In a brief address to members of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), visiting Ireland for the Dublin Theatre Festival, Abbey Theatre artistic director, Patrick Mason, stressed that the ideas and tenets of the organization's founders were still very much the rule at Ireland's national theatre. Mason quoted Abbey co-founder William Butler Yeats often during the Oct. 12 meeting, a theatre that seeks to be "the guardians and creators of the Irish repertoire."
Mason began his talk with a brief history of the Abbey Theatre, founded by Yeats, John Millington Synge and Lady Gregory in 1903. A theatre was purchased the following year, and the first show was staged that annum. Though celebrated in its early years, by the 1920s the Abbey was already bankrupt. Its founders and board (the National Theatre Society) hoped the government would take over the theatre and, surprisingly, the government was happy to do so, making the Abbey the first subsidized theatre in the English speaking world.
Artistic director Mason was also proud to point out that long before the Off and Off-Off-Broadway movement, long before experimental theatre entrenched itself worldwide, the Abbey had opened a small studio theatre. The Peacock, built in 1926, remains the Abbey's 150-seat second stage today.
Alas, all was not smooth sailing when the government took over. In 1951, the Abbey's backstage and much of its playing area were destroyed by fire. Irish president Eamon De Valera pledged to rebuild the theatre, and did, by 1966. A millennial overhaul is planned for the theatre in the near future.
Of course, the fact that the Abbey's finances have been stabilized for the first time in decades helps matters. "When I came into the organization," said Mason, "there was very little money. But over the years we've built up an education program, actor training and even an archive. We're considered the national theatre of Ireland." The buildings may change, but Mason assures the roster will remain a mix of old and new. "We do 14 shows a year," said Mason. "And at least seven of those are new plays, because new writing is the life-blood of the theatre."
Mason first joined the Abbey in the early 1970s as a voice coach. He became enamored of directing and soon became an assistant director. In 1994, Mason was appointed artistic director of the Abbey for a four-year term. His term was renewed, for two years, in 1998.
When people first hear the Abbey Theatre mentioned, they think specifically of Irish theatre, and playwrights such as Synge, O'Casey, Shaw, Friel and newcomer Marina Carr (whose By the Bog of Cats is currently on the mainstage). That said, Mason has not shied away from the classics and international theatre, including recent productions of Mamet, Kushner, Shakespeare and Ibsen. What the Abbey doesn't do, according to Mason, is kowtow to the government, endowment or no endowment. "The vitality of art depends totally on the artist's intensity of vision," Mason quoted Yeats, adding, "The National Theatre Society still operates the theatre. And what was true years ago still holds: The state has no direct political influence on programming. We have intellectual and artistic freedom."
Mason reminded the assembled that the Theatre Society stuck to its guns on that point back when O'Casey premiered The Plough And The Stars . "There was a vote, with a government agent voting against producing the play. Obviously, his reasons were political. So Lady Gregory went to the people in power -- as only she could -- and said, `You misunderstand your position.' And that was the end of that."
Located on Lower Abbey Street in the heart of Dublin, the Abbey Theatre continues trying to be what Yeats (and his co- founders) envisioned: "We are here to speak the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland." And one more Yeats quote, via Mason: "A national theatre is a crucible for the national soul."
What with an economic boom changing the shape of Ireland, peace talks making serious progress towards ending the "Troubles," and a new crop of Irish writers -- Heaney, McPherson, McDonagh, McCourt -- making international waves, that national soul will be expanding and metamorphosizing before our eyes.
-- by David Lefkowitz