Irish Theatre Part II

This article will shine a light on some successful Irish playwrights who have seen their work take shape on Broadway’s stages.

By Jordan Levinson

The annual celebration of St. Patricks Day marks the anniversary of the death day of the most prominent patron saint and national apostle of Ireland; he is notably credited with bringing Christianity to its people. It is an international holiday today, but the Irish have observed St. Patrick’s Day as a religious observance since around the 9th or 10th century — over 1,000 years by now. Through parades, parties, and food aplenty, people around the world love celebrating their Irish heritage on this day. It notably takes place in the middle of Lent, the period commemorating the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting, so there are strict dietary rules and restrictions to follow. However, since St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday in 2023, the rules are a bit laxer — observers are more than welcome to eat meat on March 17 only (Shepherd’s Pie and corned beef and cabbage are traditional dishes for the holiday).

It has long been known that the Irish have a way with words and use them to tell the most wonderful stories, so seeing as St. Patrick’s Day is an international appreciation and celebration of Irish culture, this article will shine a light on some successful Irish playwrights who have seen their work take shape on Broadway’s stages:

Early in the 20th century, Dublin-born John Millington Synge — a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival (which saw a renewed interest in aspects of Celtic writing) — wrote many plays about Irish rural life before his 1909 death. His most notable play is The Playboy of the Western World, which has been seen eight times on Broadway in a 60-year span (1911-1971). It is centered on Christy Mahon, a young man who runs away from his farm and pretends that he has committed patricide. When it first premiered in Ireland in 1907, it was the subject of public controversy amongst republicans, as they claimed the play’s message and themes were an insult to the nation. The Playboy Riots broke out on its opening night before press opinion eventually turned against the rioters. Other Synge plays that came to Broadway include his first play, The Shadow of the Glen, Riders to the Sea, and The Well of the Saints; all of these had multiple runs throughout the 20th century.

From left, Orlagh Cassidy, Rachel Pickup, Aedin Moloney and Annabel Hägg in "Dancing at Lughnasa," directed by Charlotte Moore at the Irish Repertory Theater.

Orlagh Cassidy, Rachel Pickup, Aedin Moloney and Annabel Hägg in “Dancing at Lughnasa,” at the Irish Repertory Theater in 2011 (Carol Rosegg)

Brian Friel, known to some as “the Irish Chekhov”, is considered one of the greatest English-language dramatists, and his work was compared favorably to some of his fellow contemporaries. Friel’s plays were all written in the second half of the 20th century. 14 of them take place in a fictional town he liked to call Ballyweg (Irish for “small town”), one being Dancing at Lughnasa, which won him the 1992 Tony for best play. A memory play, it follows narrator Michael Evans, who recalls a summer he spent with his mother and her four sisters in a cottage when he was seven. Dancing at Lughnasa was adapted into a 1998 movie, directed by Irishman Pat O’Connor, and starring Meryl Streep as one of the sisters. Other works include Faith Healer (last seen on Broadway in 2006 with Ralph Fiennes and Cherry Jones), Translations (which got a 2007 Roundabout Theatre Company revival), and the two-sided relocation comedy Philadelphia, Here I Come!

A group of people dancing on a stage

Description automatically generated

Brian Bedford, Dana Ivey, David Furr, and Santino Fontana in Roundabout Theater Company’s 2011 The Importance of Being Earnest (Sara Krulwich)

In the late 19th century, a young man named Oscar Fingal O’Fflahertie Wills Wilde rose to fame as an avid spokesperson for aestheticism, making him one of the most striking personalities of his day. One of his most notable dramatic pieces — and the final comedy he wrote — is The Importance of Being Earnest, a farce where the protagonists adapt fictitious personas just so they can escape burdensome social obligations. The play’s premiere was successful, and it has been revived many times ever since. The original Broadway production opened in 1895 at the Empire Theatre and was produced by Charles Frohman; it most recently received a Roundabout remount in 2011, starring Tootsie Tony winner Santino Fontana. Oscar Wilde is also known for the Biblical legend dramatization Salome, the upper-class comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan, and the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

One of the key figures in the mid-20th century Theatre of the Absurd era, Samuel Beckett made himself known with his minimalist plays that focused on tragicomic life experiences, coupled with lots of nonsense. His Waiting for Godot tracks two men who have a variety of conversations under a leafless tree as they wait for the titular Godot, who never arrives. After first opening in France in 1953, it came to Broadway three years later and quickly became one of Beckett’s best-known works, with Bert Lahr — the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” — receiving praise for his turn as Estragon. Another popular Beckett play is the post-apocalyptic Endgame, a revival of which is currently playing through April 9 at New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre, starring Bill Irwin and John Douglas Thompson. 

Playwright and political activist George Bernard Shaw became the leading writer of his generation, as he wrote more than 60 dramatic works from the 1880s until his 1950 death. Much of Shaw’s work highlights his uncanny ability to contrast reality with conventional wisdom. The most known Shavian play is Pygmalion, about an English phonetics professor who changes the speech of a Cockney flower girl and passes her off as a duchess. The reality here, for instance, is that the lower class is just as smart as the upper class. Pygmalion received the musical treatment in the lush, “loverly” My Fair Lady, and the play has also been adapted into countless films and TV shows. Other Shaw plays include Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Saint Joan, and Man and Superman

A group of people dancing on a stage

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

David Patrick Kelly, David Abeles, Erikka Walsh, Andy Taylor, Paul Whitty, Carlos Valdes, J. Michael Zygo in Once on Broadway (Joan Marcus)

Another native Dubliner, Enda Walsh has written musicals, straight plays, radio plays, art installations, and even an opera in his theatrical career so far. Walsh himself has stated that his works are all about “some kind of love and need for calm and peace.” He is best known for writing the Tony-winning book for the stage adaptation of the indie film Once, which also won the 2012 Tony for best musical and ran for three years on Broadway. Walsh collaborated with David Bowie on the 2015 musical Lazarus, which played New York Theatre Workshop right before Bowie died. He also adapted the unabashedly Irish coming-of-age story Sing Street for the stage; after a successful run at NYTW, it was set to open on Broadway in April 2020, which never happened due to the pandemic shutdown. After a second tryout at Boston’s Huntington Stage in the summer of 2022, however, there could be a bright future in sight for the title. 

Todd Almond, center, and the ensemble of “Girl From the North Country.”

Todd Almond, center, and the ensemble of “Girl From the North Country.” (Sara Krulwich)

Like Walsh, Conor McPherson has also instilled himself as one of the great contemporary Irish playwrights. His 2006 play The Seafarer, about an alcoholic who lives with his aging brother during the holiday season and tries to stay sober, marked McPherson’s National Theatre debut; a Broadway production opened in late 2007 and garnered a best play Tony nomination. McPherson wrote the book for the Bob Dylan jukebox musical Girl from the North Country, which garnered raves in the West End and became the final Broadway production to officially open before the COVID shutdown; a national tour will begin in fall 2023. The Duluth, Minnesota-set piece was filmed on Broadway for a future proshot release; a more traditional film adaptation is also in the works and is set to star Olivia Colman, Woody Harrelson, and Chloe Bailey. 

Finally, Martin McDonagh has made his mark in dark comedy, both for the screen and the stage. His first six plays are separated into two trilogies, and they all take place around where he spent his holidays as a child. McDonagh fictionalized the perils of totalitarianism in The Pillowman, his first non-Irish play. The United States was the location of A Behanding in Spokane, about a mysterious man searching for his left hand for over 25 years. The Pillowman and A Behanding in Spokane both received Broadway runs, with lead actor Christopher Walken winning a Tony for the latter in 2010. Also making it to the Main Stem were The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in 2006, and the Tony-nominated best play Hangmen, which opened in 2022 after over a two-year delay. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *