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“Irish Nights”: Paratheatrical Performances of Melodrama on and off the Belfast Stage

  • Mark Phelan

Until relatively recently, melodrama has been an unfairly maligned genre of theatre history; its pejorative associations based on the prejudiced assumptions that its aesthetics of excess (in terms of its extravagant emotion, sensationalism and popularity amongst predominantly working class audiences) meant, therefore, that it was for simpletons. What Walter Benjamin excoriated as the “ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator” fuelled bourgeois disdain for this theatrical form and the derision of the Theatrical Inquisitor’s dismissal of melodrama as “aris[ing] from an inertness in the minds of the spectators, and a wish to be amused without the slightest exertion on their own parts, or any exercise whatever of their intellectual powers” remained the dominant critical response throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed, such views continued well into the twentieth century and certainly characterized the modernist reactions of the founding figures of the Irish national theatre in this period. Frank Fay, cofounder of the National Dramatic Society, denounced both the aesthetics of Dublin's Queen's Theatre as the “home of the shoddiest kind of melodrama,” and the intelligence of its audiences who, “wouldn't, at present, understand anything else.”

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1. Ervine, St. John, The Theatre in My Time (London: Rich & Cowan, 1933), 15, where he also refers to “‘Irish’ nights.”

2. Parker, Stewart, Heavenly Bodies, in Plays: 2 (London: Methuen, 2000), 88.

3. seminal, Peter Brooks's The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), was the first serious study to theorize the genre, and its impact was transformative on several different fields of scholarship. It precipitated a new wave—if not a field in itself—of melodrama studies: see Booth, Michael R., Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850–1910 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981) and Theatre in the Victorian Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film and Television, 1800–1976, ed. Bradby, David, James, Louis, and Sharrat, Bernard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); Bratton, Jacky, New Readings in Theatre History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen, ed. Bratton, Jacky, Cook, Jim, and Gledhill, Christine (London: British Film Institute, 1994); Davis, Jim and Emeljanow, Victor, Reflecting the Audience: London Theatre-Going, 1840–1880 (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2001); Hadley, Elaine, Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Market Place, 1800–1885 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995); Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre, ed. Hays, Michael and Nikolopoulou, Anastasia (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, MacMillan, 1999); Moody, Jane, Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770–1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

4. Benjamin, Walter, Illuminations, ed. Arendt, Hannah, trans. Zohn, Harry (London: Pimlico, 1999), 232.

5. E. H., “On Melo-drama,” The Theatrical Inquisitor; or, Monthly Mirror, 12 (March 1818): 158–62, at 160.

6. Frank Fay, letter to W. B. Yeats, 25 July 1902; cited in Hogan, Robert and Kilroy, James, The Modern Irish Drama: A Documentary History, vol. 2: Laying the Foundations 1902–1904 (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1976), 31. For another of his excoriating accounts of the audiences of melodrama see “Irish Drama at the Theatre Royal,” 29 July 1899, in Towards a National Theatre: The Dramatic Criticism of Frank J. Fay, ed. Hogan, Robert (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1970), 20–1.

7. Irish Nights is an appellation I use throughout to describe these particular theatrical events as this appears to be the colloquial, contemporaneous term used by Belfast authors Hugh McCartan and St. John Ervine to describe these particular dramatic occasions.

8. McCartan, Hugh A., “Belfast: Some Backward Glances,” Capuchin Annual (1943), 171–8, at 175.

9. Perhaps the most exhaustively studied epoch of modern Irish history, the Irish Revival was a romantic movement inspired by Ireland's Gaelic culture and history that precipitated an extraordinary efflorescence of literary activity and political energy. What Richard Kirkland calls the “‘classic Revival narrative”’ maintains that from the totemic date of 1891—given the disillusionment felt after the death of Ireland's iconic nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell—to the detonation of the Easter Rising in 1916, nationalist energies were displaced from the political sphere and directed into cultural activity. Kirkland, Richard, “‘Dialogues of Despair: Nationalist Cultural Discourse and the Revival in the North of Ireland, 1900–20,” Irish University Review 33.1 (2003): 6478, at 68.

