November 2017 Scholar Spotlight

Elizabeth Mannion

Posted by Fiona on October 27, 2017

Book Cover: Urban Plays of the Early Abbey Theatre

Elizabeth Mannion earned her MA at Rutgers University, and MPhil and PhD at Trinity College, Dublin, and has taught at both alma maters as well as Temple University. Her teaching and research cover an interdisciplinary range of Irish studies, from modern drama to crime fiction. She is the author of The Urban Plays of the Abbey Theatre (Syracuse University Press, 2014), and the editor of The Contemporary Irish Detective Novel (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and the forthcoming Guilt Rules All: Mysteries, Detectives and Crime in Irish Fiction (Syracuse University Press). New work is also forthcoming in A History of Irish Working-Class Writing (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and Shaw and the Making of Modern Ireland. She is currently writing a monograph on the theatre of Wallace Shawn and her first novel, Dreaming in Irish.

Your first book, The Urban Plays of the Early Abbey Theatre: Beyond O’Casey, uncovers an established tradition of urban plays within the early Abbey’s repertoire that have been overlooked by critics. How did you become aware of these plays?

The project started because O’Casey seemed like such an anomaly to me when I was in graduate school. It was as if he had emerged from thin air with no urban precedent before him. So whenever I came across a mention of some other tenement play, I would make a note. After compiling a small list, I decided to do some deep research. I printed out the names of all the plays staged through the summer of 1951 and spent a few months digging through the stacks and the archives to identify those set all or partly in urban Ireland. Those that weren’t in print I found at the Abbey archives at the National Library. I think that in the end there were only a few that never turned up. Summaries of those could be pieced together with newspaper reviews, the Holloway diaries, and other sources. This original question I had as an MPhil student over what had influenced O’Casey’s work turned into my doctoral research.

How has the role of the Abbey changed from the early 20th century to today (both in terms of its social role and its role within Irish theater)?

I think the social role has remained fairly constant. A national theatre is expected to simultaneously showcase home-grown talent and select international works to bring to local audiences. That’s a big programming responsibility, and the institution is naturally a lightning rod for criticism about the extent to which it delivers on that, let alone fulfilling expectations for community outreach. The arts world moves faster now than it did then, but the remit of the Abbey is essentially the same in that it has to serve a vast constituency.

The universe of Irish theatre though has changed drastically. There always has been a tradition of community and campus theatre groups, but there’s so many more now in addition to more professional companies. It’s a much more crowded field than when the Abbey opened. The Abbey may still have the greatest name recognition domestically, but it’s not necessarily the theatre everybody with an interest in drama goes to on a regular basis. And with the exception of Druid, who tour at home and abroad, I think most international audiences follow particular playwrights more than particular companies. I have had drama students in the States start a semester already knowing the works of Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson¸ or Abbie Spallen, but knowing Yeats or Behan more by name than output. Generally, I have found that students aren’t reading the plays of those earlier canonical writers until they take a class.

Your background is in Irish drama, how did you get involved in producing a book on the Irish detective novel?

The Abbey work emerged from my interest in minor literatures, urban settings, and genre studies. Those three interests contributed to the detective fiction project, but it began when I was asked to teach a course on the detective novel. As I was designing that course, I read Chandler’s The Big Sleep and was surprised at all the Irish references. That got me curious about the history of Irishness in the detective novel, and I drafted an essay about that. I planned to submit it to a journal, but then I began reading a lot of the contemporary Irish crime writers, and one thing led to another. Palgrave was interested, my teaching contract was almost up, and I wanted to take a little time to write and travel, so it was all a very fast, positive perfect storm. That essay became the introduction to The Contemporary Irish Detective Novel. The second one, Guilt Rules All: Mysteries, Detectives, and Crime in Irish Fiction, is a little different in that it goes back before contemporary detective series. But it also has an interdisciplinary group of contributors from newly minted PhDs to established scholars. And this book includes a chapter on Irish language crime fiction too. I’m excited about it.

You’re also working on a book about the American playwright Wallace Shawn. How does his work connect to Irish drama?

This project is more the result of my broader work in modern drama than in Irish Studies, but I find his plays—at least for me—fit more in a European than American tradition. Some of them, particularly Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Fever, bear similarities with Beckett and Shaw. There are also some quirky connections to Ireland. He wrote his second play there, he saw Beckett and O’Neill productions in New York when he was a kid and read all of O’Neill before he was 13, things like that. He also told me that he was asked to perform Krapp’s Last Tape once, but he wasn’t free to do it.

I think it’s fair to say that Shawn is better known for his acting (The Princess Bride, Clueless, Vanya on 42 Street, among others) than his writing. How did you come across his plays?

I had heard about his plays for a long time but never seen any staged. He has a tendency to favor small venues and tickets can be difficult to get. But then the Public in New York staged The Designated Mourner a few years ago, and I was able to go. It blew me away. I started to read everything by and about him that I could find. It is a hobby that has become a research project. I seem to be falling into a pattern of every other book drama and every other book crime fiction. Right now I’m job hunting, so I don’t think I’ll have the full manuscript completed before Thanksgiving. But it’s coming together.

How has the recent social and political climate (with the growing strength of the Repeal the 8th campaign, the marriage referendum, and the #wakingthefeminists) impacted Irish drama in your opinion?

The Irish theatre community has always fueled politics and vice versa. Panti Bliss’s “Noble Call” at the Abbey energized and increased supporters of the marriage referendum; and #wakingthefeminists, which was comprised largely, if not exclusively, of theatre artists, stopped the Abbey management in its tracks: changing policy if not practice. The organizers have put gender equity in the arts squarely in the public discourse in a way that I don’t recall witnessing before. The challenges to academic conference panels, radio, and television programming that lack gender diversity, for example, are gaining traction and results. I think it is a fair presumption that #wakingthefeminsts has also been instrumental in the Repeal the 8th campaign. It’s also worth mentioning that women writers have been instrumental in the growing international interest in Irish crime fiction. Declan Hughes—he wears both dramatist and crime writer hats—has pointed to Maeve Binchy as opening the door for genre fiction generally in Ireland. I would add the success of Marian Keyes as also paving the way for the crime genre specifically.