Caption: Fiach MacDonghail, artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, in front of a poster for “Terminus” at the Annenberg Center | Photo © Katharine Gilbert
By Sabina Clarke
When Fiach MacConghail was appointed artistic director of Ireland’s National Theatre six years ago this month, the future of the Abbey Theatre, founded in 1904 by William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, was in question, “At that time,” says MacConghail, “we were five million dollars in debt and morale was low and we hadn’t been getting international recognition in the 21st century as we should have been. I came at a time of turmoil and my job was to get rid of the deficit. The government hadn’t promised to secure the deficit unless we changed how the organization worked.”
It seems somehow preordained that MacConghail and the Abbey should be wedded to each other. There is an interesting backstory that precedes MacConghail’s appointment—harking back to his great-grandfather William Kelly, a newsman, who took a young Sean O’Casey, later to become the famous Irish playwright, to the Abbey for the first time.
Fiach has letters that O’Casey wrote to his great-grandfather asking him to save the reviews of his plays. Then a generation later, his grandfather Maurice McGonagle, an artist, painted the set for O’Casey’s play The Silver Tassie which premiered at the Abbey.
Against this serendipitous backdrop, enter Fiach MacConghail, the great- grandson of William and the grandson of Maurice, who began his career at the Abbey Theatre as an assistant to the former director and married Brid Ni Neachtain, an Abbey actor. Then when fate intervened and he was offered the prestigious position of artistic director; it was like “going home.”
Recently, the Abbey was on tour with the provocative, disturbing and brilliantly staged play Terminus by the young Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe at the Annenberg Theatre at the University of Pennsylvania.
Prior to seeing the production but having read the play, I met with MacConghail, a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin who holds a degree in economics and politics and whose first language is Irish.
SC When you took over as Artistic Director of the Abbey, it was in trouble and in danger of closing
MacConghail When I was appointed, we were in the red and the government set certain preconditions that unless we changed how the organization worked, they would not help us clear the deficit. So, I took it upon myself to reorganize the entire company and since then, both the Board and I have achieved quite a lot. The government insisted that I run a tight ship and invest money in new plays, new writing and particularly, in the younger generation. So, we had to step up to the plate and we did.
SC What is your yearly budget?
MacConghail Since the collapse of the economy in Ireland, we get $7 million a year from the government.
SC How do the smaller theatre companies feel about this? Is there any rivalry?
MacConghail Not really; because although we are the largest awardee of the Arts Council, we are the National Theatre of Ireland. The Abbey was founded before the founding of the state. It came to identify what the Republic was about. The role of the national theatre is always to reflect and engage and challenge Irish society. From its founding up until mid-1930, it was quite radical; then it reawakened in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.
SC Are you looking for cutting edge plays primarily?
MacConghail It is not that the Abbey has to be cutting edge; the Abbey has to always support new writers. From the beginning in 1904, W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory encouraged new writers. And, of course the greatest writer to come out of the early Abbey Theatre was John Millington Synge and in the 1920’s, it was Sean O’Casey. Both The Playboy of the Western World and The Plough and the Stars were very radical for their times and did cause discomfort and upset. And when The Playboy of the Western World came to Philadelphia in June 1912, it caused a riot here and the Abbey Theatre Company was sent to jail and had to be bailed out by John Quinn, an Irish American lawyer and a good friend of Lady Gregory.
SC Encouraging new writers seems to be paramount with you; is that your main focus?
MacConghail That is absolutely true. The Abbey Theatre could not exist without the work of writers like Mark O’Rowe, Nancy Harris, Stacey Gregg, Conor McPherson, Tom Murphy, Enda Walsh, Sebastian Barry, Martin McDonagh and Marina Carr-to name a few. Without this new generation of Irish writers, it cannot call itself a national theatre.
SC In addition to new plays, do you ever stage revivals?
MacConghail We have adapted international classics by Ibsen and Chekhov but primarily we try to develop new Irish writers. We did ask a young Irish director Wayne Jordon to direct a fresh contemporary version of Chekhov’s play The Seagull and also a new look at O’Casey’s The Plough and The Stars.
SC What do you think of Mark O’Rowe and his play Terminus that is currently on tour here?
MacConghail He is a remarkable talent and Terminus is a fantastic play. The masculinity of Mark O’Rowe’s language is comparable to James Joyce’s use of language. It stretches he boundaries.
SC What was your background in theatre prior to coming to the Abbey?
MacConghail I was the artistic director for the Projects Art Center for seven years. I picked the plays and put them on. I got to know a lot of young playwrights like Mark O’Rowe and gave them a stage to work on.
SC How would you describe where the Abbey is right now?
MacConghail We have achieved a baseline and now we can achieve our potential and reach for the stars. Our next goal is that we become more regular visitors to the U.S. and bring new work here. We want to get to know Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and New York better. We want to get introduced to new audiences as well. We are doing Translations by Brian Friel this summer-it is one of the best plays to come out of Ireland in the last 50 years. And we are doing Juno and the Paycock with the English National Theatre—this will mark the first time that the two theatres have come together. The joint production opens in September in Dublin and in November in London, with the same cast.
SC What is the mood in Ireland now?
MacConghail The banks have let us down; the system has let us down; the Church has let us down. What has not let the Irish people down is the theatre, the artists and actors and writers.
SC What do you hope for the Abbey in the next five years?
MacConghail My goal is to keep it center stage nationally and internationally. We hope to come back to Philadelphia in two years with Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and The Stars.
SC To what do you attribute your success so far?
MacConghail I surround myself with people who are just as capable as or more capable than I am. I have a very good team around me of exciting young leaders.