[A] thing that endures – that is the sole redress we have, against history and all its crimes.
The longstanding notion that Irish melodrama before the founding of the Irish Literary Theatre is scarcely worthy of our attention is a well-worn myth. Like many clichés, this one about popular drama is minimally informed by fact, for there were no Shakespeares or Molières plying their crafts for popular audiences during the last half of the nineteenth century. In the past two decades or so, however, popular genres like Irish melodrama once dismissed as ephemeral or culturally negligible have been reclaimed. Equally important, as these once-neglected texts expand our purchase on turn-of-the-century Irish culture, they also enhance our understanding of greater, more canonical plays and playwrights. This essay, then, although focused on nineteenth-century melodrama, necessarily concerns both the popular and the more 'literary'.
Until recently, melodrama was regarded as too insignificant to inform serious discussion of modern Irish drama. Hugh Hunt, former Director of Plays at the Abbey Theatre, writes in the ‘Prologue’ to his 1979 history of the theatre that popular playwrights of the nineteenth century represented Ireland as largely ‘a mythical land of blarney and blather’; hence their names – he mentions J. W. Whitbread, John Baldwin Buckstone and Fred Cooke specifically – and the plays they wrote are ‘best forgotten’.
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