The Ulster Literary Theatre

Groundbreaking northern theatre company of the early twentieth century

Founded contemporaneously with the Abbey Theatre, the Ulster Literary Theatre set out to bring the ideals of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen to people through the medium of theatre. Premiering original realistic folk dramas and fantastic farce, the company was notably described by WB Yeats as ‘the only dramatic society, apart from our own, which is doing serious artistic work’.

Offering drama which was locally set, its work was also presented in recognisable Ulster idiom and, in the words of Cathal O’Shannon, for the first time showed ‘the kind of people that I knew and lived among in Co Antrim and Co Derry … alive and talking as they talked at home’.

The northern literary theatre grouping was originally founded in 1902 by Protestant National Association members Bulmer Hobson and David Parkhill. Wanting to spread the ideals of the United Irishmen, they named themselves the Ulster Branch of the Irish National Literary Theatre and informed Yeats of their action.

Unenthusiastic, the poet refused to sanction their action, and instead demanded royalties from the group for staging his Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Undeterred, and lacking funds, the company designated itself the Ulster Literary Theatre with members declaring, ‘Damn Yeats! We’ll write our own!’

The first plays to be staged under these auspices premiered in 1904. Brian of Banba by Bulmer Hobson, a poetic heroic drama, proved rather less popular than The Reformers by ‘Lewis Purcell’ (pen name of David Parkhill), a satire on municipal jobbery, thereby pointing the way: Ulster audiences seemed to respond best to drama of the realistic kind.

Further experiments followed, including The Enthusiast by Purcell (1905), a drama showing the difficulty of rural co-operation in a divided society, until the grouping eventually found its two key writers in ‘Rutherford Mayne’ (Samuel Waddell) and ‘Gerald Macnamara’ (Harry C Morrow). Between them, these playwrights contributed over half of the company’s works, each proving highly skilled in very different genres.

From Mayne came dramas set in rural locales. Whether gently mocking as in the massively popular The Drone (1909), or sharply drawn attacks against philistinism, as in The Turn of the Road (1906), they resonated strongly with audiences at home and abroad. Macnamara, conversely, wrote dazzlingly witty, exuberant, burlesque extravaganzas, often daringly and mercilessly satirical on contentious political themes. These included the fantastic Suzanne and the Sovereigns (1907), co-written with Purcell, which offered an irresistibly irreverent take on the story of King William and King James.

Similarly humorous, the one-act Thompson in Tir na nOg (1912), told of the accidental visit of Orangeman Andy Thompson to the heroes of Irish mythology in the Land of Eternal Youth, and like The Drone became an Ulster classic. Other writers whose work was premiered by the ULT included Helen Waddell with The Spoiled Buddha (1915), a symbolic oriental piece; George Shiels with works such as Away from the Moss (1918); Joseph Campbell with The Little Cowherd of Slainge (1905); and Lynn Doyle with, amongst others, Love and Land (1913).

The degree to which these plays succeeded in reaching their many targets has been debated. Contemporary commentators marvelled that the plays did not attract protest, but found that often ‘the cause of a first-class riot was turned by irresistible wit and humour into an uproarious success’. Some now argue such humour may have blunted their sharpness. Others believe it ensured the company could tackle highly controversial themes even at times of extreme political unrest.

As well as attracting attention locally, the company also toured Dublin’s Abbey and Gaiety Theatres, as well as to Liverpool, Cork, London, Manchester and the USA. Critics applauded the plays and the acting style; the Irish Times thought both ‘remarkable’, while Yeats, despite his early lack of enthusiasm, later praised the performers’ ‘absence of the ordinary conventions, the novelty of movement and intonation’. Joseph Holloway wrote: ‘What the company lacks is finish; the players have talent and plenty to spare’. Critics also praised the design work of the company. After the closing of the Belfast Municipal School of Art in 1904, former members such as the Morrow brothers joined the company, and contributed greatly to its success.

The Ulster Literary Theatre’s peak period was between 1904 and 1911, when it survived its somewhat shaky origins to secure an annual season at Belfast’s Grand Opera House, and also produced several issues of a literary magazine Uladh. Thereafter, from 1912 to 1920, it consolidated its work, dropping the word ‘Literary’ from its title in 1915 to become the Ulster Theatre. From 1920 to 1934, when it was refused the Grand Opera House stage, the company seems to have slowly declined. This was variously explained by emigration, politics, the lack of subsidy, the absence of a proper home and the lack of turnover in group membership.

The company’s significance in Ulster theatre history is unquestionable. This is not simply for its legacy of new work: the company succeeded in premiering some fifty plays during its lifespan to 1934. Nor is it due to the opportunities provided for a generation of performers, though its distinguished members included almost every Ulster actor of note. It is because, though resolutely amateur, and surviving in the absence of any public subsidy for theatre or a permanent home, the company ‘for the first time, put ordinary people in everyday Ulster dress, speaking contemporary Ulster dialect, before theatre audiences throughout these islands’ (John Killen).

David Kennedy has said that it would be difficult to find in the history of Ulster another movement ‘which attracted such a galaxy of talent and in which men and women of such diverse creeds and political views were united in a common purpose’.

© Ophelia Byrne 2004

Further reading:
The Ulster Theatre in Ireland (1931) by Margaret McHenry; The Theatre in Ulster (1972) by Sam Hanna Bell;  Sam Thompson and Modern Drama in Ulster (1986) by Hagal Mengel.