The most revolutionary play ever produced on an Irish stage was Cathleen Ní Houlihan written by WB Yeats and Lady Gregory. It was performed to a packed audience on a makeshift stage at St Teresa’s Hall in Clarendon Street, Dublin on April 2 1902. It was astonishing in its veracity.
It followed a time of great social unrest and bitterness. The Land War was having some success for the peasant tenants who sought ownership of the land they worked. Represented by powerful organisations such as the National Land League, a series of Land Acts was leading to the break-up of large estates by a unique government purchase scheme. The effort to achieve these immense gains was prompted by murder of some landlords and their agents, cattle drives, public rallies, boycott and intimidation.
There was growing acceptance, however, that rural Ireland had been shabbily treated by some landlords, leading to adverse comments in the English, American and continental press.
The stories of evictions, harrowing engravings of tenant cottages being wrecked by landlord agents, the flight from the land following the Great Famine, all further prompted a growing sense of nationalism which was beginning to be reflected in the political and sporting life of Ireland, and in the stories and music of the people.
Four years before the presentation of the play, a wet Monday afternoon kept four friends indoors. Lady Gregory had called on her old friend Count de Basterot at his home at Duras, near Kinvara. By chance Edward Martyn (a Catholic landlord from near-by Tulira ), was there, and a young WB Yeats.
Both Martin and Yeats had plays they wanted to have performed but they lamented the lack of a suitable venue. Much of the theatre in Dublin was pantomime or music hall, or plays imported from Britain, often presenting the Irish as colonial stereotypes. The friends agreed that a new theatre should be developed to rediscover a proud Irish identity.
They issued a proclamation saying they hoped to have performed in Dublin in the spring of every year ‘certain Irish plays which, whatever be their degree of excellence, will be written with a high ambition, and so build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature…we will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and easy sentiment as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism.’
Remembered for ever
Cathleen Ni Houlihan was presented by the National Dramatic Company founded by two brothers Frank and William Fay, whose single-minded zeal for theatre was to provide the realisation of the Duras Proclamation for a new theatre of ‘high ambition’.
Frank was recognised as a brilliant voice teacher while William was an outstanding comedian, and a stickler about strict stage management. Both brothers were nationalistic, Irish speakers, with a passion for theatre to such an extent that they had violent arguments about their work, sometimes actually coming to blows.
It was one of their company members, Maud Gonne, who suggested they present Cathleen. Maud Gonne, the muse of WB Yeats for most of his creative life, was regarded a beautiful woman, fiercely nationalistic, and a Land War warrior. She would play Cathleen, and did so ‘to a high degree of histrionic power’.*
In the play Cathleen appears at a wedding feast as an old woman lamenting the loss of her beautiful ‘four green fields’, which had been taken unjustly from her. With little subtlety she requests a blood sacrifice. Moved by her powerful words, Michael, who was about to be married, agrees to leave the safety of his home to fight for her. As he leaves Cathleen is transformed into a beautiful young woman ‘with the walk of a queen’. She foretells that those who fight for her ‘shall be remembered for ever…. the people shall hear them forever.’
The cast had to dress upstairs in the billiard room to be on stage before the audience arrived. Maud Gonne arrived late and swept through the nearly full auditorium already dressed in her ghostly robes as Cathleen. Frank Fay, observing her arrival from a peephole in the curtain, described it as ‘most unprofessional.’
The play was performed for three nights and the critics were kind. Arthur Griffiths in The United Irishmen, had a word of praise, which was enough to inspire the Fay brothers to take a further step in establishing a National Theatre Society, with WB Yeats as its president.
There were arguments whether the society would continue to present nationalistic plays like Cathleen, or follow European trends towards more realistic themes.The answer was presented by the quality of plays offered to the society including Lady Gregory’s The Rising of the Moon, and JM Synge’s Shadow of the Glen.
The Fays made the decision to accept modern plays of artistic merit. As this did not meet Maud Gone’s demand for more incendiary stuff, she resigned, and swept out of the meeting.
Next week: A fairy godmother arrives to provide a permanent building for the Abbey Theatre.
NOTES: Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh’s The Splendid Years - The story of the Irish National Theatre (who also appeared in the play ), published by James Duffy and Co 1955.
I am leaning on an article ‘How the Abbey Theatre Really Began’, in The Irish Times by Tomás Mac Anna April 1 2002; and William Henry’s The Autograph Tree, published by Mercier Press on sale at €15.