ISTR Conference 2007 – Book of Abstracts

Inaugural Symposium

Drama and Film Centre, Queen’s University Belfast | 13 – 14 April 2007

In 2007 Drama Studies at Queen’s hosted the Inaugural Symposium of the Irish Society for Theatre Research (ISTR). Professor Janelle Reinelt gave the plenary lecture, and scholars and practitioners from across the island of Ireland and around the world came to discuss the broad spectrum of theatre from page to stage.

ISTR 2007 | Full Schedule



Paul Murphy, Lecturer in Drama, Queen’s University Belfast:

‘George Shiels’s The Rugged Path and the Persistence of Class Conflict in Post-Partition Ireland’

With the ratification of the Republic in 1949 the dialectic between Irish and Anglo-Irish Ireland completed its revolution: the Irish Ireland contingent led by the Catholic bourgeois élite consolidated its hegemony and through a process of dialectical mediation had become its antithesis. One of the bitter ironies of Irish history is that the social praxis of Irish Ireland as Catholic bourgeois nationalism replicated the class hierarchies of colonial Ireland under the Ascendancy, and so, in a sense, the Catholic bourgeois élite became the very thing it despised and railed against in terms of the maintenance and consolidation of class hierarchies. When Hugh Dolis in George Shiels’s play The Rugged Path refers in disgust and disillusionment to Sean Tansey and what Frantz Fanon would call ‘the national middle class which takes over power at the end of the colonial regime,’ he speaks for generations of the disenfranchised and disaffected: ‘That Sean fella’s stinking with pride and importance. Riding about on horseback, looking at his sheep and cattle, like a lord of the soil. I wonder why in hell we wiped out the old landlords to make room for a new gentry!’ The form of oppression may have changed significantly from colonial expropriation to a more overtly class based exploitation, but the brute facts of that exploitation nonetheless remained. This paper examines the persistence of class conflict in in post-partition Ireland by engaging with the dialectic between the bourgeois Tansey family and the lumpenproletarian Dolis family in Sheils’s magnum opus The Rugged Path (1940).


Paul Devlin, Lecturer in Drama, University of Ulster:

‘Theatre on Thin Ice: Joe Tomelty’s April in Assagh at the Ulster Group Theatre’

Theatrically speaking, in the north especially, size does matter. In the mid twentieth century in a city with a population of Belfast’s size an alienated audience would have been difficult, if not impossible, to replace. At the Ulster Group Theatre tensions between the necessity of adopting a ‘popular’ inclination in their work while concurrently allowing that work to interrogate the everyday practices and lives of the community it served productively animated the activities of the north’s first fully professional theatre company throughout its twenty year existence. Instinctively, the Ulster Group Theatre aimed to operate within the relative socio-cultural and political conservatism of the era. Equally, however, the Group’s output also illustrates the presence of a progressive radicalism within the organisation. Through an exploration of Joe Tomelty’s April in Assagh this paper will address the contradictions implicit in the production and reception of Tomelty’s apparently theatrically inefficacious comedy. It will argue that far from dismissing the work of the Group Theatre as having been produced and received in such extremely conservative contexts so as to render them of little to no importance, analysis should respond by attempting to understand the interactions of those pleasures being derived and their relations with attendant ideological formations. By reconsidering the agency of pleasure and displeasure in this free-flowing satirical farce, the paper will attempt to open a theoretical route to an understanding of the social forces at play in the acceptance or rejection of popular theatre of this type.


