Abbey Theatre ( ), also known as the
National Theatre of Ireland ( ), is a theatre located in Dublin, Ireland.
The Abbey first opened its doors to the
public on 27 December 1904. Despite losing its original building to
a fire in 1951, it has remained active to the present day. The
Abbey was the first state-subsidized theatre in the
English-speaking world; from 1925 onwards it received an annual
subsidy from the Irish Free State
Since July 1966, the Abbey has been located at 26 Lower Abbey
Street, Dublin 1.
In its early years, the theatre was closely associated with the
writers of the Irish Literary
, many of whom were involved in its founding and most of
whom had plays staged there. The Abbey served as a nursery for many
of the leading Irish playwrights
actors of the 20th century, including William Butler Yeats
, Lady Gregory Augusta
, Sean O'Casey
and John Millington Synge
. In addition,
through its extensive programme of touring abroad and its high
visibility to foreign, particularly American, audiences, it has
become an important part of the Irish
Irish Literary Theatre
A poster for the opening run at the
Abbey Theatre from 27 December 1904 to 3 January 1905
The Abbey arose from three distinct bases, the first of which was
the seminal Irish Literary
. Founded by Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and William Butler Yeats in 1899 — with
assistance from George Moore
— it presented plays in the Ancient Concert Rooms and the Gaiety
Theatre, which brought critical approval but limited public
The second base involved the work of two Irish brothers, William
and Frank Fay
. William worked 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 to Dublin, the Fay brothers staged productions in
halls around the city and eventually formed W. G. Fay's Irish National
, focused on the development of Irish acting
talent. In April 1902, the Fays gave three performances of Æ's
Cathleen Ní Houlihan
in a hall in St. Theresa's Hall on
Clarendon Street. The performances played to a mainly working-class
audience rather than the usual middle-class Dublin theatre-goers.
The run was a great success, thanks in part to Maud Gonne
, who played the lead in Yeats' play.
The company continued at the Ancient Concert Rooms, producing works
by Seumas O'Cuisin
, Fred Ryan
The third base was financial support and experience of Annie Elizabeth Fredericka
. Horniman was a middle-class Englishwoman with
previous experience of theatre production, having been involved in
the presentation of George Bernard
's Arms and the Man
in London in 1894. She came to
Dublin in 1903 to act as Yeats' unpaid secretary and to make
costumes for a production of his play The King's
. Her money helped found the Abbey Theatre and,
according to the critic Adrian Frazier, would "make the rich feel
at home, and the poor - on a first visit - out of place."
Lady Gregory pictured on the
frontispiece to Our Irish Theatre: A Chapter of
Encouraged by the St Theresa's Hall success, Yeats, Lady Gregory,
Æ, Martyn, and John Millington
founded the Irish National Theatre Society in 1903 with
funding from Horniman. At first, they staged performances in the
Molesworth Hall. When the Hibernian
Theatre of Varieties
in Lower Abbey Street and an adjacent
building in Marlborough Street became available after fire safety
authorities closed the Hibernia, Horniman and William Fay agreed to
buy and refit the space to meet the society's needs.
On 11 May 1904, the society formally accepted Horniman's offer of
the use of the building. As Horniman did not usually reside in
Ireland, the royal letters patent
required were granted in the name of Lady Gregory, although paid
for by Horniman. The founders appointed William Fay theatre
manager, responsible for training the actors in the newly
established repertory company. They commissioned Yeats' brother
to paint portraits of all the
leading figures in the society for the foyer, and hired Sarah Purser
to design stained glass for the
On 27 December, the curtains went up on opening night. The bill
consisted of three one-act plays, On Baile's Strand
Cathleen Ní Houlihan
by Yeats, and Spreading the News
by Lady Gregory.
On the second night, In the Shadow of the Glen
replaced the second Yeats play. 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 the costumes, neither she nor Lady Gregory were present.
Horniman had returned to England. In addition to providing funding, her
chief role with the Abbey over the coming years was to organise
publicity and bookings for their touring productions in London and
In 1905 without properly consulting Horniman, Yeats, Lady Gregory
and Synge decided to turn the theatre into a limited liability company
National Theatre Society Ltd. Annoyed by this treatment, she hired Ben Iden Payne, a former Abbey employee, to
help run a new repertory company which she founded in Manchester.
