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Essays in Honour of Eamonn Cantwell

Warwick Gould

Research Updates and Obituaries

Ghost-writing for Sara Allgood

John Kelly

Texte intégral

  • 1 Sarah (Sara) Ellen Allgood (1880-1950), the leading Abbey actress had, appropriately, been born at (...)

1Ghost-writing for Sara Allgood1 was a task which intrigued and frustrated Yeats in almost equal measure (as, indeed, she herself often did). Maire nic Shiubhlaigh’s resignation from the Abbey Theatre Company in early January 1906 left the stage literally clear for Allgood to assume the role of undisputed Irish diva, and she enjoyed a commanding and growing reputation as an actress, not only in Dublin but also more widely in Ireland and Britain, and particularly in Belfast, London, Oxford, and Manchester. With her increasing fame came requests for interviews, articles, and lectures. Although a compelling presence when playing a role on the stage, she was more diffident about writing and lecturing on her own account, essentially because of insecurities about her education, which had consisted of only a few years at a national school before the death of her father obliged her to take up a job as upholsterer and French polisher. Given this vulnerability, she turned to Yeats for help in fulfilling journalistic or public-speaking assignments, with the result that what appeared under her name sometimes owed a significant amount to his composition. This is particularly evident in two cases: ‘An Autobiographical Sketch’ she contributed to the Weekly Freeman on 20 March 1909, and, even more so, in a talk he wrote for her to deliver to the Manchester Playgoers’ Club in April 1910 (which is so clearly his composition that it has bibliographical claims to be listed as one of his works).

2Both commissions gave him more trouble than he had anticipated, and the contribution to the newspaper also caused him intense irritation, as he revealed to Lady Gregory in a letter written on the day of its publication:

  • 2 William Alexander Henderson (1863-1927) had been secretary and business manager of the Abbey Theat (...)
  • 3 CL InteLex 1113.

I had not told you that I wrote (this is private) Miss Allgood article in its first form. That is to say I questioned her & got her to talk & made rather a charming peace [for piece] of girlish self revelation. It needed some skill as she had to talk of herself without egotism. Well when I got it in ‘ the Weekly Freeman’ at Limerick I found a most unwise long egotistical passage (it begins when she speaks of Synge) which was not only bad in itself but spoilt all my part by turning what had been boyant natural chatter into egotism by the light it threw on it. I find this was Henderson.2 He has made her quote the ‘ Manchester Guardian’ compliments about herself, quote Poels letter, quote & magnify out of all recognition a conversation (which was of course private) at Mrs Campbells supper in London & of which she had given me a rather different account. What was hardly more than vague compliment emerges as a definite offer of £ 100 a week from a Music Hall. I told him that it was like an interview with a second rate American actress. If it were in any paper more important than the Weekly Freeman it could do Miss Allgood a good deal of harm. He makes her tell how she did not want to act at the Playboy’s last night because of the police. I am fealing thoroughly exasperated. This last thing about the police makes an earlier sentence of mine in which I made her sigh for a part that would enable her to look ‘young & bea[u]tiful’ look like an indirect attack on us. It is no use trying to explain things to Henderson. One might talk till midnight & he would not understand.3

3Lady Gregory entirely sympathised with his vexation, replying on 21 March 1909 that she had

  • 4 Berg.

looked at Weekly Freeman & with real disgust—the change of style wd. have been evident even if you had not written. One looks across from a simple & charming sentence to the next column ‘moved by the vehemence of my attack’ etc—It is not Henderson I rage at, for we knew all along he was the froth & foam of the worst Dublin vulgarity… but that Miss Allgood should take him as an equal guide with you on a literary question, & fall so low, makes me despair of ever getting any understanding into those we are working with…. I wish above all that you had not to spend so much of yourself on them all.4

4W. A. Henderson, the unmarried Secretary of the Abbey, was clearly sweet on Allgood and his affection had not only begun to cost him the goodwill of the Directors, but in early 1911 was to cost him his job, when, contrary to strict instructions, he let her borrow a copy of her contract to strengthen her position in a dispute over pay and she refused to return it. In Part 1 below, I offer the piece from the Weekly Freeman on 20 March 1909.


The NationalTheatre.
An Autobiographical Sketch
By Miss Sara Allgood

  • 5 The current editor of the Weekly Freeman was Matthew Michael O’Hara (1873–1927). As a former drama (...)

6The editor of the Weekly Freeman5 has asked me to contribute to his St Patrick’s Day Number something about my associations with our National Theatre, and I do so with pleasure, trusting that my narrative will interest many in our work.

  • 6 The then ‘National Dramatic Society’ had moved into the Camden Street Hall on 8 August 1902, and t (...)
  • 7 Sara Allgood joined Maud Gonne’s nationalist women’s society Inghinidhe na hEirean (Daughters of E (...)
  • 8 During the 1890s the Fays’ amateur companies performed a variety of comedies, screaming farces, an (...)
  • 9 In Lady Gregory’s Twenty-Five, first produced at the Molesworth Hall on 14 March 1903 and revived (...)

7To commence at the beginning, there is a little hall in Camden street—for, I suppose, it is still there—it is at the back of a shop, and one goes into it by a door between two shops.6 When I knew it, in the spring of 1903, one had sometimes to push aside a tub of butter or a box of eggs before one could pass the threshold. It was here that I first met the group of players and playwrights whose work led to the foundation of the Abbey Theatre. I remember that the hall was very cold and very small; if full to the door, I doubt if it would have held more than forty people. The roof was leaky, for it was a wet night, and I had to move from the place where I was standing, because drops of rain fell upon me and made a puddle at my feet. When I joined the company,7 the Hall was only used for purposes of rehearsal, but I hear from others that there were no dressing rooms, and that the company had to dress behind screens which were put on the stage for the purpose. The Hall had been a dream, and after one or two performances an impossible dream. I had known Mr. W. G. Fay when he and his brother played farces at the Coffee Palace,8 though I had never played for him, and it was he who brought me to Camden street, and gave me a part in a revival of Lady Gregory’s first play ‘ Twenty-five’ and in the first performance of Mr. Yeats’ ‘King’s Threshold’. A little before this I had seen the company setting out on their first London visit,9 and felt

Very Sorrowful at being Left Behind

  • 10 Sara Allgood played Brighid MacConnell in Padraic Colum’s Broken Soil, produced at the Molesworth (...)

8but when somebody at the end of ‘Twenty-five’ handed me a basket of flowers I felt that all my ambition had been satisfied. What more could one ask from life? My admirer was very kind, for the part was very small. After that I played one or two small parts in new plays—‘Brigid’ in Mr. Colum’s ‘Broken Soil’, Kathleen in ‘ Riders to the Sea’, and the mother, Mrs. Gillane, in ‘ Kathleen ni Houlihan’.10

  • 11 Sara Allgood was apprenticed as a French polisher and upholsterer to Messrs. P. J. Walsh & Sons, w (...)

9It was in Lady Gregory’s play, ‘Spreading the News’, that I achieved my first success. This play was first produced in December, 1904, at the opening of the Abbey Theatre. While the rehearsals were going on, the Mechanics’ Institute was being turned into the Abbey Theatre, very timidly, for I thought that something would happen, but what, I did not know if I were found there, I went down day after day to see if the work went rapidly. I made excuses to get away from my place of business11 for ten minutes or for half an hour. I pretended that I had some important message to deliver, but it was only to see if the Abbey stage was beginning to show itself in its new shape among the scaffolding and broken masonry.

  • 12 The Weekly Freeman reads ‘not’.
  • 13 As well as playing Bridget Gillane in Cathleen ni Houlihan in the opening programme of the Abbey T (...)
  • 14 In her ‘Memories’ Sara Allgood recalled that ‘Frank Fay would be about twenty-five years old, when (...)
  • 15 The graduate student from the University of Chicago is unidentified and may be a device to deflect (...)

10At last the Theatre was ready, and we had our final rehearsals in it a few days before the opening of the Theatre. Till the performance and the applause I had no12 idea that I had got anything, but a little part like those I had played before. I am afraid if I had dared I would have asked for the part of the deaf apple-woman, because she is on the stage all the time. How finely W. G. Fay played that night. Frank Fay was not, I think, as fine in ‘Baile’s Strand’ that night as he was a few months before in Mr. Yeats’ ‘King’s Threshold’.13 He was our elocution teacher and voice producer, and if my voice is expressive I attribute all to his teaching.14 After that there were disputes. What were they all about? They were very intricate, and a year ago I remember seeing at the Abbey a girl from the University of Chicago; she had a note book and pencil, and was asking questions of every one she met. She had chosen the Irish Dramatic movement as a Thesis for her University degree, and she was deeply interested in that split. When her Thesis is published we will all understand why we quarrelled.15 Some were so angry that they seceded, and one of them in doing so left behind her for my legacy the part of

Kathleen Ni Houlihan

  • 16 The first Cathleen ni Houlihan was Maud Gonne, who played the part with electric effect at St Tere (...)

11I had wanted it for years. I got it; that is all I intend to remember about the dispute. There had been many Kathleens; every one had played it in their own way. Miss Maud Gonne’s performance (the original Kathleen) I cannot clearly remember, as I was very young at the time. One of the other players who had taken the part before me had, I thought, been most struck with the supernatural element in the character. She gave us Kathleen as Ireland, immortal, spiritual, divine, if you will, but Ireland in sorrow, struggling without hope.16

12Perhaps our sorrows are more spiritual than our joys. I had a different conception. I did not wish to make my audience feel that ‘Kathleen’ called that young man to a hopeless sacrifice. When I stand at the door re-chanting

‘They shall be remembered for ever,
They shall be alive for ever,
They shall be speaking for ever,
The people shall hear them for ever’. (VPl 229, 231)

  • 17 Lady Gregory’s Dervorgilla is based on the romanticized but widely-held tradition that the elopeme (...)

13I call into my thoughts all those who have died for Ireland. I say to myself their death was victory. Ireland, too, will be victorious. I fill myself with joy. ‘Dervorgilla’ that is the sorrow of Ireland, but ‘Kathleen’ looks in to the future.17

14It is scarcely possible to omit from these memories, some reference to ‘The Playboy’, the most stirring and memorable event so far in my theatrical career. The widow Quin was

Scarcely a Part to my Liking

  • 18 The Weekly Freeman reads ‘alloted’.
  • 19 Sara Allgood had played the Widow Quin (the Weekly Freeman reads ‘Quinn’) with great success from (...)
  • 20 In Roman mythology Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, emerges fully armed from the head of Jupiter. S (...)
  • 21 Sara Allgood played Molly Byrne, ‘a fine looking girl with fair hair’, in the first production of (...)
  • 22 Although Riders to the Sea was widely admired in Dublin, other plays by Synge had attracted opprob (...)

