Twentieth Century and Contemporary Playwrights


Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932)

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856 to Protestant parents. He left Ireland for London in 1876, and he remained in England for the rest of his life. A prolific author of more than fifty plays, Shaw achieved his greatest success writing plays in the tradition of social comedy which analyzed politics and the English class system as well as looking amusedly at the foibles of English society. Despite its wit and humor, Shaw’s drama is profoundly serious, and much of his work deals with complex social, political and metaphysical ideas, which are underscored by the unpredictable nature of humanity. A convert to socialism in the 1880s, he became a leading member of the Fabian Society, and his political commitment informs all of his writing. His most well known works include Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893), Arms and Men (1894), Man and Superman (1903), John Bull’s Other Island (1904), Major Barbara (1905). One of his most popular successes was Pygmalion (1914), though he alienated much of his audience in Britain with his opposition to the First World War. His disillusionment with the war was expressed in Heartbreak House (1922), a tragic-comic diagnosis of the failures of Western European culture. Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926.

William Butler Yeats (1856-1929)

John Millington Synge (1871-1909)

Sean O’ Casey (1880-1964)

Sean O’ Casey was born into a lower middle class Catholic family in Dublin and educated primarily at home by his widowed mother because of his poor eye-sight. O’Casey’s work offered a new urban realism in place of the more traditional rural drama produced by the Abbey Theatre in the early twenties. His plays were a mixture of comedy and tragedy, centering mainly on Dublin characters and the dramatization of Ireland’s recent turbulent political events. His first three plays were rejected by the Abbey, but the fourth, On the Run, was accepted in 1922 with the title changed to The Shadow of a Gunman. In this play, the first of a trilogy of Dublin plays, O’ Casey tackles the Anglo-Irish War. The second play in the trilogy, Juno and the Paycock (1924), takes place in the period of the Irish Civil War, and deals with the price the stoical women of Ireland pay for the vain heroics of men. The Plough and the Stars (1926)which is the final play in this trilogy, is set in the brief period of the 1916 Easter Rising. The play gains its dramatic force from the use of contrast, in this case the difference between the realities of violence and the platitudes of patriotic rhetoric which demanded it. O’Casey’s satiric treatment of the blood sacrifice of Padrig Pearse, one of the executed leaders of the Rising, and his realistic treatment of Dublin life caused riots in the Abbey when the play premiered. O’Casey broke with Ireland and the Abbey when Yeats and Lady Gregory rejected his next play, an expressionistic treatment of the First World War, The Silver Tassie, in 1928. In later life he concentrated his energies on writing six volumes of highly colored autobiography, which are notoriously without dates and freely inventive in style and substance. However, the vivid descriptions of Dublin in the early decades of the twentieth century have been highly influential on subsequent writers.

Denis Johnston (1901-1984)

Born in Dublin into an affluent, liberal Protestant family, Johnston was educated in England and graduated from Cambridge and Harvard. His first play, The Old Lady Says ‘No’! (1929), was an expressionist attack on the condition of the Irish Free State and romantic republicanism. The main character in the play, Robert Emmet, gets hit over the head, and ends up wandering through 1920s Dublin, a satiric vehicle to expose the gap between the ideals of republican nationalism and the day-to-day realities of Free State citizens. The play was rejected by the Abbey because of its expressionistic style, and was instead accepted by the Gate Theatre, where it enjoyed a highly successful run. Thereafter, Johnston oscillated between the Gate and the Abbey, as he sought to belong to Yeats’s theatrical world and yet have an independent voice. Many critics consider The Moon in the Yellow River (1931) a comedy of ideas which challenges the moral and political bases of the new Free State, to be his best play. Johnston left Ireland in the 1930s, and although he continued to write plays, he worked at a variety of careers, including war correspondent for the BBC during World War Two, director of television programs and university lecturer in the United States.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

Born and raised in the affluent Dublin of Foxrock, Beckett attended boarding school in Northern Ireland and subsequently attended Trinity College Dublin where he received a first class degree in French and Italian. In the 1930s Beckett published his first books of fiction, More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and Murphy (1938). Both novels dismissed in parody the provincialism of the culture of the Irish Free State.

Brendan Behan (1922-1964)

Behan was born in Dublin to a family with strong republican sympathies; shortly after he was born he was taken to Kilmainham Jail and shown to his father, Stephen, a republican prisoner during the Irish civil war. He was arrested in Liverpool and sent to Borstal for participating in an IRA bombing campaign in England and he also spent time in prison in Ireland. These experiences formed the basis for his autobiographical work, The Borstal Boy (1958). The publication of this book, along with his plays The Quare Fellow (1956), and The Hostage (1958), established his fame. In The Quare Fellow, Behan illustrates the corrupting effects of prison on the human spirit. The Hostage has a controversial history in that it is a dramatically rewritten English version of Behan’s Irish language play, An Giall (00). As a writer, he had affinities with both the Gaelic and the modern Irish literary traditions. The Hostage (1958) dramatizes for an audience outside Ireland the continuing fallout from a revolution which some in Ireland considered unfinished.

Hugh Leonard (1926-2009)

Leonard was born in Dublin and brought up in the affluent suburb of Dalkey by adoptive parents. Stephen D., an adaptation of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, —Many of his plays such as The Patrick Pearse Motel (1971), hold the mirror up to Dublin’s new bourgeoisie. Some of his best work, Da (1973) and A Life (1979) transcend local and national concerns.

John B. Keane (1928-2002)

Brian Friel (b.1929)

Tom MacIntyre (b.1931)

Thomas Kilroy (b. 1934)

Tom Murphy (b.1935)

Bernard Farrell (b. 1939)

Stewart Parker (1941-1988)

Billy Roche (b.1949)

Peter Sheridan (b.1952)

Frank McGuinness (b.1953)

One of McGuinness’s best known plays, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme (1985), takes up the subject of O’Casey’s rejected play, The silver Tassie.

Carthaginians (1988), is about the after-effects of Bloody Sunday in Derry.

Sebastian Barry (b.1955)

Jim Nolan (b.1958)

Jim Nolan was born in Waterford and is a founder member and former Artistic Director of Red Kettle Theatre Company. Red Kettle was launched with a production of Nolan’s play, The Gods are Angry Miss Kerr. His play, The Savage Shop, was nominated for the Irish Times/ EBS Theatre Award for Best Play. He has been writer in Association at the Abbey Theatre and at Garter Lane Arts Centre and is a member of Aosdana. His numerous plays include Moonshine, Blackwater Angel, Sky Road, and Brighton, all published by The Gallery Press. His most recent play is Dreamland (2014), also published by The Gallery Press.

Dermot Bolger (b.1959)

Marina Carr (b.1964)

Enda Walsh (b.1967)

Martin McDonagh (b.1971)

Conor McPherson (b.1971)