71 – The Mystery Authoress

CAPTAIN.        She was never taught to play games – that’s her trouble.

MARCO.          A woman need only learn to play one game……

That isn’t a typo in the second line; the authoress included six period marks. She perhaps knew that the line of dialogue was too risqué for the stage of the Abbey Theatre. The prompt book shows a heavy pencil line drawn right through it.

But who was this cheeky authoress? And what was the play?

Frequent readers of theatre blogs will know that last year Professor Patrick Lonergan took on the issue of forgotten female playwrights at the Abbey Theatre. It sparked a major on-line debate. The statistics and data are illuminating, but something about those tables always made me sad. Who were these women who, now and again, braved the critics and the social mutterings? What did they look like? What were their plays about? And how did their experience at the Abbey affect their lives and their future writing?

Sometimes, to get to know someone, you have to go under the table. You have to ignore the neatly organized pages at the start of their personal scrapbook and root around in the yellowing scraps of newspaper stuffed into the back cover.

In May 1939, Paul Vincent Carroll (business partner of Arthur Shields and friend of Aideen O’Connor) wrote a scathing letter to the editor of the Irish Times pointing out that a play rejected by the Abbey management had won a prestigious drama award in New York. Carroll was furious with Lennox Robinson in particular. A copy of this letter was included in the ‘scraps’ of a woman writer. Her scrapbook is now in the Manuscripts Collection at the National Library and she has drawn stars in blue ink around the paragraph in the centre of Carroll’s letter. It reads as follows:

[Lennox Robinson championed] … a notoriously poor play which he insisted was a “really lovely, delicate little thing” until the Abbey audience in no uncertain terms showed both him and the play where they both got off.

Carroll had read this particular play a year previously. He continues:

I advised the authoress to put it away and learn the rudiments of dramatic technique. I also had to tell the lady that “Shadow and Substance” was accepted on its merits, and not through influence, as she seemed to believe. … Mr Robinson expressed the opinion that the wretched play in question was in some respects superior to “Shadow and Substance.” 

The ‘wretched play’, I would like to suggest, was Pilgrims, staged in October 1938. Thus, the playwright who accused him of using personal influence to have his work staged was one Mary Rynne.

This is Mary Rynne:

M Rynne Photo

The title Carroll gives in his letter, ‘authoress’, should have been a clue to the identity of the playwright. It’s telling how often the title is used in contemporary newspapers and periodicals in connection with Rynne, as if a woman writing plays in the 1930s was an entirely new breed that needed a separate classification.

Born in Southampton of Irish parents and educated in a London convent, Rynne came to live in County Clare, where she wrote avidly for magazines and newspapers. She wrote many short stories, although some of her ‘scraps’ are also published reviews of art exhibitions and books. She often ‘wintered’ in Italy, near Genoa, and spent time in France. She spoke French fluently and had good Italian. Most, if not all, of the newspaper articles about her mention both her brothers: a farmer-turned-successful-author and a civil servant in the Department of External Affairs. Family connections are always important.

Family connections are how I got to read her script. The papers of Rynne’s cousin, an eminent archaeologist, have recently been donated to the Hardiman Library. Barry Houlihan, intrepid archivist that he is, realized that the papers of ‘cousin Mary’ that were included in the boxes by the family as an afterthought were gold to me. Is that personal influence? Or just professional courtesy? In any case, many thanks Barry.

In the late 1930s, Rynne submitted a play to the annual playwrights’ competition held at the Abbey. There were three-hundred entrants; Pilgrims was rejected and Paul Vincent Carroll won the award. Rather than scurry away and try to forget the manuscript existed, as others might, Rynne decided not to give up. She polished and re-drafted, honed scenes and characters until Robinson declared it a ‘really lovely, delicate little thing.’

With all respect to Rynne, I couldn’t share Robinson’s view. It is a fun caper, centred on a group of Irish Catholics who embark on a pilgrimage to Rouen where they’ve been promised their petitions will be granted. These aren’t Carroll’s intellectual characters, with high ideals and the rhetoric skills for philosophical debate. They are, as one Catholic newspaper pronounced them, ‘Fussy, Cranky, Sarcastic, Pilgrims.’

The critics deplored the play. In the Irish Times, A. E. M. said:

The theme […] is so wrapped in farcical garbiage (sic) that only at rare moments was it permitted to obtrude.

The situations were contrived to give the maximum effect to the cheap humour, and they were retrieved from utter banality only by the delightful settings of Miss Tanya Moiseiwitch.

But what do critics know?

Nuala Moran of the Catholic newspaper The Leader might have been useful as a dramaturg.

She said:

I noticed a lack of the customary cheerfulness in putting up with hardships and inconveniences in Miss Rynne’s group.

And another technical issue:

the author chose to organise them on a private scale and gave them no bishop — not even a clerical student — to fan the spiritual flame.

The audience weren’t as bothered by the veracity of the details. A. E. M. notes with disgust:

… laughter crackled through the auditorium with almost every line. Incomprehensible; but true.

Lord Longford of the Gate Theatre wrote to Rynne personally, to offer solace after the critics annihilated it. He told her:

The critics could not tolerate a) the liberties taken in your play with the noble call of journalism b) the presence of an appreciative and intelligent audience instead of the usual crowd who hang around most Dublin first nights c) originality in any form.

He thought the work:

a real effort to strike out a new line in Irish drama.

I had come across Pilgrims in my research, but knew nothing of its plot or characters. The role of Kitty Brady was one of the last performances Frolie Mulhern gave before her untimely death. Kitty, I discovered, is the ‘woman’ that lacks ‘game playing’ experience in the quote I began with.

The most lovely part of reading this script (and there were many) was the realization that Frolie Mulhern had finally moved out of the role of frumpy adolescent to perform the classy romantic interest. Pilgrims poked fun at the Catholic faith Mulhern had been raised with, but it also poked fun at the notion that she had to either pass her matriculation exam (for a BA) or get a husband quickly. It was one or the other. As always, in sending up the plight of women the playwright drew attention to the strictures on their lives.

In January 1939, the Irish Times did its customary review of the year’s theatre. With hindsight, it reflected on Pilgrims kindly and said:

What Miss Rynne seemed anxious to say was worth saying, but through inexperience or over-anxiety she was unable to say it coherently.

I don’t know if the issue was inexperience, or over-anxiety. My growing sense is that anything a woman wanted to say on the Abbey stage had to be carefully modulated to pass the patronizing (and often plainly misogynist) directorate. They had to play the game, and play it well, or they would be the ones with the damaged reputation while the Abbey trundled on. Some authoresses were better at this than others.

So what was in the play script that so amused audiences and disgusted critics? To know more, you could attend the staged readings from the script at the Performing the Archives conference being held in NUI Galway. Rynne’s script will be included with scenes from Cummins and Day’s Fox and Geese (1913) and Elizabeth Connor’s Mount

If you can’t be there… well, you should go on a pilgrimage. Or chat up an Italian waiter. Rynne would approve of either.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *