Since the mid-1990s Dublin's Abbey and Peacock Theatres, known formally as the National Theatre Society Limited (NTS) and since 1997 marketed under the title 'The National Theatre', have received approximately £2.5 million per year in state funding. Although occasional debates are held concerning the appropriateness of dedicating this amount of public monies to the NTS in relation to the funding of other Irish theatres, or in relation to other arts activities in the Republic of Ireland, more fundamental issues - such as the question of whether or not the state should support a national theatre in the first place, and the political implications of such support - are generally neglected. Accordingly, this chapter sets out to examine the history of the national theatre movement in terms of its relationship to the state before and after independence, and will consider especially the implications of state support for the role of the national theatre as a forum for social and political critique. My argument is that the determining power of the state is the Abbey Theatre's most important and revealing context, and that this also helps to explain certain dominant trends in twentieth-century Irish playwriting.
Clearly, a national theatre may fulfil many different political and cultural functions, but its primary purpose is to operate as a prestige site for the performance of a society’s representative dramatic narratives. Such an operation is useful to the authority of the state in so far as these narratives are designed to engender in their audience an atmosphere of unity and national agreement.
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