The Irish Literary Theatre was founded in Dublin by major stalwarts of stagecraft such as William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory and Edward Martin in 1898. 1904 onwards, this consortium of theatre practitioners who dubbed themselves as the Irish National Society laid the foundation for Irish theatre by producing a series of plays performed at the Abbey Theatre. This movement was spearheaded by W.B. Yeats, who was elected president of the Irish National Society. Similarly, John Millington Synge was equally versatile in producing plays that typified Irish Nationalism. But prior to venturing into this tradition that carved out a niche for itself at the beginning of the 20th century, it is imperative we recall the unparalleled contributions of a most prolific playwright.
No disquisition of Irish histrionics can proceed without paying tribute to George Bernard Shaw and the Shavian philosophy of the stage. Bernard Shaw can be associated with two prominent ideas he infused with contemporaneous theatre. Firstly, his ideal of iconoclasm and secondly his viewpoint of Fabian Socialist theatre. He believed in social equality and wanted to demolish class-consciousness in the 19th century. In fact, in the memory of most theatre goers, lovers, and practitioners, is wedded the beatifically realistic romanticism of Shaw’s Arms and the Man.
Moving on to the Irish Dramatic Movement, although W.B. Yeats was its undisputed premier, John Millington Synge was its “heart and soul”. He has been placed on the same pedestal as William Shakespeare with respect to his contributions to Irish theatre. Although it is exaggerated to speak of Synge in the same breath as the Bard of Avon himself, he represents the very crème of drama in his understanding of human emotions and its expression. A towering contribution of Synge to the Irish Dramatic tradition would be his idyllic scenes of simple, rustic and unsophisticated folk in the unaltered originality of the countryside. But perhaps his greatest contribution is his depiction of Nature, that has been likened to the elegance of Thomas Hardy. For Synge, the environment is not merely a backdrop against which human drama unfolds, but it is an active protagonist, making or marring the fate of feeble mortal souls who come in its orbit.
J.M. Synge, though versed in both comedy and tragedy, was more adept at the latter. His most acclaimed play, Riders to the Sea, limns a gloomy and sombre picture of life, making it one of the best one-act tragedies there ever have been. Within the compass of one-act, it navigates profound tragedy through the life of Maurya, who is ever resilient in the face of hardship and defeat. This gives the character a dimension of glory vis-à-vis the most confounded of tragic characters in Sophocles and Shakespeare. In The Playboy of the Western World, he narrates the tale of a boy who flees home under the impression that he has killed his father. Christie, the boy, is a hero till his “murdered-da” reappears. J.M. Synge was a master in transporting the audience back to his native land of Ireland.
Despite being the president of the Irish National Society, Yeats’s feats in the field of drama pale in comparison to his contemporaries. He was a natural poet and opposed commercial theatre. His poetic drama in The Land of Heart’s Desire was staged in 1904, while others, such as The Golden Helmet and Deirdre staged later. Yeats’s revival of poetic drama is historically significant for it inspired later practitioners of the genre, notably T.S. Eliot. His plays are primarily reminiscent of Irish history.
What demarcated Irish drama from mainstream English drama was its focus on presenting an environment commensurate with dramatic action. An excessive emphasis was laid on the setting, which was invariably forbidding and detrimental to the cause of human action. Providing a counter-statement to the inhospitable setting was the dramatis personae – human characters who found themselves at loggerheads with the environment: there was a devastating scale of action in the social world aggravated by the natural backdrop. The hostile atmospheric conditions clearly contributed to a sense of suspense. Irish theatre inculcated a sense of enthusiasm for its native land among the audience. There were character interactions in the native dialect and dialogues were brilliantly scripted to evoke nostalgia for the motherland. Plays were rife with symbols, images and superstitious beliefs, and playwrights highlighted the excessive dependence of the Irish yokels on these commonplace omens. Quite interestingly, Irish drama did not feature as elaborate compositions in the typical five-act structure. It used the one-act that was making its presence felt in English and American theatre. The daily issues of primitive peasant folk were charted.
In his preface to The Playboy of the Western World, J.M. Synge puts forth his worldview ensconced in Irish drama: “…to depict reality and joy…to put in speeches as fully flavoured as apple or nut.”
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