Timon of Athens returns to Dublin

I am intrigued by news of the forthcoming Dublin production of Timon of Athens at Project Arts Centre.  By my count, this will be the seventh time the play has been staged in Dublin – ever.

It’s thus one of the least performed of Shakespeare’s plays in Dublin: the only plays that have been performed less frequently in the city are Titus Andronicus (3) and Troilus and Cressida and Two Gents (once each). And between 1660 and 1904, there are no records of performances for Pericles, Love’s Labour’s Lost or the three parts of Henry VI.

To put those figures in contrast, between 1660 and 1904, there were 622 productions of Hamlet, 475 of Macbeth, 453 of Richard III, 422 of Othello, and 381 of Romeo and Juliet.  In other words, Shakespeare was always very popular in Dublin – it’s just that Timon itself was for a long time regarded as unstageable and uninteresting.

These figures, by the way, are taken from the Irish Theatrical Diaspora database on Shakespearean Production. The research was done by Deirdre McFeely.

The earliest recorded production of the play in Ireland comes in 1714 at Smock Alley (about 45 years after its first recorded London production). There was another in 1741 in Aungier Street when the role of Apemantus was taken on by the great Anglo-Irish actor James Quin, who had previously played the part in a Covent Garden production.



It was done again in 1761 (on 3 June to be precise), and we actually have quite a good idea of who was in it. Henry Mossop played the lead role, and there is a good cast list in the National Library. Originally from Galway, Mossop had joined the Smock Alley company in the 1740s, before joining Garrick in London. Mossop took over Smock Alley in c. 1760, where he spent a lot of his time trying to fend off competition from a rival company run in Crow Street by Spranger Barry. It’s curious that he chose to stage Timon during this period: it’s not a play that has ever drawn a crowd (until quite recently – more about that below), though it’s notable that it was advertised as a play “written by Shakespeare”. In other words, the marketing strategy was to highlight the author rather than the play. 

It was done again in 1783, again at Smock Alley. And in 1817 the great Edmund Kean played the role in Crow Street. Not much is known about the performance in Dublin, but in 1907 The Irish Times ran a feature about Kean’s performances in Dublin, and it noted that staging of Timon.

We have no other record of a production of the play until 1972 when the Abbey Theatre hosted a visiting production of the play by Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. The lead role was taken by  Ian McDiarmid, a great actor who is still best known for playing the role of the Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi and those awful prequel films that We Shall Not Mention. In an interview with the Irish Times in 2008, McDiarmid recalled that production with some embarrassment: apparently, a Dubliner in the front row shouted “you’re murdering the Bard” to the actors.  “I could do nothing but agree,” said McDiarmid.

Having said that, reports at the time (again in The Irish Times) berated Dublin audiences for skipping the play (which only ran for a week). Faced with a choice between Timon and the newly-opened Brendan Behan play Richard’s Cork Leg, most Dubliners went for the latter.

The image below shows McDiarmid in a Citizens’ production of Life of Galileo from 1971:

Ian McDiarmid playing Galileo at Citizens theatre


The play does crop up in Irish culture from time to time, however. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there were a lot of public lectures on Shakespeare around the country, and there are records of packed-out public talks about Timon in Cork and Dublin. And it’s quoted from time to time, usually in response to political events of the day. For instance, a letter to The Irish Times about Watergate quotes from the play. And in the 1980s there’s an interesting reference to Charles Haughey and Timon in that newspaper, with particular reference to the links between politics and money: a fascinating example of the Irish tendency to hint at the things that everyone knows but which no-one will say.

The most recent major production of the play was at the National in London, where Nick Hytner re-set the play to contemporary London. Suddenly Timon’s story seemed sadly apt: Shakespeare’s treatment of the relationship between profligacy and debt – and the human and societal cost of bankruptcy – seemed stunningly relevant when re-set to the City of London shortly after the 2008 Crash. And the direction of the poet in the play – performed not just as a sycophant but as a parasite –  highlighted the Faustian pact that artists enter into when they seek patronage from the wealthy.



In the lead role, Simon Russell Beale (shown above) was (as ever) sympathetic and charismatic.  And the production’s  design and direction managed the difficult trick of making the play seem contemporary without contrasting too heavily with the original text.

But the production didn’t quite dispel my feeling that this is a very odd play. The shift from the first to the second half is thematically interesting but theatrically confusing: Shakespeare matches Timon’s wealth with formal dynamism, while his impoverishment is performed in much longer, more plodding scenes. And where Lear’s loss of everything makes him massively sympathetic, Timon remains difficult to care for.

Hytner addressed these problems with some careful cutting (as well as the inclusion of some passages from Coriolanus), but my feeling about the production was that it found a way to stage Timon that could not be repeated: Hytner had chosen it for a specific time and place, and it had meaning in that context. But could it be revived or toured? Not without the loss of something, I think.

So it’s a play that needs to be cut and/or adapted. Hytner’s adaptation offered one approach; the 1817 version was also an adaptation and it’s likely that the versions staged in the 1700s  were not of the original play but of Thomas Shadwell’s version (this is certainly true of the 1714 production). The AC Productions staging of the play is described as an adaptation – so it will be interesting to see what they make of it.

The production opens at Project next week – and the Youtube video below has already been released for it (note the inclusion of an image of a newspaper from 2014, suggesting a contemporary setting and/or context).  It’s certainly a play for our times, asking difficult questions about debt and how we treat people who once had money but now have none – I’d imagine that Irish audiences might see in Timon something of Sean Quinn or Tony O’Reilly.  Should be worth catching anyway: we might have to wait another forty years before it’s done here again…

Ireland Playing in Brazil: an Irish theatre company in São Paulo

Like many people, I have been thoroughly enjoying this year’s World Cup in Brazil. So far, it has been the tournament that we always wish for but never get: there have been surprises (Spain – twice) and lots of great goals. Most of the good players are living up to the pre-tournament hype, and, strangest of all, the English media is displaying a realistic sense of their team’s potential (for now anyway). Let’s hope it continues for the next few weeks – even if the 11.00 matches are slightly exhausting.

I’ve heard a few people say that it’s a pity Ireland aren’t at the World Cup, and of course that is true in some ways. Having said that, the style of play evident over the last week has displayed all of the virtues that the Irish team currently lacks: speed of thought, technical ability, imagination, confidence. The team would not have fared well at this tournament, I think.

In thinking about Ireland’s absence from the World Cup, I found myself being reminded that there is one area in which Ireland retains some sort of international prominence – I’m talking, of course, about our theatre – or literature from this country more generally.

There is one great example of that prominence in Brazil, which is the existence of the company Cia Ludens. Based in São Paulo, this professional company was established in 2003 with the remit of translating and staging Irish plays, starting with a well regarded version of Dancing at Lughnasa in 2003 which was recently revived.



I’ve heard a lot about this company from Beatriz Bastos, the company’s producer and a scholar at Federal University of Santa Catarina. There is also a very useful article about it by Domingos Nunez, who has written about how the company was established, explaining that its name is derived from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens –  a book that emphasizes the importance of play as a category for understanding all of human life. “I had come across Huizinga’s study while writing my Master’s dissertation,” writes Nunez:


but it was only in 2003, while in Ireland researching for my PhD thesis, that, through the critical works of Stewart Parker, I approached Huizinga’s idea of ludo ergo sum in a more revealing way. Parker, interpreting Huizinga, affirms that “play is how we test the world and register its realities. Play is how we experiment, imagine, invent and move forward” (6). This movement accurately reflected the innermost feelings of the people who happened to be part of the company at that time, and Ludens seemed the precise term to signal our deepest intentions in dealing with Irish and Brazilian contexts through the perspective of drama. The Latin term led us to make associations with other rich words that could be used as fruitful possibilities on the stage, such as the Latin ludo, inlusio and illudere; the Portuguese lúdico and ludibriar, and the English ludicrous and illusion.


Nunez has a very stimulating account of how the company’s approach draws on ideas not only from Huizinga but also from Boal, Stanislavski, Brecht and Lehmann. It is rooted in Irish drama, but it draws freely on an amazing range of international contexts.

So far the company has produced or staged readings of Dancing at Lughnasa, Stones in His Pockets,  Faith Healer, Vincent Woods’ Cry from Heaven and many others including Come and Go, Shadow of the Glen, Murphy’s Alice Trilogy, Friel’s Performances, Carr’s Ariel and Sebastian Barry’s Whistling Psyche. The Friel plays are in print, and I am very proud to own a beautiful edition of the complete set…

Of particular interest is a production that the company staged of Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire and A Thief of A Christmas. Both plays were originally performed in 1985, the former by Druid and the latter at the Abbey – and both tell the same story from different perspectives. In Bailegangare, Mommo tells the story of how a town called Bochtan was re-named Bailegangaire (the town without laughter) as a result of a laughing competition that her husband participated in. Thief of a Christmas actually stages the laughing contest, and makes explicit Mommo’s culpability for what happens in it.

Fascinatingly, Cia Ludens staged both plays together in a single production. Here is what Shaun Richards has to say about it:

Seeing Cia Ludens’s rehearsal of the play I realised how profoundly the director, Domingos Nunez, had penetrated Murphy’s dramatic vision. For in his ‘transposition’ of the play to Brazil, and merging of Mommo’s memories in “Bailegangaire” with her lived experiences from “A Thief of a Christmas”, Mommo does more than tell the story. In this production she inhabits it – or rather it inhabits her, and she lives more fully in that world of the past than she does in the present where she only fitfully recognises her granddaughters. In staging the play as Mommo’s ever-present nightmare we see her slow progress to Bochtan and inability to leave, for to continue her journey home would be to acknowledge the events which faced her there, events for which she feels responsible. As her granddaughter, Dolly, says, ‘She’s guilty.’ This is the fact which must be faced.


What is notable about these works is that Nunez and his company are not staging productions that are in any way derivative of the original Irish versions. The Irish works are transposed to Brazil, re-imagined, and thoroughly re-inhabited. The kinds of choices made about staging and performance draw on many of the approaches used in Ireland, from naturalism to post-dramatic theatre – yet they are also distinctive.

