A former president learns a lesson about theatre craft

Nothing shut the mouths of the Irish yahoos faster than to see Augusta Lady Gregory enter the Maxine Elliot Theatre, New York, arm in arm with Teddy Roosevelt, probably America’s greatest president. Their jaws must have hit the floor in amazement as they were well prepared for a total assault on the Abbey Theatre’s presentation of the Playboy of the Western World, and on its ‘pensioner’ spokesperson Lady Gregory.

The previous night, November 27 1911, they had practically succeeded in stopping the play. People yelled, missiles were thrown - stink bombs, rosaries, and potatoes - panic spread about the auditorium, and at one point it appeared that the troublemakers were going to mount the stage.

Máire Ní Shiubhlaigh later recalled that Gregory, ‘looking rotund, thin-lipped and very determined’ appeared on stage, and appealed to the actors ‘keep playing!, keep playing!’. ‘Augusta’s strategy was identical to her Dublin strategy; they would keep performing the play until it was heard. When the police had made their arrests the players started again from act one, and disturbances were minimal’.

It had been a similar debacle in Boston where the Abbey tour began. The Boston Post had carried a scathing denunciation of the play, mainly for its reference to women’s underwear, and the depiction of the Irish female character. Poor TC Murray had written, with all the fearsome prose and a moral intensity that is more associated with the 17th century: ‘My soul cried out for a thousand tongues to voice my unutterable horror and disgust…I never saw anything so vulgar, vile, beastly and unnatural, so calculated to calumniate, degrade and defame a people and all they hold sacred and dear.’

Clearly each performance was going to be a battle, and despite Lady Gregory being called ‘a pensioner’ by one irate letter writer (she was 59 ), she was determined that the play, ‘while not a photograph of life; but life represented through the artist’s eye,’ should be presented.

Still the prospect of constant battles ahead must have wearied her. That was until Teddy Roosevelt, the famous ‘Rough Rider’, rode to her rescue that evening.

Wild adventures

Theodore Roosevelt, at 42 years of age, was the youngest president of America succeeding William McKinley who was shot on September 14 1901 after leading the nation to victory in the Spanish American war.

Roosevelt, of Dutch/Scottish/Irish ancestry, brought new excitement and power to the office, which he served from 1901 - 1909. He became famous in the Spanish American war for leading the ‘Rough Riders’, a nick-name given to his volunteer cavalry, which he led to a spectacular victory in Cuba at San Juan Hill in that same war. His rough riders attracted an odd mixture of Ivy League athletes, Glee-club singers, Texas Rangers and Native Indians. The only qualification for entry was skilled horsemanship, and an eagerness for combat. The Riders captured the headlines and the imagination of the American people, and Roosevelt was made vice president as a popular Republican hero.*

Once he became president, however, he threw his extraordinary energy into breaking up big business conglomerates, and major corporations, giving the workingman a ‘square deal’ which was immensely popular, and was his successful re-election slogan. He created great national parks, built the Panama Canal, re-energised the armed forces, and won the Noble Peace prize for bringing an end to the Russian-Japanese War, which was fought over rival imperial ambitions in Manchuria, and the Korean Empire.

While at the same time he was writing books, on a wide range of topics, including history, biography, big game hunting, novels, and conservation, and an estimated 150,000 letters. And if that was not enough to occupy his time, he was reading furiously. He read Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne - those wild adventures and supernatural tales of the legendary Cuchulain from his conception to his death, which she had successfully translated into English from the Irish oral and written traditions. It was published in 1902 and not surprisingly, for a man of action and derring-do, Roosevelt loved this book. It is said that his was this bedside read, and a favourite escape from the trials of the day.

American subjects

Former president Roosevelt, had ceased office two years since, was still a man of unequalled influence. He and Gregory had, in fact been in correspondence for some years. When she heard that Roosevelt had enjoyed her Cuchulain book she immediately sent him a copy of her collected folktales and plays: Poets and Dreamers, and exchanged views and interests over the years. Roosevelt was particularly impressed at Gregory’s skill as a playwright, and the Abbey’s success with her plays. Reflecting later, he felt that America too should start its own folk theatre, learning from the Abbey’s success. ‘Lady Gregory’s audience is far from being an Irish audience only; but she has this wide hearing precisely because she deals with her own people, and is an accurate recorder and interpreter of their lives and souls…’

Lady Gregory, he wrote, had already acknowledged her debt to the comedies of Moliere; and he hoped that American playwrights of the future would borrow from English, Irish, Scandinavian writers too, as well as from the old Grecian and Romans, but he advised ‘that while our dramatists should profit from these models, they will do little of serious worth unless they write as one hundred-per-cent Americans about the homely average things of life, which they know intimately and which are dear to them - even though theses scenes may in some cases lack the setting of heroic or romantic landscapes.’

‘ No Americans will ever write of the tremendous tragedies of our Civil War unless they are imbued with the realistic and intimate details of the lives of the men who fought it, and of the women who suffered for, and on behalf of, these men of a lurid and stormy time’.

Urging American playwrights to keep their themes within limits as those in which Lady Gregory and her associates achieved their outstanding artistic success in Ireland. ‘The drama produced should be only by Americans writing on American subjects, and preferably on themes especially familiar to the players drawn from the locality itself.’

Next week: The tour continues but still dogged by the yahoos.


* During World War I, thinking that America was dragging its heels about entering on the Allied armies’ side, Roosevelt offered to raise his own divisions under the banner: The US Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. He was disallowed.

For a time Roosevelt was also governor and police commissioner of New York. He tackled corruption head on, and had no problem closing police stations if he found them corrupt. He came across the Irish Tammany Hall politics which was generally tribal, Democratic, and corrupt. He lashed out angrily saying that the Irish were generally ‘a stupid, sodden, vicious lot…most of them equally deficient in brain and virtue.’

In the early decades of the 20th century the Irish were not popular in America, but Tammany Hall politics, for all its faults, helped get them established. Roosevelt would have no time for the yahoos who interrupted the Abbey Players’ first tour of America 1911 - 1912.


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