March 5, 2004


Seminar: Irish Studies, 535


Meeting Date: March 5, 2004


Chair: Mary McGlynn


Speaker: Prof. Joan FitzPatrick Dean

Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of English, University of Missouri-Kansas City.


Title of Talk: “Theatre Disorder in Twentieth Century Ireland.”


Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons


Attendees: Frank Naughton (Kean University); Alice Naughton; Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association); Peter M. Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center); Ed Hagan (Western Connecticut State University); Séamus Blake (WFUV); Diane Menagh (Fairfield University, Connecticut); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University); Joseph V. Hamilton, Jr., Esq.; Susanne Forman (Pearson Publishing Co.); Martin J. Burke (CUNY); Thomas Ihde (Lehman College, CUNY).


“Theatre Disorder in Twentieth Century Ireland”

A copy of the paper that Prof. Dean gave has been deposited with University Seminars.  The following is a synopsis.


            The writ of the Lord Chamberlain never extended to Ireland, and Ireland never institutionalised stage censorship.  As a result, many have claimed that there has been no stage censorship in Ireland—indeed many plays were staged in Ireland in open defiance of the Lord Chamberlain, and Norman St. John-Stevas has argued that, since the Playboy riots in 1907, “Irish theatre has been considerably Freer than the English.”

            However, throughout the twentieth century the meaning and modes of censorship have expanded, and the agency or person responsible for it is often polymorphously anonymous or, alternatively, ubiquitous.  Prof. Dean’s paper aims to investigate who in Ireland performed censorship in the twentieth century.

            One of the most prominent instances of institutional stage censorship in twentieth-century Ireland emanated from the state, although there was at no time legislation that allowed for theatre censorship.  During the second world war the Department of Justice delegated censorship responsibilities to theatre managers—they were to ensure no plays would be staged that compromised Ireland’s neutrality.  In 1940 Lennox Robinson’s play Roly Poly—an adaptation of Maupassant’s Boule de Suif updated to the 1940s—was objected to by the German and Vichy delegations.  The Gate theatre was told by the Department of Justice that it had violated the Emergency legislation—the play was perceived as anti-German.  Roly Poly was withdrawn after three nights.  A second clear instance of effective institutional censorship occurred in 1959, with church intervention against the stage version of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.  The play offered much to offend Irish Catholics, and after three nights and universally poor reviews, Archbishop McQuaid’s intervention against the play resulted in its being pulled by the Gaiety’s manager, Louis Ellman.

            Beyond institutional censorship there were many other types.  First, authorial self-censorship, of the type practised by Yeats in his endless revisions of The Countess Cathleen.  A second category is collegial censorship, involving a reader, advisor, publisher, or editor, who is usually sympathetic to the author, it not the text.  An example of this might be seen in the case of Synge’s The Tinker’s Wedding, which the the Abbey refused to stage, despite the fact that it held Synge in high regard—the play was thought likely to offend Catholic sentiment.

            A third type of potential non-institutional censorship occurs thanks to the nature of the distribution and consumption of the text—its transformation from play to performance.  In this process theatre owners, actors, directors, patrons and beyond can affect the staging of the play.  The government’s representative on the board of the Abbey after the announcement of the subsidy saw his role as acting as the “watchdog of the subsidy,” objecting in this capacity to language in The Plough and the Stars.  The actors also had considerable input in the censorship of O’Casey’s play, forming, in his words, “a Vigilance Committee.”  The play opened to ecstatic reviews in 1926, but was subject to a fourth level of censorship—censorship by those who consume the work as a performance.  Public objections to the play were so diverse and diffuse that it has been argued that this controversy was instrumental in assuring that stage censorship was never enacted in Ireland.  Vocal opponents of the play were pitted against vocal proponents.

            The propensity to protest or riot became one of the best known traditions of Irish theatres, and it was well-entrenched in press coverage by the 1950s.  The eagerness to identify this tradition continues unabated today—the New York Times invoking the Playboy and Plough and the Stars disturbances in an articles about the proposal to relocate the Abbey.




Q. Can we move past simply reporting actors’ objections and reconstructing the reasons for those rejections?

A. One reason is the fact that actors were invariably the subject of the violence—it was directed almost exclusively at them.  Their rejection was crucial—it led to the split over In the Shadow of the Gunman.  Actors could simply refuse to play a role, particularly before their professionalisation in 1905.

Q. Actors’ objections have not been brought up in previous work.

A. No, and it is a controversial issue, as the actors were so popular.  They probably exercised at least as much censorship as anyone else.

Q. When you speak of authorial/collegial censorship do you differentiate this from the critical project?

A. No, I don’t.  It is difficult to prove whether authors were coerced, therefore it is difficult to draw a distinction.

Q. Controversy always caused immediate increase in interest and attendance.  Did it ever cause a longer-term depression in ticket sales?

A. I am not sure—I would have to look at the ticket receipts more closely.  Receipts actually improved after the Playboy, thanks to Synge’s continuing popularity.  O’Casey was also enduringly popular.  These controversies did lead to the Abbey becoming famous, notorious, worldwide.  They have also been used to advertise the plays in recent years—in a Dublin revival of The Ginger Man they ran the original newspaper notices.

Q. The last time I was in Dublin the theatres appeared to be playing almost the same classic repertoire of the early years of the century.  Is there a new type of nationalist censorship, do you think?

A. Perhaps.  Playboy, just two years after the first run, had become part of the nationalist canon of plays.  I end my book with Martin McDonagh, who is hugely popular and yet cannot get his Lieutenant of Inishmaan played—no one will take it on.

Q. What do you think happened in the case of The Silver Tassie?  Was the Abbey wary after The Plough and the Stars?

A.  I haven’t thought about it.  There was animus between O’Casey and the Abbey on other grounds too, and in fact The Plough and the Stars had more positive than negative effects on the Abbey’s future.

Q. In connection with the Robinson text: An American agent in Ireland during the second world war, who has written a book, was there for the purpose of vetting pro-German sympathies in Ireland.  It might be interesting to take a look at this.

A. I would love to get my hands on it.  The Robinson text itself is not in print.  There is a wonderful study by Donald O’Driscoll of censorship in Ireland, 1939-1945.

Q. Do you think there was a competition of sorts between the protests in the US and in Ireland?

A. Yes.  When Playboy came to Philadelphia and there were riots they were seen as anachronistic—Ireland had already moved on from that moment.

Q. The G. Nolan S.J. who signed McQuaid’s letter.  Is he the same S.J. who collaborated on writing the Irish Constitution?  That would be an example of the various levels of censorship blurring on one issue, as it breaks down the Church/State divide.

A. I don’t know whether it is the same person.

Q. Is there much censorship today?  Did, say, the film about the Magdalene Sisters encounter problems?

A. Every culture and time has its own form of censorship.  Of course it is different now, but there remain all sorts of quirks and anomalies—on the British stage today female nudity is allowed only if the actress does not move!