A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 4 - Summer 2012

Essays Current Research ReviewsContributorsAnnouncements
ISSN 2045-1024


Ibsen and the Irish Revival reviewed by Louise Burns & Richard Mills
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2010; ISBN: 978-0230231993)

Adepts of the theatre are familiar with the hostile reception accorded to the early production of Ibsen’s plays. Irina Malone opens her text with an unequivocal warning concerning the depravity to be encountered in Hedda Gabler. She cites a critique appearing in the 1891 Dublin Review where the play is judged to be quite simply an attack on the institution of marriage; ‘a free representation of a play too repulsive in subject to be licensed as a public spectacle.’  Ibsen is the ‘drama of ideas’, breaking open social taboos and attacking the sacred institutions of marriage, family and religion.  The drama surrounding syphilis, independent women, illegitimate children and corrupt democracies do not reflect an idyllic society. This social diagnosis was, to Malone, also a prominent feature of Revivalist aesthetics.

Malone’s book rejects the ‘obvious legacy of the Irish Literary Revival’, where ‘schoolchildren are taught a variety of native myths and texts by Yeats and Joyce’.  The Revivalists were writing a romantic, idealist view of Ireland.  A bucolic land seeped in the magical history of fairies, lyrical language and devotion to God.  They were bringing to light the ‘real Ireland’.  Malone’s book points out that literature of the Revival was much more complex than this popularly held understanding.

In Ibsen and The Irish Revival,Malone wishes to investigate anew the connections between the writings of Ibsen and the Irish Literary Movement with the intention of challenging the received view that ‘the Irish Literary Revival was rooted in the rejection of Ibsen’. She cites from the diary of Lady Gregory in 1898:  ‘Yeats believes that there will be a reaction after the realism of Ibsenism, and Romance will have its turn.’  Malone proposes the controversial idea that in fact Ibsen helped rescue the Irish Literary Revival, galvanising the Revival away from the idealistic perspective to a healthier no nonsense post-idealist perspective.

Her central claim is that the confusions preventing clarity in the reception of Ibsen were a function of the political turmoil prevailing in Ireland at the time.  She seeks to shed further light on this claim by drawing our attention to events unfolding in the early days of the Abbey Theatre, the plays performed at the Abbey in this period had a clear Romantic nationalist agenda. Plays such as Yeats’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan, were at odds with Ibsen’s social realist concerns.  Despite the aesthetic similarities which clearly exist between Ibsen and The Cork Realists, she further explores the relevance of Ibsen’s work in the light of political and social changes at the turn of the century. She identifies that the Revival was a more heterogeneous movement than the ‘narrowly nationalist phenomenon’ it is often perceived to be.  Ultimately, with the presentation of Peer Gynt in 1928 at the Peacock Theatre, Malone makes it clear that Revivalism became an accommodation between myth, folklore and modernism. An analogy with W. B. Yeats here is appropriate: his early Romantic poems and didactic plays were replaced with more complex modernist poetics in his later work. Malone makes it clear that Ibsen’s work, like Yeats’s was aesthetically varied and should not be categorised too readily. She makes it clear that Yeats’s work and the Irish Literary Revival should not be understood in a one-dimensional way either.

Malone believes in the persuasive force of theatre to mirror society: ‘Dublin was indeed a place where literature and daily life intermingled. The Irish Literary Revival gave literature, and in particular dramatic writing, a prominent place in Irish society’.   In what is a carefully researched and thoughtful analysis she suggests a changed landscape; Ibsen’s work was responsible for creating a Revival landscape that sustained a myriad of different aesthetic outlooks.  Her original and intriguing perspective brings the flora and fauna of this landscape into sharper focus. 

The book is an acutely detailed reading of the major texts of the Irish Literary Renaissance. In these texts, Malone demonstrates how myth, romanticism and realism elements co-exist. She correctly discerns that this is Ibsen’s legacy. His work shows that Irish Revivalist texts are a broad church, which ‘still allows Irish writers to negotiate a way between the conflicting demands of modernity and tradition, nationalism and cosmopolitanism’.

In sum, then, the book is an essential text for scholars of Ibsen and of the Irish Literary Revival. Students and lecturers can avail themselves of the detailed appendix, which list all the performances of Ibsen’s plays in Ireland from 1894-1928. A period in Irish history which saw Irish literature evolve from early idealism of the 1890s to gun play and revolution in 1916 and, ultimately, to a questioning modernism which eschewed certitude. In terms of Revivalist and Ibsenite aesthetics, Malone’s argument is focused, cogent and clear. However, the reason that the literature and the Revival is seen as ‘narrowly nationalist’ is that the Abbey Theatre, the plays and Yeats’s poetry all led to political independence and revolution; and these historical events have superseded the literature of the period in the minds of literary critics and historians. Malone writes that Ibsen was proclaimed as ‘a great romanticist and the progenitor of dramatic realism’, and that the literature of the Revival managed to juggle these opposites. True, but in 1916 in the General Post Office in Dublin the rebels didn’t have such a quandary: their actions were the embodiment of romanticism and idealism; the legacy from the Revival is that it is revolution and romanticism that resonate. This is why Malone’s study is so timely; it reminds readers of the idealistic ghosts that haunt Irish literature.