15but an actress cannot always choose and pick her part, but must loyally do her best with the character allotted18 to her.19 It must be said that Mr. Synge makes this comparatively easy, for all his characters are boldly and definitely outlined. In many plays the characterisation is vague and flabby, and out of a mass of dialogue, the moulding and vitalising is wholly left to the creative instincts of the players. Between these two kinds of dramatists, there is all the difference to the actors, between getting into a sack and into a close-fitting costume. All Mr. Synge’s conceptions spring, like Minerva, fully developed from his head.20 I had already played Molly Byrne in ‘The Well of the Saints’, and Maurya in ‘Riders to the Sea’, a part very precious to me, in which an eminent Manchester critic was kind enough to describe my impersonation as the finest old woman study on the English stage.21 I will never forget, if I were to live as old as Maurya herself, that historic night when the curtain rose for the first production of ‘The Playboy’. Naturally we were all in a state of trepidation. Mr. Synge’s former works had been so bitterly assailed,22 that we wondered how this play, his masterpiece, over which he had laboured so long, would be received. The play had been carefully rehearsed, and its production excited great expectations. The theatre was crowded that night, and many were turned away. Never did a band of Irish actors face a more cultured and representative Irish audience. Judges, barristers, solicitors, clergymen, artists, musicians, and literary men filled the stalls. Gaelic Leaguers, Sinn Feiners, University students—the pick of the freshest intellect of the city crowded the balconies and the basements. The first act went splendidly amid laughter and applause, and curtain after curtain were taken. The second act followed, and was loudly applauded. Just in the middle of the third act, following a speech, which one of the actors had been instructed to cut out, the storm burst, and the house broke up in disorder. For a week the Theatre was

Turned into a Pandemonium

  • 23 The Weekly Freeman reads ‘maladictions’.
  • 24 Trouble at the first production of The Playboy of the Western World erupted shortly before 11 p. m (...)

16It is not necessary here to recount the deplorable scenes that followed. The actors were the chief sufferers. For three or four nights the play was faithfully performed, but not a syllable was heard across the footlights. Rumours were prevalent that the stage would be rushed and the company maltreated. A force of sturdy policemen were placed in the precincts of the stage to guard against this, but nevertheless our nerves were shaken, and after the fearful strain of a week of turmoil, threatenings, and maledictions,23 we were left in a state of total collapse. One incident occurs to me, which has not been recorded, in which I played an impromptu part. On Saturday—the evening of the last performance—just before the public were admitted, I found the theatre crowded with police. They were ranged all around the walls and up the centre of the pit benches. Acting on an impulse I rushed on the stage, and passionately informed them that unless they left the theatre I would not play that night. Moved by the vehemence of my attack they looked uneasily at each other, but of course they could only follow their instructions. I did not carry out the threat, for it would only have made matters worse, and I had no desire to make the position of the directors more painful and complicated than it was at the time.24 The story of the Playboy went out to the end of the earth, and I have read accounts of it in newspapers from Korea, Australia, South Africa, Canada, United States, India, etc. It will go down the ages as one of the toughest fights in theatrical history, and posterity will not forget the little band of players, who, through eight performances, never deserted their posts, but unflinchingly faced the music, and played their parts through din and terrors of a great public upheaval. I may now say a few words on

My Two English Engagements

  • 25 Sara Allgood had played Isabella in William Poel’s production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure(...)
  • 26 Most of the actors Sara Allgood would have met in Stratford were members of the Benson Company. Fr (...)
  • 27 Sara Allgood became a great friend of the celebrated English actress Beatrice Stella Campbell, née (...)
  • 28 The Café Monico (named after its founders) had been established in 1877 in Shaftesbury Avenue and (...)

17To play Shakespeare is, perhaps, the highest ambition of every actor. To bound into a difficult and important role without long training and experience in minor parts very seldom happens in the profession. Yet this was my fortunate lot. Miss Horniman’s Manchester Company had accepted an engagement to play ‘Measure for Measure’ during the great annual Stratford-on-Avon Festival, to which people come from all parts of the world. Mr. Iden Payne, who managed the Abbey Theatre for some months in 1907, was in difficulty to find some one to play the trying part of Isabella. He offered it to me, and, thanks to the kindness of the directors, I was enabled to accept it. Mr. William Poel, the great Shakespearean scholar, was the producer. We played it first in Manchester, and then went to Stratford-on-Avon.25 In both places it was lavishly praised by the critics, and I was not overlooked, but the tribute I prize highest, was a letter I received from Mr. Poel on my return home, in which he said ‘Your great success in the part was due to your personality and temperament being exactly suited for it. You are the best Isabella the stage has ever seen, because you came nearest in my opinion, to Shakespeare’s conception and intention’. I should like to say something about Shakespeare’s delightful birthplace, and all the charming places and buildings hallowed by associations dear to every player. I should like to express my joy at playing in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, to tell of the many notable actors I met, but space will not permit,26 and I have still to relate my experience with Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Once again good fortune smiled, for I had the very great privilege of playing with and enjoying the friendship of the most brilliant and gifted actress on the English stage to-day. One step further—one experience more in my profession—from the romantic drama of Shakespeare to a classic play of Greece. Mrs. Patrick Campbell was kindness personified to me, and I shall never forget the help, the encouragement, the praise she found time to bestow on me during a very strenuous time when rehearsing ‘Deirdre’ and ‘Electra’ in London.27 I might also tell how she perhaps wisely stood in the way of a very lucrative engagement. A man came into the Café Monico, where we were rehearsing ‘Electra’, and asked Mrs. Campbell if she knew of a lady who looked like Edna May, that Mr. Frohman wanted a girl who looked like her, to send out with some musical comedy.28 He looked at me, and Mrs. Campbell promptly got up and stood between us. She said that

Frohman Would Give £100 a Week

18if he could get a girl who would suit. She, however, advised me to stick to classical drama, and advice coming from one as experienced in everything pertaining to the profession is worth following.

  • 29 Yeats warned the newly appointed Abbey manager Norreys Connell on 8 April 1909 (CL InteLex 1135) t (...)
  • 30 Since the Company was riven with feuds and jealousies, these remarks are far too cosy and naive. O (...)
  • 31 See The Merchant of Venice V i: ‘How far that little candle throws his beams! | So shines a good d (...)

19The editor asks me to talk of all my parts, but they are very numerous, for we have a large repertoire now at the Abbey that I have played in. I think our audiences at the Abbey like me in ‘ Riders to the Sea’, next after ‘ Kathleen ni Houlihan’, but I will admit to you that I would like a long part with plenty of fine clothes, in which it would not be necessary to make up a hundred years old.29 Instead of talking about all these parts you will let me say, will you not, that it is pleasant playing at the Abbey, where we have nearly all known each other for years, and can take pleasure in one another’s success.30 We are confident that some day our movement will take its place in the intellectual history of Ireland, and through the slights and blights of its early stages it will yet emerge as an honoured possession and a glory of our native land. It will perhaps then be said of us, that we did a ‘good deed in a naughty world’;31 although I fancy nowadays that there are many who think, that our deeds were very naughty in an exceptionally good world.


  • 32 Yeats to the writer, journalist, and student of the stage Huntly Carter (1875 – 1942), 31 March 19 (...)

20If Yeats had ventriloquized Sara Allgood’s voice in the Weekly Freeman article, he used her talk to the Manchester Playgoers’ Club on 17 April 1910 to disseminate his own views on the place of the theatre. Although delivered by Allgood at the outset of an Abbey tour to the city, her address, uncontaminated by Henderson or any others, was almost entirely his work, and he complained to Lady Gregory that it had given him ‘ more trouble than I expected’. He had begun writing the speech in mid-March 1910, describing it as a large piece of propagandist writing an anonimous attack on stage as convention, words that another mouth was ready to speak, a cockatrice’s egg to be let fall into an innocent basket.32

  • 33 CL InteLex 1330, to Lady Gregory, 12 April 1910.
  • 34 CL InteLex 1333, to Ben Iden Payne, 13 April 1910. The Abbey Company were due to appear at the Cour (...)
  • 35 Ibid.
  • 36 Edwin Theodore Heys (1876‑1937) was born in Stockport, the son of a leather merchant, and started (...)

21Although he thought it ‘now done’ by 31 March, he was to continue working at it over the coming days. He had originally hoped to be present at the talk, but found it clashed with a speech he himself was to give at the annual Stage Society Dinner in London, and he havered between the two engagements. News that he might not be in Manchester after all greatly; she had already suffered a nightmare over the fear of his manuscript ‘ not reaching her in time’, and, ‘evidently in a state of terror’, she dashed off a ‘wild letter’ to him.33 The main trouble, as he saw it, was that there would be a discussion after her lecture, and she might be required to give an unscripted reply. After some reflection, he decided that he should nevertheless fulfil his obligation to the Stage Society, especially since it would be ‘a good advertisement for the Abbey on the edge of our June tour’,34 but contacted the former Abbey manager Ben Iden Payne, asking him if he would reply to Sara Allgood’s talk, a responsibility he himself was originally to have undertaken. As he explained, the speech was ‘all right’ but she had ‘no experience in extempore speaking and would break down if she attempted it’.35 Unfortunately the sympathetic Payne was unable to attend the lecture either, but evidently sent Yeats a letter of good advice, warning him, among other things, not to ask Edwin Heys, the business manager of the Manchester Gaiety, to reply as he was full of ‘ clumsiness and gaucherie’.36 He may also have had a quiet word with the organisers of the event, and helped to ensure it received wide coverage in the Manchester press.

  • 37 Walter Butterworth (1862–1935) was at this time Chair of the Municipal Art Gallery Committee, in w (...)
  • 38 These were leading members of the Abbey Company who were in Manchester from 18 to 23 April 1910, p (...)

22The meeting, held in the Midland Hotel, was in the safe hands of Councillor Walter Butterworth, a self-made glass manufacturer and a man of wide culture,37 and Sara Allgood also brought her own team of supporters from the touring Abbey Company, comprising her sister, who acted as Maire O’Neill, Arthur Sinclair, Fred O’Donovan, J. M. Kerrigan,38 and the ever-faithful Henderson. Despite her bad dreams and panic attacks, the talk was very well received, winning not merely applause but cheers at its conclusion.

  • 39 Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Edward Martyn began planning a Dublin-based ‘Celtic Theatre’ in late June (...)
  • 40 Many reviewers and commentators remarked on the thinness of the audiences at the Abbey during its (...)

