Imagining the Financial Crisis in Contemporary Irish Drama: Contemporary Irish Play Collections

The fifth and final source of information for my research came from collections of Irish plays published in the past couple of years, namely The Oberon Anthology of Contemporary Irish Plays: ‘This is just this. This isn’t real. It’s money.’  and Tiny Plays for Ireland.  Both of these collections feature many new and less-produced playwrights alongside other more standard names, reflecting the diversity of narratives in the Irish playwriting community and giving insight into works produced at many different levels.  At the same time, however, these collections were curated for publication by very active editors who had to select from a vast quantity of works, so how much they represent the field as a whole certainly needs to be questioned.

The Oberon Anthology, published in October 2012, features eight new Irish plays written since 2006.  Only two of these plays came from before the beginning of the financial crisis in 2007-2008, leaving six major works from the years in question.  The anthology’s editor, Thomas Conway, acknowledges the sexual content of these plays in his introduction: “For all that, each play is concerned with what is unfinished business in Ireland. How astonishing, then, that these plays should revolve for the most part around identity and, in particular, sexual identity.”  But Conway then goes on to argue that it is these questions of identity and not the economic narratives that one should consider when reading the plays: “We can read from the historical moment – from a narrative emphasizing an economic bubble and its hangover – into these plays. Or we can take these playwrights at their word and observe lives lived at the contour of identities in the making.”

Conway makes a valid point in highlighting the possibility of forcing an economic narrative on top of these plays, but his analysis misses the interchangeability of sexual and economic dissatisfaction in these plays.  For instance in Philip McMahon’s Pineapple, the sexual struggles of an older sister with four children and a much younger sister deciding whether or not to carry her first to term are inextricably linked with their relative poverty, as evidenced by a decent, well-to-do man that both see as a potential suitor to help with their financial problems.

The rest of the relevant plays in the collection deal with issues of non-traditional sexual identity in Irish society.  Mark O’Halloran’s challenging play Trade confronts this connection head on: in the play a middle-aged married father of two solicits an eighteen year old boy in the neighborhood for sex.  Through their debates, haggling, and the man’s peculiar desires, they unravel a tapestry of love, hate, and repression that illuminates much of the larger Irish conscience.  In a similar vein, Neil Watkins’ verse-filled one man show The Year of Magical Wanking describes one man’s years of distraught sexual addiction, acquiring HIV, and disguised poverty.

To an opposite effect, Amy Conroy’s interview piece I <3 Alice <3 I displays the struggles of a real middle-aged lesbian couple to maintain their sense of normality in an often judgmental society.  From a rare public kiss in a grocery store to their refusal to discuss their sex lives, both of the Alices’ need to retain their sense of culture against the tide of their sexuality is clear.  Finally, in Una McKevitt’s The Big Deal, taken from interviews, diaries, and letters exchanged between two people born male but realizing their identifying gender through reassignment surgery, we see the complications involved with honesty and identity.  Both Cathy and Deborah—formerly Patrick and Sean—must sacrifice at least in part their relationships with their families, their coworkers, and their friends in order to undergo this massive change that not only takes a lot of time and effort but also costs a lot of money.

The other collection of Irish plays that I found particularly relevant to my research was Fishamble Play Company’s Tiny Plays for Ireland, a collection formed from an Irish Times submission process of over 1,700 plays consisting of 600 words or fewer that were submitted by playwrights and non-playwrights alike from across the Emerald Isle.  These plays are particularly interesting to this study because they represent the concerns of general Irish people put onto the stage and into the public forum, not just playwrights and established theatre organizations.  Yes, Fishamble selected 50 of these short plays for two different performances in 2012 and 2013 and for publication in this volume and yes, they did commission a couple of these plays from major Irish playwrights like Dermot Bolger, Gerald Murphy, and Colum McCann but in general the plays have an outsider feel to them.  Each center on a single moment or series of quick moments in someone’s life and speak volumes about the Irish mindset in this day and age.

Unfortunately there are far too many amazing moments to detail here, but I will try to show a couple of my favorites that shed particular light on the Irish response to the financial crisis.  The most haunting by far is a short vignette by Jody O’Neill entitled It’s A Lovely Day, Bill Withers in which a man who begins covered in a massive amount of unpaid bills stacks them all in the center of the room, and with the help of his wife and her crooning “It’s a Lovely Day,” dances on top of them.  The simplicity of this play not only exemplifies the form but also shows how simplicity can tell an expansive, relatable story.

Another particularly memorable moment came in The Nation’s Assets in which two financial managers spoke their way through a night of sex and the economic downturn at the same time: first the man, Brian, wanted to go as fast as he could but eventually Sinead made him slow down.  Things slowed way down, and nothing at all was happening until the woman took control and finished things herself.  Both an interesting take on sexual politics and a humorous look at economics, The Nation’s Assets also shows how predominant the mechanisms of the financial crisis are in the Irish consciousness.

And with that, I conclude my updates on the sources and research I’m using for my project.  In the coming weeks I will finish putting together my final analysis and hopefully have some articulate thoughts about the financial crisis in contemporary Irish drama.


  1. rklienesch says:

    Hi Kevin! First I want to say that I think the topic of your project is really interesting and extremely unique. One of the things I find most fascinating in your posts is the fact that a lot of these plays explore sexual struggles and struggles brought on by poverty and the financial crisis all at once. Do you think this would also be seen in plays from other cultures, or do you think this is a uniquely Irish phenomenon? Also, I really love the fact that you were able to read plays written by everyday Irishmen and women. Do you think getting to read those plays gave you a better understanding of how regular people in Ireland were affected by the crisis? I imagine a playwright might have a different perspective on the crisis than a working-class citizen would.

  2. Rachel–I don’t think that the trend is purely Irish (we can look at a couple of contemporary American plays like Detriot by Lisa D’Amour, The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno, and The Whale by Sam Hunter to see some similar things happening…I think sex and money are so strongly tied to happiness in our world that it would be surprising not to) but I do think the history of Irish plays that deal with poverty makes the trend stronger. Furthermore, I think the drastic boom/bust cycle of the Irish economy in the 90s and 2000s and Ireland’s sexual modernization out of Catholic doctrine also give playwrights a little more material to talk about than in other cultures.

    In terms of everyday people and playwrights, I think one of the cool things about Irish theatre that I discovered while I was visiting is that playwriting and theatre in general are not as insular there and a lot of playwrights seem more like ordinary people. The Irish are so fond of their literature and their literary greats that I think its hard to stay uninterested in what’s happening in literature and especially theatre in the country. At the same time, however, there are only so many producing theaters in Ireland, so I think it is quite useful to get the perspective of potentially less-successful playwrights in these Tiny Plays because they may be hit harder by the effects of the crisis (or not, if they have a job that pays better than playwriting, and to be honest nearly all other job do).