Mark Phelan, Lecturer in Drama, Queen’s University Belfast:

‘The Necessity of “De-Hyderating” the Revival’: Thompson in Tir-na-n-Og’

Seamus Deane and John Wilson Foster both criticize the contemporary condition of Irish criticism which they claim is delimited (and vitiated) by the ever-decreasing parameters of identitarian politics. Both men call for ‘Irishness’ to be demystified; for Irish criticism to be dehisced of essentialist assumptions and orthodoxies. It is a measure of the imaginative vision and political prescience of the Ulster Literary Theatre (ULT) that Deane and Foster’s intellectual rejoinder was answered nearly a century earlier by Gerald MacNamara in his extraordinary plays which though enormously popular, were rarely published and have remained ‘beyond the pale’ of Irish theatre criticism for nearly a century. This paper will examine MacNamara’s satirical extravaganza Thompson in Tir-na-n-Og (1912) in which redoubtable Orangeman, Andy Thompson, expires en route to the Battle of Scarva and arrives in the mythical Celtic heaven to the consternation of its heroic inhabitants. Commissioned by the Gaelic League who wanted to use the play as propaganda, Thompson’s scathing satire of the central precepts and practices of the Revival movement and its attack on the League’s essentialist insistence on Gaelic-speaking as a pre-requisite for nationality in line with Douglas Hyde’s seminal lecture on ‘The Necessity of De- Anglicizing Ireland’ ensured that the League rejected the play. It was instead performed by the ULT when Belfast was on the brink of civil war with the advent of the third Home Rule crisis. ‘Written in the high-style of the Abbey plays’ Thompson is an unprecedented Counter- Revivalist critique of identity politics and challenges the essentialist tenets of Irish nationalism and Orange loyalism whilst parodying the dramaturgical strategies of the Abbey Theatre. Moreover, the play’s ‘comic’ conclusion whereby Thompson is put to death in ‘this peaceful land’ is a chilling reminder of the oppressive forces of political conformity and the violence underpinning absolutist, essentialist ideologies. As such, Thompson in Tir-na-n-Og provides as astute a critique of the inherent violence of nationalism as Synge’s Playboy of the Western World for both offer salutary warnings as to the savage reality behind romantic speechifying. As Thompson is burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames could be glimpsed further fratricidal conflicts: the civil war; the carnage of WW1 and the spectre of Partition as two mutually exclusivist identities and ideologies could neither communicate nor co-habit with one another.


Eva Urban, IRCHSS Government of Ireland Scholar, University College Dublin:

‘The Politics of the Peace Process and Theatrical Imagination: Dave Duggan and Sole Purpose Productions ‘

 Beyond the political process, the peace process in Northern Ireland is a process of negotiation between transcultural identities. There is a tradition of dramatists and drama practitioners imaginatively engaging with the conflict, and exploring the possibility of an integrative community. Dave Duggan and Sole Purpose Productions consciously work with the ‘application of the theatrical imagination to the politics of the peace process’ in the tradition of the utopian space created in the drama of writers such as Stewart Parker and Anne Devlin. However, while the latter limit the dramaturgical options employed in their plays to merely transcending realism, and eschew didactic methods, Duggan’s plays reject realism for a more Brechtian and expressionist theatre. Sole Purpose Productions play an active part in the ongoing peace process, using theatre to help people to reflect on their lives and make changes. Dave Duggan’s play The Shopper and the Boy is written in the spirit of a desire to dramatise an understanding of opposing points of view in the Northern Irish context in the form of epic theatre, delivering his message in an efficient and compressed way. In his play AH6905 Dave Duggan develops an innovative stage metaphor to express his hope that “the people of Northern Ireland themselves will take centre stage on the matter and the manner of truth recovery over the coming years”.


Ellen Burns, Doctoral Candidate, Queen’s University Belfast:

‘Developing an International Theatre Laboratory in Belfast’

My field of interest can broadly be referred to as applied theatre: theatre that seeks to intervene and/or make a specific impact on a given situation. My research involves practically producing and taking part in such theatre, then analysing and documenting its effectiveness. My research so far has been largely based with projects involving Ballynafeigh Community Development Association, who in partnership with Partisan Productions, are in the process of developing an International Theatre Laboratory in Belfast, of which I am on the working group. Much of the work involves local community groups with a view to extending relations and practice internationally. I wish to analyse and understand both the short and long term effects of such theatre on the community and the individuals involved. I am also interested and actively researching the nature of academic discourse in this field, and wish to delve deeply into how such events can be recorded and documented in perhaps unorthodox, but understandable, innovative methods.


Anthony Bradley, Professor of English, University of Vermont:

‘Nation, Pedagogy and Performance: W.B. Yeats’s The King’s Threshold’

What interests me in the context of theater and nation is how a costume drama in verse such as W. B. Yeats’s The King’s Threshold (1903), a play which suffers from an obvious deficiency in dramatic action, and is so clearly driven by Irish nationalist discourse, should have had such momentous performances in the years that followed.   The performances I refer to are not in the theater, but in Irish society. This connection between the theater and society is not one of cause and effect (though Yeats liked to think Cathleen Ni Houlihan had inspired the revolutionaries of 1916). Historical events as they are, these performances are marked as repetitive theatrical performances of nationalism that recall Yeats’s play and occupy the same field of discourse. I am thinking of MacSwiney’s hunger strike as well as the Sinn Fein policy that resulted in numerous hunger strikes from 1917-1920, and of course the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland of 1981. The terms “pedagogical” and “performative” as used by Homi Bhabha in   “DissemiNation”offer a way of theorizing the connection between the nationalist discourse of the play and the rehearsal of that discourse in society without invoking causality. I would look at Yeats’s paradigmatic play in the light of Bhabha’s theory of nationalist discourse, and see how helpful his formulation is in the context of the Irish theater. I suspect that what remains problematic with Bhabha’s theory and those of other theorists is a discounting of nationalism as though it were a metaphysical error.


Ian Walsh, Doctoral Candidate, University College Dublin:

‘The Neglected Drama of the Third Space: Decolonisation and Maurice Meldon’s Purple  Path to the Poppy Field’

The aim of my research paper is to challenge the received and unquestioned knowledge regarding the Irish theatrical output of the 1950s as a period of conservative drama committed to the notion of a consensual Irish identity as sanctioned by the state. By reintroducing the innovative and dissenting voice of the playwright Maurice Meldon, I argue that his play, Purple Path to the Poppy Field (1953) in its disruption of the realist form exposes the performative nature of the decolonizing process in Ireland and in so doing creates an enabling hybrid “Third Space” (as defined in the writings of Homi Bhabha), that eludes the politics of polarity. This ‘Third Space’ manifests itself through Meldon’s use of dramatic strategies such as the use of a floating stage space, the refiguring of myth, the disruption of linear time and the splitting of subjectivity. As a fantastical cautionary tale against essentialist ideology and in its evocation of a more inclusive hybridised future this forgotten play is as relevant to a multicultural contemporary Ireland as it ever was in its own time period and deserves ultimately to be, not only, re-read but re-performed.


Tania Scott, Doctoral Candidate, University of Glasgow:

‘Lord Dunsany’s Interrogation of Nationalist and Masculinist Stereotypes in The Glittering Gate and King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior’

 ‘The more immediate the effect of a dramatist upon his generation, the more closely will he be identified with its passing day, and the more likely he is to drift away with its dust.’(Lord Dunsany, The Donellan Lectures) Lord Dunsany’s opinions on the political drama were shaped by his involvement with the Irish Revival and the Abbey Theatre. As a unionist he was politically opposed to the national emphasis behind the theatre. Yet his plays form an important, though critically neglected, counterpoint to the canonical writers of this period. In 1910, the ninth of July issue of the Sinn Fein magazine published a satirical play primarily criticising the anti-nationalist sentiment of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. The satire concludes with a pastiche of Lord Dunsany’s play The Glittering Gate. My paper will examine how this skit places Dunsany’s plays firmly in the debate about a National(ist) Theatre. Through close analysis of both The Glittering Gate and King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior, I will show that Dunsany’s plays, though fantastic, reflect the same themes and concerns as his contemporaries. In King Argimenes in particular Dunsany challenges the notion of strong, masculine heroism in a manner that is every bit as damaging to nationalist stereotypes as the Playboy of the Western World.


