The Abbey Theatre (Irish: Amharclann na Mainistreach), also known as the National Theatre of Ireland (Irish: Amharclann Náisiúnta na hÉireann), in Dublin, Republic of Ireland, 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.
The Abbey Theatre was founded as Ireland’s national theatre, by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904 ‘to bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland’. Although written more than a hundred years ago, this is still the kernel of what constitutes the artistic imperative for the Abbey Theatre today.
In its early years, the theatre was closely associated with the writers of the Irish Literary Revival, 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 and actors of the 20th century, including William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, Seán 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 tourist industry.
The Abbey arose from three distinct bases, the first of which was the seminal Irish Literary Theatre. Founded by Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and W. B. Yeats in 1899—with assistance from George Moore—it presented plays in the Antient Concert Rooms and the Gaiety Theatre, which brought critical approval but limited public interest.
The second base involved the work of two Dublin directors, William and Frank Fay. William worked in the 1890s with a touring company in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, while his brother Frank was 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 Dramatic Company, focused 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 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 theatregoers. The run was a great success, thanks in part to the beauty and force of Maud Gonne, who played the lead in Yeats’ play. The company continued at the Antient Concert Rooms, producing works by Seumas O’Cuisin, Fred Ryan and Yeats.
The third base was financial support and experience of Annie Horniman. Horniman was a middle-class Englishwoman with previous experience of theatre 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 to act as Yeats’ unpaid secretary and to make costumes for a production of his play The King’s Threshold. 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.”
Encouraged by the St Theresa’s Hall success, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Æ, Martyn, and John Millington Synge founded the Irish National Theatre Society in 1903 with funding from Horniman. They were joined by actors and playwrights from Fay’s company. At first, they staged performances in the Molesworth Hall. When the Mechanics’ Theatre in Lower Abbey Street and an adjacent building in Marlborough Street became available after fire safety authorities closed it, 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 Jack to paint portraits of all the leading figures in the society for the foyer, and hired Sarah Purser to design stained glass for the same space.
On 27 December, the curtains went up on 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. 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 was present, as Horniman had already 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 provincial England.
In 1905 without properly consulting Horniman, Yeats, Lady Gregory and Synge decided to turn the theatre into a limited liability company, the National Theatre Society Ltd. Annoyed by this treatment, Horniman hired Ben Iden Payne, a former Abbey employee, to help run a new repertory company which she founded in Manchester. Leading actors Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, Honor Lavelle (Helen Laird), Emma Vernon, Máire Garvey, Frank Walker, Seamus O’Sullivan, Pádraic Colum and George Roberts left the Abbey.
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, Thomas MacDonagh, Lord Dunsany, T. C. Murray, James Cousins 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’ theatre.
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 Riots) were encouraged, in part, by nationalists who believed the theatre was insufficiently political and who took offence at Synge’s use of the word ‘shift’, as it was known at the time as a symbol representing Kitty O’Shea and 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 (1908), for fear of further disturbances. That same year, the Fay brothers’ association with the theatre ended when they emigrated to the United States due to a clash with Yeats outlook; Lennox Robinson took over the Abbey’s day-to-day management after Horniman withdrew financial support.
In 1909, Shaw’s The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet led to 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, an 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 project.
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 Seán 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 in 1924, and The Plough and the Stars in 1926. Theatregoers 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 thereafter.
World War I and the Irish Rebellion of 1916 almost ended the theatre; however 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 Gate 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 Johnston reportedly submitted his first play, Shadowdance, 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.
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 remove O’Connor. In 1941 Ernest Blythe, a politician, became managing director.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the staple fare at the Abbey was comic farce set in the idealised peasant world of 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 F. J. McCormick, and dramatists, including George Shiels, could still draw a crowd. Austin Clarke staged 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.
In February 1961, the ruins of the Abbey were demolished. The board had plans for rebuilding with a design by the Irish architect Michael Scott. On 3 September 1963, the President of Ireland, Éamon 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 Festival aided its revival. Plays such as Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come! (1964), The Faith Healer (1979) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990); Tom Murphy’s 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 Lamplight, 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 lay-offs.
In September 2004 two members of the theatre’s advisory council, playwrights Jimmy Murphy and Ulick O’Connor, had tabled a motion of no confidence in 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.
In 2009, the Literary Department announced the pilot of a new development initiative, the New Playwrights Programme. The six writers taking part in this pilot programme were: Aidan Harney, Lisa Keogh, Shona McCarthy, Jody O’Neill, Neil Sharpson and Lisa Tierney-Keogh.
More than 30 writers have been commissioned by the Abbey since Mac Conghail was appointed director in May 2005. The Abbey has recently produced new plays by Tom Murphy, Richard Dormer, Gary Duggan, Billy Roche, Bernard Farrell and Owen McCafferty. The Abbey also developed 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 Horse. The Abbey created history in 2009/10 by producing four new plays by women writers consecutively; ‘B for Baby’ by Carmel Winter, ‘No Romance’ by Nancy Harris, ‘Perve’ by Stacey Gregg and ’16 Possible Glimpses’ by Marina Carr.
In September 2012, the Abbey Theatre purchased a building on Eden Quay, and a new development is planned on the current site.