There are some clips from on Youtube from Balangangueri (the company’s name for the merged plays), and they are well worth checking out:



I would love to see Cia Ludens performing in Ireland (ideally in Galway, where there remains a strong Brazilian community). I feel that we could learn a huge amount from these kinds of exchanges.

In the broader context in south America, there are lots of other interesting projects underway. Only recently, I heard from Charlotte Headrick (an American scholar who works on Patricia Burke Brogan’s plays) that Brogan’s Eclipsed was recently staged in Peru. That play is one of the first attempts in Ireland to come to terms with the tragedy of the Magdelene Laundries – and it was given a terrific production by Mephisto theatre company here in Galway last year (I blogged about it at the time). Ireland and Peru are of course very different from each other. But it is sickeningly unsurprising that Brogan’s story has proven resonant with the experiences of people in another “Catholic” country.

About fifteen years ago, there was a definite shift in the academic study of Irish theatre: scholars moved  from writing about plays they had read (focusing on themes, characterization and other broadly literary elements of the script) to instead analysing performances that they had seen. As a result, an Irish theatre conference is now just as likely to host papers about theatre-makers – from Garry Hynes to Joe Vanek to Louise Lowe and beyond – as it is to include papers about Irish dramatists.

This is certainly a positive development, but it is notable that we have tended mainly to explore Irish theatre as it is staged in Ireland. We tend to have some awareness of the Irish theatre companies that stage work in America  (groups like PICT or the Irish Rep among many others), or in the UK (the Tricycle, for example). But I think there’s a very poor awareness of how, when and why Irish theatre is staged outside of the Anglophone contexts – especially outside of Europe. A group I’m involved in called the Irish Theatrical Diaspora project was set up 10 years ago to try to track some of this work – and I think that in our second decade we need to do much more to engage with work in places like Brazil.

We hear much about the importance of the work that Culture Ireland has done in bringing theatre from Ireland to other countries. Yet groups such as Cia Ludens are also doing this work, and perhaps do more to facilitate a genuine intercultural dialogue between Irish culture and other forms of culture. The translation of Irish plays from English into other languages is important – and is brilliantly supported by ILE. But the subsequent staging of those plays is another form of “translation” that has a lot to teach us about our theatre and our country.

Of course, for a dialogue to happen, both parties need to listen to each other. I’d hope that in the years ahead, we can find more opportunities to bring companies like Cia Ludens to Ireland, so that we can – perhaps – start to re-conceive Irish theatre in a more international context. Just as football was an English game that the rest of the world imported and then made its own, perhaps “Irish theatre” can similarly be seen as something that is staged in Ireland – but staged everywhere else too, often in ways that are very exciting. And those stagings can in turn be brought back here, re-invigorating, renewing and challenging our theatre practice.

Irish Women Dramatists: Some Facts and Figures

My last blog post has been getting quite a strong response, including several comments at the end of the piece itself, which I’d strongly encourage people to read. There have also been some negative comments from people who misunderstood the post, or who dispute or dismiss the overall argument. I thought it could be helpful to draw together some of these responses in one place, and to back up some of the claims with some stats.

First, though, it seems necessary to state that the title “There are no Irish women playwrights” –  when used by the people who organised the original Festival, and as purloined by me for my own blog – was ironic. The whole point is that there are a great many Irish women playwrights. In my own post I mentioned some of them, but it was never at any stage my intention to create a definitive list. In the responses to my blog, Paul Meade, Caohman Keane, Róise Goan, and Anne Clarke add many important names into the mix. But even then the list is only partial. I will try to address this in more detail below.

I also was delighted to hear on Twitter from Katy Hayes and Caroline Williams, both of whom organised the original festival. They were able to provide some very useful clarifications, and to answer some of the questions I’d asked in the blog post.

Here is Katy clarifying that the academic in the bookstore who was told “there are no Irish women playwrights” was Claudia Harris (a US-based academic whose book on Charabanc is one of the key publications in this area):

Caroline then came in with some further information:

Both Katy and Caroline also comment on the ongoing relevance of the idea –

Caroline also has scanned some of the original show programmes, and you can see these on her Twitter feed (click on the links in the embedded tweets).

I am going to try to find more information about the Festival during the weeks ahead, and will post that when I can.

I also wanted to explain some of the statistics I mentioned, and so am going to draw on some figures  from the Playography in order to do so. These come with a proviso: I have done a very quick count on these figures, and have not given them the care that I would if I was publishing something in a formal article or book. I can stand over the accuracy of the overall patterns here, but would ask people not to quote the figures below without first verifying their precision for themselves.

First, here is a break-down of the number of original new plays produced by Irish writers between 2002 and 2012. I choose these years to capture what was happening at the height of the boom, while also having enough space in the post-2008 years to consider how the recession has affected Irish theatre. It is important to state that the Playography usually includes plays that are produced outside Ireland too, so that slightly skews some of the figures. Having said that, the overall patterns remain unchanged even when these plays are omitted. I have not included adaptations in the list below because I thought doing so could confuse matters.