23The following TS, dictated to a typist by Yeats and corrected in his hand in pencil and pen, is now in the National Library of Ireland, where it is tentatively attributed to Fay. It is evident from newspaper reports that Sara Allgood prefaced the typewritten talk (which begins ‘It is pleasant coming to Manchester…’) with some remarks on the history of the Irish Dramatic Movement, but even these, which, taken from the Manchester Guardian of 18 April 1910, are included here, have a rhythm and register more characteristic of Yeats than her, and were also probably written by him. Typing errors have been silently corrected in the following version, but deleted words, and misspellings in Yeats’s own hand, are retained. In a very few cases words missing from the TS but necessary to the sense have been supplied from newspaper reports and appear in square brackets: The Irish theatre movement started about 1897 or 1898. It is hard to fix a date, for, like all great artistic movements, it took its rise not from one individual but from many. When in 1898 Mr. Yeats and others made a practical attempt to stage their plays in Dublin they could only do so by importing actors from England. We began very humbly with one performance in the year in some obscure Dublin hall unsuited for dramatic performances. Later we performed twice or three times a year in the Molesworth Hall, and finally in 1904 we opened in the Abbey Theatre.39 But the encouragement we got from the public was still slight. How cheerfully we used to play to an audience of 30 or 40 people. How encouraging was the presence of two new people in the stalls. But those who came once came again, and the last night I played in Dublin, about two weeks ago, the theatre was packed.40 Looking back on that modest beginning the result seems to me to be very wonderful.

  • 41 The metaphor of hot wax was a favourite of Yeats’s. In ‘ Reveries over Childhood and Youth’ he rec (...)
  • 42 The Young Irelanders, a group of nationalist intellectuals and activists, led by the poet and jour (...)
  • 43 The replacement of ‘succeeded’ by ‘got me much applause’ is a pencil correction apparently in Sara (...)
  • 44 The typescript has ‘Arran’. Since the Gaelic League, which was founded in Dublin on 31 July 1893, (...)
  • 45 This had been the gist of C. H. Herford’s article, ‘The Scandinavian Dramatists’, which Yeats publ (...)

24It is pleasant coming to Manchester, there and in London and Oxford we have had our best welcome outside Ireland, and surely <it must mean>; the approval of these three towns means that much of the best English intellect has thought well of us. We have done our work for the sake of our own people at home and their pleasure is of course our great aim, but we come to you to get a more impartial judgment, the very fact that our work touches on many things of importance to Ireland, & that it arouses passions that are deep in Irish hearts, prevents it being <cannot always be>; quite impartially judged. In every time and in every land the artist has carried his work—sometimes beyond the borders of his own country—with the feeling or at any rate the hope that he was being judged as posterity would judge. That I speak of posterity at all, perhaps you may say, shows that we take ourselves very seriously, you may not think it right for us to do that but we do take ourselves seriously. We believe our movement of great importance to Ireland. Ireland is a country where the wax is still hot, you can put a mark upon it that will last a long time.41 The last Irish artistic movement was 60 years ago, the movement we call ‘Young Ireland’ and it is still shaping men’s souls in a way that it must be hard for an Englishman to understand who lives in a country where the wax has hardened.42 Perhaps every country must pass through a formative time and that England has long left that time behind her. But it is of my own art of acting that I wish to speak and not of these great general questions. I think what brought us into notice first was that we studied a new kind of life—a life that had found little or no representation on the stage—When travelling companies come to Dublin I notice that they bring little but the life of the drawing-room, that play after play shows to us the life of rich people, the life of a very small class. Now, if I am to put into a sentence what we are trying to do, I must say that we are trying to do the opposite of all this; we study the characteristics—whether of speech or manner—in those classes which are most unlike that life of rich people, the life of that small class. It is the feeling of our country that <it tells>; impells us to do this. The ordinary play-goer—certainly the play goers who pay most for their seats—wish to see their own life upon the stage or the life that they would like to live, whereas our audience wishes to see upon the stage whatever life that is most Irish and that is always a life of people who are far removed from that life of rich people which is much the same all over the world; above all it is the life of peasants. We made our first success—and still get most of our success—from our playing peasants; my own first parts that <succeeded>; got me much applause43 were in Lady Gregory’s ‘Spreading the news’ and in Mr Yeats’s ‘ Kathleen ni Houlihan’. During our time in Ireland there has been something like a cult of the peasant created very greatly by the Gaelic League, which goes for its teachers of Irish to the country people of Kerry, or of Galway or of Aran[,] who speak Irish amongst themselves.44 Does not the peasant in every country preserve the memories and the legends of the race? Mr Yeats tells me that in the Norwegian intellectual movement, which climaxed in the work of Ibsen, they began with the study of the peasant and of the ancient Sagas of their country and made much use of this formula ‘To understand the peasant by the Saga the Saga by the peasant’. That formula has been true of our movement in Ireland, also the peasant has been the key by which we would unlock the door of the past.45 He remembers, just as the man of the commercial classes hopes, plans and looks into the future. I think that I can say we have put the Irish <peasant>; country man for the first time upon the Stage, we have studied him, we know him in his own home and it is only by that knowledge that the peasant ever can be represented. International acting—acting which seeks to represent life without special national and local knowledge—the moment it passes beyond the cosmopolitan life of the drawing room and the dining room, is an imposture and an illusion.

  • 46 The Corsican Brothers (Les Frères corses) was originally a novella by Alexandre Dumas, père, first (...)
  • 47 Yeats saw Giovanni Grasso’s Sicilian Players at the Lyric Theatre in London in March and April 191 (...)
  • 48 This was Padraic Colum’s three-act tragedy Thomas Muskerry, first produced at the Abbey on 5 May 1 (...)

25How can you represent the life of a class which is extravagant, dramatic, emotional and therefore always intensely characteristic by a stage tradition? When the travelling Company comes to us in Dublin it acts the life it is accustomed to act with a skill born of great experience, but when it goes outside that, one is bored. Think of those Corsican peasants in ‘The Corsican Brothers’ are we not reminded of charades we have played wrapped up in table-cloths?46 We feel that those lively players have certainly not studied in Corsica, we refuse to believe that they are peasants, the characterization does not go deeper than the table-cloth, nobody is to blame, you cannot get actors from Corsica every time the ‘Corsican Brothers’is to be played and they would not know English if you did; but I imagine if you were to compare <them>; the players I am speaking of with those Sicilian players—whom I am not so fortunate as to have seen—you would conclude that the International Theatre—however necessary—is an imposture.47 No, the Theatre must be always National if it is to represent the full life of any country; it must gather up all local knowledge and treasure it; it must find some means of using an actor because of the characteristics that have come to him from living in the place he was born in, among the people he grew up with, from the people he has worked with, from the streets he has walked through, if he has an accent which belongs to his birthplace you must not make him feel that it is a difficulty in his way, it should be a power that he can use, if he can put it off at will so much the better, but his capacity for it is an artistic gift, a thing to cherish. You must not select your actors as if they were pebbles on the sea shore, chosen by some child for their roundness and smoothness. Surely the welcome we have found—and above all the welcome given all over Europe to those Sicilian players means that people are beginning to feel this? But of course you will require playwrights who love all that is strange, characteristic, unexpected in life, National and local, not cosmopolitan writers. There is no need to confine themselves to the peasant; every class below that small world wide class of well-to-do people <though>; & in always increasing amount <when>; as it approaches the peasant <departs>; becomes local, capricious, characteristic. Our writers are gradually pushing their study here and there through Ireland into any class that contains any Irish characteristic <into other classes>;, we are this moment rehearsing a play which is a study of the Workhouse Parlour in a little country town. It is the work of Mr Padraic Colum who grew up in that life, it is not the life of peasants but it keeps a memory as it were of the fields. The hero of the play is a Workhouse Master who all his life has done everything for his family but who now in his old age wishes to live on his pension by himself, he longs for freedom, but they have debts and cannot let the pension go. He is a dreamer, an idealist, but when he writes verses, writes pedantically about Venus and Aurora, of the ballads the country-men buy upon Market days, and in the clumsy uncertain rhythm of the ballads.48

  • 49 Five matinee performances of Synge’s The Tinker’s Wedding were given in November 1909 by The After (...)
  • 50 Alfred the Great (849–99), the only English monarch to be called ‘ the Great’, is regarded as the (...)
  • 51 For Dervorgilla see above, note 17. Sara Allgood took on the title-role of Yeats’s Deirdre for the (...)
  • 52 The plot of The White Cockade, a three-act tragi-comedy, first produced at the Abbey Theatre on 9 (...)
  • 53 Annie Horniman had not only paid for Abbey Theatre in 1904, and subsidized it until 1910, but also (...)
  • 54 In his 1871 essay ‘The Destiny of Opera’ Richard Wagner points out that Shakespeare ‘was a play-ac (...)
  • 55 Such audiences were wont to appear during Horse Show Week performances in August and on national h (...)

