If you know me personally, you’ll know that my passion (and my profession) is theatre. So, when I find a review copy of a theatre-related book in one of the catalogs that I get my books from, I am immediately interested. In this case I was doubly interested as I would have to admit to a very limited knowledge of Irish theatre and I’m always looking to expand my knowledge.
I am familiar with playwright Sean O’Casey, and like most students of a liberal arts schooling would tell you that O’Casey was the first Irish playwright to write about the working classes in Dublin. But perhaps we need a new modifier to this … the first Irish playwright to write about the working classes in Dublin and to achieve world-wide recognition or fame for his work.
Author Elizabeth Mannion has spent time digging through the archives of the Abbey Theatre and provides the reader with a plethora of other playwrights and plays that were produced at the Abbey Theatre. While O’Casey is best known for Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926), other writers, contemporaries and predecessors, were also writing and producing their works at the Abbey Theatre.
I definitely have come away with a list of playwrights whose work I am interested in reading. Perhaps the most intriguing for me is Matthew Brennan. Mannion writes:
Brennan is something of a ghost of Abbey history, marginalized in published Abbey history and the Abbey archives, and barely noticed by drama critics of the day. Apparently stereotypes about unintelligent “labouring” fathers, marriage-obsessed mothers and daughters, and meddling female neighbors were, as the September 6, 1922, Irish Times found, “true to type” that was acceptable on the national stage during this time. Even though the characterizations are overwhelmingly negative, none was commented on as such in the press reviews of the plays.
Though earlier Mannion writes (and quotes another source):
The 1922 comedies of Matthew Brennan — The Young Man from Rathmines and A Leprechaun in the Tenement — … fall horribly flat by exemplifying “the problems with comic mediation of class disparity.”
If this (learning a little about Matthew Brennan) were all I came away with after reading this book, that might be enough for me. But Brennan is just a very small portion of Mannion’s research. Mannion’s reports on a variety of writers and often synopsizes some of their plays, all in an effort to show that despite the accepted wisdom, O’Casey is not, perhaps the first playwright to write about the working class Irish. This in no way takes away from or diminishes O’Casey’s work or his stature through history, it only suggests that there were others who may have opened the door a bit, and paved the way.
Anyone interested in theatre, theatre history, Irish history, or even just well-researched non-fiction should enjoy this book.
Looking for a good book? The Urban Plays of the Early Abbey Theatre by Elizabeth Mannion is an insightful look at a theatre institution and some of the lesser known playwrights who have worked there.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Urban Plays of the Early Abbey Theatre: Beyond O’Casey
author: Elizabeth Mannion
publisher: Syracuse University Press
hardcover, 248 pages