Lennox Robinson and the Abbey Theatre

Detail from an Abbey Theatre program
Promotional image for Lennox Robinson's first American lecture tour, October 1928 - January 1929
Drawings contrasting the new with the old Abbey Theatre
Scene from Tarry Flynn in 1966. Adapted by P. J. O'Connor from the 1948 novel by Patrick Kavanagh, Tarry Flynn tells the story of a young poet farmer searching for the meaning of life.
Interior of the new Abbey Theatre in 1966

Ireland's National Theatre was founded in 1904 on Old Abbey Street in Dublin by William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory with patronage from Annie Horniman. Promoting new Irish writers and artists, Abbey Theatre offered diverse, engaging, innovative Irish and international productions. Closely associated with the writers of the Irish literary renaissance, the theater featured many of their plays. In 1925, the newly independent Irish Free State began providing an annual subsidy to the Abbey Theatre. After fire damaged the Abbey Theatre in 1951, the company moved to the Queen’s Theatre. Fifteen years later, in 1966, the Abbey Theatre was reopened on its original site, redesigned by Michael Scott, and played a large role in the revival of Irish drama. 

The Special Collections Research Center at Morris Library features collections documenting the Abbey Theatre and the career of its director Esmé Stuart Lennox Robinson, including correspondence between Robinson and Abbey founder William Butler Yeats.

Born in Douglas, County Cork, in 1886, Robinson became a dramatist, poet, theater producer and director. His first play, The Cross Roads was performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1909. Later that year, after the death of John Millington Synge, Robinson became manager and director of the theater. He resigned in 1914 following a failed tour of the United States, but returned to the Abbey Theatre in 1918 as manager and producer, and was appointed to the board in 1923. He also served as director of the Abbey School of Acting.

Robinson wrote a number of plays, including The Big House (1926), The Far Off Hills (1928) and Drama at Inish (1933), which was retitled Is Life Worth Living? for its Broadway run. He edited Lady Gregory’s Journals (1946) and The Oxford Book of Irish Verse with Donagh McDonagh (1958). In 1951, he published Ireland’s Abbey Theatre, the first full-length history of the company. He remained on the Abbey board until his death in 1958.

The Lennox Robinson papers, 1892-1954 contains several correspondence series, forty play manuscripts, many with multiple drafts, three short stories, his non-fiction writings, his scrapbook of newspaper clippings and playbills, and manuscripts of lesser known writers collected by Robinson. Correspondence includes letters from such luminaries as A. E. (George William Russell), George Bernard Shaw, Sean O'Casey, Gerard Fay, Sean O'Faolain, Oliver Joseph St. John Gogarty, and James Stephens, in addition to W. B. Yeats. Play manuscripts in various stages of completion suggest that Robinson was continually revising, even during stage production. His non-fiction articles and essays shed light on his opinions about theater and interaction between the director, writer, and players, while his lecture notes reflect his approach to the history of Irish Theatre.

The Abbey Theatre collection, 1904-1970 documents productions and the 1951 fire and redesign with programs, photographs, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, miscellaneous correspondence, architectural briefs and designs, business records, and material about Sara Allgood, a leading Irish actress. The folder pertaining to Allgood contains a post card from 1911 during their first tour in the United States. While that tour was not a success, they were welcomed when they returned to New York and Boston in the 1930s. 

In addition to the Robinson and Abbey Theatre collections, the Conal O'Riordan collection features more than seventy letters to O'Riordan written while he briefly served as director of the Abbey Theatre, following the death of John Millington Synge. Correspondents include Sara Allgood, Leon Brody, Lord Dunsany, Lady Gregory, Patricia Hoey, Annie Horniman, Charles Joze, M. McConaghy, Lennox Robinson, George Bernard Shaw, Allen Wade, A. Patrick Wilson, and W. B. Yeats. Topics cover plays, Abbey Theatre expenses, tours, other theaters, and various theatrical personalities. There are also two letters from O'Riordan to Yeats and one letter from O'Riordan to the editor of the Irish Independent.

Vertical files and assorted collections also feature materials relating to W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge, Sean O'Casey, and other playwrights of the Irish literary renaissance who contributed to the Abbey Theatre. Although the literary revival focused around Yeats, he wrote few plays in contrast with Lady Gregory, who helped manage the Abbey. J. M. Synge was the leading dramatist of the peasant realist movement. Lennox Robinson and T. C. Murray furthered the shift toward realism. In reaction to peasant realism, Sean O’Casey wrote dramas of the Dublin slums in war and revolution.


Abbey Theatre — The home page for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland

Abbey Theatre: Living in the moment for 110 years — A timeline provided by the Abbey Theatre

Blythe, Ernest de. 1962. The Abbey Theatre. Dublin: National Theatre Society, Abbey Theatre.

Fay, Gerard. 1958. The Abbey Theatre, cradle of genius. Dublin: Clonmore & Reynolds.

Flannery, James W. 1976. W.B. Yeats and the idea of a theatre: the early Abbey Theatre in theory and practice. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Mikhail, E. H. 1988. The Abbey Theatre: interviews and recollections. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble.

Robinson, Lennox. 1951. Ireland's Abbey Theatre: a history, 1899-1951. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.

Welch, Robert. 1999. The Abbey Theatre, 1899-1999: form and pressure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lennox Robinson and the Abbey Theatre