David Grant, Orna Akad and Dave Duggan:

‘Multi-Lingual Performance: a Case Study of Work in Progress’

In October 2006, David Grant (a theatre director and lecturer in drama at Queen’s University, Belfast), Orna Akad (a writer and director from Tel Aviv) and Dave Duggan (a writer and director from ’Derry) conducted an image-theatre workshop with Arab and Jewish actors at Al Midan Theatre in Haifa, an Arab-language theatre. Images arising from the workshop, were then presented as part of a conference on ‘Theatre & Conflict’ at the Acco Festival. Grant, Akad and Duggan have subsequently been developing a practice-led research project which will use texts in four verbal languages – Arabic English, Hebrew and Irish – in a strongly image-based theatrical context to create a short performance on the theme of state violence against the citizen. In this panel David Grant, Orna Akad and Dave Duggan will present an account of the current status of the project from their different perspectives. The panel will also feature a short image-based performance by drama students at Queen’s University based on working texts by Akad and Duggan written for the project.


Aine Sheil, IRCHSS Government of Ireland Scholar, Trinity College Dublin:

‘Opera in Ireland: a Case of Cultural Dissonance?’

In mainland Europe, opera has long been associated with hegemonic cultural practice, and as an art form it has enjoyed unrivalled support through patronage and state subsidy. Here in Ireland opera has also been associated with privilege, but that association has worked against it, preventing its acceptance within dominant conceptions of Irish culture. This paper examines the reasons why Irish opera history has unfolded against the European grain, drawing attention in particular to the art form’s lack of contribution to the formation of an Irish national identity. The absence of an opera canon dealing with Irish themes and the studied avoidance by opera composers and librettists of overtly political drama are factors that can help to explain opera’s peripherality both north and south of the border. In addition to considering opera in the light of national identity, this paper examines the practicalities of funding and the role that official arts policy has played in the marginalization of opera within Irish culture. It argues that opera must present itself as theatre in order to be embraced fully by Irish society, and explores instances in which this has already happened. Suggestions for pursuing this paradigm shift conclude the paper, and these illustrate the open and potentially positive position in which Irish opera currently finds itself.


Maire Kelly, Doctoral Candidate, University College Dublin:

‘Sheep’s Milk on the Boil: Theatre as Consciousness in Action’

In Tom Mac Intyre’s 1994 play, Sheep’s Milk on the Boil, the staging of consciousness in action facilitates a gateway to the unconscious mind through text, symbol, gesture,movement and the stage setting itself. In this paper I will argue that this dramatic work challenges ideas of the Cartesian mind and discuss ways in which it reflects more recent theories on the understanding of mind and consciousness, in particular the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. As a writer born in the 1930s, Mac Intyre is responding to his own thoughts and experiences and attempting to rework the theatre of the past to give shape to these thoughts and experiences. His theatre places an emphasis on the stage image and gesture and demands an approach that goes beyond, but by no means excludes, the critical analysis of text. For this reason, Mac Intyre has been to some extent overlooked in Irish theatre criticism leaving several pertinent questions about his work unanswered. The objective of this paper, therefore, is to investigate ways in which theatre acts as a means of understanding the mind and consciousness, the findings of which will facilitate further explorations of this particular play and, indeed, Mac Intyre’s canon of work in the context of Irish theatre.


