Dubliners watched the romancing of WB Yeats with glee


The old Abbey Theatre opened in December 1904, where many of its first plays created a national and international storm.

The old Abbey Theatre opened in December 1904, where many of its first plays created a national and international storm.

The final curtain came down on the relationship between Annie Horniman and the Abbey Theatre in the days following the death of Edward VII on May 6 1910. It was customary that on the death of a British monarch all theatres would close as a mark of respect. Dublin theatres were expected to uphold that tradition, and indeed they did, the only exception on this occasion was the Abbey Theatre.

In fact when Lady Gregory got a telegram from the theatre manager Lennox Robinson asking for guidance, she was busy at Coole, and did not see the message until it was too late.WB Yeats was in France staying with Maud Gonne and her daughter Iseult. In late April, and in glorious weather, he sailed on the ferry to Cherbourg. After a train journey through Calvados, Gonne ‘swept into Le Molay station yard on a cart, and drove him to Colleville a big ugly house on the sea beach’ where they constantly argued.

Miss Horniman, a loyal British subject, was appalled at this insult to the royal family. She disliked the growing Irish nationalist sympathies that some of the Abbey cast were already proclaiming, and she saw the refusal to close the theatre on the death of the king as a political act of blatant nationalism. She threatened to withhold her subsidy with immediate effect.

Perhaps to her surprise, when both Lady Gregory and Yeats returned to Dublin they accepted her threat as a resignation; and arranged for a mediator to sever all her connections with the Abbey.

An event in history

After six years of generously underpinning the costs of running Ireland’s national theatre Annie Horniman bowed out with as much grace as she could muster. There were many things she could be proud of. The Abbey was an outstanding success attracting extraordinary indigenous plays, many of which had stunned and angered Dublin audiences as they were forced to confront a new interpretation of Ireland. John M Synge was unperturbed by the violent outrage and near-riots that his play, The Playboy of the Western World, provoked. ‘Now we’ll be talked about. We’re an event in the history of the Irish stage.’*

Miss Horniman became involved in this great enterprise after she developed an obsession for Yeats, showering him with unwanted gifts, designing elaborate costumes for his plays, and interpreting Tarot card readings as uniting them in married life, where she minded him, as they travelled the world together.

An obsession which was noted by Dubliners who watched it all with glee. Oliver St John Gogarty was delighted to write one of his amusing but vulgar Limericks which because of its coarseness I will not reprint, but to remark that it chided Yeats for his inability to return her sexual advances.

Yeats, however, while knowing how much he owed his benefactor, kept her at a distance, emotionally speaking. His own obsession was Maude Gonne, who continued to hold his poetic attention, and at this time as sordid details of her divorce to Sean MacBride became public, and the fact that MacBride had thrown all Yeats’ books onto a Paris street, put him into further passions, which were decidedly not in poor Annie Horniman’s direction.

Manchester Gaiety

Furthermore Miss Horniman was anxious to play a more active part in the actual running of the theatre, which only resulted in regular rows between her and the Fay brothers. She arranged for the Abbey to tour Scotland, and decided to go along with them. The plays were greeted with lavish praise, and the players were feted and admired. But Miss Horniman was appalled to find that once away from Dublin the company felt liberated, and romance among the players was blooming. Willie Fay’s relationship with the much younger Brigit O’Dempsey (whom he later married ) became evident, as did Synge’s love for the young actress Máire O Neill. Any question of sexual impropriety offended Miss Horniman, and she complained bitterly to Yeats in a series of letters.

What must have been the final sign that the day of reckoning was approaching was that Miss Horniman had her own ambitions to immerse herself in the theatre world. As her efforts to be involved in running the Abbey had fallen into stormy waters, she bought the old Manchester Gaiety Theatre with the aim of bringing the classics and new plays to the working class people of northern England. It was a great success. After an expensive facelift the theatre reopened in 1908. A London-style repertory system of plays was introduced, and new plays were constantly presented.

When Miss Horniman convinced Yeats to give her the rights to his plays once the current patent expired, Lady Gregory was both angry and deeply upset. She wrote that she felt the plays were the product of a joint enterprise. She felt betrayed by Yeats’ offer to Horniman. She regarded the plays as ‘our own children’, she ‘was so proud of them’ and could not think of their loss ‘without the greatest pain.'

Yeats immediately withdrew his offer.

‘The usual quarrelling

Miss Horniman’s departure was a golden opportunity to give the Abbey a proper management structure. Yeats, despite his poetic foppishness, displayed a magisterial command of this situation. Thanks to a steady stream of support from such unlikely bedfellows as the Irish Nationalist politician TM Healy and Lady Ardilaun, who lived at Ashford Castle, Co Mayo, but particularly from the loyal audiences who kept flocking to the Abbey, the theatre was on a strong financial footing.

The original Irish National Theatre Society had been surpassed. There were resignations, including the Fay Brothers and Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh. Sadly Synge had died tragically the year before from Hodgkin’s disease.

Yeats and Lady Gregory worked out a new arrangement based on a limited liability company composed of themselves. It turned out to be a workable and sound arrangement which survived exciting and difficult years ahead. When a friend asked Yeats how the new arrangement was working out, he replied: “The usual quarrelling. But then the founder of the Christian religion had the same trouble with his Company and had to invent the parables to keep them in good humour.” **

Next week: JM Synge: ‘The dramatist of the dungheap!’

NOTES: *Letter from Synge to Máire O Neill (Molly Allgood ) who played Pegeen Mike in the first production of the Playboy Jan 27 1907. She was howled off the stage by a section of the audience.

** This and other quotes from W.B. Yeats - A Life by Roy Foster, published by Oxford University Press 1997. Annie Horniman, whose portrait hangs in the public area of the Abbey Theatre, eventually sold the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester. When she was not travelling the continent, she held court in the imposing Midland Hotel, where she was a popular figure. She was made a Companion of Honour for her contribution to theatre, and died 1937. She never married.


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