Samuel Beckett, the Gate Theatre Dublin, and the Contemporary Irish Independent Theater Sector: Fragments of Performance History

Author: Anna McMullan and Trish McTighe

Project Arts' Beckett's Ghosts, copyright Ros Kavanagh

From 1991, when the Dublin Gate Theatre launched their Samuel Beckett Festival featuring nineteen of Beckett’s stage plays, to more recent years, the Gate dominated Irish productions of Beckett’s theater.[1] The Gate Beckett Festival was remounted in 1996 at the Lincoln Center, New York, and at the Barbican Centre, London, in 1999, and individual or grouped productions have toured regularly since then in Ireland and internationally.[2] However, since the Irish premiere of Waiting of Godot at the Pike Theatre in 1955, in addition to several Beckett plays mounted by the National Theatre, many independent Irish theater companies, such as Focus Theatre, Druid Theatre, and more recently Pan Pan Theatre, Blue Raincoat Theatre, The Corn Exchange, and Company SJ (under director Sarah Jane Scaife), have produced Beckett’s drama.[3] While acknowledging earlier Irish productions, this essay will consider the role of the Dublin Gate Beckett Festival and the Beckett Centenary celebrations in Dublin in 2006 in greatly enhancing the marketability of Beckett’s work, and will discuss the proliferation of productions of Beckett’s stage plays (as opposed to stage adaptations of the prose work, which is a topic for another essay) in the independent theater sector in the Republic of Ireland since 2006. In addition to giving an overview of these recent productions, the essay will consider some issues at stake in creating or constructing performance histories.[4]

Existing critical research on Beckett and Ireland has tended either to place Beckett’s texts in autobiographical, historical, cultural, literary, or dramatic contexts, or to analyze ways in which the work resists national tropes of identity.[5] Less has been written about productions of Beckett’s theater in Ireland in the context of Irish performance histories, though a major exception to this is Christopher Murray’s account of productions of Beckett’s theater in Ireland up until 1983 as part of the 1984 special issue of Irish University Review on Beckett.[6]  There remains much work to be done in compiling, documenting, and analyzing productions of Beckett’s theater in different eras and venues across the island. Constructing performance histories of Beckett’s theater necessitates a shift in focus from authorial text or dramaturgy towards the cultural, historical, local, and economic contexts of the productions, as well as the practitioners and companies involved. As Mark Nixon and Matthew Feldman note in The International Reception of Samuel Beckett, “while Beckett’s work was often perceived as expressing universal and humanist values, it was simultaneously subject to national, even regional or local specificity. […T]here exist many ‘Becketts,’ read through specific cultural, historical and political situations.”[7] The research in this paper draws on data from a project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council on Staging Beckett, a collaboration between the Universities of Reading and Chester in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The project began in 2012 and is compiling a number of research resources on professional productions of Beckett’s plays in the UK and Ireland, including a database, website, and interviews with theater practitioners.[8] Since the cultural and political environments of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are distinct—due, for instance, to the impact of the Troubles and the Peace Process in the north, and to the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger economy in the Republic—this essay will limit its focus to productions in the twenty six counties, with particular emphasis on Dublin.[9] However, we are also attentive to the limitations of national frameworks, and to the crosscurrents and influences across the north and south of Ireland, the UK and beyond, particularly evident in tours, or in cast members and creative and technical personnel who may have worked across productions. There are also many connections—through performers such as Olwen Fouéré, for example—between earlier productions and more recent productions of Beckett’s drama, and between productions of Beckett in the main theaters of the Abbey and the Gate, and those in the independent theater sector.


Sketching Performance Histories

The project of mapping performance histories of Beckett's theater raises a number of methodological and historiographical issues. As with attempts to map a territory, we need to be attentive to gaps and absences, keeping in mind questions like when, where, and why was Beckett not performed? How reliable is our evidence or the testimony of our interviewees? Dennis Kennedy reminds us that “performance history is memory engaged with the traces of the disappeared, the act of calling up that which cannot be completely recalled.”[10] No matter how much data we gather, or how many people we interview, the picture of Beckett’s productions in Ireland that we produce will always be provisional and incomplete, shaped by our inclusions and exclusions. Moreover, as Kennedy notes, and as scholars such as Diana Taylor have argued, “live performance can never be captured or transmitted through the archive.”[11] We are haunted by its ghosts. Yet the historical archiving and analysis of performance, however fragmentary or contested, is significant: if we do not include performance in an expanded definition of “knowledge,” performance will continue to be devalued in relation to text-based forms of knowledge. Histories of performance allow traditions and influences to be traced, as Taylor further notes: “Debates about the ‘ephemerality’ of performance are, of course, profoundly political. Whose memories, traditions, and claims to history disappear if performance practices lack the staying power to transmit vital knowledge?”[12] The impact of particular performances and the interactions between them is as much a part of our personal and cultural memory as the textual canon. Theorists of embodied memory and performance such as Joseph Roach and Diana Taylor have opened up the ways in which ritual or other social performances transmit cultural memory, though we are concentrating here specifically on the memory and legacies of theatrical performance.[13] Individual memories can of course be supplemented by various kinds of documentation, from reviews, media broadcasts, photographs, programs, or interviews. As Bernadette Sweeney has argued in Staging the Body in Irish Theatrefor reasons that echo those of Taylor above—“Documentation issues are key: the politics of performance do not stop at what is staged, but how it is staged, reacted to, recorded and remembered.”[14] And in her book on Barabbas Theatre Company—an important contribution to the recording and analysis of one independent theater company that emerged in Dublin in the early 1990s—Carmen Szabo comments that, “We who venture into archives to write about theatre companies, playwrights or theatre movements of the past or present are continuously documenting ourselves documenting.”[15] The work below draws on such archival remains of documentation, and on individual memories of particular moments and performances.


