Re-Working the Workhouse Ward: Mcdonagh, Beckett, And Gregory. - Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies

Re-Working the Workhouse Ward: Mcdonagh, Beckett, And Gregory.

By Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies

  • Release Date - Published: 2004-03-22
  • Book Genre: Reference
  • Author: Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies
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Re-Working the Workhouse Ward: Mcdonagh, Beckett, And Gregory. Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies read online review & book description:

Of the many roles which Lady Gregory played in the founding and sustaining of Ireland's national theatre--with what Yeats has described as 'her practical ideas, her energy and her influence' (1)--that of 'playwright' has been sidelined and received little more than token or passing acknowledgement. This impression is reinforced by a consideration of the Abbey Theatre's centenary programme and the glossy volume which accompanied it. Despite visually being placed at the centre of a constellation of the century's leading Irish playwrights in the opening pages, none of Lady Gregory's plays was scheduled for production on the Abbey or (the more likely venue) the Peacock stages. Synge's Playboy of the Western World was to be given a mainstage production; and his Riders to the Sea joined Yeats's Purgatory in a Peacock triple bill of one-act plays, the form so associated with the early years of the movement. Where one might have looked to see a Lady Gregory one-act play round out the programme, the third slot went instead to George Fitzmaurice's The Dandy Dolls. Lady Gregory's Spreading the News, the play which helped to inaugurate Ireland's national theatre on 27 December 1904, was relegated to a staged reading. Nor was it to be read with other of her plays so one could judge both her range and development as a playwright, but with Shaw's The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, the text with which Gregory had faced down Dublin Castle. The Abbey's centenary serves only to highlight the dearth of productions of Lady Gregory's plays over the years, even in comparison to Yeats. Yet it will be the argument of this article that they still make their presence felt on the contemporary stage because they are both more experimental and more enduring than has generally been acknowledged. They do so not through direct production, but through their adaptation by other playwrights, and by the unacknowledged extent to which work at the cutting edge of the contemporary stage draws on texts usually seen as quaint and antique. I would like to examine this proposition by bringing Lady Gregory's comedy of 1908, The Workhouse Ward, in relation to Martin McDonagh's The Lonesome West, first staged by Garry Hynes in Druid Theatre, Galway in 1997. I will proceed to develop it by bringing Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot (1953) into the argument. In doing so, I would invoke what playwright Thomas Kilroy said when I asked him in interview why he had described the history of theatre as the history of adaptation: When Martin McDonagh, a Londoner of emigrant Irish parents, first made his extraordinary breakthrough in the mid 1990s, first on the London stage, then on the Irish, with plays which were noted for their black humour and their extreme violence, he was keen to acknowledge the influence of film at the expense of theatre. As he put it at the time in an interview with Fintan O'Toole: 'I'm coming to theatre with a disrespect for it. I'm coming from a film fan's perspective on theatre'. (3) Those playwrights he did acknowledge were English (Harold Pinter) and American (David Mamet). But critics from the first were struck by the influence of Synge on McDonagh, and Shaun Richards has argued that his undeniable presence supplies the 'depth-model' for McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy. (4) In his introduction to that trilogy, Fintan O'Toole deliberately mixes in the names of twentieth-century Irish playwrights (Synge, John B. Keane, Tom Murphy) with those of those international playwrights McDonagh has acknowledged (Pinter, Mamet, Orton) to suggest the hybridity and eclecticism of his drama. (5) Nowhere in any of this is Lady Gregory's name mentioned or dropped, certainly not by the playwright, who will only admit to reading Synge after he had written A Skull in Connemara. And yet when I first viewed The Leenane Trilogy at the Town Hall in Galway in the summer of 1997, the third play (which was receiving its world premiere), The Lonesome West, with its comedy of endlessly

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