A lasting Irish drama

The abbey theatre was built to showcase the work of irish writers and actors, but it did much more.

I arrived at Dublin's hallowed Abbey Theatre one-half hour before curtain time for Marina Carr's dark Irish drama, "Ariel."

It was a thrill to be in the Abbey, the National Theatre of Ireland, which has a long literary and theatrical tradition.

Entering the almost-empty 628-seat auditorium, with its crimson velvet curtain hanging in front of the broad stage, I thought of the past and imagined what it must have been like to attend performances of the works of the classic master playwrights at the beginning of their careers.

This repertory playhouse, named after the street it fronts, is often described as "the mother of the little theaters," although it certainly wouldn't be considered little by most standards. It had humble beginnings, however. The original theater was constructed from an old variety hall and a one-time city morgue that had previously been used as a savings bank.

The Abbey, Act 1

The first Abbey Theatre was built in 1904, thanks to the financial assistance of art patron A.E.F. Horniman, an Englishwoman . The company was a group of Irish dramatists and actors who billed themselves as the Irish Literary Theatre and later as the Irish National Theatre Society.

In the society's infancy, many of its independent Irish members were associated with the Gaelic League, which promoted the revival of the Irish language and literature.

Lady Augusta Gregory and William Butler Yeats - playwright, critic, and one of the greatest poets of the 20th century - directed the fledgling theater. They successfully opened with Yeats's "The Countess Cathleen," followed by Edward Martyn's "The Heather Field," and were later credited for their contributions to the Irish literary renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This renaissance - part cultural, part political - hoped to use Irish folklore and legends in new literary works that would bolster the cause of independence.

Miss Horniman gave the group the building rent-free, along with a small subsidy, until she and the Abbey parted ways. The Englishwoman was enormously insulted that the theater did not close its doors upon the death of King Edward VII in 1909.

Still, the theater continued, and many of Yeats's verse plays were first staged there, including his "Deidre" (1906), "The Land of Heart's Desire "(1911), "The Player Queen" (1919), and his translations of the two parts of the "Oedipus" (1926 and 1927). Lady Gregory's numerous short comedies also appeared at the Abbey for the first time.

A star is born

John Millington Synge, however, was the man who put the theater on the map.

Synge, who was discovered by the movement in its pioneer days, went on to become a dramatist of international fame. Born in 1871, he was educated at the renowned Trinity College in Dublin.

He wrote "In the Shadow of the Glen," a one-act play that was produced in 1903 by the Irish National Theatre Society, at the suggestion of his mentor, Yeats, whom he met on a visit to Paris.

After his next two offerings, "Riders to the Sea" and "The Well of the Saints," the irreverent Synge became a director of the Abbey Theatre, along with Yeats and Lady Gregory.

The presentation of his most famous work, "The Playboy of the Western World," performed there in 1907, caused a furor, adding to the public uproar for which the Irish dramatic renaissance became well known. The play, initially considered anti-Irish, was eventually accepted and remains a classic.

The company continued to present the first production of many plays that have since become widely known and admired. The Abbey's most notable discovery during the 1920s was Sean O'Casey, whose first five plays were all given their premierès at the theater. But the vain O'Casey broke off all connection with the company when it rejected his sixth play.

Nevertheless, the Abbey laid the foundation of O'Casey's reputation, and because of him, the theater enjoyed its first financial prosperity. After 20 lean years in the beginning, the Abbey began to play to full houses with some regularity, particularly with the productions of O'Casey's "Juno" and Synge's "The Playboy" in the 1920s.

Politics assumed a much larger role in the theater after the deaths of Lady Gregory in 1932 and Yeats in 1939. A knowledge of the Irish language became a qualification for new members of the company, and the selection of plays became increasingly restrained.

In 1951 the building housing the theater was partly destroyed by fire and the company moved to a large commercial theater, where it remained for about 15 years.

During this time, the theater company pursued a policy of long runs of individual plays in preference to the older practice of repertory production. Increased seating capacity helped the company to prosper in its new location.

The Abbey, Act 2

In July 1966, the new Abbey Theatre, an imposing modern structure, fittingly opened on the site of the original playhouse. It heralded the start of a new era for the National Theatre of Ireland. The building actually contains two theaters: the main auditorium, the Abbey, and a 157-seat studio space known as the Peacock Theatre.

As the final curtain descended on "Ariel," I found myself not only moved by the production, but by the privilege of witnessing it in a theater of such historic significance. The Abbey's eclectic productions have included new plays by established writers such as Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, Bernard Farrell, and Hugh Leonard, as well as new performances of the classics, and they expect to continue the tradition.

• The Abbey Theatre is located at 26 Lower Abbey Street, Dublin, Ireland. Telephone 011-00353-1887-2200. See its website: at www.abbeytheatre.ie.

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