Belfast Repertory Company

The driving force behind new theatre writing in 1930s Northern Ireland

Throughout the 1930s, the Belfast Repertory Company was the driving force behind new writing in Northern Ireland. Founded to establish a permanent repertory theatre in Belfast, it notably brought to public attention the work of shipyard writer Thomas Carnduff.

Staging a series of his works at its Belfast base, the much loved working class Empire Theatre music hall, as well as on annual and highly successful tours to the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, the company placed realistic urban drama centre stage, reached a broad audience, and was remarkably successful in its short lifespan.

The Belfast Rep was founded in 1929 by Richard Hayward and JR Mageean, former members of the then waning Ulster Literary Theatre. Their ambition was to establish a ‘Little Theatre’ in Belfast, by showing the public ‘that we could give them plays, carefully produced, and that if we had a home of our own, which is badly needed, we could justify our existence and … provide a long-felt want’.

The company won modest initial success in Belfast and Dublin with works such as French Leave by Reginald Berkeley (1929); Love and Land (1930) by Lynn Doyle, and The Land of the Stranger, an Ulster-American comedy by Dorothea Donn Byrne (1931), providing ‘light entertainment of a very agreeable kind’ (Irish Press).

Then, in 1932, the company discovered Carnduff, aspirant playwright and former ‘navvy, printer, soldier and shipyard labourer’. This collaboration would result in the most dynamic and interesting theatrical work to emerge from Northern Ireland so far. Workers, a realistic play about Belfast shipyardmen, was Carnduff’s first play. Premiered by the Belfast Rep at the Abbey Theatre, Workers won an ovation from a ‘packed and cheering’ Dublin audience, and was described as ‘a tremendous piece of realism’ (Irish Press). Belfast proved no less enthusiastic, with ‘many of the forceful lines exciting spontaneous approval’ (Irish News).

The Empire suspended its twice-nightly house to accommodate the production. This, thought the Belfast News Letter, finally set the Belfast Repertory Theatre on course as a ‘power in the land’, with Hayward ‘unswerving from his purpose of creating something which will be as vital a force in the dramatic life of Northern Ireland as is the Abbey Theatre in the South’.

For several years the Belfast Rep premiered a series of Carnduff’s plays, and made plays of working class Belfast its speciality. Hugh Quinn’s Mrs McConaghey’s Money, a dark realistic drama of a Belfast working class family, generated high praise if some prudish puzzlement when produced in Dublin and Belfast in 1933.

Thereafter, however, the Belfast Repertory Company diversified, turning once again to lightly humorous works such as The Early Bird, a play of Ulster rural life by James Douglas (1936), and Passed Unanimously, a one-act football sketch by NF Webb (1936). Attention also turned to the new medium of film, with many Belfast Rep actors starring in what was billed Ulster’s first feature film, The Luck of the Irish (1936), providing an opportunity for audiences to see them in Belfast on both stage and screen in the same week.

Despite its many successes, Hayward’s hoped for permanent home for the Belfast Repertory Theatre never materialised. After a run at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre in 1937 of Hugh Quinn’s one-act plays, Collecting the Rent and A Quiet Twelfth, the company folded.

It had brought urban dramas of working class life to a music hall audience, was seen in Dublin as contributing towards ‘an understanding of our Northern cousins’ (Irish Independent), and would contribute many of its former members to the next major new writing company to emerge in Belfast, the Ulster Group Theatre (1940-1959). Together with the company’s own notable achievements, this helped ensure some continuity of tradition for the theatre in Ulster from the beginning to the middle of the twentieth century.

© Ophelia Byrne 2004