A rosy future for Ireland's Abbey Theatre

At a time when theatres all over the world have difficulty making ends meet, the oldest state-subsidized theatre in the English-speaking world progresses from strength to strength.

Ireland's Abbey Theatre is celebrating its 75th birthday here with packed houses for each performance. And as a touring company the Abbey's players have opened as the focal point for an Irish arts extravaganza in London. Their production of Hugh Leonard's play "A Life," a sequel to "Da" has been acclaimed by the London critics.

All this conceived by a poet, an eccentric, and a rich and influential Anglo-Irish peeress nearly a century ago.

The Abbey came about at a time of revolution and political drama. The struggle for Irish independence was reaching a climax at the turn of the last century.

Playwrights were influential figures in the nationalist awakening. Ireland's greatest poet, William Butler Yeats, and the playwright John Millington Synge massaged the nationalist imagination with drama rooted in Celtic conquest -- the noble struggle of a subjugated peasantry.

In 1898 W. B. Yeats came together with Lady Augusta Gregory, the young widow of a former British governor of Ceylon, and Edward Martyn, a man of property with a pathological dislike of women and an enormous appetite for caviar, to found the Irish Literary Theatre in Dublin.

"We propose to have performed in Dublin in the spring of every year certain Celtic and Irish plays, which whatever their degree of excellence, will be written with a high ambition, and so build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature," they proposed in a manifesto.

"We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory. . . . We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery. . . . We are confident of the support of all Irish people who are weary of misinterpretation in carrying out a work that is outside all the political questions that divide us."

As he stood before a hissing, screeching Dublin audience in their theater a few years later, Yeats must have wondered at the reception.

Synge's new comedy "The Playboy of the Western World" was being presented in January 1907.Now regarded as a masterpiece, Dubliners then saw Synge's work as a blasphemous betrayal of nationalism.

And in 1926 the audience was throwing pennies and lumps of coal on to the stage after Sean O'Casey's "Plough and the Stars" was produced.

Yeats once again took the stage: "I thought you had got tired of this," he shouted. "But you have disgraced yourselves once again. Is this going to be recurring celebration of Irish genius?"

Apparently not. The Abbey has settled down with a regular diet of Synge, O'Casey and a new era of Irish writers.

Over the years there have been histrionics and tantrums -- the Irish theatre is nothing if not robust. But the Abbey has provided a forum for serious Irish drama to be produced.

The current artistic director, Joe Dowling, feels Irish audiences need to be weaned off romantic notions of Ireland as a green land of smiling peasants or noble city dwellers overburdened by wicked absentee landlords.

"Ireland has the youngest population in Europe," he says. "Dublin is also the fastest expanding city in the world. The country is industrializing at an unimagined rate. These are today's issues."

Dowling is encouraging writers to come into the theater before they compose their plays -- so that producers, actors,and directors can advice from the start.

There is also the feeling that writers have still to come to grips with the decade of violence on this island. The Abbey has staged eight plays about the Ulster tragedy. But none has been acclaimed in the spirit of O'Casey.

Perhaps Ulster's writers are too close to events and Dublin's are too far away.

Then there's the question of the Irish language.Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Edward Martyn had hoped a national theatre would encourage the Irish language movement. But it wasn't until the 1940s that the Abbey included plays in Irish as a regular feature. Nowadays plays in Irish are largely confined to one-act plays, pantomines, and revues.

It's considered that a sustained Irish language season would not be a commercial success in Dublin.

With the Irish government subsidizing the Abbey with the equivalent of $1 million a year, the future is rosy for Ireland's National Theatre and its actors.

But it is to Yeats that we are indebted for a postscript. He wrote that "having created an historical and literary nationalism as powerful as the old, and nobler, that done, Irish writers can bid the people love and not hate."

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