Our national theatre has new men. Welshman Neil Murray, and Scot Graham McLaren, arrived a fortnight ago via the National Theatre of Scotland to become joint directors of the Abbey. Senator Fiach Mac Conghail departs in December. A fresh team is a fresh reminder that we actually have a national theatre.
However many Abbey controversies blow up – the feminist backlash to the theatre’s alpha-male ‘Waking the Nation’ programme for 2016; an independent report in 2014 which found the theatre was lacking in areas like touring, new writing and making use of its experimental Peacock stage – it is easy to forget that we have a national theatre. Because it’s easy to forget what precisely a national theatre is, in 2016, when ‘nations’ are slippery things.Since the Abbey first opened its doors on December 27, 1904, a nation has been fought for and won, violently, an Irish language imposed. Nationalism is not the nice word it was during the Celtic Twilight when a group of literati managed to create a national theatre.
The nation is a patchwork community. Thousands of Irish people have emigrated. Thousands of new Irish people are living in Ireland who have never been to the theatre. We’re Europeans -at least after Brexit, European takes on a new lustre.The national theatre stands on shaky ground. I, for one, don’t wake up in the morning and think, “I’m part of the Irish nation”. I eat Italian food and wear clothes made in China, and say “like” all the time because I grew up on a diet of American TV. I often need reminding that I’m part of the Irish nation, and this is exactly the reason I love to go to the Abbey. The Abbey makes me feel part of something.
The Abbey states its mission is “to create a world-class theatre that actively engages with and reflects Irish society”. On the best nights, it leaves you full of questions and disagreements. In the past 12 months, for me, it did this with the soul-smashing By the Bog of Cats, the gorgeous The Plough and the Stars and the troubling The Wake (playing now).On these nights, the Abbey isn’t just a comfortable bar where we can eye people up and look over the Liffey with a pint. It’s a home from home where we see our lives reflected, our fears and fantasies answered.
But that sense of entitlement a national theatre grants us has been hard won. From the beginning, there was a vast distance between the gifted dreamers who established the theatre, and the audience who were expected to support it.The Abbey was born inside a bastion of Anglo-Irish privilege. On a wet September afternoon in 1897, William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory and playwright Edward Martyn ate lunch with a Count in a Big House in Galway and planned the Irish Literary Theatre. They hoped for a “Celtic and Irish school of theatre” which would stage “the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland”. This theatre would be an alternative to the commercial theatre brought by the travelling English companies to Dublin, which Yeats, with his love of mysticism and the peasantry, considered vulgar.
They hoped to find, they wrote in their manifesto, “an uncorrupted and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory.” The words “uncorrupted” and “trained” are somewhat sinister. What about the corrupted and untrained audience; were they invited, too?The Abbey’s top funder was a British tea heiress who designed costumes, Miss Annie Horniman. She was less romantic, writing to Yeats of a need to make Ireland’s national theatre “the most fashionable place in Dublin”, for the “smart people”.
Yeats hoped the Abbey would do what Ibsen and realism did for Norway: “reflect the life of Ireland as the Scandinavian theatre reflects Scandinavian life”. But it’s possible Yeats, that towering spiritualist, didn’t really understand the people whose lives he wanted to reflect.When JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World provoked riots, Yeats rightly defended the play but said that “the people who formed the opposition had no books in their houses”. They were “commonplace and ignorant people”.
A letter hangs in the Yeats Room in Lissadell House, written a few days before the poet’s death. A “Mr Duncan” has submitted a play to the Abbey and Yeats is rejecting it. He explains: “The Abbey Theatre is a folk theatre with a rather simple audience.””A simple audience” is how Yeats saw the people who supported the Abbey by the end of his life, in January 1939, more than 40 years after he set out to forge a drama that would reflect those people’s lives.
We have paid deep in our pockets for that drama. In 1925, the Abbey became the first theatre in the English-speaking world to get an annual government subsidy. It remains magnanimously endowed.Last year, the Abbey got half of all funding in the Arts Council’s budget for theatre. This year the Abbey got €5.8m from the Arts Council – seven times more than the Gate’s €860,000, eight times more than the Project’s €675.250.That’s a lot of money. A new dawn breaks as Murray and McLaren take their seats. For now, welcome to Dublin, fellow Celts. Enjoy the show.
Maggie Armstrong, Sunday 17 July 2016