Caroline Dudeck: The Abbey Theatre

29 Oct



On Thursday October 24, 2013, I spent my evening on the north side of Dublin City at the Abbey Theatre. There, I took a guided tour of the theatre and was treated to the play The Hanging Gardens, written by Frank McGuinness.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Ireland had no official theatre and no professional actors or actresses. When an Irish playwright wanted to put on a production, they would have to hire actors from England to come over and play the parts. Many Irish people did not like that English people were playing in Irish plays, as it was clear that they were British since they couldn’t pronounce words in the correct Irish accent. Ireland’s lack of professional theatre during this time motivated W.B. Yates and Lady Augusta Gregory to create the Abbey Theatre in 1904.

Yates and Lady Augusta Gregory wanted to foster Irish playwrights and literature, so they allowed the public to submit their plays for review. A review board looks over their work and either accepts or declines the work. If a play were approved, they would put it on for a few nights and watched the audience’s reaction. If they play went well they would put it on for a longer period of time. However, if a play were not accepted, the board would send a polite letter of decline, with a few critiques and reasoning as to why they didn’t approve the play. This is still the premise on which the Abbey Theatre runs today. Anyone can submit his or her work for review. New, accepted work is put on in the Peacock theatre, which is a smaller theatre attached to the Abbey. The name Peacock was derived from the bright blue that the room was when it was purchased.

The Peacock theatre, however, was not always a part of the Abbey. In 1951, the original Abbey theatre burnt down, and was temporarily moved to the Rupert Guinness Hall and then the Queens theatre as new plans were being created to build a bigger, better, more fire resistant theatre. It reopened at its current location in 1966 and the Peacock theatre opened its doors in 1967.

The Abbey Theatre has played an important role in Irish history, which can be reflected through the plays that have ran over time and through the building itself. For example, the old Abbey theatre stood just moments away from the 1916 Easter Rising battle. The theatre itself avoided damage from the rising, but many people involved in the theatre, including actors, actresses, and employees, all worked as either nurses or damage control during the perilous period. There is a plaque in the new Abbey Theatre that commemorates those that served Ireland during the Easter Rising.

The symbol for the Abbey Theatre is the iconic Queen Maeve and the rising sun, created by Elinor Mary Monsell specifically for the Abbey Theatre. The original was hand carved into wood, but has been changed to fit the shape of an A, for Abbey.

The Abbey theatre lays on a plethora of foundations. Yates and Lady Augusta wanted to foster Irish literature by not only encouraging new playwrights to make their work public, but to share with the general public the gift of their national theatre. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, attending the theatre was a high class act that only the very rich could afford, thus many working class people did not go. To counteract the stereotype that theatre was only for the rich, the Abbey theatre front row seats have a price ceiling of thirteen euros, so that an exceptional theatre experience will never break the budget, even if one wants to sit in the front row.

While visiting the Abbey, I saw the dressing rooms of the actors, some of the many storage rooms of the costumes from hundreds of different productions, and was even able to walk onstage and on the set of the play, The Hanging Gardens, that I saw later that evening. The play itself was absolutely amazing. I don’t want to ruin the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but the production really touched on the hardships that the modern family experiences. It was heartfelt and serious, the acting was wonderful, and it clearly spoke to an international audience (as I’m an American,) which I didn’t expect since it prides itself on being an Irish literature theatre.

My experience at the Abbey Theatre was an excellent one. I was extremely interested by the history that I learned during the backstage tour, and thoroughly enjoyed the production. It was a different experience than going to the Gaiety theatre, where I saw Waiting for Godot a few weeks back, but it’s nice to see and compare two of Dublin’s finest theatres. I will definitely be back at the Abbey to see The Risen People by James Plunkett before I head back to the states. 


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