The Irish Independent Theater Sector

This article discusses a range of productions of Beckett’s plays in Ireland, taking into account the impact of the Dublin Gate Theatre’s Beckett Festival productions but focusing mainly on the contemporary independent theater sector. Irish independent theater is defined as theater outside commercial venues such as the Olympia or the Tivoli in Dublin, and the heavily subsidized National Theatre, as well as the commercial but also subsidized Gate Theatre Dublin.[16] Druid Theatre is usually cited as having initiated the contemporary independent theater sector in the Republic of Ireland when it was founded in Galway in 1975. However, Ian Walsh has demonstrated that there were independent theater companies in the 1930s and 1940s in Ireland, creating a tradition that both looks back to the Dublin Drama League founded in 1918 by, among others, Lennox Robinson and W.B. Yeats, and looks forward to companies like Phyllis Ryan’s Gemini Productions (in operation from the 1950s to 1980s), Focus Theatre (founded in Dublin, 1963), Druid, and Rough Magic (founded in Dublin, 1985).[17] These independent theater companies, like the Dublin Drama League, sought to expand the national repertoire by staging experimental European theater and/or new Irish plays, and by exploring new approaches to staging. As Elaine Sisson has argued, the documentation of this independent theater sector enables a more radical, experimental, and countercultural history of Irish theater and performance to be constructed, one which “attempt[s] to frame itself within a European idiom and which [seeks] intellectual, social and artistic liberation in addition to national autonomy.”[18] It is therefore not surprising that, as we discuss in more detail below, Beckett’s work was frequently included in the repertoires of many of the independent theater companies in Ireland.

Between the 1955 Irish premiere of Waiting for Godot—directed by Alan Simpson at the Pike Theatre, Dublin—and the early 1990s, Beckett’s plays were a significant but not central presence in Irish theaters. There were usually one or two productions per year, supplemented by visiting companies, such as the Schiller Theater production of Waiting for Godot directed by Beckett and performed at the Abbey in 1977. The Irish venues/companies that staged Beckett during these years include the National Theatre, whose first star-driven production of Waiting for Godot was staged at the Abbey with Peter O’Toole in 1969, while several Beckett plays were presented on the smaller stage of the Peacock; an Taibhdhearc in Galway, in which the Irish translation of Godot, Ag Fanacht le Godot, was performed in 1972;[19] Druid Theatre, Galway;[20] the Everyman-Cork; the Lyric and Circle theaters in Belfast; and Focus Theatre and Eblana Theatre in Dublin.[21] Although Tony Roche has described the original Pike production of Godot as a “piece of popular theatre” in Ireland rather than an “an avant-garde play,” and even though he asserts Beckett’s centrality to contemporary Irish drama, Beckett had not yet attained the popular status of classic Irish writer that he would eventually acquire.[22] Much work remains to be done in researching these productions from the 1960s to the 1980s; but we know, for example, that Druid’s 1976 production of Happy Days, featuring Marie Mullen as Winnie, “did miserably badly in terms of audiences,”[23] whereas their 1987 production of Waiting for Godot was extremely popular—the run was sold out and extended.[24] The success of Godot may have had much to do with the company’s growing renown, as well as the skill of actor Mick Lally in the role of Pozzo. [25]

Recognizing the diversity of practitioners that have presented Beckett’s drama over these years—from amateur to professional, independent to commercial or subsidized—makes it quite difficult to broadly characterize the nature of the playwright’s appeal during this time. It is the contention of this essay, however, that staging Beckett in Ireland underwent a shift in the late 1980s which saw the author’s work achieve a more “main-stage” level of success in a commercially-minded theatrical environment than was hitherto the case.

In the section below, we will explore diverse aspects of that cultural shift. We will also argue that, since the 1990s, the contemporary Irish independent theater sector has continued to turn to Beckett’s work in order to explore more European and non-naturalist performance traditions. In recent decades, however, Beckett has moved into a more prominent place in Ireland’s national pantheon of writers, and has acquired more national and global mainstream visibility, which has in turn facilitated the marketing of his work across all sectors. The Gate Beckett Festival in 1991 was both a symptom and a driver of that growing mainstream visibility and marketability.


Beckett as Icon of the New Ireland

The increased general public interest in Beckett was linked to a widespread reclaiming of Beckett as an Irish writer - evident in, for example, Silence to Silence, Sean O’Mordha’s 1984 film on Beckett’s life and work, which included photographs of Beckett’s early years in Ireland and used the image of an old man and child walking the clearly identifiable landscape of the Dublin mountains as a core symbol for Beckett’s work. Similarly, Eoin O’Brien’s influential book and related exhibition, The Beckett Country, traced references in Beckett’s work to specifically Irish figures or events from his life, and to Irish geographical locations.[26] It must be acknowledged also that this kind of celebration is not entirely new to the Irish cultural scene, as attested by events such as Alec Reid’s “Beckett Evening” at the Abbey in 1967, as well as the “Live and Invent” exhibition of objects and materials relating to the author’s life at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in 1978.[27] Jack MacGowran had toured a one man show, Beginning to End, consisting of extracts from Beckett’s prose, poetry, and drama, in Ireland and internationally in the 1960s, which was described by Mel Gussow as “an incarnation of the work and of the man [Beckett].”[28] The Gate drew on the popular legacy of this show in their adaptation of Beckett’s prose “trilogy,” I’ll Go On, starring Barry McGovern, in 1985, which continues in the Gate repertoire.[29]

