‘The Abbey Theatre – was it for this?’


Sir, – Fintan O’Toole’s admirable piece on the Abbey Theatre raises much-needed questions about Irish national theatre, what constitutes “world-class” artistic standards, and the types of employment offered in the Irish dramatic arts more generally (“Was it for this? The existential questions facing the Abbey Theatre”, Analysis, June 15th). It is regrettable that no Irish academic has raised these issues so cogently and concisely. Hopefully, that debate can now be widened and conducted in the same measured manner as O’Toole’s lead.

One question that might be examined is whether the kind of “national theatre” represented by the Abbey ever really offered the most interesting or radical form of national theatre imaginable. Models other than those based on one well-funded prestigious “national house” in the nation’s capital have existed elsewhere, especially outside of Europe. One such model was developed in the United States during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal: the Federal Theatre Project aimed to create a federation of regional theatres to encourage new experiments in American drama, bring theatre to millions of people beyond the major US cities, and employ playwrights, directors and theatre-workers during a serious economic recession. Considered by many immensely successful in critical and commercial terms, the project fell afoul of the House of Un-American Activities for promoting racial integration and anti-capitalist drama deemed subversive to the state. Anyone interested in this history might consult Loren Kruger’s The National Stage: Theatre and Cultural Legitimation in England, France, and America (1992) for starters.

Is the €7 million O’Toole says is invested annually in the Abbey Theatre really just money badly spent? Or does it conform to the neoliberalism of an Irish Government and the classes who support them, and represent as such a new development but one still largely in keeping with earlier policies to keep the Abbey Theatre and the arts generally safe?

A second issue worth examining is how well The Irish Times, RTÉ, and other media have really scrutinised the Irish theatre or literary worlds. How many well-researched articles or programmes has The Irish Times or the national radio and TV stations carried in the last decade on conditions of employment in the Irish arts sector nationwide for those workers whose names are not typically up in lights?

Or on what terms do our arts reporters assess cultural standards generally countrywide?

Today, every Irish county has an arts officer to coordinate the arts at local levels. If we cannot determine what “world class” might mean nationally can reporters at least find reasonable criteria to assess how well these state-supported efforts are progressing relative to resources allocated?

Might some federated theatre project model fare better than the one “national theatre” or county development models used now across the arts?

O’Toole rightly asks whether the current Abbey directors have any interest in the Irish theatrical heritage stretching from Sheridan and Goldsmith to Friel and Murphy.

The playwrights listed deserve production, but neither he nor Patrick Lonergan, whom he cites, mention any Northern Irish-based dramatists and women playwrights and Irish-language dramatists are not mentioned either.

And since we now make so much of “our Irish diaspora,” why not add some Irish-connected playwrights from the US, Australia, Canada, Britain or further afield to the repertoire of national heritage works old and new? With such a widened corpus it might be possible to mix genuine novelty with real quality.

It might also be asked, however, how many university English departments in Ireland really offer serious undergraduate coverage of an Irish theatrical or literary tradition across the centuries of the kind which O’Toole expects the Abbey to deliver? And how many departments can ever hope to do in a system in which CEO-style conditions at the top and understaffing and precarious short-term contract employment below is the frontline norm? But without teaching the heritage, how else are discerning new audiences, writers and reviewers to be cultivated?

O’Toole directs good questions at the Abbey directors and it is to be hoped they will respond with like seriousness.

But it is important not to reduce the issues involved to the Abbey directors only.

Indeed, The Irish Times might do its readers great service by widening out the debate to include views by other notable Irish theatre critics such as Lionel Pilkington, author of a valuable book on the Abbey as state theatre, Susan Cannon Harris, authority on gender in Irish drama, or Chris Morash, a leading historian of Irish drama, and to many others as well.

O’Toole raises knotty issues of artistic quality, employment conditions, representation and social vision that call for comprehensive debate.

The development of a “world class” national drama or national literature is the work of many hands – writers, actors, directors, audiences, critics, academics, arts officers, designers, presses, reviews, university department heads – and if today the Abbey languishes so too do many other Irish art forms and institutions.

O’Toole’s article is a welcome tonic to the general indifference or laissez faire attitude to the arts. Any serious attempt at rejuvenation will require a lot of serious self-scrutiny and more strenuous commitment on all fronts.

As Keats said, “That which is creative must create itself.” Not out of thin air, but from vibrant collective care. – Yours, etc,


Professor of English,

Yale University,

New Haven,

Connecticut, US.