49 – Tweeting from the 1930s: The space between saying and seeing

Early in July, I spent an evening with Scottish playwright David Greig in a London bistro called The 10 Cases. After five months working on the West End musical Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, he was packed to go home to Scotland. It was a sultry night, but as dusk fell over Covent Garden, we sipped cool Pinot Grigio and nibbled on pistachio nuts. He mused on his work and his time in London, while intermittently exchanging witty banter with the waitress. She was unimpressed by his flirting, having seen many successful and failed playwrights drink themselves into a stupor at her bar.

Well, kind of.

It all happened on Twitter. I was at home in my nightdress, glued to my phone. Greig’s rendering of the scene was vivid, lyrical and dramatic. At some point early the next morning, a female Scottish writer joined in to ‘tweet’ the jaded waitress. It was a blissful and intimate evening with somebody I’ve admired for a long time. I may even have shared his hangover the next morning.

At a conference last month in NUI Galway on Performance, Nation and Globalisation, I asked Greig expert Clare Wallace her thoughts about his use of social media. In Twitter, Greig has found a platform to expound his view of Scottish cultural policy, to express his thoughts on Scottish nationalism and also to share his own artistic process. When controversy broke out about his recent play, his tweets were his first public statements. Professor Patrick Lonergan followed this discussion up with a very interesting blog post where he asked why Irish playwrights have been slow to take on social media.

I struggled this week to advance my PhD research and I found myself thinking: if this female playwright of the 1930s had tweeted her thoughts, her social life, her political views, how the writing of this book would simply flow … And then I found a wonderful archive of letters written by Teresa Deevy to a dear friend…

I won’t reveal where these letters appeared. The archive is an amazing resource, but it’s an intimidating place. They have eagle-eyed librarians that consistently make you feel like you’re a sophisticated paper smuggler, even when all you hold is a pencil and a sheaf of blank A4. So, I will only reveal that Teresa (Tessa) Deevy had a friend that she wrote to over the years. Let’s call that friend Harriet. And let’s imagine what Tessa may have shared with her via Twitter, before her thoughts were censored by the newspaper or biographers.

Thirty-something Tessa Deevy was unmarried and living in Waterford with her sisters when she started submitting plays to the Abbey. After numerous rejections, her one act play Temporal Powers shared the annual Abbey Prize with Paul Vincent Carroll in 1932. Frank O’Connor, writer and Board member, sought her out that night to tell her:

I was enchanted by the technique of your play, its delicious invention and steady, perfectly controlled progression, its masterly climax without a hint of theatre.

Deevy couldn’t hear him say it; she had been deaf since her first year in university. Her lip reading was good but her sister and constant companion, Nell, did much of the interpreting. Tessa watched. She watched expressions, reactions, movements. It wasn’t long before she understood that her work divided the Board of Directors. Some had high hopes for it; others couldn’t bear it. Frank O’Connor was on her side, but others (more influential) wanted this tiny, severe-looking woman off the repertoire. (I’m not revealing who here.)

While she longed for inclusion, Deevy was always on the outside. Frequently, she joined her sisters to listen to plays on the wireless. While Tessa observed their reactions, their laughter and tension, she imagined others listening elsewhere, or pictured the actors in the studio. She patiently waited until the play was over before asking for a detailed breakdown of the plot. Her exclusion was not only psychological. Based in Waterford, she was both terrified by and intrigued by the Dublin theatre scene. When her play The King of Spain’s Daughter was to be produced, she told Harriet:

(1/1) I’m afraid now I shan’t be up to see it in Dublin. Fares are so high, and the play is so tiny a thing. 🙁

(2/2) Then it would mean staying a night or so in Dublin – all runs to so much ££

Either the Abbey coffers could run to a couple of train tickets, or these were simply nerves that Tessa threw off, for in April 1936 she and Nell arrived just in time to take front row seats before the curtain went up. Joseph Holloway, Abbey chronicler, thought the piece “almost a masterpiece” but Tessa wished she’d stayed at home.

The house was wretched! You could count the people.

In addition, the producer (not Robinson, as Deevy had hoped, but Fred Johnson) had taken liberties with the setting. The King of Spain’s Daughter was set on a grassy roadside closed to motorists; like many of Deevy’s settings it was an external setting that is still somehow confining her women. But on the Abbey stage it was no longer spring; it was summer, and none of the characters matched her expectations.

Road Closed - Courtesy of Avondale House
Road Closed – Courtesy of Avondale House

She went again to a Saturday matinee, but felt no better about it, and was now questioning her own artistic taste.

Perhaps this production was far better than the one I had imagined ???

She fled back to Waterford, spending the summer in Tramore where she paddled, read Proust and at night lit a fire and worked on her play with Nell close by. The thought of being in Dublin for Horse Show week dismayed her: the people, the noise, the expense. But she desperately wanted all of the directors to approve of her work and she continued to battle away on her newly-acquired writing tablet.

The following year, the young English director Hugh Hunt was bouncing about on the stage when she and Nell arrived to watch the final rehearsals of Katie Roche from the front row of the circle. He stuck to strict naturalism as he drilled F.J. McCormick and Eileen Crowe in the main parts. This time, the opening performance was a huge success but all Tessa really wanted was for it to be “safely over.”

From a safe distance, she could think it over and reason:

I liked their way of doing “Katie Roche”.

She was pleased with the reactions, the facial expressions, the atmosphere in the theatre; but it wasn’t the play she had envisioned. Fame and fortune as the first Irish female playwright since Lady Gregory seemed to await her, but there was trouble ahead … Enough trouble for me to get a second blog post out of this determined playwright.

Twitter is an amazing resource to access the minds and lives of famous writers, but for both the famous and the famous-in-waiting, it is first and foremost a distraction. I can see Teresa Deevy on a Monday morning, sitting down to the blank page, contemplating a day of slowly pushing words around and dragging dialogue out of recalcitrant characters. Instead, she picks up a fountain pen and decides to share her struggle with Harriet, fellow writer. She tells her:

         Laziness, laziness, barren laziness – and time slipping by.

         I had hoped to finish my new play long ago, but it came to a standstill. (1/2)

         I have great plans for my new play – if only I could get past this full stop. (2/2)

I also have great plans for a new play – if only I could get away from Twitter.

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