Room by Emma Donoghue at the Abbey

So last night I attended the opening of Emma Donoghue’s Room, the stage adaptation of her 2010 novel which later became an Oscar-winning film. It’s an interesting production, one that allowed me to pull together a lot of thoughts about this year’s Abbey season, while also raising issues in its own right.

When the Abbey’s new programme was announced, it was generally greeted with excitement, I think. The stage was being opened out to other Irish companies, there were interesting new productions to look forward to, and there was also the prospect of work by major artists like Lisa Dwan and John Tiffany. So all very good.

But there were reservations evident here and there, mostly on social media, and mostly asking one question: why were there so many adaptations? From No’s Knife to Room and on to Let the Right One In, we’re seeing plays being created out of works that existed in other media first – a development that  follows on from Marina Carr’s Anna Karenina at the Abbey last year, while also being mirrored in Selina Cartmell’s first programme at the Gate, which includes adaptations of The Great Gatsby, The Red Shoes and The Snapper. And the implication in some of those comments was that we were losing out in some way by being presented with such work.

But I’ve never really understood the prejudice against adaptations, which, apart from anything else, seems to ignore a lot of the history of Irish theatre. From its inception, the Abbey staged plays that took stories from one medium and placed them in another: even on its opening night it gave us On Baile’s Strand, an adaptation of Irish legend – followed later by Lady Gregory’s versions of Moliere, Yeats’s Oedipus, and many other versions and adaptations. We might also argue that what Synge did in writing Shadow of the Glen was a form of adaptation: he took an oral folktale and refashioned it for live performance. So I don’t think we should see this year as representing a major departure from the norm. Yes, it’s probably unusual that 2017 will pass without a play by Friel or Murphy or O’Casey or Synge at the Abbey. But we haven’t been starved of work by those writers and presumably haven’t heard the last of them either.

Internationally, there seems to be a much greater acceptance of adaptations, albeit that their prominence is driven partly by producers’ desire to manage risk by giving audiences already familiar stories. So right now we have 1984 on Broadway, for example – not to mention the multiple musicals that bring so-so Hollywood movies to the stage. But we can also point to companies like Shared Experience or Elevator Repair Service, which have found ways of giving theatrical life to well known novels. So there doesn’t seem to be quite the same level of resistance to adaptations elsewhere in the English-speaking world. (I should add here that there are many examples of adaptations on our own stages too at present – CyclopsThe LadykillersOnce the Musical and other productions.)

I also think there is an interesting coherence to this year’s Abbey programme, which, it’s becoming increasingly evident, focusses on the theme of entrapment. There’s a link to be drawn between Walsh’s Ballyturk and Arlington on the one hand and Room on the other: indeed, the conclusion of Ballyturk drew direct comparisons with Room when it premiered, and both can be linked back to the Fritzl case in Austria. But that theme of entrapment runs through the other productions: it’s there in Godot (“we’re not tied?”) and No’s Knife, and also is an important presence in Katie Roche and Let the Right One In. Even Ulysses is about entrapment: it’s about Molly in the bedroom, about the nets that Stephen needs to fly past, about the nightmare of history that he wants to awake from, about the idea of Dublin as a kind of Room that Bloom and Stephen keep circling,  like the double act in Ballyturk. The idea of marriage as a trap also runs through these plays (especially in Ulysses and Katie Roche), and it will be interesting to see how the presentation of Katie speaks to the performance of Molly Bloom when both characters appear at the theatre.

And perhaps in this programme there’s a subtle declaration of intent in relation to the Abbey itself. Enda Walsh’s various rooms have always seemed like metaphors for the theatre itself, the sense of entrapment felt by the characters acting as emblems of Walsh’s  willingness to push against theatrical form. It’s interesting that the first year of the new directors’ Abbey programme is all about the frustration of being confined to one space. The opening of Jimmy’s Hall in Leitrim and the national tour of Two Pints can be seen as evidence of a desire to get out of the Abbey in much the same way that many of the characters on the main stage this year are seeking to break free of their own boundaries.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into things.

But in any case, Room feels at home at the Abbey, both thematically and in the context of the theatre’s history and its possible futures. It is, it’s important to say, an international co-production, with lines delivered in English accents – and so there isn’t quite the sense of a community being in conversation with itself that was evident with, say, Ballyturk (which in its Galway premiere drew immediate comparisons to the Tuam Babies case). Instead, we are introduced to interesting non-Irish voices in the acting company – while also encountering the work of two excellent international designers in Lily Arnold and Andrezej Goulding. But the production does hit home (in all senses of that phrase) in another way: it’s a play by a female Irish author on our national theatre’s main stage. It would be great if it led to a re-evaluation (and revival) of Donoghue’s many stage plays, which are known less well than her novels.

