Women and the Abbey Theatre


Sir, – I write in response to the discussion (UnaMullally, “A century on, Abbey still gives women a bit part, Opinion & Analysis; Letters, November 2nd) that has arisen around the under-representation of women artists in the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 programme. The debate has been marked by a desire by some commentators to quantify the problem. Some of my latest research, which is due to be published in 2016, has focussed on the number of plays written by women and presented on the Abbey stages from 1995 to 2014. It found that of 320 plays staged in this period, just 36 plays were written by a woman, 24 of which were new plays, while 12 were revivals.

My analysis shows that women playwrights are significantly under-represented on the Abbey and Peacock stages in terms of full theatrical productions. In the selected period, the annual percentage of plays written by women produced on either the Abbey or Peacock stages varied from a low of zero per cent of the plays produced in 2008, to a high of 26.6 per cent in 2003.

On average, over the period studied, just 11 per cent of the plays staged by the National Theatre were written by a woman.

One new play written by a woman is produced, on average, at the Abbey every year. In addition, the revival of plays by women is rare, with on average less than one revived work written by a woman staged per year in the selected period, accounting for a meagre 7 per cent of plays revived. In many years no revived works by women were produced. The issue of a low number of revivals is particularly pertinent to the current discussion. When responding to criticism of the under-representation of women in the commemoration programming, Fiach Mac Conghail underlined the constraints encountered in developing new plays within short windows for specific programmes.

Given this difficulty, one has to wonder why Mr Mac Conghail did not think to include some previously produced plays by women.

The reluctance to revive plays written by women is puzzling, as studies by Melissa Sihra and Cathy Leeney, as well as Patrick Lonergan’s statistical analysis of Abbey plays, have shown that a body of quality writing by women is already in existence. Why not stage these plays?

It must be noted that the Abbey’s record in this regard is not dissimilar to other theatres and theatre companies, and that it has improved significantly in recent years.

A number of initiatives, such as former literary director Aideen Howard’s playwriting programme, and the Fairer Sex scheme, have sought to address the lack of productions of writing by women. However, until the presentation of work written by women becomes a stated priority in development and programming terms, the problem will not be resolved.

A stage that presents 11 per cent of writing by women does not accurately represent the wealth of Irish people’s experiences. We are only getting half the story.

Women’s lives and perspectives are currently not receiving full expression at the Abbey, and consequently, they are excluded from discourses past and present. – Yours, etc,



Co Kildare.

Sir, – I was very excited when I heard that the National Theatre announced its programme celebrating the 1916 centenary but I was disheartened to hear that 90 per cent of the plays programmed were by men.

In 1916 Irish men and women alike fought for independence. Now 100 years later we are discriminating against women. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 14.

Sir, – The Abbey Theatre is under no obligation to foist poorly written plays on a paying audience just to fulfil a programme and address balance. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 12.