26His speech too, is a mingling of peasant picturesqueness and the pedantry that comes of half education. It is a study in speech, the speech of a definite class and locality and indeed our writers have above all things studied speech, for they desire to get away in their writing as we do in our acting from that life that is the same all the world over that is why style is so important to them. Lady Gregory has made the most laborious study of the speech of the West of Ireland, I believe that she took down from the people very nearly two hundred thousand words of dialect before she had written a single play and J. M. Synge used to live for long periods in cottages on the Kerry mainland or in the Aran or Blasket Islands, writing down or getting by heart characteristics of speech. We too, in our acting give probably more study to speech as distinguished from pantomime than is usual with players, that is necessary where the style which is always among other things a form of music is elaborate <though>; or unusual. Above all it is important in dialect, where the rhythm is as marked as it is in verse and perhaps more difficult because less definite, less subject to law. I am told that when Mr Tree played Synge’s ‘Tinker’s Wedding’ the other day, the substitution of the hard precise pronunciation, the continual emphasis of every word which is natural with people living a hurried, crowded life, in the place of the slow meditative, musical cadence of Irish country speech, with its rise and fall like a wave, took character out of the play and force out of it, robbed it of all its salt and sap and made it a dull impossible thing.49 Sentences which are entirely right when rightly spoken, were long and overloaded. <because the emphasis>; It was like a man running in a heavy top coat as one playgoer has said to me—‘ a heavy top coat that would have been very comfortable wear for a man walking quietly’—One must always remember that words are the principal expression of character and thought, otherwise we would carry on the business of life with pantomime. <Pantomime is of course of supreme importance upon the stage but in the noblest dramatic form it comes second and not first for it is only>; I have seen it two or three times stated in quite intelligent criticism, that the perfect play would have no words at all, to say that indeed has become one of the unconventions of the conventional, which like other conventions are repeated <like>; without thought. That is like saying that the perfect life would contain no speech, for after all the Theatre is Life—the life of the mind the life of the passions—an appeal to both eye and ear. The patriotic feeling of a large part of our audience has widened the subject matter of our art in other directions also. An English audience is but very faintly interested in let us say Alfred the Great50 as compared with its interest in the life it lives or hopes to live or pretends to live, an Irish audience—or a section of it at any rate—is as much interested in real or legendary history as an Elizabethan audience. This has enabled our playwrights to make romantic drama and the drama in verse once more a reality; among the parts that I have been most applauded for are Lady Gregory’s ‘Dervorgilla’—a one act play about the woman who brought the Norman into Ireland and Mr Yeats’s ‘Deirdre’ a tragedy in verse describing the life and death of an ancient Irish Queen, while J. M. Synge’s ‘ Deirdre of the Sorrows’ in which Miss O’Neill took the principal part has been <perhaps>; one of the most <popular>; successful plays of our season51 and this brings me back again to that formula quoted from the Scandinavians ‘ to understand the Saga by the peasant the peasant by the Saga’. Mr Synge once said to a friend ‘By using dialect, by putting everything in the way it is imagined in folk-lore we may be able to re-create again historical drama’. This was just after Lady Gregory’s ‘ White Cockade’ which used the method first, then he went on ‘ Archaeology has killed historical drama, when we begin to write now we are so anxious to realize historical people in the terms of some past life, that we see them outside ourselves’.52 I want to elaborate this point a little for the form in which Deirdre of the Sorrows was cast may puzzle you. Mr Synge, Lady Gregory and in a much lesser degree Mr Yeats, for he is limited by his vehicle of verse, write about history, ancient heroes and so on in a dialect which is not to them the speech of peasants alone, they think when they write of endless folk-stories in which kings and queens of legend and great historical characters are made to <speak in the cottages of the West>; use it and <as>; of a speech which though a living <tongue>; speech in the cottages of the West resembles in its syntax and its use of metaphor the Irish language that <they>; the heroes really did <speak>; use or that their first creators <spoke>; used. This language is to them a kind of witch’s mirror in which the world reflects itself in a romantic shape without ceasing to live, but I am going outside my province and the subject I have set myself, I must get back to my own art. <Even if our work was not so closely associated with Miss Horniman and so much indebted to her it would still be impossible for me to finish without pointing out that her admirable theatre here in Manchester is also>; One other necessity as it seems to me of abundant drama [,] drama, I mean, full of life in its detailed and its total effect, whether in the acting or in the writing has been <given to y>; made possible to you in Manchester, as to us in Dublin by the generosity of Miss Horniman, a great and rare generosity.53 Wagner says somewhere or other ‘That every remarkable play of antiquity was written for some one definite company, for some one group of players, whose characteristics the dramatist could master and express himself through.54 It is a great evil when a dramatist gets into the habit of building his work round about the personality of some <actor>; one popular actor, but the reason of that is that it is only one, one actor who is more anxious to be himself than to act. The history of the Theatre has shown that whereas [in] a stock company each member of which plays many parts, something is created which is like a musical instrument and that author and stage-manager alike can play upon this instrument as they [never] can upon anything that is made out of the more or less accidental and casual association. Where a stage manager knows his players for a long time, he is not under the necessity of imposing upon them his own voice and ways. He can use all their ways, their tricks of speach, their habits of fealing. He can leave them freer and <know what they are going to do, and he can also help them more. They can express themselves>; & so their work will give you the sensation of life instead of seeming, as acting so often does, a mere work of skill. And just as the Company itself becomes a kind of family, so does an audience which is grown fond of seeing the same people, night after night, bind itself to the player with a bond of sympathy, almost affection. Indeed this bond between player and public seems to me altogether essential, at least to the players and the playwright who are trying to make anything new. Both players and public require to be trained, trained for work of a new kind, and prolonged association makes them patient and ready to forgive each other much. We find in Dublin that every now and then we get an audience, much less sympathetic to our more daring attempts than is usual and when this happens someone will come into the green room and say: ‘Did you notice that <there>; they were all new people in the theatre. I hardly recognised a face’. Sometimes a holiday or a race meeting will bring us an audience of this kind.55 <The people that make it up>; The people that make up this new audience are just as intelligent as the old audience, but they have not learned how to see or to listen or what to look for, and what to wait for. The best audience of all, the quickest to take pleasure, the keenest in criticism is one in which there are many people, who have been many times to see the same play, who indeed know it so well that we hear at times a sort of gasp of distress in the pit, when a player forgets a sentence. I wonder if Miss Horniman’s company has had a similar experience. Yes, the art of the theatre, like every other art depends upon friendly association between the artist and his public, <and more than any of them>; upon the building up, as it were, of a kindly household of the arts, as little professional as may be, certainly not at all commercial, but above all things very human.

  • 56 See Holloway NLI MS 1809.
  • 57 Sara Allgood to Holloway on 20 April 1910, NLI MS 1809.

27Although there was a discussion after the talk, Sara Allgood apparently played little part in it. According to Henderson, the contributions were ‘good, bad & indifferent’, although Heys lived down to Payne’s low opinion of him, making ‘ some extraordinary statements’ which he [Henderson] found himself, as he later informed the inveterate theatre-goer and assiduous diarist Joseph Holloway, compelled to arise & answer. Such as the Irish players could only act effectively Irish plays…. He also stated that Miss Horniman got the Abbey to play English as well as Irish plays there, only the patent prevented her & compelled her to play only pieces by Irish writers or on Irish subjects’.56 This intervention did nothing to diminish the triumph of the evening and Sara Allgood, together with the Abbey actors who had accompanied her, stayed on at the Midland Hotel for a convivial dinner hosted by the Playgoers’ Club. She herself was confident that all had gone splendidly, assuring Holloway on 20 April that her ‘address to the Manchester Playgoers, was very well received indeed, and that she was ‘vain enough to think that it helped in a way, our success here this week’.57


1 Sarah (Sara) Ellen Allgood (1880-1950), the leading Abbey actress had, appropriately, been born at 45 Mid-Abbey Street on 29 Nov 1880 (not 1883 as she later claimed). After attending Marlborough Street Training College, Dublin, she worked as an upholsterer and French polisher, but began acting with Maud Gonne’s nationalist society, ‘Daughters of Erin’, and through them became associated with the Fays. She joined of the Irish National Theatre Society in 1903, appearing in Yeats’s The King’s Threshold in October of that year, and acting regularly with the Company thereafter. After the resignation of Maire nic Shiubhlaigh from the Society early in 1906, she assumed the place of leading lady and stayed on until 1913, playing major female roles. From 1913 she began to freelance on the English stage, appearing with the Liverpool Repertory Theatre, and also at Annie Horniman’s Gaiety Theatre in Manchester, although she returned to the Abbey on short-term contracts until July 1915, when she landed the title role in J. Hartley Manners’ Peg o’ My Heart, which was being toured by the Alfred Butt Company. In 1916 she went with the play to Australia and New Zealand, where she married her leading man, Gerald Henson. A daughter, born in January 1918, survived only for an hour, and in November of that year her husband died in Wellington, New Zealand, in the great influenza epidemic. She returned to Europe in May 1920 and on 21 June arrived in Dublin, where she appeared in several plays at the Abbey over that summer. In September 1920 she opened in Lennox Robinson’s The Whiteheaded Boy which enjoyed a long run at the Ambassador’s Theatre, London, and on tour, and in December 1921 began a season with ‘The Irish Players’ at the Everyman Theatre, London. In August 1923 she returned to the Abbey, playing numerous parts, including on 2 March 1924 what was to become her favourite role, Juno Boyle in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. She had made a film while touring Australia in 1918, and in 1929 appeared as Mrs White, the heroine’s mother, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, the first British talkie. A year later Hitchcock cast her as Juno in the film version of Juno and the Paycock. She moved to Hollywood in 1940, where she was cast as Beth Morgan (this time the hero’s mother) by John Ford in the 1941 Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley. She was subsequently offered a long-term contract with 20th Century-Fox, which made her comfortably off but which reduced her parts to a series of stereotyped Irish mothers and servants. Her final screen appearance was as Mrs Monahan, a small role, in Fox’s Cheaper by the Dozen in 1950. She became an American citizen in 1945.

2 William Alexander Henderson (1863-1927) had been secretary and business manager of the Abbey Theatre 1906-7, and was a staunch supporter of Sara Allgood. Despite the reservations of Lady Gregory (1852-1932) and Annie Horniman (1860–1937), respectively a director and the proprietor of the Abbey, he was reappointed secretary of the Theatre in February 1908, largely at Sara Allgood’s urging.

3 CL InteLex 1113.

4 Berg.

5 The current editor of the Weekly Freeman was Matthew Michael O’Hara (1873–1927). As a former drama critic on the daily Freeman’s Journal he retained his interest in the theatre. In January 1907 he had written an inflammatory anonymous review of The Playboy of the Western World which helped to stoke public outrage at the play.

6 The then ‘National Dramatic Society’ had moved into the Camden Street Hall on 8 August 1902, and the following day the members appointed a committee with officers: Yeats as President, with AE (George Russell), Maud Gonne, and Douglas Hyde as Vice-Presidents. William Fay wrote to Yeats on 12 August 1902 (NLI): ‘It is not large and would perhaps seat 200…. The hall is in Camden Street close to Harrington Street, and is no. 34. The trams pass the door, but it is so far from the street that there is no annoyance from tram bells. The stage is as deep as Clarendon Street [location of St Teresa’s Temperance Hall, a former venue of the Fays’ Company] but not so wide and we will have to resort to the simplest of scenery so as to have room to dress and store props during the shows’. The hall was rented for 12 months and the company moved in on 8 August, but only used it for one set of performances, from 4 to 6 December 1902, although it continued to serve for rehearsals and storage. The stage was less than six feet deep and, since there were no dressing-rooms, actors had to change costume at the side of the stage. The auditorium, described by W. A. Henderson as ‘a draughty ill-lighted hall and without fire’, was approached down a long dark passage. From March 1903 until the opening of the Abbey Theatre in late 1904 the Company performed in the more satisfactory and commodious Molesworth Hall. For more detail and drawings, see Christopher Murray, ‘Three Sketches by Jack B. Yeats of the Camden Street Theatre, 1902’, YA3 125–32 and Plates 10, 11 a and b.

7 Sara Allgood joined Maud Gonne’s nationalist women’s society Inghinidhe na hEirean (Daughters of Erin), and became a member of the dramatic class. Under its auspices she took the part of Lady Selina O’Brien in The Harp That Once by Alice Milligan, produced by William and Frank Fay on behalf of the Society at the Antient Concert Rooms on 26 August 1901. She gave a number of songs and recitations at coffee-houses and modest venues in Dublin through 1901 and 1902, and early in 1903, hearing that an ‘Irish National Dramatic Society’ had been formed, she approached Frank Fay about joining. With his encouragement, she began attending rehearsals in the Camden Street Hall, while he also gave her private tuition in acting and elocution. She made her first appearance for the Irish National Theatre Society, as it was now known, in March 1903.

8 During the 1890s the Fays’ amateur companies performed a variety of comedies, screaming farces, and melodramas in various venues throughout Dublin, but from January 1897 they began to stage their productions regularly but not exclusively in the Lecture Hall of the Coffee Palace Temperance Hotel in Townsend Street, sometimes as the ‘Ormonde Drama Company’ and sometimes as a ‘Comedy Combination’.

