When he was in high school, Patrick Lonergan played the lead role in a production of “David Copperfield,” but this semester’s Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies pursued a career in academia, rather than on the stage. 

A professor of drama and theatre studies at the National University of Ireland, Galway—the first to hold such a post at the university—Lonergan has written or edited 12 books on Irish drama, exploring the interplay between theater and the wider world: How current events and societal trends influence the way drama is conceived, staged, and interpreted, and the impact this has on public views on political or social issues. He is one of the directors of the Galway International Arts Festival, a member of the Royal Irish Academy, and sits on the editorial boards of Irish University Review and Canadian Journal of Irish Studies.

Patrick Lonergan

Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies Patrick Lonergan. (Lee Pellegrini)

At BC, Lonergan is teaching the course Theater and Globalization—examining how the growth of world theater has shaped the work of dramatists in an expanded literary marketplace—while utilizing the Burns Library resources for his research and writing. He is organizing a one-day conference on April 6 on advances in archival research and their effect on teaching and research in literature and the performing arts.

On April 10, he will present the Burns Scholar Lecture, “Shakespeare and the Modern Irish Theatre: Staging Anglo-Irish Relations from 1916 to Brexit,” at 4:30 p.m. in the Burns Library’s Thompson Room. 

Lonergan recently spoke with Sean Smith of the Chronicle.

Q: What was your interest in coming to BC as the Burns Visiting Scholar?

Lonergan: The period in the 1990s when I pursued my master’s degree at University College Dublin was my introduction to Irish studies, and it was clear that Boston College occupied a very important place in the field, for its generation of new ideas and for the Burns archives, among other things. So I saw the Burns Visiting Scholar position as an opportunity to be part of this community, and to get to know the faculty and staff. 

It’s been interesting to see how Irish studies has evolved, in the context of discussions about the field and the direction it’s going, the challenges it’s experiencing. You don’t get to have an Irish Studies Program for 40 years without addressing those kinds of questions, so BC deserves a lot of credit for that.

Q: When you joined NUI Galway in 2013, you basically had the opportunity to build its theater program from the ground up. How’s that been going?

Lonergan: Very exciting. We have about 100 undergraduates and 25 post-grads, and we opened a new building in 2017. The aim of the program is not to train actors, although there are certainly students who may go on to have careers in the theater. We see theater as providing interesting, thoughtful content which can inform other facets of students’ curriculum: art and culture as a barometer for larger society; how to use archives; understanding the value of an ensemble, rather than focusing solely on the individual. It’s a very Jesuit sort of approach, and that’s where I first encountered theater, in the Jesuit high school I attended.

A big part of the theater program is to believe in ourselves as creators and in our ability to overcome difficulties. Students arrive with the idea of finding the “right answers.” Well, what we teach is “work with the confusion.” And if you’re an 18-year-old on the stage in front of an audience, and the other person forgets their line, that’s when you learn resilience and confidence.

Q: Your lecture is going to delve into the connection between Shakespeare, Irish theater, and Irish-Anglo relations—can you explain what this involves?

Lonergan: The last few years, there’s been a growing strain between England and Ireland, what with Brexit and the questions it’s raised about national sovereignty. And this period has seen an uptick in Irish productions of Shakespeare, which comment directly or indirectly on contemporary political controversies. It may be that Irish theaters are using Shakespeare to think about what the future relationships between Ireland and Britain might look like.

If you look back into Irish history, a fascinating picture emerges. Before 1916, Irish theater had been full of Shakespeare literally for centuries, resulting in some innovative productions and important figures in Irish theater. For a good portion of the last century, however, the Irish theater’s attitude toward Shakespeare has been ambivalent, insecure, even hostile—from the 1930s to the 1970s, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin basically banned Shakespeare. The impetus would seem to be the 1916 Easter Rising—ironically, on the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death—which precipitated a marked deterioration in Anglo-Irish relations. There were still productions of Shakespeare’s plays in Ireland, some of them involving famous international actors like Orson Welles, but there was a belief that Shakespeare didn’t belong on the Irish national stage. 

But there’s another aspect to this: If the Irish were ambivalent about Shakespeare, they also were aware that Shakespeare had been ambivalent about Ireland, going by some of the characters and references in his plays—like Rosalind comparing her lover to an Irish wolf in “As You Like It.” This mindset on Shakespeare might also suggest some Irish self-doubt as an independent nation, a society in transition. What you don’t stage in your theaters is often as revealing as what you do. 

What’s been happening in the past four decades—since the outbreak of The Troubles—has been a gradual re-engagement with Shakespeare in Irish theater, which really accelerated with the Good Friday Agreement. This includes productions of “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Macbeth” in which the actors spoke in their own Irish accents, instead of affecting English accents. And now, in the present, there seems to be more Shakespeare than ever in Irish theaters—perhaps, as I said, to help sort out where the Irish-British relationship is going.

Meanwhile, we’re also seeing English theaters reviving Irish plays, like Brian Friel’s “Translations” [which concerns the “anglicization” of an Irish village by English authorities in 1833]. What does this all mean? Maybe it’s a way to deal with issues surrounding Brexit. 

Q: It’s as you mentioned earlier: The idea is to look at theater as a barometer, a mirror, of larger social, political, and cultural trends taking place, right?

Lonergan: Yes. During the “Celtic Tiger” era [a period of rapid economic growth in Ireland during the late 20th and early 21st centuries], many of the plays that were staged at the Abbey suggested that materialism was not a good thing. But in the theater programs, there would be advertisements for the Anglo-Irish Bank urging everyone to “invest your money.” People would call the Abbey to get tickets for business clients they were trying to impress, and when they were told the cost they’d say, “Haven’t you got anything more expensive?” So the Abbey increased its ticket prices. 

The Celtic Tiger was a time when a lot of Ireland felt flush with cash—dubious as this might have been—and you could see evidence of that in how some people viewed theater in business or economic terms.

Q: You also are the academic leader in a project to digitize the archives of the Abbey and Gate theatres, creating the largest multi-media digital theater archive. What are some of the items you’ve come across?

Lonergan: We have some substantial video and audio content, scripts, correspondence, and other materials, and it’s quite fascinating. In one instance, we tracked the use of profanity or words with controversial associations in Abbey scripts over the years, like “divorce” or “homosexuality.” What we found was that, before these subjects were discussed in the Irish Parliament, they were being discussed in the Abbey Theatre.

Another part of the project involved minutes from the Abbey’s board of directors, including the period in the 1930s when William Butler Yeats was on the board. During that time, which was when Ireland was broke, the theater decided to cut salaries—but they were going to implement a more severe cut for women than men. The male actors wouldn’t have it, they made a big protest about it, and Yeats agreed with them, so the theater’s managers backed down. 

These are the sort of things you can learn from studying theater: It’s at its best when it challenges society to be better.

—Sean Smith | University Communications | April 2019