Symposium and theater performances to celebrate collection in October
An aged manuscript of a classic Irish play, long thought lost even by the renowned playwright who wrote it, has made its way to Princeton University as the gem of a momentous collection of Irish theater donated by 1953 alumnus Leonard L. Milberg.
The unpublished play “The Cooing of Doves” by Sean O’Casey is one of more than 1,000 plays, photographs, playbills and other works documenting the past 160 years of Irish theater, all given to the University in honor of poet and professor Paul Muldoon. To celebrate the opening of the collection, the University will hold a symposium in October, with appearances by Oscar-nominated actor Stephen Rea, celebrated Irish actors Gabriel Byrne and Fiona Shaw, Tony-award winning director Garry Hynes and others.
There is ample cause for celebration because Princeton’s new Irish theater collection may be unequalled by that of any other educational institution in the world, said Milberg, a noted art collector who has donated three other major literary collections to Princeton. This latest establishes the University as a leading resource for research and scholarship about the Irish stage.
“Whenever I do a collection, it’s important to me that it be a significant collection in its field,” said Milberg, who donated a collection of modern American poetry to the University in 1988, a collection of Irish poetry in 1994 and an unprecedented collection of Jewish American writers in 2001.
“For Irish theater, I don’t think there is anything else like this, especially outside of Ireland,” Milberg said of his most recent donation. “I know people may be interested in a lot of other things, but if it’s Irish theater, they’ll call Princeton.”
The new Milberg Irish Theater Collection begins in the mid 19th century and includes works by Dion Boucicault, whose “sensation” dramas gained acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic;” John Millington Synge, who founded Ireland’s national theater, the Abbey Theatre, in 1904 with poet William Butler Yeats and author Lady Gregory; well established playwrights like Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel and Tom Murphy; and contemporary writers including Conall Morrison and Graham Reid, in addition to younger writers, such as Marina Carr, Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson.
Milberg decided to donate a collection in honor of Muldoon — Princeton’s Howard G.B. Clark ’21 University Professor in the Humanities and founding chair of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts — after the two became friends upon being introduced in 1994 by members of Princeton’s English department. Muldoon was born and educated in Northern Ireland and moved to the United States in 1987. He has won numerous awards for his poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.
Milberg was impressed with Muldoon’s work and agreed to his suggestion to form an Irish theater collection that could be made available for research.
“One of the lovely aspects of belonging to the Princeton community is that people like Leonard, who might otherwise remain in some distant, impersonal category such as ‘major donor,’ turn out to be major friends,” Muldoon said.
“The fact is, that there’s nothing quite like this in Ireland itself,” Muldoon said of the collection. “It’s an extraordinary resource for our local scholars — students and faculty — who are more and more interested in Irish theater. It turns out that anyone interested in what’s happening on Broadway, for example, is by definition interested in Irish theater.”
Highlighting the collection are the original playbill for the 1956 production of “The Quare Fellow” by Brendan Behan, the 1952 first edition of Samuel Beckett’s “En attendant Godot” (Waiting for Godot), and the O’Casey manuscript.
Princeton undergraduates in the English department will be among the first to explore the “The Cooing of Doves,” which Milberg acquired after it surfaced at an auction last year. O’Casey later said that he incorporated the one-act play, thought lost, into the second act of his seminal work “The Plough and the Stars.”
“My students will be among the first to explore this text, and its importance to an understanding of ‘Plough’ and its particular moment in Irish political and cultural history,” said Michael Cadden, who teaches Princeton’s “Modern Irish Drama” course.
“Because of the large role played by artists, and most particularly by theater artists, in imagining an independent Ireland into existence, the collection will speak brilliantly to the inextricability of political and aesthetic questions in modern Irish drama,” Cadden said.
As director of Princeton’s Program in Theater and Dance, Cadden has joined the Friends of the Princeton University Library, the library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, the Fund for Irish Studies, the Council of the Humanities and the McCarter Theatre Center to host a symposium titled “Players & Painted Stage” to celebrate the new Milberg collection.
From Oct. 13 to Oct. 15, an international gathering of theater aficionados and scholars will be on campus for a series of events revolving around the opening of a special exhibition of the collection to be hosted by the Princeton University Library, running through April 22.
“We’re going to showcase that this collection is remarkable in the way that Mr. Milberg focused on collecting around what Princeton already had, arriving at a truly complete collection,” said Ben Primer, associate University librarian for rare books and special collections. Major Irish-born playwrights like Oscar Wilde, Yeats and George Bernard Shaw, for instance, are not included in the collection because of the library’s already extensive holdings.
A complete schedule will not be released until late September, but an academic conference to highlight the exhibition will include actors Byrne and Rea in lectures, readings and performances. It will open Oct. 13 with a lecture by Joe Dowling, a former artistic director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the current artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Coinciding with the symposium will be McCarter Theatre’s production of “Translations,” directed by Garry Hynes and considered by many to be playwright Brian Friel’s theatrical masterpiece. The production will open Oct. 13, and in November, students in the University’s theater and dance program will present John Millington Synge’s Irish drama “The Playboy of the Western World.”
“There is no better way to celebrate the richness and history of Irish theater than to see it’s lyricism translated on stage,” said Emily Mann, McCarter’s artistic director.
Rounding out the Milberg celebration will be the publication of a comprehensive catalog of the theater collection and a special double issue of the thrice yearly “Princeton University Library Chronicle.” The chronicle will include historical essays, reminiscences by contemporary Irish playwrights, the first publication of “The Cooing of Doves” and an introduction by Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman.
“For Leonard Milberg, a literary collection is only as strong as the use that is made of it,” Tilghman says in her introduction. “Thanks to his exceptional generosity and infectious enthusiasm, the work of Ireland’s playwrights will find new life on Princeton’s stages, in our galleries and lecture halls, and in the pages of this journal.”
For more information about the new Milberg collection, the symposium “Players & Painted Stage,” and productions of “Translations” and “The Playboy of the Western World,” visit the library’s symposium Web site.