9 In Lady Gregory’s Twenty-Five, first produced at the Molesworth Hall on 14 March 1903 and revived there from 14 to 16 January 1904, an emigrant returns to marry his sweetheart but, discovering that she is now the wife of an impoverished farmer, deliberately loses to him at cards to save his farm. Sara Allgood’s first speaking part was as Princess Buan in Yeats’s The King’s Threshold on 8 October 1903. The Company’s first visit to London took place on 2 May 1903 when they played well received matinee and evening programmes at the Queen’s Gate Hall in South Kensington. Although disappointed to miss this, Sara Allgood was part of the no less successful second London engagement at the Royalty Theatre on 26 March 1904.

10 Sara Allgood played Brighid MacConnell in Padraic Colum’s Broken Soil, produced at the Molesworth Hall on 3 December 1903 and later rewritten as The Fiddler’s House, and Cathleen, one of the daughters in J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea, produced at Molesworth Hall on 25 February 1904. She took over the part of the mother, Bridget Gillane, in Cathleen ni Houlihan, when the play was revived as part of the opening programme of the new Abbey Theatre from 27 December 1904 to 3 January 1905.

11 Sara Allgood was apprenticed as a French polisher and upholsterer to Messrs. P. J. Walsh & Sons, who sold high quality antique and modern furniture from their warerooms at 19 and 20 Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin, and who also operated as cabinet-makers, upholsterers, valuers, house agents, and auctioneers. In her unpublished ‘Memories’(Berg) she described the firm, which ceased trading in 1922, as ‘ a wonderful antique shop’ which ‘ stood for everything that was of the best’. The architect and diarist Joseph Holloway (1861-1944) had sketched out a rough plan of the new Theatre by 15 April 1904 and work on converting the Mechanics Institute and adjoining premises began soon thereafter. Reconstruction continued through the summer and autumn, and the first rehearsals, which Sara Allgood attended, were held in the still far from finished building on 31 October 1904. The site of the Abbey was a few minutes’ walk from Bachelor’s Walk on the Dublin Quays.

12 The Weekly Freeman reads ‘not’.

13 As well as playing Bridget Gillane in Cathleen ni Houlihan in the opening programme of the Abbey Theatre, Sara Allgood also took the part Mary Fallon, the long-suffering wife of the lugubrious supposed murderer Bartley Fallon (played by William Fay), in the first production of Lady Gregory’s one-act comedy Spreading the News. She made an immediate hit, the United Irishman of 31 Dec 1904 claiming (1) that that the ‘ chief credit of the success of the piece’ was due to her, while John Masefield in the Manchester Guardian of 2 January 1905 (3) reported that ‘ her acting of an indignant countrywoman was excellent. She has a great fund of spontaneous humour, and when allied with so genuine a humourist as Mr. W. G. Fay she carries all before her’. Although Mrs Tarpey, who keeps an apple stall, is on stage throughout the play, and although her deafness is a source of the misunderstandings which constitute the plot, her part, being more choric and passive, does not offer the acting possibilities provided by Mrs Fallon. Most of the critics were respectful of Frank Fay’s performance as Cuchulain in On Baile’s Strand, and the only paper to share Sara Allgood’s reservations was the United Irishman of 31 December 1904 which accused him (1) of ‘a considerable amount of melodramatic acting’, and alleged that ‘neither in physique nor in his conception of Cuchullain’s character did he show any relation to the heroic’. Frank Fay had taken the part of Seanchan, the hero and bard, in the first production of The King’s Threshold on 8 October 1903, and was such a success that Yeats dedicated the play to the ‘memory of Frank Fay and his beautiful speaking in the character of Seanchan’. His latest performances of the role had been at the Royalty Theatre, London, on 26 March 1904 and at a private staging in the Molesworth Hall on 26 April.

14 In her ‘Memories’ Sara Allgood recalled that ‘Frank Fay would be about twenty-five years old, when I first met him, I was almost fifteen. He was a short, ruddy-faced young man, very peppery and quick-tempered, but with a wonderful love and appreciation of the theatre. When he took notice of me and asked me to study elocution and learn everything connected with the stage, I was delighted. I used to go up to the Hall in Camden Street every Saturday—after I had finished my work in the shop, clutching my few shillings (wages) in my little hand—and with him I would work on my breathing; my Ah’s and Oh’s; my poetry reading; deportment; principles of voice production; the secret of articulation; how to pitch the voice. Then he would make me walk across and up stage, with books balanced on my head for poise; how to make an entrance; how to sit, and so on. He would get so intent on his teaching that time would be completely forgotten. I would work there all during the afternoon, for about five hours, without a stop. Then I would walk home, right across the city—about two and one-half to three miles—put on the kettle and drink countless cups of tea to get rid of my thirst as well as my tiredness’. She goes on to reveal that Fay later proposed to her, and, when she refused, ‘wrote me back, saying he would wait, because he would rather have ‘Hell with you that Heaven without you’. Elsewhere in ‘ Memories’ she described ‘him once keeping me on a poem for three months to get the right intonation on the word ‘strange’… the same thing with a poem of W. B. Yeats. I had to say, ‘It had become a glimmering girl’, and I had to make my audience see a ‘glimmering girl’ by the tone of my voice’.

15 The graduate student from the University of Chicago is unidentified and may be a device to deflect a fuller treatment of the theatrical quarrels of 1905–6. Certainly Sara Allgood is being faux naïve (or Yeats excessively diplomatic) in pretending to know little of them, since she was implicated, not least because of her rivalry with Maire nic Shiubhlaigh. To make possible the payment of certain members of the Company, the constitution of the Irish National Theatre Society was radically rewritten in the autumn of 1905, transforming it from a cooperative to a limited liability company. Lady Gregory, Synge, and Yeats held the majority of the shares in the new company, and thus now exercised a controlling interest in it. As a result over two-thirds of the members seceded from the Society, mainly because they objected to the more authoritarian and professionalized regime, but also for a variety of personal motives and jealousies, as in the case of Maire nic Shuibhlaigh, who took offence at being offered the same salary as Sara Allgood. Thus, when Padraic Colum appealed to Yeats [4 January 1906] to ‘‘bring the Society back together, he replied that ‘a re-united society would be five wild-cats struggling in a bag’’’ (CL4 280; CL InteLex, 303). However, discovering that the seceders retained important legal rights under the terms of the patent, Yeats and the new National Theatre Society were obliged to buy them off, handing over costumes and a sum of £ 50. With this money they set up a rival group, formally instituted as ‘The Theatre of Ireland’ in late May 1906. Bad blood persisted between the two organizations for several years: Annie Horniman and Yeats accused the seceders of blackmail, while the Theatre of Ireland contended that Yeats had seized the hitherto democratic Irish National Theatre Society and bent it to his own self-interested purposes. In November 1908 Casimir Markiewicz (1874–1932) gave him a severe fright by threatening him with a libel action for allegedly claiming that the members who resigned from the old Irish National Theatre Society were a ‘pack of thieves & blackmailers who stole £ 50 of his… money’, and later that month there was an acrimonious row over the inadvertent use of the Abbey name by the Theatre of Ireland, in consequence of which Annie Horniman banned them for ever from hiring the Abbey Theatre. Although Yeats had approved of her action at the time, by 1910 he was far more amiably disposed towards them and was evidently reluctant to revive contentious memories.

16 The first Cathleen ni Houlihan was Maud Gonne, who played the part with electric effect at St Teresa’s Hall from 2 to 5 April 1902 (when Sara Allgood was in fact twenty-one years of age). Thereafter the part was briefly taken by Helen Laird (‘Honor Lavelle’) and then by Maire nic Shuibhlaigh (who accentuated the ‘ supernatural element in the character’) until her resignation from the Abbey Company in January 1906, at which point Sara Allgood made it hers and regularly received rave reviews.

17 Lady Gregory’s Dervorgilla is based on the romanticized but widely-held tradition that the elopement of Dervorgilla, wife of Tiernan O’Rourke, King of Breffny, with Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster, had led to the expulsion of Diarmuid and to his inviting Henry II and the Anglo-Normans into Ireland in 1170–1, and thus to the subsequent seven-hundred-year English occupation. The play takes place outside Mellifont Abbey, where an anonymous and now aged Dervorgilla has been trying to expiate her guilt by dedicating her life to penance, prayer, and charitable deeds. In the course of the play her true identity is revealed, the lads and girls she has befriended turn against her, and she realizes that, despite all her efforts, she will never escape ‘the swift, unflinching, terrible judgment of the young!’. In Cathleen ni Houlihan another old woman inspires young men to armed resistance against English domination and is transformed into a vigorous young woman with ‘the walk of a queen’. Dervorgilla, had first been produced at the Abbey Theatre on 31 October 1907, but Lady Gregory rewrote it in the early summer of 1908 and the new versions was staged on 8 October of that year. Sara Allgood had made an immediate hit as Dervorgilla, and the play was often revived.

18 The Weekly Freeman reads ‘alloted’.

19 Sara Allgood had played the Widow Quin (the Weekly Freeman reads ‘Quinn’) with great success from the first production of The Playboy of the Western World in January 1907. Her appearance, intonation, and comic timing made her particularly effective in the part of the feisty older woman who vies with Pegeen Mike for the attention of the Playboy, but in February 1911, tired of being cast in middle-aged or elderly roles, she refused to play it anymore and Eileen O’Doherty took it over.

20 In Roman mythology Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, emerges fully armed from the head of Jupiter. Synge’s conceptions may or may not have emerged ‘fully developed’, but their execution often took years to bring to fruition. As Sara Allgood goes on to remark, he ‘laboured so long’ over The Playboy of the Western World, which he began in September 1904 and was still revising up to its first performance at the beginning of 1907, and he was unable to complete Deirdre of the Sorrows, on which he had started serious work in October 1907, by the time of his death later this month.

21 Sara Allgood played Molly Byrne, ‘a fine looking girl with fair hair’, in the first production of The Well of the Saints, from 4 to 11 February 1905, although in later productions she was cast as the ancient blind crone Mary Doul. On 20 January 1906 she had switched roles in Riders to the Sea, from the daughter, Cathleen, to Maurya, the aged mother who in the course of the play loses the last of her eight sons. At Yeats’s request, she was to recite Maurya’s final speech at Synge’s funeral later this month. Commenting on her performance as Isabella in the Manchester Guardian of 13 April 1908, ‘C.E.M’. (i.e. C. E. Montague) wrote that, although ‘ the best we have seen’, it was ‘not, to our thinking, as perfect as her Maurya in ‘Riders to the Sea’, but then that is perhaps the finest piece of tragic acting that any English-speaking actress has done in our time, and her Isabel, though less fine, does not shame it’. Born in London of Irish parentage, the influential journalist Charles Edward Montague (1867–1928) was the theatre critic of the Liberal daily Manchester Guardian. He was a supporter of AEFH’s Gaiety Theatre, and published selections of his drama criticism as The Manchester Stage, 1880 – 1900 (1900) and Dramatic Values (1911). In a letter of 27 April 1908 Yeats told John Quinn (CL InteLex, 880) that he was ‘after Archer and Walkley about the most influential’ critic in England.

