A Place to Paint a Crowded Space

When exploring the Abbey Theatre and its Peacock Theatre, I was struck by how effectively their tightly-packed, more intimate settings would be able to capture the cramped tenement situations as described by Sean O’Casey in Juno and the Paycock. Another play that portrays the poor Irish working class and the crowded lives they lived is Oliver St. John Gogarty’s Blight – The Tragedy of Dublin 1917. The “featured image” above is actually a ground plan of the play, mapping out the simplicity of staging the Irish slums on the Abbey’s original stage. A table, a stool, a few doors, two beds, and a fireplace make up the essential fixtures of this play’s bleak environment.

When Juno and the Paycock debuted in 1924, it premiered at the original Abbey Theatre as well, but subsequent productions, including the most recent one in 2011, were performed at the current Abbey Theatre. During the 1924 premiere of this play, the Abbey could hold 562 people. For reference, Gershwin Theatre (Broadway’s largest theatre) can hold 1,933 people and London’s largest theatre, Apollo Victoria, can house 2,500 spectators. I am sure the small stage and intimate seating certainly magnified the claustrophobic environment transpiring in front of the audience’s eyes. Like the one-room home pictured below, the small stage had just enough room to hold the actors and a few necessary fixtures.

One-room tenement dwelling picture
One-room tenement dwelling, Francis St.
Retrieved from the National Archives of Ireland
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As part of Abbey Theatre’s Oral History Project, the interview segment below discusses the early history of the company. The first interviewee, actress Ronnie Masterson, talks about her time at the original Abbey Theatre, noting the limited space. Masterson describes how the lane on Old Abbey Street was even used as a stage exit because the stage was not deep enough to allow actors to easily cross behind it. Instead, they had to make their way through this lane then navigate many doors and stairs before making their way back around to the other side of the stage. Apparently the theatre even had access to the neighboring pub; Masterson fondly recollects how the green room “was somehow or another connected with the pub next door.” Just as the close quarters of the theatre helped sever distance between performer and viewer, the interconnectedness of the layout (including the connection between bar and theatre), further served to create a more communal space that fervently fueled the collectivity of theatre–something the new and just-as-intimate Abbey Theatre continues to do today.

Source: https://www.abbeytheatre.ie/about/history/

1 Comment

  1. I also wrote about the Abbey Theatre, but I didn’t touch on the actual space on the stage. The connection you made between the cramped urbanization of Dublin and the small stage is so fascinating to me. It brings me to wonder how The Importance of Being Earnest would be performed on this stage, as space is so important as a theme throughout the play, from the lush gardens to the physical space between Jack’s two identities.

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