The Over the Bridge controversy
Sam Thompson’s groundbreaking 1959 play, and the controversy surrounding it
In 1958 the Ulster Group Theatre (UGT) became a non-profit making trust, supported by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, the precursor to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Over the Bridge, a new play by former shipyard worker Sam Thompson examining the dilemma of a group of trade union officials confronting sectarianism among workers, was accepted by James Ellis, director of productions, for staging by the UGT. Shortly before production, however, the company’s board pulled the play, stating that it was the ‘policy of the directors of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage’.
In the wake of this pronouncement, there was a string of resignations from members, and the Group began to collapse. Ellis and others formed an ad hoc company, Over the Bridge Productions, to produce the play. Performances at the Empire Theatre, Victoria Square, Belfast, attracted up to 1200 people each night, with perhaps 42,000 seeing the play over a six week run.
The controversial play focused attention on the extremely narrow parameters within which theatre was being expected to operate at this time, and has long been viewed as an important benchmark in Northern Irish cultural life. The writer Sam Hanna Bell noted a feeling of relief: ‘at last the unclean spirit of sectarianism had been dragged before the footlights and examined with passion, pity and corrosive laughter’.