There is often more drama in the board room of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, than what is presented on its stage. Following a famous conversation in Doorus House, Kinvara, one rainy afternoon in 1897, Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole Park, Edward Martyn of Ardrahan, and the young poet WB Yeats agreed to set up the Irish Literary Theatre. Theatre at the time was mainly influenced by the popular British music hall variety; and melodrama. It was agreed that day in Co Galway that the new Irish theatre would ‘embody and perpetuate Irish feeling, genius, and modes of thought’.
A literary revolution was part of a feverish revival and growing pride in all things Irish, from sport, to music and culture, to language and politics. It was innovative and experimental. Lady Gregory and Yeats’ play Cathleen ní Houlihan (1902 ) was, for its time, a brilliant allegory on the injustice of British rule in Ireland. It played to packed houses. Two years later with the help of a professional company of actors (the Fay brothers ), and money from a wealthy benefactress, the company gelled into the National Theatre of Ireland. It opened its doors at 26 Lower Abbey Street, Dublin, and became known as the Abbey Theatre. Over the years it attracted an extraordinary range of talent including that of Yeats and Gregory, George Moore, Edward Martyn, Padraic Column, GB Shaw, Oliver St John Gogarty, FR Higgins, Thomas McDonagh, Lord Dunsany, T C Murray, James Cousins, and Lennox Robinson.
One of its great successes was the discovery of the genius of Sean O’Casey, a child of the Dublin slums. O’Casey had a childhood of poverty, poor eye sight and ill health; but he emerged as an idealist with a powerful sense of social justice that marked all his writings, and a quickness to argue and fight his corner, all his life.
His first three plays, The Shadow of the Gunman, (1923 ), Juno and the Paycock (1924 ) and The Plough and the Stars (1926 ) discussed the very recent political events in Dublin, such as the Black and Tans, the Civil War, and the 1916 Rising. Each one of these plays had a raw impact on its audiences that led to riots, disagreements, and controversy. He fulfilled all that the Abbey purported to be. He realistically, and dramatically reflected the passions and thinking of a very troubled time. His plays played to full houses night after night. The Abbey made a lot of money from O’Casey.
In 1926 he went to London to receive a literary prize for Juno, and to oversee a production of the play. He immersed himself in the artistic life of that great city. He became fascinated by the new avant garde movement in theatre and Russian ballet design. In 1927, while still in London, he fell in love and married the beautiful young Irish actress Eileen Carey, and submitted his fourth play, The Silver Tassie, to the Abbey. It was a story ostensibly in the O’Casey vain: A young Dublin labourer Harry Heegan, on leave from the British army in World War I, leads his football team to win the prize cup of the title. But back on the Front he is seriously wounded, returning home paralysed and impotent. The presentation, however, was far removed from the realism of his earlier plays. Tassie reflected the new symbolic and expressionistic theatre that was emerging in Europe.
It was unceremoniously rejected by the Abbey.
Three directors out of four, Yeats, Gregory (reluctantly and sadly ), and Lennox Robinson felt the play could not succeed*. In one of the many ironies attached to this saga, O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars was playing ‘to full houses’ at the time. But Yeats wrote, and apologised stating that “it was a hateful letter to write”, that after the first act Tassie is all too abstract. “The second act is an interesting technical experiment, but it is too long for the material; and after that there is nothing.” He added that he couldn’t advise O’Casey to amend the play. He seemed to suggest that it should be scrapped.
However, because all Dublin and the actors knew that a fourth play was ready to go into rehearsal, Yeats magisterially suggested that O’Casey be allowed to save face by voluntarily withdrawing the play. He suggested that O’Casey should say that he himself had become dissatisfied, and had written to ask for it back.
It was a torpedo into the heart and reputation of the newly confident playwright. A furious O’Casey launched a blistering attack in every newspaper that gave him the considerable space he needed to rage at the Abbey which was, after all, founded on the rock of experiment, and innovation.
Lady Gregory, who saw the play in London the following year, with stage design by Augustus John, believed that the decision to reject Tassie was a mistake. O’Casey remained in England for the rest of his life. He wrote numerous other plays, and a five volume autobiography; but he never submitted another play to the Abbey. Although he enjoyed some success in America, and graciously made friends again with Yeats as the great poet neared the end of his life, the rejection of Tassie seriously damaged his career.
Galway’s Druid theatre present The Silver Tassie at the TownHall theatre this weekend. It then leaves on an extensive tour of Ireland, and two locations in the UK**. This will not be the first time that this small theatre company, working on a pittance compared to the Abbey,***displays a remarkable courage in presenting a controversial play that is financially, and artistically risky. I am reminded of the controversy between the Abbey and Druid over the rights to O’Casey’s plays some years ago. Druid’s internationally acclaimed director Garry Hynes created a sensation in presenting DruidSynge in 2005. In an unprecedented move, an Irish audience were allowed see the remarkable development of the artist and writer JM Synge, through his six plays. DruidSynge was acclaimed by the Irish Times as ‘the greatest achievement in the history of Irish theatre.’
I understand that with the centenary of 1916 Rising approaching Garry went to the Abbey and suggested to its director Fiach MacConghail that the two companies combine their talents in a co-production, and do a similar cycle of O’Casey plays. Garry is on record saying than the O’Casey plays are unique in every sense, but particularly as there is no other example in the world of a revolution being documented on such an epic scale so close to the events. She had made some movement to negotiate the rights for the plays from the O’Casey estate, but as she had approached the Abbey with her suggestion, she was happy to wait for an official response. When it came she was very taken aback. The Abbey had allegedly quietly negotiated for the rights of The Plough and Juno after Garry had approached them, successfully scuttling the idea of a co-production. The opportunity for audiences to see and evaluate an O’Casey cycle was lost forever.
The Abbey, of course, denies any skulduggery or jealousy on its part. Fiach was ‘bemused’ by all the fuss. As a gesture he offered Garry the opportunity to abandon Druid, and to produce an O’Casey play for the Abbey. But for me, a tax payer, and seeing riches being heaped upon the Abbey Theatre, I wonder if the rejection by the Abbey of Garry’s offer was the best deal for Ireland?
It is impossible not to see a number of ironies that O’Casey would have enjoyed. In 1926 the Abbey, while performing The Plough and the Stars to full houses, rejects The Silver Tassie. Eighty-four years later, while again performing The Plough and the Stars, the Abbey rejects Druid’s offer of a co-production. We are denied the possibility of seeing a succession of plays by one of Ireland’s greatest playwrights; and the rare opportunity of probably seeing our national theatre perform in Galway, the place of its origins.
Instead, we must be satisfied with a piecemeal presentation of genius. What an opportunity lost!
Next week: Lady Gregory and Sean O’Casey in Galway
* A fourth director, Walter Starkie, who was away for the initial rejection, felt ‘strongly’ that O’Casey’s play should be allowed to go ahead.
** After The Silver Tassie ends in Galway September 7, it will tour to Ennis, Cork, Portlaoise and Tralee; the Dublin Theatre Festival, the Oxford Playhouse and the Lowry Theatre, Salford.
***The disparagement between the grants given to the two companies is amazing. The grant to the Abbey was in the region of €10 million annually, but reduced this year to €7.2 million. Druid receives a grant of €800,000, and has assistance from the Arts Council and Cultural Ireland to tour.