Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2008
‘For the amusement of the plundered people’: Irish theatre in 1691
Shortly before Christmas in the winter of 1691, announcements for a production of Othello at Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre appeared in the taverns, coffee houses and printers’ shops clustered in the narrow streets between Dublin Castle and the river Liffey. For the people of Dublin, this was yet another sign of civil society re-emerging, for – like so much else in the city – Smock Alley had lain dark and empty during the three years of warfare and plague since William of Orange’s landing in England in November 1688. Anyone reading those notices would have known that reopening the theatre in the months immediately after the Treaty of Limerick involved much more than airing the musty seats and dusting off the scenery. For the audiences who made their way through the thin winter light to that production of Othello, there would have been an uncanny sense of returning to something familiar, and yet anomalous in its familiarity, for all around it had changed.
The theatre in which the play was to be performed, Smock Alley was only the second public theatre building to have been constructed in Ireland. Its predecessor had been established (probably in 1635) in Werburgh Street (just behind Dublin Castle) by the lord lieutenant of the time, Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford, and was managed by a member of Wentworth’s retinue, John Ogilby. Although it lasted only until 1640, the Werburgh Street Theatre was part of a culture of theatre-going in the Stuart court; Smock Alley, also built by Ogilby, was a continuation of that tradition, and had been built as part of the process of establishing a Stuart viceregal court in Restoration Dublin.