‘You have given me the right to call myself an artist’

Week II

Annie Horniman in love with the young WB Yeats ‘whose genius and charisma were electrifying’.

Annie Horniman in love with the young WB Yeats ‘whose genius and charisma were electrifying’.

Not only is it interesting to see the initials of the people Lady Gregory admired on her ‘Hall of Fame’, the famous autograph tree at Coole Park, Co Galway, it is perhaps more interesting to see the names she leaves out.

Annie Horniman, the tea heiress, who not only paid the rent on the premises for the Abbey Theatre to perform, and paid the actors for some period from her own purse, just did not get a look in when it came to that seminal moment when Gregory asked: Add your initials to my tree.

Many artists associated with the Abbey did so including William and Frank Fay, playwrights WB Yeats, JM Synge, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, the actress Sara Allgood, but not Annie Horniman.

And yet Annie Horniman was the fairy godmother who came on stage when the fledging National Theatre Society was broke, and its ambitions to found a theatre for Irish plays ‘of high ambition,’ was becoming a pipe dream. There was a dramatic change of events in 1904 when Miss Horniman, ‘gave wholeheartedly and with an almost embarrassing readiness’* her financial support to the Society, and its ambitions. As a result the Abbey Theatre was founded by a fusion of energies from Lady Gregory, and Yeats, the Fay brothers and, importantly, Annie Horniman’s generosity.

Financially independent

Annie Horniman showed a determinedly independent spirit even as a young woman. She was born into a wealthy English tea merchant family in 1860, educated privately, and later went to the Slade School of Fine Art. Her early interests included woman’s rights, Wagner, and cycling. She cycled over the Swiss Alps. Twice. She smoked in public, and adored the theatre despite - or possible because of - her parents’ disapproval.

Following the death of her grandfather she was left financially independent. She explored alternative religions, astrology and the occult. She met Yeats at a meeting of the Order of the Golden dawn, and quickly became devoted to his ideals as a dramatist and poet, and found a meaning for her own talents and energies. He allowed her design costumes for his plays The land of heart’s desire and The king’s threshold. This involvement meant a great deal to her. In a letter to Yeats she said gratefully: ‘Do you realise you have given me the right to call myself an artist. How can I thank you?’

Fell in love

She fell in love with the handsome young poet and his romantic ambitions for a National Theatre for new Irish plays. Yeats’ biographer Roy Foster reminds us that in his letters and anecdotes to Horniman he was amusing, ‘his genius and charisma were electrifying. And so were his good looks.’**

Perhaps Lady Gregory, a widow of six years when she first met Yeats, had momentarily entertained some hopes of a relationship with him. But if she did their relationship quickly stabilised into mentor and artist. While she addressed him as ‘Willie’, his letters to her remain to ‘Lady Gregory’.

Foster adds that adherence to formality is surprising even for the time: yet they rapidly became each other’s closest friend and confidante, and remained so - with only an occasional slight passage of annoyance - until her death nearly 40 years later.**

Nevertheless Lady Gregory never warmed to the women in Yeats’ life. When she eventually met Maud Gonne, the muse who inspired Yeats’ greatest love poetry, her reaction was revealing: ‘a shock to me for instead of beauty I saw a death’s head.’ Nor did she much like Yeats’ eventual wife Georgie Hyde Lees even though she encouraged him to marry her.

Annie Horniman was certainly not, if you will forgive me, Lady Gregory’s cup of tea. I do not know if she was ever invited to Coole, but I am sure she was deliberately left out of Lady Gregory’s ‘Hall of fame.’

Moment of change

An ideal venue was found for the realisation of the National Theatre Society’s dream for its own premises. The old Mechanic’s Institute Hall at Abbey Street had been closed for some time and Horniman leased it, and the adjoining building in Marlborough Street. She gave it free of charge to the Society.

While the new theatre was being converted into a building worthy of the high ideals it aspired to, the Society was reaching for the stars. It produced experimental plays of Yeats, and perhaps his greatest play ‘On Baile’s strand’, for which Horniman designed the costumes ‘expensively and elaborately’. She still regarded Yeats with deep affection, sending him flirtatious accounts of Tarot divinations which revealed an ideal partnership between the two of them.

She made arrangements for a highly successful tour of Oxford, Cambridge and London. The Society won critical acclaim for presenting JM Synge’s bitter tragedy: ‘Riders to the Sea.’

At last, six years after the Duras Proclamation, the Abbey Theatre opened its doors on Tuesday December 27 1904. Coming from previous makeshift theatres ‘with their hard seats and cold breezes’ it was a little heaven. Although it was small compared to other theatres in Dublin, it had an intimacy between actor and audience that would be successfully exploited with the genius that was waiting on the wings to come on stage in future years.

It was, moreover, a significant moment in theatrical history. The Abbey Theatre, along with the newly established Théatre Libre, and the Moscow Art Theatre, both founded a few years before, became part of a widespread moment of change that was challenging conventional drama across Europe.

Next week: Rows and drama not always on the Abbey stage.

NOTES: * From Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh’s The Splendid Years - The Story of the Irish National Theatre, Published 1955.

** W.B.Yeats A Life, published Oxford University Press 1997. Foster adds to the quote above ‘In identifying her so deliberately by her title rather than by her Christian name, he not only defined their relationship, he helped create the image and the name by which she would live, write and become famous.’

Annie Horniman is remembered in the Abbey itself. A very fine portrait of her hangs in the foyer, as are portraits of Lady Gregory, Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh and the Fay brothers, painted by John Yeats, WB’s father.

I am leaning on biographical notes by Frances Clarke, Dictionary of Irish Biography, and William Henry’s The Autograph Tree, on sale €15.


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