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 December 27, 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-subsidized theater in the English-speaking world; from 1925 onwards it received an annual subsidy from the Irish Free State.
In its early years, the theater 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 twentieth century, including John Millington Synge and especially Sean O'Casey. The Abbey Theater is a repository of the unique cultural traditions of Ireland.
In addition, through its extensive program of touring abroad and its high visibility to foreign, particularly North American, audiences, it has become an important part of the Irish tourist industry.
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 Theater. Founded by Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and W. B. Yeats in 1899—with assistance by George Moore—this theater 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, focusing 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 St Theresa's Hall, Clarendon Street in Dublin. The performances played to a mainly working-class audience, rather than the usual middle-class Dublin theater-goers. The run was a great success, thanks in part to the fact that Maud Gonne played the lead in Yeats' play. The Company continued its work at the Ancient Concert Rooms, with works by Seumas O'Cuisin, Fred Ryan, and Yeats.
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 theater 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 Theater a viable reality.
In the light of the success of the St Theresa's Hall venture, the Irish National Theater 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 Theater 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 May 11, 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 theater 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 December 27, 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 were 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 organize publicity and bookings for touring Abbey productions in London and provincial English venues.
In 1905, Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Synge decided to turn the theater into a Limited Liability Company, the National Theater Society Ltd., 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 new theater 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 theater also staged plays by eminent or soon-to-be eminent authors including Yeats, Lady Gregory, Moore, Martyn, Padraic Colum, George Bernard Shaw, Oliver St John Gogarty, Wilfrid Blunt, F. R. Higgins, Thomas MacDonagh, (one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916), Lord Dunsany, 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 writer's theater.
However, things were to take a turn for the worse in January 1907, with the opening of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. Egged on by nationalists who believed that the theater 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 theater ended when they emigrated to the United States and the day-to-day management of the theater became the responsibility of Lennox Robinson.
In 1909, the proprietors began steps to make the Abbey independent of Annie Horniman, who had indicated that she wished this to be the case the original Letters Patent expired in 1910. Fundraising efforts continued into 1910.
On May 7, 1910, when all the other theaters 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 U.S. 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.
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 theater's commitment to producing works in Irish. As a consequence, in 1925, the Abbey became the first theater 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 established. 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 theater, the Peacock, was started downstairs from the main theater. In 1928, Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammoir set up the Gate Theater, 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 theater 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 idealized 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 Theater, which operated out of the Peacock from 1941 to 1944, and the Abbey from 1944 to 1951.
On July 18, 1951, the building was destroyed by fire, with only the Peacock surviving. The company took a lease on the old Queen's Theater 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 September 3, 1963, the President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera, laid the foundation stone for the new theater. The Abbey reopened on July 18, 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 Theater as a key cultural attraction helped to bring about a revival of the theater's fortunes. This was further assisted by the theater'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.
In December 2004, the theater celebrated its centenary with a range of events, including performances of the original program by amateur dramatic groups from around the country, and the professional premiere of Michael West's Dublin By Lamplight, staged by Annie Ryan for The Corn Exchange company at the Project Arts Center in November 2004.
On May 12, 2005, the then Artistic Director, Ben 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 theater's deficit of €1.85 million. The new director, Fiach Mac Conghail, who was due to start in November 2005, thus took up the reins in May of that year.
On August 20, 2005, the Abbey Theater Advisory Council approved a plan which would see the Abbey's owner, the National Theater Society, being dissolved and replaced by a company limited by guarantee, the Abbey Theater Limited. This plan was subsequently, after some strong debate, accepted.
On the basis of the new plan, in January 2006, the Arts Council of Ireland awarded the Abbey €25.7 million in revenue funding over three years. This grant represented an approximate 43 percent increase in funding to the Abbey and was the largest grant ever made by the Arts Council.
The new company came into being on February 1, 2006, with the announcement of the new Board of the Abbey, chaired by High Court Judge, Bryan McMahon.
2007 was a busy year for the Abbey. In March the larger auditorium in the theater was radically reconfigured. This was part of a much-applauded upgrading of the theater's facilities. That same month the Abbey produced the world premiere of a new play by the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and actor, Sam Shepard. This was a one man show called Kicking a Dead Horse, and starred Oscar-nominated Irish actor, Stephen Rea, who had begun his career with the Abbey many years before.
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