Finding a new stage for the Abbey is not a question of location

 

CULTURE SHOCK:DAVID NORRIS’S idea of relocating the Abbey Theatre to the GPO in Dublin is an exciting notion. But it is not a good one. It is, in fact, a rather depressing sign of the weakness of public discourse about the role of the national theatre and the arts in general that the only substantial reference to artistic matters in the renewed programme for government is a grandiose scheme that should not, and in all probability will not, be brought to fruition.

The first problem with the idea is that it is posited as being rooted in history but is in fact rooted in a misunderstanding of history. It proposes some sort of simple alignment between the 1916 Rising and the imagined foundation of the State on the one side and the Abbey on the other. Senator Norris wrote in The Irish Timesthat “the relationship between the Rising and the literary renaissance, between Pearse and Yeats, already exists. Recalling the audience response to his wonderfully stirring curtain line in The Countess Kathleen, Yeats wrote: Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?”

There are a few obvious problems here. Firstly, Yeats was referring, not to the Countess Kathleen, but to Cathleen Ní Houlihan. Secondly, his lines were mere bluster. It wasn’t a play “of mine” – Lady Gregory wrote most of it.

And the answer to the rhetorical question is “no”. Or, as Paul Muldoon put it: “If Yeats had saved his pencil lead / Would certain men have stayed in bed?” The Abbey is important for all sorts of reasons, but its influence on the 1916 Rising is not one of them.

The deeper question is whether it makes sense to tie the theatre to a specific event or to a particular strand of the broad Irish cultural and political movement of which it was part. To entomb the Abbey in the GPO is to suggest that it is, and should be, a part of the official culture of the State. It is to make it part of a renewed foundation myth. This is a poor fate for any theatre and a particularly unfortunate way of understanding what the role a national theatre should be.

That role, put simply, is subversive. The national theatre should always be a space in which the national myths are up in the air and the national soul is up for grabs. It should always be about outrageous questions rather than settled answers. It should always have at its heart the idea that its patriotic duty is not to make Ireland free but to be itself a microcosm of freedom. This is why there is no contradiction between the Abbey’s history as a part of the cultural nationalist movement and its ability, at its best, to send that movement into paroxysms of outrage.

When the Abbey was founded, the State was the United Kingdom and the theatre’s role was to question and upset British imperial assumptions. When the Abbey became, unofficially, the national theatre of an independent Ireland, its duty of outrage was transferred to the new State.

Consider, aptly, the representation of the 1916 Rising itself. There are two major Abbey plays set during the Rising. Both are sceptical and subversive. Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, unveiled on the 10th anniversary of the rising, when the events were both fresh in living memory and sanctified as a locus of lost national unity, deserved the riots it provoked. It questions both the romantic mythology of violence and the real effects of heroic actions on the lives of the Dublin poor.

The other big 1916 play is Denis Johnston’s The Scythe and the Sunset(the title, of course, is a parody of O’Casey’s). It is a quizzical, sceptical, playful piece, described by its author as “an antimelodrama”. It is very deliberately set, not in the GPO, but in the Pillar Cafe across the road, which is taken over as a Red Cross station and in which the captured British officer Palliser conducts a wry debate about liberty and idealism with a Pearse-like revolutionary, Tetley. Heroic national drama it ain’t.

This angular relationship to the Rising is precisely the appropriate one for the Abbey. The question we should be asking therefore is what the proper place for this kind of free, subversive and fluid theatre might be. That’s a question, of course, to which there have been far too many answers over the last 20 years, with at least five different sites (including the present one) seriously touted at different stages of what has become a vaguely ludicrous quest. The difficulty of finding an agreed and sustainable answer is surely, however, telling us something. What it’s telling us is that we’re probably asking the wrong question.

The question that’s being asked is essentially about a building, not a theatre. In the years of Celtic Tiger hubris, there was a notion that a new Abbey would be a trophy architectural statement for the swinging new Dublin.

In the more modest era that follows, there is David Norris’s well-intended suggestion about the GPO. The underlying case for it seems to have a lot more to do with the revitalisation of O’Connell Street (a fine aim in itself) than with the needs and meaning of a 21st-century national theatre for a country in crisis.

In that sense, the whole GPO idea is a distraction from the real issues. It is not clear, firstly, that a national theatre needs to have a permanent building at all. The National Theatre of Scotland is doing very well as a nomadic idea that expresses itself in almost constant touring. It is even less clear, secondly, that if there is to be a building, it should be grand and monumental. Opulence is hardly where we’re at right now. And finally it makes little sense to spend a fortune on a grand building project when funding for the arts is being slashed. Giving people money to actually put on plays and bring them out to audiences would do a lot more for the nation than imprisoning the Abbey in what is, after all, a perfectly good post office.