Dublin Theatre in the 1920s and ’30s
David Grene (1913–2002) taught classics for many years at the University of Chicago. He was a founding member of the Committee on Social Thought and coedited The Complete Greek Tragedies. Six months of every year, though, he worked his farm in Ireland. This is an excerpt about how his interest in theatre developed, from Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir.
Until the age of eleven, my only experience of the theater was at the yearly Christmas pantomime, to which our whole family always went. These are not pantomimes in the strict sense of dumb show, but a traditional form of comic entertainment put on at Christmastime. The greatest of them in my time was the one done year after year at the Gaiety under the leadership of Jimmy O’Dea and Maureen Potter. These were a wonderful pair of genuinely amusing comedians, and they ran the show to suit themselves. But prior to them, it was not like that. Most of the theaters in Dublin (the Gaiety, Royal, Queen’s, and Olympia) put on a separate pantomime every year. Each pantomime was sketchily based on a folk story—Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington, or others—and there was an intermittent effort to include a few scenes from the original story, especially the finale. All the rest of the show was given up to variety turns such as jugglers, clowns, and animal acts. One curious feature that even then stood out for me was that the hero and heroine were, conventionally, always represented by women. Thus, the principal boy was invariably a girl. I suppose this was for fear that simple sexual relations would creep across the footlights and disturb or corrupt the young. Also in a pantomime such as Cinderella, the two ugly sisters were both played by men. The men’s voices, and even on rare occasions somewhat risqué jokes, enclosed an area of a cruder humorous mood suitable to its masculine representation and unthinkable for the delicacy of the women.
Every pantomime was dominated by its particular song, and depending on how catchy it was or how funny, we would hear everyone from businessmen and women to delivery boys whistling and singing it for months. I remember one of them which went like this:
How can a guinea pig wag his tail
If he hasn’t got a tail to wag?
All the other animals, you will find,
Have got a little tail to wag behind.
If they’d only put a tail on the guinea pig
And finish up a decent job,
Then the price of a guinea pig would go right up
From a guinea up to thirty bob.
I am afraid that much of the funniness of this depends on knowing that a guinea is twenty-one shillings; as a coin of the realm, it had vanished even when I was a boy. But it was the unit in which you purchased various high-grade goods, such as fancy suits. I am glad to notice that it survives in similar snobbish settings. Christie’s in London continued with it until the pound went metric, and you still buy racehorses in guineas in Newmarket. A shilling—twenty to the pound—was vulgarly a bob. I still know the tune of that song.
But in 1924, I had a quite different and first-time theatrical experience. Sybil Thorndike came to Dublin to play in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. I do not know whether this preceded her London performance or was shortly afterward. In those days, Dublin was often used for a tryout by big London companies. I had had a lot of training in this particular play, because our English master in my first school had made us learn by heart many of St. Joan’s speeches. He was himself a very strong lover of Shaw. However, nothing prepared me for the shock of this great performance. I had so far seen no plays proper at all (only pantomimes) and, in the cinema, the single picture The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Lon Chaney. I do not know how much reliable knowledge I can still retain of a performance more than sixty years ago. All the probabilities are against it. But I do know accurately some of the excitement and even fear I felt, and I dare to hope, faintly, that I remember accurately some of the voice and gestures which triggered those emotions. Very shortly thereafter, I was taken to see Othello, as rendered by Charles Doran. He was an actor who toured Ireland every year with his Shakespearean company. A few years after, the company was much strengthened by the addition of Anew McMaster, a brilliant player whom I saw ten years later in the same role. But even in Doran’s performance as the Moor, I vividly remember my intense reaction to his "Put out the light, and then put out the light" speech. I still cannot see this play without terror, and I am quite certain that the terror has elements of the feeling of that performance all those years ago.