10. Brooks, xvii.

11. Frank Fay, cited in Reynolds, Paige, Modernism, Drama, and the Audience for Irish Spectacle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 28.

12. Moore, George, Impressions and Opinions (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1891), 181.

13. Yeats, W. B., “Dr. Todhunter's Sicilian Idyll,Letters to the New Island: A New Edition, ed. Bornstein, George and Witemeyer, Hugh (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 36–9, at 36.

14. Yeats, W. B., cited in Saddlemyer, Ann, “Stars of the Abbey's Ascendancy,” in ’Theatre and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland, ed. O'Driscoll, Robert (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 2139, at 30.

15. Dublin's Queen's Royal Theatre (1844–1969) in Brunswick Street (today called Pearse Street) promoted itself as the “Home of Irish Drama” in the 1890s and 1900s, given its long-standing commitment to staging annual seasons of Irish works, which were mostly melodramas. Its audiences were widely acclaimed—and indicted—for being wildly excitable and noisy. Its wholehearted embrace of working-class audiences and the traditions of the popular stage, not to mention its cheap ticket prices, were in sharp contrast to the rarefied offerings of the Irish Literary Theatre and their cultivation of a more “‘sophisticated”’ and affluent audience.

16. Gregory, Lady, Our Irish Theatre: A Chapter of Autobiography (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons / Knickerbocker Press, 1913), 89.

17. Hunt, Hugh, The Abbey: Ireland's National Theatre, 1904–1979 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1979), 4.

18. Fitz-Simon, Christopher, Mr J. Kennedy Miller's Very Capable Company of Irish Players (Dublin: Dublin City Public Libraries, 2011), 16. Other works by Hubert O'Grady, and later by Ira Allen and P. J. Bourke, were also immensely popular.

19. Fitz-Simon, 11.

20. See Bratton, New Readings, 9; Tom Postlewait, “From Melodrama to Realism: The Suspect History of American Drama,” in Melodrama, ed. Hays and Nikolopoulou, 39–60.

21. Watt, Stephen, Joyce, O'Casey, and the Irish Popular Theatre (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991) and Late Nineteenth-Century Irish Theatre: Before the Abbey—and Beyond,” in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama, ed. Richards, Shaun (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1832; Grene, Nicholas, The Politics of Irish Drama: Plays in Context from Boucicault to Friel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Herr, Cheryl, For the Land They Loved: Irish Political Melodrama, 1890–1925 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991); Trotter, Mary, Ireland's National Theatres: Political Performance and the Origins of the Irish Dramatic Movement (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2001). Furthermore, recent productions of popular melodramas by Druid Theatre, Galway as well as the National Theatre (both Abbey and Peacock stages) and the Project Arts Theatre, Dublin (aka the Project), testify to the resurgence of interest in melodrama as Irish theatre practitioners and producers have played a vital role in recuperating this vital theatre tradition. Notable recent productions at the Abbey Theatre include Ken Bourke's metatheatrical melodrama, The Hunt for Red Willie (2000); Stewart Parker's Heavenly Bodies (2004), which explored the life, work, and legacy of Dion Boucicault; and Boucicault's The Colleen Bawn and The Shaughraun, produced in 1998 and 2004, respectively, by John McColgan of Riverdance fame (and later reprised due to popular demand). Also at the Abbey were two productions of his Arrah-na-Pogue in 2010 and 2011, and The Colleen Bawn was also staged by Bedrock in 2010, by Druid in 2013, the Project Arts Theatre in 2010, and the Lyric Theatre in 2018.

22. The Freeman's Journal, 7 April 1902, 4.

23. The a isling refers to a genre of poetry in which Ireland is personified in the female form, whether in the shape of a beautiful girl or an old woman.

24. Christopher Fitz-Simon, “Buffoonery and Easy Sentiment”: Popular Irish Plays in the Decade prior to the Opening of the Abbey Theatre (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2011).

25. Douglas A. Reid, “Popular Theatre in Victorian Birmingham,” in Performance and Politics, eds. Bradby, James, and Sharratt, 65–89, at 82.