But the key question for any adaptation is whether it is a success in the new medium in its own right  or whether it seems derivative of the original. What’s interesting about Room is that there are times when it is both of those things.

I’m sure somebody somewhere has probably written about the difficulty of adapting novels written from a first person point of view for the stage (as opposed to adapting third person narratives such as Anna Karenina or Les Miserables). The simplest and most common way of doing this is simply to put an actor on stage and have him or her tell the story directly to us. This is how Beckett’s prose has been performed, and it is what Annie Ryan did for A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, for example.

But adapting the narrative is a major challenge for Room, which in the original is told from the point of view of the five-year-old boy, Jack, who is trapped in the Room with his mother. The brilliance of the novel lies in the extent to which we as adults know more about what is happening than the narrator himself does: we fill in blanks, place things in a moral or social context that the boy himself is too young to comprehend. And along the way we also see the world from the perspective of the child.

The novel thus captures how one of the gifts offered by parenthood is that our children allow us to learn about the world a second time, when we see it newly through their eyes (this is also one of the things that reading great novels can do for us). Room has the same gift to offer, allowing us to learn again the nature of reality as seen through the eyes of Jack. The book is both moving and revelatory from the extent to which it makes everyday things unfamiliar to us, and new again.

Staging the story means that we leave the boy’s mind and see the action instead as a representation of “reality”, with Jack’s perspective one of many that are dramatized in the play. In removing some of the interpretative burden from the audience, Donoghue  risks making the action seem excessively literal, then – a problem that she attempts to address by placing onstage an adult actor who is a version of Jack’s inner self. His actions mirror Jack’s emotional state, and he often narrates Jack’s unspoken thoughts and feelings, saying them directly out to the audience. He is in many ways a theatricalisation of Jack’s point of view from the novel.

Perhaps he could be described as something of a cross between two Friel characters: Gar Private from Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Michael from Dancing at Lughnasa. But he’s never quite one or the other. He’s not an adult looking back on his memories (as in Lughnasa). But because the role is played by an adult, he doesn’t feel like a private version of Jack either. One of the things that is significant about Donoghue’s child narrator of the novel is that (unlike Gar in Philadelphia) there is not a huge schism between his public and private self: one of the forms of violence that Old Nick inflicts upon him and his mother is to make that distinction between inside and outside seem null and void. Ultimately the presence of the adult version of Jack feels like it arises from a perceived need to have someone on stage who can enact elements of the story that are too complex for the child actors to perform. This feels like a compromise rather than an inherently necessary part of the theatrical composition.

Setting that aside, perhaps the most surprising element of the adaptation is the inclusion of a number of songs, which are performed to a recorded backing track. To be clear, this is not Room – the Musical, if only because in musical theatre the creation and refinement of musical motifs becomes a key part of the storytelling and character development, whereas here the songs feel incidental or contextual. But it is a play with songs. And that feels very strange, given the subject matter.

Room

A problem with these songs, for me anyway, was their use at times that often felt very inappropriate, including most notably in a scene in which Old Nick rapes Ma while Jack hides in a wardrobe. We see Old Nick arrive, remove his boots, engage in threatening chitchat, and get into bed. And then Jack (in the wardrobe) begins to count the squeaks of the bed’s springs. It’s a difficult scene to watch.

Midway through these events, though, the actor playing Ma breaks into song. And while I believe we were intended to see this moment as indicating Ma’s resilience and determination to survive – and her ability to separate herself from what was happening as a way of surviving – it felt inappropriate to the context. I think audience-members will have a variety of views on this scene, some positive and some negative. But one criticism could be that it risks inhibiting our apprehension of the full horror of what is being done to Ma. I was not ungrateful for that distraction last night, because I’ve read the book and didn’t particularly want to live with those experiences again. But I felt that the original novel made more demands upon us as readers.

I’m not suggesting that any subject should be off-limits for musical performance onstage: there is a fully orchestrated and choreographed scene of sexual assault in West Side Story, for example, while the song “Hello Little Girl” from Into the Woods plays very dangerously with multiple taboos around children and sexuality. But the reason those songs are effective is that they’re situated contextually, both in relation to the music and the characterisation. It may well be a failing on my part but I couldn’t work out what the songs were doing in Room or why they were needed.

And yet – there were moments last night when the production was outstandingly good. The use of projections on a rotating stage gives us a sense of the interior life of Jack (while also helping to mitigate some of the bleakness of the story). And notwithstanding my criticisms of the use of song, I was impressed by the exceptional sensitivity and integrity displayed in the treatment of the child actor who is present during the scene (mentioned above) when Old Nick rapes Ma. As in the original novel, it’s a movingly honest portrait of parenthood: of what we as parents give our children – and of what we receive from them – and of what we sometimes take from them too. It represents the simple human truth that parenthood involves a gradual letting go, an act that is both painful and a source of happiness. The honesty and insight in evidence here will resonate wherever this play is performed.

It’s also a play that deals fascinatingly with the workings of male power. There is the obvious sense in which the lives of Ma and Jack are completely at the mercy of Old Nick, who is as menacing offstage as when he is present (his cutting off of Room’s electricity, for example, is an act of intimidation that is partly fuelled by his absence: Ma knows that the only thing worse than Old Nick coming back is his never coming back). But that theme is evident too in the relationship between Ma and her own father, a well nuanced figure who initially expresses his outrage against Old Nick for what had been done to “his daughter” – as if the crime was against the father rather than Ma herself. There’s a lot of interesting material to work with here, both for the actors and the audience.

But the production is most successful in the performances by Ma (Witney White) and the three child actors who play Jack (Darmani Eboji, Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans and Harrison Wilding). There’s a very moving physical and emotional intimacy between mother and child, and I have never before seen a child actor carry as much emotional weight on a stage as I saw last night. Here the direction by Cora Bissett has to be praised. There is great eloquence in the choice of movements for Jack – the way he curls up while hiding in the wardrobe, the subtlety of his gradual development of an ability to use stairs in the second half of the play, the growing physicality of his interactions with his grandfather, the careful development of a repertoire of affectionate gestures between him and his grandmother, and so on. At the risk of offering what will surely seem like a backhanded compliment, I thought all of this was so good that the songs could have been cut (or not included in the first place), and I also wondered if the play could have been staged without the adult actor playing Jack (the actor himself is very good, by the way: I’m not criticising his performance). Yes, the total removal of these elements would leave gaps to be filled, and yes the subject matter is already difficult enough as it is and needs to be lightened or mediated in some way. But the strength of this production lies  in our being in the presence of these actors and empathising intimately with them. I wanted to have fewer distractions from that relationship.

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And this is where adaptations offer different experiences for audiences. Some people in the theatre last night will have read the book, others will have seen the film, some will have done both, and some will know nothing about the story at all. And inevitably your judgement of the action will be shaped to some extent by whatever version of Room (if any) you have brought with you.

But I don’t think this makes for any kind of second-rate experience. If Room proves anything, it is that we should see adaptations not as a lesser version of original stage plays, nor as being like a faded photocopy of a primary text. Rather, they need to be seen as an instinsic part of our theatrical heritage (especially at the Abbey), as having value in their own right, and as requiring a set of critical tools that will allow us to appreciate them for what they are and what they do. They are not inferior to original plays; they are just slightly different works of art.

So I left the theatre all the more enthused about the prospect of seeing how the rest of the year will pan out, with Gatsby, Jimmy’s Hall, Ulysses,  Let the Right One In, The Red Shoes and many other productions in other theatres on the way. It took me a couple of years after its publication to face up to reading Room, a novel which (like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) I am glad to have read but will almost certainly never re-read. I would not let any such hesitation stop anyone from going to see this play, however. There is a lot going on here, and while I think it will evoke mixed reactions (it certainly did so last night amongst the people I spoke to or overheard) it also raises important issues about what we stage and how we stage it — about the voices we listen to, the questions we ask, the people we value.

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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.

More Thoughts (and stats) on Women Writers at the Abbey

At last week’s Theatre of Memory Symposium at the Abbey, I made a comment about the number of plays that have been produced by women on the Abbey main stage over the last 70 years or so (five in total). That comment has, understandably, attracted a lot of attention so I thought it could be helpful to go into more detail about this interesting aspect of Abbey history. I’m also responding to a couple of people who got in touch with queries about (for example) how a particular playwright had something on at the Peacock, and who were thus confused by the figures.  So some explanation of my methodology is needed. Also, since the paper, I have learned of a couple of other playwrights who need to be added to the list – great news, and very interesting information. 

A health warning straightaway: the information below is based on very preliminary research so treat this as a work in progress.

And one other thing – the current Abbey is doing a great deal to address this problem (as I explain in more detail below), so we need to distinguish between past and present in considering this issue.