This hibernicization of Beckett aimed to counter the French or more broadly European appropriation of Beckett’s work, an appropriation evidenced by Michael Colgan’s oft-cited conversation with the organizers of the 1986 Paris celebrations of Beckett’s birth eighty years prior; as Brian Singleton describes the conversation, when asked by Colgan about the Irish presence at that festival, one organizer responded that “no reason could be envisaged for having such a presence.”[30] The seeds of the Gate Theatre Dublin’s 1991 Beckett Festival were thus sown. In 1988, the Gate presented a highly acclaimed production of Waiting for Godot, directed by Walter Asmus, who had assisted Beckett on his 1975 Schiller Theater, and this production was incorporated into the 1991 Festival. As Singleton notes, in developing the concept of the Gate Beckett Festival, Colgan drew not only on the growing sense of Beckett as an Irish writer, but on two established trends in Irish culture—the summer schools and the festival—in order to more successfully market Beckett’s theater, especially the shorter, later plays which take theater to its experimental limits. Colgan himself has referred to this strategy as “Eventing”: “When you Event something, you have a much better chance of getting them to sit through even five hours.”[31]

This successful marketing of Beckett was linked to more general changes in Ireland’s political, economic, social and cultural climate.  During the 1990s, as Patrick Lonergan has pointed out, Ireland became an increasingly globalized country; up through the mid-2000s, the content and modes of production of Irish theatre were initially liberated and then progressively commercialized.[32] In this globalized climate, the Gate could present the cosmopolitan Beckett as a harbinger and icon of a new, secularized Ireland, at once Irish and international. Both the Gate Theatre Beckett Festival and the expansion and diversification of the independent theater sector in the early 1990s were linked to the seismic political, economic, and social changes of this era. The narrative of these years is now so familiar as to need no retelling, yet the events of the early 1990s were so exhilarating, and so fleeting, that it is worth revisiting a selection of them.

In 1990, Mary Robinson was elected President, backed by Labour, who went on to form a coalition with Fianna Fail (1992-4) and then with Fine Gael and the Democratic Left (1994-7). In 1992, the Bishop Casey scandal, which exposed his affair with Annie Murphy and his paternity of a child, foresaw the decline of the power and authority of the Catholic Church and paved the way for later accounts of systemic abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy who were harbored by the Church. In 1993, homosexuality was decriminalized. In the same year, Michael D. Higgins, the current President of Ireland, became the first Minister for the Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. On the first of September 1994, the first (of several) IRA ceasefires was announced. The growth of the Celtic Tiger economy, which made it possible for young people to stay and work in the Republic, coincided with a secularization of social life. Arts Council Funding increased, reaching a peak in 2002, supporting the expansion of the arts sector. The Arts Council followed a policy of regionalization which also encouraged the founding of companies outside Dublin. These were heady days, when the old models of political and social authority were crumbling, and the ethos of consumer and business profit, and the commodification of social life and artistic production, had not yet become established as they would be at the height of the Celtic Tiger in the early years of the second millennium. The theater companies founded in the early 1990s captured this sense of experimentation with new models of Irishness, and new performance vocabularies—theater companies like Blue Raincoat (Sligo, 1991), Corcadorca (Cork, 1991), Pan Pan (Dublin,1991), Barrabas (Dublin, 1993), Bedrock (Dublin, 1993), Kabosh (Belfast, 1994), and the Corn Exchange (Dublin, 1995). Many of these companies or those who founded them now play major roles in contemporary Irish theater and performance, and, coincidently or not, a number of them have recently staged productions of Beckett’s drama, especially since 2006.[33]

From 1991 up until the Beckett Centenary celebrations of 2006, the Gate dominated productions of Beckett in the Republic (and held performing rights). The impact of the Gate Beckett Festival has yet to be fully explored, but it certainly played a role in reclaiming Beckett as an accessible, comic playwright who is Irish in a non-insular, global context.[34] The Gate brought together international and Irish directors—both well-known and emerging— and there was no attempt to locate the productions in any specifically Irish landscape. However, casts were largely comprised of Irish actors. Singleton notes the effect of the actors’ accents: “This was a siting of Beckett’s tramp-poets amid the wanderers of Synge and Yeats, their displacement made all the more poignant and, indeed, political, by the locating nature of their accents.”[35] The international success and recognition that the Beckett Festival achieved validated the continued production of that author’s work at home. Beckett’s work has since been rendered into a specifically Irish cultural product, making it a resource for what Pierre Bourdieu has termed “cultural capital,” in terms of its status both as high or “difficult” art and as a part of the cultural fabric of Ireland.[36] Moreover, and importantly, the Gate has succeeded in making the drama a highly marketable entity, thus transforming cultural capital into economic capital.

Investigating recent productions of Beckett suggests that companies and individual practitioners were drawn to Beckett for complex reasons. These reasons include Beckett’s non-naturalist approach to theater, which focuses on the body in performance, offers challenging roles for both male and female performers, and resists the specificity of the rural or urban locations one frequently finds in the Irish theater canon. At the same time, and as we demonstrate in the following section, for independent theater companies in the last decade or so—especially since the 2006 Centenary—Samuel Beckett not only represents artistic integrity and innovation, but also a widely recognizable, respected, and marketable cultural icon.


