60 – Spaces Behind & Between

This week, I got access to the Abbey Theatre digital archives for the first time. Oh, the number of things I have been longing to check is endless! Despite my carefully prepared list, I found myself poring over scene designs and floor plans. There are meticulously sketched diagrams of stage and scenery, some of which I’d need the assistance of an architect to understand. But it got me thinking about how we relate to space, and how people are associated with spots and places in a manner that no diagram can capture.

Ria’s space was the alleyway behind the theatre where she first met those prostitutes that inspired Rosie Redmond, and perhaps, in those moments of watching, also first felt the pulse of her own Sapphic desires. Aideen, too youthful and delicate for such corners, may be more at home in the dressing room. According to Phyllis Ryan, Frolie and Aideen often whispered together in their shared dressing room. On tour, the girls kept their sharing arrangement even when they arranged for separate bedrooms in the hotel. But if there was a space that features more than any other in Aideen’s life, it was the Green Room.

There is a photograph of Aideen taken in the Green Room before her first professional appearance on the Abbey stage in 1933 in Margaret Gillan. She looks so nervous that she can barely raise her eyes to the camera. She sinks back into the corner of a flowery couch, her hair pinned back to reveal her elfin face. On the wall above her head is a photograph of the Abbey Company captured on an American tour. In her lap, her right hand grips her left; both hands hover above the swathes of gingham that make up her slightly too-large costume. She has the air not of someone who doesn’t want to be there and is terrified, but someone who is terrified because she so badly wants to be there. Her first line on the main stage was “Did you want me, mother?”

Esther in Margaret Gillan
Esther in Margaret Gillan

The green room was a place of books and endless cups of tea, with its cozy stove and friendly ghosts. But this was the same Green Room room where Bazie would confront Aideen four years later about her affair with Arthur, shaming her forever by slapping her face in front of the other actors.

The house on Sierra Bonita Avenue in Hollywood where Aideen O’Connor died was a Californian clapboard house, open plan with a vast kitchen and a pretty back garden. In the centre of the house was one small room that was shaded from the often unbearable LA heat. The Shields painted the walls a pale green and lined them with shelves and books; they called it the Green Room. Aideen kept her typewriter here, and an easy chair for reading. It was here that she wanted to be when she realised in 1950 that the terrible secret she’d been keeping wasn’t a secret, and that her alcoholism was going to kill her. So, they set up a bed there for her – close to the room where Christine’s nanny slept and nursed her three-year-old charge. Between sleeping and waking, thinking and dreaming, she could half open her eyes and be anywhere … even back in the familiar comfort of the Abbey Theatre Green Room.

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