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The Archive: Time to revisit Ireland’s women playwrights

Dramatist Augusta Gregory co-founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin
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History hasn’t been kind to Irish women playwrights. Most of their work fell out of repertory long ago. A turning point may be marked by the Abbey Theatre’s recent commitment to gender equality in all aspects of artistic programming by 2021. After the Irish theatre industry came under extraordinary scrutiny by the gender equality movement Waking the Feminists, waking the repertoire finally seems like a possibility.

For a theatre dually dedicated to revivals and new plays, revisiting past work by women must be inevitable. It could even be timely. Mairead Ni Ghrada’s Irish-language play An Triail, premiered in 1964, ferociously stormed the Magdalene Laundries and Ireland’s anti-abortion laws, both still hot topics today. If John B Keane’s Big Maggie has lasting appeal, why not take a chance on Mount Prospect by Elizabeth Connor (pseudonym of Una Troy), whose popular play from 1940 portrayed a widow pushing her stepchildren to the brink. For a hit of 1930s Dublin bohemia, look to the plays of Mary Manning, a theatre critic and dramatist whose Youth’s the Season? and Happy Family were popular at Dublin’s Gate Theatre (she later tackled the difficult task of adapting James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake).

Playwright Teresa Deevy
Playwright Teresa Deevy

One of the great mysteries of Abbey history is why the management dropped Teresa Deevy, a star playwright from the 1930s. For Deevy, a native of County Waterford who lost her hearing through Meniere’s disease, theatre was clearly transformative; her 1931 one-act A Disciple depicts a servant-girl-turned-thrill-seeker after seeing a production of Coriolanus. Her follow-up, Temporal Powers, won the Abbey’s playwriting competition in 1932. Here, a distraught couple, evicted and mourning the death of their child, find sanctuary within the mysterious surroundings of a ruin, where a twist of fate presents an opportunity to find happiness abroad. It wasn’t to be the only time Deevy questioned the direction of the Irish Free State.

In 1936, the government set about abolishing the last links to the Commonwealth. Deevy was under no disbelief about women’s role in the new Republic. If the ban on contraceptives in 1935 hadn’t been an indicator, divorce was due to be removed and ‘the family’ made the fundamental unit of society under the 1937 Constitution. Her uncanny Katie Roche anticipates grim consequences, in its depiction of a young maid pressed into marrying a middle-aged architect once infatuated with her mother. It’s extraordinarily perceptive to domesticised, or institutionalised, stages of marriage. When a friend advises her to be brave, Katie’s response must have been heavy for the audience: “There’s no grandeur in this.”

You’d also suspect something subversive in the setting, which, like Temporal Powers, feels almost mythological. The Irish Times reviewer noted its great charm as “the faint impression of unreality which it leaves”. Characters are frequently captured by a limitless world viewed outside the cottage window, and enter farce-like through the door, in Deevy’s sly send-up of the patriarchy.

Katie Roche proved incredibly popular, and was revived several times until 1994 (when a young Derbhle Crotty starred in the title role). A knockout run of 52 performances in 1949 must have been bittersweet; the theatre’s administration in the 1940s, led by Ernest Blythe, had rejected another play by Deevy, called Wife to James Whelan, and severed all ties. Her truths may have been too radical for the Abbey directorate.

Similarly, playwright Maeve O’Callaghan asked hard-hitting questions at a formative time in Irish society. In her mid-20s, O’Callaghan had an eye for modern detail and was well-travelled (her novel Hungarian Rhapsody, published in 1935 under the pseudonym Sheila Fitzgerald, was written after a four-year spell in Hungary). Her comedy Wind from the West at the Abbey in 1936 portrays an Irish family in a small town in England. A doctor is sick of bankrolling his wife’s extravagant lifestyle but fails to recognise her own business savvy.

One review commended O’Callaghan’s “eye for the farcical situation”. There’s no mention of the surprising blowout between husband and wife, and O’Callaghan’s explicit feminist critique. “The more you oppose me the more savage you make me,” remarks Josie, who when not threatening to leave her husband draws cigarettes and frequents the theatres. This is hardly the woman in mind when the Irish Constitution was being drawn up. O’Callaghan’s play isn’t perfect. In fact, it shies away from its gender battle in the final act.

It was followed by The Patriot in 1937, another comedy about an Irish doctor’s family living in England (O’Callaghan’s father was a doctor). Her career was brought to a sad and abrupt end in 1940, when she died at her family’s Dublin home.

Augusta Gregory’s  tragedies take exception to how women have been portrayed in Ireland’s foundational stories

Only a woman as well placed within the Abbey as co-founder and manager Augusta Gregory could withstand the theatre’s gender imbalance. Gregory didn’t present outwardly as a feminist but her tragedies take spectacular exception to how women have been portrayed in Ireland’s foundational stories. Her 1905 play Kincora, a tragedy about the final days of Irish king Brian Boru, revises the circumstances around Boru’s wife Gormleith and how she led him to his death. Gregory draws her like Lady Macbeth, a staunch critic of an unimaginative regime (her condemnation of power given to religious authorities foreshadows the 1937 Constitution). Gregory leaves us suspecting Boru’s waning leadership, and the danger of a heroic nation standing idle.

Similarly, the one-act tragedy Dervorgilla draws on the myth of a Helen of Troy-type figure, whose flight from her husband is said to have prompted the first Norman invasion of Ireland. Gregory’s play shows the elderly Dervorgilla living in repentance, and makes her case against men’s broken promises over the years.

If those dramas didn’t shock, the unproduced Grania certainly would have hit home some truths. This Ibsenite look at Ireland’s famed love triangle – that of a princess, her king and his greatest soldier – exposes masculine jealousies and double standards. Speaking of such, it’s time these works received the solemn and contemporary treatment they deserve.

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15.

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