Why are there so many adaptations in contemporary Irish theatre?

I’ve written a bit recently about my concerns about contemporary Irish playwriting. But there is a form of writing that appears to be thriving at present: adaptations.

This is something that was mentioned quite a bit at the Synge Summer School a few weeks ago, when several of the writers present spoke about how they’re being commissioned to write adaptations of novels quite regularly, but are struggling to have their original plays put on. We’ve also seen writers moving from one medium to another – turning a successful play into a musical or film, as Enda Walsh has done with Once, for example.

There’s quite a lot of interest in the topic of adaptation at the moment: I see a lot of academic articles about it, and think I’m right in saying that Palgrave Macmillan recently commissioned a book series on the topic of adaptation in theatre and performance. And certainly over the last few years I’ve seen some great adaptations. The most memorable was Gatz from Elevator Repair Service, but there have been others.

Most interesting in an Irish context is Frank McGuinness, who (as I’ve written before) has had to go abroad to produce all of his original new plays since 2002 – but whose adaptations of John Gabriel Borkman and The Dead both did very well on the main-stage of the Abbey. (though I see today that his new play will appear on the Abbey stage – great news)

I just had a quick glance at the Abbey’s online archive, and was surprised by how many adaptations there have been on the main stage since 2005 (Ben Barnes’ last year in the job). By ‘adaptation’ I mean a new version (usually by an Irish writer) of a non-Anglophone play OR a staging of a story originally created in some other medium. The list is quite interesting:

  • A Doll’s House 2005 (Abbey)
  • A Cry From Heaven 2005 (Abbey)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest – With Prologue by Conall Morrison 2005 (Abbey)
  • The Bacchae of Baghdad – Euripides’ The Bacchae in a new Version 2006 (Abbey)
  • A Month in the Country 2006 (Abbey)
  • Hedda Gabler 2006 (Abbey)
  • The Playboy of the Western World – A New Version 2007 (Abbey)
  • Three Sisters 2008 (Abbey)
  • The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant 2009 (Abbey)
  • Christ Deliver Us! 2010 (Abbey)
  • John Gabriel Borkman 2010 (Abbey)
  • The Government Inspector – A new version after Nikolai Gogol 2011 (Abbey)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (2012)
  • The Dead (2012)

Many of those productions were excellent – I was very impressed by Kilroy’s Christ Deliver Us, and loved the visiting production of Hedda Gabler in 2006.

Likewise in the Peacock we had terrific adaptations such as Chuck Mee’s Big Love and the Company’s As You Are Now So Once Were We.

Over at the Gate, there have also been many adaptations: McPherson’s version of The Birds, Joseph O’Connor’s My Cousin Rachel, Ann-Marie Casey’s Little Women, and even the current Arthur Miller version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.

In informal conversation with friends, the view is often expressed that the large number of adaptations in our mainstream theatres is a result of risk management. Theatres stage what is familiar for the same reasons that movie studios commission sequels and remakes, the argument goes – because audiences can’t reliably be depended upon to give the unknown a chance.

Another factor, I think, is festivalisation: literary adaptations are particularly popular on the Festival circuit at the moment, and I think that’s because something like The Great Gatsby is so familiar to audiences everywhere that it is able to transcend or sidestep the kinds of cultural barriers that sometimes impede the reception of work as it travels around the world.

But I think there must be more to it than the management of risk.  What is it about our writers that so many of them at the moment are interested in re-imagining what we think we already know? Is there a link between what our ‘established’ writers are doing with adaptation and what emerging companies are doing with devising? And why do we continue to value adaptations less than original works – to assume that a new original play by McGuinness is inherently more valuable than his (excellent) adaptation of The Dead?

I’m not sure. With the launch of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival programme imminent – and with the launch of the Fringe programme looming – I expect that we’ll be hearing more about this topic during coming months.


4 thoughts on “Why are there so many adaptations in contemporary Irish theatre?

  1. This is something that has puzzled me for quite a while, it also annoys me a bit. It always seems to me as a theatre taking an easy way out. I would prefer to see a film of tender is the night than another film of the great Gatsby, portrait of the artist instead of the dead, and once left as a simple and charming film. That said I have no objection to the revival of old plays. I really enjoyed the recent Macbeth and hedda gabler, but Mrs warren’s profession seemed very dated and I left the theatre feeling an opportunity was lost to put on a play on the subject that might reflect the time we live in


  2. It’s a risk averse thinking. We must programme but we must not lose money. Venues cannot afford to take risks.
    So we get adaptations with customer recognition tags of anticipation and added value. There are those who say plays are dead except for festivals.


  3. I would just like to propose a distinction between Adaptations with a capital-A, which seek to transpose an extant narrative work to the stage – and original works which quote and sample extant works in a spirit of bricolage.

    A good example would be two recent works by Enda Walsh – Once is decidedly an Adaptation of the film, whereas Penelope is an original work which engages with the narrative mythos of Homer’s Odyssey.

    And this spirit of bricolage is of course not a recent one – I would refer you to most of the output of Shakespeare as an example. And let us not forget the Greek tragedians, who all worked from the same set of stories, and were no less original for that.

    I absolutely take your broader points about capital-A Adaptations, but I would suggest that two examples from the above list belong firmly in the latter category – Big Love and As You Are Now So Once Were We – both of which were true originals, in my view.


  4. As Thomas Kilroy said “The history of European theatre is a history of adaptation”. The practice of translating, adapting, rewriting existing texts dates back from the Greeks onwards, until present-day time. As Simon has already mentioned there are different kinds of ‘adaptations’, depending on how similar the source text and the target text are, and I think that this has very much to do with the adapter’s motivations and intentions.

    In contemporary times, I’ve seen Irish writers adapting in many different ways, and usually each one of them has a particular motivation for deciding to adapt a text. Even in cases of commissioned adaptations, these writers have to find a personal affinity with the source text, in order to make it work as a new version, and often I’ve found that the best results are achieved when there’s a true meeting of the minds between the original writer and the contemporary one. That said, it doesn’t mean that the new text has to be ‘faithful’ to the original text, on the contrary, it means that the adapter has found a connection with the core of the text and has also found a way to give his original spin to it, to make it his own text.

    Therefore, when analyzing the corpus of a certain playwright, I wouldn’t necessarily differentiate too much between his or her original plays and his or her adaptations, because I think that in the best cases, the adaptations are as much part of their developments as writers. Take for example Frank McGuinness’s adaptations, never straying from the original plot, but imprinting onto it his own style of writing, always making it personal and yet still part of that legacy. On the other hand, there are writers like Kilroy and Marina Carr, who are not afraid of saying: “wait a second, this is how I would write this story” and produce such daring adaptations, or should I say ‘appropriations’, as Kilroy’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and Carr’s “Phaedra Backwards”, always keeping in mind the original texts, thus continuing the “history of European theatre” (as Kilroy himself puts it), but also continuing their own development and growing as writers…

    I would like to conclude with a thought… I’m glad to finally see some broader debate on the topic, since I think there is so much to be said about this practice in Irish theatre, particularly if we consider not just the last 8 years, but going at least 20-25 years back, starting with writers like Brian Friel, McGuinness and Kilroy, continuing with the younger generations…


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