Stage Irishmen and Women

Vivien Hewitt seeks out the dramatists of Restoration Ulster

Restoration Ulster, and in particular Derry, produced a series of dramatic authors who played an important part in affirming the stereotype of the ‘stage Irishman’. They also demonstrated an awareness among English and Scottish settlers that staunch loyalty could leave them destitute while newcomers exploited the land they now identified with. Their right to overt political criticism was perhaps the only major gain accorded them by the Williamite constitutional settlement.

The first Ulster Restoration dramatist was Carrickfergus born Richard Head (1637-1686), whose clergyman father was murdered in the 1641 rebellion. Educated at Oxford, this bookseller was ‘a man addicted to pleasures, with a strange rambling head’. From his bawdy pen spilled two significant works.

Written in Dublin while on the run from his English creditors, Hic et Ubique, or The Humours of Dublin (1663) contrasts old settlers with new, more opportunistic ones. The blowhard Col Kiltory who has soldiered through the war ‘not sparing the very spawn of Rebellion’ is complemented – in this land of unpredictable transformations – by landlady Sue Pouch, a ‘reformed’ puritan turned bawd.

Kiltory is gulled by slippery newcomers like Hopewell, Contriver, Bankrupt and Trustall who aim at a quick killing in Ireland. Hopewell’s wife squeezes Kiltory for £200 while Contriver promotes dubious projects like using mountains to fill in bogs and draining St George’s Channel to improve commerce.

Grossly vulgar, the play was performed privately in London and the raciest passages excluded from the printed 1663 edition. Two years later Head penned The English Rogue, the first novel with a stereotyped Irishman as protagonist.

Derry recorder John Wilson (1626-1695?) felt the tensions at the western edge of ‘England’s interest in Ireland’.

James I’s plantation project had pressurised unwilling London corporations into precipitating this indomitably Gaelic corner of the island into modernity. In the decades which followed, English Anglicans were soon outnumbered by dissenting Scots – some soldiers, others refugees fleeing famine and religious persecution.

In factious Derry, Wilson was ousted. Thus in his play Belfragor the deposed public servant, Montalto declares:

He’s a Beast that serves
A Commonwealth; for when he has spent his Blood,
And sunk his fortune, to support the Pride
And Luxury of those few that Cheat the rest,
He straight becomes the Object of their Scorn
Or Jealousie.

In the plot the Devil takes human form as Belfragor but discovers the earth more duplicitous than hell. He offers Montalto a bribe to attack his native Italy but the latter refuses and is subsisted by the nobleman Grimaldi.

Performed at Dublin in 1677/8, the play took on a new significance when presented in London in 1690. Wilson’s Montalto becomes an allegory for James II deposed by William III while Grimaldi represents the positive aspects of Louis XIV.

The Jacobite Wilson’s resentment at unrewarded loyalty was shared by Williamite Siege Governor Colonel John Michelburne (1648-1721).  His dramatic manuscript The Siege of Londonderry, presented to Lord Lieutenant Ormonde in 1703, was written to emphasise that his garrison awaited pay for their heroic exploits. By 1704 he was dedicating a re-elaborated printed edition to the siege survivors from his prison cell in the Fleet where he spent four years ‘for want of his pay'.

He is the first author to capture the distinctly pluralist voices of Ulster – Irish, English and Scots.

The soldier’s energetic work was published in dozens of posthumous editions, becoming an early ‘community drama’ and 18th century schoolroom resource.

The siege experience also produced William Philips (1675/82?-1734) who eloquently expressed the dilemma of old settlers beset with legislation that failed to compensate the loyal and penalised trade and political independence.

Son of the Williamite George Philips, who instigated the shutting of the gates and died impoverished after his estate was destroyed by Irish troops, Philips soldiered, fell into debt, turned to politics and writing and became a Jacobite.

His youthful comedy, St Stephen’s Green (1700)  was popular but he is best remembered for the extraordinary epic drama Hibernia freed (1722).

