In 1911 the successful and popular Theodore Roosevelt had recently completed his two-terms as president, but was still a man of incomparable influence, when the Abbey Theatre opened in New York on Monday November 27.
He was in the city that evening, and must have heard about the riots and chaos which erupted in the Maxine Elliott theatre as The Playboy of the Western World was being performed. Almost immediately there were boos and shouts, loud coughing and stamping of feet, while a hail of rotten vegetables was pelted at the actors on stage. There were screams as scuffles broke out between those who wanted to see the play and those who wanted it stopped. Lady Gregory, from the wings, was urging the players to continue, and they bravely did so until it just became too much.
The lights came on in the auditorium while police officers tried to wrestle some of the trouble makers to the ground. There was a general free-for-all as fighting broke out even into the lobby. The main doors were flung open while people rushed across the street to see what was happening. There were traffic jams, and police sirens wailing, ambulances arriving and appeals made for calm. The play was abandoned.
The next night Lady Gregory and the players were determined to present the play again. John Quinn, the wealthy Irish American lawyer, a loyal and generous friend of the Irish Literary movement, witnessed the first night’s disaster. He was determined it would not be repeated. He was politically and aesthetically outraged at the boorishness of his compatriots. “Everybody whose name happens to be Kennedy or Shaughnessy, or Murphy or Moriarity seems to think he is a born critic of the drama.”
Before the play Quinn brought Lady Gregory to a restaurant to meet Theodore Roosevelt who happily agreed to come to the play later that evening. The publicity following the riots ensured that there was not a seat unoccupied. When Roosevelt arrived with Lady Gregory on his arm the packed auditorium stood up and greeted him with cheers and applause. The applause continued as he appeared at his box, and brought Lady Gregory forward to acknowledge the welcome.
During the performance Roosevelt clapped and laughed with obvious enjoyment, and went back stage to meet the cast.
There were no more riots in New York. Quinn insisted that the fight was whether ‘a few could drive all ideas, all thought out of Ireland, then art, literature, poetry, music, the arts generally will go elsewhere.’ The American people should see the play and decide for themselves whether they liked it or not. The publicity over the Playboy, however, only whetted the public’s appetite to see the play, which was presented throughout the tour with other new Irish plays. In several theatres the Abbey was so popular the run had to be extended to accommodate the demand.
‘Any romantic adventure’
Lady Gregory loved America. Since she arrived in Boston the previous September she found as most of us still do, that it is far less a foreign country than England. She was constantly giving interviews, and dealing with reporters all of which she managed with growing confidence everyday. She found America exciting, and was not disturbed by the abusive letters which arrived at regular intervals. The well wishers were numerous and encouraging.
She particularly enjoyed when former Roxborough (her birth home near Loughrea ), and Coole tenants called in their stylish clothes and visiting cards.
In the margin of the tour she gave a series of lectures to schools and colleges ‘where strangers welcomed me and I seemed to say goodbye to friends’.
She dozed on midnight trains. Outside Chicago heavy snow stopped her train. She had to walk ‘in totally unsuitable shoes’ to the next station. She was glad to get to her hotel that night, and to hear the familiar tones of a Mayo woman fussing about her as she was settled into her room.
She watched college girls at Vassar dressed as boys playing football. As they grouped around her, out of breath with mud stained clothes, she must have envied their freedom compared to her days growing up at Roxborough, where the girls were sidelined in favour of the boys, evenings spent at rigid Bible readings, and those awful excursions with her mother to preach Protestantism to the tenant families on their estate.How she hated it.
She wrote to her friend George Bernard Shaw: ‘I like America very much indeed in spite of all - it is great excitement seeing a new country at my time of life, and since Philadelphia I feel any romantic adventure possible!’
Philadelphia marked the climax to the protests against the Playboy. The entire cast and Lady Gregory were arrested on the charge of ‘indecency’ and faced a trial which attracted a great deal of press interest. Quinn was delayed in New York, and when he arrived during the second day the trial, the case against the Abbey was already becoming a joke. Quinn expertly re-examined each witness only to find there was no basis for their accusations, some of the accusers had not even seen or read the play. One witness asserted that leaving Christy and Pegeen alone in a room together implied immorality.
Quinn: Did anything take place on stage to make you say that?
Witness: Well, no. But we all knew what happened when the curtain fell!
The case was thrown out although it took the judge five days to make up his mind. Lady Gregory’s letter to Quinn, as he returned to New York and she waited for the result of the trial, expresses more than her admiration: ‘The company are still stammering when they speak of you….I think I have never felt prouder in all my life, and I have had my proud days, when you made that wonderful attitude of deference, and proclaimed yourself a friend.’
They spent Christmas together in his large apartment over looking Central Park, its long corridor filled with books and paintings. He bought her a watch at Tiffanys. He had placed his office and his staff at her disposal. He protected her throughout the tour. Once when her life was threatened he immediately arranged a body guard. He had admired her serenity and commanding good sense in all the squabbling.
The company returned home in March 1912. Before they left they presented Quinn with a silver replica of the Ardagh Chalice engraved with lines from Lady Gregory’s play The Image: ‘He had a gift of sweetness on the tongue. Whatever cause he took in hand it was as good as gained’.
On May 6 Lady Gregory, shortly after her 60th birthday, wrote to Quinn from Coole: ‘Just two months today I said goodbye to America and to you! I have felt more profound loneliness than I have felt for many a year. I know that is just paying for past happiness, that rapture of friendship that so possessed and satisfied me.’