TABLE: New Irish Plays 2002-2012

Number of new plays produced New plays by men New plays by women Plays co-written by m/f authors Plays by women as % of total
2002 65 46 16 3 25%
2003 43 32 10 1 23%
2004 43 34 7 2 16%
2005 67 49 16 2 24%
2006 65 48 15 2 23%
2007 45 31 14 0 31%
2008 61 38 20 3 33%
2009 55 36 18 1 33%
2010 58 40 16 2 28%
2011 65 45 18 2 28%
2012 70 46 23 1 33%

I would draw the following conclusions from these figures.

1. Perhaps most surprisingly, the number of new plays produced in Ireland has remained more or less constant since 2002, averaging out at about 65 per year. When you drill down into the figures, however, it becomes evident that there is a shift in terms of plays produced by subsidised theatres and plays produced by self-funded writers and/or commercial productions. Nevertheless, the overall pattern remains constant.

2. It was suggested by a few people on Facebook that the development of new forms of theatre-making in Ireland, especially around Dublin, will have led to a change. However, the Playography does not always differentiate between scripted and unscripted work, or between devised and “conventional” (for want of a  better word). The figures above include plays by Gina Moxley, Grace Dyas, Veronica Dyas, Stefanie Preissner and Amy Conroy, for example. Having said that, they do not always include work by Louise Lowe or Una McKevitt – and this, it’s important to say, shows how the model of what is (or is not) a “play” is shifting. Nevertheless the overall pattern seems largely unchanged by the rise of the “theatre-maker”.

3. From Celtic Tiger to Great Recession, nothing much has changed insofar as the proportion of new plays is concerned. It clusters at around a quarter to a third every year.  That figure matches the averages in other English-speaking countries internationally.

Comparing 2002 and 2012 

In order to provide a further illustration of these figures, I thought it could be useful to go into a bit of depth. So I am going to compare 2002 and 2012, just to explore how the differences manifest themselves over time.

In 2002,  there were 65 new plays produced. 46 were by men, 16 by women, and three were co-written by male and female authors.

Of the 46 plays written by men, 14 were published. That’s 30% of all plays written by men

Of the 16 plays written by women, three were published. That’s 18% of all plays written by women.

So in 2002, there were three times as many plays by men as by women. But we also see that male authors are significantly more likely to have their plays produced than women authors are.

In 2012, there were 70 plays produced, and the figures are a bit better: again there are 46 plays written by men, but now 23 are by women,  and 1 co-authored.

Yet again, however, only three of the plays by women authors were published, whereas 7 of the plays by men were published. Those figures work out as being proportionately equal, however – about 13-14% of the total in each case. So some improvement there, though also evident is the fact that plays are being published far less frequently overall.

All of this suggests that things have not really changed all that much between 2002 and 2012: there are slight improvements, but they are not very significant in terms of the overall picture.

The “Big” Theatres

Another suggestion was that this problem is less likely to appear in the country’s main theatres. In fact, the reverse is true. Using the online archives of the major theatres, here are some interesting statistics.

Starting with the Abbey archive, from 2002 to 2011, I count 47 original new plays being given full productions (this does not include one-off readings). Of those, 12 were by women. That’s just about a quarter.

Moving to the Gate, between 2002 and 2012, the Gate lists 13 new productions – roughly one a year. These include adaptations such as The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton and The Birds by McPherson. The only female author listed here is Anne-Marie Casey for an adaptation of Little Women. The full list is here: http://gatetheatre.ie/section/GateTheatreProductions1984Present

The Lyric Archive here – http://www.lyrictheatre.co.uk/archive.aspx?category=2000-2009 – only goes as far as 2009. For those years, the theatre lists a total of 57 productions, including revivals and classics (I’m unable to determine how many of those are original new plays). Of those, 11 are by women authors. In fairness, however, the number of new plays by Marie Jones represents a sizeable proportion of new writing at the theatre.

On Rough Magic’s archive, I count nine productions of new works (including adaptations) between 2002 and 2012. And as I’ve written before, here the record is very positive – five of those nine are by women and four by men.

On Druid’s archive, I count one new play by a woman (Lucy Caldwell’s Leaves) since 2002.

For Fishamble, I count 25 new productions since 2002. Of those, 9 are by women (including the productions of Fishamble’s compendium plays such as She Was WearingShorts, and the two seasons of Tiny Plays).

Again these figures are very rough, but what we see is that the major subsidised theatres tend to match the patterns overall – the proportion of plays by women is between a quarter and a third in most cases.  I should add here that in no way am I criticising any of the above theatres for the existence of these patterns. Many if not all of them are aware of this as a problem and have taken specific and definite steps to address it.

I’d also refer readers to Paul Meade’s comment on the previous post, which shows that Guna Nua have done a huge amount in this area.

Who are we talking about?  

It is important to state that women are prominent if not dominant in a variety of other fields in Irish theatre: direction very obviously but also design, production and so on. Likewise, there are many prominent “theatre-makers” who choose not to label themselves as playwrights. The argument I’m making here is therefore specifically about women playwrights.

One of the major pieces of feedback about the blog post that I wrote was that there were omissions from it. As I write above, it wasn’t my intention to create a list in the first place, but this feedback caused me to wonder exactly who is writing plays in Ireland at present. I’m drawing the list below from the Playography – the names of the women writers who have had plays produced in Ireland between 2002 and 2012.  Not everyone here is Irish, and not everyone here would necessarily label herself a playwright – but the list has value in its own right, I’d suggest.

Here they are:

Abbie Spallen

Adrienne Michel-Long

Aedin Cosgrove

Aideen Wylde

Ailís Ní Ríain

Alice Barry

Alice Coghlan

Amy Conroy

Anna Newell

Antoinette Morelli

Antonia Hart

Aoife Crehan

Audrey O’Reilly

Bairbre de Barra

Bairbre Ní Chaoimh

Belinda McKeon

Bernie McGill

Brenda Murphy

Briana Corrigan

Caitríona Ní Chonaola

Carmel Winters

Celia de Fréine

Ciara Considine

Ciara Ní Chuirc

Ciarda Tobin

Clare Dwyer Hogg

Dawn Bradfield

Deirdre Kinahan

Deirdre Nic Con Uisce

Deirdre Roycroft

Doireann Coady

Donna O’Connor

Edna O’Brien

Eileen Gibbons

Elaine Murphy

Elizabeth Kuti

Elizabeth Moynihan

Emma Donoghue

Felicity Hayes-McCoy

Fiona Looney

Fionnuala Kennedy

Frances Kay

Gaye Shortland

Gemma Doorly

Georgina McKevitt

Gianina Carbunariu

Gina Moxley

Grace Dyas

Helena Enright

Hilary Fannin

Ioanna Anderson

Iris Park

Iseult Golden

Isobel Mahon

Jacinta Sheerin

Jacqueline Strawbridge

Jane McCarthy

Janet Behan

Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Mooney

Jody O’Neill

Judy Hegarty-Lovett

Karen Ardiff

Lisa McGee

Lisa Tierney-Keogh

Lorraine McArdle

Louise Lowe

Lucy Caldwell

Lynda Radley

Maeve Binchy

Maeve Ingoldsby

Maria Connolly

Maria McDermottroe

Maria McManus

Maria Ní Mhurchú

Maria Tivnan

Marian Keyes

Marie Jones

Marina Carr

Marion O’Dwyer

Mary Coll

Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy

Mary Jordan

Mary Kelly

Mary McNally

Mary Portser

Maureen White

Michelle Moran

Michelle Read

Miriam Gallagher

Morna Regan

Morna Regan

Nancy Harris

Niamh Creely

Niamh Gleeson

Niamh McGrath

Nicola McCartney

Norma Sheahan

Olivia Pouyanne

Olwen Fouéré

Órna Ní Choileáin

Patricia Burke Brogan

Patricia Byrne

Paula Meehan

Pauline Shanahan

Rachel Feehily

Ríonach Ní Néill

Róise Goan

Roisin Ingle

Rosaleen McDonagh

Rosaleen Walsh

Rosalind Haslett

Rose Henderson

Rosemary Jenkinson

Sara-Jane Power

Sarah FitzGibbon

Sarah Jane Shiels

Selina Cartmell

Shelagh Stephenson

Shona McCarthy

Síle Ní Bhroin

Siobhán Donnellan

Sonya Kelly

Sophie Motley

Stacey Gregg

Stefanie Preissner

Stella Feehily

Suzie Miller

Sylvia Cullen

Talaya Delaney

Tara Bhreathnach

Tara Dairman

Tara Maria Lovett

Tara McKevitt

Tina Reilly

Ursula Rani Sarma

Veronica Coburn

Vicky Ireland

Yasmine Akram

Yvonne Quinn

Zoë Seaton

I haven’t done a proper count on this, but that seems to be slightly less than 150 individual writers. Between them they have written 173 plays during the period, albeit that many of those plays were co-written, sometimes with multiple authors (Fishamble’s Tiny Plays counts as one production, for example). What this means is that there are a very large number of women writers who have had one play produced in this country but, for whatever reason, have not had a second or third staged during this period.

Nevertheless, this is a huge number of writers. This is what I meant when I used the phrase “there are no Irish women playwrights”: in fact, the number is enormous.


About these figures – and what they might mean. 

It’s important to reiterate that all of the figures above are based on very rough counting by me over the course of a couple of hours. There may be and in fact probably are errors in some of the figures. But what is indisputable, at least to me, is that there is clear evidence of a pattern here – and that this pattern has persisted from the Celtic Tiger into the recession – and that it’s been largely unaffected by changes in Irish theatre practice or by the reduction in funding for new plays.

I have drawn my own conclusions from that, and they are outlined in the last blog post. Others may choose to interpret the figures differently. I would return though to the point made by Joanne Harris, which I mentioned at the start of that blog post. The label “women’s writing” is limiting and in many ways pernicious: it is used mainly for marketing but its consequences go far beyond that. Nevertheless, there is evidence of a problem here, and we need to be able to name that problem as being related to gender, and if we decide that we want to address that problem, then we have to speak about it in terms of gender. My own view is that we need to do more to consider the structural issues that lead to this problem’s existence, bearing in mind as we do so that it exists in many other countries.

