Abbey Theatre Heralds the Celtic Revival Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After years of discussion, planning, and performing at other venues, several writers and actors dedicated to both art and Ireland founded the Abbey Theatre.

Summary of Event

On December 27, 1904, the Abbey Theatre opened its doors in Dublin, Ireland. The event was the culmination of years of discussions and dreams and was, for many, the capstone of what has come to be called the Celtic Revival. That movement, which included not only artistic but also political, social, economic, and even athletic aspects, saw persons of various faiths and backgrounds attempt to establish an Irish identity separate from the English civilization that seemed to them to be destroying Irish culture and thus Ireland itself. The Celtic Revival was broad based and complex, and the establishment of a theater that would produce Irish drama was one of the movement’s primary goals. The founding of the Abbey Theatre seemed to fulfill that aim. Celtic Revival Abbey Theatre Theater;Ireland [kw]Abbey Theatre Heralds the Celtic Revival (Dec. 27, 1904) [kw]Theatre Heralds the Celtic Revival, Abbey (Dec. 27, 1904) [kw]Celtic Revival, Abbey Theatre Heralds the (Dec. 27, 1904) Celtic Revival Abbey Theatre Theater;Ireland [g]Ireland;Dec. 27, 1904: Abbey Theatre Heralds the Celtic Revival[01120] [c]Theater;Dec. 27, 1904: Abbey Theatre Heralds the Celtic Revival[01120] Yeats, William Butler Gregory, Lady Augusta Synge, John Millington Horniman, Annie Fay, William George Fay, Frank J.

The theater itself was less than ideal. In the past, the location had been the site of various buildings, including one that had served as a morgue. There had been recent renovations, but the result was not imposing. The small theater seated slightly more than five hundred persons, and the stage was so shallow that actors who needed to exit from one side of the stage and enter later from the other side had to pass along an outside lane at the back. The theater was near the River Liffey, but on the north bank, the less fashionable side of the river. Originally the site of a medieval abbey, the area had become Lower Abbey Street; from the abbey and the street, the Abbey Theatre took its name.

The two plays that opened the Abbey Theatre were On Baile’s Strand, On Baile’s Strand (Yeats)[On Bailes Strand] a verse play by William Butler Yeats, and Lady Augusta Gregory’s comedy Spreading the News. Spreading the News (Gregory) Dublin newspapers of all political persuasions praised the opening of the theater and the productions, and it was appropriate that the first plays presented were by Yeats and Lady Gregory, since both had played major roles in establishing the theater. Yeats, already a famous poet, had been fascinated with the social and artistic possibilities of the stage for many years, particularly in portraying Irish subject matter. In 1899, his The Countess Cathleen (pb. 1892) Countess Cathleen, The (Yeats) inaugurated the Irish Literary Theatre, and in 1902 Maud Gonne, Yeats’s unrequited love who was noted for her anti-English opinions, played the title role in his Cathleen ni Houlihan. Cathleen ni Houlihan (Yeats)

Lady Gregory, like Yeats, was from the Protestant Anglo-Irish ascendancy class and had long been interested in Irish folklore. At Coole Park, her estate in the west of Ireland, she had brought together at various times Yeats, John Millington Synge, George William Russell (known as �), Edward Martyn, Douglas Hyde, and others committed to restoring Ireland’s past glories through such means as fostering the Irish language, discovering and saving the folktales of Irish peasants, and rewriting the myths of heroic Ireland.

Yeats and Lady Gregory were not alone; George Moore Moore, George and Edward Martyn Martyn, Edward were also committed to the idea of an Irish theater. All four had been founders of the Irish Literary Theatre, Irish Literary Theatre which had been established with the aim of producing Celtic or Irish drama. Martyn, a wealthy Irish Catholic, was inspired by the plays of Henrik Ibsen, whose Norway stood in the same subordinate relationship to Denmark as Ireland did to England. Moore, a versatile man of letters, was also an Irish Catholic. He had spent much of his literary career in London and on the Continent. Neither man, however, played any direct role in the founding of the Abbey Theatre. Personal and artistic considerations—Yeats argued that Martyn’s dramas were not sufficiently artistic and that Moore’s style lacked poetic quality, whereas Martyn feared that Yeats’s Celtic mythic dramas bordered on being anti-Catholic—led Martyn and Moore to part company with Lady Gregory and Yeats. After three years, the Irish Literary Theatre disbanded.