22 Although Riders to the Sea was widely admired in Dublin, other plays by Synge had attracted opprobrium. The Shadow of the Glen, in which a husband feigns death to catch his wife in an adulterous relationship, had been attacked in the nationalist press on its first production in October 1903, when it occasioned the resignations of Maud Gonne and Douglas Hyde from the Irish National Theatre Society, as well as the departure of the then leading actors Dudley Digges and Maire Quinn, who subsequently emigrated to the USA. The controversy over its morality and authenticity flared up again in early January 1905, after its revival at the Abbey Theatre. His next play, The Well of the Saints, was roundly panned on its first production in early February and on 29 March of that year Lady Gregory explained to John Quinn (NYPL) that there was ‘ a strong undercurrent of feeling against Synge’. The received wisdom in Dublin was that his chronic ill-health had twisted his mind towards sensuality and morbidity, and rumours circulated in Dublin in the days before its premiere that there would be trouble during the run of The Playboy.

23 The Weekly Freeman reads ‘maladictions’.

24 Trouble at the first production of The Playboy of the Western World erupted shortly before 11 p. m. on Saturday, 26 January 1907. In ‘J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time’ Yeats, who was in Scotland, recalls (E & I, 311) receiving a telegram informing him ‘Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift’. When in the third act of the play the Widow Quin urges the Playboy, Christy, to make his escape from the village he retorts that ‘It’s Pegeen I’m seeking only, and what’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself maybe’. While the image was mildly erotic, ‘shift’ was an acceptable contemporary term for a female flannel undergarment but Holloway confirmed that it was ‘this phrase that settled it!’, adding that it ‘ was made more crudely brutal on the first night by W. G. Fay. ‘Mayo girls’ was substituted for ‘chosen females’. Following adverse publicity in the Dublin press, disturbances on Monday night were more sustained and violent and the management called in the police to keep order and arrest troublemakers. The services of the police were retained at each subsequent performance and so it is strange that Sara Allgood should have waited until the very last show before making her remonstration. She may have been provoked by the fact that by Saturday the vehemence of the audience had greatly diminished, while the deployment of the police continued to be very unpopular in Dublin. Holloway, who attended both the matinée and the evening performances on that day, noted that by then the police, although ‘as thick as blackberries in September’ had ‘no work to do & idly stood by’.

25 Sara Allgood had played Isabella in William Poel’s production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure from 11 to 18 Apr 1908 to mark the official opening of AEFH’s Gaiety Theatre in Manchester, before transferring to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 21 and 22 April. Although her contract, dated 25 March 1908 (Berg), was formally with Ben Iden Payne (1881–1976), the Gaiety’s manager who had known her while working at the Abbey Theatre from January to June 1907, it was William Poel who had gone out of his way to engage her. As Robert Speaight notes in his William Poel and the Elizabethan Revival (1954), he had set his heart on Sara Allgood playing Isabella: ‘although Sybil Thorndike was a member of the company, Poel would not accept her as Isabella. He had a great desire to see Sara Allgood in the part and persuaded Miss Horniman to engage her specially. Poel himself… played Angelo’ (95). The production was widely reported in the local press on Monday, 13 Apr 1908, in reviews which gave glowing uniform praise to Sara Allgood’s performance. William Poel (born William Pole; 1852–1934), actor, playwright, and Shakespearean scholar, had founded the Elizabethan Stage Society in 1895.

26 Most of the actors Sara Allgood would have met in Stratford were members of the Benson Company. Francis Robert (‘Frank’) Benson (1858–1939), actor and theatre manager, had set up his own touring company in 1883, shortly after leaving Oxford. In 1886 he was asked to manage the spring Festival at Stratford-upon-Avon, which had been established in 1879, and he continued to direct it annually until 1916, by which time he had produced all but two of Shakespeare’s plays there. Later in 1908 Benson asked Sara Allgood join his Company for February 1909 and also for three weeks at the Stratford Festival later that year, but Yeats and Lady Gregory refused to give her leave. Yeats, who had known Benson since early 1901 when they were planning his Company’s Dublin production of Diarmuid and Grania, met him again in April 1908, during his visit to Stratford to see Sara Allgood play Isabella, a performance he described to Quinn on 27 April Quinn (CL InteLex 880) as ‘wonderful…. She got a great reception from the audience’.

27 Sara Allgood became a great friend of the celebrated English actress Beatrice Stella Campbell, née Tanner (1865–1940), who used the stage name Mrs Patrick Campbell, in November 1908, when Mrs Campbell, honouring a promise to Yeats, took the title role in a hugely successful production of his Deirdre at the Abbey. Sara Allgood acted with her as First Musician, and, as she later recalled in ‘Memories’, the Company ‘were all thrilled and delighted, and a friendship began between Stella and myself that was only severed by death. Never will I forget her wonderful kindness, not only to me, but to the other members of the cast’. Mrs Campbell subsequently invited her to repeat the performance in London, and also play Chrysothemis, the sister of Electra, in Arthur Symons’s translation of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra, staged in a double bill in a series of matinees at the New Theatre from 27 November to 11 December. ‘What a lucky girl I was to be chosen by her for parts of such calibre’, Sara Allgood enthused in her ‘Memories’, ‘She paid me Ten Pounds a week, a huge salary to me at that time, and she also insisted that I be her guest all during rehearsals and the London season, so I had no hotel bill to pay. What a joy to me to be an honoured guest in her delightful little ‘Queen Anne’ house, 33 Kensington Square’. Yeats noticed the effects of this friendship, writing to Lady Gregory on 23 November 1908 (CL InteLex 994): ‘I was greatly amused at the changed look of Miss Allgood. She has grown fashionable under Mrs Campbells instructions. It is like the transformation of people who go from the provinces to Paris in Balzac’. Mrs Campbell also offered to get her an engagement of £ 50 a week at the Coliseum to sing Folk Songs, and on 22 December 1908, shortly after her return from London, she informed Holloway that ‘Mrs Campbell just fell in love with her—her kindness to her surpassed anything. She would not let her return until she was quite well. She would wish to keep her always’.

28 The Café Monico (named after its founders) had been established in 1877 in Shaftesbury Avenue and was enlarged in 1885–86 to the north of Piccadilly. Edna (the Weekly Freeman reads ‘Enda’) May was the stage name of Edna May Pettie (1878–1948), famous on both sides of the Atlantic as a star in Edwardian musical comedies, many mounted by the impresario Charles Frohman (1860-1915). Although an American, her break-through came in England, where she appeared as the heroine in The Belle of New York, a play which had disappointed in the USA but was a smash hit in London in 1898. She went on to enjoy a highly successful theatrical career, but had given up the stage in 1907, following her marriage to the millionaire Oscar Lewisohn. Sara Allgood was possessed of a much-admired singing voice and had the personality to carry off May-like roles, and at this time rumours were rife in Dublin that she was seeking engagements in a variety of English companies

29 Yeats warned the newly appointed Abbey manager Norreys Connell on 8 April 1909 (CL InteLex 1135) that the actors would ‘all insist on new clothes, for which they have a passion’, and to remember that there was ‘no crime they are not capable of to get them’.

30 Since the Company was riven with feuds and jealousies, these remarks are far too cosy and naive. On 9 March 1909, even as Yeats was helping her write these words, Henderson spoke to Holloway (NLI) ‘of the jealousies of the Company—especially of Arthur Sinclair who always posed as the leading man. He is a mass of conceit…. He is very hard to manage lately & kept the audience waiting for ten minutes last week just to annoy Miss Allgood’. Sara Allgood herself was to admit in her ‘Memories’ that her attempt ‘to resume my duties as stage manager and producer’, after her tour in Measure for Measure, was ‘not for long’: ‘The company had become too difficult for me to manage, the biggest offenders were Arthur Sinclair, my sister Marie O’Neill, and Michael Dolan, so I asked the Directors to release me, and get someone for the position who would be obeyed’. Yeats later confided in L. A. G. Strong that peace in the Abbey company ‘varied with the size of Sara Allgood’s waist’ (Green Memories (1961), 260).

31 See The Merchant of Venice V i: ‘How far that little candle throws his beams! | So shines a good deed in a naughty world’. Yeats, who was particularly fond of this scene, had used The Merchant of Venice as the text for a class in speaking poetry he ran for the Abbey Company in the spring of 1908.

32 Yeats to the writer, journalist, and student of the stage Huntly Carter (1875 – 1942), 31 March 1910 (CL InteLex 1321). In fable, a cockatrice was a legendary serpent, said to be able to kill by its glance alone, and which was supposedly hatched from a cock’s egg.

33 CL InteLex 1330, to Lady Gregory, 12 April 1910.

34 CL InteLex 1333, to Ben Iden Payne, 13 April 1910. The Abbey Company were due to appear at the Court Theatre, London, from 30 May to 25 June.

35 Ibid.

36 Edwin Theodore Heys (1876‑1937) was born in Stockport, the son of a leather merchant, and started business life in the cotton cloth trade. He served as business manager of the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, from 1907 to October 1912, when he resigned to set up his own touring company, which, among other productions, managed the provincial tours of Stanley Houghton’s immensely popular Hindle Wakes. In 1920 he was on the board of the company that bought the Gaiety from Annie Horniman to convert into a cinema, and when this venture did not succeed he was associated with other cinemas in Bolton and Manchester. In 1909 he became deeply infatuated with Sara Allgood’s sister, Maire O’Neill, but he had given Yeats and Lady Gregory considerable trouble by disputing their choice of plays on the Abbey’s Manchester tours.

37 Walter Butterworth (1862–1935) was at this time Chair of the Municipal Art Gallery Committee, in which capacity he helped build Manchester’s impressive collection of Pre-Raphaelite pictures. He was also a member of the Manchester Playgoers’ Club, the Literary Club and, as an accomplished linguist, of the Dante Society.

