Abbey Theatre Minute Books Revealed For First Time

Dec 14 2015 Posted: 14:54 GMT

Abbey Theatre/NUI Galway Digital Archive Partnership makes content from years 1904 – 1939 available online to the public

-Offering fascinating behind the scenes views of the Abbey Theatre during the years of W.B. Yeats’s involvement in the theatre

-Insight into leading figures from Irish Literary Revival

-The struggle for funding

-Insights into a pre and post-independence Ireland

Monday, 14 December, 2015: As the Yeats 2015 celebrations draw to a close, a most fitting unveiling will take place today (Monday 14 December) as the Abbey Theatre Minute Books will be made available to the public for the first time on a new website. Collectively, the minute books amount to nearly 1,000 pages, covering some of the Abbey’s most significant events from the period 1904-1939. These minute books are now being published as part of the Abbey Theatre and NUI Galway Digital Archive Partnership (2012-2015).

A Digital Journey Through Irish Theatre History, the Abbey Theatre - NUI Galway Digital Archive Partnership is the largest digital theatre project ever undertaken, and heralds a new era in Irish theatre scholarship, both nationally and internationally. Previously unseen, the Abbey Theatre Minute Books date from 1904 to 1939 and include the period in history when both Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats were involved in the management of the Abbey Theatre.

The Abbey Theatre minute books contain notes from meetings of the theatre’s Board of Directors. They offer a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the theatre, showing how the Abbey’s managers dealt with a variety of issues, from choosing plays to determining how much to pay their actors.

Along the way, we find important information about leading figures from the Irish Literary Revival and beyond: not just W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge but Sean O’Casey, Lennox Robinson, Teresa Deevy, Sean O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor, and many others. We also learn about great Irish actors such as Molly Allgood, Ria Mooney, Barry Fitzgerald, Cyril Cusack and many more.

NUI Galway Professor of Drama Patrick Lonergan said that the minute book will be of huge interest to theatre scholars, historians, and anyone with an interest in Irish culture: “the story of the Abbey Theatre is in many ways the story of our nation in microcosm. This online resource shows the Abbey Theatre and NUI Galway working together to reveal new aspects of that theatre’s story – and, by extension, new aspects of the story of Ireland. Users of the site will be able to search easily through hundreds of pages of records, and can move between the handwritten originals and carefully transcribed webpages. And all of this is available entirely free of charge to readers anywhere in the world.”

The minute books allow us to understand better how theatres are run. Yeats wrote about his approach to theatre business in a poem that was tellingly called “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”, cursing “plays/ that have to be set up in fifty ways”. Here we find Yeats encountering all sorts of difficulties - from the threat of government censorship of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars in 1926 to the leaking of his late play Purgatory to a Jesuit priest in 1938. And those difficulties are indeed fascinating.

We also learn much about the day to day activities of keeping a theatre in business: the struggles to find appropriate funding, the actors’ requests for extra money or time off, and the maintenance of the building.

And of course we learn much about Ireland, both before and after independence. The Abbey Theatre famously was the first state-subsidised theatre in the English-speaking world, earning funding in 1925 from the newly independent Irish Free State.

Bryan McMahon, Chairman of the Abbey Theatre said:  “The Abbey Theatre is proud to reveal, for the first time, our early Minute Books, an exciting milestone in our ground-breaking digital archive partnership with NUI Galway.   It is wonderful to manifest digitally the inner workings of the national theatre during its formative years.  These Minute Books give us fascinating insights into the management style and business acumen of W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory and the contribution made by the Board of Directors.  Indeed, the Minute Books reveal that Yeats was so integral to the Abbey Theatre, that Lennox Robinson, playwright and Board member, was dispatched to France to assist in the repatriation of his remains.  As we all know, it was an unsuccessful mission.  The Abbey Theatre is delighted that in this Yeats’ commemorative year, the full story of W.B. Yeats as theatre maker can be fully revealed.”

In total, the Abbey Theatre and NUI Galway are making available seven minute books, including:

  • 1904-1905 – outlining the foundation of the theatre, its relationships with other theatres in Ireland, and its evolving approach to its actors and patron Annie Horniman.
  • 1908-1912. The book is primarily a record of plays to be performed as the theatre moves through the period. It also details actors’ issues, training and staging practicalities.
  • 1912-1939. This book contains minutes of the company’s annual general meetings, and thus is different from the other publications, with some overlap in the minute books from 1929-39.
  • 1925-1931 After a hiatus, the Abbey Theatre Board of Directors resumes taking minutes in 1925, following the Free State government’s decision to fund the theatre. A central topic of debate here is the fate of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars.
  • 1932-1936. The theatre grapples with ongoing financial difficulties, responds to the death of Lady Gregory, and its actors are offered the opportunity to make movies in Hollywood. Ernest Blythe formally joins the Board.
  • 1936 to 1937. While covering a relatively short period, this minute book gives a fascinating account of the Abbey’s relationship with Teresa Deevy. We also find growing tensions between the Board and the Abbey company of actors.
  • 1937 to 1939. Dominated by negotiations with the Irish government for the creation of a new theatre, which would house the Abbey Theatre and Gate Theatre (the outbreak of war in 1939 meant that this plan was never completed). Also notable here is the production of Yeats’s final plays, in particular the controversial Purgatory, which appeared at the Abbey Theatre Festival in 1938.

This is a major milestone in this ground-breaking digitisation project which has brought the most advanced digital technology to bear on one of the world’s most historic theatre archives. The unprecedented access to the historic material enabled by its digitisation has far reaching benefits for students and researchers of the University. The unveiling of the Abbey Theatre Minute Books goes one step further, bringing this project to a public audience for the first time.

The Abbey Theatre Minute Books can be viewed


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