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A Companion to Modern British and Irish Drama, 1880-2005


Edited by Mary Luckhurst


Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

Paperback reissue (Hardback, 2006). xvii + 584 p. ISBN 978-1405122283. £29.99


Reviewed by Alexandra Poulain

Université Charles de Gaulle—Lille 3



This collection is the first of its kind which covers the fields of British and Irish theatres jointly, and it does so with a conscious attempt at opening up the canon and reconfiguring the conventional narratives of theatrical historiography. In her introduction, Mary Luckhurst, herself both a scholar and theatre practitioner, emphasises the importance of the “postcolonial agenda” in the collection she has assembled, which comprises forty-six chapters by forty-two contributors. How theatre contributes to forge (in both senses of the word, as Declan Kiberd suggests) and critique national identities and narratives of imperial domination and colonial resistance is a central preoccupation in many chapters. However, while a fair amount of space is allotted to Irish theatre, only Vic Merriman and Declan Kiberd’s chapters in the opening section (“Contexts”) address the contribution of Irish theatre to the “invention of England” (Kiberd’s phrase again). Besides, little attention is paid to reciprocal influences between Irish and British dramas, so that no new common object emerges (as the singular seems to promise in the title: “modern British and Irish drama”) and the overall impression is of two parallel narratives running together without intersecting much. The volume also brings to the fore the emergence of distinctive voices in Scottish (Liz Lochhead, David Greig) and Welsh (Ed Thomas) dramas and usefully points out the various modes of theatrical intervention into the postcolonial questioning of the notion of Britishness.

As Luckhurst points out, another decisive preoccupation of the volume is its feminist agenda. Again, the editor’s intention is to enlarge the canon and restore to visibility a number of women playwrights who have been marginalised or even erased from conventional accounts of modern drama. The final result, however, is not quite up to this praiseworthy ambition. While important survey chapters are devoted to such topics as “New Woman drama” (Sally Ledger), “Suffrage theatre” (Susan Carlson) and “Women playwrights in the 1950’s” (Susan Bennet), only Sarah Kane, Liz Lochhead, Caryl Churchill and Marina Carr are in fact allotted each a full chapter, and influential contemporary women playwrights such as Pam Gems, Sarah Daniels, Rebecca Prichard and Timberlake Wertenbaker are merely alluded to in passing (and in the case of the latter, rather dismissively). Several survey chapters, however, significantly open up the field by including women; thus Helen Lojek’s “Troubling Perspectives: Northern Ireland, the ‘Troubles’ and Drama” usefully revises the traditional account of “Troubles” drama which tends to focus mainly on the role of Field Day, and calls attention to the influential intervention of women theatre practitioners (especially the members of Charabanc) and playwrights.

The overall structure of the volume is unusual in that it refuses to choose between a chronological and a thematic outline. The first part, entitled “Contexts”, comprises four fascinating though heteroclite essays by Vic Merriman, Declan Kiberd, Katherine Newey and Sally Ledger which suggest ways in which theatrical historiographical narratives have coalesced and need to be revised (for instance, Newey shows how British theatrical historiography has appropriated Ibsen’s drama as a paradigm of stage naturalism, and tended to neglect his “poetic and epic dramas”). Parts Two (“Mapping new Ground, 1900-1939”), Three (“England, Class and Empire, 1939-1990”) and Six (“Theatre since 1968”) are organised chronologically, though Part Three also has a thematic dimension and overlaps uncomfortably with Part Six; while Parts Four (“Comedy”) and Five (“War and Terror”) are exclusively thematic and transcend temporal periods. This choice occasionally makes for a certain confusion (thus Sarah Kane appears before Howard Barker, whose early work was a major inspiration for her) but allows the emergence of persisting trends and motifs in British and Irish theatre. The section about “War and Terror” is particularly illuminating, although one may wonder why it fails to include Edward Bond (whose Café, War Plays and The Crime of the 21st Century, arguably some of the most incisive and innovative plays about the reality of war, are nowhere mentioned in the volume) and Howard Barker, both treated in Part Six.

Finally, while several essays call attention to the necessity of revising the standard narrative of British and Irish drama as fundamentally naturalistic, relatively little space is devoted to those contemporary theatrical experiments which engage with resolutely non-naturalistic formats, such as the cross-disciplinary multi-media pursuits of Théâtre de Complicité, or the formal games of Martin Crimp, both only briefly alluded to. While it not does not revolutionise standard approaches to the field, this Companion offers strong and accessible scholarship on major playwrights and aspects of theatrical history and historiography, and usefully reflects on its own practices and agendas, and will be extremely useful to students and theatre scholars. 




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