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Stage is set as Abbey's dramatic past unfolds

When The Abbey Theatre burned down in 1951, Dubliners responded by recklessly rushing into the fierce flames and risking their lives before staggering back out onto Abbey Street half dead yet proudly holding aloft the portraits, mirrors and artefacts they had saved.

This was before television was widely available, and RTE didn't start broadcasting until 1961. The Abbey staged four to five plays a day to audiences hungry for entertainment.



disappearing

Dubliners' fierce loyalty to their national theatre didn't prevent a little bit of our literary history disappearing off into the night, however. According to our theatre tour guide, Joseph Kearney, a letter has since been received from a man down the country who has promised that on his death a certain mirror will be returned to the theatre.

It's one of four mirrors which were designed by the poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, who along with the dramatist Lady Augusta Gregory and the playwright Edward Martyn founded the Abbey Theatre back in 1904. The one remaining mirror has a beautiful Celtic design and hangs in the theatre's lobby, the other two were sadly destroyed in the blaze.

A backstage tour of the Abbey theatre takes you to parts of the building normally closed off to the public -- the wardrobe and props area, for example, and the highlight is definitely getting to stand on the stage (be still my inner thespian) -- but if the Abbey Theatre is at times physically underwhelming, the theatre's defining moments in our theatrical history are nothing if not highly dramatic.

The Abbey Theatre has faced potentially hazardous heat several times down through the years, and you only have to think of the Dubliners who rushed to the theatre when John Millington Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World opened in 1907, this time to riot recklessly.

Dublin nationalists considered the character of Christy Mahon, boasting about killing his own father and being celebrated for having done so, to be a terrible insult to the virtues and high morals of the Irish.

There had been even more righteous and riotous behaviour when Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars opened in 1926. O'Casey was perceived to be attacking the men of the 1916 Rising while, at the same time, the women in the audience were outraged by the appearance of a Dublin prostitute on stage. Writer Robert Lowery described the resulting chaos: "Twenty women rushed from the pit to the stalls. Two of them succeeded in reaching the stage, where a general melee took place. The invading women were thrown bodily back into the orchestra. A young man then tried to reach the stage, but was cut off by the lowering of the curtain. This he grabbed, swinging out on it in a frantic endeavour to pull it down. Women rushed to aid him in this project, but he was suddenly thrown into the stalls by a sharp blow from one of the actors. The pandemonium created a panic among a section of the audience, who dashed for the exits and added to the confusion."

WB Yeats accused the audience of "shaming themselves" yet when the play's takings rose considerably the following week, O'Casey was able to give up the day job and become a full-time writer, so a happy ending after all.

Back to the Abbey Theatre backstage tour, and our guide Joseph is telling us about us biting the hand which fed us back in the early 20th century. When King Edward VII died in 1910, the question arose about whether the Abbey Theatre should close for the day as a mark of respect. The nationalistic messenger boy relaying Lady Gregory's insistence that it should appears to have gotten a little bit delayed on his way back to the theatre...

Though the Abbey was founded to put right the portrayal of Irish people as "blaggards and ruffians" in plays written by the English, it was being paid for out of the purse of Annie Horniman, an English tea heiress and theatre patron. But furious at the Abbey for not closing to mark the King's death, she ended her financial association.

Talking about money, there's a lovely story about playwright George Bernard Shaw getting around the custom of the day of not giving to beggars by autographing postcards for them to sell on for a shilling.

Information: Tours last 1 hour 15 minutes and start at 3.45pm (Wednesday to Friday), and 11:45am (Saturdays) during the run of a play. The next tour date is February 13. Tickets €6, call 01 87 87 222. Refreshments: Try nearby Wynn's Hotel, on Lower Abbey Street, or the Gresham, on O'Connell Street