The Abbey and the GPO - an improbable alliance?


The uncritical twinning of the history of the Abbey Theatre and of nationalism, implied in the proposal to move the theatre to the GPO, is the root of the criticism of the project, writes SARA KEATING

WHEN THE FACADE of the GPO was projected on to the stage of the Abbey Theatre during the Rough Magic production of Improbable Frequencyin 2005, it was a moment of delicious irony. Flanked by pillars, which already suggested the iconic theatre in which the drama of 1916 was played out, Arthur Riordan’s satirical musical was a deconstruction of Ireland’s 20th-century Irish history. It suggested that Irish neutrality, indeed the whole history of Ireland’s political independence, was improbable, indeed absurd, enabled only by the scientific adjustment of the laws of probability and of the natural logic of cause and effect.

Who would have known that this brilliant theatrical moment of political deflation would anticipate the current debate about the proposed relocation of the Abbey to the GPO, as proposed in the recent Programme for Government?

The Abbey Theatre’s history is intricately linked to that of the nation. Its first production in 1904, Cathleen Ní Houlihan, by Yeats and Lady Gregory, was a metaphorical call to arms for the revolution.

As Yeats questioned himself later: “Did that play of mine,/ Send out certain men the English shot?” Indeed, when the Rising came to fruition in 1916, several members of the Abbey Theatre company were directly involved, while many leaders of the Rising, such as Patrick Pearse and Thomas McDonagh, were as well known as dramatists as they were as revolutionaries. The Abbey Theatre company regularly visited Pearse’s boys’ school, St Enda’s in Rathfarnham, for its seasonal pageants.

Indeed, it has been argued by revisionist historians – and by Michael West in his parodic 2005 play, Dublin By Lamplight– that 1916 was the greatest pageant that Pearse ever produced; that the Rising was no more than a symbolic theatrical presentation, with the dramatic facade of the GPO as the hottest venue in town.

The official granting of the subsidy to the Abbey in 1925, by the then minister for finance, Ernest Blythe, established the relationship between the theatre and the State even more firmly. Blythe went on to become artistic director of the Abbey for nearly 20 years, including the era when the Abbey took up residency in the Queen’s Theatre after the 1951 fire. When it moved to its new premises, the austere modernist Michael Scott design that bequeathed many of the current infrastructural problems to the theatre, under the directorship of Tomás Mac Anna, the Abbey seemed secure enough to begin challenging, as well as representing, the nation.

The uncritical twinning of the theatre’s history with nationalist history, implicitly suggested in the Programme for Government’s Abbey/GPO proposal, has been at the root of the criticism the proposed project has so far provoked. It has been noted that the Programme for Government specifically sets out that the “detailed assessment of the GPO complex with a view to locating the Abbey Theatre there” will take place “in time for the centenary of the 1916 Rising”.

Willie White, artistic director of Dublin’s Project Arts Centre, argues that this is “not just bad for politics, it’s bad for art. There needs to be an independence between cultural and political discourse in Ireland, and the move would align the two. The fact is that the architecture, the context, that the GPO implies would create a specific ambience for viewing the work. But it would also make the theatre a museum, and theatre is about the moment – and that is the contemporary moment, not the past.”

Robert Ballagh, notable for his theatre work as well as his paintings, does not agree with White that there is an ideological conflict.

However, having assisted former taoiseach Bertie Ahern several years ago with a programme of potential “interventions” at the GPO, Ballagh regrets that the present Government has dismissed alternative ideas for the site. These include a 1916 museum (“Kilmainham Gaol is the most popular heritage site in Dublin – turning the GPO into a similar museum experience would be popular,” says Ballagh); a philatelic museum (“to display the amazing collection of miniature oil paintings that the GPO has commissioned over the last 100 years from Irish artists”); and a theatrical museum (“a country that has such an incredible reputation for drama, the most ephemeral of art forms, deserves a permanent display of its artefacts”). One of the artefacts that could be displayed is the facade of the original theatre, which was salvaged by architect Daithí Hanley and, according to Dublin’s vital oral history, remains in his back yard in Dalkey.

However, the Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, Martin Cullen, firmly believes the site should be “a living space” rather than a museum space. Having presided over the OPW restoration projects at the Irish Colleges in Rome and Paris, and the Leinster House 2000 project as minister of state, Cullen believes that “given the historical association of the GPO, its location at the heart of O’Connell Street in Dublin, and its strong cultural links, the site would be entirely fitting” for the National Theatre.

It could be argued, however, that one of the most exciting prospects for the future of the Abbey Theatre lay in the mooted redevelopment of the Abbey at George’s Dock, which provided an opportunity for the Abbey to shed the weight of its history and reimagine the theatre as a 21st century contemporary arts centre. This idea, which has been in the pipeline in various forms since 2001, is currently on hold, despite a considerable investment of time and money in feasibility studies, bid documents, and guidelines for an architectural competition.

Neither the OPW nor the Abbey was available to comment on the status of the Docklands plan. However, the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism maintains that “pending the outcome of the feasibility study . . . in relation to the GPO proposal, any remaining due diligence [ie technical issues] re the George’s Dock site will need to be completed.”

In light of the speculative nature of the situation at the present time, the internet is alive with rumours and debate. A support page was initiated on Facebook on Monday when the news broke in the mainstream media, while the issue is being debated fiercely on the architectural site, both from a practical point of view (how the site might actually be modified for theatrical use) and more playfully (“I can see the logistical logic of sticking the Abbey in the GPO . . . giving people the opportunity to attend the theatre and cash one’s pension cheque in the same building,” writes one glib contributor).

Whatever the outcome, it will, like all things to do with the Abbey Theatre since its inception, be controversial.