Masculinities and the Contemporary Irish Theatre by Brian Singleton

Yuh. J. Hwang


Singleton, Brian. Masculinities and the Contemporary Irish Theatre. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 227 pp.


Masculinities and the Contemporary Irish Theatre offers insight into the “multiple and alternative masculinities” on the Irish stage from the early 1990s to the present-day, in the context of social, political and cultural interventions (3). Throughout the book, Brian Singleton shows a dynamic deterritorialization of hegemonic masculinity in the framework of contemporary Irish theatre. Using examples drawn from diverse sources — from popular culture to political interventions of the state and legal system — the author suggests that every kind of written text contains constructions of Irish masculinity. This approach ensures this book’s breadth and depth of insight.


Masculinities and the Contemporary Irish Theatre opens its “Introduction” chapter by asking the questions: “what kind of men and their representations precisely have been canonized? And what have been the challenges to those hegemonic representations at the latter end of the twentieth century, and in the twenty-first?” (1). Considering that “twentieth-century Irish theatre practice is remembered almost exclusively for its contributions and interventions by men”,  these questions are exactly where the author’s argument starts within the text (1).


This book explores six main chapters in the following order: “Contesting Canons”, “Performing Patriarchy”, “Monologies and Masculinties”, “Quare  Fellas”, “Male Races”, and finally “Protestant Boys.”  Here, male characters on the Irish stage are categorized in terms of class, race and sexuality, revealing a diversity of subordinated male voices in opposition to the “male, white, Catholic, settled, and heterosexual” (13). That is, the seminal concern of the book lies in “particular masculinities” which “were ignored, silenced, or ultimately outlawed by the hegemonic form of the gender order” (9).


 In Contesting Canons, Irish canons from J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World to Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars are staged in such way that the former would produce “Ireland’s own ideal image of the male body” (42) via “a black man” represented by “a hard-body masculinity” (41) while the latter play produces “the national ideal as a class-ridden myth” (34) in relation to the 1916 Easter Rising, and this forms the core of the chapter. Furthermore, in “Performing Patriarchy”, the title of the chapter, “performing patriarchy”, is revealed by means of “father-son relationship” (55) and “the patriarchs” are played out “as evanescent and ultimately immaterial” in contemporary Irish theatre (69).


On the other hand, in “Monologies and Masculinities”,  the use of “monologies” spoken by male characters on the contemporary stage is characterized as “symptomatic of man’s place in social relations” and “the spectacle of phallic authority” (73). Also, in  “Quare Fellas”, gay characters are staged as ranging from “the archetypal victim of homophobia” (106) to a “protean queerness” (112) that resulted from the “refusal to conform to the stereotype” (107) portrayed by Irish playwrights such as Thomas Kilroy, Brian Friel and Frank McGuinness. In “Male Races”, with regard to race and migration, the immigrants’ “non-white masculinity” challenges the dominant hegemony by naming “the white Irish as other” (155). Lastly, in “Protestant Boys”, Irish Protestant men contests their identity via “a performative act of hegemonic masculinity” within their communities concomitant to class and religious divisions (164).


These emergences of male gender stem from the fact that maleness is not supposed to be a fixed identity in terms of social-economic status. For this reason, it is significant that the 1990s, while they appear to be simply a historical landmark, also contain multi-layered implications of economic, legal, political and demographical change that are given significance by the global context. Furthermore, this period encapsulates the election of Ireland’s first female and socialist President, Mary Robinson, and the beginning of the Celtic Tiger era. At this point, Ireland is viewed as a contesting and discursive space which gives birth to a diverse range of “new subalterns” within the context of the Celtic Tiger period (understood as the economic boom era between 1996 and 2007).  This explains why it is not difficult to witness Irish men as hapless citizens, immaterial fathers, immigrants, asylum-seekers and gay men in contemporary Irish theatre practice. In this regard, the book does not reduce the issue of Irish masculinity to a matter of contemporary Ireland’s uniqueness because the diversity of Irish male gender also reflects and is situated in the global sphere from a universal perspective.  


