Abbey Theatre

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Theatre

A poster for the opening run at the Abbey Theatre from 27 December, 1904 to 3 January, 1905.
A poster for the opening run at the Abbey Theatre from 27 December, 1904 to 3 January, 1905.

The Abbey Theatre, also known as the National Theatre of Ireland, is located in Dublin, Ireland. The Abbey first opened its doors to the public on 27 December 1904 and, despite losing its original building to a fire in 1951, it has continued to stage performances more or less continuously to the present day. The Abbey was the first state-subsidised theatre in the English-speaking world; from 1925 onwards it received an annual subsidy from the Irish Free State.

In its early years, the theatre was closely associated with the writers of the Celtic revival, many of whom were involved in its foundation and most of whom had plays staged there. The Abbey served as a nursery for many of the leading Irish playwrights and actors of the 20th century. In addition, through its extensive programme of touring abroad and its high visibility to foreign, particularly North American, audiences, it has become an important part of the Irish tourist industry.

Before the Abbey

The founding of the Abbey was the result of the coming together of three distinct forces. The first of these was the seminal Irish Literary Theatre. Founded by Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and W. B. Yeats in 1899 - with assistance by George Moore - this theatre had presented a number of plays in the Ancient Concert Rooms and the Gaiety Theatre, with some critical approval but limited public interest.

The second thread was the work of two Irish brothers, William and Frank Fay. William worked for a time in the 1890s with a touring company in Ireland, Scotland and Wales while Frank was heavily involved in amateur dramatics in Dublin. After William returned, the brothers began to stage productions in halls around the city. Finally, they formed W. G. Fay's Irish National Dramatic Company, focused on the development of Irish acting talent. In April, 1902, the Fays gave three performances of Æ's play Deirdre and Yeats' Cathleen Ní Houlihan in a hall in St Theresa's Hall, Clarendon Street in Dublin. The performances played to a mainly working-class audience, rather than the usual middle-class Dublin theatre-goers. The run was a great success, thanks in part to the fact that Maud Gonne played the lead in Yeats' play.

The third and final element was the presence in Dublin of Annie Elizabeth Fredericka Horniman. Horniman was a middle-class Englishwoman with some previous experience of theatre production, having been involved in the presentation of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man in London in 1894. She came to Dublin in 1903 as Yeats' unpaid secretary and to make costumes for a production of his play The King's Threshold. It was her money that was to make the Abbey Theatre a viable reality.

Foundation of the Abbey

A 1907 engraving of W. B. Yeats, one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre.
A 1907 engraving of W. B. Yeats, one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre.

In the light of the success of the St Theresa's Hall venture, the Irish National Theatre Society was formed in 1903 by Yeats as president, Lady Gregory, Æ, Martyn, and John Millington Synge. Funding was provided by Annie Horniman. At first, performances were staged in the Molesworth Hall. When the Hibernian Theatre of Varieties in Lower Abbey Street and an adjacent building in Marlborough Street became available after the local fire safety authorities closed the Hibernia on fire safety grounds, Horniman and William Fay agreed their purchase and refitting to meet the needs of the society. On 11 May 1904 the society formally accepted Horniman's offer of the use of the building. As Horniman was not normally resident in Ireland, the Royal Letters Patent required were paid for by her but granted in the name of Lady Gregory. William Fay was appointed theatre manager and took on responsibility for training the actors in the newly established repertory company. Yeats' brother Jack Yeats was commissioned to paint portraits of all the leading figures in the society for the foyer and Sarah Purser designed some stained glass for the same space.

