October 1, 2004


Seminar: Irish Studies, 535


Meeting Date: October 1, 2004


Chair: Mary McGlynn


Speaker: Prof. John P. Harrington

Professor in the Humanities and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.


Title of Talk: "The Abbey in America: The Real Thing."


Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons


Attendees: Peter M. Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center); Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association); Maria McGarrity (Long Island University); Thomas Ihde (Lehman College, CUNY); Martin J. Burke (Lehman College & CUNY Graduate Center); Everett Frost (New York University); Anna McMullan (Trinity College, Dublin & New York University); Mary Burke (University of Connecticut); Maurice Conroy; Ken Monteith (Fordham University); Terry Byrne (The College of New Jersey); Ed Hagan (Western Connecticut State University); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University); Barbara Young (Molloy College); Patrick McNierney (Columbia University); Frank Naughton (Kean University); Alice Naughton.


"The Abbey in America: The Real Thing"

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


Prof. Harrington opened his talk with an observation about the timeliness of his paper--in this, the hundredth year of the Abbey, the theatre returns to New York with a new production of The Playboy of the Western World. 

Just before the Abbey arrived in the U.S. in 1914, for the third time in as many years, the Evening Sun referred to a production of Tolstoy by the Neighbourhood Playhouse as being played by Russian "Irish Players," the name of the Abbey's touring company.  Even then Abbey was a distinctive style that could be applied opportunistically, and very unscientifically.  The Abbey is still recognised as an exceptional producing company offering something very unlike New York theatres.  The exceptionality is, however, lost in a haze of literary and popular culture associations, as was made clear in 2003 when the New York press consistently associated the Abbey with James Joyce.  Throughout the twentieth century there has been an emphasis in the U.S. on Abbey Authenticity, on its status as "The Real Thing," with all the complications brought to bear on that phrase by Henry James and Tom Stoppard.

            Understanding the brand that is the Abbey Theatre takes a recognition of two underlying factors.  The first is that America is green with envy over its own lack of a national theatre, and the second is that the Abbey is unique even as national theatres go, and has chosen a difficult path for itself when abroad.  Henry Arthur Jones, successful London playwright, spoke at Columbia University about national theatres on the eve of the Abbey's first visit in 1911, arguing that the duty of a national theatre was to foster a national dramatic literature by subsidising productions.  He told the Americans that they couldn't have a national theatre because they didn't have plays for it to stage.  The efforts to create a national theatre in the U.S. ranged from an attempt to form a provincial performing arts organisation, to Eva La Gallienne's Civic Repertory theatre, which aimed to perform nationally important productions from around the world.  The Abbey in 1911 offered an artistic expression of national sentiment in the form of repertory drama delivered to foreign audiences in their home, performing "works by Irish writers or on Irish subjects." The theatre was defined by a content, a repertory.  It was never received with unqualified applause--indeed the initial visit resulted in the total estrangement of the Irish nationalist audience in the U.S.  One result of the Abbey's first tours was imitation, including Whitford Kane's The Irish Players of America.  This continued throughout the 1920s, in the absence of any Abbey presence.

            When the Abbey returned in a series of tours from 1931 to 1935 it was very careful to guard its authenticity, and its 1935 programme was very clear in distinguishing the company from imitators.  What gave it its authenticity was is repertory--it had 300 plays, came with 27, and preferred to perform 12.  The audience could choose which of the plays of the 12 it wished to see.

            One of the oddest episodes in the history of the Abbey Theatre in America was the production of Tom McIntyre's The Great Hunger in 1988.  Many were expecting the great famine, or at the very least the real Abbey, and walked out in anger.  The reception was uniformly negative.  Mel Gussow of The New York Times was expecting from the Abbey both unfamiliarity and disingenuousness, but instead it offered what New York already had: innovative theatre.  As the Abbey moved outside its own repertory it, paradoxically, moved into more familiar territory.

            So it seems to bode well, Prof. Harrington observed, that the Abbey is building its centenary event around The Playboy of the Western World.  Its basis for international success has been difference: difference from the very broad spectrum of work to be found in American theatres, difference in its maintenance of a distinct repertory, and difference in enduring beyond the expectations of a nationalist audience and subsequently an art audience.  Prof. Harrington concluded by professing to be surprised at his own conclusion--that the Abbey in America has followed a narrow repertory, and that has been a good thing.