The difficulty with doing anything with Abbey history is that you’re dealing with a series of different managers, different buildings, and so on.  In trying to measure the presence of women on the Abbey stages, there are a number of factors that can distort the picture. Sometimes the Abbey produces more plays by women than other Irish theatres, or other theatres internationally – and deserves credit for this. And sometimes it produces significantly fewer. But before we can get a full picture we need to bear in mind the following distorting effects:

  1. Lady Gregory. Over a quarter of the plays by women at the Abbey were by Lady Gregory. Some were co-written (e.g. with Yeats or Douglas Hyde), some were one-acts, and some were full length plays. On the one hand, she has a strong presence within the repertoire, and was revived from time to time – but then we have to deal with the fact that from the 1970s onwards, she more or less disappears. So the case of Lady Gregory alone is complex  and multi-faceted.
  2. The Peacock. The Peacock actually has a fairly good record of producing plays by women, especially in recent years. Yet as we know the Peacock is a much smaller space than the Abbey main stage. And more importantly, the transfer of women writers from the Peacock to the Abbey main stage doesn’t really happen all that often: you get (now) high profile writers like Jennifer Johnston, Maeve Binchy, and Carolyn Swift premiering in the Peacock but never making the transition to the mainstage. We also see writers like Marina Carr – who had plays on the main stage in 1998, 2002 and 2009 more recently appearing in the Peacock. So ultimately I am taking the view that a mainstage production is not the same as a Peacock production, and that we need to bear this in mind. But the Peacock has hosted roughly 50 plays by Irish women since the late 1920s.
  3. How do we measure the Abbey at the Queens period? After the Abbey burned down in 1951, it went to the Queens, where it stayed for 15 years, staging plays only on one stage. This means that the Abbey/Peacock distinction vanishes during this period, making comparisons difficult. For example, Mairead Ni Ghrada had plays on at the Queens, but while some did well (e.g. Mac Ui Rudai had many performances, albeit as a one-act play performed after the ‘main’ production), others were performed less frequently than other plays during the period. And when the Peacock opened, that’s where Ni Ghrada was produced thereafter.  The record of women at the Queens is both very good (there were quite a few plays) but also very bad (as a proportion of the whole there were very few). In other words, at the Queens, we are not  comparing like with like, so I have chosen to exclude it from the list, but I do provide more stats about this below.
  4. The Classical repertoire is male dominated. One of the jobs of most national theatres is to stage plays from the world repertoire. This creates a kind of feedback loop: theatres stage classics, which are almost always by men, which in turn eats up space in the programme that might be used to create new classics by women. It’s for this reason that you don’t hear people complaining that the RSC or Globe repertoires are dominated by a male playwright. So if we include the Abbey’s productions of plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, Ibsen, etc. that will create a picture much more dominated by men – which in turn risks obscuring the efforts to produce new plays by women
  5. When is a play not a play? Not everything that gets staged in the Abbey is alike. Is an adaptation by a woman of a story by, say, Flann O’Brien the same thing as a play by a woman (especially if the marketing for the show emphasises the identity of the male author rather than the female adapter)? Do readings count? What about the recent series of 10-minute plays at the Peacock, called The Fairer Sex and dedicated exclusively to female voices? Does a one-act play count? Especially when women are disproportionately likely to write one-act plays rather than full length ones? In other words, raw stats may hide other forms of marginalisation.
  6. Limited Data. The information below is based on the material we have already digitised at NUI Galway (roughly one-third of the archive), and is therefore limited. I expect us to find more plays by women. So what I am interested in here is finding evidence of broad patterns rather than detailed stats.

All of this is just to say that compiling any set of statistics is inevitably going to create distortions. I’ve chosen to interpret the figures in particular ways but I hope I’ve presented the information in a way that people will be able to make up their own minds.

In calculating the number of plays by women at the Abbey, it seemed necessary to me that we (a) exclude the Peacock, (b) more problematically that we exclude the period at the Queens for the reasons above, (c) that we exclude revivals, (d) that we exclude productions of plays that had already been produced elsewhere (e.g. the Shakespeares, Ibsens, etc), and (e) that we exclude adaptations of work by men. And when I did that, I found the following five plays on the main stage of the Abbey during the last 70 years:

  1. Jean Binnie, Colours
  2. Marina Carr, By The Bog of Cats
  3. Marina Carr, Ariel
  4. Marina Carr, Marble
  5. Elaine Murphy, Shush.