On 27 December, the curtains went up on the opening night. The bill consisted of three one-act plays, On Baile's Strand and Cathleen Ní Houlihan by Yeats, and Spreading the News by Lady Gregory. On the second night, In the Shadow of the Glen by Synge replaced the second Yeats play and these two bills alternated over a five-night run. Frank Fay, playing Cúchulainn in On Baile's Strand, was the first actor on the Abbey stage. Although Horniman had designed costumes, neither she nor Lady Gregory was present. Horniman had, in fact, returned to England and her main role with the Abbey over the coming years, in addition to providing funding, was to organise publicity and bookings for touring Abbey productions in London and provincial English venues. In 1905, Yeats, Lady Gregory and Synge decided to turn the theatre into a Limited Liability Company without properly consulting Horniman. Annoyed by this treatment, she hired Ben Iden Payne, a former Abbey employee, to help run her new repertory company in Manchester.

The early years

The new theatre found itself a great popular success, with large crowds turning out for most productions. It was also fortunate in having, in Synge, one of the foremost English-language dramatists of the day as a key member. The theatre also staged plays by eminent or soon to be eminent authors including Yeats, Lady Gregory, Moore, Martyn, Padraic Colum, Oliver St John Gogarty, F. R. Higgins, Thomas MacDonagh, (one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916), T. C. Murray and Lennox Robinson. Many of these authors also served on the board, with the result that the Abbey gained an enduring reputation as a writers' theatre.

However, things were to take a turn for the worst in January 1907 with the opening of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. Egged on by nationalists who believed that the theatre was not sufficiently political and with the pretext of a perceived slight on the virtue of Irish womanhood in the use of the word 'shift', a significant portion of the crowd rioted, causing the remainder of the play to be acted out in dumbshow. Nationalist ire was further provoked by the decision to call in the police. Although press opinion soon turned against the rioters and the protests (now known as the Playboy Riots) petered out, the Abbey was shaken and Synge's next (and last completed) play The Tinker's Wedding (1908) was not staged for fear of further disturbances.

That same year, the Fay brothers' association with the theatre ended when they emigrated to the United States and the day-to-day management of the theatre became the responsibility of Lennox Robinson. On 7 May 1910, when all the other theatres in the city closed as a mark of respect on the death of King Edward VII, Robinson kept the Abbey open. The relationship with Annie Horniman was already strained, and when she found out about Robinson's decision, she decided to finally sever her connection with the Abbey. By her own estimate, she had spent £10,350 (worth roughly $1 million in 2004 US currency) of her own money on the project, a considerable sum for the time.

With the loss of Horniman, Synge and the Fays, the Abbey under Robinson tended somewhat to drift along and suffered from falling public interest and box office returns. This trend was halted for a time by the emergence of Sean O'Casey as an heir to Synge. O'Casey's career as a dramatist began with The Shadow of a Gunman, staged by the Abbey in 1923. This was followed by Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926). This last play resulted in riots reminiscent of those that had greeted the Playboy nineteen years earlier. Once again, scared off by the public reaction, the Abbey rejected O'Casey's next play and he emigrated shortly thereafter.

The Abbey after Yeats

Ninette de Valois at age 16. She ran the Abbey School of Dance and provided choreography for a number of Yeats' plays.
Ninette de Valois at age 16. She ran the Abbey School of Dance and provided choreography for a number of Yeats' plays.

In 1924, Yeats and Lady Gregory offered the Abbey to the government of the Free State as a gift to the Irish people. Despite some reluctance on the part of the Department of Finance, the offer was accepted, partly at least because of the theatre's commitment to producing works in Irish. As a consequence, in 1925 the Abbey became the first theatre company in the English-speaking world to be state-maintained. The following year, the Abbey School of Acting and the Abbey School of Ballet were set up. The latter, which closed in 1933, was run by Ninette de Valois, who also provided choreography for a number of Yeats' plays.

Around this time, some additional space was acquired and a small experimental theatre, the Peacock, was started downstairs from the main theatre. In 1928 Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammoir set up the Gate Theatre, initially using the Peacock to stage important works by European and American dramatists. The Gate sought work by new Irish playwrights and the story of how one such play came into their hands illustrated the fact that the Abbey had now entered a period of artistic decline. When Denis Johnston submitted his first play Shadowdance to the Abbey, it was rejected by Lady Gregory and returned to the author with “The Old Lady says No” written on the title page. Johnson decided to rename the play, and The Old Lady Says 'No' was staged by the Gate in the Peacock in 1928.

