Let’s not talk about how long it’s been … Chasing Aideen has always had an odd and slippery relationship with time.
I once wrote a blog post about Aideen’s debut in New York without her Abbey family when she appeared in Spring Meeting on Broadway. I’d be the first to admit, it wasn’t my finest piece of writing. It was one of those times when I desperately wanted to capture a moment in her life, but the paucity of evidence was infuriating. I resorted to using a fashion report that described the styles in the audience and leaned too heavily on vague context and imagination to recreate her appearance at the Morosco Theatre with Shelah Richards and Arthur Shields. But eventually, if you’re patient and ever watchful, something can surface…
To recap: Aideen sailed from Cobh to meet up with Arthur in New York in the autumn of 1938, after spending some time with her mother’s family in the town while she waited for her visa and tried to gather funds. She didn’t leave any description of her voyage. But some months later, another woman and her husband of only a few months took the President Roosevelt (of the same sailing line) from Cobh across the Atlantic to New York. Despite the festive occasion of her honeymoon, this neat, dark-haired lady was a writer to her bones: observing and capturing the characters all around her. Her diary jottings from the voyage vividly capture the stiff wind of upcoming war that blew across the open decks. She watched grown men learning English from grammar books and women in head scarves talking quietly to each other. The Jewish passengers fleeing Europe were on a very different trip to her own.
The trip was being paid for by her writing royalties; they had been, in effect, her wedding dowry. The previous year, her play had been a big hit in London’s West End. It was directed by an up and coming theatre artist called John Gielgud, and had a starry cast. The play was Spring Meeting and the writer was Waterford woman Molly Keane.
I’ve been very lucky in many of my teachers and writing mentors along the way. One of the most formative was poet Gerald Dawe, whose sense of theatre awed me as an undergraduate. And who else could get a random text message asking, Have you heard of Molly Keane? And could promptly return a detailed set of biographical notes, not just for Molly Keane, but also for her mother. He prompted this post. Agnes Skrine was an Antrim poetess who outsold Yeats in her day and reportedly refused an invite to dine with Lady Gregory et al in Coole Park. She had better things to do with her time.
But that’s a digression; we are en route to Broadway with the ‘small, elegant’ but ‘tiger-like’ Molly Keane.
If Aideen travelled alone, hiding out in her cabin and keeping to herself, Molly Keane was smartly pacing the decks, chatting and watching, excited for her arrival. It’s easy to see her finding herself at the captain’s table, charming all around her as she downs the cocktails. Beside her is her new husband Bobby, a calm and diffident man, a number of years her junior, who stammers when he is brought into the small talk. Molly would bring to the nightly dinners the same acerbic wit and humour she knew in the social whirl of her life as a daughter of the ascendancy in Tipperary.
She had started writing young, not to emulate her depressive mother, but to update her wardrobe and fund an expanding social life that was full of horse racing, dances and cocktails. She discovered that her writing, which has the caustic bite of an adolescent girl as well as the emotional sensitivity of a more mature woman, could earn her cash. It became her trade, rather than her art, something that she returned to often not out of creative desire but simply as a way to pay the bills and allow her to throw opulent dinner parties.
I love the edition of Spring Meeting I tracked down on E Bay. It came with a pencilled note of the date the original owner had been in the audience in London. It includes a detailed diagram of the intricacies of the dining room table, which always strikes me as just perfect for the playwright.
If you hadn’t associated a female playwright with Spring Meeting, that was her intention. It was credited to M. J. Farrell (a long-term nom de plume) and John Perry.
The setting of Spring Meeting recreates Woodrooffe, the grand Tipperary home where she met both her future husband, Bobby Keane, but also her partner in all theatrical adventures: Perry. He was the youngest son of the family that owned Woodrooffe, but had become estranged from his father due to his open declaration of homosexuality. John and Molly became life-long theatrical ‘chums’: collaborating, gossiping, fighting and making up again. He encouraged her to write the play and worked on it with her.
It’s this partnership that most intrigues and interests me, as I find myself thinking more about the dramaturgy of women’s plays during this period in Ireland. While there were women writing plays, the texts were invariably being shaped and influenced most heavily by their male counterparts. They didn’t call it dramaturgy: it was feedback; expert advice. Sometimes it was censorship; sometimes editing. In later years, Molly revealed more about Perry’s ‘authorship’ of the play. She did most of the writing, by all accounts. His role was advisory, but he shared joint billing.
Molly and Bobby Keane arrived in New York in December 1938 and were in the audience of the Morosco Theatre when the curtain went up, and Shelah Richards was there with Aideen O’Connor. They played sisters Joan and Baby Furze, desperate for money and new dresses for upcoming parties.
It’s curious that Sally Phipps, daughter of Molly Keane and ultimately her biographer, found herself in much the same quandary as I was when she came to write about the premiere. Her book is fascinating and a beautiful read, for its atmosphere and humour as well as her insight into her mother’s creative practice. But when she reaches that night, all she can turn to for evidence is the number of actresses in the audience, their reactions and their fashions. She doesn’t speak of the cast.
And so I find myself back there again: in the dark as the lights go down, imagining the evening’s entertainment. The stage design was luxurious, the humour delightful, and the ending suitably romantic with three happily engaged women. But it didn’t charm American audiences as it did the British. It was soon evident it would close early, and Aideen would be packing suitcases again.
Many of the women I write about, I fantasize about meeting. Cocktails with Aideen in Musso Franks, crisp sandwiches with Teresa Deevy, late night poetry recitations with Ria Mooney in her Annamoe hideaway. Then there are the women who, frankly, terrify me: Mary Manning; Eileen Crowe. I’m still trying to make up my mind about Molly Keane…There’s more to tell. I promise it won’t be so long next time.