It was a very exciting time to see Dublin theater, the twenties and thirties. The Abbey was again convulsed by nationalist agitation when Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and Stars met with a reception in 1926 as hot as that which had attended the first performance of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in 1907. During that performance of the Plough, the crowd tried to pour onto the stage and burn the curtain because the national flag, the Tricolor, was brought inside a pub by three Irish volunteers in the 1916 rising, and there was a prostitute in the bar who tried to pick up some of the guests and eventually made it with the glorious Fluther Good. I was at another performance of the Plough in 1932, and there were still interruptions from the audience. The Abbey audience was until quite lately most volatile, and its prejudices, national, puritan, or otherwise, were very often to the fore and caused both actors and directors speculative misgivings about forthcoming productions. Humor is very consistently attributed to the Irish as a people, and perhaps on the whole justly, but they certainly have shown blind spots in this regard. Would anyone really have expected that a pub would be regarded as a sordid background for the national flag? Or that the mere presence of a prostitute in that pub contaminated the enthusiasm of the volunteers? Yet that was exactly what the nationalist and the pious interrupters claimed afterward when they published their grounds for the attack.
The Abbey company was very tightly knit; such repertory companies nowadays are very rare indeed. The play changed sometimes every week, almost certainly every fortnight. To see the same actors playing widely different roles so often makes one understand the versatility of which the profession is capable. Through this, it is possible to see the extraordinary blend of artificiality and realism that underlies most theatrical creations of the Western world. To me, this early experience of the Abbey has been beyond price. I have seen quite a few productions in London over the years, many of them of Shakespeare and many excellent. And in the year I spent in Vienna, I saw some great work done by Basserman and the Thimigs, but I never again have had the opportunity of seeing great repertory covering such a number of different kinds of plays over eight years. There was also something magnetic for me about the old Abbey, besides the acting. From the time I was sixteen till I left Dublin semipermanently in 1938, I used to haunt their first nights. Always, as the bell for the rising of the curtain rang, there would be a murmur among the audience, "There is Mr. Yeats," and the poet would come down the few steps to his place in the front row, head a little bent, slightly groping myopically for his seat. I loved the early Yeats plays and poems, and as much of the middle poems as were then written and I understood. The best, in my opinion, were still to come. But he was already, I was sure, as great as the greatest lyric poets in English, and there he was alive and palpable before me. I also have seen, at a respectful distance, Lady Gregory and Sean O’Casey. My reading world, till then shared with so very few people, was coming alive and totally realizable. In my first year in college before I had rooms there, I would walk from home to Trinity and I always went down Stephen’s Green in the hope of seeing Yeats, walking along muttering from his house toward the Green itself. I was often rewarded by the sight of him.
Another freakish bit of luck—in 1929 I believe it was—a special Sunday evening performance was given at the Abbey by an English company. It was Ibsen’s Ghosts, and the lead was played by Mrs. Patrick Campbell. I do not know how old she was then, but very near her end. She occasionally went up in her lines, and I saw her from what we called the Gods, which was the gallery of the old theater (burnt down in 1951), but it was for me an amazing thrill to see Mrs. Campbell, Shaw’s greatest actress. Again, I believe that I remember some of her characteristic playing. Certainly, something from that performance hovers in my mind in all the versions of the play I have seen since.
There was something else peculiar to the atmosphere of the old Abbey. The girls at the box office, the men who moved the props, the electricians, the carpenters were blended, it seemed to me, in one working family. I have never seen any other theater quite like that. These people were all heart and soul in the venture themselves and knew all the rest of the company as friends and intimates. The other great Dublin theater then was new—the Gate, housed in a section of the beautiful eighteenth-century Rotunda. They did continental and modern plays, rather explicitly contrasting with the Abbey, which mostly dealt in Irish plays, ancient and modern, and occasionally, when they had briefly an English director if some of the regular company were in America, Shakespeare. Between these two repertory companies—for the Gate was also repertory—and their very large number of plays English and foreign from the last three centuries, I do not think I could have had a better chance for developing an appreciation of drama.