The Danish Turgesius conquers Ireland and desires Sabina the daughter of O’Brien. Rejected, he demands her and fourteen virgins. O’Neill loves Sabina and he and other warriors disguise themselves as the virgins and kill the ravishers. Defeated, Turgesius vows ‘another nation shall avenge my death’, i.e. the English, but the bard Eugenius adds:

They shall succeed invited to our aid
And mix their blood with ours, one people grow,
Polish our manners and improve our minds.

We might smile at the cross-dressing and patronising tone, but the ‘wild Irish’, i.e. Protestant Anglo-Irishmen in London, cheered on these ancient Gaels in the aftermath of the Declaratory Act, which asserted London’s authority over the Dublin Parliament. It was a truly revolutionary work.

Derry’s finest dramatist George Farquhar (1677/8 -1707) enjoyed immense popularity throughout the eighteenth century. His clergyman father died of heartbreak when his Raphoe home was burned in the siege. Like Michelburne and Philips, he soldiered to survive and contracted debts and went to the Fleet.

His best works are The Constant Couple (1699), The Beaux Stratagem (1707) and The Recruiting Officer.

Love and a Bottle portrays the predicament of the many unpaid Irish officers like Michelburne, disbanded in 1698. The hero Roebuck quotes Dryden:

‘Thus far our Arms have with Success been Crown’d – Heroically spoken, faith, of a fellow that has not one farthing in his pocket.’

Obliged to seek a wife he accosts the beautiful Lucinda, provoking the reaction: ‘Oh horrible! An Irish-man! a meer Wolf-Dog I protest’.

In English society the son of a man who represented ‘the English interest’ is acutely aware of his Irish identity. His Catholic Irishmen, like the priest Foigard in The Beaux Stratagem, are, however, more grotesquely stereotyped than Michelburne’s.

Legend has it that actor-writer, Charles Macklin (1699?-1797) born at Culdaff in Donegal, had ancestors among both besieged and besiegers, emphasising the plurality of the north west.

Admired in both comic and tragic roles in the London theatres, he returned regularly to Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre.

King George, asked how to frighten the opposition, suggested taking them to see the Irishman play Shylock: ‘He was the Jew that Shakespeare drew.’

His most successful plays were The Man of the World, Love in a Maze and Love à la mode. They are rich in Scottish and Irish characters like Sir Pertinax Macsycophant  and Sir Callaghan O’Brallaghan. TheTrue-Born Irishman (1783) was feted in  Dublin but fell flat in London, inducing him to observe that audience appreciation is conditioned by cultural background.

To this list we may add the greatest woman actress-writer of the age, Susanna Centlivre, probably born in County Tyrone. A short spell in Cambridge en travesti with a lover and other amorous adventures preceded her stage debut. She wrote over 20 plays and was much loved in trousers roles. Playing Alexander the Great before Queen Anne she met her third husband, the royal cook.

Her witty, fast moving situation comedies are more concerned with gender and morals than politics and her only Irish character is the rascally Teague in A Wife Well-Managed (1715). Her tomb in St Martin’s in the Field bears the legend, ‘Here lies Susanna Centlivre, née Freeman, from Ireland. Playwright, 1 December, 1722’.

By Vivien Hewitt

Further reading
Beneath Iërne’s Banners: Irish Protestant Drama of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century by Christopher Wheatly; A History of the Irish Theatre 1601-2000 by Christopher Morash; The works of George Farquhar by Shirley Strum Kennedy; Four plays by Charles Macklin by JO Bartley; Memoirs of the Life of Charles Macklin by James Thomas Kirkman.

John Michelburne and Ireland Preserv’d are treated more fully in my own article in CultureNorthernIreland.

I am indebted to Prof David Hayten of Queen’s University of Belfast and Prof John Kerrigan of the University of Cambridge for access to their new research on some of the above mentioned authors and their output.