Iris Park, Doctoral Candidate, University College Dublin:

‘Playwrights Speak In Tongues’

What type of relationships are we building up between theatre practitioners? Are we all in competition or striving to create the best possible result? An article in The Sunday Times reports that the playwright Harold Pinter ‘says he has been misunderstood: his pauses are nothing more than suggestions, which directors should feel free to ignore.’ In the same article the director Sir Peter Hall comments ‘A pause in Pinter is as important as a line. They are all there for a reason. Three dots is a hesitation, a pause is a fairly mundane crisis and a silence is some sort of crisis.’ If only playwrights would write clearly, be precise and say exactly what they mean. After all, plays are written to be performed; the playwright surely does not write a play as if it were a novel, it is written to be seen/performed. It seems likely then that the playwright has a vision, an image of how the play should be presented. Why not share that image with the director? Then the director can just go ahead and do his job without having to second guess the playwright by adding his interpretation to the play, which sometimes results in conflict or misunderstandings. The result of this conflict is that directors turn away from new playwrights, whilst playwrights become suspicious of directors intentions. Are we really putting in the groundwork for the classics of tomorrow?


Brian Singleton, Professor of Drama, Trinity College Dublin:

‘Contemporary Irish Theatre and Monologies of Masculinities’

Focusing on a range of examples from contemporary Irish theatre this paper will focus on how monologies construct various non-hegemonic, abberant and toxic masculinities narratively and imaginatively. On the other hand, the theatrical form provides audiences with an embodiment of masculinity that enables a fetishization of the solo male as virtuoso performer. Weaving between narratival construction and physical embodiment the paper will chart the conflicted identities of the Irish male on stage.


Melissa Sihra, Lecturer in Drama, Trinity College Dublin:

Ud’s so horrible ud has to be true’: On Raftery’s Hill and the Possibilities of a Feminist Mimesis’

In On Raftery’s Hill (2000), Marina Carr moves away from conceptual and lyrical spaces of poetry, fantasy and myth to depict a brutal world of familial conflict which is rooted in a more naturalistic dramaturgy. This paper will look at how Carr’s visceral representation of sexual abuse is concerned with the painful politics of geopathology, location and selfhood. The paper will also consider the ways in which a renegotiation of mimesis from a feminist perspective can usefully emphasise the truth value of a work of art through highlighting the ways in which its mode of representation is a powerful act of subjective discourse which is both indeterminate or representative and coherent and identifiable.


Matthew Causey, Senior Lecturer in Drama, Trinity College Dublin:

‘No Logo, No Identitarian Logic: The Bio-politics of Performing Irish-ness’

Several recent and unsettling performances of Irishness demonstrate the violence, aesthetic re-interpretations, and laws being promoted to define, restrict, and control Irish identity. My argument triangulates three events: 1) the ‘Love Ulster’ march and subsequent riots that took place in Dublin (2006) which included attacks on immigrant workers; 2) the centenary of Samuel Beckett’s birth (2006) and the manner in which scholars and the Irish Government through its Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism attempted to reaffirm or reclaim the author for Ireland as Irish; and 3) the 2004 amending of the Irish constitution to restrict citizenship to those who have a least one parent who has been lawfully resident in the State for three of the last four years. Each of these events suggest an uneasy relation of elements of contemporary Ireland to new models of Irish identity and represent unique strategies for closing ranks and controlling Irishness. The struggle exists at the level of personal and cultural identity, but spreads out to economic concerns of cultural tourism, which markets an authentic branding of Irishness. The most illustrative of my examples is the constitutional amendment (approved by 80% of the voters) and its criteria for Irish citizenship, which represents a switch from a territorial politics of geography (of place) to bio-politics (of body). The legislated criteria for Irish citizenship represents a switch from a territorial politics of geography (of place) to a bio-politics (of body). In effect, what all these performances and legislation suggest is that citizenship and identity cannot be performed but can only be transferred, bestowed, inherited, i.e. controlled.