26. Elliott, Marianne, The Catholics of Ulster: A History (London: Penguin Press, 2000), 321.

27. The Belfast Newsletter, 18 July 1849, cited in Bardon, Jonathan, A History of Ulster (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1992), 306; italics in the original.

28. Cited in Ireland, Denis, “Books and Writers in North-East Ulster,” in The Bell 4.5 (August 1942): 319–21, at 319; italics in the original.

29. This term, describing the territorial, tribal fault lines of sectarian conflict in Belfast's warring ghettoes was first used by Frankfort Moore, cited in Stewart, A. T. Q., The Narrow Ground: Aspects of Ulster, 1609–1969 (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1977), 143–5.

30. Cited in Gray, John, “Culture and the Arts in the North of Ireland since 1891,” in A Century of Northern Life: The Irish News and 100 Years of Ulster History, 1890s–1990s, ed. Phoenix, Eamon (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 1995), 165–70, at 165.

31. Ireland, Denis, From the Irish Shore: Notes on My Life and Times (London: Rich & Cowan, 1936), 1.

32. Ireland, Denis, “Stuffed Duck in Your Fanlight: A Note on the Humour of Belfast,” in Now in Ulster, ed. Campbell, Arthur (Belfast: Campbell Bros., 1944), 52.

33. Elliott, Samuel M., The World as I Found It (Belfast: William Brown, 1887), 23.

34. The Irish News, 1 April 1906, 4.

35. Nomads’ Weekly, 5 April 1905, 176.

36. Nomads’ Weekly, 11 March 1899, 64.

37. Reverend O'Hanlon, W. M., Walks among the Poor in Belfast (Wakefield: S. R. Publishers, 1971), 9.

38. Kane, Whitford, Are We All Met? (London: Elkin Mathews & Marrot, 1931), 46–7.

39. See Booth, Michael R., “Irish Landscape in the Victorian Theatre,” in Place, Personality and the Irish Writer, ed. Carpenter, Andrew (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1977), 159–72.

40. Cited in Stoker, Bram, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, 2 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1906), 1: 138.

41. Geoghegan, Patrick M., Robert Emmet: A Life (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2002), 269.

42. McCartan, 175.

43. Ervine, 14–15.

44. McCartan,175.

45. Boucicault, Dion, “The Wearing of the Green,” in Irish Verse: An Anthology, ed. Blaisdell, Bob (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002), 845, at 84.

46. McCartan, 175.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid., 174.

50. Booth, Michael, English Melodrama (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1965), 33.

51. J. W. Whitbread, Lord Edward; or, ‘“98 in Herr, 83–170, at 168.”

52. Ibid., 168–9.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid., 169.

55. The Irish Playgoer, 19 April 1900, 14.

56. McCartan, 175.

57. The North experienced three Home Rule crises in 1886, 1893, and 1910–14, when bills were introduced to create an Irish legislature responsible for domestic affairs. The first two bills were unsuccessful and destroyed Gladstone's Liberal Party in the 1895 election, ushering in a decade of Tory rule. This is where things stood at the time Lord Edward played Belfast. Gladstone returned to power in 1906, with no intention of reviving the issue; however, the 1910 general election produced a hung Parliament, leaving his Liberal Party dependent on the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) to form a new administration. Their support was secured on the promise of a Third Home Rule Bill, precipitating the “‘Ulster Crisis’,” which over the next two years left Ireland on the brink of civil war. The House of Lords rejected the third bill, but their veto was only temporary, under the 1911 Parliament Act (passed specifically for this purpose), so that Home Rule was set to become law in 1914. The deferral of what was essentially a constitutional fait accompli fomented a revolutionary atmosphere in the North, with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) founded on the premise that “‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be Right,”’ and over half a million Northern unionists signed “‘Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant”’ in 1912, committing themselves to use “‘all means which may be found necessary”’ to defeat Home Rule, even if this meant armed resistance against the laws and forces of the British government. The advent of World War I is regarded as preventing Ireland from sliding into imminent civil war.