The Beckett Centenary

The Beckett Centenary followed the Joyce Bloomsday Centenary in 2004 and provided a boost for cultural tourism though its reclamation of another Irish writer with global cultural status.[37] This kind of commemoration contrasts in significant ways with the historical neglect of these writers by the Irish state. This more recent celebration and reclamation might be seen as reparation for such neglect at the same time as it became a way of capitalizing upon the cultural (and material) capital which such writers represent for Ireland. The image of Beckett himself, that famous monochrome visage, became an icon of the Dublin tourist trail, emblazoned on banners in the streets of the capital. Today, a glance at one of Dublin’s tourist attractions, the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, shows the famous image of the playwright’s face alongside a photograph of two tour guide/actors who, in their bowler hats, are reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.[38] The Gate Theatre and other institutions such as the National Gallery and Trinity College Dublin were central participants in the varied cultural program for the centenary, which included theatrical performances, visual art, and an academic symposium. Other official commemorations included the minting of a gold coin, which Sean Kennedy has suggested may have been an apposite symbol for the wealth-driven Ireland of the time.[39]

For the most part, the Gate dominated the theater program. There is space only for a quick overview here, but it is worth noting that the Gate, as in their previous Beckett Festival programs, drew not only on established actors and international directors but also on a number of directors with rising stardom from the independent Irish theater sector of the last decade or so: there was, for example, a revival of the Asmus-directed Waiting for Godot with Barry McGovern, Alan Stanford, and Johnny Murphy, as well as the production of eight other plays, including a staging of the television play Eh Joe, directed by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan and starring Michael Gambon. Irish directors included Annie Ryan of Corn Exchange (directing Come and Go) and Selina Cartmell of Siren productions (directing the much remarked-upon Catastrophe). Performers included actors who were (and are) associated with alternative performance idioms in Irish theater, such as Tom Hickey (Nagg in Endgame) and Olwen Fouéré (Assistant in Catastrophe), along with well-known performers like Owen Roe (Catastrophe)—who was not previously associated with Beckett—and emerging actors such as Justine Mitchell (Footfalls). A full analysis of the Gate’s Beckett Festival in its diverse iterations is an ongoing research strand of the Staging Beckett project, but we can see that the 2006 Centenary program in general had an impact on generating further non-Gate productions of Beckett’s theater. In order to assess that impact, however, and to get a sense of the ways in which several players in the independent theater sector had been drawing on Beckettian performance aesthetics, an analysis of Beckett’s Ghosts, the one non-Gate Theatre production on the official Centenary program, is instructive.

Beckett’s Ghosts featured four of Beckett’s short plays and was presented by Bedrock productions at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin. The production provides an ideal case study of a program that functioned as part of the major state-sponsored event of the Centenary yet also signaled the importance of Beckett’s performance aesthetics in expanding the languages of Irish theater in the direction of European or international performance models.[40] The four plays incorporated by Beckett’s Ghosts were A Piece of Monologue, directed by Jason Byrne and performed by Andrew Bennett; That Time, directed by Jimmy Fay and performed by Ned Dennehy; Breath, directed and designed by Amanda Coogan; and Not I, also directed by Jason Byrne and performed by Deirdre Roycroft. The lighting designer was Paul Keogan, and Vincent Doherty and Ivan Birthistle were the sound designers. This impressive line-up draws on a number of theater practitioners whose careers began in the 1990s and who now straddle the Abbey/Gate and the independent theater sector. In addition to director Fay and the dramaturge Alex Johnston of Bedrock, the team included the director (Byrne) and lead actor (Roycroft) of Loose Canon Theatre Company, founded in 1996, and Amanda Coogan, an Irish performance artist. In its official program, the director of A Piece of Monologue is listed as Gavin Quinn, co-founder with Aedin Cosgrove of Pan Pan, but Byrne is credited in the actual event program. The production of Beckett’s Ghosts therefore sits at the center of a network of personal connections and theatrical experiments that in themselves chart the emergence of some leading players in the contemporary Irish theater scene.

Bedrock was founded in 1993 with a remit of presenting a mixture of new Irish writing and non-Irish work that was not regularly seen in Ireland, and with a focus on experimental performance. Since that time, they have presented work by Bernard-Marie Koltes, Eugene Ionesco, Sarah Kane, and Caryl Churchill, as well as new writing by Alex Johnston, Arthur Riordan, and Des Bishop. They initiated the Dublin Fringe Festival in 1995, when their proposal for a production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker at the main Theatre Festival was turned down. In 1997, they presented a “Theatre of Cruelty” season which included works by Beckett, Heiner Müller, Edward Bond, and Mark O’Rowe. Mick Heaney notes that by the end of the 1990s, Jimmy Fay had shifted from a “maverick outsider of Irish theatre” to “an establishment figure”;[41] and he has directed several shows under Fiach MacConghail’s directorship of the National Theatre. Likewise, Jason Byrne has moved between experimental work and main-stage directing. Loose Canon’s early work focused mainly on contemporary productions of Shakespeare or Jacobean drama; however, in the years prior to 2006, they embarked on an overtly experimental period, where they explored, for example, Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and the works of Heiner Müller. In particular, in 2005, they presented Müller’s Waterfront Wasteland/Medeamaterial/Landscape with Argonauts, which featured at one point a hauntingly lit, largely static monologue by Barry McGovern, an overt reference to Beckett both in style and through the casting of this well-known Beckett actor.[42] Deirdre Roycroft was a leading performer with Loose Canon during this period. Amanda Coogan is one of the most recognizable performance artists in Dublin (and partner of Jimmy Fay). She trained with Marina Abramović and works with costume and the body to explore constructions and taboos of femininity and Irish culture. Since 2002, Willie White—now director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, and co-founder of Loose Canon in 1996—had been director of the Project Arts Centre, which hosted the program, and he was therefore a significant player in this network of independent theater and performance practitioners. It is also significant, recalling Sisson’s quote towards the beginning of this article, that Beckett’s work here occurs repeatedly in connection with work by non-naturalist British and European writers, with theater artists such as Artaud and Müller.