The new Abbey Theatre found great popular success, and large crowds
attended many of its productions. The Abbey was fortunate in having
Synge as a key member, as he was then considered one of the
foremost English-language dramatists. The theatre staged many plays
by eminent or soon-to-be eminent authors, including Yeats, Lady
Gregory, Moore, Martyn, Padraic Colum
George Bernard Shaw
, Oliver St John Gogarty
, F. R. Higgins
, Lord Dunsany
, T. C. Murray
and Lennox Robinson
Many of these authors served on the board, and it was during this
time that the Abbey gained its reputation as a writers'
The Abbey's fortunes worsened in January 1907 when the opening of
Synge's The Playboy
of the Western World
resulted in civil disturbance. The
troubles (since known as the Playboy
) were encouraged, in part, by nationalists
who believed the theatre was
insufficiently political and who took offence at Synge's use of the
', as it was known at the time as
a symbol representing Kitty O'Shea
adultery, and hence was seen as a slight on the virtue of Irish
womanhood. Much of the crowd rioted loudly, and the actors
performed the remainder of the play in dumbshow
. The theatre's decision to call in the
police further roused anger of the nationalists. Although press
opinion soon turned against the rioters and the protests faded,
management of the Abbey was shaken. They chose not to stage Synge's
next—and last completed—play, The Tinker's Wedding
for fear of further disturbances. That same year, the Fay brothers'
association with the theatre ended when they emigrated to the
United States; Lennox Robinson took over the Abbey's day-to-day
In 1909, Shaw's The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet
further protests. The subsequent discussion occupied a full issue
of the theatre's journal The Arrow
. Also that year, the
proprietors decided to make the Abbey independent of Annie
Horniman, who had indicated a preference for this course. Relations
with Horniman had been tense, partly because she wished to be
involved in choosing which plays were to be performed and when. As
a mark of respect for the death of King Edward VII
understanding existed that Dublin theatres were to close on the
night of 7 May 1910. Robinson, however, kept the Abbey open. When
Horniman heard of Robinson's decision, she severed her connections
with the company. By her own estimate, she had invested
£10,350—worth approximately $1 million in 2007 US dollars—on the
With the loss of Horniman, Synge, and the Fays, the Abbey under
Robinson tended to drift, suffering 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
, staged by the Abbey in 1923. This was followed by
Juno and the Paycock
in 1924, and The Plough and the
in 1926. Theatergoers arose in riots over the last play,
in a way reminiscent of those that had greeted the Playboy
19 years earlier. Concerned about public reaction, the Abbey
rejected O'Casey's next play. He emigrated to London shortly
In 1924, Yeats and Lady Gregory offered the Abbey to the government
of the Free State as a gift to the Irish people. Although the
government refused, the following year Minister of Finance Ernest Blythe
arranged an annual government
subsidy of £850 for the Abbey. This made the company the first
state-supported theatre in the English-speaking world. The subsidy
allowed the theatre to avoid bankruptcy, but the amount was too
small to rescue it from financial difficulty.
The Abbey School of Acting and the Abbey School of Ballet were set
up that year. The latter was led by Ninette de Valois
—who had provided
choreography for a number of Yeats' plays—and ran until 1933.
Around this time the company acquired additional space, allowing
them to create a small experimental theatre, the Peacock
in the ground floor of the main theatre. In 1928, Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammoir launched the
Theatre, initially using the Peacock to stage works by
European and American dramatists.
The Gate primarily sought
work from new Irish playwrights and, despite the new space, the
Abbey entered a period of artistic decline.
This is illustrated by the story of how one new work was said to
have come to the Gate Theatre. Denis
reportedly submitted his first play,
, to the Abbey; however, Lady Gregory rejected
it, returning it to the author with “The Old Lady says No” written
across the title page. Johnston decided to re-title the play. The
Gate staged The Old Lady Says 'No'
in The Peacock
in 1928. (Note: academic critics Joseph Ronsley and Christine St.
Peter have questioned the veracity of this story.
The tradition of the Abbey as primarily a writers' theatre survived
Yeats' withdrawal from day-to-day involvement. Frank O'Connor
sat on the board from 1935 to
1939, served as managing director from 1937, and had two plays
staged during this period. He was alienated from and unable to cope
with many of the other board members. They held O'Connor's past
adultery against him. Although he fought formidably to retain his
position, soon after Yeats died, the board began machinations to
During the 1940s and 1950s, the staple fare at the Abbey was comic
farce set in the idealised peasant world of playwright Éamon de Valera
. If it had ever
existed, it was no longer considered relevant by most Irish
citizens. As a result, audience numbers continued to decline. This
drift might have been more dramatic but popular actors, including
, and dramatists, including
, could still draw a
crowd. Austin Clarke
events for his Dublin Verse Speaking Society—later the Lyric Theatre
—at the Peacock from 1941
to 1944 and the Abbey from 1944 to 1951.
