Many of Ireland's most preeminent poets and playwrights of the last century hailed from the North, so an opportunity to reflect on how and why that happened should not be missed.
This month the 1st Irish Theatre Festival will present Ulster at Play by playwright and producer Turlough McConnell, part of an all-day symposium called Transformation Through Creativity which will celebrate how creativity and the arts are completely transforming the once war-torn province.
McConnell's presentation at the American Irish Historical Society on Saturday, January 27, will give an overview of the theater in Ulster, highlighting some of the best theaters and theater companies down through the centuries from the small town halls to the elaborate urban performance houses.
Ulster at Play will also tell the story of why theaters and playwrights remain such a significant cultural force in the North's cities and towns, and how they help reflect and shape the larger island of Ireland’s national identity.
“Northern Ireland was born of division and each moment since has been a restless struggle towards harmony,” McConnell tells the Irish Voice. “Nowhere is this more evident than in the theater.”
In his presentation McConnell, with the help of a talented cast of actors, will stage work that previous generations of playwrights and players have left behind to paint a portrait of Ulster's evolving transformation, focusing on the unexpected turning points that brought audiences together.
“It's a really big topic,” McConnell adds. “Music and drama in Derry alone, from the 17th century onward, deserves its a night in its own right. It tracks right the way through to the building of the Guildhall in the city center, perhaps its most famous performance space. The musical theater was always non-sectarian in Ulster's history.”
Interestingly, Ireland was less puritan about drama than England for many decades McConnell contends. That meant the stage could address themes that were considered forbidden across the water.
“There was much more ribaldry, so I'm calling this piece Ulster at Play. I want to give people the sense that we have a real theatrical history. Brian Friel and Frank McGuinness did not arrive out of a vacuum.”
Ulster at Play is a free event and sure to be a highlight of the 1st Irish as part of Transformation Through Creativity directed by George Heslin and presented by Irish Screen America and the American Irish Historical Society.
McConnell will also present Dear Mr. Beckett at the 1st Irish, his adaptation of Barney Rosset letters that reflect on the lifelong friendship between Beckett and his New York-based publisher, who ran the Grove Press publishing house in the city.
“Grove were the first here to publish D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Beckett's plays,” McConnell explains.
“In Paris Rosset met with Sylvia Beach, James Joyce's publisher, and she had suggested he read Beckett. Rosset fell in love with the work and the pair became fast friends, so much so that the very last play that Beckett wrote called Fragments was written as a gift to Barney.”
The book is like a scrapbook of letters between Rosset and Beckett. “I realized when I first read it that it was a theater piece. Who doesn't want to know more about Beckett?” McConnell asks.
Slated to appear at the performance, which will occur at the Irish Consulate, are celebrated Irish actors Billy Carter and Olwen Fouere.
“Dear Mr. Beckett will pay homage to two extraordinary men of letters and the relationship between them,” McConnell says. “Barney Rosset definitively changed the world of publishing from New York, and Samuel Beckett revolutionized the theater and the broader literary landscape from his home in Paris.”
Attendees will meet both men in this dramatized account of their literary friendship spanning a lifetime in this play in process by acclaimed publisher Glenn Young and McConnell.
Dear Mr. Beckett will be staged on Monday, January 29 at 1 p.m. at the Irish Consulate, 345 Park Avenue, 17th floor, directed by Heslin. Performance goers are asked to being ID for admittance to the building.
McConnell will present his play The Wars of Dagger John at the Sheen Center in Manhattan later this year.