National Theatre award for Keane

 

Forty years after having one of his early plays rejected by the Abbey Theatre, John B. Keane was presented last night with a Gradam (medal), the National Theatre Society's highest award in recognition of his "considerable contribution" to Irish theatre.

The early slight of Kerry's most successful playwright was acknowledged by the Abbey's artistic director, Patrick Mason, who noted that Keane himself had said: "My early dealings with the Abbey were not at all happy, but I held my own and they discovered I wouldn't go away."

Mr Mason described the Abbey's rejection of Keane's play Sive as "one of its more infamous rejections" and laid the blame squarely on Ernest Blythe, then "chairman, artistic director, general manager, managing director, general poobah and factotum of the Abbey".

In 1962, when Keane had his first play accepted by the Abbey, Tom Murphy suffered the indignity of having A Whistle in the Dark rejected because of Blythe's prejudices, which included a dislike of plays with ghosts. "There goes Hamlet," as Hugh Leonard once observed.

It was only after the Listowel Drama Group triumphed with Sive on a tour of Ireland that Blyhte invited the company to stage it at the Abbey for one week in May 1959. However, with support from such champions as Christopher Fitz-Simon, more Keane plays followed over the years.

It was not until the 1980s that the Abbey really felt Keane's "roar of theatricality". Its then artistic director, Mr Joe Dowling, argued that it would be "a foolish national theatre that ignored the work of one of the most rooted and prolific of Irish playwrights".

As Mr Mason noted, this series of productions through the 1980s had "established once and for all beyond any doubt the extraordinary stature of John B. Keane". They included The Field, The Man from Clare and Big Maggie, one of the Abbey's biggest successes.

Mr James Hickey, chairman of the National Theatre Society, said the Gradam had been instituted in 1989 as a discretionary award to mark outstanding contributions to Irish theatre. Its "handful" of recipients include Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, Eamon Kelly and Tomas Mac Anna.

Mr Hickey read a message from the President, Mrs McAleese, who said John B. Keane's work as a playwright, poet, short-story writer and humourist had "touched the hearts of people the length and breadth of Ireland".

Accepting the award in a speech full of Kerry wit, Keane said it was a wonderful honour. "If Terry Rogers had been standing in the Abbey foyer at the old Queen's Theatre in 1959, he would have given 500 to 1 against my getting any kind of award," he declared.