The first production of the Irish Literary Theatre, The Countess Cathleen, is performed on May 8, 1899. Like many of William Butler Yeats’ plays, it is inspired by Irish folklore. In a time of famine, demons sent by Satan come to Ireland to buy the souls of the starving people. The saintly Cathleen disposes of her vast estates and wealth in order to feed the peasants, yet the demons thwart her at every turn. At last, she sacrifices her own soul to save those of the poor.
Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn publish a “Manifesto for Irish Literary Theatre” in 1897, in which they proclaim their intention of establishing a national theatre for Ireland. The Irish Literary Theatre is founded by Yeats, Lady Gregory, Martyn and George Moore in Dublin in 1899. It proposes to give performances in Dublin of Irish plays by Irish authors.
In 1899 Lady Gregory secures a temporary licence for a play to be given at the Antient Concert Rooms in Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street) in Dublin, and so enables the Irish Literary Theatre to give its first production. The play chosen is The Countess Cathleen by Yeats. It is done by a very efficient London company that includes May Whitty (Dame May Webster) and Ben Webster. The next production given is Martyn’s play The Heather Field.
In the following year the Irish Literary Theatre produces three plays at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin: Maeve by Edward Martyn, The Last Feast of Fianna by Alice Milligan and The Bending of the Bough by George Moore. The Bending of the Bough is staged during the Second Boer War which begins on October 11, 1899.
The Irish Literary Theatre project lasts until 1901, when it collapses due to lack of funding.
The use of non-Irish actors in these productions is perceived to be a failure, and a new group of Irish players is put together by the brothers William and Frank Fay, among others. These go on to form the Irish National Theatre Society, which leads to the founding of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1904.