In fact, that production of Beckett’s Ghosts, as might be expected of an official program event, did not depart significantly from Beckett’s stage directions (with the exception of Breath), yet managed to draw on the history of theatrical experimentation referred to above. The following account draws on the memories and notes of McMullan who saw the program on April 19th, 2006. All productions were exquisitely lit by maestro Paul Keogan, and the monologic roles gave rich challenges to the performers. The majority were generally well-received, with critics commenting on the performances by Bennett, Dennehy, and especially Deirdre Roycroft, who captured the tension and terror of Mouth in Not I, drawing on the vocal work she had undertaken as part of Loose Canon’s Theatre of Cruelty and other seasons. Breath was more controversial, as director-designer Coogan amended Beckett’s original directions, a decision for which the more conservative critics such as Gerry Colgan complained: “the curtain sweeps aside to reveal a huge heap of bones rather than the prescribed litter of miscellaneous rubbish, and two faint cries are closer to screams. Director Amanda Coogan inexplicably misses the author’s style and vision.”[43] However, McMullan experienced Coogan’s Breath as the most powerful moment of the evening. The light initially came up on a strangely inanimate single hand isolated in the darkness, then gradually faded up further to reveal a stage littered with naked mannequin bodies, strewn pell mell. The cry—“Instant of recorded vagitus,” according to Beckett’s original stage directions[44]—was stylized and haunting. The image was briefly held, but resonant of catastrophe, all the more disturbing because of those prosthetic, doll-like limbs. Coogan drew on her own history of performance art in order to present Breath as a disturbing, compelling, barely animate installation. In summary, the program as a whole involved many of the leaders of the next generation of theater practitioners and administrators, and managed to broadly respect the official limitations on interpreting Beckett’s work set by his Estate, while incorporating a frisson or theater memory of experimental performance.[45]

The above discussion of Beckett productions in Dublin in 2006 is necessarily selective. There were productions of Beckett’s theater which were not part of the official 2006 Beckett Centenary.[46] In that year, an important initiative was led by director Sarah Jane Scaife, who received Culture Ireland funding to work with a number of international companies in China, Malaysia, Singapore, India, and Greece to stage Beckett’s theater, especially his later, short works. Scaife’s background is diverse, encompassing performances on the Abbey and Gate stages, but she is particularly known for an approach to choreography and directing that works from the actor’s body—she is trained in Polish mime and Butoh—and also explores the impact of technology on the embodied performer. She was movement director for the Yeats Festival at the Abbey in the 1990s, and her company Throwin’ Shapes later that decade presented highly contemporary performances of Yeats’ theater, incorporating puppetry, choreography, live camera, and screened images. Her experience of working interculturally in 2006 led to a renewed awareness of the cultural specificity of each production of Beckett’s theater, in which choices about costume, cast, movement, and props inevitably reflect cultural assumptions. This experience has led Scaife to explore such cultural assumptions and specificities in an intracultural, Irish context, as discussed below.


Staging Beckett after the Centenary: Between Cultural Endorsement and Experimental Performance Aesthetics

To some extent, the Centenary was a catalyst for bringing Beckett more centrally into the repertoire of a number of significant theater companies and practitioners, for which, of course, the issue of availability of rights also needs to be considered. Since 2006, Beckett has been staged by Annie Ryan of Corn Exchange (Happy Days in 2010), Pan Pan (with adaptations of radio plays All That Fall in 2010 and Embers in 2013), and Blue Raincoat (Endgame in 2013). In 2008, Coogan performed Yellow Mountain in which fifteen schoolgirls mimed the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah with their heads protruding from an outsize yellow jumper, an overt reference to Beckett’s dislocation of the body in Happy Days.[47] The Mouth on Fire Company, founded in 2010, specializes in presenting Beckett’s drama. And both Gavin Quinn and Sarah Jane were involved in the launch of the Beckett Laboratory, a practice-based forum for the exploration of Beckett’s theater which was inaugurated at the 2013 Trinity College Dublin’s Samuel Beckett Summer School (itself founded in 2011). For these companies, Beckett therefore continues to present the opportunity of working with a non-naturalist, highly choreographed performance aesthetic.

Although The Blue Raincoat and Pan Pan theater companies began life in the 1990s, it is only in the last few years that they have begun to explore the artistic potential of Beckett’s drama. The Blue Raincoat found in Beckett something similar to what they had been exploring in Ionesco. In a recent interview for the Staging Beckett project, The Blue Raincoat’s artistic director Niall Henry spoke of a certain degree of liberation to be found in working on these texts. The company did not have to concern themselves with interpretation and meaning, but rather focused on the concrete elements of staging. Trained in corporeal mime, Henry directs a company with physical precision as its central focus. He compares the company’s working methods to those of a sculptor, where the work with actors’ bodies in doing plays like Endgame and The Chairs is like that of the sculptor to his or her materials, honing the performance and the craft with each production;[48] this may be at the heart of the connections the company found with Beckett’s work, following their earlier work with Ionesco’s drama. When Gavin Quinn spoke recently of Pan Pan’s decision to present work by Beckett, he referenced a long history of interest in the author, rooted in his education, as well as the fact that Beckett’s work fit with the company’s ethos of producing experimental theater that takes its cue from European theatrical trends. Beckett’s Endgame, for example, was a major inspiration for the second part of Pan Pan’s deconstructive version of Hamlet, The Great Dane, at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2010. And with All that Fall, the company created something closer to a sound installation than a strictly theatrical piece. Seated in rocking chairs in the space, audiences were immersed in a journey through the mind of the play’s protagonist, Maddy Rooney. This vocalized journey through the fictional, though referentially Irish, town of Boghill, where the play is set was choreographed with lights. A lighting array covers one wall of the theatre and was the only visual element in a production which otherwise stays true to the radiophonic nature of Beckett’s play.[49]

Blue Raincoat Theatre Company's Endgame, with Ciaran McAuley as Hamm and Malcolm Hamilton as Clov (courtesy of Niall Henry)

