Irish theatre people (scholars, practitioners, audiences) might be interested in a very exciting new book by Joan Dean, called All Dressed Up: Modern Irish Historical Pageantry. It’s just been published in the US by Syracuse University Press.
Dean writes about the growing popularity in the twentieth century of vast public pageants, which recreated scenes from Irish mythology and legend. Far from being separate from Irish theatre, these performances involved many important practitioners: Dean’s book includes some great discussions of work by Edwards and Mac Liammoir, Denis Johnston, Alice Milligan, Tomas Mac Anna, and many others. These large-scale public events required impressively complex arrangements in terms of choreography, production and design – and will be of great interest to anyone working in those areas. But they also give a fascinating insight into how the newly independent Irish state set out to perform itself, for its own citizens and for the outside world.
The book also helps to fill in many gaps in our knowledge of Irish performance. We know quite a bit about Yeats’s Cuchulain plays, for example, but Dean’s book shows how those mythological figures were experienced on a broader scale in public pageantry. She also helps to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of the relationships between the professional and amateur sectors in Ireland: these performances may have been directed and designed professionally but they were mostly performed by ordinary people. She also has much of interest to say about Catholicism and public spectacle in Ireland, especially in the first 30 years or so after independence. That’s a topic that people are perhaps reluctant to explore nowadays, but you can’t fully understand Irish theatre in the twentieth century without knowing how writers and directors were affected by the rituals associated with Catholicism.
The book also has a lot to say about Edwards and Mac Liammoir, underlining the fact that their contribution to Irish performance extends far beyond the confines of the Gate Theatre. There is much more to be said about them, of course. We’re hosting a conference about the Gate Theatre soon, and we hope that this might help to encourage more work on that duo and their legacies.
The book also places a lot of important contemporary developments in a proper context. There is a narrative out there that suggests that site-specific performance is new to Irish theatre, but Dean shows how our performance-makers have been using public spaces in creative ways for decades – using performance to both capture and challenge the meanings associated with, for example, Croke Park or the GPO. Dean brings us right up to Macnas, but it’s easy to see how a lot of today’s practice has roots or precedents in the performance she has re-discovered from earlier decades.
The book also does much to emphasises the centrality of design to Irish theatre practice during the twentieth century – another topic that has been badly neglected.
Ultimately, All Dressed Up is a great example of brilliant archival research being presented in readable and sophisticated fashion: the book manages the difficult balancing act of being academically rigorous and accessible. I hope it’s widely read by people with an interest in Irish theatre, and Irish culture more broadly.