In 1928, the actors Hilton Edwards and Micheál macLiammóir founded the Dublin Gate Theatre, renowned for producing modernist plays and employing avant-garde staging techniques largely unknown to Irish audiences. Edwards and macLiammóir embraced transnational perspectives on identity and theatre and questioned the homogenisation of national identities and cultural forms of expression during Ireland’s anxious first post-independence decades, which were marked by censorship, cultural isolation and the promotion of state-approved literature (Fitz-Simon 1994).
The Gate’s exciting foreign repertoire constitutes only one aspect of Edwards and macLiammóir’s attempt at remedying nationalist insularity. It also produced works of several new Irish playwrights, who aligned themselves with an avant-garde theatre that sought to establish Dublin as a modern European capital. At the Gate, these homosexual theatre directors created an explicitly cosmopolitan stage on which they confronted a conservative and divided society with revolutionary modes of perception even as they questioned various repressive ideas about gender and sexuality.
The ubiquitous presence of women writers, designers, musicians and actors at the Gate, as well as its importance in creating a tolerant gay scene in Dublin, testify to its emancipation of marginalized groups. Furthermore, the Gate has fostered cultural exchange by importing foreign dramatic forms and staging techniques, to which its original playwrights have responded with theatrical modes that have, in turn, found expression on the Gate’s many tours across and outside Europe. Since the Gate thus promoted cultural exchange and social emancipation in Ireland and abroad, it offers a unique model for studying the ways in which cosmopolitan theatres (as cultural institutions that give expression to and engage with the complexities of identity and diversity in changing, globalised societies) have operated in the past and present.
Despite the praise received for stylistic innovation, the Gate has received relatively little academic attention, both in Irish and European avant-garde theatre research. There are no monographs or edited volumes to date dedicated to the Gate, but several publications have started to acknowledge its significance as a cultural institution. Allen (2009) attributes great importance to Motley, the Gate Theatre’s magazine, as a cultural conduit; Meaney, O’Dowd, and Whelan have written on gender and the Gate (2013); and the constructions of Irish identities in macLiammóir’s pageants and the Gate’s scenography have been analysed by Fitzpatrick Dean (2014), Van den Beuken (2015), Sisson (2015) and Reynolds (2016). The very first academic conference on the Gate Theatre (2015), underwrites the increasing necessity of dedicated scholarship, especially in the broader contexts of (comparable) European avant-garde theatre, diversity and intercultural exchange.
This newfound interest in the Gate has hitherto mainly consisted of isolated scholarship. Intensive collaboration and the creation of an international platform will, however, generate groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary insights into the Dublin avant-garde theatre scene and comparative European contexts from the early post-independence years up to the present. The fact that NUI Galway is currently digitizing the Gate Theatre’s archives makes the foundation of this network very timely and crucial.
Recruiting scholars from performance, design, gender and queer studies, the proposed network will not only advance Irish theatre studies, but also pave the way for a deeper understanding of theatres across Europe as cultural conduits and sites of identity formation.
The Gate Theatre’s activities in fostering cultural exchange and political emancipation will be compared to those of other European avant-garde theatres (e.g. Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, Paris, 1913; Berliner Ensemble, 1949; Teatre Lliure, Barcelona, 1976; Orion Theatre, Stockholm, 1983; Avant Garden, Trondheim, 1984). This comparative perspective is evident.The Gate challenged and subverted the idea of a homogenous national identity in a country that had just achieved independence, both through the Irish plays it staged and through its commitment to an international repertoire. Adopting that practice, the Gate can be constructively compared to Teatre Lliure, Barcelona (1976) which actively recruited new writing and international experimental drama, and at the same time sought to contribute to the foundation of a nascent Catalan state. The performance of plays in Gaelic at the Gate is in this respect similar to the use of the Catalan language at the Teatre Llure, demonstrating that the Gate offers an important comparative framework to study the revival of minority languages as the means to and endorse and contest received notions of national (and postcolonial) identity formation.
Analogies can also be drawn between the early years of the Gate and contemporary Estonian avant-garde theatre at the Von Krahl and the Tartu Theatre Lab, which both stages European avant-garde theatre (Strindberg, Gombrowicz) as well as new Estonian writers who aim to give expression to national identities (Tammsaare, Toompere).
The Gate’s strong engagement with foreign avant-garde repertoire, to give expression to cultural diversity and challenge cultural homogeneity, is similar to the ways in which the Onion Theatre in Stockholm seeks to build bridges to other cultures, by exchanging repertoire with, for example, Theatre de Complicité in London and Le Cirque Invisible in Paris. The Gate Theatre exported its practices and repertoire by going on international tours across Europe and the Middle East; the Parisian avant-garde Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier transferred to New York for a period (1917-19), under Copeau’s leadership, to perform plays there.
The Gate significantly contributed to the emancipation of identities, by helping to establish a vibrant gay scene in Dublin—just like the avant-garde Living Theatre in New York and the British Gay Sweatshop. The Gate recruited women playwrights (Manning, Pakenham); likewise, women were involved in the statecraft and repertoire of the Berliner ensemble (Berlau, Steffin, Hauptmann). In sum, the Gate represents an active engagement with identity formation and cultural diversity that can be compared and contrasted with many other avantgarde theatres, thereby shedding novel light on the societal significance of avantgarde theatre in general.
This comparative perspective explored by the network will significantly enhance existing scholarship (Wilmer 2008; Gonzalez and Brasseur 2010) on this subject that is often confined to national rather than broader, transnational contexts, as well as complementing pioneering research on the cosmopolitan theatre (Rebellato 2009).
To generate knowledge about Irish avant-garde drama that will enable this research network to create an interdisciplinary framework for studying cosmopolitan theatres, the network will address and discuss three questions from various scholarly perspectives:
- In what ways does the Gate constitute an alternative national theatre?
- How did the Gate seek to challenge orthodoxy and liberate the construction of personal and collective identities?
- What were the effects of the Gate’s attempts to foster cultural exchange?
The Gate is a unique case study that will increase awareness of the ways in which theatres can address the complexities of cultural identity and diversity. It is only by bringing together scholars from various disciplines who now work in isolation, that this pivotal knowledge can be generated. This knowledge can be transposed to different (inter)national contexts, ranging from the interpretation of historical conflicts to engagements with multiculturalism in contemporary Europe, and from the emancipation of socially marginal groups to the incorporation of new immigrants into our societies. Understanding the role played by women, LGBT, and foreign-born actors at the Gate will generate a deeper understanding of how marginalised individuals challenge societal norms. Reflecting on the Gate’s promotion of Gaelic during this period will also provide greater insight into the motivations that lead subaltern European communities to revive minority languages.