58. See Hepburn, A. C., A Past Apart: Studies in the History of Catholic Belfast, 1850–1950 (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 1996); Elliot, Marianne, The Catholics of Ulster (London: Penguin, 2000).

59. Whitbread, 168. The phrase “changed utterly” is, of course, from Yeats's “Easter, 1916.”

60. Doyle, Lynn (pseud. Montgomery, Leslie A.), An Ulster Childhood (Dublin and London: Maunsel & Roberts, 1921), 48.

61. Watt, Joyce, O'Casey, 81; italics in the original.

62. Lawrence, W. J., Barry Sullivan: A Biographical Sketch (London: W. & G. Baird, 1893), 65.

63. Jacky Bratton, “The Contending Discourses of Melodrama,” in Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen, eds. Bratton, Gledhill, and Cook, 38–49, at 38.

64. Boyd, Andrew, Holy War in Belfast, 2d ed. (Tralee: Anvil, 1970); Doyle, Mark, “Fighting Like the Devil for the Sake of God”: Protestants, Catholics and the Origins of Violence in Victorian Belfast (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009); Hepburn, A. C., Catholic Belfast and Nationalist Ireland in the Era of Joe Devlin, 1871–1934 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) and A Past Apart; Hirst, Catherine, Religion, Politics and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Belfast: The Pound and Sandy Row (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2002); Maguire, W. A., Belfast: A History (Lancaster: Carnegie, 2009); Goldring, Maurice, Belfast: From Loyalty to Rebellion (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1991); Patterson, Henry, Class Conflict and Sectarianism: The Protestant Working Class and the Belfast Labour Movement, 1868–1920 (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1980); Belfast: The Emerging City, 1850–1914, ed. Purdue, Olwen (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2013).

65. Kane, 46.

66. Cited in Lawrence, W. J., The Annals of the Old Belfast Stage 1731–1831, unpublished manuscript (Linen Hall Library, Belfast, 1896), 417–18.

67. Tony Bennett, cited in Carlson, Marvin, “Audiences and the Reading of Performance,” in Interpreting the Theatrical Past: Essays in the Historiography of Performance, eds. Postlewait, Thomas and McConachie, Bruce A. (Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1989), 8298, at 86.

68. Thomas Carnduff: Life & Writings, ed. Gray, John (Belfast: Lagan Press, 1994), 125. “‘The Wearing of the Green”’ was a rebel ballad that Boucicault customized to enhance its nationalist hue before adding it to Arrah-na-Pogue, later claiming (falsely) that the song was banned throughout the British Empire; see McFeely, Deirdre, Dion Boucicault: Irish Identity on Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 4050. In Belfast, it would have been a well-known nationalist song and would have proven provocative to Carnduff and his fellow loyalists.

69. Stoker, 2: 133–4.

70. Ibid., 1: 138–9.

71. J. R. R. Adams records that there were numerous editions of both plays: Michelborne's Ireland Preserv'd; or, The Siege of Londonderry was originally published in 1705, with subsequent editions issued in Belfast in 1744, 1750, and 1759, Newry in 1774, Strabane in 1787, as well as many more “probably … now lost.” (Adams calls him Michelburne; a few others write -bourne or even Mitchel-.) Likewise there were Belfast editions of The Battle of Aughrim (1st ed. 1756) in 1767 and 1800, a 1781 Newry edition, and a 1785 Strabane edition; and “because of the nature of the play and the consequent heavy wear and tear there were almost certainly many local editions.” Adams, The Printed Word and the Common Man: Popular Culture in Ulster, 1700–1900 (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University of Belfast, 1987), 70.

72. Duggan, George Chester, The Stage Irishman: A History of the Irish Play and Stage Characters from the Earliest Times (London: Longmans, Green, 1937), 31. Only The Battle of Aughrim has received any scholarly attention; see Niall Ó Ciosáin, Print and Popular Culture in Ireland, 1750–1850 ([1997] Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2010), 112–33; Wheatley, Christopher J., Beneath Ierne's Banners: Irish Protestant Drama of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), 6384.

