57 – Painting Pictures: Backstage at the Abbey Theatre

On a wet and miserable Wednesday afternoon in October, when the mayhem of the Dublin Theatre Festival was whirling around on the streets outside, I was one of a small group that hid out backstage at the Abbey Theatre. Led by RHA artist Mick O’Dea, we warmed ourselves on the light and colour of the portraits and wandered the corridors where the ghosts of decades past mingle with the pressing concerns of business today. It was magical – like losing yourself down a rabbit hole into nothing but history and paint and colour. When I emerged from the lobby a couple of hours later, I couldn’t remember what theatre I was supposed to be at or what I was seeing next and no dramatic presentation could compare with what I’d just experienced.

There are lots of Abbey backstage tours, but keep an eye out for any led by Mick O’Dea. Professional painters see details in these paintings I never would have spotted.

I know little about Art (with a capital A), apart from what I like and don’t like. But something Mick O’Dea explained as we began our tour in the lobby has stayed with me ever since. He pointed out that portrait artists drawing using pen or ink in effect impose the form upon the paper. Those who work with oils, however, wait for the portrait of the person to emerge in its own time and form. It’s one of those questions I now ask myself: How much of Aideen am I imposing on these pages and where do I simply wait for her to emerge from the details?

Patience is not something I have in abundance – ask those who know me best. Yet, Aideen has long sought to make me wait for essential details and revelations. The problem is, you have to keep working and digging and writing while you wait. I now have a sense that portrait painters know this dilemma.

Along the wall outside the ladies’ dressing rooms hang three portraits of women I’m studying in detail: Shelah Richards, May Craig and Ria Mooney. The Mooney portrait I’ve written about before. The other portraits are a wonderful reflection of their personalities: Shelah is drawn by Norah McGuinness in vivid pastels, reds and yellows, as she sits at her dressing room mirror. The form is playful, even cheeky – much like Ms Richards herself. May Craig has a suitably dour and respectable head and shoulders portrait, in black and grey. Ria is dressed as Widow Quin, in traditional garb. I kept turning to the other wall, which is blank. There are no portraits of Aideen or of Frolie Mulhern. Once could ask: And why should there be? How many other actresses and actors slipped off the Abbey stage, went out into the night, and haven’t been remembered?

Downstairs from the dressing rooms, the regal queens of Irish actresses Sara and Molly Allgood have their station. Molly has a full-scale painting. She has a hand on her stomach, where the first signs of her pregnancy have been subtly reduced by the painter. There’s something subtly different about the light; it makes you want to linger there forever. O’Dea points out she was painted in the bright sunlight of New York, while the others remain trapped beneath the grim clouds of Dublin.

If Aideen had had her portrait commissioned, I started to wonder, where would it have been set? The white heat of California which I adored and she “loathed”? (Aideen wasn’t one for luke-warm emotions.) Or the warmth of the cozy green room with the air full of cigarette smoke?

Aideen in Green Room in 1933 - Shields On Line Archive
Aideen in Green Room in 1933 – Shields On Line Archive

If I couldn’t answer this question of when and where easily , I did know who would have painted Aideen’s portrait. The painter and stage designer Anne Yeats had a special friendship with Aideen, which began when they were both young girls finding their way in the Abbey. (Yes – she was W.B.’s only daughter.) It’s courtesy of Anne’s notes that I have learnt much of Aideen’s life outside the theatre in Dublin. Anne visited her at home in Hollybank Avenue, and couldn’t resist telling her mother later about the broken toilet seat and the one shabby servant. But Anne was a true friend, helping Aideen out when she had nowhere to stay. Travelling in the US, Aideen frequently sent back books on paintings and design to Anne. She also read scripts to her and discussed parts when they came up.

I can see Aideen, strutting around with script in her hand in Anne Yeats’ Paint Room at the Abbey.  Aideen and Frolie come often for tea, made in an aluminium kettle, and biscuits, served in mismatched crockery off a vivid orange tray. The pungent smell of size is overwhelming but Anne Yeats can work as they chat, winching up and down the pulleys that allowed her to paint the ‘flats’. A journalist of the time described how the room was not “any bigger than a Georgian drawing room. Its one window admits the lane, picturesque enough in the failing light, and quiet.” The girls could peer down into the lane where actors scuttled between entrances and young prostitutes met sailors from the Port.

In 1974, Laurie Shields (Arthur’s third wife) sent a polite letter to Miss Anne Yeats. She was coming to visit Ireland, following her husband’s death. She left Christine behind in California, and travelled with her best journalistic skills and many notebooks to continue her work on a biography of Arthur Shields. Laurie spent little time researching Aideen’s background, as may be expected of a third wife. But she did contact Anne Yeats hoping to meet, explaining who she was and telling how “I am deeply grateful to Aideen for the sharing of Christine.”

That meeting never happened. At least, there are no notes of it and given Laurie’s meticulous research methods, I’ve taken the absence as proof there was no meeting.This may have simply been practicalities, Anne’s work or Laurie’s schedule. Part of me wants to believe Anne Yeats didn’t meet with Laurie because she held on to some kind of loyalty to Aideen, seeing Laurie as a strange imposter as Mrs Shields. Another part of me yearns to know how she would have depicted her friend, if she had painted a portrait in oils or in words. That would be the portrait to fill another wall backstage at the Abbey.

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