For Henry, Beckett represents a sort of natural progression in the process of discovery about theater—specifically physical theater. For Quinn, Beckett’s radio drama offers an opportunity to produce a kind of total art work, one which is a collaboration between himself as theater director and the sound designers, visual artists, and/or sculptors. The Corn Exchange, who presented Happy Days in 2010, designed by Joe Vanek, have a similarly experimental outlook with an emphasis on physicality and design. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the range of visual artists, musicians, and performance artists who have been inspired by or worked with Beckett’s texts, which may have intensified Beckett’s appeal to those working in interdisciplinary or intermedial performance idioms.[50] General interest in Beckett’s work has been promoted by a new Beckett festival, the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.[51] In 2013, the Blue Raincoat Theatre in Sligo presented Endgame as part of that festival, and a new, Dublin-based company, Sugarglass Theatre, presented Ethica, a program of four Beckett shorts. Pan Pan presented All that Fall during the previous year’s inaugural festivities there. The Happy Days Festival is extending the familiarity and marketability of Beckett’s work to northern audiences. It includes both high art programs of international music and theater, and a series of popular events such as Beckett cricket matches and lunches.[52]

Sarah Jane Scaife, meanwhile, has been undertaking a consistent and focused interrogation of Beckett’s theatrical languages since her presentation of Beckett’s mimes at the Peacock Theatre in the late 1980s. Her intercultural theater project during Beckett’s centenary year led to a new development of that practice-based research project, one which explores the radical potential of Beckett’s theater not only in terms of its theater languages but also—by taking the play out of theater buildings—in its address to diverse audiences. Since 2006, Scaife’s site specific productions of Beckett’s Act Without Words II have been presented on the streets of Dublin, New York, London, and Limerick; and in 2013, her Company SJ and Barabbas presented Act Without Words II and Rough for Theatre I in a disused parking lot on the Dublin Quays, as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival.

Scaife’s practice engages issues raised by Vic Merriman in his survey of Irish theater in the 1990s. Merriman sees in the theater of this era a bifurcation “into a theatre of social critique, and a theatre of diversionary spectacle.”[53] He traces a genealogy of socially committed theater in the work of Donal O’Kelly and Calypso theater company, for example, as well as Wet Paint Arts. It could be argued that the concern with a European genealogy of theater and performance represented by some recent productions of Beckett’s theater avoided direct engagement with or critique of contemporary Ireland, and yet Beckett’s theater, as Merriman acknowledges in his own discussion of a 1996 production of the Gate’s Waiting for Godot, is an example of a dramaturgy that has the potential to reflect on the contemporary condition of when and where it is staged. Scaife’s productions in particular call attention to what Merriman sees as the abjected marginalized figure of the homeless person whose “abject body is the focus of a vocabulary of dismissal, its humanity erased by its affront to those ornamental images which attract allegience and function as desired social models.”[54] While Scaife’s choices of placing the characters of Beckett’s Act Without Words II and Rough for Theatre I on the streets—with their overt references to the homeless and drug addiction in costume and movement—risk appropriating or exploiting the figure and experience of the dispossessed for artistic currency, her performances are addressed to what she calls a “double audience”—that is, the paying and the non-paying, who include passers-by, cars, buses, and members of some of the local homeless and drug-addicted population, several of whom witnessed and commented on rehearsals for the original Dublin Christ Church-staging of the play.[55] Scaife’s site-specific productions take Beckett outside the dedicated spaces of theater and performance cultures, and include the marginalized in Beckett’s “Everyman” figures.


Conclusion: Samuel Beckett’s Theater and Irish Performance Histories

This essay has explored productions of Beckett’s theater in the Irish independent theater sector, focusing on the years since 1991, the date of the Gate Theatre’s original Beckett Festival, and, in particular, during and following Beckett’s Dublin Centenary celebrations in 2006; in so doing has encountered fragments of both the performance history of Beckett in Ireland and the history of the post-1990s independent theater sector. These are no more than fragments, and, as we mentioned previously, we will never have a complete picture of either of these histories. Yet the fragments hold fascinating stories and textures. Our research thus far has detected two trends in its study of the ways in which a number of the independent theater companies approached Beckett’s theater and at what stage they did so: one is the turn to Beckett in order to expand the performance languages and idioms of Irish theater and performance in accordance with more European, non-naturalist, embodied, or intermedial performance traditions; the other is that these productions reflect not only Beckett’s growing cultural capital since the Centenary in Ireland and elsewhere, but also that of the companies that are presenting him. The turn to Beckett therefore continues their association with performance experimentation, but also, especially in the context of reduced available funding in the Republic since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, enables them to take advantage of Beckett’s national and global cultural visibility and status.

As the Staging Beckett project continues its work, it will be interesting to uncover more detail about early, pre-1990s productions of Beckett’s theater in the island of Ireland, even as we continue to look out for future productions and adaptations of his drama. The Dublin Theatre Festival of 2013 saw, for one, Pan Pan presenting a second Beckett radio play, Embers, as well as Sarah Jane Scaife directing a site-specific production of Rough for Theatre II, and the company Gare St Lazare Players Ireland—who have been successfully performing adaptations of Beckett’s prose in Ireland and internationally, and who produced new versions of Beckett’s radio plays on RTE in 2006—staging Waiting for Godot at the Gaiety Theatre. Beckett is evidently stirring still in Irish theaters.

[1] Beckett’s first full-length play, Eleutheria, the performing rights of which remain unavailable, was excluded.

[2] For example, the Gate mounted an “All-Ireland,” 32-county tour of Waiting for Godot in 2008. The Gate has also toured adaptations of Beckett’s prose work, including I’ll Go On, an adaptation of the “trilogy”—Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable—starring Barry McGovern, which premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1985, and, more recently, Watt, also starring McGovern, which premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2010. This essay is concerned solely with productions of Beckett’s stage plays.