38 These were leading members of the Abbey Company who were in Manchester from 18 to 23 April 1910, performing at Gaiety Theatre, as part of a tour which had included Belfast and Leeds. Mary (Molly) Agnes Allgood (1886–1952), the younger sister of Sara Allgood, took her stage-name, Maire O’Neill, from her maternal grandmother. She had been a member of the Daughters of Erin, and was, like her sister, a French polisher before taking her first Abbey part as Cathleen in Riders to the Sea on 20 Jan 1906. She went on to rival Sara Allgood as the Abbey’s leading lady, and was currently engaged to Synge; she remained at the Abbey after his death in 1909, only leaving in 1911, when she married the journalist George H. Mair (1887–1926). Shortly after Mair’s death she married Arthur Sinclair and toured with him, although the marriage was not a success. In later life she worked mainly on the London stage and in British film and radio. Francis Quinton (‘Mac’) McDonnell (1883-1951), who acted under the name Arthur Sinclair, had originally worked in a law office but joined the Irish National Theatre Society in late 1904, making his first appearance on 27 Dec 1904, the opening night of the Abbey Theatre. He subsequently became one of the leading actors in the Company, until his resignation in 1915. Sara Allgood had recently rebuffed his amorous overtures and, although supportive on this occasion, he was taking revenge by disrupting her work at the Abbey. Fred O’Donovan (1886–1952) was the stage name of the Dubliner Freddy Saunders. He joined the Abbey in February 1908 after answering an advertisement and made an immediate success in the part of James Walsh, the spoiled priest and anti-hero of W. F. Casey’s The Man Who Missed the Tide. He consolidated his reputation over the following months and remained a leading member of the Company until late 1918, acting as Manager from 1917. Joseph Michael Kerrigan (1885–1965) joined the Abbey Company in October 1906, after a short career in journalism, and made his first major appearance in Yeats’s Deirdre on 24 Nov of that year. He gained rapid prominence as an Abbey actor, and appeared regularly until 1916, when he joined the Irish Film Company. In 1920 he emigrated to the USA, where he did stage and film work.

39 Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Edward Martyn began planning a Dublin-based ‘Celtic Theatre’ in late June 1897 but the first productions of what had now become known as the Irish Literary Theatre did not take place until May 1899 (not 1898 as Sara Allgood states). The Irish Literary Theatre, financed by subscriptions and underwritten by Martyn, set itself a three-year programme and used English actors, including, in 1901, Frank Benson’s Company. In the summer of 1901 Yeats discovered the Fays amateur Irish Company, the Ormonde Players, and allowed them to produce his Cathleen ni Houlihan in the cramped St Teresa’s Hall in April 1902. The Fays quickly changed their Company’s name to the Irish National Dramatic Society and subsequently registered it as the Irish National Theatre Society, taking an ‘obscure Dublin hall’ in Camden Street but mounting most of their productions at the more spacious Molesworth Hall in central Dublin. In 1904 Annie Horniman leased the Mechanics Institute, converted it into the Abbey Theatre, and successfully petitioned for the necessary Royal Patent. By eliding the Irish Literary Theatre with the Irish National Theatre Society Yeats is using Sara Allgood to make a polemical point, since arguments about the ‘true’ origin of the Irish National Theatre Society were by 1910 hotly disputed, and Yeats was being accused of having hijacked the drama movement for his own ends.

40 Many reviewers and commentators remarked on the thinness of the audiences at the Abbey during its first two years. Some potential patrons were put off by its reputation for obscure artiness, others by the supposed unsavouriness of Synge’s plays, but most were probably deterred by Annie Horniman’s insistence that the price of the cheapest seats should be set at a shilling, twice that of other Dublin theatres. On 27 December 1910 the actor Ambrose Power told Holloway (NLI) that ‘when anyone asks him if Yeats is a mystic poet? he invariably recalls one night he was on the stage before the curtain went up [on] The King’s Threshold, & Yeats who was standing by him on hearing “a cheque” fall into the box exclaimed—“Another ‘bob’ in the Pit, Power”. ’A reduction of prices and the growing reputation of the Company had attracted larger audiences through 1908 and 1909, and Sara Allgood had just arrived in Manchester from a particularly profitable Easter Week. She had played Mrs Dempsy in a packed revival of William Boyle’s The Eloquent Dempsy on 1 and 2 April 1910, the first production of this most popular play since Boyle had withdrawn it from the Abbey repertoire in February 1907 as a protest against the production of The Playboy of the Western World. It proved a huge success, and as the Irish Times reported on 2 April 1910 (8) ‘provided one of the most amusing performances that a crowded house had ever listened to. It was simply impossible to resist the fun of the piece, and the audience were almost exhausted with laughter before the three acts had run their course’.

41 The metaphor of hot wax was a favourite of Yeats’s. In ‘ Reveries over Childhood and Youth’ he recalls (Au 101; CW3 104 – 05) foreseeing that Ireland’s ‘poetry when it comes will be distinguished and lonely’, and beginning ‘to plot and scheme how one might seal with the right image the soft wax before it began to harden’. Later in Autobiographies he explains that he thought the vision of an Irish literary revival, ‘ the sudden emotion that now came to me, the sudden certainty that Ireland was to be like soft wax for years to come, was a moment of supernatural insight’(Au 199; CW3 169).

42 The Young Irelanders, a group of nationalist intellectuals and activists, led by the poet and journalist Thomas Osborne Davis (1814–45) and the journalists and politicians Charles Gavan Duffy (1816–1903) and John Blake Dillon (1814–66), used the weekly Nation, founded in 1842, to further a policy of cultural as well as political nationalism. In 1843 the editors brought out The Spirit of the Nation, an influential anthology of patriotic verse which went into numerous editions and exerted a shaping dominance over Irish poetry for the rest of the century and beyond. Yeats had been introduced to the work of the Young Irelanders by John O’Leary, an unwavering admirer of the group, but he soon became impatient of what he saw as the propagandist intent and careless technique of their writings, and began to deplore them publicly as a dangerous model. Despite this, the Young Ireland influence persisted, and informed the views of Arthur Griffith and others who had opposed his and Synge’s attempts to introduce new voices into Irish literature. In Synge and the Ireland of his Time, which Yeats was to write over the coming summer, he complained that ‘Young Ireland had taught a study of our history with the glory of Ireland for event; and this… wrecked the historical instinct… There was no literature, for literature is a child of experience always, of knowledge never; and the nation itself, instead of being a dumb struggling thought seeking a mouth to utter it or hand to show it, a teeming delight that would re-create the world, had become, at best, a subject of knowledge (E&I, 316–17; CW4 230).

43 The replacement of ‘succeeded’ by ‘got me much applause’ is a pencil correction apparently in Sara Allgood’s hand.

44 The typescript has ‘Arran’. Since the Gaelic League, which was founded in Dublin on 31 July 1893, had as its ‘sole purpose… keeping the Irish language spoken in Ireland’, it paid particular attention to those people, overwhelmingly peasants from impoverished rural areas, who were still native speakers. As the Gaelic Journal explained as early as November 1893 (227–28), the organizers of the League ‘purpose at the earliest opportunity to change the venue of their work from Dublin to the Irish-speaking districts; to appeal to the Irish-speaking people… a race possessing splendid characteristics, preserved to them, no doubt, by the survival of their ancient speech and all that it has brought along with it down the stream of time’. The ensuing stereotyping of an idealized peasantry partly contributed to the animosity against Synge’s and the Abbey’s more robust portrayals, and Yeats was to later to observe (Ex, 401) that he and Lady Gregory had ‘sought wisdom and the peasants’ imagination’ while ‘Dr. Hyde and his League were different’ in that they sought not the imagination but the peasant himself.

45 This had been the gist of C. H. Herford’s article, ‘The Scandinavian Dramatists’, which Yeats published in the first number of Beltaine, May 1899 (14–19), and Yeats was to cite the axiom on numerous occasions. In Samhain 1905 he wrote (4) that as was ‘natural in a country where the Gaelic League has created a preoccupation with the countryman, the greater number of our plays are founded on the comedy and tragedy of country life, and are written more or less in dialect. When the Norwegian National movement began, its writers chose for that maxim, ‘To understand the saga by the peasant and the peasant by the saga’. Ireland in our day has re-discovered the old heroic literature of Ireland and she has rediscovered the imagination of the folk’. He was to repeat on 4 February 1912 that during ‘the youth of Ibsen and Bjornson their phrase was ‘To understand the peasant by the saga and the saga by the peasant’ (UP2, 403; CW10 135), and he returned to this in ‘If I were Four-and-Twenty’ in 1919 (Ex, 278; CW5 44) and in ‘A Defence of the Abbey Theatre’ on 23 February 1926 (UP2, 467; CW10 203–07).

46 The Corsican Brothers (Les Frères corses) was originally a novella by Alexandre Dumas, père, first published in 1844 and subsequently adapted many times for the stage and screen, notably by the Irish dramatist Dion Boucicault (1920–90), who first produced his stage version The Corsican Brothers; or, The Fatal Duel at the Princess’s Theatre, London, in February 1852. The melodrama was frequently performed in Dublin through the last half of the nineteenth century and the latest productions there had been by Martin Harvey’s English touring company at the Theatre Royal in October-November 1906 and again in November 1908. A play about Mediterranean islanders as represented by inauthentic metropolitan actors was a deft foil to the authenticity of Grasso’s actors, authentic natives of another Mediterranean island.

47 Yeats saw Giovanni Grasso’s Sicilian Players at the Lyric Theatre in London in March and April 1910. In his London lecture, ‘The Theatre’, delivered on 7 March 1910, he contrasted the overflowing life of Grasso’s actors and their plays with the moral realism of modern British drama as exemplified by John Galsworthy’s Justice, observing that the latter was ‘made for people who do not think about human life…. Mr. Galsworthy is writing for an age that is far more interested in commerce, business and all kinds of problems, far more interested in moral codes, revolutionary or otherwise, than in life’. In a lecture to the Boston Drama League on 28 Sept 1911, he identified Grasso’s initiatives with those of the Abbey: ‘In Sicily, where Grasso is creating a wonderful school of players, and in Ireland… [we] are putting upon the stage a real life where men talk picturesque and musical words, and where men have often strange and picturesque characters; that is to say, the life of far-away villages where an old leisurely habit of life still remains’(Boston Evening Transcript, 29 Sept 1911 [14]).