In particular, the fourth chapter, “Quare Fellas” is one of the most interesting explorations of marginalized male figures. It deals with “new queer performativity” and its development from the mid-1980s onward (101). The appearance of “the heterosexual Irish landscape” is the product of human rights activism and the decriminalization of homosexuality under Catholic Church intervention and a strictly gender-divided nation (105). Indeed, based on “the legal shift”, the process of revealing ‘sexual otherness” in public is seen as a concrete but painful historical record on ‘silenced and represented subjects” who had to fight against social prejudice in relation to HIV/AIDS and homophobia within the formation of cultural discourse (114). From popular culture, such as the annual Alternative Miss Ireland (AMI) competition, to contemporary Irish theatre productions, queer masculinities were increasingly made visible to the public “as a means of disclosure of a life lived in the shadow or margins of the national narrative” (123).


However, this book does not simply articulate the contestation of patriarchal hegemony in contemporary Irish theatre as a reflection of reality. It provides a more pivotal insight into reality than just the significance of resisting patriarchal domination. The crucial point of this book particularly reveals itself when one considers that Ireland used to be regarded as female in relation to nation-building projects in early twentieth-century Irish theatre. This means that “Ireland was already female in the cultural imaginary, in opposition to Britain as a a colonial male” in a colonial society (45). In doing so, it reproduced patriarchal discourse, but in a postcolonial society, this aspect of gender changed in a different way: “the presentation of masculinity in the theatrical sphere eschewed for the most part the presentation of patriarchal masculinity as a metaphor for the nation” (46). In other words, a diverse range of subordinated male characters on the Irish stage are given, not by “a colonial other”, but by “the centrifugal drives of hegemonic masculinity” which are represented by the Catholic Church and state (16). Therefore, what makes this book interesting is not the fact that such theatre practice is a result of reflecting reality, but the fact that it reveals a structural force of actuality where the socio-economic reality is refracted, inversed and negotiated by the theatrical representation of Irish masculinities. This perspective is predominantly highlighted by the last chapter, “Protestant Boys.” It expands the scope of the book from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland by interrogating the interplay between Northern Ireland’s complicated circumstances and the Protestant identity demonstrated through the annual loyalist parades, demonstrations and theatre productions that has not yet been fully explored in detail. 


What is noticeable here is that Protestant hegemonic masculinity is overtly characterized as a “masculinist militarism” throughout Northern Ireland’s history as a result of conflicts, ranging from the 1798 rebellion and the 1916 battle of the Somme to the Troubles.  This explains why The Lyric Theatre, the main theatre in Belfast, played a pivotal role in emphasizing the representation of historical memory, which affected the view of masculinity in Northern Ireland. In the chapter, the author articulates how Protestant masculinity is performed and “fractured” in the political and social context and, notably, in The Good Friday Agreement (1998). This is a marker that shows the contestation of the Unionist supremacy in the context of the collapse of binaries based on Protestant-Catholic division. This is so crucial because the collapse of binaries reveals not only the hegemonic forces in the social and cultural discourses of Northern Ireland, but also the way in which it has carved out the disruption of Protestant identity within the context of the Good Friday Agreement.


Masculinities and the Contemporary Irish Theatre reminds the reader of theatre’s potential to expose the complexities and intricacies of our reality. It can be said that the book is not only a study of masculinity in Irish theatre, but also a diagnosis of the ontology of contemporary Irish male gender norms. In this sense, this book reaffirms the fact that theatre is a medium which enables us to look into our fundamental human condition. A great deal of the materials used in this study can help us to illuminate the social and cultural map of Ireland in detail from the 1990s onwards.  It would prove useful not just to theatre scholars and historians but also to general readers interested in contemporary Irish culture.




Yuh. J. Hwang studied Theatre studies at Korean National University of Arts and Korean cultural studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands.  She is a member of IATC-South Korea(International Association of Theatre Critics) and a literary critic. In addition, she has written numerous reviews on contemporary Korean and European theatre and several articles about modern Korean theatre, which are published in Korean and English.  She is currently focusing on the Abbey Theatre riots –the so called The Playboy riots (1907) and The Plough and the Stars riots (1926)- from the perspective of performance in the Drama department at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.



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