The tradition of the Abbey as a writer's theatre survived Yeats' withdrawal from day-to-day involvement. For example, Frank O'Connor sat on the board from 1935 to 1939, serving as Managing Director from 1937, and had two plays staged during this period. Unfortunately, he was forced to resign after Yeats died. During the 1940s and 1950s, the staple fare of the Abbey stage was comic farce set in an idealised peasant world, which, if it ever had existed, no longer had much relevance for the lives of the majority of Irish citizens. As a result, the decline in audience numbers continued. This decline might well have been more dramatic but for a number of popular actors, including F. J. McCormick, and dramatists, including George Shiels, who could still draw a crowd. Another Abbey tenant was Austin Clarke's Dublin Verse Speaking Society, later the Lyric Theatre, which operated out of the Peacock from 1941 to 1944 and the Abbey from 1944 to 1951.

On 18 July 1951, the building was destroyed by fire, with only the Peacock surviving. The company took a lease on the old Queen's Theatre in September and continued in residence in this temporary home until 1966. The Queen's had been home to the Happy Gang, a team of comedians who staged skits, farces and pantomimes to huge audiences. In some respect, with its continued diet of peasant comedies, the new tenants were not far removed from the old. It is indicative of the state of the Abbey's ambitions at the time that neither of the two most interesting Irish dramatists to emerge in the 1950s, Brendan Behan and Samuel Beckett, featured there. In February 1961 the ruins of the Abbey were finally demolished and plans for rebuilding, with a design by Irish architect Michael Scott, began. On 3 September 1963, the President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera, laid the foundation stone for the new theatre. The Abbey reopened on 18 July 1966.

The Abbey since 1966

The conjunction of a new building, a new generation of dramatists that included such figures as Hugh Leonard, Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, and the growth in Irish tourism with the National Theatre as a key cultural attraction helped to bring about a revival in the theatre's fortunes. This was further assisted by the theatre's continuing involvement in the Dublin Theatre Festival, which began in 1957.

Plays such as Friel's Philadelphia Here I Come (1964), The Faith Healer (1979) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), Murphy's Whistle in the Dark (1961) and The Gigli Concert (1983) and Leonard's Da (1973) and A Life (1980) helped raise the Abbey's international profile through their successful runs in London and on Broadway. However, despite these and other successes, the Abbey has continued to play to less-than-full houses, averaging less than half capacity in the centenary year, 2004.

The conjunction of projected debts at the end of 2004 of €2.5 million together with reduced state funding, a recovery plan involving the loss of one third of the jobs at the theatre, and some bad feeling from the earlier winding down of the repertory company led to calls for the dismissal of artistic director Ben Barnes. On 6 September, Mr Barnes survived a vote of the board but his survival plan was shelved. The controversy rumbled on with the publication a few days later of the text of an e-mail he sent to some international colleagues in which he was highly critical of his employers. He later apologised to the board. On 14 September, the Arts Council of Ireland announced the setting up of an independent review into ways in which it could support the theatre through this crisis. A further complication facing the Abbey in its centenary year is the fact that, with the current theatre flagged as a potential safety hazard, a long-running search for a site for a new building continues with no immediate end in sight. In December 2004, the theatre celebrated its centenary with a range of events, including performances of the original programme by amateur dramatic groups from around the country.

On May 12, 2005 Barnes and Managing Director Brian Jackson resigned after it was discovered that a serious error in the company's financial reporting had resulted in a serious underestimation of the theatre's deficit of €1.85 million.

On 20 August 2005, the Abbey Theatre Advisory Council approved a plan which will see the Abbey's owners, the National Theatre Society, being dissolved and replaced by a company limited by guarantee, the Abbey Theatre Limited. This was done after the Arts Council of Ireland decided to withhold any further funding from the theatre pending the resolution of its financial crisis. The new company was expected to be established in September 2005.

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