Bernth Lindfors, Professor Emeritus of English and African Literatures, University of Texas at Austin, Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Queen Mary, University of London:

‘Ira Aldridge in Ireland’

Ira Aldridge, a black actor from New York City, performed in Britain from 1825 to 1865, an era that saw the abolition of slavery not only in British territories but also in the United States. Since he was a highly visible black in a white world when the nature of the relationship between whites and blacks was being redefined, his career might be expected to yield insights into the big racial issues of his day. His years in the British Isles are especially interesting because the response to him was mixed. Some found his acting remarkably accomplished. Others reacted to with undisguised hostility to the very notion of a black man playing black and white roles, particularly Shakespearean characters, on a British stage. His reception in Ireland tends to differ from that he experienced in other parts of the British Isles. Why this was so will be the subject of this paper.


Patrick Lonergan, Lecturer in English, National University of Ireland, Galway:

‘”We have raped the world”: Violence, Globalization and Aesthetics in Elizabeth Kuti’s The Sugar Wife’

Elizabeth Kuti’s The Sugar Wife is a work of historical drama, focussing on a nineteenth- century Quaker family who host a visit to Dublin by an escaped African-American slave. Kuti uses this historical setting to consider the way that power continues to be distributed in terms of gender, nationality, ethnicity, social class, and religion. Central to this consideration is her exploration of the relationship between art and violence, with her characters’ status as victims being manifested, obscured, and exploited by their representation in photography, visual art, religious rhetoric – and of course by the play itself. By drawing our attention to the relationship between aesthetics, violence, and power, Kuti offers an important perspective on nineteenth-century Ireland and its relationships with England and the United States, providing a dramatic response to the ideas of such theorists as Paul Gilroy, Noel Ignatief, and Theodore Allen. Crucially, she also draws parallels between past and present – between colonialism and globalization – to shows how violence and literature continue to be used to further the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. In doing so, Kuti provides a challenging perspective on Ireland’s place (and responsibilities) as one of the wealthiest countries in a globalizing world.


Agnes Pallai, Lecturer in Drama, Sligo Institute of Technology:

‘Cultural Differences and Practical Problems in Staging Brian Friel’s Translations in Oradea’

Translations by Brian Friel has a special resonance in countries which suffered from colonialisation in their recent history. The play touches upon problems which are still topical for the Hungarian minority striving to maintain its identity in Romania. In 2006 I was the assistant director, the dramaturge and the interpreter of a Scottish director who staged Friel’s play with a professional Hungarian theatre company in Oreade, Romania. In my paper I intend to describe this artistic process focusing on the practical problems that were caused by cultural differences between the Irish text and the Hungarian company performing in its Romanian environment.


Nicholas Johnson, Doctoral Candidate, Trinity College Dublin:

‘A Voice Comes to One in the Dark: Reading, Radio, and the Seancham’

Famous stage productions by Jack MacGowran, David Warrilow, and Joseph Chaikin are often the first point of reference when considering the adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s prose to performance. However, theatrical performance marks an endpoint of the trajectory from page to stage; at a prior historical (and phenomenological) phase, the prose was adapted for the radio. Almost immediately after their publication, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable were read aloud on the BBC by Patrick Magee, and more recently, Beckett actors like Barry McGovern have recorded unabridged versions of the novels for the audiobook market. Enoch Brater, in his book on the late fiction, has asserted that a Beckett line is written for recitation not recounting. In his Derridean elevation of speech over writing, Brater points toward Beckett’s own aesthetic evaluation of sound in Joyce and Proust. Stan Gontarski draws attention elsewhere to the specifically Irish heritage of storytelling, linking Beckett to the seancham, the ancient Celtic bards and bearers of oral history. This link can easily be made with Beckett’s characters as well; the seancham’s practice of inventing on his back in the dark is frequently echoed in the prose works, and manifests in many stagings of the prose. By rigorously examining the phenomenology of user-controlled performance, this paper argues that the audiobook, like the radio, is a form of performed prose. What emerges from the audio adaptations, just as from the staging of Beckett’s prose, is a dynamic conflict of textuality and performativity, revealing new pathways to both.