Ireland’s First National Theater


GB| ET Student
10/26/2017

Fluorescent blue lights met my gaze as I made my way up the old streets towards Dublin’s historic theater. The Abbey Theatre has been a place of influence and change for over one hundred years, and continues to challenge its audiences with its content.

A group of prominent Irish writers came together in 1903 with the intention of promoting and preserving great works of Irish-born playwrights. This group included amazing writers such as W.B Yeats, Lady Gregory, J.M Synge, and George Russell who all then founded the Irish National Theatre Society. One year later, in 1904, The Abbey Theatre officially opened thanks to help from a subsidy and the free use of a theater on Old Abbey Street.

The Abbey Theatre was home to historic theater moments including the premiere of The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge. This show, opening in 1907, caused riots in the audience for being “immoral” and “indecent.” In the end, this show changed Irish drama because Synge was was not afraid to challenge the boundaries of writing or the ideals of his audience.

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The Abbey Theatre the night we saw Ulysses. | Photo by GB

 Even though shows from the Abbey were consistently influential, the theater began to struggle to survive. This was due to World War I and the Rebellion of 1916. Thankfully, in 1924, the new Free State of Ireland came to its rescue with an annual subsidy. This gave the theater the ability to open up a small studio space called The Peacock. Combined, The Abbey Theatre and The Peacock create what is now known as The National Theater of Ireland.

Throughout the years, The Abbey has been constantly supported by an annual government grant from The Arts Council of Ireland. This was a blessing because, in 1951, a fire destroyed the original buildings. The government pledged to re-house the theaters in a  contemporary facility on the same site. Its current beautiful, modern home was designed by Michael Scott & Associates in 1966.

Theaters like The Abbey have influenced their surroundings for years. They are places of expression and creativity that can test the boundaries of societal standards. This is one of the reasons I fell in love with theater so many years ago, and why going to the Abbey was an exciting moment for me. We had the chance to see Ulysses, a book written by James Joyce, performed on the Abbey’s stage. While it is not a show I would see again, or recommend, I appreciate how this theater still continues to produce shows that challenge their audience and break societal ideals of decency.

Categories: History & Politics

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