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Early in 1899 the seedling Irish Socialist Republican Party held a public meeting to consider what had become a salient question. The minutes record that on 12 February Frederick Ryan 'delivered a lecture entitled "A Word on the Democratic Drama" in the course of which he dealt with and read extracts from the plays of Isben Isici and Bernard Shaw'. (1) Elsewhere in Dublin arrangements were underway for the inauguration of a new theatrical dynasty. W.B. Yeats exerted his prodigious energies publicizing the first stagings of the Irish Literary Theatre, soon to result in debut performances of The Heather Field and The Countess Cathleen, and an equally legendary dinner hosted at the Shelbourne Hotel. But Ireland's theatre business was never confined to such elite tables. The potential for a drama that would respond to the social polemics available in Ibsen and Shaw and become capable of staging the radical agendas of the Irish left would develop into a wiry thread of theatre practice running through the fabric of the Revival. Consideration of that tradition is crucial to a re-evaluation of realism's impact in Ireland; too often reduced to an inevitably conservative force placing formal restraints on Ireland's capacity to re-imagine possibilities. Raymond Williams's commentary on the curious history of English naturalism, in which he observed that melodrama absorbed 'the social and moral consciousness that was to inform serious naturalism' while formal naturalism 'moved away from themes based in a radical consciousness' (2) acknowledged that something different occurred in Ireland. But even where the Irish dramatists' thematic concerns did provide that lacking social dimension, Williams argued, it was still confined by the conservatism of naturalism itself. Confinement within an overwhelming--and tragic--social reality came with the territory. (3) However, Williams's influential criticism of O'Casey as an example of naturalism typical in its restriction of potential missed an important process behind his appearance. Since the Reviv al was characterized by reflexive attempts to alter cultural consciousness, Irish mimesis was always a hotly contested process, deployed polemically to shift perception. It was only occasionally allowed to fit into the narrow band of properly deterministic naturalism. The Irish school was more typically realist, generating rhetorical descriptions of a reality already open to alteration, rather than prescribing or naturalizing a fixed condition. And because not only national, but class, gender, and regional identities were up for examination, an array of realisms was available in Ireland, refracting a range of politics. Indeed to delimit the range of competing Irish realisms is to miss its combative, political operation. More specifically, consideration of Revival realism has been too confined to the Abbey's famous 'Peasant Quality' to factor in another type of 'PQ': that of proletarian quotient. (4) Placing the development of a distinct drama of Ireland's urban working class in the context of Ireland's reviva l-period socialist and trade unionist movements indicates that 'radical consciousness' could indeed find its form in realist responses to Ireland's ills. (5)

22 maart
Irish University Review

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