The Abbey Theatre (also known as the National Theatre of Ireland) has had a long and interesting history dating back over a hundred years.
In the 1890s WB Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory and Edward Martyn published a ‘Manifesto for the Irish Literary Theatre’ with the intention of establishing a national theatre for Ireland. Allied to this was the work of the brothers William and Frank Fay who formed WG Fay’s Irish National Dramatic Company that helped develop local acting and writing talent, and the financial input and management guidance of Annie Horniman. She was from London and a friend and supporter of George Bernard Shaw and had financed one of his plays Arms and the Man in 1894. She came to Dublin in 1903 and worked as Yeats’ secretary when he, Gregory, Martyn, AE Russell and JM Synge founded the Irish National Theatre Society. She helped fund the new project which was soon augmented by members of the Fay group. The first plays were performed in the Molesworth Hall, but when the old Merchanic’s Hall on Lower Abbey Street became available Horniman and the Fays agreed to buy the premises.
William Fay was the appointed as the first theatre manager with responsibility for training new actors. Jack B Yeats, the renowned artist, was commissioned to paint portraits of the leading actors of the time that were on show in the theatre’s foyer. On the opening of the new theatre, 27 December 1904, three one-act plays were performed; two by WB Yeats and one by Lady Gregory. The theatre thrived for a few years, but after the riots that followed Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 and the split with Fays, the theatre’s fortunes slipped.
The old building was destroyed by fire on 17 July 1951, and the company performed at the Queen’s Theatre until 1966 when the newly built Abbey Theatre, designed by Michael Scott, was officially opened 18 July. With the contribution of new, exceptional playwrights like Hugh Leonard (Da 1973), Tom Murphy (A Whistle in the Dark 1961) and Brian Friel (Dancing at Lughnasa 1990), the fortunes of the theatre improved and helped raise its international profile.