Since the Abbey symposium, Ciara O’Dowd has written to remind me of the case of Elizabeth Connor, who had a number of plays staged at the Abbey during the 1930s and 1940s. So she should be added to the list for 1947 for her play The Dark Road. That brings the total to 6. This is an interesting one – I had actually searched for Connor, but did so under the name Una Troy: a good example of the limitations of digital technology: finding no listings for Troy, I assumed that there were no productions by Connor.

I’d also been uncertain about a play by Edna O’Brien from the early 1970s, called The Gathering,  which I had seen listed in several sources as having been staged on the Peacock stage.  But I am assured by the Abbey archivist Mairead Delaney that this was a main stage production. So that brings us up to 7.

As I said, the period at the Queens is quite interesting because we actually do have some plays by women. These are:

  • Anne Daly, Window on the Square 1951
  • Mairead NI Ghrada, La Bui Bealtaine  1953
  • Mairead ni Ghrada, Ull Glas Oichne Shamna 1955
  • Pauline Maguire, The Last Move 1955
  • Anne Daly, Leave it to the Doctor 1959
  • Mairead Ni Ghrada, Sugan Sneachta  1959
  • Mairead ni Ghrada, Mac Ui Rudai 1960
  • Eilis Dillion, A Page of History 1964.

These are very important plays but, as I say, I think they need to be excluded from our sample because we don’t have the main stage/Peacock distinction to work with, and so we need to find other ways of measuring the significance of these plays relative to work by men.

A further complication at the Queens is that what might look like a ‘main stage’ production could actually be a one-act that was produced after the ‘main’ play.  For example, the four plays by Ni Ghrada listed above are all one-acts, performed after the ‘main’ performance of the evening.

If we include these plays in the list, then we’d have 15 plays during the last 70 years.  But I’m not sure we can or should do that. For example, once the Peacock re-opened we find the theatre producing new plays by women just as regularly as they did at the Queens – but they almost all appear at the Peacock, including plays by Ni Ghrada and Dillon.

I don’t want to seem in any way like I am trying to detract from the achievements and/or status of these writers, all of whom have been neglected badly enough as it is. Rather I am trying to explain that the Queens period is anomalous and can’t readily be considered representative. I am sure many will disagree with this, so I have included more information about this below so as to give the fullest possible picture.

If we go into the decades before my rather arbitrary starting point of 70 years ago, we also find some plays by women. These include:

v Olga Feildon, Three to Go

v Nora MacAdam, The Birth of a Giant

v Elizabeth Connor, Mount Prospect

v Margaret O’Leary, The Coloured Balloon

I need to find out the correct dates of these, as there are a few differing and contradictory records. I said incorrectly at the symposium that Teresa Deevy was the most recent of these, but in fact there were one or two others (my mistake). That whole period from 1926 to 1966 needs a lot more research – so many Abbey histories seem to suggest that there was nothing interesting going on once O’Casey’s Plough premiered. The plays above show this isn’t the case.

I have also been sent a list of plays by women during the early decades of the Abbey – thanks again to Mairead Delaney. Here they are:

  • Winnifred M Letts – 1907 & 1909
  • Suzanne Day & Geraldine Cummins         1913 onwards
  • Gertrude Robins              1913
  • Mrs Bart Kennedy           1913
  • Rose MacKenna               1918
  • Dorothy Macardle           1918 onwards
  • Mrs Theodore Maynard                1919
  • Elizabeth Harte                 1926
  • Kathleen M O’Brennan 1928
  • Margaret O’Leary            1929 onwards
  • Teresa Deevy                    1930 onwards
  • Maura Molloy                    1935 onwards
  • Maeve O’Callaghan         1936 onwards
  • Maura Molloy                    1937
  • Mary Rynne                       1938

We can use another way to come at the statistics, which is to just treat all Abbey premieres as equal, regardless of where they were staged and how long they ran for, and whether they were one-acts or full-length. If we do that, we get the following approximate figures:

Total Plays Premiered All new plays by women (incl. adaptations) In Peacock Plays by women as % of total
1904-1913

78

22

28%

1914-23

85

10

12%

1924-33

66

9

14%

1934-43

85

12

7

14%

1944-53

57

9

4

16%

1954-63

72

5

n/a

7%

1964-73

74

5

4

7%

1974-83

100

6

6

6%

1984-93

77

9

8

12%

1994-03

78

15

13

19%

2004-2012* (very rough figures)

30

8

7

27%

OVERALL TOTAL

802

110

52

14%

This table  is based on a VERY rough count so could be out by a few plays here and there, but the overall patterns are clear enough.