On 17 July 1951, fire destroyed the Abbey Theatre, with only the
Peacock surviving intact. The company leased the old Queen's Theatre
in September and
continued in residence there until 1966. The Queen's had been home
to the Happy Gang, a team of comedians who specialised in popular
skits, farces and pantomimes and drew wide audiences. With its
continued diet of 'peasant comedies', the new tenants were not far
removed from the old.
Neither Brendan Behan
nor Samuel Beckett
, two of the two more
interesting Irish dramatists to emerge in the 1950s, featured in
these productions. In February 1961, the ruins of the Abbey were
demolished. The board had plans for rebuilding with a design by the
Irish architect Michael
. On 3 September 1963, the President of Ireland
, Eamon de Valera
, laid the foundation stone
for the new theatre. The Abbey reopened on 18 July 1966.
A new building; a new generation of dramatists, including such
figures as Hugh Leonard
, Brian Friel
and Tom Murphy
; and tourism that
included the National Theatre as a key cultural attraction, helped
revive the theatre. Beginning in 1957, the theatre's participation
in the Dublin Theatre
aided its revival. Plays such as Brian Friel
's Philadelphia Here I Come!
The Faith Healer (1979) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990);
A Whistle In the Dark
(1961) and The Gigli
Concert (1983); and Hugh
Leonard's Da (1973) and A
Life (1980), helped raise the Abbey's international profile
through successful runs in the West End in London,
and on Broadway in New York City.
In December 2004, the theatre celebrated its centenary with events
that included performances of the original programme by amateur
dramatic groups and a production of Michael West's Dublin By
, originally staged by Annie Ryan for The Corn Exchange
company at the Project Arts Centre
in November 2004.
Despite the centenary, not all was well. Audience numbers were
falling; the Peacock was closed for lack of money; the theatre was
near bankruptcy, and the staff felt the threat of huge
In September 2004 two members of the theatre's advisory council,
playwrights Jimmy Murphy and Ulick
, had tabled a motion of no confidence
Artistic Director Ben Barnes. They criticised Barnes for touring
with a play in Australia during the deep financial and artistic
crisis at home. Barnes returned and temporarily held his position.
The debacle put the Abbey under great public scrutiny. On 12 May
2005, Barnes and Managing Director Brian Jackson resigned after it
was found that the theatre's deficit of €1.85 million had been
underestimated. The new director, Fiach Mac Conghail, due to
start in January 2006, took over in May 2005.
On 20 August 2005, the Abbey Theatre Advisory Council approved a
plan to dissolve the Abbey's owner, the National Theatre Society,
and replace it with a company limited by guarantee
the Abbey Theatre Limited. After strong debate, the board accepted
the program. Basing its actions on this plan, the Arts Council of
Ireland awarded the Abbey €25.7 million in January 2006 to be
spread over three years. The grant represented an approximate
43 percent increase in the Abbey's revenues and was the
largest grant ever awarded by the Arts Council. The new company was
established on 1 February 2006, with the announcement of a new
Abbey Board chaired by High Court Judge Bryan McMahon
. In March 2007, the larger
auditorium in the theatre was radically reconfigured by Jean-Guy
Lecat as part of a major upgrade of the theatre.
More than 20 writers have been commissioned by the Abbey since
Mac Conghail was appointed director in May 2005. The Abbey is
also producing new Irish plays commissioned and developed by
London's Royal Court Theatre; Tom
's Alice Trilogy
and Marina Carr
's Woman and Scarecrow
examples. The Abbey is also developing a relationship
with the Public
Theater in New York, where it has presented two new plays;
Terminus by Mark O'Rowe and
Sam Shepard's Kicking a Dead
After discussions over many years, the Irish government announced
in 2007 that a new theatre building would be procured for the Abbey
by way of a public-private
contract for design, construction, financing and
maintenance. This building will be in Dublin's "Docklands" area and
will comprise three auditorium spaces, including a 700-seat main
theatre, a 350-seat secondary performance space and a 150-seat
studio theatre, along with rehearsal and education facilities,
storage, wardrobe, archive and office space, and one or more bars
and restaurants and a bookshop.
The general and artistic operation of the new theatre will continue
to be the responsibility of the Abbey Theatre Amharclann na
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