Wednesday, February 9, 2011

John B. Keane and 'Sive' - The Irish Dramatic Tradition

Image courtesy of Listowel Writers Week
It speaks volumes about the skill and talent of John B. Keane as a playwright and also to the quality of local theatre in Ireland in the 1950’s,that the Listowel Players were the first English-speaking amateur drama group to perform on the stage of the Abbey Theatre. This particular bastion was the final and often unassailable frontier for so many Irish playwrights and actors alike. For Keane, his personal desire to see his works produced on the national stage proved an emotional journey.
Outside of Dublin, the midlands town of Athlone was to become a hub of theatrical activity when it began to host the annual All-Ireland Drama Festival in 1953. The finals comprised of nominated participants who were successful in regional heats nationwide. Festivals like those held at Scarriff, Charleville, Roscommon, Castleisland, Mountmellick, Enniscorthy and Glenamaddy, to name but a few,  were the first stop for many local and community groups determined to strike for glory in Athlone. When a young assistant pharmacist returned to Listowel in Co. Kerry from England and bought a pub, none could predict the success he and his many works would have.
Image courtesy of Mercier Press

John B. Keane settled in Listowel with his wife Mary. Keane recalled sitting down to write at 1:00am one morning and seven hours later, he had in his possession a draft of his new play, ‘Sive. ’ In this Spring of 1959, John B. Keane was unknown outside of his native Listowel. However, when the local Listowel Drama group began to present ‘Sive’ at amateur drama festivals, Keane’s name would soon find its way into the national headlines. 1959 would become known to many as ‘the Year of Sive’.
Success would follow this play wherever it toured. Reports from a production in the Clare Drama Festival in March 1959, taken from The Irish Independent describes ‘Sive’ taking first place in Scarriff, with adjudicator Michael O’ hAodha remarking that ‘Sive’ was, to his mind, “the greatest contribution to the Irish amateur movement since M.J. Molloy’s ‘The Paddy Peddlar.’
A report from The Kerryman newspaper, 28 March 1959 described the volatile scenes outside the theatre in Limerick city where “Sive was greeted with unprecedented enthusiasm. The house was full and the doors were locked half an hour before the curtain went up.”
All Ireland glory would follow for Sive and it took top honours at the Athlone festival in 1959.Sive would continue to succeed. Following its initital rejection by the Abbey Theatre, the Listowel players were invited to perform at the Abbey but contractually as an amatuer company - an unprecedented step in Irish theatre. 
Sive was loved nationwide. Its tragic beauty and commentary on an overbearing patriarchal  and clerical- driven state, obsessed with maintaining a moral highground and traditions touched a point with an eager audience. The celebrated actress Siobhan McKenna saw Sive at the Olympia theatre, Dublin and declared the play would even be a success on Broadway if a backer could be found. McKenna described the play as ‘the most exciting play I had seen in a long time. The characters, the language and the absolute honesty of it, gave a true picture of Ireland, without insulting or ‘plamasing’ it”.
Poster from Druid Theatre Company archive.
Some years later, in 2002, even after the passing of Keane himself, Sive, the play that brought Keane to the attention of the country, would again be produced and toured nationally. Druid Theatre Company staged Sive and toured it to Galway, Cork, Clare and Dublin. Directed by Garry Hynes, the production starred Anna Manahan, Derbhle Crotty, Ruth Bradley, Eamonn Morrissey, Barry Ward and others. The Druid theatre company archive holds the production records for the touring production of Sive. The playbill contains full cast details, original articles by Keane and commentary by Colm Toibin. Flyers, invitations and large posters present an iconic of the much loved Keane who had died prior to the production. The press files provide numerous reviews from Irish publications of the Druid production and provide a barometer by which to judge the public reception. The journey of Sive from Listowel in 1959 to the professional stage where it still remained in 2002 is a remarkable story and one that will always enthral audiences.
For more information on Sive, its history and legacy, listen to a special dedicated episode of RTE series, ‘From Stage to Street’ which discusses the legacy of Sive: and!/FromStageToStreet

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