Also clear is the distorting effect of the Peacock. You can see how the Abbey of Patrick Mason and Ben Barnes made a concerted effort to produce new plays by women, but you can also see how all but two of those plays appeared on the smaller stage.

And you can also see the distorting effect of the Queens – during the 54-63 period, the Abbey produced proportionately fewer plays by women than at almost any other time in its history (7% of the total), but these appear to be on the Queen’s ‘main stage’, thus skewing the figures. We should actually, I think, be critical of the management of the theatre during this period for its production of women playwrights but, viewed in isolation, the figures actually look very positive. So again that explain why I think we should probably exclude the Queens from the sample, and should treat it in isolation instead.

A few conclusions I would draw from this.

  1. There is a very rich tradition of writing by women at the Abbey. We need to retrieve that tradition, to appreciate writers like Una Troy, Dorothy Macardle, and many others. Lady Gregory has been particularly neglected. There are several PhDs waiting to be written on this, some of them in Galway I hope (please contact me if you’d like to write such a PhD!). And a critical anthology of plays by women at the Abbey would make a brilliant addition to our bookshelves.
  2. The Abbey of Fiach MacConghail actually has one of the best records of producing new plays by women (Aideen Howard should be mentioned here too)– over a quarter of their new plays, albeit mostly on the Peacock. This is a pattern that seems to start with Garry Hynes and is intensified under Patrick Mason. The Abbey of the oft-criticised Ben Barnes needs credit for producing new plays by Stella Feehily, Hilary Fannin, Paula Meehan and Marina Carr.  The Abbey has come in for a lot of criticism over the last few days, but the current administration can’t be blamed for history – they are doing a great deal to address and redress the problem.
  3. There is an ongoing issue whereby women writers start off on the Peacock (as many male writers do) but for whatever reason don’t transfer onto the main stage. Why is that? I’m not sure.
  4. In short, the absence of women from the Abbey main stage over recent decades is striking and difficult to account for.
  5. Overall, it looks like roughly 14% of plays premiered by the Abbey on any of its stages – just over 100 – were by women. However, if you remove Lady Gregory from that list,  it falls to about 10% of the total.
  6. However, the proportion of plays by women on the main stage is much smaller. During the last 70 years, it’s just over 1% (based on the provisos above), moving closer to 1.4% if we include the period at the Queens.
  7. One final point – my comment on women at the Abbey has generated a certain amount of “Abbey bashing”. While i would not exempt previous administrations from criticism, it is probably worth saying that, certainly in recent years, their record compares favourably with that of other Irish theatre companies and other national theatres. In other words, there is a problem here, but it’s not exclusive to the Abbey, or to Ireland.

One of the things I’d love to see us doing when we have finished digitising the Abbey archive would be to create a database that can allow us to measure the presence of women writers in the Abbey by looking at the following records:

Log-books of plays received. How many women sent plays to the Abbey as a percentage of the whole?

Show programmes, posters and handbills. Are plays by women marketed differently from plays by men? We saw a bit of this with Shush last year, which included a competition where people could get a ‘pampering’ session before the show – not something you’d find with a new Tom Murphy play, for example.

Box Office figures. Before we blame a theatre for its programming decisions, we have to look at what audiences did. How many people went to see plays by women, and how do those figures compare with plays by men? I remember seeing Marina Carr’s Ariel in 2002 in the Abbey’s main auditorium, and my feeling was that there were more people on the stage than in the audience: surely the role of the Irish theatre-goer in perpetuating these patterns  needs investigation too.

Number of Performances. It’s one thing to premiere a play but quite another to revive it. A good example is another Marina Carr play, Ulaloo from the early 1990s, which was pulled very early in its run. I’d be interested in finding out how many plays by women have a full-run, and how many then go on to enjoy multiple productions. Teresa Deevy’s Katie Roche is one good example of a play that has been revived at the Abbey, but there aren’t many others.

By looking at all of this information we can form a fuller and more complete picture of women writers at the Abbey, and can do more to consider the role of the audience in all of this.

As I’ve said above, Mairead Delaney provided me with some information to help with this blog post, but if I’ve made any mistakes or omissions – or any stupid interpretations – then the blame is entirely mine.

One final thing. At the Theatre of Memory symposium, Catriona Crowe pleaded that the Abbey archive would never charge money for access. That plea may have created the impression that there is actually a plan to do this. In fact, the first time I have ever heard anyone suggest that the Abbey Digital Archive would not be free is when Catriona said it at the symposium! The Abbey Digital Archive IS free, and anyone who wants to use it for research/educational purposes is welcome to come to the NUI Galway library to use it, free of charge.

