89 – One Degree of Separation from American Royalty

Are you ready to meet another wonderful woman of the theatre? It’s getting dizzying. I really need a mind map.

But, bear in mind, I’m meeting new people every day here, and struggling to spell and explain my name endlessly. (I’m Kira in any coffee shop.)

It’ll be worth it. For here we are, one degree of separation from royalty: Alla Nazimova.

Alla Nazimova

What kind of royalty, you ask. You can have your pick: theatrical or political.

Nazimova trained with Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavski at the Moscow Arts Theatre at the turn of the century. When Ria Mooney shared the stage with her in New York (many times) and learnt her craft, she was one degree of separation from Stanislavsky. (This is the nearest Irish theatre ever gets to the man himself: Why isn’t this celebrated?)

But Nazimova’s also connected to American royalty: a president. Nazimova was the godmother of Nancy Reagan (wife of Ronald). Don’t ask how; it’s complicated. But it revolves around lesbian circles.

At Yale, I’ve found myself surrounded by scientists: living and socialising with medics, biotechnologists and quantum physicists. It was alarming at first (“I’m working to cure colon cancer; what are you doing here?”) but I’ve found it’s bringing a new clarity and rigour to my research.

Questions coming from home:

Q:        Have you found any traces of Ria Mooney.

A:         Yes, lots. In fact, far more than I expected to find in both the Theatre Guild and the Civic Repertory Theatre Company archival files.

The Civic Repertory (CRTC) was a proper repertory theatre: they were rotating a substantial number of performances at any one time. In the prompt books, I can see that, in many cases, names are crossed out, and replaced. Ria Mooney was swapping in and out of parts with Josephine Hutchinson (the group’s rising star) and Glesca Marshall (who would become Nazimova’s long-term partner). She played in some of the huge hits, as well in more experimental pieces. I’ve also found categorical proof that she was assistant director to Eva Le Gallienne on their ground-breaking production of Romeo and Juliet. (Another huge win for Irish feminist theatre scholarship.)

Here, too, is proof of all that Ria Mooney has said about the luxury of the productions. The furniture was antique, her costumes were made of silk, and she ate real food on the stage. This technique of insisting on authenticity on the stage was pioneered by Stanislavski to establish the illusion on the stage.


Notes from the props list for La Locandiera staged in 1928 include the following:

The irons must be hot enough to iron easily with.

Straw coloured bottle full of wine**

Burgundy bottle full of wine

**This wine should be the good Chianti and all other wine Dago red

Ragout in pot on plate for SERVANT***

Ragout in pot on pewter plate

2 eggs on napkin in bowl for SERVANT

apple for SERVANT

***The two ragouts should not be the same colour nor substance.


The hot iron Ria Mooney could take or leave (much like myself). But she looked forward to being fed during performances. Her paltry wages never ran to wine or good food and she frequently lost any sense of illusion when her grumbling stomach anticipated the ragout coming her way.

Back home at the Abbey Theatre, the actors were often served plates with ‘ham’ made from pink blotting paper. At the bar in The Plough and the Stars, they sipped red lemonade. That was a playhouse; Ria found herself in the ‘real’ world. But instead of luxuriating in it, she was awestruck and intimidated. After the calm, respectful rehearsals where she was addressed as ‘Miss Mooney’ and encouraged to develop her own character, she worried about her abilities and fretted about her appearance.

Ria Mooney was drawn to Alla Nazimova from the first moment she saw her on screen in silent films and was thrilled when she learnt the Russian star had struck a deal with Le Gallienne to join the CRTC on a salary of $250 a week. (From the records I’ve seen here, Ria was on a fraction of that.) They bear an uncanny resemblance to each other and Ria confessed to parting her hair in the middle, fluffing it out and imitating Nazimova’s make-up to play up the similarity.

Sadly, the theatre on 14th Street was not big enough to contain two massive egos: Eva Le Gallienne and Nazimova. It was only a matter of time before one exited stage left. As Eva had started the company, that was always going to be Nazimova.

Nazimova became known as the ‘witch of make-up’. She fascinated audiences with her ability to transform herself physically into widely diverse characters. She abhorred actresses that used ‘personality acting’ and believed in the power of representation (inhabiting the character) rather than presenting the character. Ria was hugely influenced by this.

I think she was so influenced by Nazimova that when Le Gallienne and the Russian star fell out, Ria took Nazimova’s side and fell out of favour with Le Gallienne. But that’s speculation of the kind my new scientist friends would never allow.

To return to my earlier question: Why is Ria Mooney’s connection to Stanislavski and his celebrated psychological techniques for actors never remarked upon in Ireland?

The primary reason, as someone pointed out to me, is Ria’s discretion. She never crowed about it, never lauded it over the others when she arrived back in Dublin (although some men might have done just that). Despite all she had learnt, she was only aware of her own shortcomings, intimidated by those she’d performed with, and her stomach grumbled constantly to remind her of how little she was earning in financial terms.

This makes me sad. As I tramp around New Haven (where the temperature has dropped so rapidly I’ve gotten a cold) I want nothing more than to go back in time and shove these productions files under the noses of Abbey actors that claimed Ria Mooney ‘couldn’t direct traffic’.

How many of them understood Stanislavski in the way she did? How many drank warmed Chianti in Goldoni’s plays? Who felt the magic of the Russian artists in their bones and transmitted this experience to younger artists?

My Temporary Home: there since 1902
My Temporary Home: Yale’s Graduate Club Established 1902


The #WakingTheFeminists are gearing up for the anniversary on 14th November at the Abbey Theatre and the focus is ONE THING MORE. What one thing has changed for you? What are you resolving to do?

I’m resolving to support and champion other women who are being intimidated and undermined, by females or by males. I’m resolving to look out for them, and to support them, in honour of Ria Mooney. Discretion is fine in personal matters; achievements of other women need to be celebrated.

The next question on my scientific list is:   Q.2:     Was Ria Mooney gay or wasn’t she? Well, now, you didn’t expect me to give that away straight off, did you? Results will be released soon…


Webster's Grave (He of the American dictionary.)
Webster’s Grave (He of the American dictionary.)


Note: I can’t (and wouldn’t even if I could) share pictures of the Beinecke’s holdings. Hence the shots of New Haven landmarks in the sun…

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