British and Irish Literature Abbey Theatre
Seán Hewitt
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0141


The Abbey Theatre, which is the National Theatre of Ireland, opened on 27 December 1904 with a trio of plays by W. B. Yeats (b. 1865–d. 1939) and Lady Augusta Gregory (b. 1852–d. 1932). It followed on from the earlier establishment of the Irish Literary Theatre, which performed new plays in various Dublin venues. The Abbey, which was funded by the English heiress Annie Horniman (b. 1860–d. 1937), was the fixed home of the Irish National Theatre Society, founded by Yeats, Gregory, AE (George Russell, b. 1867–d. 1935), Edward Martyn (b. 1859–d. 1923) and J. M. Synge (b. 1871–d. 1909), many of whom contributed new work to the theater, making it the cradle of the cultural nationalist movement known as the Irish Revival. Although a popular success, the fraught politics of Ireland during the period of its establishment meant that the Abbey was often subject to controversy, most obviously shown in the riots which greeted J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1907) and Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars (1926). In 1925, the Abbey was given a state subsidy, making it the first state-supported theater in the English-speaking world. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1951, and the new building opened in 1966. It has gained a reputation primarily as a writers’ theater, and it has premiered works by many of Ireland’s key 20th-century and 21st-century dramatists, notably Synge, Gregory, Yeats, Sean O’Casey, Teresa Deevy, Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, and Marina Carr. In recent years, the Abbey’s Peacock Stage, dedicated to new and experimental writing, has commissioned new works by emerging playwrights, such as Nancy Harris, Stacey Gregg, Elaine Murphy, and Richard Dormer.

General Overviews

Several general overviews give accounts of both the practical development of the Abbey and the shifts in its aesthetic and literary production. Welch 1999 and Arrington 2010 give a full overview of the Abbey’s practical and aesthetic response to political, financial, and social pressures. Wide-ranging collections of essays are included in Richards 2003 and Grene and Morash 2016. Mathews 2003 explores the Abbey’s formation in relation to other radical movements of the period. General literary overviews are provided by Maxwell 1984, Fitz-Simon 2003. Hunt 1979 is an authorized history of the Abbey until 1979, and it is useful for its compilation of journalistic responses to the productions. Morash 2002 gives a broad but detailed overview of Irish theater both preceding the Abbey and throughout its history.

  • Arrington, Lauren. W. B. Yeats, the Abbey Theatre, Censorship, and the Irish State: Adding the Half-Pence to the Pence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199590575.001.0001

    This study begins in 1916 and ends with the death of Yeats. Arrington deftly traces the relationship between the Abbey Theatre and the politics of the Irish state. Makes insightful use of a wide range of archival material, from financial records and minutes from the Abbey directors’ meetings to Dáil debates and government correspondence.

  • Fitz-Simon, Christopher. The Abbey Theatre: Ireland’s National Theatre; The First 100 Years. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

    A good introduction to the Abbey for the general reader. High-quality production, with lots of illustrations and photographs of casts and set design. Notable for its detailed exploration on the Abbey’s relationship with theaters and playwrights in the United States.

  • Grene, Nicholas, and Christopher Morash, eds. The Oxford Handbook to Modern Irish Theatre. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    With essays by forty-one contributors, this is the most recent and thorough reassessment of the Irish theatrical tradition to date. Rather than being strictly introductory in nature, each contribution offers a detailed and original insight into the shifting critical landscape of Irish theater. Ranges from Dion Boucicault’s melodramas to contemporary drama, contextualizing the Abbey’s work within the broader landscape of Irish and European theater.

  • Hunt, Hugh. The Abbey: Ireland’s National Theatre, 1904–1979. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1979.

    Published to coincide with the Abbey’s seventy-fifth anniversary, this authorized history is mainly useful as a reference work, and it focuses more heavily on the period up to Yeats’s death (1939) than the years from 1939 to 1979. Hunt’s work is more akin to a compilation than a critical work, though it includes many photographic plates and a rich array of journalistic work.

  • Mathews, P. J. Revival: The Abbey Theatre, Sinn Féin, the Gaelic League and the Co-operative Movement. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 2003.

    Traces the connections between a number of radical movements in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century. A good example of recent critical revisions of the monolithic nature of the Revival movement, Mathews’s book contextualizes the Abbey as a mode of “self-help” within a time of broader cultural and political modernization in Ireland.

  • Maxwell, D. E. S. A Critical History of Modern Irish Drama, 1891–1980. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    Focuses mainly on the Abbey and its dramatists, though also includes discussion of the Gate Theatre, Dublin, and several Belfast theaters. Addresses the usual figures (Synge, Yeats, O’Casey, Beckett, Friel), though it is unfortunately lacking in its critical attention to the work of women playwrights.

  • Morash, Christopher. A History of the Irish Theatre, 1601–2000. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Notable for its large historical scope, and useful for its contextualization of Irish theater before the period of the Revival and the founding of the Abbey. As with other histories, such as Maxwell 1984, Morash explores the drama of Yeats, Synge, and O’Casey, but also includes good work on Teresa Deevy, Marina Carr, and more recent Abbey productions.

  • Richards, Shaun, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    A collection of essays dealing principally with the Abbey Theatre, though also including work on Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. Adrian Frazier offers a concise essay on “The Ideology of the Abbey Theatre,” Richard Allen assesses Irish stage design, and Cathy Leeney discusses the place of Irish women playwrights in the canon.

  • Welch, Robert. The Abbey Theatre, 1899–1999: Form and Pressure. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198121879.001.0001

    A chronological account of the development of the Abbey, balancing a clear historical exploration of practical matters (funding, audience, etc.) with literary analysis. Noteworthy for its combination of detailed research and historical sweep.

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