IRELAND'S PLAYWRIGHTS AND PHILOSOPHERS.

February 02, 2017


Although Swift spent much of his later life in Dublin, most 18th-century Irishmen who hoped to make a living by the pen headed for England; the only other distinguished exception was the philosopher George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne.
Berkeley is remembered for his theory of 'perception' which helped to undermine the common-sense, cause-and-effect theories of the time. The series of gifted Irishmen who sought fame and fortune in London made a quite extraordinary contribution to English life and literature. Without exception, these writers graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, before adopting the uncertain and insecure existence of a professional writer; and most of them were more anxious to be accepted as English gentlemen than literary geniuses. This was as true of William Congreve (1670-1720), who was born in Yorkshire but brought up in Ireland, as of the Dubliner Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729). Steele collaborated with Joseph Addison in writing for The Spectator (1711-12), and in so doing established the modern essay in its urbane, whimsical, mildly lecturing mode; Congreve wrote comedies of manners such as The Way of the World (1700) which have arguably never been surpassed for lightness to touch, wit and acuteness of characterization.
Meanwhile the theatre in Dublin, though deserted by the most talented writers, managed to flourish. The first playhouse in the city opened in 1635, but was soon shut down by the Cromwellian prohibitions which also interrupted the English theatrical tradition. After the Restoration of Charles 11 in 1660, the first Dublin theatre to open was Smock Alley, which achieved a certain eminence in the 1740's and 50's under Thomas Sheridan (1719-88), who managed to attract leading performers such as David Garrick for his shining 1744-5 season. However Dublin's day as an outstanding theatrical centre was still to come.
One writer who did work at Smock Alley (as an actor) until he left for London was George Farquhar (1677-1707); towards the end of his short life he wrote two carefree and joyous minor classics, The Recruiting Officer (1706) and The Beaux Stratagem (1707). Sentimental comedies were popular for much of the 18th century, until works by two Irish writers led to a reaction. She Stoops to Conquer (1773) by Oliver Goldsmith, and The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777) by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, have held the stage ever since their early performances, although they now seem far from annoying and abrasive. Goldsmith was notable as an essayist and a novelist. Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), the son of the manager of Smock Lane, was a writer, Member of Parliament and owner of the Drury Lane Theatre. His fame as an orator has been eclipsed by that of his fellow-Irishman Edmund Burke (1729-97), whose career as a leading Whig politician (an 1834 new politicial party) was ultimately less important than his writings as an aesthetic theorist and, in Reflections on the French Revolution (1790), the chief philosophic advocate of social and political conservatism.


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