Contemporary Irish Drama

The first duty of a writer
is to let his Fatherland down,
otherwise he is not a writer.
Brendan Behan
Ever failed. No matter. Try again.
Fail again. Fail better.
Samuel Beckett

The distinction between drama and theatre, speaking about the literary genre and the staging of the spectacle in all its constituent parts, denotes the complexity and richness of the theme at hand. This is due, mainly, to its interdisciplinary nature, which includes elements that are not exclusive to theatre, such as performance, illumination, music, scenography, and choreography, to mention just a few. It was precisely this outpouring nature of the dramatic text that most called the attention of Samuel Beckett (1906-89), one of the key writers of the twentieth century, who did not spare the inclusion of his own experimental concerns when creating not only dramatic texts, short stories, and poetry, but also radio and television plays, one film script, two mime pieces, and critical essays on painting and literature. The search for diverse ways of expression led him to question and contaminate the limits between the different literary genres.

Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot (between 1948 and 1948, though published in 1952) as he was finishing his first narrative Trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable), in which he altered the traditional notions of the novel: there is no coherent plot, there are no stable characters, spaces are indeterminate, temporality is problematic, and the syntax is volatile. The “creative agony” in which he found himself immersed during this process made him look for a liberating experience, one he encountered in the quick and blunt composition of drama. Waiting for Godot does not only set the beginning of Beckett’s career as a playwright, but also launches a revolution of the dramatic foundations established since Aristotle by disrupting the horizon of expectations of the audience: there is no clear progression of content, it is hard to delineate the onset and the ending of the play, there are neither a climax nor a conventional development of the characters, and the idea of action itself is difficult to define. For the next three decades Beckett will continue experimenting with the diverse theatrical possibilities in pieces such as Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), where the author depicts an unfolded monologue with the help of a recording device that allows him to listen to the character’s own voice in the different stages of his life; Happy Days (1961), a play in which a woman remains immobile in a mound of earth during the two acts that compose it; Not I (1972), a masterful piece that places at the centre of its scene a mouth speaking in the dark; or Breath (1969), his shortest dramatic creation, which lasts for only 45 seconds.

While plenty of critics join their efforts in demonstrating the universal character of Beckett’s oeuvre, others insistently point to his undeniable Irish roots and influences, aspects that have produced in turn a critical corpus that is versatile as much as it is provoking. Patrick Lonergan, to state one example, says that Irish drama does not present the development of its own society in a linear fashion, but rather in a cyclical one. When summing up this aspect via its most notable instances, Beckett appears both explicitly and implicitly: “history is always repeated, the past is always inescapable, and the best we can hope for is to fail better next time. The task and the challenge for many Irish characters is to break those cycles: to leave for America (as in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! in 1964), in 1964), to finish telling the endless story (as in Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire in 1985), to escape from the legacies of a parent (as in Carr’s By the Bog of Cats in 1998), or to accept that we must continue to wait for Godot, even as we know that he will never actually arrive” (Irish Drama 4).

Apart from the strong influence of Chekhov and Brecht, authors such as Beckett and Behan reinvented the possibilities of Irish theatre, working their obsessions with language through a wide range of strategies and (perhaps) escaping from its most traditional themes: religion, nationality, and the country. Although the cyclical aspect that we have just been reminded of sets out the return of several themes and their repetition, and thus signals certain constants, the cultural and political changes and the explorations and innovations of drama provide these visitations with fresh nuances.

The impact of Irish drama in society has generated strong debates around themes as complex as race, sexuality, nationality, gender, politics, and religion (exposing some of the abuses perpetrated by institutions such as political parties and the Catholic church). In general, we can remember the way in which Mary Manning, Olwen Fouéré, and Marina Carr create new spaces to discuss gender, identity, and the canon. With their innovations, Brian Friel and Tom Murphy question the notion of a stable Irish identity by means of dramatizing change and otherness. In this same line of thought, Frank McGuinness problematizes ethnic traditional conceptions as well as sexual identity, and Edna Walsh, by parodying the conventional image of Irish theatre, addresses the shift generated by migration. More recently, by showing the change in Irish society in the end of the twentieth century, Carr’s and Conor McPherson’s works demonstrate the ambiguity of the supernatural.

Beyond an enumeration of certain features of Irish theatre (a fluent poetic language, the correlation between form and content, the mixture of comic and tragic emotions, the retrospective preoccupation with the past, uncertainty explored by means of familiar and quotidian situations) and some topics explored in a non-uniform way (such as migration, gender, the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom, Irish identity, and conflicting forces, among others), it is important to state that contemporary Irish drama is multifaceted and that it constantly explores new terrains. In this our very own twenty-first century a proof of the aforementioned multiplicity is the selection of works for the programmes of establishments as iconic as The Abbey Theatre, for a revision of contemporary Irish drama is inseparable from cultural events and locations as emblematic as The Gate Theatre, Druid Theatre Company, and The Dublin Theatre Festival, just to mention a few. All of this also leads us to acknowledge the importance of performers and directors–both men and women in equal measure–that plenty of times have been–and continue to be–great writers.

Gabriela García Hubard

Translated into English by Carolina Ulloa

Works Cited

Lonergan, Patrick. Irish Drama and Theatre since 1950. New York: Methuen/Drama, 2019.