Conceptualizing Space in Irish Theater

A review of Reimagining Space in the Performance of Ireland, by Sharon Ann Pressburg.

The study of theater offers rich opportunities to theorize about space, particularly the theater of Ireland, which conceptualizes space in a unique manner. Previous critics have engaged with the way Ireland, a tiny island in some ways obsessed with its metaphorical and physical space, has presented special challenges to the staging of its history and culture. Recently, Chris Morash, and Shaun Richards published Mapping Irish Theatre: Theories of Space and Place (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and Helen Heusner Lojek previously published The Spaces of Irish Drama: Stage and Place in Contemporary Plays (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Sharon Ann Pressburg’s dissertation differs from these scholarly works by using Michel Foucault’s heterotopia to explore the way space is complicated on the Irish stage. Heterotopia, wherein a space might hold multiple meanings simultaneously, and where such meanings may not be evident upon first encounter, allows for what Foucault calls “a sort of simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live” (cited in Pressburg, p. 5). Such varied meanings are revealed, Pressburg asserts, only through the context of the political and cultural moment in which they occur, and cannot be separated from those moments.

Pressburg begins with an examination of the Irish home, perhaps the most contested space on the Irish stage. Acknowledging the pervasiveness of kitchen dramas, she distinguishes between the mythic nature of a space so often used metonymically to stand for nationalist Ireland and the reality of such space as it launches so many emigrants into the world outside of Ireland. For playwrights as diverse as Marina Carr, Brian Friel, Sebastian Barry, John B. Keane, and Martin McDonagh, the home is the site of nostalgia — and yet nostalgia is often rooted in an illusion that must be disrupted, and perhaps rejected, in order to be negotiated.

Extending outwards from the home, Pressburg next considers what she calls the “Irish necropolis,” a space where the Irish people make meaning at wakes, in cemeteries, and beyond the grave. She believes that the spaces of the dead are used in plays to assert life as well as death, where wakes and graveyards become spaces for those “living outside societal norms, the living dead” (p. 8). The heterotopic nature of such spaces, in plays as varied as John B. Keane’s Sharon’s Grave, Thom Murphy’s The Wake, Thomas Kilroy’s The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche, Graham Reid’s Remembrance and The Death of Humpty Dumpty, Frank McGuinness’s Carthaginians, Pat Kineyane’s The Nun’s Wood, Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara, and Stewart Parker’s Pentecost, shifts back and forth between destruction and healing for the characters, and for Ireland itself.

Finally, Pressburg discusses the impact of political moments that celebrate various anniversaries and theatrical accounts of the Easter Uprising of 1916, as the space being negotiated is politicized within the context of the particular production. By examining commemorative presentations, Pressburg hopes to demonstrate that through these various productions, one can trace the political and cultural shifts that take place in Ireland as meaning is contextualized. As she notes, this study shifts “the examination of these texts to explore the spatial constructions and inversions by Irish playwrights” in order to unravel “the historical process of power and open further discussion on alternative ways to imagine Irish identity” (10).

This contribution to the field provides a much-needed look at the varied definitions where the performance of Irish space might be considered, and the way performance in Ireland, in whatever space, cannot be separated from the political moment in which it takes place. Pressburg also effectively conveys the necessity of examining performance within its historicity, reminding scholars that mere textual examination is inadequate when theatre is the object of study.

Kathleen A. Heininge
Department of English
George Fox University
kheininge@georgefox.edu

Primary Sources

Barry, Sebastian. Sebastian Barry’s Plays: 1. London: Methuen, 1997. Print.
Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism. 16.1 (1986): 22-27. Print
Foucault, Michel. “Questions on Geography.” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon. Trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, Kate
McDonagh, Martin. The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Other Plays. New York: Vintage International, 1998. Print.
Murphy, Thomas. After Tragedy: Three Irish Plays by Tom Murphy. London: Methuen, 1988. Print.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Davis. 2012. 219 pp. Primary Advisor: Lynnette Hunter.

Image: Sheep and Ruin. Wikimedia.

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