Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Era

In Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Era Patrick Lonergan stages a debate about theatre and the impact of globalisation. Far from interpreting globalisation as a monolithic phenomenon, this study interrogates the multifaceted nature of the global cultural marketplace and locates theatre – specifically Irish theatre – within it. In so doing, Lonergan achieves his goal of thinking about Irish theatre within a new conceptual framework: a global framework.

Readers should not be put off by the fact that each chapter title involves the word ‘global’ in one form or another, although this is a clue to the book’s level of focus. What each chapter title illustrates is the range of different ways of approaching the theme, from the global marketplace for plays such as Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pocket or Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, to the more local sense in which Irish culture has increasingly opened up to international influences and products. This last word is key. Lonergan pursues the logic of treating plays as “products” and all the implications that this involves. So, the analysis of how plays appeal to audiences is based on the principle that audiences tend to express product preference. This is the basis for Lonergan’s discussion of why Patrick Mason’s critically well-received 1995 production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches at the Abbey was so poorly attended. It boils down to the fact that the summer season at the Abbey Theatre only does well if programmed conservatively – if the box office take is the bottom line, as it often has to be for arts organisations, then audience product preference has to be catered to. At several points, Lonergan points to the fact that audiences like to have their expectations confirmed rather than challenged and that globalisation, with its emphasis on branding and product recognition, only increases the power of this expectation.

Leading on from this deduction is the further question of whether then “globalization has increased or reduced opportunities for intercultural dialogue?” We’re all familiar with the international stereotype of Irishness, based on a strange blend of James Joyce, John Millington Synge and Riverdance. This stereotype may be a reductive portrait of a heterogeneous nation, but it is one that worked well in the ‘Celtic Tiger Era’. However, now that we’re facing Celtic Meltdown, the next step is to question how that portrait may become a deformed icon that we want to hide away in the attic.

The economic realities of making theatre are always close to the surface of Lonergan’s analysis. Not only does he probe box-office figures as one way of measuring a play’s reception, but his understanding of globalisation takes into account the interconnections of capital and culture in other ways too. Lonergan discusses the crossover of the financial and “creative industries”, as the former use the strategies of the latter to think about globally staging and performing their businesses. The IDA is one example of this trend, as the organisation has used Le Brocquy and Beckett as ways of branding Ireland internationally as a “creative economy”. There are other, less grounded points of comparison between modern corporate culture and Irish theatre, however, which at some points strains the argument to breaking point, as when the mobility of culture in a globalised framework is set next to the mobility of economic migrants. I understand what this point means in the context of crossing and transcending national boundaries, but the realities of economic migrancy don’t really sit well in such a brief comparison.

More successful is the discussion of how modern corporate behaviour may influence the way in which we watch plays. If multi-tasking and short attention spans are traits we associate not merely with working mothers, but as typical of the global consumer, then one-act plays or plays with short scenes and powerful sentiments will perform well. The recent vogue for monologue drama, which develops the illusion of a close relationship between the actor and the audience member, may offer not only a focal point for audiences starved of “the real”, but also the illusion of community and, indeed, communion.

Beyond identifying trends, what Lonergan does so well in this book is to identify the implications of globalisation for making Irish theatre. This book is far from a celebration of the fact that we can now bring a globalised sensibility to the theatre in the same way that we download, record and pause live television, while twittering and making microwave popcorn. By considering three different productions of the same play, Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, Lonergan traces changing attitudes to producing culture. Starting with an outline of the first production of the play in 1926, Lonergan moves on to consider in more detail two further Abbey productions of the play: Garry Hynes’ in 1991 and Ben Barnes’ in 2002. Garry Hynes’ production may not have been the most critically successful, with some serious resistance to the use of Brechtian stage practices, but it had artistic integrity and a distinct aesthetic and political raison d'ĂȘtre. In contrast, Barnes’ production seemed, according to Lonergan, to be motivated by the need to tour internationally and to embody the heritage and cultural prestige of the Abbey. Lonergan is scathing on the subject of what Barnes “might have” done with this production and how he failed. What these two productions symbolise is the shift from the “cultural authority of the Abbey” in 1991 as an institution capable of “critiquing the state” to the Abbey’s status in 2002 as simply “one of a number of government agencies engaged in activities of social, civic and economic utility.” The impact of globalisation, over an eleven year time span, has resulted not in an expansion but a contraction of political relevance and artistic independence. This is theatre “selling out” in the wrong sense of that pun.

This is an intelligent book and one with a mission statement – it’s a clarion call for Irish theatre makers to resist the global homogenisation of culture. Resistance can be staged by dramatists, producers, audiences and performers who “choose to act” and to “react” by practising and supporting drama which questions the essentialisation of identity and refuses to reduce plays to the level of “brand”. Lonergan cites Marina Carr and Elizabeth Kuti as two dramatists capable of this resistance, because of the complexity of their attitudes to identity and history. In the final chapter, Kuti’s 2005 play The Sugar Wife is compared with Friel’s The Home Place, produced in the same year. Lonergan’s analysis is subtle here; in fact it’s the most convincing diagnosis of the anxiety underlying The Home Place that I’ve read, and the problems of staging a postcolonial play in a post-national, globalised Ireland. Likewise, the analyses of both Stones in His Pocket and Dancing at Lughnasa are nuanced, while throughout, descriptions of productions are detailed and rich. It’s important to stress this, because Lonergan is so interested in, and interesting about, the intimate spaces mapped out within a play, not just the global theatrical territories that it attempts to colonise.

Patrick Lonergan begins with a disclaimer – that this is not a history of Irish drama. The book’s exclusive focus means that playwrights such as Tom Murphy, otherwise central to Irish drama, aren’t relevant to the consideration of Irish drama in this period. Instead, the discussion of plays is always grounded in the considerations of globalisation and its multiple, interlinking processes. This makes at once for a narrow yet deep consideration of drama in Ireland. You may not think that you particularly want to read Irish theatre through the framework of globalisation but this is a book which, convincingly, argues that you need to.

Emilie Pine lectures in modern drama at UCD.

Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Era
  • Review

Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Era

Edited by Patrick Lonergan

Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

Buy this book