Brian Friel Lecture

At Queen's University, Professor Shaun Richards reveals how Irish playwrights have moved on from the cottage kitchen

Recognised as a leading authority on Irish drama, Professor Shaun Richards has enjoyed a distinguished career as an academic with an international profile. His book Writing Ireland, which was co-authored with David Cairns in 1988, became standard reading for a generation of scholars working in the field of Irish Studies.

In 2004, Richards edited the Cambridge Companion to Irish Drama and his new book, Mapping Ireland: Theories of Space and Place, co-authored with Christopher Morash, is scheduled to be published later this year. Currently working at St Mary's University College, London, Richards makes the to Belfast to deliver the fourth annual Brian Friel Lecture at Queen’s University, which he has entitled Exhausting the Form: The Spectre of Realism in Irish Drama.

Dr Paul Murphy of Queen's University introduces Richards, recalling his first encounter with his former tutor as a first-year undergraduate student who, along with his peers, was perplexed and dismayed by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot until Richards explained the nature and function of the play. Murphy notes Richards’ excellence as a teacher, and concludes his introduction by describing Richards as ‘one of the finest scholars of Irish drama of his generation'.

Standing on the set of Beckett’s Endgame in the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen’s (a final year undergraduate production commencing next week), Richards begins by thanking the drama department for the invitation to deliver the annual lecture. He is thankful, he says, to be associated with the name of Brian Friel, whom, as Richards eloquently puts it, ‘has honoured us over many years with plays of irresistible fascination'.

Beginning by citing with Tom Kilroy’s 1992 essay A Generation of Playwrights, Richards identifies Friel’s Translations and Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire as theatrical elegies. He describes both plays as ‘knowing plays: alert to the theatrical tradition in which they are located, with a clear sense on what they’ve inherited’.

Focusing his attention on the settings in which Friel and Kilroy commenced their stories – the realist cottage kitchen – Richards notes that they are ‘too authentic’ and are, in fact, ‘a reproduction’. He notes that, although both sets are highly detailed and accurate of their time, this tradition of ‘staged realism’ can all too easily become a comical cliché.

Furthering the point, Richards takes a brief look at the history of the early Irish stage. He finds that, whilst continental Europe was enduring experimentation and ‘responding and rejecting’ forms of Modernism, the impact in Ireland was muted at best. Discussing this absence of experimentation in Ireland, Richards draws support from critic Gabriel Fallen, who stated that ‘one of the reasons Irish theatre lacked vision was because we, its audience, lack vision’.

Richards continues with this subject, the absence of experimentation in 20th century theatre, by referencing the rejection of the experimental works of Seán O’Casey and Denis Johnston by WB Yeats and Lady Gregory at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin during the time of the Irish Literary Revival.

Noting that Irish theatre was, at the time, ‘deeply sunk in the pit of naturalism’, Richards highlights the disaggregation of the realist set in Friel’s plays, Philadelphia Here I Come and Dancing at Lughnasa. He examines its parodic presence in Martin MacDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, and uncovers its spectral afterlife in Conor McPherson’s The Weir.

In the second and final section of his lecture, Richards turns to Louise Lowe’s The Boys of Foley Street, which was performed as part of last years Dublin Theatre Festival. He comments on the ‘uniqueness’ of Lowe’s site specific work, and highlights how far away her idea of staging is from the cottage kitchen set favoured by her theatrical forebears. Concluding the lecture, Richards states, ‘You don’t get experimental art in cosy surroundings'.

The annual Brian Friel Lecture at Queen’s has hosted some of the finest scholars and practitioners of theatre from across Ireland, and indeed around the world – including the likes of Mick Gordon and Anthony Roche – and Shaun Richards is no exception. His talk on the spectre of realism in Irish drama makes for an interesting, informative evening's entertainment.

Mapping Ireland: Theories of Space and Place is scheduled to be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.