When the facade of the GPO was projected on to the stage of the Abbey Theatre during the Rough Magic production of Improbable Frequency in 2005, it was a moment of delicious irony. Flanked by pillars, which already suggested the iconic theatre in which the drama of 1916 was played out, Arthur Riordan’s satirical musical was a deconstruction of Ireland’s 20th-century Irish history. It suggested that Irish neutrality, indeed the whole history of Ireland’s political independence, was improbable, indeed absurd, enabled only by the scientific adjustment of the laws of probability and of the natural logic of cause and effect. Who would have known that this brilliant theatrical moment of political deflation would anticipate the current debate about the proposed relocation of the Abbey to the GPO, as proposed in the recent Programme for Government?
The Abbey Theatre’s history is intricately linked to that of the nation. Its first production in 1904, Cathleen Ní Houlihan , by Yeats and Lady Gregory, was a metaphorical call to arms for the revolution. As Yeats questioned himself later: “Did that play of mine,/ Send out certain men the English shot?” Indeed, when the Rising came to fruition in 1916, several members of the Abbey Theatre company were directly involved, while many leaders of the Rising, such as Patrick Pearse and Thomas McDonagh, were as well known as dramatists as they were as revolutionaries. The Abbey Theatre company regularly visited Pearse’s boys’ school, St Enda’s in Rathfarnham, for its seasonal pageants.