Why the surprise of the new matters

 

THEATRE: Interactions: Dublin Theatre Festival 1957-2007 Edited by Nicholas Greneand Patrick LonerganCarysfort Press, 388pp, €25

I ARRIVED IN DUBLIN for the first time in late September, 1985. I stepped off an Aer Lingus flight jet-lagged and wide-eyed, and wandered smack into the middle of that year's Dublin Theatre Festival. I recall hearing a strangely mesmerising talk by Robert Wilson that afternoon, catching an early evening show (possibly Peter Schumann's Ex Voto), and ending the day at a late-night production of Barry McGovern's one-man Beckett show, I'll Go On.

This, I thought, is the city for me.

A few weeks later, it dawned on me that Dublin theatre was not always conducted at quite this fever pitch. Still, the recognition stayed with me that the city could contain this kind of intense theatrical energy, and over the years this has shaped the way in which I think about Irish theatre (as I suspect it has with most festival-goers).

For a few brief weeks in early autumn, the festival is (at its best) the ephemeral realisation of a possibility, a brief flare that shows us what live theatre can be. This is followed almost immediately by the familiar festival hangover, that vague feeling of dissatisfaction with post-festival theatre (regardless of its quality) that tends to linger until after Christmas. Over the years, it has occurred to me that these contradictory responses work together, and their shape is utopian: a snatched glimpse of what can be, valued all the more because it only lasts a few weeks.

The centrality of the Dublin Theatre Festival to the Irish theatre world makes it all the more surprising that it has taken so long for a book to appear charting its 50 years in existence. Interactions: Dublin Theatre Festival 1957-2007fills that gap admirably. Based (in part), on a conference organised by the Irish Theatre Diaspora Project at last year's theatre festival, the first part of the book brings together 14 essays by various theatre scholars on aspects of the festival, ranging from its foundations in the 1950s, to recent Russian and Australian productions.

The second part of the book lays the foundations for future research, by combining short (often entertainingly anecdotal) essays by former festival directors (Lewis Clohessy, David Grant, Tony O'Dalaigh, and Fergus Linehan) with a complete listing of all festival productions since 1957.

Acting as a sort of hinge between the two parts, the always uncategorisable Christopher Fitz-Simon adds a memoir of working on the first festival as a young student that is by turns wry and moving. Although the essays in the first half of the book are presented in a more or less chronological order, Fitz-Simon's piece is a good place to begin.

He reminds us that the festival had its origins back in 1953, as an attempt to find some way of spinning some much-needed economic capital from the country's residual cultural capital, lingering on in the reputation of the early Abbey. The original idea came from An Bórd Fáilte in 1953, who reasoned that a spring festival (later moved forward to an autumn festival) could extend the tourist season by a few months.

The initial result was An Tóstal, an ambitious but vaguely conceived national celebration of Irish sport and culture, which quickly floundered (Fitz-Simon recounts that the person employed by the local authority in Waterford to collect subscriptions for An Tóstal gathered only enough to cover his own salary).

So, when Brendan Smith - the theatre festival's founder and long-serving director - approached Bórd Fáilte with a proposal for a more narrowly focused theatre festival, he found himself pushing at an open door, and the first Dublin Theatre Festival was held in 1957.

Fitz-Simon's essay is only one of a number in the volume that puts these events in a wider context. As the Irish economy is drawn ever-further down the drain of the world economic slowdown (just as it was buoyed by global economic growth for much of the previous decade or so), it has become apparent that the defining feature of Irish society in the 21st century is neither prosperity nor its opposite: it is integration in the world economy. Although it is possible to trace its roots slightly earlier, that process of global integration effectively dates from the publication of TK Whitaker's Economic Developmentin December 1958, advocating increasing involvement in world markets. As a means of attracting tourists, the first Dublin Theatre Festival in 1957 was not just part of this new drive to attract foreign currency; by bringing in theatre from overseas to Ireland, and by showcasing Irish theatre to the world, it was the cultural equivalent of the new import-export economy.

Fintan O'Toole's contribution to the volume addresses this aspect of the festival directly, arguing that the first festival took place at a time when there was a widespread belief that you could transform the entire social and economic basis of a culture without somehow transforming a foundational Irishness in the process. O'Toole argues that the plays presented at festivals - particularly Irish plays - challenge and ultimately undermine this notion. "The festival is increasingly saying that the culture itself is the problem - who we are, how our official versions of ourselves relate to the everyday lives of real people."

Elsewhere in the collection, this compelling idea is given flesh. Shaun Richards, for instance, looks at the ways in which two plays with gay central characters - Thomas Kilroy's The Death and Resurrection of Mr Rocheand Brian Friel's The Gentle Island- are not, in spite of appearances, gay plays; they are plays that use gay characters to explore heterosexuality, and its role in inherited ideas of a masculine nationality.

By the same token, Lionel Pilkington's detailed reading of the Pike Theatre's production of The Rose Tattoo(which was prosecuted for obscenity in 1957, leading to the Pike's demise) argues that theatre in the 1950s made visible ways of thinking about the human body and human sexuality that could no longer be contained in a newly modernising state. Pushing ahead to the 1970s, Alexandra Poulain contrasts the impact of the 1975 production of Tom Murphy's The Sanctuary Lampwith its 2001 production, using the two moments as a way of gauging the transformation of religious sensibility in post-Catholic Ireland.

Elsewhere in the volume, the author of The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche, Thomas Kilroy, reflects on the ways in which the festival made possible his own career, in a piece tellingly entitled A Playwright's Festival. Emilie Pine urges a re-assessment of the work of Hugh Leonard (the festival's most produced Irish playwright), and Lisa Fitzpatrick looks at the work of Marina Carr.

Moving away from writers, Cathy Leeney provides a long-overdue appreciation of Patrick Mason's contribution to Irish theatre, Tanya Dean looks at the work of Rough Magic Theatre Company and Sara Keating traces the importance of the festival for Irish-language theatre. Ros Dixon writes about festival productions of Russian plays, Peter Kuch compares the Australian and Irish productions of the historical epic Cloudstreet, while John Harrington's essay on the 1991 Beckett Festival opens up wider questions about the place of a national theatre culture in a theatre world that increasingly orbits around international festivals.

In the end, Interactionsreminds us that the Dublin Theatre Festival is much more than "a big punctuating event in the theatre going on all the time with some international stuff thrown in to make it even bigger," as Fintan O'Toole puts it. It is also more than an event which allows us to take stock of who we are or what we could be. By being truly international, born at the moment Irish culture began to see itself in an international frame, speaking Russian or Polish as fluently as it speaks English or Irish, the Dublin Theatre Festival is arguably the cultural event that best defines Irish culture as it is today.

Chris Morash is head of the school of English, media and theatre Studies at NUI Maynooth. His History of the Irish Theatre appeared in 2002, and his history of the Irish media since 1551 will be published next year. He is originally from Canada.