In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Post-War Irish Drama

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Community Drama

British and Irish Literature Post-War Irish Drama
Eva Urban
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0074


The immediate post-war period from 1945 until the end of the 1950s was an important transitional period in Irish history, determined by the establishment of Eamon De Valera’s new constitution in 1937 and the Irish republic in 1949, and the formation of a new sense of Irish identity and Irish society dominated by the doctrines of the Catholic Church. After the Irish civil war of 1922–1923, the old colonial power of imperialist Britain and the Anglo-Irish ascendancy was gradually replaced by the formation of a new Catholic religious state with a new social conservatism. The repression that followed from the 1930s included heavy censorship of literature and drama and a tendency to silence any critique of the new ruling Irish Catholic middle-class elite. Paul Vincent Carrol fittingly adapted the critical social realism of Henrik Ibsen, whose work was produced under similar conservative bourgeois Christian restrictions in late-19th-century Norway, to the new situation in Ireland. Most of the plays that closely followed World War II (described as “the Emergency” in politically neutral and isolated Ireland) in the De Valera period of the late 1940s and the 1950s can be grouped within the genre of a specific Irish form of heightened social realism and symbolic realism. In 1950s and 1960s Ireland, the plays of John B. Keane, which dealt with social and domestic ills within a heightened realistic framework containing elements of late-19th-century melodrama, naturalism, symbolism, and Irish folk and peasant drama centered around land, hearth, and home, can be seen as representative of this new Irish genre. A different strand of Irish drama emerged from abroad in the 1950s, rather as an international outside insider’s view, looking in from the outside at Irish society, in the form of the work of the late modernist Samuel Beckett. Political themes and historical, social, and cultural criticism continue to run through much of post-war and contemporary Irish drama. In fact, almost all of Irish drama is related to Irish politics in some way. So, while some academic studies focus explicitly on politics and theater, there is hardly any work that does not mention politics. We can distinguish between abstract dramatization and ritual representations of power relations in the tyranny plays of Beckett—such as Catastrophe, Rough for Radio II, and What Where—heightened realism addressing political themes directly, and expressionist, metatheatrical, didactic, and Brechtian approaches. Brian Friel’s The Mundy Scheme (1969) is a directly political play that is still relevant to Irish politics. Roche 2011 (cited under Politics and Postcolonial Theory) directly quotes Friel to underline the complexity of theatrical options experimented with in his plays: “I suppose what I’m really trying to avoid is the threadbare device of realism” (p. 5). In the Brechtian The Freedom of the City, written in reaction to the events of Bloody Sunday 1972 in Derry, the audience is assigned the role of tribunal. Brechtian dramaturgical techniques are also applied in plays by Sean O’Casey, John Arden, Margaretta d’Arcy, Brendan Behan, Sam Thompson, John Boyd, Patrick Galvin, Martin Lynch, Marie Jones, Christina Reid, Stewart Parker, and many others. Issues of history, memory, selfhood, identity, and gender are explored through various dramaturgical techniques in the plays of many contemporary playwrights such as Tom Murphy, Anne Devlin, Frank McGuinness, and Marina Carr. Old pastoral themes are critically disjointed in the works of Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh.

General Overviews

There are a number of helpful introductory guides to post-war Irish drama. Bull 2001 includes a range of major Irish post-war dramatists. Middeke and Schnierer 2010 is a comprehensive introductory guide to contemporary Irish dramatists from the 1960s and after. Sternlicht 1998 is a concise introductory guide to many major modern Irish playwrights, especially useful to students or general readers. Sternlicht 2005 introduces some landmark post-war Irish plays such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Brian Friel’s Translations. Sternlicht 2010 is an accessible introduction to the full range of 20th-century Irish drama. Schrank and Demastes 1997 introduces the reader to a wide range of important modern Irish playwrights in helpfully structured accounts of biographies, major plays, productions, premieres, and revivals, as well as minor plays and adaptations. Pilkington 2010 is a critical survey that examines the impact and political potential of theater in Ireland between the 17th century and the present.

  • Bull, John Stanley, ed. British and Irish Dramatists since World War II, Second Series. Dictionary of Literary Biography 233. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2001.

    Lists biographical entries for a wide range of important British and Irish post-war dramatists.

  • Middeke, Martin, and Peter Paul Schnierer, eds. The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary Irish Playwrights. London: Methuen, 2010.

    Well-structured guide to contemporary Irish drama from the 1960s to the present. Introduces playwrights Sebastian Barry, Dermot Bolger, Marina Carr, Anne Devlin, Emma Donoghue, Brian Friel, Marie Jones, John B. Keane, Thomas Kilroy, Hugh Leonard, Martin Lynch, Owen McCafferty, Martin McDonagh, Frank McGuinness, Tom MacIntyre, Conor McPherson, Gary Mitchell, Tom Murphy, Donal O’Kelly, Mark O’Rowe, Stewart Parker, Christina Reid, J. Graham Reid, Billy Roche, and Enda Walsh.

  • Pilkington, Lionel. Theatre and Ireland. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    Short but extensive critical survey. Includes an introduction by Fiona Shaw.

  • Schrank, Bernice, and William W. Demastes, eds. Irish Playwrights, 1880–1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997.

    Invaluable primary research resource, introducing the reader to a wide range of important modern Irish playwrights in helpfully structured accounts of biographies, major plays, productions, premieres, and revivals, as well as minor plays and adaptations, including an assessment of the playwright’s career, relevant archival sources, and useful bibliographies.

  • Sternlicht, Sanford. A Reader’s Guide to Modern Irish Drama. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

    Concise introductory guide to many major modern Irish playwrights and their work; for students or general readers.

  • Sternlicht, Sanford. Masterpieces of Modern British and Irish Drama. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005.

    Accessible general guide for students, covering British and Irish drama of the 20th century; introduces some landmark post-war Irish plays such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Brian Friel’s Translations. Offers biographies, plot summaries and brief discussion of major themes, historical background, and surveys of critical reception. Useful in the manner it contextualizes modern British and Irish drama in one volume.

  • Sternlicht, Sanford. Modern Irish Drama: William Butler Yeats to Marina Carr. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010.

    Accessible introduction to the full range of 20th-century Irish drama within the context of Irish history and society.

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