MISS Online: Sydney Theatre and the Irish play

Tuesday 14th September, 2021 at 6:30pm (AEST) on Zoom
Prof. Emerit. Peter Kuch,  University of Otago
The Sydney Theatre and the Irish play in the 1830s

Both the desire for Irish plays and the dearth of them resounds throughout the 1830s. While the ‘loss’ of the Irish play was vigorously debated in the Dublin press and in magazines such as The Drama, there was little financial incentive to risk a distinctly Irish play in either Dublin or Sydney at a time when it was becoming increasingly possible to earn a living from writing material that was a proven commercial success. At its most extreme, one Dublin manager even resorted to inserting Irish melodies into English plays to give them the requisite national appeal. But if the Irish play was in danger of becoming a memory, the role of the Irish character was flourishing. Cumberland’s British Theatre noted in 1828 that ‘a first-rate actor of Irish characters is indispensable on a London stage.’ Jeffery Richards has shown that a ‘vogue for Irish stereotypes took control of the stage in the 1830s and 1840s’ with ‘home-grown Paddy-types’ proliferating as the century progressed, first on stage and then on screen. Of the great actors of the early 19th century — Elliston, T.P. Cooke, Farren, Tyrone Power, Buckstone, Liston and Emery — Elliston, Power and Buckstone were applauded as much for their mastery of the Irish brogue as for their distinctive acting. By 1850, as E. F. Niehaus has argued, ‘Paddy was king of the boards.’ 

For the most part, Irish roles in the plays produced at the Sydney Theatre Royal throughout the 1830s are notable for their wit, whimsy, sociability and fortuitous problem solving. Though marked by brogue, and often relegated to a sub-plot, they nevertheless play a noteworthy role in resolving conflictBut as the decade progressed, a reaction set in that saw the re-emergence of the Stage Irishman. For the most part, Irish playwrights of the period, responding as much to shifts in the political climate as to the lure of financial success, were seduced into exploiting stereotypes for commercial gain rather than exploring new political complexities. The ‘political’ Irish play, whether overtly as patriotic or nationalistic or covertly as a critique of power via the comedy of manners, temporarily disappeared as Irish playwrights attempted the commercially successful forms of the day: farces and burlettas as a substitute for comedy; adaptations of popular novels; and the gothic horror/supernatural play. The story of the Irish on the Sydney stage throughout the 1830s is a story of Irish character roles and ‘ersatz Irish’ commercial forms. 

Peter Kuch is the inaugural Eamon Cleary Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He has published more than 60 refereed articles, book chapters and books on Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Irish theatre, Irish literature, Irish and Australian film, literary theory, Australian literature, and Irish/Australian history and presented conference papers and given lectures in over 30 countries. He is currently writing a cultural history of the performance of Irish theatre in New Zealand and Australia and is the representative for those countries on the international organising committee of the Irish Theatrical Diaspora Project.

The seminar will start at 6:30pm Australian Eastern Standard Time (Melbourne); 8.30pm New Zealand Standard Time (Wellington); 9:30am Irish Standard Time (Dublin). The seminar will also be recorded.

For zoom details RSVP: melbirishstudies [at] gmail.com.
For queries contact: melbirishstudies [at] gmail.com or dianne.hall [at] vu.edu.au