[3] Productions of Beckett by independent Irish companies from the 1960s to the 1980s include Happy Days at the Eblana Theatre Dublin, Waiting for Godot, Footfalls, and Not I at the Lyric Theatre Belfast, Waiting for Godot by Circle Theatre Belfast, Krapp’s Last Tape, Endgame, and Waiting for Godot by Focus Theatre, Dublin, Ag Fanacht le Godot by An Taibhdhearc, Galway, Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape and Endgame at the Everyman, Cork, and Act Without Words I, Happy Days, Endgame, and Waiting for Godot by Druid Theatre. This is a very selective list and does not include productions at the Abbey and the Peacock, nor student productions. The Staging Beckett database, publicly available in Autumn 2014, will include more details of and research resources on professional productions of Beckett’s plays in Ireland and the UK. See

[4] Archival materials on the productions and theater companies mentioned in this article tend to be scattered across several different institutions. The Gate Theater has a rich collection of images, programs and, for example, early designs by Louis le Brocquy for the 1988 production of Waiting for Godot, which it holds on site. Similarly the Irish Theatre Archives held at the Dublin City Library and Archives holds a plentiful array of theater programs, including one from the original Pike theatre production of 1955. Trinity College Dublin holds many sets of Beckett’s letters and also has the Pike materials donated by Carolyn Swift, including the script containing Alan Simpson’s “Irishising” edits. The Druid archive, held at the National University of Ireland, Galway, contains programs, images, and an extensive collection of newspaper reviews. Documents from An Taibhdhearc are held here also. Once its digitization project nears completion, The Abbey Theatre will have an online database with productions listings, and their archive will also be accessible digitally through NUI Galway’s Hardiman library. Where appropriate and possible, this article will direct the reader to the websites and physical institutions where smaller theater companies document and archive their work.

[5] See, for example, Eoin O’Brien, The Beckett Country (Dublin & London: The Black Cat Press in association with Faber & Faber, 1986); John Harrington, The Irish Beckett (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1991); David Lloyd, Anomalous States: Irish Writing in the Postcolonial Moment (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1993);  or, more recently, Emilie Morin, Samuel Beckett and the Problem of Irishness (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Tony Roche identifies Beckett as “the presiding genius of contemporary Irish drama” in his Contemporary Irish Drama, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 4.

[6] Christopher Murray, “Beckett Productions in Ireland: A Survey,” Irish University Review 14, no. 1 (1984): 103-125. See also Alec Reid, All I Can Manage, More Than I Could: An Approach to the Plays of Samuel Beckett (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1968).

[7] Mark Nixon and Matthew Feldman, “Introduction: ‘Getting Known’—Samuel Beckett’s International Reception,” in The International Reception of Samuel Beckett, eds. Mark Nixon and Matthew Feldman (London: Continuum, 2009), 6.

[8] Staging Beckett: The Impact of Productions of Beckett’s Plays in the UK and Ireland is a three year ARHC-funded project which runs from 2012 to 2015. It is compiling a database of all professional productions of Beckett’s plays in the UK and Ireland, with accompanying research resources. The project will hold conferences on Constructing Performance Histories of Beckett’s theater (April 2014 in Reading), Beckett in the Regions (September 2014 in Chester) and Beckett and Theatre Cultures (April 2014 in Reading). This article’s authors share responsibility in the project: Anna McMullan is Principal Investigator on the project, and Trish McTighe is a postdoctoral researcher. Other team members include Matthew McFrederick (Reading), David Pattie (Chester), Graham Saunders (Reading), and David Tucker (Chester).

[9] Future research will document and analyze productions of Beckett in Belfast, Cork, and Galway, in addition to those in Dublin, and, where possible, those in other regions. 

[10] Dennis Kennedy, “Confessions of an Encyclopedist,” in Theorizing Practice, Redefining Theatre History, eds. W. B. Worthen and Peter Holland (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 33.

[11] Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham & London: Duke UP, 2003), 20.  It should be noted that Taylor’s emphasis is on the embodied transmission of performance rather than on the performance archive. See also Peggy Phelan, “Introduction: the ends of performance,” in The Ends of Performance, eds Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 8, in which Phelan remarks, “We have created and studied a discipline based on that which disappears, art that cannot be preserved or posted.”

[12] Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire, 5.

[13] See, for example, Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia Press, 1996), and Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989). 

[14] Bernadette Sweeney, Performing the Body in Irish Theatre (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 199.

[15] Carmen Szabo, The Story of Barabbas: The Company (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2012), 5.

[16] The relationship between the different sectors of theater in Ireland is discussed in Views of Theatre in Ireland 1995: Report of the Arts Council Theatre Review (Dublin: An Chomlairle Ealaíonn /The Arts Council, 1995), the published findings from a wide-ranging review of theater in the Republic of Ireland undertaken by the Irish Arts Council. See also Christopher Murray and Martin Drury, “The Theatre System of Ireland,” in Theatre Worlds in Motion: Structures, Politics and Developments in the Countries of Western Europe, eds. Hans Van Maanen and S.E. Wilmer (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998). Murray and Drury point out the difficulty of drawing neat boundaries between the subsidized and non-subsidized theaters in such a small and severely underfunded sector where theater practitioners work across different theatrical contexts.

[17] Ian Walsh, Experimental Irish Theatre: After W.B. Yeats (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[18] Elaine Sisson, “Experimentalism and the Irish Stage: Theatre and German Expressionism in the 1920s,” in Ireland, Design and Visual Culture: Negotiating Modernity, 1922-1992, eds. Linda King and Elaine Sisson (Cork: Cork UP, 2011), 58.

[19] For the reviews and program for Ag Fanacht le Godot, see MS 1792 f 1688, MS 1792 f 1689, MS 1792 f 1701, MS 1792 f 1777, and MS 3172, the James Hardiman Library, National University of Ireland, Galway.

[20] Druid’s archive is held at the Hardiman Library, NUI Galway, as are many of The Lyric Theatre’s materials.

[21] The Eblana’s production of Happy Days in 1963, for example, was very well received and went on to a successful run at London’s Theatre Royal; see “London Letter,” The Irish Times, 11 December 1963.

[22] Anthony Roche, Contemporary Irish Drama, 21.

[23] David Burke, “The First Ten Years: A History of the Company from 1975 to 1985,” in Druid: The First Ten Years (Galway: Druid Performing Arts, Ltd. and Galway Arts Festival, Ltd., 1985), 10.

[24] Tim Harding, “Take a pair of sparkling tramps,”Sunday Press, March 29, 1987.

[25] Lally had, at that time, also recently achieved success on television. Michael Sheridan described Lally’s Pozzo as a “triumph”; see Sheridan, “Godot Waiting in Vain,” Irish Press, March 28, 1987.

[26] O’Brien, The Beckett Country.

[27] Among the materials featured at the exhibition were photographs of the author, primarily of his Dublin days, recordings of Eh Joe, Embers, and Words and Music, and a blazer worn by Beckett. See Caroline Walsh, “Sam on Show,” Irish Times, April 25, 1978.

[28] Mel Gussow, “Jack MacGowran in the Works of Samuel Beckett,” New York Times, November 20, 1970. See Anna McMullan, Performing Embodiment in Beckett’s Theatre and Media Plays (London: Routledge, 2010), 152-3, 83n, for an account of MacGowran’s collaboration with Beckett on this show.

[29] I’ll Go On is an adaptation of Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable by McGovern and Irish academic, Gerry Dukes, directed by Colm Ó Briain.

[30] Brian Singleton, “The Revival Revised,” in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama, ed. Shaun Richards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 267.

[31] “Michael Colgan in conversation with Jeananne Crowley,” in Theatre Talk, 82.

[32] Patrick Lonergan, Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Era (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[33] Or, in Pan Pan’s case, his radio drama.

[34] See Patricia McTighe, “‘Getting known”: Beckett, Ireland and the Creative Industries,” in That Was Us: Contemporary Irish Theatre and Performance, ed. Fintan Walsh (London: Oberon Books, 2013), 157-172.

[35] Singleton, “The Revival Revised,” 268.

[36] See Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” trans. Richard Nice, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. John G. Richardson (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), 246-258.

[37] The Beckett Centenary events involved Dublin’s leading cultural and academic institutions under the auspices of the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism.

[38] “Dublin Literary Pub Crawl,” accessed July 3, 2013,

[39] Sean Kennedy, “Samuel Beckett’s Reception in Ireland,” in The International Reception, 70.

[40] The Project Arts Centre sends its documentary materials to the National Library of Ireland and there are some items, including a program, pertaining to this production there.

[41] Mick Heaney, “The Comrade’s Manifesto; Theatre,” The Sunday Times, November 26, 2006.

[42] Barry McGovern has performed in many of the Dublin Gate’s Beckett productions, including their iconic, Walter Asmus-directed Waiting for Godot, and two adaptations of Beckett’s prose: the aforementioned I’ll Go On, which premiered in 1985 and continues to tour internationally, and Watt, which premiered at the Gate in September 2010 and also continues to tour.

[43] Gerry Colgan, "Review: Beckett's Ghosts," The Irish Times, 15 April 2006

[44] Samuel Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays (London: Faber & Faber, 1984), 211.

[45] For those, for example, familiar with the recent work of Coogan or Loose Canon, or the performer Ned Dennehy’s work with Pan Pan. 

[46] In Northern Ireland, for example, Prime Cut Productions produced Endgame at the Waterfront Studio Theatre, Belfast from February 2nd to 18th. It was directed by Mark Lambert, designed by Monica Frawley, lit by John Comiskey, and featured Conleth Hill as Hamm, Frankie McCafferty as Clov, Ian McElhinney as Nagg and Stella McCusker as Nell.

[47] For an image of these girls in jumpers, see “Amanda Coogan: the Yellow Mountain,” accessed October 26, 2013, This particular reference to Beckett was brought to the authors’ attention by Brenda O’Connell in her paper, “‘dreadfully un-’ staged bodies: Beckettian echoes in Irish Performance Practice and International Experimental Theatre” (paper presented at the Conference of the International Federation for Theatre Research, Barcelona, July 22-26, 2013).

[48] Niall Henry, in conversation with Trish McTighe for the Staging Beckett Project, April 20, 2013.

[49] Gavin Quinn, in conversation with Trish McTighe for the Staging Beckett Project, March 28, 2013. Visual material, including a video trailer for this production, can be found at Pan Pan Theatre’s website. See “Pan Pan: All that Fall,” accessed October 17, 2013,

[50] See, for example, Mary Bryden, Samuel Beckett and Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998); Lois Oppenheim, ed., Samuel Beckett and the Arts (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1999); or Derval Tubridy, “Sounding Spaces: Aurality in Samuel Beckett, Janet Cardiff, and Bruce Neumann,” Performance Research 12, no. 1 (2007): 5–11.

[51] Beckett attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen.

[52] See “Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival,” accessed March 3, 2014,

[53] Vic Merriman, “Because We Are Poor”: Irish Theatre in the 1990s (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2011), 209.

[54] Merriman, Irish Theatre in the 1990s, 216.

[55] Sarah Jane Scaife, “The Culturally Inscribed Body and Spaces of Performance in Samuel Beckett’s Theatre: A Practice as Research exploration of Act Without Words II” (PhD thesis, University of Reading, 2013).