From the outset of her career as a cultural nationalist in the late 1890s, Lady Gregory pursued and encouraged both pragmatic and visionary modes of nation-building. The work of restoring 'dignity' to Ireland required practicality as well as idealism, she argued in early essays, with 'adaptable, sagacious' real-world talents needing to be combined with otherworldly, transformative dreams if the country were to achieve both economic and imaginative self-determination. As a writer, activist and patron she consequently sought a balance between the 'real' and the 'ideal' in Ireland – counterpointing her promotion of Irish folklore and legend, for instance, by campaigning against British overtaxation, and encouraging the cause of agricultural organization amid her first flush of enthusiasm for Yeats's writings (Diaries, 147, 135-7). Her involvement in the Irish theatre movement epitomised this distinctive mix of pragmatism and idealism. Both her achievements as a playwright and her decades-long financial and directorial guardianship of the Abbey Theatre would be motivated by her conception of the theatre as a forum in which the practical and the visionary might be combined to effect lasting political, social and imaginative change.
Her participation in the theatre movement began, symptomatically, because of her practical skills. Though she had ‘never been at all interested in theatres’ before meeting Yeats, and at first collaborated with him only as a folklorist, she was captivated by and eager to help him realize his longharboured hopes for a poetic and romantic school of drama that might counter the rise of Ibsenite realism and the dominance of ‘commercial’ considerations in the theatre. During a conversation in summer 1897, when Yeats told her of Edward Martyn’s plays being declined by London managers, she responded by saying that ‘it was a pity we had no Irish theatre where such plays could be given’.
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