The British Enlightenment owed a large debt to Ireland. More specifically, as David O'Shaughnessy's impeccably edited collection of essays illustrates, it owed a large debt to the Irish stage. By the "Irish stage" I mean a range of things. I mean the Irish actors and actresses who plied their trade on the main stages of London, enacting there a range of ethnic characters and bringing to English audiences a new sense of what Irish actors--and through their onstage depictions of citizenship, Irish citizens--could do and be. I mean the Irish playwrights, both men and women, who wrote plays performed in England and Ireland alike. And I also mean the physical spaces: from the boards of Smock Alley to the smaller, provincial British theaters as well as the parlors and drawing rooms of London, which hosted a range of repertoires that often migrated between the two countries and beyond.
By "Irish" stage I also mean to indicate a range of cultural and national values, as O'Shaughnessy's volume equally illustrates. Many stereotypes of Irish-ness, which loomed large in this historical period, were reinforced by the actors, playwrights, and repertoires mentioned above. The Stage Irishman could at times be reduced to a hard-drinking, brogue-accented, bull-dropping, barbarian lout. But Irish actors of both sexes, and especially women, could also provide a civilized, insightful counter-narrative to this stereotype, and not by disguising their Irish-ness, but by accentuating it.
Such is the nuanced view of ethnic identity that O'Shaughnessy and his contributors find circulating during this historical period. According to them, a regional Irish Enlightenment was newly presenting Irish civility by enacting polite behavior and participating in a civilization, and thanks to the sociable networks of theater and its practitioners, this Irish Enlightenment was being exported from Ireland, abroad. The story these essays tell is not one of straightforward assimilation, or even of Irish assimilation to English ideals. Instead, they tell of the "increased visibility of elite and articulate Irish" (15), and of a moment when Irish theatrical practitioners could mediate for their English audiences ideas of civility that their visibility as Irish allowed them, newly, to display.
Given its focus, this volume aims to complement existing surveys of the Enlightenment, such as the work of Ernst Cassirer and Peter Gay, and more recently of Anthony Gottlieb, Clifford Siskin, and William Warner. Contributors to this volume stress the importance of theater as a widespread and "sociable" form of cultural entertainment (also explored by scholars such as Gillian Russell and Jon Mee), which made it crucial in both shaping and circulating Enlightenment ideals. Complementing recent studies by Michael Ragussis and Helen Burke, the essays in this volume also probe the nuances of nationalist and ethnic identity in the period by asking, in sum, how it would have mattered that many of the most active theatrical practitioners in London from 1740 to 1820 were Irish.
This question is strikingly answered by David O'Shaughnessy's introductory survey of the Irish theatrical community in London at this time. Though far from exhaustive, as he admits, even the outlines of this survey impress in their range and breadth. Familiar names--major players, as it were, in London's literary scene--emerge cheek by jowl with more obscure characters, demonstrating how extensive and essential the Irish were to theatrical and thus social life. (As an inverse thought experiment, I found myself trying to imagine how different the literary and political discourse of the Georgian period would have been without such figures as Charles Macklin, Richard Sheridan, Peg Woffington, and Catherine Clive.) "[T]o remind readers that Ireland...has its own regional diversity" (4), O'Shaughnessy pairs each name in his survey with his or her county of origin, a detail that gave me an early sense of intimacy with the figures that populate the book. This attention to the impact of regional diversity informs the volume as a whole and often creates surprising revelations, especially when a familiar name emerges next to an unexpected Irish birthplace. As O'Shaughnessy puts it, his survey is important simply because, in his experience, "it is not unknown for eighteenth-century scholars to start in mild surprise when they learn that such and such a person was Irish" (4).
Their surprise is not wholly due to culpable ignorance. As the early essays in the volume point out, many of these Irish theatrical practitioners made their ethnic origins purposefully hard to track. Charles Macklin, for instance, was born in Donegal and christened Cathal MacLoughlin, according to period biographies, but Anglicized his name when he came to London. But as O'Shaughnessy explains, the full story of Macklin exemplifies much more than assimilation. Even if his most famous portrayal--a vicious Shylock-- reinforced certain negative ethnic stereotypes, he could also embody an ethnic character in a realistic manner and demonstrate the authority and intellectual facility needed to restore a Shakespearean script (18). In so doing, he exemplified the new ideas of Irishness that such actors put into circulation: civility, polite culture, and intellectual advancement.
The first three essays in this volume--by Felicity Nussbaum, Jim Davis, and Oskar Cox Jensen--take up in their turn these new "possibilities of Irishness" depicted by eighteenth-century actors on the stage (57). Writing of actresses, Nussbaum argues that the woman player was "often perceived to be more malleable than [her] male counterpart" and so was able to "straddle" (her titular term) class, national, and religious differences more flexibly than the actors of her day (34). Nussbaum's "London-Irish" actresses include both Irish women who were cast in a range of (not always Irish) parts, and English women who had familial ties to Ireland, and / or who gained attention for playing Irish women's roles. Her final example is Charles Macklin's daughter Maria Macklin, who-- as the aristocratic London lady Charlotte in her father's afterpiece Love a la Mode -- "validates [her] awkwardly romantic" Irish suitor (54). Here the Irishwoman plays Englishness to affirm the honorability of her Irish suitor, which is revealed by her ability to see behind his brogue. Thus, Nussbaum contends, Irish actresses managed to "dart in and out of stereotypes" in a way that was essential to the spread of the Irish Enlightenment, and harder for men to do (56).
