73 – The board acknowledged the letter

On their return from a  a highly successful production of Spring Meeting in New York in 1939, Aideen O’Connor, Shelah Richards and Arthur Shields requested a meeting with management at the Abbey Theatre. Buoyed by new-found confidence, the women wanted to speak directly to F.R. Higgins about their position in the Company: parts offered, contract salaries etc. Higgins  met with them, discussed it politely and then did absolutely nothing. Aideen never performed in the theatre again.

‘Never-before-seen Abbey Theatre papers show how it fought against censorship,’ reads the headline of The Journal’s coverage of the Abbey Theatre’s launch of the minute books from 1904 – 1939.

The Minute Books do show an advance from the Dublin Corporation to vet the productions for licentious material, but they also reveal just how much censorship of certain voices was going on within the National Theatre during those decades. I had read many of the Minute Books ‘the old fashioned way’, peering over a manuscript book in the National Library doing my best to decipher the handwriting. The new digitized version (impeccably transcribed by the wondrous Patricia O’Beirne) allows the documents to be effortlessly searched, so that patterns are clear, narratives far easier to piece together. As the digitized images of the pages sit alongside the transcription, it’s a strange if enlightening encounter with the past. Everyone can now access this information.

The boardroom of the Abbey, upstairs and at the end of the corridor, was far from the dressing rooms and stage where the actors spent their time. Frank O’Connor complained late in the 1930s that the old tradition of the directors mingling with the actors in the green room after performances had died away, and should be re-established. Yet the board controlled them: financially, practically and even emotionally. We often think of the Abbey actresses of the 1920s and 1930s as submissive, cowed and lacking the confidence we now wield in trying to wrestle answers from theatre management. In fact, the key revelation of the Minute Books is how the players asked for, pleaded and fought for respect.

Requests and entreaties from the players to the board generally came by ‘letter’ or ‘wire’. On one occasion, Eileen Crowe was invited to attend. She had been ousted from the part of Nora in The Plough and the Stars by the younger Shelah Richards, and Crowe was particularly put out because a London casting agent was invited to attend. Crowe’s objections to O’Casey’s play in 1926 (which led to his penning ‘The Woman from Rathmines’ especially for her) were long forgotten, it seems. The board argued amongst themselves: Richards had been given the role because she was a better actress; Richards had canvassed for the part (not allowed); Crowe was loyal and established. Crowe was restored to the part. Richards was informed by letter that she was being removed from the part, because she had canvassed for it. Crowe thanked the board and withdrew. How did they not see the irony in this?

Aideen, I’ve discovered from the Minute Books, responded to Higgins’ “deadly hate” (her own phrase) by taking on within the theatre any work she could find, when she wasn’t performing. She was an assistant to Hugh Hunt, until Higgins complained of her inefficiency, and subsequently worked painting sets and prompting actors for pathetic wages. With her friend and company member Frolie Mulhern, she requested and held a meeting with management, seeking details on her salary reduction, the parts being offered (or rather not offered) and her future at the theatre. Nothing came of it.

The Minute Books also record that Ria Mooney was castigated for criticizing the board in public, and referring to the directors personally. It’s an unsubstantiated and malicious attack, led by F. R. Higgins. If it were Aideen or Shelah he shamed in this way, I might believe there was a note of truth in it. But Mooney’s lack of interest in gossip was legendary; her tact and diplomacy helped her survive Eva Le Gallienne’s company in the 1920s and her loyalty to the theatre survived far beyond that of any other actress. But Higgins (paranoid and highly strung) announced Mooney’s betrayal at a board meeting, and without questioning him or requesting details, the board demanded Mooney be sent a letter of reprimand. Her devotion to the Abbey School, to the Experimental Theatre as well as to the main Company were simply dismissed. The board granted Higgins final approval of the letter, before it was sent.

I’m still struck by the line that, following her restoration to the part of Nora, Eileen Crowe “thanked the board and withdrew”. Crowe somehow wielded the power to demand and withdraw when she was satisfied. Most of the other women (and indeed, players generally) were dismissed, reprimanded, punished for any conceived (or invented) subordination.

The women offered, time and again, to speak, discuss, dialogue calmly with the board in the 1930s. They were kept out, at arms length. Letters acknowledged and then ignored. We can only hope change has come, and the historical record from this decade will be different.

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