Briefly overviewing one of the influences in one of the politics I will be talking about within this paper, the Abbey Theatre was founded as a national theatre for Ireland by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in the year 1904. They were both influential revolutionaries that defined the ambition of the Abbey Theatre with their manifesto, “to bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland” (Abbey Theatre). They both founded the Irish Literary Theatre and with Lady Gregory’s help they raised some money and performances started taking place in Dublin in 1899.
At the forefront of the theatre, Yeats and Gregory had a vision for the type of plays that they wanted to portray within the theatre, plays that displayed Irish culture and politics; such as things that were going on in the country. This being said, the Theatre had its ups and downs over the years. Unfortunately, the 1916 Rising and First World War caused disruptions, such as lack of funding, within the Theatre and art of acting.
In 1924, Yeats and Gregory gave the Theatre to the Irish Free State. They didn’t officially accept it until the following year, granting it an annual government subsidy. And in 1951, the Theatre was destroyed by a fire and reopened ten years later in 1961.
As the Easter Rising was becoming a more predominant issue in the country, Sean O’Casey introduced the Abbey to his play The Plough and the Stars to the Abbey’s board of directors which now included a government appointee named George O’Brien.
In doing this, he was quick to foresee that there may be some issues ahead. The reasoning behind this being that the Abbey was a state-subsidized theatre, and the play dealt in such a provocative way with the state’s founding moment. The play opened in the months leading up to the 1916 Rising. Actors seen on stage were seen in uniforms and were rhetoric of rebellion. The second act, which O’Brien thought was very unnecessary, moved to a pub where an ironic counterpoint to a patriotic speech being delivered just outside. Act III is where the action moves to Easter week. Volunteers and looters return to the tenement with reports of the attacks on the General Post Office. Approaching act IV, nothing is left but horror, as those characters whom remain are in an attic room while just outside the window Dublin and British troops sweep the tenements for snipers. This play shook the audience, whom burst out in a riot; Yeats jumped on stage to put an end to it. And while O’Brien originally wanted to cut some of the parts, Yeats replied back stating, “To eliminate any part of it on grounds that have nothing to do with dramatic literature would be to deny all our traditions” (Morash p. 164).
Going right into the big disruption within this art making, the Easter Rising took place during Easter week in 1916. It all started with a group of Irish nationalists whom proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic and along with 1,600 followers, started a rebellion against the British government in Ireland. The rebels took over prominent buildings in Dublin and held off the troops for roughly six days before they were captured. Within this week, more than 2,000 people were killed or injured. The leaders of the rebellion were eventually executed. In 1921, a treaty was signed in which eventually established the Irish Free States in 1922; this later became the modern-day Republic of Ireland. As mentioned earlier, this rebellion affected the art of theatre. Members of the Abbey, whom will be discussed later in the paper, played a role in the rebellion. The actors and actresses of 1916 were a wide-ranging group of people; all having different dreams, values, hopes, and influences. While they were all linked by their work, their call to arms during the Rising could not have been more opposing. Some were motivated to fight due to the call of the US and roles in the film and television, others purely wanted to fight for their home. The Rising was the ultimate street spectacle. It was a revolution drenched with theatrical symbolism. It was no coincidence that most of the volunteers were in fact involved in the theatre. They were told to have brought those skills of organization, collaboration, and artistic awareness upon their involvement with the rebellion. In the unfortunate event of the rebellion failing, it has most definitely provided a rich source of inspiration for Irish theatre over the past 100 years.
Highlighting one of the main actresses from the Abbey whom played a major role in the 1916 Rising was Constance Markievicz. She was an Anglo-Irish countess and political activist, as well as the first woman elected to the British Parliament, though she refused to take her seat. On top of this, she was also the only woman to serve in the first Irish Assembly. Within the Assembly she acted as a minister of labor. When she moved to Dublin, while she had interest in art, there was a shift in interest to Irish politics. She was known to leave the theatre after her scene to go and riot and return back before her next scene. She was very much passionate about fighting for her country. Constance states, “I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom and it does not matter what happens to me” (Irish Examiner). Not only was she expressive as a playwright, but on top of this, her expression in theatre would be showcased on the streets when she’d give speeches, cursing the drop of English blood and pressing the Irish to burn everything English excluding their coal. As she not only contributed a lot to theatre, she also gave a lot to her country within the Rising.
Rebels within the rising wrote, directed, and acted in plays. The collision of theatre and revolutionary nationalism wasn’t a coincidence. History and theatre go hand and hand. Come to find out, the Rising was rehearsed in plays that advocated the rebellion. Not all the plays that were put on that about the Rising, were widely accepted. Some ended up breaking out in riots due to anger. The fighting occurred amongst Dublin’s theatre district and the battle was waged without hope of military victory. So, was theatre a way for the rebels to advertise the rebellion? Well, it’s been argued that the Rising was revolutionary theatre designed to motivate an unsupportive public to participate in the fight for independence. It’s interesting to note that some of the most powerful women in theatre had an involvement in the Rising. While a lot of plays put on the press for the rebellion, Yeats wished to remind the Irish people that the Rising should be remembered as a symbolic point of origin for a new noble elite that would lead Ireland to salvation rather than for the mass of politics of the Irish Republican Party. So, while theatre was involved, not everyone agreed with the rebellion and some of the messages behind it. Yet, the place of the 1916 Easter Rising within Irish culture, especially its theatrical culture, gives rise to different expressions of performance. The ongoing history of 1916 commemorations in the Republic of Ireland shows how the staging of acts of public memory continues to provoke controversy to this day.