Theatre in Northern Ireland 1

Introducing Northern Ireland’s theatre and its history

Theatre in Northern Ireland: An Introduction
The first records of theatre in the north of Ireland date from 1736. Thereafter, the art form has had a highly chequered history. Extremely popular in the eighteenth century, theatre was deserted by the monied classes after the 1798 rising and remained so, following patterns elsewhere, throughout the nineteenth century. Unlike London, however, only very slowly did theatre in Ulster begin to attract audiences in the early twentieth century, commencing a long struggle to win popular support for the art form.

Not funded by the state until the mid 1950s, and struggling in a divided society to balance box office demands with the need for relevance to audiences, theatre nonetheless had some success in winning audiences back by the mid twentieth century. Then, already struggling with the threat of television, and with freedom of speech a highly contentious issue, the grave challenges of the Troubles began in the late 1960s. As with society in general, this brought fresh and serious difficulties, but throughout the civil disturbances, theatre tenaciously held on, and often found a new significance with audiences.

Theatre in Northern Ireland has fostered and developed the talents of several generations of performers, some of international stature. These have included Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, James Ellis, Colin Blakely, Greer Garson, Stephen Boyd, Gerard Murphy, Patrick Magee and Adrian Dunbar.

Today, with the development of the peace process, new tests and opportunities exist for the sector. Significant developments in physical infrastructure, training, the independent sector, new writing and possibilities for audience nurturing are taking place across Northern Ireland. So, too, however is the opening up of the culture and entertainment sector in general.  Theatre has become just one of very many options to audiences, while there is increasing competition for scarce public and private funding. Tellingly, theatre was central to the fervent debates on Belfast’s controversial bid to become European Capital of Culture.

Theatre in 18th-century Ulster
Theatrical life in the north of Ireland was born with the 1736 visit of Dublin’s Smock Alley troupe to Belfast and Newry. Connections between London and Belfast ensured that what was fashionable in London was performed in Belfast soon afterwards. Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer was in Belfast six months after its London premiere and Belfast was soon a theatre centre in its own right. Derry and Newry also supported theatres.

Four playhouses opened in Belfast between 1736 and 1800: The Vaults in Ann Street, The Mill Gate Theatre near Smithfield, the theatre at Rosemary Lane, and the Arthur Street theatre (often known as the first Theatre Royal). These were often fleapit rooms with undefined seating areas, but as the century wore on became similar to modern theatres, with seating areas defined by price for different classes within the audience.

Derry’s first theatre was in the Great Hall of the Town Hall and Exchange. Michael Atkins, the town’s first theatrical impresario, opened a theatre at New Row on the Ship Quay and then, in 1786, the Artillery Lane Theatre (converted into a Presbyterian church at the end of the century.) Atkins’ burgeoning theatre business also included two theatres in Belfast. By the mid eighteenth century, Newry had a theatre at High Street, run by James Parker who in 1783 also opened the Theatre Royal at Hill Street, which put on plays until 1832.

Theatres were important to urban social life. Organisations such as the Masonic Brotherhood and the Volunteer movement used theatres as platforms for social and political expression. The great Volunteers convention of July 1785 ended with a special performance of Derry-born playwright George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Such political expression ended with the tension and violence of the 1790s, and all theatrical performances were suspended in 1793. After the 1798 rising, rowdy crowds filled the vacuum left by bourgeois audiences who abandoned what they increasingly saw as the ‘immoral’ theatres.

Theatre in 19th-century Ulster
In the early years of the nineteenth century, riots in the theatres were widespread. By the 1840s, theatrical life in Ulster was almost entirely moribund. The Northern Whig noted that in the past ‘people of rank’ would applaud with enthusiasm, but now sat with ‘icy coldness and frigid precision of statues’. According to John Gray, the middle classes feared that they would be identified with the ‘coarse approbation of the gods, or the unpolished demonstrations of approval resorted to by shopkeepers and tradesmen.’ For the elite of Belfast, the clear distinction of class was impossible in the rowdy atmosphere of the theatre. The evangelical revivalism that pervaded the city also increased bourgeois opposition to the ‘sinful’ stage.

One episode that summed up the satanic influence of the theatre for many was the hanging of John Cordery, a soldier stationed at Carrickfergus. Contemporary accounts said that Cordery attended the theatre in Belfast, took a large amount of drink, and on returning to barracks murdered his sergeant. On the scaffold Cordery blamed theatre for leading him astray, and publicly wished he had never darkened the door of a playhouse. The affair provoked a letter signed by all the clergymen of Belfast, for whom plays were:

‘The most dangerous part of our literature. Throughout the entire range of all plays an anti-Christian principle is maintained … when these writings are transferred to the stage there, indeed, do our objections become stronger a thousand fold. All the accompaniments are objectionable, the hours, the assembly, the excitement,  the base language of the profligate portion of the audience, the indecent exposure of the persons called fashionable, the songs, the dancing, and the levity of conduct and dress of the figurants … How few escaped privation and sin?’

In the 1850s, some figures attempted to rekindle the theatrical beacon. Little record remains of Mr Heffernon’s National Theatre, opened in Smithfield in 1848, although Thomas Carnduff tells us that a Tom Armstrong was manager. Opened to provide the poorer classes with the opportunity to see drama, and attracting customers with low prices and a varied roster of Shakespeare and music hall, the theatre had its fledgling audience cut down in the cholera epidemic of 1849.

Meanwhile, as Ophelia Byrne notes, music halls had begun to siphon working class and lower middle class audiences, allowing the gentry and professional classes to begin a slow, nervous return to the theatre. The music halls married both entertainment and drinking: Belfast’s Alhambra, opened by Dan Lowry in 1873, held 2000 customers and had five bars to serve them.

Many companies began to travel around the country, creating a network of companies and theatres that was to last into the twentieth century. JF Warden took over Belfast’s Theatre Royal in 1864, and capitalised on these improvements in theatrical conditions by building and opening the Grand Opera House in 1895.

The opulence of the Grand Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham, aimed to attract the upper classes with polished marble, decorated columns and velvet upholstery. However, as John Gray records, ‘when the more expensive areas of the Grand Opera House were empty, it was the popular parts of the house that were best patronised. For reasons of taste and conservatism however, it was the upper classes of society who stayed away from the theatre.’

Fred Mouillot, one of Warden’s lieutenants, commented that the ‘curious thing I have noticed about the Belfast public is that they seem very frightened of going to anything first.’ This conservatism forced Warden to admit defeat, remodelling the Opera House in 1904 and exchanging the highbrow programme for a more reliable Palace of Varieties.