The idea of 'nation', as both theme and setting, has haunted the development of Irish theatre. From the originary Irish National Theatre Society to the present National Theatre Society Limited, Irish theatre is marked by the 'national' appellation and all its implications. Whether the specific 'national' theatre is that of Britain, the United States, France or Ireland, the assumption is that its role is to stage the pressing concerns, or historical foundations, of the nation and, as in the case of the origins of the national theatre of Ireland, define the characteristics according to which the aspirant nation could be identified and distinguished. As observed by Lauren Kruger, the impulse to 'theatrical nationhood manifests itself fully only in the course of the nineteenth century' and particularly as 'representations of the ruling bloc confront the (counter) hegemonic claims of emergent groups' (The National Stage, 6). Ireland shares the nineteenth-century onset of this phenomenon, and while the Irish case differs somewhat from that of Europe and the United States in that the confrontation is of national rather than specifically class factions, it parallels their use of the stage in the contest for economic and political power. While Ireland had already enjoyed theatre as an art form and entertainment for several centuries, drama in its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century manifestation sought to define and determine the basis of Irish claims for political independence from Britain. What this involved was a complex series of definitions and exclusions which resonate across the practice and criticism of Irish theatre. Any study of this terrain is necessarily engaged in a consideration of the basis for the original definitions and their implications for the theatre – and state – which subsequently evolved up to, and into, the contemporary moment.
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