And finally… 

This blog celebrated its first birthday yesterday. It’s been an interesting experience and a worthwhile experiment, at least for me. The sole purpose of this blog has been to publicly “perform” the idea that Irish theatre matters – and that it matters enough to be written about and discussed. My hope has always been that these posts would not be seen as any attempt to provide an authoritative last word but that they would instead initiate some kind of conversation. And at many times that’s happened.

Having said that, since I began this blog, we’ve seen the demise of Irish Theatre Magazine, and there’s also evidence of a continuing reduction in the space afforded to theatre criticism in national newspapers – especially for productions outside of Dublin. I do not think that blogging can or should fill this space: I’m not writing theatre criticism here, either from an academic or journalistic point of view, and I don’t think many of the other blogs out there do that either. And the use of Twitter to respond to shows, while welcome, is not really filling the gap. We need to see more bloggers, more criticism, more public discussion, more analysis and ultimately more celebration of Irish theatre.

I’ve also become increasingly conscious of the fact that when I write about “Irish theatre” I am addressing multiple audiences who use that term slightly differently. We often speak of an Irish theatre community in Ireland, but of course there are multiple communities, which share concerns but have different preoccupations  – as you move from Galway to Limerick to Cork to Belfast to Dublin, and not forgetting Kilkenny and Cavan, and many other places around the island.  Added to that is the fact that the academic study of Irish theatre is a very internationalised field: it includes people who are staging plays by, say, Patricia Burke Brogan in Peru and Oregon – or people who are translating Martin McDonagh in Perm in Russia – or people who are writing about Yeats’s theatre in India – or people who are staging Teresa Deevy in New York – and so on. It’s been interesting to get feedback that suggests that there is a lot more going on with Irish theatre now than ever before.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who has read some of these posts over the last 12 months, and thanks also to those who have taken the time to comment.


There are no Irish Women Playwrights..?

I was reading a blog post recently from Joanne Harris, who writes about the problems with the category of “woman’s fiction”, especially as used by booksellers. “We know that the book industry is largely unfair to women,” she writes. “Women writers are in the majority, but generally get smaller advances; fewer reviews; fewer prizes; less respect.” She then continues:

It doesn’t help when women themselves perpetuate the use of insulting terms like “chick-lit”, which belittle and marginalize women’s writing.

It doesn’t help when “women’s fiction” is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note.)

It doesn’t help when some (male) academics teaching English Literature teach male-dominated courses, and where (female) academics have to compensate by creating “women’s fiction” courses, as if women were a minority group, and not half the population. […]

Given how many influential people (most of them male) are still disseminating the myth that women can’t get there on their own; that women are okay writing for women, but that men need something more durable; that women read (and write) commercial fiction, but that men write literature, we’re going to keep getting people making the same assumptions. The trickle-down effect of sexism in the book business will continue to apply, on Goodreads, on Twitter, in bookshops, on blogs.

Harris makes a number of suggestions about what should happen:

Please, everyone, say after me:

Women’s fiction is not a “genre”.

Women writers do not need the permission of men to write what they do.

Women writers do not need to ride on the coat-tails of men to achieve success.

The full blog post is here:  http://joannechocolat.tumblr.com/post/84707533631/capitalize-this

Alison Flood wrote a follow-up blog post on the Guardian about this –

what really caught my attention was [Harris’s} claim that “‘Women’s fiction’ is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note)”. I knew it was – or had been – on Wikipedia. There was a controversy about that last year. But Amazon? Really? I checked it out; she’s right. There’s a category for “Women writers and fiction” on the site, and within that for “Women’s literary fiction” – hi Rachel Joyce, Charlotte Mendelson, Maeve Binchy, Kate Morton and Virginia Woolf – and “Women’s popular fiction“. I’m bewildered by how titles make it into these categories. The mix of books is so broad as to be meaningless, united only by the authors’ gender. But the fact remains the categories are there, and there are no equivalent “Men’s writers and fiction”, “Men’s literary fiction”, and “Men’s popular fiction” sections. They are just “fiction”, I guess.

Flood’s post develops Harris’s in some telling ways. Harris is careful to distinguish between women authors and the genre of “women’s fiction”, as it’s defined by the industry. Yet Flood shows that, at least on Amazon, the two terms mean the same thing: women’s fiction is fiction written by women – Joanne Harris features with Maeve Binchey and Anne Rice and Donna Tart and Eleanor Catton, despite the fact that all write in distinctive genres and for very different audiences.

This debate seemed pertinent given that it coincided with the announcement of the winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange prize. The rules of that prize are as follows:

The Prize is open to any full length novel, written in English by a woman of any nationality, provided that the novel is published for the first time in print form the United Kingdom between 1 April of the year before the Prize is awarded and 31 March of the year in which the Prize is awarded. We encourage publishers to submit books from all genres.

In other words, the main shortlisting criterion is gender, followed by the book’s being written in English. And of course the books must be “good”, however that word is interpreted.

That prize has often come in for criticism. Most famously, AS Byatt described it as sexist, and has forbidden her publishers to submit her novels for consideration:

“You couldn’t found a prize for male writers. The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don’t believe in. It’s honourable to believe that – there are fine critics and writers who do – but I don’t.”