The Abbey Theatre is often considered a writer’s theater. Not only Yeats but also Synge and, later, Sean O’Casey O’Casey, Sean were publicly associated with the fortunes of the Abbey. Actors, however, were equally influential; stage drama is not only the play but also the performance. In the founding of the Abbey, brothers Frank J. Fay and William George Fay played major roles. Unlike their literary colleagues, the Fays had little formal education. Both, however, had a love of the theater. Frank, the eldest, was an accounting clerk by profession who through self-study became an authority on speech and acting styles. A part-time drama critic, in 1901 he urged the creation of a national theater using Irish actors. For many years, W. G. Fay had toured with small companies throughout the British Isles, and although he had a talent for comedy, he never had much success. Returning to Dublin, he and Frank founded several amateur acting groups. In 1902, the Fays joined with Yeats in producing his Cathleen ni Houlihan and �’s Deirdre.

The Irish National Theatre Society Irish National Theatre Society was established in early 1903. Yeats became president and Russell, Hyde, and Gonne were vice presidents. W. G. Fay was the stage manager, and the Fays and the other actors were given a say in the running of the society, including which plays were to be produced. In May, 1903, the as-yet-obscure company put on several plays in London to the praises of English critics. In October, 1903, Synge’s In the Shadow of the Glen In the Shadow of the Glen (Synge) made its debut in controversy. Arthur Griffith, the founder of the Irish nationalist movement Sinn Féin, criticized the play as a slander on the Irish peasants and thus a slander on Ireland itself. During the first performance, Maud Gonne and several others walked out; art and patriotism were not inevitably compatible.

One of the difficulties faced by the Irish National Theatre Society was the lack of a suitable playhouse. Between 1899 and 1903, Yeats and his fellow writers and the Fays and their amateur actors had resorted to at least six different Dublin halls. Having their own theater seemed a necessity; ironically, the group attained a playhouse through the financial support of an Englishwoman who loathed politics, particularly Irish politics. A member of a wealthy family, Annie Horniman had known Yeats for many years and was dedicated to furthering his art. In 1902, she told Yeats that she might finance a theater in Dublin if her economic circumstances warranted it. In early 1904, Horniman acted. She acquired a ninety-nine-year lease, paid for the remodeling herself, and in April turned over to Yeats, as president of the Irish National Theatre Society, free use of the theater. A license was obtained, and the society was warned against producing anything immoral, antireligious, or highly political. On December 27, 1904, the Abbey Theatre opened. The dream had become a reality.


Dublin critics praised the opening-night productions at the Abbey Theatre. After a performance several nights later, however, an observer noted that there were fewer than fifty persons in the theater. It was several months before the Abbey again saw a capacity audience, and then it was not for a play by Yeats, Lady Gregory, or Synge, but for a less demanding and more accessible drama by William Boyle, The Building Fund. The play lacked the artistic metaphors and complicated language of Yeats and Synge, but the audience came in greater numbers.

Attendance continued to be sparse throughout the remainder of 1905. One reason was that Horniman had placed a requirement in her gift that there be no cheap seats in the Abbey—she believed that true art was primarily the province of the upper classes. Horniman was committed to Yeats and to art, but her definition of art did not include Irish cultural concerns. Yeats, while totally dedicated to art—one of his criticisms of Martyn’s plays was that they were not art—disagreed with Horniman about Ireland. In his commitment to the drama as an art form, Yeats saw his Irish theater as emulating, and not only in literary form, the drama of ancient Greece. There—and, Yeats hoped, in modern Ireland—individuals brought together in the common environment of the theater would collectively absorb the mythic history from their common past and experience a spiritual regeneration. In addition, Richard Wagner’s evocation of the Germanic heroic past in his operas served as a kind of paradigm for Yeats.

Lady Gregory, whose interest was in the Irish folklore of the peasants of western Ireland, was less knowledgeable about continental drama, past and present. Her plays, unlike the mythic histories of Yeats, were primarily comedies. Still, she and Yeats worked well together. Synge was the other major literary figure of the early Abbey years. He spent much time in the west of Ireland, particularly in the Aran Islands, and the results were a number of dramas, culminating in The Playboy of the Western World, Playboy of the Western World, The (Synge) which was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in 1907. Synge’s plays were rooted in present and peasant Ireland, not in the heroic Celtic past of Yeats, and his plays were not always initially well received. When The Playboy of the Western World was first performed, many members of the audience vociferously objected to a play in which an Irishman could claim to murder his father and thus become a hero, and that a character in the play could refer to a woman’s “shift” (an undergarment) was regarded as an unacceptable slur on female chastity.

