‘Uncle Vanya’ – Chekhov and 1916


Sir, – In his fascinating account of the return of the 1916 internees to Dublin a hundred years ago, your columnist Diarmaid Ferriter writes that the actor and activist Helena Molony was soon “back on stage in the Abbey for the first Irish production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya” (“The 1916 prisoners released on Christmas Eve”, Opinion & Analysis, December 24th).

The credit and honour of first producing Chekhov in Dublin should go not to the Abbey but to the Irish Theatre in Hardwicke Street, which mounted two productions of Uncle Vanya on either side of 1916. (It was to be many years before the Abbey went near Chekhov.)

The Irish Theatre was founded in January 1915 by playwright Edward Martyn and by several of those centrally involved in the Rising: Thomas MacDonagh, who directed the productions; his brother, John, who starred in them and managed the theatre; and Joseph Mary Plunkett, whose mother supplied them with the premises. They intended to produce what they thought the Abbey, in its concentration on the peasant play, was singularly failing to provide: contemporary Irish plays in urban rather than rural settings; plays in the Irish language; and Irish productions of foreign classics.

Their first production of Vanya in June 1915 was directed by Thomas MacDonagh.

After his release from Frongoch, John MacDonagh returned to work in the Irish Theatre and in early 1917 staged a new production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya there to honour the memories of his dead brother and of Willie Pearse, who had played the “Professor”. On this occasion John MacDonagh not only played the lead but directed; this presumably was the production in which Helena Molony appeared. Sonya was once more played by Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh who had joined the MacDonagh brothers in Jacob’s Factory during Easter Week. Sonya’s closing lines speak of her attempt to wrest an optimistic future from the despair of the present. They must have had particular resonance in the immediate aftermath of 1916. – Yours, etc,


Professor Emeritus,

School of English,

Drama and Film,

University College Dublin,

Belfield, Dublin 4.