Q. Part of what you are saying is that the plays of the Abbey are traditional as well as the productions.  An innovative Playboy seems almost impossible--expectations for the play are so very narrow.

A. There is a difference between a national theatre and a theatre company in terms of how innovative they can be.  The Abbey has remained true to itself over a century, which is unusual, and for foreign audiences that is its best feature.

Q. I have seen the Abbey's new production of Playboy.  The reception of this Playboy will be very much bound up with the production of the play, as was the reception of The Great Hunger.  The set was designed by a Canadian designer.

A. I have seen pictures of it, and it certainly looks unusual--it is not the typical cottage scene.  However, the reception in 2004 may very well be different from the reception in 1988.

Q. Good ideas are not always good--this is an innovative production, and is not a bad idea.  It is a much less textual production than others.  However, it is a problematic production, neither a success nor a failure.

Q. The Abbey seems to be very much associated with the playwright, and not just the play.  For this reason there was a ruckus over the decision to bring The Great Hunger to Russia.

A. Fintan O'Toole predicted recently that the Irish play would become less textual, but a year later he wrote that he had been wrong to make that prediction.

Q. Theatre in Ireland seems to be keyed up not only over the question of a what a national theatre is or should be, but also over what its repertoire should be.

Q. What has been the rationale for choosing different plays for different places?  Why, for example, was The Gigli Concert chosen for the Australian tour?

A. I don't know the inside decision on that.

Q. New York is going to see the Playboy--the decision seems to be based on what the audience wants.

A. Yes, it could be that the U.S. audience is being patronised, or it could be that the Abbey is worried about bringing to New York what it already has--innovative plays and innovative productions.

Q. If the Abbey was or is to be considered the national theatre the construction of the nation seems to be very conservative.  Doesn't that seem sort of creepy?

A. It has been well defined, but I don't know that well defined naturally leads to it being conservative.  There are merits to exploring within boundaries rather than outside them.  I have been consumed recently by New York's Neighbourhood Playhouse, which wanted to prove that social activism was not separate from high art.  The theatre had mishaps, but only when it stepped outside the boundaries.

Q. When I went to see the Abbey's production of The Great Hunger in 1988 I went with a group of students.  The play was performed in a cavernous, half-empty space.  My students were very happy to know that they were getting what the Abbey does at home, not something cooked up for a New York audience.  The audience wanted to see the Abbey actually doing what they would at home.  I thought that play fulfilled a mission.

A. Your memory is different from mine.  I was with my parents, you were with your students--these are quite different constituencies.  The reviews were striking in their agreement--they were negative.

Q. All of these questions seem to be bound up with the question of what Ireland signfies, and with change in its identity.

A. I would agree, and perhaps as Ireland changes the repertoires should too.

Q. Is there a move in national theatres now for more definition of their role and the nation?

A. That was certainly true in the nineteenth century, but I don't see any energy behind that idea now.  Indeed, a national anything seems to be very much out of fashion now.  The Irish Museum of Modern Art is involved in a struggle right now also to define its role, but it is not being thought of in terms of the nation.  These are dark days for nationalism, not just for national theatres.

Q. I was in Dublin this summer, and there was a general critique of the summer offerings of the Abbey--many feel that the summer schedule consists only of plays that will attract tourists.  This seems to be the same issue as the issue of the Abbey on tour in the U.S.Ñis it simply that pragmatism determines the schedule?

A. I think there is a different between the summer trade at home and what you would put on abroad.  I would need to think about that question some more, though.  This type of play is not confined to the summer, though--the Druid Theatre Company put on a production of the Playboy in February this year.  The Abbey is very much criticised for its summer plays.  Thanks to the Abbey's traditional offerings, however, other theatres, such as the Gate, get a chance to be more adventurous.

Q. I have lived in Dublin in recent years, and I was among the youngest at the theatre.  I am wondering what is in store for Irish drama.

A. I think the Abbey is wondering too!  It is a big issue in New York City too, with the Metropolitan Opera and other cultural institutions.  It is not just the play that brings in the audience--it is how people remember the Abbey.  I wonder how much would change if the Abbey's building were to be demolished and a new Abbey theatre built.