Guest Post: Changing Scenery by Chris McCormack

On November 1st 1927, Augusta Gregory sat unimpressed through a meeting at the Abbey. The theatre’s co-founder and board member had been eyeing a revival of one of her lesser-received comedies, The Jackdaw. Instead, it was being swapped for a remount of her always-popular Spreading the News. She recorded in her journal:

“Yeats says Spreading is being pushed on in its place because new scenery has been or is being designed for it by a young lady, and she has fallen in love with L.R. [Abbey director of plays: Lennox Robinson] and follows him about, and he wants her to finish her job and leave him safe!” 

It’s astonishing to see Gregory, arguably the theatre’s most influential programmer (other administrators’ noted interest in international plays barely materialised), being overruled by a design-led decision! The Abbey didn’t contract a resident designer until 1934, thirty years after it first opened its doors. Until then, the design aspect of productions was nearly always a low priority.

That “young lady” was Dorothy Travers-Smith, known as Dolly to most, and she likely played a part in boosting the board’s confidence to eventually hire a resident designer (intimidating stylish scenes at the newly opened Gate Theatre were also a factor). The 25-year-old painter from Chelsea shared an interest in the occult with Lennox Robinson, and worked freelance at the Abbey from 1927 to 1935.

Historical attitudes towards design have been on my mind since Waking the Feminists, when designers and technical personnel spoke out on different inequalities in the sector. Costume designer Joan O’Clery made the point that her design discipline is considered feminine and is lesser paid for being such.

Gendered attitudes to design go far back to the Abbey’s early days. The skilled landscape painter Robert Gregory (Augusta Gregory’s son, and later the tragic figure of Yeats’s poem An Irish Airman Foresees his Death) was the theatre’s first recruit from the visual arts world. Programmes for productions at the time clearly stated: “Scenery designed by Robert Gregory”.

Later programmes consistently credited settings as “painted by D. Travers-Smith”. The choice of wording is curious. Her work seems to have been stressed as decorative rather than as having the functionalist quality of design, even though Travers-Smith’s drawings reveal thoughtful preparation of design materials and not just scenic painting.

At the second Waking the Feminists meeting, producer Kate Ferris led a lecture about horrendous sexist behaviour experienced by women workers behind the scenes. The workplace environment that Dolly operated in was clearly male-dominated; the technical team consisted of carpenter Seaghan Barlow, electrician Udolphus Wright, stage manager Michael J. Dolan and likely others. So far it’s been challenging to find evidence of how these individuals interacted with her.

It’s hard to imagine, however, that Dolly didn’t have the support of her boyfriend Lennox Robinson, who she married in 1931. Her flare for Mediterranean landscapes matched well with his interest in staging expressionistic plays; neither fitted the Irish realist scenes at the Abbey.

Together, they made the plan to resurrect the Gordan Craig screens (advanced stage machinery invented by English director-designer Edward Gordon Craig, fast collecting dust in the Abbey basement) for a storming production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. For a brief moment in time, the Abbey passed itself off as strikingly modernist.

King Lear designed by Dolly Travers Smith
King Lear designed by Dolly Travers Smith

To the Abbey board, Dolly and Lennox were clearly a pair. Unfortunately, the standard of Abbey plays began to slip in the early 1930s due, most agree, to Lennox’s alcoholism. When the board de-powered his position, and searched for a new director and designer, Dolly doesn’t seem to have been considered a candidate for the latter. But I also wonder if she wanted it, or if – and I hope she won’t chastise me for saying – she felt comfortable with the thought of working in a male-led environment without Lennox.

These personal relationships are important for sussing out the history of the theatre. Dolly’s close friend Norah McGuinness (also 25 at the time) must have had great licence having been invited by Yeats himself to design at the Abbey in 1926, where, coincidentally, she worked on productions of his plays Deirdre and The Only Jealousy of Emer.

Flowers in Crete by Norah McGuinness
Flowers in Crete by Norah McGuinness

Norah’s paintings were marked by a cubist play on shapes and fauvist clash of colours; in other words, the idioms of modern art. She met Yeats through her poet husband Geoffrey Taylor. On one occasion she arrived at a party at the Yeats’ home on Merrion Square to find George (W.B.’s wife) and the children sequestered to the attic because they were sick. Norah was left to join W.B. and other male intellectuals in discussion of his latest publication A Vision. Norah found the evening nerve-wrecking. Years later, one party guest, the critic Sean O’Faolain, admitted they were all terrified of her.

Crucially, Norah also seemed to have the support of Lennox Robinson. Her visual arts background, like Dolly’s, represented an escape from the Irish realism that dominated the theatre. Her abstract backcloths for Robinson’s stagings routinely gave critics a run for their money. Visitors on the opening night of the Peacock Theatre must have felt transported to Berlin when they laid eyes on her maddeningly expressionistic set for From Morn to Midnight by Georg Kaiser.

Norah didn’t stay in the job for long. In fact, she became very vocal about how thankless and underpaid the work was. She lived a celebrated career as a visual artist, designing arresting displays at Brown Thomas in the 1940s, and representing Ireland in the 1950 Venice Biennale.

It’s becoming vividly clear that women designers played an instrumental role in modernising the Abbey, and pushed the theatre towards scenes, or design strategies, that belong to the world outside Ireland.

While the programming of Irish plays deepened in the 1930s and 1940s, the imaginative designs of Tanya Moiseiwitsch (architect of the extraordinary platform stage at Ontario’s Stratford Festival Theatre), Anne Yeats, Alicia Sweetman and Eileen Tobin helped to give the theatre more than a hint of cosmopolitanism so as not to seem completely inward.


Chris McCormack writes about contemporary theatre on his own blog Musings in Intermission , as well as writing for numerous theatre publications including The Stage and Exeunt magazine. He’s currently finishing his PhD on Irish stage design at NUI Galway.

One comment on “Guest Post: Changing Scenery by Chris McCormack

  1. What an uphill battle they had, those women. Exhausting!
    Great post.

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