‘A Labour Leader in a Frothy Scoundrel’: Farce and Social Justice in the Popular Dramaturgy of George Shiels

Brenda Winter


In the financially precarious period which followed in the wake of the partition of Ireland (1922) the Northern Irish playwright George Shiels kept The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, open for business with a series of ‘box-office’ successes. Literary Dublin was not so appreciative of his work as the Abbey audiences dubbing his popular dramaturgy mere ‘kitchen comedy’. However, recent analysts of Irish theatre are beginning to recognise that Shiels used popular theatre methods to illuminate and interrogate instances of social injustice both north and south of the Irish border. In doing so, such commentators have set up a hierarchy between the playwright’s early ‘inferior’ comedies and his later ‘superior’ works of Irish realism. This article rejects this binary by suggesting that in this early work Shiels’s intent is equally socially critical and that in the plays Paul Twyning, Professor Tim and The Retrievers he is actively engaging with the farcical tradition in order to expose the marginalisation of the landless classes in Ireland in the post-colonial jurisdictions.

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Popular Entertainment Studies ISSN 1837-9303