By Howard Pousner
James Flannery, an Emory University professor and nationally noted Irish drama scholar, was recently named international associate artist at the Abbey Theatre, the national theater of Ireland.
One of Flannery’s main challenges at the Dublin theater will be to develop a Yeats Studio that would train directors, actors, dancers, designers and musicians in performing the dramatic works of Abbey co-founder W.B. Yeats.
Abbey artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail called Flannery, 73, an “essential partner in our effort to explore and celebrate the genius of Yeats.”
It’s not the first time that Flannery has been commissioned to bring a key cultural facet of Ireland back to the Irish via the Abbey. From 1989 to 1993, he produced the Yeats International Theatre Festival there, staging 15 Yeats plays including the Abbey premiere of his mystical epic “The Cuchulain Cycle.”
Though the festival was well received by Irish critics and audiences, and has been credited as an inspiration by “Riverdance” composer Bill Whelan, Flannery now believes that Ireland wasn’t ready for a Yeats revival before.
But Flannery, who in a related appointment also recently was named a visiting professor of drama studies at Dublin’s University College, believes that the time is right now. Part of his reason for thinking that is his faith in Mac Conghail, who told The New York Times when he took over the Abbey four years ago that he thought the theater had the “responsibility to interrogate the political status quo.”
Flannery, who in 1989 established the W.B. Yeats Foundation at Emory to encourage understanding and appreciation of Yeats (1865-1939) and Irish culture, will become a half-time teacher at the Atlanta university in the fall. That will free him to travel to Dublin in the spring and summer during his three-year appointment at the Abbey and University College.
Q: What has changed at the Abbey that makes you interested in beginning a new chapter there?
A: You could say, yes, I’ve always had this relationship with the Abbey. But Fiach Mac Conghail is the first person in 20 years who’s said, “We want you inside the door, and we want Yeats inside the door. We want Yeats to set the standard for what we are.” It is wonderful, but it is going to take a lot of hard work.
Q: Looking back, why wasn’t the time right for a full Yeats revival when you directed the festival?
A: Twenty years ago, there was a kind of residual resentment of Yeats. Most educated people over here, whether they’re Irish or not, would say Yeats was the greatest poet of the 20th century. You’d say surely the Irish take great pride in Yeats, but 20 years ago, they didn’t.
Q: Why not?
A: They considered him snobby, elitist. Yeats had the difficult position of not only creating the Irish literary and dramatic movement, but also was one of [the country's] principal critics. He championed the work of [John Millington] Synge and fought for the right of [Seán] O’Casey, who is of course critical of the Irish Revolution, to be heard.
Ireland was an extremely conservative Catholic country, and Yeats fought for intellectual and artistic freedom, one of the major themes of all of his work. Virtually every major writer of the 20th century was banned at one point or another by that culture.
Q: And now?
A: In 20 years, Ireland has moved from sort of an emerging third-world country to an extraordinarily sophisticated country, a European country.
Q: Yeats’ dramatic work is considered challenging to produce. For those who don’t know the plays, can you describe the challenge?
A: You could describe Yeats’ work as a kind of total theater. The impulse for it comes from poetry, but it involves music, dance, highly involved visual imagery. I suppose Greek theater is closest if you think of the Western canon. There’s mask-work, mime, a variety of dance, and many different forms of music. Beyond that, the work is deeply mythic in its sources, and at the same time was instrumental in the shaping of early 20th century Ireland through the Irish Revolution in political and social terms.
Q: You’ve said that an Yeats Studio could help “open up” Irish theater. How so?
A: Every time you open The New York Times, there’s some new Irish dramatist or Irish theater company that has made its mark. But to a great extent, that work is naturalistic and realistic in format. This would open up Irish theater to some larger world influences, especially from Southeast Asia, South America and Africa. That’s one of the major thrusts of the Yeats Studio, where you might spend six months developing a production.
Q: So a Yeats Studio would not only look back for inspiration but push forward?
A: Ireland has no conservatory of theater. Irish artists have had to go abroad to learn these things. Fiach Mac Conghail says Yeats is the way of regenerating the Abbey, making it one of the most creatively adventurous, technically accomplished theater companies in the world.