The Dublin Theatre Festival has occasionally been marked by a squabble or two. In one of its first years, the archbishop of Dublin refused to say mass on opening night because he disapproved of a Samuel Beckett production -- and the entire festival subsequently collapsed.
This year, a row developed because the festival was holding press conferences in a hotel that had refused to accommodate a group of lesbian ex-nuns from the United States. And Graham Reid, who wrote one of the festival's 41 plays, called reporters for a reading of program notes he said were censored for political reasons by the Abbey Theatre.
But Dubliners seem to love attending the theater almost as much as they love pouting about it, which is why the shows have gone on almost every year since 1957. Where else would 11:15 p.m. performances of a Beckett trilogy sell out? Where else can one find lunchtime and teatime "playlets"?
Still, even devout theatergoers have their limits: With a total of 68 plays (counting the "fringe" productions) in the festival, director Lewis Clohessy has acknowledged the "physical impossibility" of getting a fair sampling. "One person has managed to see 30," he said, adding quickly that he has decided to scale back next year. He will offer only 35 professional productions during the two-week stint.
The event is intended to be "a showcase for Irish talent," but about one-third of it is usually foreign, Clohessy said. Last year, he explored the United States under a program funded by the U.S. Information Agency to promote the arts. One American play that surfaced at the Dublin festival after that trip was "Tent Meeting," presented by the Actors Theatre of Louisville, received enthusiastically here as it was in Washington at the Kennedy Center. In a year when Ireland is rife with reports of religious statues moving -- two such sightings were alleged during the festival -- there seemed to be something appropriate about the Bible Belt story of the Rev. Ed O. Tarbox who believes his grandchild to be Jesus.
The United States was represented by two other productions: "Ex Voto," a story of U.S.-Soviet nuclear confrontation enacted by huge papier-ma che' creations of Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater, and "The Works," a group of modern dance pieces by Jennifer Muller. Muller's production got the sluggish response that Dubliners customarily give dance. "Ex Voto," meanwhile, was "booked out" on opening night, while Clohessy said "Tent Meeting" played to about 70 percent capacity.
By contrast, a black market in tickets developed for "The Mask of Moriarty" by Hugh Leonard, one of Ireland's best-known living writers. Leonard won a Tony award in 1978 for "Da," which was first performed at Maryland's Olney Theatre, according to a diary he wrote for the Irish Times. "The Mask of Moriarty" is the 18th play he has written for the festival, of which he was at one time director.
A Sherlock Holmes spoof in which the villain Moriarty undergoes reconstructive surgery to become a Holmes clone, "Mask" spewed one-liners and comic exchanges on a continuous roll (it also produced a London fog on stage in the first act). One artful progression has Holmes deducing from Watson's garlicky breath that the doctor has eaten dinner out and is therefore having a marital spat. Watson's compliments on his deductive powers prompt Holmes' line, "alimentary, my dear Watson." It is clever dialogue, but it also gives credence to one critic's assertion that Leonard "invites the suspicion that he constructs his plays -- with great skill -- around good lines."
Another Irish writer is Beckett, whose work was represented at the festival by the one-man show "I'll Go On." Actor Barry McGovern helped turn the Beckett trilogy ("Molloy," "Malone Dies" and "The Unnamable") into a story that is not only accessible to the audience but hypnotically intense as well.
The narrative is by an endearing old Dubliner who, among other things, tells of a bicycle trip to his mother's house, though he's not really sure where she lives or whether he wants to see her. Along the way, he gets into an accident and ends up in a hospital. Or is it an asylum? In the final analysis, he seems to have landed in a mausoleum. He becomes fearful, panting rhythmically, "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on."
McGovern is slated to travel this month to Greece with the Abbey Theatre production of "Endgame," also by Beckett. "I'll Go On," meanwhile, was performed at Dublin's Gate Theatre, where works of Eugene O'Neill, Jean Cocteau and Arthur Koestler have premiered.
Yet another celebrated Irish actress, Siobhan McKenna, was in the festival's production of "Arsenic and Old Lace." And Clohessy described a work entitled "Northern Star" as "one of the best Irish shows in the last 10 years." The play, which will be presented in St. Louis in January, depicts Irish history through the eyes of Irish authors such as Oscar Wilde, J.M. Synge, Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan and Beckett.
"Conversations on a Homecoming" was another popular production and is notable for its very Irishness. It takes off on reminiscences about John F. Kennedy, who is still mourned here, in the midst of a long drinking session in a pub. In fact, the play is the drinking session. Incredibly, the starring actor and actress drink actual pints of stout -- seven pints per show, to be exact -- throughout the entire performance. Consider those days with matinees . . .
An event called the Dublin Theatre Festival could be expected to have some reference to W.B. Yeats, who took it upon himself to establish a national theater and then write its plays. This year's mention came in the form of "Twilight Companies," a biography of Yeats and his women, whose names -- Maud Gonne and Lady Augusta Gregory -- are Irish household words. Playwright Brian McGrath, who also played the poet, wove some of Yeats' most difficult poetry into the biographical action in ways that help explain the poems' more complex symbolism.
Clohessy also beat the theatrical bushes in Berlin, Paris, Avignon (the scene of another major theater festival) and around Holland, Sweden and Italy. Those travels bore fruit this year in the form of "The Open Couple," written by the Italian husband-and-wife team of Dario Fo and Franca Rame. Fo's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" was a hit at Arena Stage in 1984 but went on to a limited run in New York. "The Open Couple," a satire of sex outside marriage, starred Rame, who donated one-third of her festival earnings to a South African company also performing in Dublin.
A mime of the Federico Fellini film "La Strada," performed by a group of Swedish pantomimists, was well received, and another Swedish company presented Molie re's "Les Femmes Savantes." Such a diversity of talent may support Clohessy's indication that Holland and Sweden are "a fertile area to follow up" in years to come. He has already signed for next year a show by the Dutch company Mexican Hound, which performed at the Olympic arts festival in Los Angeles, in addition to a rock musical from Berlin entitled "Grips."
"Blood Brothers" was a musical from London written by Willy Russell, whose screenplay adaptation for the film "Educating Rita" received an Oscar nomination last year. The lead role -- that of a poverty-stricken mother who gives away one of her twin sons at birth -- is played by Rebecca Storm, whom Russell discovered. Storm's voice is mesmerizing, and strong enough to compete with the blaring guitar and saxophone accompaniment.
The Dublin festival would most likely not fly at all without the considerable support it gets from national, county and municipal sources. An independent, government-appointed board of artists and arts administrators called the Arts Council allocates about half its budget to the festival, Clohessy said, and the Dublin County Council also appropriates funds.
In addition, the Irish government recently eliminated a tax on theater tickets and recognized the festival as a body to which donations of between 100 pounds and 10,000 pounds would be tax deductible.
Embassies of countries involved often give assistance, financial or otherwise, although Clohessy said the U.S. Embassy has "a modest budget" for the arts events. Commercial sponsors are important, with Wang Ireland Ltd. and Kentucky Fried Chicken the most generous donors this year, according to Clohessy.
With "an enormous list" of candidates awaiting screening, Clohessy says he cannot predict what will be on next year's festival platter. As for American productions, he did venture one speculation: "With the [value of the] American dollar dropping, we may be able to do more American shows."