How does a respectable girl end up on the stage?
At the opening night of the gorgeous Maeve’s House in the Peacock last week, I got talking to some people about Irish women emigrating to New York and the cachet of being an Abbey actress in the 1930s. Was it different, somebody asked me, to be appearing on the stage of the National Theatre, rather than elsewhere? I have no doubt that it was. Across the Liffey from the Abbey were music hall stars and in the Gate rumours of bizarre sexuality abounded. On Marlborough Street, these women trod a precarious path between respectable Catholic cailín and lipstick-wearing whore. I’ve written before about how the Abbey women used their own clothes for costumes and how they appeared in the pub after the show wearing the same dresses as on stage. Eileen Crowe, during The Plough and the Stars debacle, refused to use bad language even in character. There was a strange coalescence between public and private lives that meant the characters they played were as important as their off-stage manners.
When the Abbey Company toured to the US in 1934/1935, any fears about their own “respectable” repertoire were allayed by the Catholic Church there, who put them on a “white list” that effectively proved their worthiness. Americans could be good Catholics and still watch the Abbey Theatre Company perform.
Aideen O’Connor was privately educated, spoke French and played tennis well. Because I’ve failed to find out more about her mother (not for lack of trying) I don’t know if there was a family history of performance on that side. It was all a bit of guess work – Aideen acted in school plays and got a notion? The answer was closer than I thought possible.
Last week somebody contacted me about a romantic novel they’d picked up in the charity shop for a euro. Its title was Always In My Mind. A life-long friend of my mother’s, this woman knew nothing about the Abbey theatre until she became caught up in the story of Aideen and Ria on the blog. She read extracts from the book aloud over the phone and it was clear this was thinly veiled autobiography with a large dose of romanticism. Lilian Roberts Finlay trained at the Abbey School of Acting, attended the parties that Ria Mooney held in her cottage in Wicklow and worshipped Lennox Robinson. As if to prove the veracity of her tale, when Lilian decided to write her first play, Ernest Blythe practically threw her down the stairs at the Abbey after telling her women shouldn’t write about contraception and sex. The anecdote rings loud and true.
Lilian was educated by the Cluny nuns in a boarding school close to the city, and Mr William Fay (one of the founders of the Abbey school) appeared once a week to teach the girls how to speak and move. It’s very possible he did this in Muckross Convent (where Aideen was schooled) and the Sacred Heart convent Frolie attended. If the girls showed an interest, he would help them persuade their parents to attend the school in the Peacock. Lilian joined after Aideen had left for New York, but she negotiated all the same difficulties and trials to prove her determination. By day, she typed letters in the Land Commission, just as Aideen had done in Polikoffs’. These ladies worked as hard at maintaining their pristine reputation as a virginal Catholic as they did at their acting technique.
On this day (30th September) in 1935, Porgy and Bess opened at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. With its full Negro cast, it caused much scandal. Kay Swift, friend of Aideen and Arthur, divorcee and female composer, was in the thick of it. Her Abbey friends were back on stage in Dublin, performing the gentle comedy of George Shiels. Was Aideen straining at the bit, I wonder? Was her frustration growing with Catholic respectability and double standards for women? Was she in awe of Kay’s courage, attitude and lifestyle? Did she want the same rights as Kay to contraception, as well as to dress and drink as she linked?
This week I met a lovely professional actress the same age as myself. When I asked if she’d talk to me about her career for the blog, she was astounded. “I wouldn’t have anything to say,” she said. “I’ve nothing intellectual to add!” She was so humble, but as I walked away, I thought – That’s not fair. Not fair that she thinks like that, or is treated like she has nothing to say.
Now here’s my political bit…
It’s not that educated, respectable women somehow “ended up” on the stage rather than somewhere more fitting to their talents. Or that “respectable” actresses now appear on one stage rather than another. Educated, intelligent, powerful women make their own choices and refuse to be cowed by the attitudes of others. There are a host of self-proclaimed feminists, I’ve noticed, who rarely look closely at their own day-to-day treatment of other women.
We continue to judge, to cast aspersions, to decide what’s “respectable” and “worthy”. Some chose to always believe they’re “better”.
Stop ranting about male patriarchy, ladies, and look at yourselves and your own behaviour. We all deserve respect. That’s not feminism – It’s good manners.