It’s time to ask the question: where do I begin this book? And only when I utter that question does it appear that the narrative of Irish actresses seems to stretch back forever…
There is no ‘beginning’. Ever. ‘Once upon a time’ is about choosing a time. There is the only the point at which you choose to start your story.
So, let’s choose 1902.
The Daughters of Erin (or Inghinidhe na hEireann) were there from 1902, working in the hall on Camden Street where the first performances of the soon-to-be National Theatre Society were held. The ladies acted as producers, ticket-sellers, marketing representatives and, when required, as actors. Few were actually interested in performing. Their feminism took second place to their nationalism, but the two became inextricably intertwined. Leading that group was, of course, Maud Gonne.
In a letter to Synge in 1906, Yeats decried the lack of any “passionate woman actress in Catholic Ireland.”
But English-born Maud Gonne could pass as Irish; indeed, she could pass as Ireland itself. Off stage, she strode around Dublin’s streets in flowing robes accompanied by her wolfhounds. Something for Irish women to notice in awe, for sure, but not something your average penurious and religious girl could emulate.
Or, I could choose 1932.
Lady Gregory died in May 1932. I have to mention her here, this doyenne of Irish theatre. An American student recently told me that when he went to the Abbey, he made sure to get a photograph of himself with the surly, grey portrait of her at the top of the stairs. I suspect Lady Gregory had a sense of humour, and would have enjoyed being in this ‘Irish theatre selfie’. But the truth is, that to get on in the Abbey Theatre, she eschewed all female characteristics (apart from the skirts) and served her Gort cake more as a sop to disgruntled, underpaid actors than as a maternal act. Gender theorists would talk about her “passing” as a man to perform work in the public sphere, an act that was permitted because of her class and her money. (According to Judith Hill’s excellent biography, relations with Yeats were more frosty when he was asked to bring his own wine to Coole Park.)
I can’t see Lady G offering helpful advice in the Green Room, or battling with Yeats to introduce female directors or seek better female parts. Similarly, Georgie Yeats was a phenomenal female – a powerhouse in her publishing work and a perceptive mother and wife. But while she foresaw where the Abbey actresses would run into trouble, she was not the type to intervene. She quietly arranged for Anne to train as a stage designer and to take over from Tania Moseiwitch. When Tania and Aideen took refuge in Hugh Hunt’s cottage in Malahide, she referred to them as those ‘poor innocent girls’.
The feature of the lives of Aideen, Frolie and Ria that caught me off guard in the research process was the extent to which they were influenced by American women. Their theatre work was inflected by these encounters and they were exposed to determined, independent and upbeat females that influenced their personal choices. Most particularly, Ria and Aideen were inspired by Kay Swift and Eve Le Gallienne, who you’ve met more than once. These true ‘American idols’ provided inspiration and support at significant moments.
On reflection, by the mid-1930s the number and range of Irish female role models was pretty small. The actresses on the Irish stage at the turn of the century had not been women: they had been extraordinary women. It’s hardly shocking the Catholic girls sought role models from over the Atlantic.
In August 1939, Aideen had gone to New York without her best friend. Frolie went to Enniskillen to perform in an evening of vaudeville entertainment, of “mystery, music and mirth”. It was a fundraising evening for the parish where she’d been born, and she charmed the audience with her talents as an “accomplished diseuse”.
I can see her in the parish hall, mounting the platform with a smile to perform her gently mocking mimicry and recite a few lyrics or a poem. Such a performance was a world away from her appearances on Broadway, where she’d played prostitute Rosie Redmond watched by her lover, American producer and Mormon Elbert Wickes.
This was perceived to be the proper place of an Irish actress, using her talents to fund the local church and entertaining without besmirching her honour. I’ve no evidence of how Frolie felt about it — If she would have rather been living it up in New York or if she was content to be among family and friends. In many ways, it was difficult for her to imagine a different life for herself. There was no evidence of anyone who had gone ‘there’ before.
Whereever ‘there’ is.
Neither Aideen nor Ria had a mother. Aideen had an elder sister, but Ria herself says after her mother’s death she did exactly as she pleased. They were, quite literally, breaking ground in their lives. Do we all do that?, I found myself wondering today. Do we all choose a part to perform each day, and if so, are we breaking ground in our performance choices as Irish women today? Will other women in fifty years time look back at our lives and marvel at our bravery, or will they shake their heads at our apathy?
I have the questions. I don’t profess to have any answers…