sophocles' Antigone, opened at the Abbey. "Greek tragedy is as much a musical score as it is dramatic script," explained Heaney.
Since being founded by writers, the Abbey has remained a theatre for playwrights such as Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, Thomas Kilroy, Frank McGuinness and Marina Carr, whose play By the Bog of Cats premiered there in 1998.
Many of the works by American playwright and 1936 Nobel laureate for literature Eugene O'Neill have also been performed at the Abbey, including a 1959 production of Long Day's Journey into Night starring TP McKenna and Vincent Dowling.
Mercurial talent One actor whose extraordinary gifts served both the Abbey and Friel's art well was the mercurial Donal McCann, whose performance as Francis Hardy in Faith Healer at the Abbey premier in 1980 has entered theatre lore as a moment beyond inspirational.
As the final curtain fell on opening night, a silence of several seconds followed. Then the audience erupted. He toured the role and starred in the Abbey revival in 1990. Years earlier, in 1969, he had played Estragon to Peter O'Toole's Vladimir in the Abbey's first production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, with Eamon Kelly as Pozzo.
Famous scenes, famous faces; in celebrating the Abbey Theatre 110 Moments tracks the evolution of a theatrical tradition and the ways in which it reflects a society with images that merge words and gestures; memory and history.