As the very rough stats above show, there is some great work waiting to be done there.

Shush at the Abbey

Last Wednesday night I attended the opening night of Elaine Murphy’s Shush at the Abbey.

There’s something very exciting about seeing new writing on the Abbey’s main stage, especially from a young dramatist who’s not very well known yet. Most of the Abbey’s recent main stage premieres of new writing have been by established Irish writers, and many of them have been adaptations – productions such as McGuinness’s The Dead and John Gabriel Borkman, Tom Murphy’s Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant, Roddy Doyle’s Government Inspector, and the ill-fated Adigun/Doyle Playboy of the Western World. There are exceptions, of course: Bernard Farrell’s new play Bookworms has appeared twice, and most recently Richard Dormer’s Drum Belly caused a bit of a stir at the theatre.

All that said, it’s very unusual – and perhaps unprecedented in the contemporary period – for us to see a writer’s second play debuting on the Abbey’s main stage.

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Elaine Murphy’s first play was Little Gem, which was co-produced by Guna Nua and the Civic Theatre back in 2008. That play proved a (somewhat unlikely) commercial success, transferring to the Olympia and later to Peacock stage of the Abbey itself; it also toured nationally. I describe the success as unlikely because it was a monologue play by a then unknown author, but audiences actually responded very positively to Murphy’s presentation of different generations of women – and to the quality of her language and her humour. Those traits appear again in Shush, though this time we move from monologue to dialogue, in a play about five women who gather in a suburban house to celebrate a birthday.

I’d imagine that Shush could match and potentially even exceed the success of Little Gem. But what I found most exciting about the opening night was that I was seeing a new play by a woman on the Abbey’s main stage. That’s something I’d only ever experienced three times previously, when I saw Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats in 1998, Marina Carr’s Ariel in 2002, and Marina Carr’s Marble in 2010. In other words, Elaine Murphy is only the second woman to have a new play on the Abbey’s main stage during my lifetime.  [note – after publishing this post, I got a note from a reader to say that in 1988, Jeane Binnie had a play on the Abbey stage, making her a third Irish woman dramatist – http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/archives/production_detail/702 ]

After the 1930s, Deevy’s plays were revived on the Abbey’s main stage from time to time, notably with Katie Roche, which appeared there in 1975 (it was also revived in the Peacock in 1994). And Lady Gregory’s (unduly neglected) Devorgilla was revived in 1949 and 1966, while her best known plays such as Hyacinth Halvey, Spreading the News, the Rising of the Moon and the Gaol Gate had occasional main stage productions right up to the early 1970s. After that, Gregory more or less disappeared from the repertoire, most noticeably in 2004, when the Abbey’s centenary celebrations featured a play about Gregory (Colm Toibin’s Beauty in a Broken Place) but neglected to produce any of her own works – a poor tribute to a woman who had not just established the theatre but kept it open for almost thirty years of her life. So the Abbey’s main stage has not been hospitable to women dramatists, both historically and more recently.

The story is a little different in the Peacock, where there have been some very good plays by Irish women, especially recently. Since the turn of the century, at the Peacock I’ve seen new work by Stella Feehily, Hilary Fannin, Paula Meehan, and Marina Carr. And in 2010/2011 that theatre staged plays by Marina Carr, Carmel Winters, Nancy Harris, and Stacey Gregg. I’d be curious to know if that was the first time any Irish theatre has staged four plays by different women consecutively: I certainly can’t remember anything comparable happening.

So in the last five years or so, the Abbey has been addressing the neglect of women dramatists historically, and has been making a concerted effort to redress the problem. It’s a pity that their attempts to do so have not generated much comment or coverage, if only because the Abbey is doing something that could be more widely imitated.

In Irish theatre generally, the relative absence of women dramatists is a serious problem. Ireland’s second biggest theatre the Gate produces relatively few new plays; the only time I can recall their producing an original play by a woman was when Yasmina Reza’s Art appeared there in the 1990s (though Anne-Marie Casey wrote a version of Little Women there a couple of years ago, and Joseph O’Connor and Conor McPherson have respectively adapted Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel and The Birds for the theatre).

Druid has produced work by Geraldine Aron throughout its history, and in more recent years premiered Leaves by Lucy Caldwell, but a majority of its productions are by male authors like Synge, Murphy and McDonagh.