John Johnstone might prove an exception to this claim. In his essay on the "Irish Johnstone," Davis argues that he resisted the assimilation narrative by advantageously coupling markers of Irishness (the brogue) with new heights of gentility. Though Johnstone "personified Irishness" for London audiences, his Irishness differed from what they had previously known (76). Jensen, however, finds Johnstone's persistent moniker a way of diminishing him and thus a handicap to his career, and maybe further proof of Nussbaum's claim that men struggled to attain the same fluidity among roles (and stereotypes) that women could enjoy.
These three essays, which comprise the first of three sections in the volume, are followed by a section on interactions between Dublin and London theaters, and finally by a section on how writers "took historical and geographical approaches to teasing out . . . Enlightenment ideas" (26). One way to understand the logic of this organization is by determining who or what communicates notions of Irishness--actors and actresses, stage spaces, writers--and how the communication of Irishness varies as the medium or mode of conveyance shifts. I had fun as I read, however, tracing other ways of connecting the essays.
The Davis and Jensen essays on Johnstone's personification of Irishness made a fascinating context for Robert W. Jones's second section essay on Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the famous playwright of the period who "never seemed quite Irish enough" (128). Sensitively tracking Sheridan's negotiations as playwright and politician, Jones notes that "London's political stages, like those of its theatres, required shifting, mobile performances" (130). Sheridan's need to "oscillate" constantly (145) between identities and even political loyalties, which Jones reads into The School for Scandal, not only make his play-writing an interesting complement to Johnstone's acting, but also ally his persona with the fluidity achieved by Nussbaum's actresses. Colleen Taylor's essay in this section then shows how women as writers, not just as actresses, elasticize the ethnic categories they inhabit. At social gatherings in London, Sydney Owenson dressed in a red silk mantle like the heroine of her celebrated novel, The Wild Irish Girl (1806), and Sheridan's sister Alicia Sheridan Le Fanu portrayed an "Irish Gentlemen" in her own play, The Sons of Erin (1812). Thus, as Taylor shows, these two women disseminated ideas of Irish identity as writers first, and then as Laurence Sterne-style public performers of the characters they scripted.
Taylor also stresses how Owenson and Le Fanu both work "backstage," as it were, often performing privately in domestic spaces such as parlors or drawing rooms. This focus on domestic space complements Michael Burden's careful study of how musical repertoires shuttled back and forth between the more formal, public spaces of the London and Dublin stages. (In an appendix, Burden usefully replicates the London and Dublin opera calendars from 1748-1800.) But Taylor's account of Owenson and Le Fanu as writers also anticipates the essays of the volume's final section, which show how theatrical writers--such as Joseph Addison, Arthur Murphy, the more obscure James Field Stanfield, and John O'Keeffe--influenced Irish Enlightenment ideals.
These last three essays (including a second one by O'Shaughnessy) treat not only writers but also such fascinating topics as the importance of genre and the migratory patterns of theater. Taking Joseph Addison's Cato as a "touchstone" for ideas of Irish (as well as American) patriotism, O'Shaughnessy finds that the "enlightened perspectives" displayed by eighteenth-century performances and re-writings of Cato accentuate the importance of the history play to the Irish enlightenment. The lead roles in Cato, he says, showcased a "forceful Irish thespian presence" (171) and led to other depictions of Irish civility in history plays such as William Philip's Hibernia Freed, Henry Brooke's Gustavus Vasa, and Charles Macklin's King Henry the VII. Together, O'Shaughnessy writes, these plays show how Irish actors and playwrights sought to revise stereotypes through a genre "capable of casting light on the present state of affairs and gesturing toward a different kind of future" (169).
These latter plays also reveal that Irish playwrights ranged well beyond the comedies for which they remain best known. For example, while Arthur Murphy's tragedies are now typically dismissed, Bridget Orr's essay on his "(anti)-imperial dramaturgy" demonstrates that his "serious plays" won applause in their own time and deserve analysis now for the "complex...perspective on imperial expansion" they furnish forth (189). Through plots that juxtapose the Conquistadors to the Incas, she contends, Murphy re-writes his own position as "an unenthusiastic convert from Catholicism, and an Irishman who sought professional success" in an imperial space (201).
Examining the lesser known Irish actor James Field Stanfield, Declan McCormack then treats expansion from a slightly different angle, showing how Stanfield melds the "diasporic experience" of the Irish onto the migratory patterns of provincial theatre (206). Even while itinerantly acting on England's northern stages, he was circulating his observations on the viciousness of the slave trade. Taking us back to comedies in her concluding essay, Helen Burke shows how the Dublin-born playwright John O'Keeffe weds genre to the migrant experience. As she reads them, then, O'Keeffe's pastoral comedies come with a twist. Always capable of being "oppositional even while sounding...conventional" (230), they exhibit a "cosmopolitan consciousness" that finally frames the migrant experience as an advantage to Irish and English alike. Rather than disappearing, she writes, the lessons brought to London from Irish culture via the theatre could evolve collectively to enrich British thought (227).
Taken together, these essays show how much theater contributed the spread of Enlightenment thought and to national politics, as well as how fluid the "national" in politics could be. Irish civility gathers meaning even as, and because, it emerges from the stereotypes and cities that it travels beyond. Burke's essay, therefore, strikes a note that synthesizes the volume. Theater, she writes, becomes a crucial vehicle for the spread of Enlightenment as it enables "a broadening of horizons [that] did not require a jettisoning of the past" (230). In this volume, whose essays consistently pair careful historicist research with innovative thought, O'Shaughnessy and his fellow contributors exemplify this achievement for current scholarship as well.
Emily Hodgson Anderson is Professor of English at the University of Southern California.