Dublin Theatre Festival’s long and winding road

This article originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm

Opinion: over the last 61 years, the festival has given us valuable ways to think about our past and future, our place in the world and our sense of what we are and might become

When the Dublin Theatre Festival opens later this week, it will celebrate its 61st birthday, making it one of the world’s longest-established arts events. Since 1957, the DTF has staged the best Irish plays alongside major international work and hosted great actors and companies while operating as an incubator for new talent and ideas. Along the way, it’s challenged and transformed Irish attitudes to a variety of issues, from censorship to sex to Catholicism and much more besides.

But in order to reach that point, the festival has had to overcome many challenges, especially during its earliest years, when clerical interference almost destroyed it. It was set up by the theatre producer Brendan Smith, whose first programme made an impressive declaration of intent by inviting the French director Jean Vilar to Dublin and his Théâtre National Populaire performed before enthusiastic audiences at the Olympia.

However, the first DTF is now remembered mainly for the scandal that was provoked by one its smallest productions: Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo at the tiny Pike Theatre. Before that play opened, the DTF was sent sinister letters by a group called The League of Decency, which claimed that Williams was advocating the use of birth control. Soon afterwards, the production was shut down altogether by the police when it was alleged that a condom had been shown on stage. The ensuing trial was considered a national embarrassment and eventually collapsed when the presiding judge was harshly critical of the evidence presented by the police. But the damage had been done: the Pike was forced to close.

Worse was to follow. In 1958, Smith announced a programme for the festival’s second year that included an adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses and a new Sean O’Casey play called The Drums of Father Ned. Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid objected to the inclusion of both authors, writing to a subordinate that the Rose Tattoo case ought to have been a “lesson” to the festival about what it could and couldn’t do. He refused to allow an opening mass for the DTF to go ahead. Other groups soon fell into line, withdrawing funding and other supports. Smith was left with no choice but to call off that year’s event, but he defiantly described the decision as a “postponement” rather than a cancellation.

And the DTF did return in 1959, soon becoming a leading force in Ireland’s movement towards a more secular society. In 1964, for example, it hosted the premiere of An Triail by Máiréad Ní Ghráda. By dramatising the experience of a young woman who finds herself in a Magdalene Laundry, that play challenged audiences to consider their culpability for the treatment of Irish women. It called attention to the double standard that saw unmarried mothers being incarcerated while the men who had made them pregnant were not even criticised, let alone punished.

Even more daringly, the 1975 Festival saw Tom Murphy’s The Sanctuary Lampappearing at the Abbey – where it was described as “the most anti-clerical Irish play” ever performed there. It became the subject of a heated public debate which saw the then-President Cearbhaill Ó Dálaigh came out in support of Murphy and opened the door to a more frank discussion of Ireland’s relationship with Catholicism.

So the Festival has always created space to re-imagine contentious issues. One of the best examples of that tendency is the bravery and vision it showed when staging Thomas Kilroy’s The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche and Brian Friel’s The Gentle Island in 1968 and 1971 respectively, the first Irish plays ever to feature openly gay characters. And in later years, the Festival has given us new ways to think about countless other topics too.

It’s also brought some of the world’s great actors to Dublin. Orson Welles was present for the DTF in 1959 and more recently we’ve seen such figures as Geoffrey Rush and Vanessa Redgrave in it. And in 1982, just at the start of his career, Samuel L. Jackson earned rave reviews when he performed in a play called Home on the Gate Theatre stage, as part of a visiting group called the Negro Ensemble Company. And it’s always been an important showcase for Irish acting too.

Of course, there have also been occasional controversies. During the DTF in 2000, the Abbey staged a play called Barbaric Comedies, which was lambasted for its inclusion of onstage sex, murder, masturbating monks, and cannibalism – and (perhaps surprisingly, given its content) for being very boring. And in 2004, Tragedia Endogonidia by the avant-garde Italian director Romeo Castellucci lit up the radio talk-shows when it included a scene in which a baby was left alone on stage for several minutes, a moment of tranquillity made all the more disturbing for appearing in a play that otherwise featured several acts of unspeakable violence.

It remains to be seen how this year’s Festival will be remembered but, as always, we can be sure that there will be plenty to talk about. There has already been some comment about the fact that it includes only two original new Irish plays, Deirdre Kinahan’s highly anticipated Rathmines Road at the Peacock and Pan Pan’s intriguingly-titled Eliza’s Adventures in the Uncanny Valleywith most of the other new Irish work coming in the form of adaptations.

But rather than suggesting that the Irish play is in crisis (a claim that has been made at almost every DTF since the early 1960s), the high number of adaptations instead shows how theatre-makers are increasingly trying to break down the boundaries between art-forms. Irish adaptations shouldn’t be seen as inferior copies of something better. They’re more like remixes, in which samples of earlier works are cut together into something new. So there’s much to be excited about in Corn Exchange’s stage version of the Arthur Miller/Marilyn Monroe movie The Misfits, Rough Magic’s version of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist and Gina Moxley’s Patient Gloria, among others.

And just as the DTF reveals where Irish theatre is now, it also allows us to think about how our society is changing. This year’s festival gives special prominence to Shakespeare with Druid’s Richard III appearing at the Abbey and Ruth Negga’s Hamlet at the Gate. Of course, those plays are being staged because they are great works of art first and foremost. But it feels significant that we’re seeing Irish theatre-makers confidently appropriating classic English plays at a time when Brexit is forcing a reconsideration of the relationship between Ireland and the UK.

Ireland’s place in the world can also be considered through the Festival’s staging of plays from abroad, notably in return visits by two groups that enjoyed successful visits to the DTF before: the New York-based Elevator Repair Service will stage Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf while TR Warszawafrom Poland will present Fantasia. Add to the mix an opera directed by Enda Walsh, a monologue drama in which Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle plays a theatre critic who falls in with a coven of vampires and a great season of theatre for children and it’s evident that an entertaining few weeks lie ahead.

Like any other organisation, the DTF has had good years and bad – and failures as well as successes – during its six decades of activity so far. It’s entertained many and enraged some; it’s sometimes been boring and often been surprising. It therefore operates not just as a showcase of Irish theatre but as a microcosm of Irish society, giving us valuable ways to think about our past and future, our place in the world, and our sense of what we are and might become.


View more from Prof. Patrick Lonergan on RTÉ Brainstorm, or see all NUI Galway articles on RTÉ Brainstorm.


Patrick Lonergan

Prof Patrick Lonergan is Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at NUI Galway, and author of The Theatre and Films of Martin McDonagh, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2012. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee.