Flashes of modernity: stage design at the Abbey Theatre, 1902-1966
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Responding to Guy Julier’s call for a “knowing practice” of design studies, this doctoral thesis reveals Ireland’s negotiation with modernity through stage design. I use historian T.J. Clark’s definition of modernity as “contingency,” which “turn[s] from the worship of ancestors and past authorities to the pursuit of a projected future”. Over the course of 60 years that saw the transformation of a pre-industrialised colony to a modernised republic, stage designs offered various possibilities of imagining Irish life. In the same period, the Abbey Theatre’s company shuttled itself from small community halls to the early 19th-century Mechanics’ Theatre, before moving to the commercial Queen’s Theatre, and finally arriving at the modern building that currently houses it. This thesis shines new light on that journey. By investigating the design references outside theatre, we can see how Abbey Theatre productions underlined new ways of envisioning life in Ireland. Revivalist design, through incorporation of Arts and Crafts design and realism, roused social issues in the last years of colonial occupation. Expressionist design put shape on the fragmented landscape after the Civil War. Resistance to the cultural isolationism of de Valera’s policies was located in striking cosmopolitan design in the 1930s and 1940s. Frustration with the status quo in the post-World War II period was articulated through costuming inspired by counter-culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, significant designers and playwrights in Irish theatre will be uncovered by scholarship for the first time here. These include Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Alicia Sweetman, Maeve O’Callaghan, Samuel John Waddell, Anne Daly, Tom Coffey and Peter Hutchinson.
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