73. Carleton, William, The Autobiography of William Carleton (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1968), 34. A waste house is a clearinghouse for castoff materials and supplies in the textile industry.

74. Carleton, William, “The Battle of Aughrim: From ‘Anna Cosgrave,’ an Unpublished Novel,” in Humours of Irish Life, ed. Graves, Charles L. (Belfast: Gresham Publishing, 1913), 131–8, at 132.

75. Elsewhere in this article, Carleton caustically refers to how the world does not extend beyond the parish, “on the chairs … , being the seats of honour, were placed the Protestant portion of the audience, because they were the most wealthy and consequently the most respectable, at least in the eyes of the world—by which we mean parish.” Ibid., 136.

76. Thackeray, William M., The Irish Sketch Book and Critical Reviews (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1879), 173.

77. The Battle of Scarva, or “the sham fight,” is a small-scale reconstruction of the Battle of the Boyne (1690) performed annually in Scarva, County Down on 13 July and is usually the largest attended single event in the loyalist marching season.

78. It may seem extraordinary that the bloodiest battle ever fought on Irish soil, and that destroyed the Jacobites, should be as popular with Catholic readers and audiences as it was with Protestants; a paradox Christopher Wheatley explains in terms of the play's “duality,” whereby “seemingly incompatible sympathies are in equipoise, so that both [C]atholics and [P]rotestants were attracted to the play for generations.” Wheatley, Christopher J., “Heroic Palimpsest: Robert Ashton's The Battle of Aughrim,” Eighteenth-Century Ireland, 11 (1996): 5373, at 54.

79. Carleton, “Battle of Aughrim,” 132.

80. Carleton, Autobiography, 36.

81. O'Brien, Conor Cruise, Writers and Politics: Essays and Criticism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 134.

82. Carleton, “Battle of Aughrim,” 133.

83. Ibid., 136–7.

84. Ibid., 137–8.

85. Ibid., 133.

86. Rokem, Freddie, Performing History: Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000), 8.

87. Reid, 76.

88. Mary D. Condon, “The Dublin Riots of 1822 and Catholic Emancipation” (M.A. thesis, Dept. of History, University of Southern California, 1950), 75. The events and aftermath of this particular theatre riot, known as the Bottle Riot, are brilliantly covered in Morash's, Christopher A History of Irish Theatre 1601–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 94102, who notes (95) that the play was Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.

89. Belfast's colorful, controversial attorney-of-law, John Rea, attempted to hold mass political meetings in local theatres on many occasions. He also selected the theatre as the site in which to challenge a local magistrate during a performance, causing such an uproar that the victim has to be escorted outside. Smithfield theatre was also selected as the venue for a Catholic Defence Committee to hold the inaugural meeting of a Gun Club, although police successfully prevented the meeting from taking place. For other riotous assemblies in Belfast playhouses see Phelan, Mark, “Modernity, Geography and Historiography: (Re)-Mapping Irish Theatre History in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Performing Society: Nineteenth-Century Theatre's History, ed. Davis, Tracy C. and Holland, Peter (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2007), 135–58.

90. Morash, 102.

91. Condon, 85.

92. Reid, 76.

93. Pilkington, Lionel, Theatre and the State in Twentieth-Century Ireland: Cultivating the People (London: Routledge, 2001), 17.

94. Cited in ibid.

95. From the Irish Literary Theatre manifesto, cited in Pilkington, 16.

96. Ibid., 17.

97. See my article on ‘The Critical ‘“Gap of the North’”: Nationalism, National Theatre, and the North’,Modern Drama 47.4 (2004): 594606.

98. Moore, George, The Bending of the Bough (New York: Herbert S. Stone, 1900), xvi.

99. Birmingham, George, An Irishman Looks at His World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1919), 264.

100. Beyond scrutiny of the Playboy of the Western World and The Plough and the Stars riots, there has been little sustained examination of the vital issue of audience reception, with the exception of Reynolds's excellent Modernism, Drama, and the Audience.

101. Kruger, Loren, The National Stage: Theatre and Cultural Legitimation in England, France, and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 4.

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