Was it for this? Fintan O’Toole on the existential questions facing the Abbey Theatre

If the national theatre is not world class or keen on Ireland’s dramatic canon, what is it for?

The Abbey: Ireland’s national theatre. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

The Abbey: Ireland’s national theatre. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

IF THE ABBEY IS NOT A WORLD-CLASS THEATRE, IS NOT INTERESTED IN THE CANON OF IRISH DRAMA AND HAS BEEN WORSENING THE CONDITIONS MOST THEATRE PRACTITIONERS WORK IN, WHAT IS IT FOR?

In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Buck Mulligan has some scabrous comments on his theatregoing experiences: “We went over to their playbox, Haines and I, the plumbers’ hall. Our players are creating a new art for Europe like the Greeks or M Maeterlinck. Abbey Theatre! I smell the pubic sweat of monks.”

Ulysses is set on June 16th, 1904. The Abbey Theatre actually opened its doors on December 27th, 1904. Mulligan’s bitching about the theatre and mockery of its ambitions to create a new European art is, shall we say, a bit previous. One of Dublin’s favourite pastimes – complaining about the Abbey – is being indulged even before there is an Abbey to disparage.

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