Theatre Eye

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2007), Reviews, Volume 15

The English army officer present in the first act as a house guest (here talking to the daughter of the house) returns in the second as a Black-and-Tan intent on burning down the local village as a reprisal.

The English army officer present in the first act as a house guest (here talking to the daughter of the house) returns in the second as a Black-and-Tan intent on burning down the local village as a reprisal.

The Big House
Lennox Robinson
Abbey Theatre, Dublin
by Eamon O’Flaherty

The Abbey’s decision to revive The Big House more than 50 years after its last run was amply vindicated by the success of the recent production, which also revealed how much an improvement has been made, at relatively little cost, by the new auditorium. Robinson is one of the most interesting figures from the first generation of the Abbey. The son of a Church of Ireland clergyman, though not from a ‘Big House’ background, Robinson dated his own conversion to Irish nationalism and the literary revival to a performance of Cathleen Ni Houlihan by the Abbey Players, which he saw in Cork in 1907. He became manager of the Abbey following J. M. Synge’s death in 1909. Like many of the first generation of Abbey playwrights, Robinson was as interested in contemporary movements in European theatre as in the cultural and political imperatives of the revival. Social satire and realism formed an important part of his early plays. The best-known of these, The White-Haired Boy (1916), is still frequently revived and has lost none of its edge. Even in the age of affluence that is the present, Robinson’s satire on the relationship between the Irish mother and her favourite son is as fresh as ever. The powerful economic theme running through the play, while communicating very well to a twenty-first-century audience, provides an incisive portrait of the powerful forces of primitive accumulation, social mobility and the psychology of the Irish small town. Another reflection on the horizons of the Irish small town—and, to a great extent, of the independent Irish state—was Robinson’s Drama at Inish (1933), where a company of players trying to perform Ibsen and Strindberg are run out of a small town and replaced by a travelling circus. The play might have served as a commentary on the increasingly staid and formulaic approach adopted by the Abbey for several decades from the late 1930s, despite Robinson’s continued association with the national theatre for the rest of his career. But Robinson himself also suffered at the hands of rising intolerance and narrow-mindedness. In 1924 he lost his job with the Carnegie Trust because of a short story he had published dealing with the Immaculate Conception.

The central characters are the sympathetic figures of the landlord (left) and his surviving daughter (right)—she dedicated to the cooperative movement and learning Irish; he well-intentioned and high-minded, a classic ‘improving landlord’.

The central characters are the sympathetic figures of the landlord (left) and his surviving daughter (right)—she dedicated to the cooperative movement and learning Irish; he well-intentioned and high-minded, a classic ‘improving landlord’.

The realism of Robinson’s plays and his interest in political themes and social satire make him particularly interesting to historians. Dismissed rather unthinkingly by an Irish Times journalist recently as yet another Abbey costume-drama, The Big House is nothing of the sort. Written in 1926 and set in the years 1918–23, the play has an immediacy which is lacking in recent dramatisations of this period of Irish history, even by playwrights of the stature of Brian Friel and Frank McGuinness. Robinson, in common with most writers of the revival period, was not a product of the ‘Big House’, although increasingly lumped together with all ‘non-Catholic’ writers as time went on. Because it is an outsider’s view rather than a personal retrospect, Robinson’s Big House is a play of ideas, somewhat like Shaw’s Heartbreak House. Robinson had worked with Shaw at the start of his Abbey career. The play was also written and produced in the wake of the phenomenal success of Seán O’Casey’s great trilogy of plays dealing with the Troubles, which had been shown at the Abbey between 1923 and 1926.
The Big House begins on the eve of the Armistice in November 1918, before the onset of the Troubles but already dominated by a theme of loss. One son of the family is already dead, killed in action on the Western Front, and the family are making preparations to welcome home the younger son, unaware that he has also been killed in the last days of the war. Much of the tension in the first act is generated by the abnormal context of these otherwise typical tragedies of war. There is an Englishman present as a house guest, who is treated to a brilliant and often grimly hilarious commentary on Ireland by the local rector and to an object-lesson in Irish exceptionalism by the uncouth squireen neighbour, who is hardly aware that there is a war. The central characters, apart from the house itself, are the sympathetic figures of the landlord and his surviving daughter—she dedicated to the cooperative movement and learning Irish, enthusiastically taking up the business of the new Ireland; he well-intentioned and high-minded, a classic ‘improving landlord’, now largely out of place in a situation with which he finds it increasingly impossible to live. Three acts of violence define the three acts of the play. The death of the sons of the house in the First World War is also, in some sense, symbolic of the death of the old order. The second act, set during the War of Independence, is dominated by the reappearance of the British officer from the first act as a Black-and-Tan officer, intent on burning the local village as a reprisal and prevented by the Big House family. In the third act, the object is the Big House itself, now being burned down as a Civil War reprisal for the execution of a young republican. As he piles these symmetrical phases of violence upon each other,

IRA men force the family to leave before they burn down the Big House as a reprisal for the execution of a young republican.(All images, Abbey Theatre)

IRA men force the family to leave before they burn down the Big House as a reprisal for the execution of a young republican.
(All images, Abbey Theatre)

Robinson emphasises the remorseless logic of the situation which cannot be palliated by good intentions or vague hopes of coexistence. The tragedy of the destruction of the Big House and its civilisation is stark, but as its owners try to make sense of things among the ashes they experience a kind of liberation. For the father, the loss of the house means that he is free for the first time to realise that he has been like a bad actor trying to play a role that is beyond his capacities. Even more interesting are the speeches given to the daughter of the house as she confronts the rector with the failings of their community. In quite a prophetic way, she argues that Protestants have been too self-effacing, too concerned with achieving coexistence and not enough with converting others—very effective as an indictment of sectional entrenchment, but also hinting at the long silence of the Protestant community in independent Ireland which was criticised by outspoken individuals like Victor Griffin in the 1980s and 1990s.

Eamon O’Flaherty lectures in history at University College Dublin.

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