Because We Are Poor: Irish Theatre in the 1990s

August 18, 2011

We are frequently told that the key asset of a knowledge-based economy is people: smart, flexible, educated, proficient, globally aware. This surely describes the Irish of the 1990s, and their fundamental desire to succeed. Indeed, in the view of business figures such as the late Joe Gantly, former senior director of EU operations at Apple, this desire fuelled the (now, alas, seemingly extinct) "Celtic Tiger" economic boom, which brought Ireland from rags to riches in less than a decade.

In the years since Europe's last remaining colonial state became an independent country, issues of decolonisation, anticolonialism and postcolonialism have dominated academic discourse and cultural productions nationwide. Victor Merriman's Because We Are Poor contributes to debates on an independent Ireland and the ways it has been represented on the Irish stage. It investigates recent and radical transformations of Britain's former colony in an attempt to assess the interventionist potential of theatre and of its reception.

This work is a must for scholars working in the field, and a valuable read for those working in neocolonial contexts where money takes priority over culture. Merriman's background as an academic and a theatre practitioner feeds his in-depth reading of the decade, which he sees as the culmination of a long process of political and sociocultural transformations. He follows a thematic and non-rigid chronological order here, looking first at the notion of contemporary Ireland as "a successor state", an entity that has betrayed and delayed the postcolonial dream, while carrying out a neocolonial and bourgeois project with no real cultural independence.

This, he argues, is why the Irish "are poor": the Celtic Tiger brought them an economy, but not a society. Decolonisation, in other words, remains a Utopia. Seen as a social process, and by way of the performed event, its creators and audience, theatre bears a cultural burden and the responsibility to encourage self-consciousness, and achieve the long-postponed decolonisation of Ireland.

Merriman then follows what he aptly calls "a rising tide", that is, the development of theatrical strategies and artefacts that take on elements from the prophetic dramas of J.M. Synge, Lady Augusta Gregory and W.B. Yeats as they create sites of transition (as in Samuel Beckett's Molloy) and dissent (as in the work of Tom Murphy and Noel O'Donoghue). The past is all too present in these works, via images of the Famine, violence and abuse. Here, Merriman offers fresh and perceptive readings of these plays, and makes us want to go back to them and see them performed.

He is persuasive in his view that while mainstream society tends to deny the impact of colonialism, theatre struggles to expose it - or at least some Irish theatre of the 1990s did. In fact, Irish drama practice of that decade featured both mainstream productions serving the evidently myopic state, and dissident productions that opposed and challenged it. Controversially, Merriman includes the work of Marina Carr among the former, in a courageous but not entirely convincing assessment of works that, in fact, constantly denounce the faults of a nation at odds with its others. Her use of the canon and the creation of marginalised female characters testify to her determination to go against, rather than reinforce, dominant and homogenising cultural practices. In doing so, she adds to other enabling female voices of anticolonial and postcolonial desire.

As for dramatic decolonisation, Wet Paint Arts and Calypso Productions are given their due credit here as theatre of the people and for the people, born of a strongly felt desire for consciousness and recognition of difference. In his conclusion, Merriman echoes the view of many who also advocate a broader participation in a national project of decolonisation, towards a "second republic" that is inclusive rather than exclusive. For them, and for us too, and in spite of Ireland's recent economic travails, people remain an essential asset in its knowledge-based culture.

Because We Are Poor: Irish Theatre in the 1990s

By Victor Merriman. Carysfort Press, 250pp, £17.50. ISBN 9781904505518. Published 10 March 2011

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