The Irish love a good scrap. Whether it’s a knockdown brawl on a country street or a genteel skirmish over the artistic direction of our national theater, we will watch, riveted, as implacable foes fight for dominance.
A flair for conflict, which is at the root of drama, seems to be in our DNA. No one knows this better than the director of the Abbey Theatre, where backstage theatrics have often threatened to overshadow the actors onstage. Although the power struggles at the Abbey have rarely involved bare knuckle fighting, there’s no question that from its earliest days Ireland’s national theater has had the power to move Irish people deeply, for good and ill.
It turns out that was the founders’ dream for the place, too. “W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory both spoke about bringing onto the Abbey stage the deeper emotions of Ireland,” Abbey Director Fiach Mac Conghail tells the Irish Voice. “That rings true to today.”
It certainly does. The Abbey will celebrate its 110th anniversary on December 27 and – unusually for a theater – it will do so in the black after a round of cost cutting and canny programming. The Abbey recorded a profit last year of over $894,423, a staggering sum in a country facing the fourth year of the government’s austerity plan.
This year’s financial boost was due to much better than anticipated box office receipts of successful productions that included the sell-out Mark O’Rowe hit Our Few and Evil Days – leaving the Abbey to anticipate a record a profit for this year too.
But don’t think the venerable theater will be resting on its laurels. On the contrary, plans are already in place for the Abbey to commence a prestigious four city U.S. tour on the 100th anniversary of Easter Rising in 2016. To make that happen Mac Conghail was in the U.S. last week to secure funding.
“We’re already over here quite a lot because we have our own North American Abbey foundation,” he explains.
“This time we’re looking for support in several key cities in the U.S. to bring a major production of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars to America in 2016. Part of that effort is me meeting with Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh and also making connections in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.”
It helps that Mac Conghail is pushing an already open door.
“There’s an extraordinary interest in our culture,” he says.
It’s because Ireland’s music, poetry, literature and plays are already so well known in the U.S. In fact even the Abbey players themselves have been coming here to present productions since 1911, he explains.
Fledgling American playwright Eugene O’Neill was electrified by the passion and artistry of that 1911 Abbey tour, Mac Conghail reminds.
“The Abbey first opened my eyes to the existence of a real theater, as opposed to the unreal – and to me then – hateful theater of my father, in whose atmosphere I had been brought up,” O’Neill would write decades later.
That means Irish plays performed by the Abbey’s cast changed the life and inspired the career of America’s greatest dramatist who was himself Irish American. Ireland helped him step into himself. So the conversation between Ireland and Irish America has been a two-way thing for the Abbey since the very beginning.
“In America there’s a real brand recognition. During the very austere times in Ireland in 2007, 2008 and 2009 the only good news coming out of the country was thanks to our culture and to the fact that we are world beaters in all arts forms, in music, fiction and playwriting,” Mac Conghail says.
It’s indicative of the enduring strength of the Irish imagination, he adds.
“What the theater wants now is financial support from American sources and the support of the Irish government to bring that imagination to a wider audience.”
The Abbey will perform the O’Casey play because it’s so prescient about the state of things to come, Mac Conghail says.
“It’s extraordinary that he wrote this play 10 years after 1916 and he wrote it as a critique and an observation that the promises of the Proclamation, the promises for the program for the democratic government in 1919, had not yet been fulfilled.
“I suppose the challenge for all of us in 2016, if we are all to be honest with ourselves, is to look at the ambitions of the foundation of the state, the ambitions of the rebels and the visionaries and the poets who wrote the Proclamation and ask if they have been achieved.”
O’Casey’s play is still so relevant to today because it talks about marginalized characters. It talks about the fate of women, almost the anti-heroes of major events because they are the one who have an impact. That prescient is everywhere in his work Mac Conghail says.
“Juno and the Paycock was about a family who lived on the promise of borrowed money. They lived on credit. It’s a very contemporary moment and that’s how realistic it is.”
Ireland is in a moment of enormous social change right now, with some voters apparently ready to hit the reset button on the Republic and others pushing back against the mutinous mood. The Abbey is ready to give expression to them all.
“The role the Abbey Theatre – and its role since it was founded 110 years ago – is to give playwrights and artists an opportunity to make sense of the world around us,” Mac Conghail says.
“Right now we have a play by a 25-year-old Dublin playwright called Shaun Dunne called The Waste Ground Party, which speaks about the challenges facing local working class communities from the bin tax that people can’t afford. It’s about the sense of community and the loss of community.
“Our job as the national theater is to give these writers a say. They’re not my ideas. My job is to try to forefront the writer’s ideas in our productions. That’s what we will continue to do in terms of serving our founders’ mission.”
Plotting a several city tour of the U.S. in 2016 means securing support from all the cities to not only bring a classic play like The Plough and the Stars, but also the work the Abbey is doing with emerging young playwrights and actors.
“I’m emboldened by the response that Mayor Marty Walsh gave us in Boston – we’re looking forward to coming back here in 2016 – and I just came back from Toronto where there is also a huge interest in our theater,” Mac Conghail says.
Relations between the diaspora and Ireland are deeper than ever before says the Abbey director.
“I gave a lecture at Villanova University yesterday where I talked about the emotional connection that happens not in terms of ancestry – they may not have any Irish ancestry – but in terms of culture. We have found audiences here want to connect strongly with Ireland. This represents a great opportunity for Ireland, for the Irish government and for Irish cultural organizations. The Abbey Theatre wants to deepen that connection between the two nations.”
Having traveled all over the U.S. in the past six years – Mac Conghail been with the Abbey 10 years now – he has seen how deep our connections really are.
“I am never surprised now by the intensity of the interest in our theater and culture now. We should be asking ourselves how do we deepen our relationship with each other, and I think culture should be the main driver there you know?”
For more on the Abbey, visit www.abbeytheatre.ie.