Theatre programme recalls brilliant coup that helped to establish artistic independence of Abbey

An Irishman's Diary on the battle between the Abbey and the English censor

An autographed theatre programme recently acquired by the UCD Library reminds us that even in a digital age, printed documents with ink inscriptions can be thought-provoking artifacts of what Henry James called "the visitable past".

The programme is from the Abbey Theatre Company's December 5th and 6th, 1909 performance of George Bernard Shaw's The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, WB Yeats's Kathleen Ni Houlihan, and Lady Augusta Gregory's The Workhouse Ward. It is signed in the distinctive handwriting of Shaw and Gregory.

This production was part of a brilliant coup by Yeats, Gregory and Shaw that struck a blow for Irish nationalism, established the artistic independence of the Abbey and strengthened productive friendships with Shaw.

The Abbey’s semi-private performance under the auspices of the Incorporated Stage Society at London’s Aldwych Theatre in December 1909 was a result of the historic production of the same plays at the Abbey in Dublin the preceding August –in defiance of the British viceroy’s threat to revoke the Abbey’s patent if it produced Shaw’s play, which had been banned by the censor in England.

This situation arose from the anomaly that the power parliament vested in the lord chamberlain to censor plays did not extend to Ireland. Thus the Abbey did not need advance permission to stage the play in Dublin.

However, its theatrical licence, or patent, had been issued (to Lady Gregory) by the king, and thus the king’s viceroy in Dublin had the power to revoke it.

Gregory’s response to the threatened revocation, presciently for 1909, sounded the notes of both artistic and national independence. “We must not by accepting the English censor’s ruling,” she wrote, “give away anything of the liberty of the Irish theatre of the future.”

She forcefully stated the Abbey’s position in four meetings with the Dublin Castle authorities, joined on all but one occasion by Yeats. As Shaw biographer AN Gibbs put it, the “controversy was an important moment in the history of censorship and attracted intense press interest in England, Ireland and elsewhere”.

The grounds for censorship were flimsy. Blanco, on trial for stealing a horse, is mysteriously overcome by an irresistible sense of compassion when confronted by a poor woman whose child is dying of croup.

Blanco's criticism of God for allowing this state of affairs, and his reference to his female accuser's "immoral" relations, were the basis for censorship, matters that now fade to insignificance in comparison with the achievement of the two great Abbey actresses, Sara and Molly Allgood, who played the two women.

With his habitual great relish for public controversy, Yeats heralded the production by pronouncing that although “there may be some truth to the old charge that we are not truthful to one another here in Ireland, we are certainly always truthful to ourselves. In England, they have learned from commerce to be truthful to one another, but they are great liars when alone. The English censor exists to keep them from finding out the fact.”

In an unusual confluence of the energies of Yeats, Gregory, Shaw, and Joyce, the latter, visiting from Trieste, used a letter from the editor of the Piccolo della Sera authorising him to review the play to convince the manager of the Abbey to grant him free admittance.

The play was a great success. Yeats and Gregory telegraphed Shaw: “GLORIOUS RECEPTION SPLENDID VICTORY. WHERE IS THE CENSOR NOW.”

Yeats and Shaw became friends, and the two jointly formed the Irish Academy of Letters in 1932 to promote Irish literature and protect it from censorship. Shaw’s friendship with Gregory was warm and personal, prompting him and Charlotte to visit Coole Park on motoring tours in 1910, 1915 and 1918.

Once the spell of the censor had been broken by the Abbey performance in Dublin, Shaw was able to arrange production by the same Abbey cast at the Aldwych under the protection of the Incorporated Stage Society.

The signatures of Gregory and Shaw are a reminder of an important alliance in which Dublin courage led to a London performance memorialised in the programme – now housed at University College Dublin.