Yeats was not present at the first performance of The Playboy of the Western World, but he soon returned to Dublin. In a famous incident on the Abbey stage, he defended Synge and his play and condemned the audience for its intolerance. Yeats repeated the act years later, in 1926, after another Abbey audience hissed the first production of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. Yeats’s art was not necessarily that of either Synge or O’Casey, but he defended their works against widespread audience disapproval whether on patriotic, religious, or moral grounds. For Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Synge, the Abbey Theatre combined both art and Irish culture, and outside forces would not be allowed to dictate what would be presented, or not presented, on the Abbey stage.

Predictably, however, in 1906 the majority, including the actors, lost the right to decide what plays were produced at the Abbey. The sole criterion was to be that a play be good art, and Yeats and his literary colleagues would make the decisions. The Fays and Horniman soon terminated their relationship with the Abbey. The former were interested in bringing and keeping an audience; they were less concerned about a policy of art for art’s sake. In 1908, the Fays left the Abbey and its literary directors. Horniman’s continued funding kept the Abbey doors open for the first several years, but in 1910 Horniman finally abandoned her commitment to the Abbey and sold her rights to Yeats and Lady Gregory. In both cases, the separation was bitter.

The Abbey’s reputation for excellence and controversy continued. Yeats himself remained active in Abbey affairs as new actors and playwrights stepped onto the stage, most notably Sean O’Casey. Synge died in 1909, Lady Gregory in 1932. Yeats survived until 1939. The decline and fall of the Abbey Theatre was predicted numerous times, but, like the legendary phoenix, it always sprang again from the ashes, literally so after the theater burned in 1951.

In 1924, the Abbey became the first state-subsidized theater in the English-speaking world. Through the years, many non-Irish works were produced there, including plays by William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Eugene O’Neill, Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard. The Abbey retained its Irish roots, however, not only in the many revivals of plays by Yeats, Gregory, Synge, and O’Casey, but also in works by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett, and Brian Friel. The Abbey also remained an actors’ theater; the Fays were followed through the years by Barry Fitzgerald, Siobhan McKenna, and Cyril Cusack. If the Abbey did not entirely fulfill Yeats’s intentions, he never doubted the importance, for good or perhaps ill, of Irish drama. In one of his later poems, “The Man and the Echo,” written after the Easter Rising of 1916 in reference to his play Cathleen ni Houlihan, he wrote: “I lie awake night after night/ And never get the answers right./ Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” Celtic Revival Abbey Theatre Theater;Ireland

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. 1948. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1999. One of the most important studies of Yeats’s life and career available, by an author who also produced biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fay, Gerard. The Abbey Theatre. New York: Macmillan, 1958. The author, the son of Frank Fay, tells of the contributions of his father and his uncle to the establishment of the Abbey. Balances the traditional interpretation that the Abbey was solely the creation of the playwrights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitz-Simon, Christopher. The Abbey Theatre: Ireland’s National Theatre—The First Hundred Years. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003. Tribute volume from a former Abbey Theatre artistic director and literary manager, published on the occasion of the Abbey’s centennial. Highly illustrated, with production photographs of many of the plays produced at the Abbey as well as reproductions of posters and newspaper articles from the theater’s early years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flannery, James W. W. B. Yeats and the Idea of a Theatre. Toronto: Macmillan, 1976. This excellent study traces Yeats’s long interest in the drama. Unlike some critics, the author takes seriously Yeats’s commitment to the art of the drama.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunt, Hugh. The Abbey: Ireland’s National Theatre, 1904-1978. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. Authorized by the directors of the Irish National Theatre Society. An excellent summary of the first seventy-five years of the Abbey Theatre. Includes a list of all the Abbey productions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kohfeldt, Mary Lou. Lady Gregory: The Woman Behind the Irish Renaissance. New York: Atheneum, 1985. A well-written account of Lady Gregory, her contribution to the Abbey Theatre, and her relationships with the major figures of the Celtic Revival.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mikhail, E. H., ed. The Abbey Theatre: Interviews and Recollections. London: Macmillan, 1988. An excellent summary of the remembrances of many important figures in the history of the Abbey Theatre from the earliest days to the 1980’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Welch, Robert. The Abbey Theatre, 1899-1999: Form and Pressure. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. History of the theater places the personalities involved and the plays produced in political and historical context. Presents synopses of the major plays produced at the Abbey as well as information on the theater’s artistic directors over the years. Includes bibliography and index.

The Playboy of the Western World Offends Irish Audiences

Yeats Publishes The Wild Swans at Coole

Categories: History