48 This was Padraic Colum’s three-act tragedy Thomas Muskerry, first produced at the Abbey on 5 May 1910. On 27 February 1910 Colum told Holloway that the play was going ‘into rehearsal tomorrow’, but this was probably postponed until 18 March when Lennox Robinson took up his post as a producer at the Abbey. In the play events and his family conspire to bring about the degradation, ruin, and finally death of Thomas Muskerry, a conscientious and dignified old Workhouse Master, and the reviews in the Dublin daily papers, which appeared on 6 May 1910, ran the gamut from enthusiasm to repugnance. The rehearsals did not go smoothly: Sara Allgood, who played Mrs Crilly, Muskerry’s selfish married daughter, complained to Holloway on 7 May 1910 that when she first read the script Robinson ‘told her to put more emotion into it. Fancy telling her such a thing at first reading when she was merely feeling out the meaning of the part. She simply told him she couldn’t & that he did not know what he was talking about’. Towards the end of the play a youthful poem of Muskerry’s is discovered: ‘ In the pleasant month of May, | When the lambkins sport and play, | As I roved out for recreation, | I spied a comely maid, | Sequestered in the shade, | And on her beauty I gazed in admiration. || I said I greatly fear | That Mercury will draw near, | As once he appeared unto Venus, | Or as it might have been | To the Carthaginian Queen, | Or the Grecian Wight called Polyphemus’. It is little wonder that in form and language this is close to verse in the hedge schoolmaster tradition of the late eighteenth century, since (although Yeats was unaware of it) Colum had plagiarized it from a hitherto unpublished poem, recently collected by P. W. Joyce in his Old Irish Folk Music and Songs (1909), 201–02. Such effusions are imitation aislings (vision poems), in which the poet, out for a morning stroll, encounters a beautiful young woman whom he accosts in hyperbolic classical terms. It evidently reminded Yeats of another anonymous poem of 1790s, ‘The Colleen Rue’, which he probably first read in H. H. Sparling’s Irish Minstrelsy (1888) and in which the poet asks: ‘ Are you Aurora, or the beauteous Flora, | Euterpasia, or Venus bright? | Or Helen fair, beyond compare, | That Paris stole from her Grecian’s sight?’Padraic Colum (1881 – 1972) was himself the son of a Longford Workhouse Master who had been dismissed for alcoholism. The younger Colum became a clerk in the Irish Railway clearing house, and first met Yeats at the 1902 performances in St Teresa’s Hall. Yeats encouraged him to write drama and his plays Broken Soil and The Land had been produced by the Irish National Theatre Society, the latter at the Abbey Theatre on 9 June 1905. He resigned from the Society early in 1906 but had accepted a commission from Yeats for Thomas Muskerry, his last significant work for the Irish Theatre. In 1912 he married the Sligo-born literary critic Mary Gunning Maguire (1884 – 1957), and emigrated with her to America in 1914. Apart from occasional visits to Ireland, they remained in the USA for the rest of their lives, although Colum spent more time in Dublin after his wife’s death.

49 Five matinee performances of Synge’s The Tinker’s Wedding were given in November 1909 by The Afternoon Theatre Company at His Majesty’s Theatre, the proprietor of which was the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917). Yeats, on whom Sara Allgood’s account entirely depends, had seen the final performance on 25 November and wrote furiously to Lady Gregory the following day (CL InteLex 1229): ‘I saw first act of Tinkers Wedding yesterday but could not stand any more—a most disgraceful performance—every poetical or literary quality sacrifised to continual emphasis & restlessness—a meretricious stage moonlight scene & Mona Limerick [who played the heroine]… with a cockney pronunciation, & a chocolate box make up…. One interesting thing I did notice—the continual emphasis & change of note made the speaches inaudible as they are in verse plays treated in the same way. This emphatic delivery & movement—which is the essence of the English idea of romantic acting—evidently fits nothing but plays written in short sentences without music or suggestion. I tried to analyse the general impression of vulgarity & found it came either from this emphasis, from the necessary seperation from life of players who had never seen the life they tried to copy or from a conventional standard of <beauty>; handsomeness…. I have not had such a sensation of blind fury in a theatre for fifteen years’. The unnamed playgoer who coined the simile of running in a top coat presumably spoke not to Sara Allgood but to Yeats, who informed Lady Gregory that as he was leaving the theatre ‘in a rage I met a member of our Abbey Audience & found him even angrier than I was. He had been denouncing it to the people round him’.

50 Alfred the Great (849–99), the only English monarch to be called ‘ the Great’, is regarded as the creator of the English nation, in that he defended Wessex, the last remaining southern Anglo-Saxon kingdom, against waves of Danish invasions, and finally forced them to make peace. He also instituted a code of laws, reformed the coinage, founded the English navy, and supported the spread of education. Among the myths that grew up around him was that while sheltering from the Danes he allowed baking cakes he was meant to be minding to burn and was roundly scolded by the housewife, ignorant of his true identity. There was more English interest in Alfred the Great than Yeats and Sara Allgood supposed: he had been the subject of a number of plays and poems through the nineteenth century, and the recent millenary of his death had inspired many more between 1899 and 1902.

51 For Dervorgilla see above, note 17. Sara Allgood took on the title-role of Yeats’s Deirdre for the first time on 17 February 1909, and, although there were fears that she might lack the passion and intelligence for the part, or that she might imitate too closely Mrs Campbell’s recent performance, still vivid in the public memory, she triumphed in the part, even winning over the initially pessimistic Yeats. The Freeman’s Journal of 18 February proclaimed (9) that ‘Miss Sara Allgood, in the title-role, achieved a triumph’, that her performance ‘throughout was marked with intense emotion’, and ‘stamped her once again as an actress of extraordinary powers’. The Irish Times of the same day (6) judged that her interpretation stood up to that of Mrs Campbell, and that in the scene with Conchubar ‘she declaimed her lines with powerful effect, her dignity was queenly, and the emotional side of her acting was exceptionally praiseworthy’. Meeting Yeats after the matinee on 19 February 1909, Holloway told him (NLI MS 1807) ‘it was a beautiful performance of Deirdre I had just seen—the best I had yet witnessed’; Yeats fully concurred, writing to Lady Gregory the following day that ‘yesterdays performances of ‘Deirdre’ were the best performances of verse I have ever seen—it was all music—I mean taking it as a whole’. Holloway recorded that ‘Miss Allgood was presented with a bouquet after Deirdre—this was the first bouquet presented to one of the Abbey players’. He also commented on the ‘splendid house’that had gathered and was told by Henderson that the receipts of the matinee ‘were the best they had had for a long time’.
Her sister was no less a success in Synge’s posthumous Deirdre of the Sorrows, which opened on Thursday, 13 January 1910, when, as Holloway noted, ‘all or nearly all literary Dublin was present’. Reviewers differed as to the quality of the play, but all agreed on the excellence of Maire O’Neill in the title role. The Irish Times of 14 January 1910 (10) hailed this latest Deirdre as ‘the sweetest and most intimate of them all…. Miss Maire O’Neill has, in her Deirdre, far surpassed any previous work; it is one of the most beautiful characterisations we have seen on the stage’. The Freeman’s Journal of 14 January (5) reported that ‘Miss Maire O’Neill achieved a pronounced success…. Her depiction of the distraught wife whose murdered husband and brothers had been thrown into a yawning grave, beside which she stood, was intensely tragic’. H.S.D. [Henry Stuart Doig] wrote in the Evening Mail of 14 Jan that her acting was ‘a remarkable triumph. She has the gift of poetical representation, of passion, or of pathos, and her dignified restraint adds a reserve of strength and conviction to her portrayal’. The Daily Express of the same day lauded the performance as ‘a wonderful triumph… acted throughout with a weird pathos and rare beauty’. Yeats told Allan Wade on 3 February (CL InteLex, 1287) that ‘Synge’s “Deirdre” went finely and was even a financial success, it was much more successful than any of us expected’. He was using Sara Allgood to prepare Manchester audiences for the play: it was to receive its first production outside Dublin there three days after this talk, and her words may have helped encourage the enthusiasm of its reception. The Manchester Courier of 21 April 1910, announced (12) that ‘‘ Deirdre’s’ first appearance in Manchester was hailed last night with immense satisfaction and delight by a gratifyingly large audience, while the Manchester Guardian of the same day maintained (6) that the ‘ acting of Miss Marie O’Neill in the second and third acts surpassed anything of hers that we can remember’.

52 The plot of The White Cockade, a three-act tragi-comedy, first produced at the Abbey Theatre on 9 December 1905, centres on the farcically ignominious behaviour of King James II after his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, including his hiding in a barrel to escape enemy soldiers. The ‘friend’ to whom Synge spoke was almost certainly Yeats, and in a note to the published version of the play Lady Gregory recalled that when ‘ my White Cockade was first produced I was pleased to hear that J. M. Synge had said my method had made the writing of historical drama again possible’(Collected Plays II (1970), 303).

53 Annie Horniman had not only paid for Abbey Theatre in 1904, and subsidized it until 1910, but also established a repertory theatre company in Manchester. This had opened on 23 September 1907 at the Midland Hotel Theatre but (now named ‘ Miss Horniman’s Company’) moved to a permanent home at the Gaiety Theatre in March 1908 and was formally inaugurated 11 April (see note 25). The Abbey players appreciated Annie Horniman’s generosity more ungrudgingly than Yeats and Lady Gregory, with whom she had quarreled, and early in 1911 presented her with an engraved facsimile of the Ardagh Chalice and a signed vellum address expressing their thanks for her open-handedness.

54 In his 1871 essay ‘The Destiny of Opera’ Richard Wagner points out that Shakespeare ‘was a play-actor and manager, who wrote for himself and his troop…. Lope de Vega, scarcely less a wonder, wrote his pieces from one day to the next in immediate contact with his actors and the stage… there stands the actor Molière, in whom alone production was alive; and midst his tragedy sublime stood Aeschylus, the leader of its chorus—Not to the Poet, but to the Dramatist must we look, for light upon the Drama’s nature; and he stands no nearer to the poet proper than to the mime himself, from whose heart of hearts he must issue if as poet he means to ‘ hold the mirror up to Nature’ (Richard Wagner’s Prose Works V, trans. W. Ashton Ellis (1896), 142–43). Yeats probably knew of this passage from the paraphrase in Arthur Symon’s review-essay, ‘The Ideas of Richard Wagner’, which had appeared in the Quarterly Review in July 1905 (73–108), and was reprinted in Studies in the Seven Arts in 1906. In the course of this extended survey of the prose works, Symons remarked (99) that ‘Wagner points out the significant fact that from Aeschylus to Molière, through Lope de Vega and Shakespeare, the great dramatic poet has always been himself an actor, or has written for a given company of actors’. Yeats had read Symons’s article eagerly in August 1905 and on 10 September told him that it ‘ touches my own theories at several points, and enlarges them at one or two’ (CL4, 175; CL InteLex 214).

55 Such audiences were wont to appear during Horse Show Week performances in August and on national holidays. The latest example had been the Easter Week patrons, 28–30 March 1910, when the programme comprised Deirdre, The Workhouse Ward, and Blanco Posnet. Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory on 31 March (CL InteLex 1323) that the ‘performance of ‘Deirdre’ last night was very good about the best there has been, but I thought the audience a little cold a less vigorous call for the actors at the end, I found on enquiry that it was strange audience probably drawn by the fame of ‘Blanco’ and by the holiday season. The night before it had taken Blanco like a popular melodrama, hissing the villain’.

56 See Holloway NLI MS 1809.

57 Sara Allgood to Holloway on 20 April 1910, NLI MS 1809.


An Emeritus Research Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford, and the Donald Keough Professor in Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He taught English and Irish Literature at the University of Oxford from 1976 to 2009, and has written extensively on nineteenth-and twentieth-century literature. He is General Editor of The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, Volume 4 (2005) of which was awarded the Cohen Prize by the Modern Languages Association, and has also edited and introduced a 12-volume series of Irish fiction, poetry and essays of the nineteenth century, under the title Hibernia: State and Nation. His W. B. Yeats Chronology appeared in 2003


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