Yet the defenders of the prize claim that it gives visibility to books that might otherwise struggle to get an audience.

And to be fair, this year’s winner, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, certainly merits the high profile it’s received as a result of the win (I think it’s the best Irish novel I’ve read in many years). And the other books on the shortlist also deserve to be better known, especially Americanah and The Lowland. I’ve read four of the six (have not read Audrey Magee or Donna Tart’s books yet), and think that, contrary to Byatt, they are not unified by any kind of reductive “feminine subject matter” though all articulate in different ways a feminist perspective on such matters as sexual agency (stunningly so in McBride), political power, race, and the link between work and identity.

But aesthetically they are very different from each other: McBride’s inventiveness with language is very different from Adichie’s incisively politicized prose, which in turn is very different from the formal elegance of Lahiri’s writing. I don’t know if I could say that any of these books is “better” than any of the others because they are all so different from each other. Nevertheless, I am glad that many people who might not have read those works will now do so.

ANYWAY. What I’ve been wondering is how the debate initiated by Harris – and focused by the Bailey’s prize – might apply to Irish drama.

Back in the early 1990s, a festival was organized by Glasshouse Productions called “There are no Irish women playwrights”. I’ve heard two different stories about where the Festival got its name – perhaps someone involved can tell us which, if either, is true. The first is that an American academic was in an Irish bookstore and asked to be directed to the section for Irish women playwrights. The academic was told that such a section did not exist because: “there are no Irish women playwrights” (most Irish bookstores place Irish drama on the bottom shelves of their poetry sections, so our playwrights generally don’t fare well even now). The second story is that a question was put to a director in a post-show discussion about why there are so few plays by Irish women on Ireland’s stages. And again the same answer came back.

Either story is perfectly credible, of course, and different variations of these comments are made all the time. But the response of Glasshouse was to organize the There are No Irish Women Playwrights festival, which consisted of a reading of extracts from the works of 12 Irish women writers at the City Arts Centre, and which was (I believe, but am open to correction) followed by performances at the Irish Writers Centre.

Again, there were questions about the legitimacy of the enterprise. In a Theatre Ireland report on the event, Caroline Williams refers to a Sunday Tribune review that criticized the plays for focusing on “alcoholism, wife-battering, babies and war”. “Surely,” moaned the reviewer, “the human condition as experienced by Irish women playwrights encompasses other sensibilities?” The reviewer’s suggestion is evidence of a common prejudice: one of the most frequent criticisms of women’s plays by (usually male) reviewers is that the topics are not sufficiently “universal” (we men tend to assume that what is normal to us is “universal”).

That same year, Theatre Ireland ran a special issue about women in Irish drama – one of that journal’s last ever issues, if I remember correctly. In addition to the article mentioned above by Caroline Williams, it also featured important contributions from Helen Meany and Victoria White, among many others. There’s also an interesting interview with Katie Mitchell, then at the start of her career, who had been asked by Garry Hynes to direct at the Peacock. While writing this blog post I had a quick glance at some of these articles, and what is particularly noticeable is that, aside from some superficial topical references, most could just as easily have been written today.

Since then, there have been other important interventions. Cathy Leeney produced Seen and Heard, an anthology of plays by Irish women, in the late 1990s. Melissa Sihra’s edited collection of essays Women in Irish Drama is useful in many ways, especially for its inclusion of a list of plays by Irish women – which runs to several pages and which will contain numerous surprises for any reader. And Eileen Kearney and Charlotte Headrick are about to publish a new anthology of plays by Irish women with Syracuse University Press – http://syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu/fall-2014/irish-women-dramatists.html

Yet the problems identified by Joanne Harris persist in Irish drama. As I’ve written on this blog before, roughly one in four Irish plays produced since 1990 has been by a woman (this figure has increased to about one in three in the last five years). Yet plays by women have shorter runs, appear in smaller venues, are less frequently reviewed, are less frequently published – and thus are less frequently revived, and less frequently written about by academics, which in turn means that emerging playwrights in our universities tend to read fewer plays by Irish women. And in the recent consultation for the revised Junior Cert English curriculum, there were very few plays by women (let alone Irish women). So “the canon” remains male-dominated, which in turn has an impact on how young Irish dramatists, both male and female, conceive of their own writing, their own place within the literary tradition.

Women writers are also more likely to write (or to be commissioned to write) plays that are less valued than the “conventional” play – they write proportionately more plays for children, for community groups, and for outreach purposes; and they are also more likely (in general) to write as part of a collective (which is why it took so long for the plays of Charabanc to appear in print – issues of copyright and “ownership” proved difficult to unravel, I’m told).

Furthermore many plays by Irish women are marketed specifically as “women’s plays”: as a great night out for “the girls” (this despite the fact that the theatre audience in Ireland is predominantly female anyway). This was explicitly the case for, say, Marie Jones’s Women on the Verge of HRT but a lot of this is much more subtle. For example, we’ve also seen – since the nineteenth century really, and not just in Ireland – that when plays are perceived as being “for women” they are much more likely to be linked with advertisements for cosmetics, clothes, “pampering” (I’m quoting in using that word), and the leisure industries generally.