Rough Magic has the strongest record in this regard, having premiered a number of important plays by women – many of whom are also actresses, as it happens. Liz Kuti’s Sugar Wife and Gina Moxley’s Danti Dan stand out, but they’ve also produced very good plays by Ionna Anderson, Rosemary Jenkinson, Morna Regan and others.

Likewise Fishamble have brought us work by Sonya Kelly, Abbie Spallen, and Rosalind Hassit – while in the north Tinderbox has recently produced work by Lisa McGee, Rosemary Jenkinson, Stacey Gregg.

But the overall picture is not good. A few years ago, I went through the Irish playography, counting the number of plays by women. Roughly one in four Irish plays produced between 1990 and 2005 were by women. And most of those plays were produced in smaller venues. Plays by women were therefore much less likely to be published, to be reviewed, to be written about by academics, to win awards… And while there have been some improvements lately, things haven’t changed much since then.

It’s not as if women aren’t writing plays, of course. Ursula Rani Sarma and Stella Feehily can be pointed to as examples of very successful Irish women dramatists. But both of them are produced mostly in Britain, and it would probably be fair to say that Feehily in particular is better known in London than she is in Dublin. Similarly, Nicola McCartney is from Belfast, but she appears far more often in surveys of Scottish theatre than in discussions of Irish drama.

So for these and other reasons, it’s great to see the Abbey taking a chance with a new play by a young female dramatist.

As for the play itself… Well, I agreed with Peter Crawley when he stated in his Irish Times review that the play tends to avoid metaphor or significant events; he also pointed out that it’s not very dramatic. He gave it two out of five stars, though, and I thought that was a bit harsh.

Watching the play, I would have liked to have had a sense that there was a bit more going on beneath the surface, but the lack of dramatic action didn’t bother me. This is a play in which characters with no sense of direction sit around talking for hours, contemplating whether they have the will to go on, and engaging in inconsequential games in order to pass the time. Shush is not trying to be Waiting for Godot, but Murphy does show an awareness that Irish audiences don’t necessarily need something to happen regularly. As with so many Irish plays, the drama lies not in the action but in the dialogue. And while the primary theme here is the relationship of these women to each other and to the (off-stage) men in their lives, there are also some interesting explorations of themes like emigration, alcohol abuse, and middle class materialism (and vulnerability to economic shock). Inevitably – perhaps too inevitably – there is a moment in which dance is used to express emotions that are unable to be articulated verbally. So we never feel too far away from another Irish play about five women: Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.

Murphy also does something that we don’t see often enough in Ireland: she writes five good parts for women of varying ages. The performances here are very funny: the roles could easily enough turn into caricature, but Deirdre Donnelly, Barbara Brennan, Niamh Daly, Evan Bartley and Ruth Hegarty all flesh out their characters in interesting ways. And Jim Culleton as director allows the laughs to come naturally: his direction is unforced and unhurried, and he pays Murphy the compliment of trusting her work. I’m not sure many other directors would have been so generous, and the production is all the better for that.

I suspect that some of my fellow academics may debate, and perhaps even condemn, the play’s gender politics during the coming years. Murphy gives us five women who are for the most part self-fashioning and self-directing; they’re also (mostly) interesting and individualised. But there is also a tendency for the characters to judge and assert their value in relation to whether (and how much) they are noticed by the men in their lives. For example, without wishing to give anything away, there is a moment in the play in which the suggestion seems to be made that the only thing that makes one of the character’s lives worth living is the prospect of attending a significant event in the life of one of her male relatives. We’re used to this kind of characterisation from film and novels, of course, but Murphy leaves those generic conventions largely untroubled.  Again a comparison with Lughnasa feels apt: Friel’s five women are to a large extent influenced by how they are seen by men like Gerry Evans, Father Jack and Danny Bradley. But Friel’s play is formally so original that it gives us many other ways to see the characters.

I also wondered about the decision to have the play’s least intelligent character deliver its most insightful speech. The passage works well in performance, and helps to bring us towards the conclusion, but someone could argue that the play seems to be suggesting that the way to be happy is to think about things as little as possible.

These are minor criticisms, though, and they don’t detract much from the many positive qualities of the production.  Shush is an entertaining play, and it’s often very funny. And if the genre is familiar, the dialogue itself is very original – it literally sounds like no other play I’ve seen before. I think it will be seen as offering a very good night out, and should be very successful on that basis.

But the real significance of the production, for me anyway, is that it’s a step towards normalising the presence of women dramatists on the main stages of our theatre. We still have a long way to go, of course – but Shush feels like a good start.