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Chris McCormack: Would Abbey Theatre’s #WakingTheFeminists backlash have happened in any other year?

A scene from Tirteen. Photo: Patrick Redmond
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Last week, the Abbey Theatre – Ireland’s national theatre – hosted the first meeting of #WakingTheFeminists, a gender equality initiative born out of an outcry over the theatre’s 2016 season, which so far features only one play written by a woman. Abbey artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail explained his programming from the stalls: “I was thinking about war stories, about poverty, about housing, about disenfranchisement… I wasn’t thinking about gender balance.”

Mac Conghail cuts the confounded figure of a programmer whose usual sensibilities have been trampled, answerable to not just another Abbey season but an entire commemoration industry. The 2016 line-up, entitled Waking the Nation, is set to resonate with the centenary of the Easter Rising: a bloody insurrection led under a new Irish Proclamation calling for “the unfettered control of Irish destinies” from British rule.

Strangely, 2016 wasn’t revealed to be the worst year for gender balance at the Abbey. 2009, 2012 and 2013 all featured one play written by a woman, and 2008 and 2014 had none. That the organised response coincided with the anniversary of an imaginable republic (“cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”, according to the Proclamation) suggests that the protest was urged in part by our relationship with history. In any other year, would #WakingTheFeminists have happened?

Cultural Treasures

That the Abbey became the incidental conduit for this proves the potency of WB Yeats and Augusta Gregory’s national theatre project, and reignites links to its provocative past. In 1907, the theatre offended nationalists’ perceptions of the West of Ireland with JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, and in 1926 it controversially misplaced the martyrs of the Rising in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. Both dramas incited riots.

Due to its symbolic position, the Abbey is easily exposed to critique, but its realities are not as grim compared elsewhere. Last Sunday, Dublin’s Gate Theatre’s artistic director Michael Colgan was able to name-check his favourite women novelists on national radio, but anyone would be hard-pressed to find a play written by a woman that he has produced (there are only 17 in the company’s 86-year history). Meanwhile, Galway’s Druid Theatre Company’s director Garry Hynes, in a letter to the Irish Times, stressed the importance of opening the conversation out to the independent sector.

The backlash to Waking the Nation reveals the complexity of the arts’ involvement in acts of commemoration. It also proves that combustible energies still surround 1916, and can lend to powerful reactions. That would make any programmer nervous, with most of the Irish Decade of Centenaries (2012-2022) still to go.

What we can learn from the Abbey’s centenary programme is that the issue wasn’t how it proposed to reflect Irish social history. The problem was its reflection of Irish theatre history. Waking the Nation is set to sustain an Abbey narrative of polishing the “cultural treasures”, to use philosopher Walter Benjamin’s wary term, the spoils of historical victory (playwrights Sean O’Casey, Tom Murphy and Frank McGuinness) that owe part of their success to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries (Dorothy Macardle, Teresa Deevy, Anne Devlin and many others).

The irrepressible spirit of 1916

Benjamin once described history as an angel, facing fixedly on the past with its back against the future, watching events pile into a single catastrophe. It’s an image that warns: we shouldn’t mistake the past for progress.

Centenary programming, then, poses an opportunity to explode historical continuities. We can look to such a model in a project from 2013 that marked the anniversary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, a major industrial action that led to the principality of workers’ unions.

ANU Productions’ Thirteen was a series of 13 interconnecting works performed in spaces across Dublin, effectively turning the city into a mise en scene for a fortnight. Director Louise Lowe artfully found parallels between early 20th-century tenements and unsafe housing built during the Celtic Tiger, echoes of youth emigration projecting from either end of the century, as if the past was somehow complicit in the present’s economic crisis. Lowe’s inspiring project also disrupted a historical narrative that excludes powerful women involved in the dispute, and often ignores the criminal interference of the Catholic church.

If we are to judge from #WakingTheFeminists some kind of tapping into the irrepressible spirit of 1916, what other opportunities will the centenary throw up, both on stage and off? That a protest can still happen at the theatre, that people can make themselves counted to enact change. That’s more than waking the nation or the feminists.

That’s waking the Rising.

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