Yet when the theatre industry here attempts to challenge this problem, they are accused of sexism, rather as Byatt accused the (then) Orange prize. For example, when about five years ago the Abbey staged a series of readings of short plays by women called The Fairer Sex, they were accused variously of ghettoizing and patronizing the writers whose works they were trying to promote.

There have been some improvements since 1993, but it might still be possible to host a festival in Ireland called There Are No Irish Women Playwrights – not because this statement is literally true (just as it was untrue in 1993) but because so many of our women writers have been rendered invisible – or more difficult to see, despite some important work by, among others, Fishamble, Rough Magic, Tinderbox, and (in more recent years) the Abbey.

One of the most prolific, challenging and politically-orientated Irish dramatists around at present is Stella Feehily, for example. One of her short plays appeared in Fishamble’s Shorts about ten years ago; Duck premiered at the Peacock shortly afterwards. And her excellent O Go My Man toured briefly to Cork. But we haven’t seen any of her subsequent plays in Ireland, and I don’t think I have ever heard a conference paper about her work or read an academic article about her either. In part, this is because her plays have mostly been produced by one company during this period (the UK-based Out of Joint). But it’s astonishing that she’s not more celebrated here.

Likewise there’s the case of Nancy Harris, a writer whose debut No Romance was praised almost universally for its inventiveness and originality when it appeared at the Peacock. Her short play Love in a Glass Jar appeared very briefly at the Peacock but her other plays have been staged in London, and her recent play Our New Girl got glowing reviews when it appeared in London and has just been staged in the Atlantic in New York – check out this New York Times review . By going to the Atlantic, Harris is following a pathway taken by Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. And we heard a lot about the success of those writers at the Atlantic. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but I don’t think I’ve seen so much as a tweet about Harris’s success there, despite Isherwood’s review having appeared two days ago.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that we hear less about the successes of Irish women dramatists than we do about, say, McPherson or Walsh or McCafferty. Why is that?

There are other problems.

There are many more Irish women writers who are far better known in Britain than they are in Ireland. Ailis Ni Riain, Nicola McCartney and Ursula Rani Sarma spring immediately to mind, but there are others.

Also notable is the critical indifference and hostility that has greeted Marina Carr’s more recent plays: she was praised when working within conventional (some would say “patriarchal”) forms such as tragedy (even if she aimed to problematize and rewrite those forms from a feminist viewpoint), but her more experimental output since 2008 has been met with bafflement.

I’m also thinking of the fact that Christina Reid ha spoken publicly about the difficulty she has had in having her plays produced since the mid-1990s: the end of the Troubles meant that her works were no longer seen as politically relevant, and thus theatres lots interest in her as an artist. Why did this happen to Reid but not to Friel’s Translations or Freedom of the City or Parker’s Pentecost?

Some of this, of course, is a result of the problem of “the new play in Ireland” at present, something that we heard a lot about from Irish writers at last year’s Synge Summer School. There are so few venues for Irish writers to produce new work that there is an expectation that every new play must be fully realized, must succeed with critics and audiences and everyone else. This removes space for innovation and risk-taking: playwrights need to be free to fail occasionally – as shown in the example of Carr, who has spoken about how the failure of Ulaloo (pulled from the Peacock stage after only a handful of performances) forced the reinvention that led to The Mai. Every Irish playwright has written something that was considered at the time of its premiere to be a false turn or a failure – Friel’s Faith Healer being a prime example. And while many Irish plays do still fail, there is less acceptance of such failure as being normal and even necessary. Theatres can’t afford it, aside from anything else. And more simply the problem is that we don’t have the kind of venues that can allow new plays to be produced in a way that will allow writers to make some sort of a living..

Yet despite the fact that there has been so much talk of the Irish play being in crisis, there have been a great many successful Irish plays by women in recent years, from such writers as Morna Regan, Deirdre Kinahan, Sonya Kelly, Marie Jones, Rosemary Jenkinson, Stacy Gregg, and many more, including those mentioned throughout this post. (And if you think I have omitted anyone, please use the comment box below to add details).

The phrase there are no Irish women playwrights is thus both a challenge and an aspiration. We need to do more to draw attention to plays by women, simply because so much of this work is unjustly neglected – and so much of it has to fight for the attention and respect that many male authors are able to take for granted. We need to ignore those who ask the trivializing questions that accompany all of the innovations mentioned above (“when are we going to get a festival of new plays by men/a special issue of Theatre Ireland about men/ a collection of academic essays about male authors?”). We need to praise those who take small steps rather than critising them for not doing more: a season of readings is better than nothing, even if full productions should be the norm (though of course we must also be critical of token gestures and lip service). And, following on from Joanne Harris, we need to aspire to a situation where calling someone a woman playwright is merely a descriptive statement rather than a political or aesthetic judgement.

It’s now 21 years since the There are no Irish Women Playwrights festival was staged. Things have improved, somewhat, but there’s still much more to be done. As a community – of theatre-makers, writers, producers, scholars, audience-members – we need to get our act together on this one, I think.