Remembering the Thomas Davis Irish Players - Importers of Irelands National Drama, 1933–1997
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A little more than a century ago, the Abbey Theatre's Irish Players arrived in the United States for their first American tour, a tour that would become infamous for the riotous reception the New York Irish afforded John Synge's The Playboy of the Western World.
The advance-man for this tour was of course William Butler Yeats, who in a variety of interviews presented The Playboy in particular, and the repertoire of his National Theatre in general, as a much-needed antidote to the sentimental and melodramatic plays that were so synonymous with stage Irishness. In her survey of Irish-American theatre, Maureen Murphy provides a nice description of the typical features of these Bouccicaultian Irish dramas: "blushing colleens, broths of boys, genial parish priests, neatly thatched cottages, carefree songs and dances - all lightly laced with poitin and patriotism." Those kinds of Irish plays had, in 1897, provoked the famous "Manifesto for Irish Literary Theatre" in which Yeats, along with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn, had imagined a national theatre that would "show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of ancient idealism." But as Adele Dalsimer demonstrates in her article "Players in the Western World," the Abbey's later, less infamous American tours abandoned "the experimental or expressionistic dramas that were part of [the Abbey's] repertory" in favor of "the social comedies that had been very popular in Dublin." Dalsimer contends that these "carefree pieces of make-believe...had none of the satiric or somber overtones characteristic of the earlier comedies of Synge, William Boyle or Lady Gregory." For Dalsimer, representative pieces of carefree make-believe included Lennox Robinson's The Whiteheaded Boy and The Far Off Hills, Brinsley MacNamara's Look at the Heffernans, and George Shiels' Professor Tim and The New Gossoon, the last of these described by Dalsimer as "the hit of the 1932-1933 season." Dalsimer concludes that by the end of the Abbey's 1933 American tour, "the 'real' Irish play had become a conventional comedy dealing with marriage or property differences suffered and settled in an Irish setting" and furthermore, the typical Irishman presented on stage by the Abbey "was now a simple, jovial fellow endowed with a thick brogue and a lilting voice." To buttress her analysis, Dalsimer quotes a few perceptive reviewers who noticed this shift Remembering the Thomas Davis Irish Players: Importers of Ireland's National Drama, 1933-1997 Photo: The cast of the TDIP's 1940 production of George Shiels' popular play The New Gossoon included: (standing from L to R) Thomas O'Grady, Peggy McCarthy, Martin Kyne, Rita Quinn, Joseph O'Reilly, Margie Smith, Mary Kelly; (on bike) John Duffy; (kneeling) Mary O'Neill, Daniel Danaher. Shiels' work, as well as other so-called kitchen comedies produced in the 1930s and 1940s by the Abbey Theatre, has, until recently, been dismissed by critics, including the Abbey's founder, William Butler Yeats. Courtesy of Deirdre Danaher. in style and substance: a critic from the Boston Herald noted: "the old indignant denial of the Irishman as a mere figure of low comedy is no longer stressed"; while one from the Toronto Mail observed: "This was not the sort of thing on which the famous Dublin Theatre built its renown...it was the very thing against which the Abbey Theatre rebelled, as giving too limited an idea of Irish talents." Though not mentioned by Dalsimer, one could add here, the acerbic commentary of the influential drama critic George Jean Nathan who in a 1937 Newsweek article titled "Erin Go Blah" wrote: "the infelicitous fact remains that, lovely and musical speech aside, the present Abbey Theatre Company has put the dub in Dublin. Not so long ago one of the finest acting organizations in the world, it is now a caricature of its former self." In his memoir, Whatever Goes Up, George Tyler, one of the partners in Liebler & Co., the theatrical production and management company who organized the Abbey early tours, wondered how on earth these later tours became so much more popular and profitable than the earlier tours: [E]very blessed time [we brought them over] New York was at best apathetic. And now here's the funny thing. Last year another company came over from the Abbey Theatre, a much less able and less experienced lot, and cleaned up during one of the worst seasons Broadway ever saw. There's no sense whatever in that. Whatever Goes Up was published in 1934, so Dalsimer's insights might provide the logic needed to explain why the better acted and more artistically accomplished plays of the early Abbey tours were less popular that the later ones: the arrogant habit of performing what the Abbey directors wanted, rather than what their audience wanted, had finally yielded to their customers' tastes. best and most enthusiastic friends Yet, in his autobiography Curtain Up, Lennox Robinson, the Cork-born, Anglo-Irish playwright who served as a kind of second-in-command behind Lady Gregory on the first tour, offered a different rationale than Dalsimer about the Abbey's reception on the later tours: Irish-America had to choose between their rosy dreams and the theatre of Synge and the younger realists. They chose wrong in 1911 and protests continued through 1912 and 1914 but by 1932 when the Players went back a new, more intelligent, a more broadminded generation had arisen and now our best and most enthusiastic friends across the Atlantic are the Irish. Among the enthusiastic Irish friends across the Atlantic that Robinson counted among this more intelligent, more broadminded generation would no doubt have been the likes of Daniel Danaher, Thomas McDermott, Martin Walsh, Joseph O'Reilly, Mary Kelly, John Duffy and John Hughes, a group of immigrant Irish students enrolled in evening high schools in New York City who were members of the Irish Students League, and who in 1933 founded the Thomas Davis Irish Players, a community theatre society whose motto was "educate that you may be free." The group named itself after, and borrowed its motto, from the nationalist poet and journalist who a young W. B. Yeats had championed, in a series of articles penned for the Providence Sunday Journal and the Boston Pilot, as the epitome of cultural nationalism, but who the mature Yeats dismissed in his journals as a bourgeois hack capable of little more than schoolboy thought.
But evidence suggests that contrary to Lennox Robinson's interpretation, the intelligent, broad-minded likes of the Thomas Davis Irish Players did not embrace the theatre of Synge. As a matter of fact, it would be fortynine years after the founding of that group before they put a Synge play on stage (In the Shadow of the Glen in 1982). Rather than Synge, the TDIP embraced the theatre that the Abbey presented in its later tours, that is, the theatre of social comedy. Between 1933 and 1941, when the group temporarily suspended Stephen Butler is a Lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. He was awarded the Roundtable's John O'Connor Graduate Scholarship for 2011. A native of Woodside, Queens, he currently resides in Glen Rock, NJ. His exile is made bearable by the company of his wife Erin and his twin daughters, Brigid and Lily. ©2015. Published with permission of Stephen Butler. its activities due to the outbreak of World War II, they produced, in order: Edward McNulty's The Courting of Mary Doyle (1933-1936), Shiels' Professor Tim (1937) and Paul Twyning (1938), McNamara's Look at the Heffernans (1939), Shiels' The New Gossoon (1940), and Robinson's The White-headed Boy (1941). Following the war, they produced Robinson's Far Off Hills (1947) and The White-headed Boy (1948), then Shiels' Professor Tim (1949) and The New Gossoon (1950). These plays were all Abbey comedies.
Coincidentally, the Thomas Davis Irish Players formed around the same time those early dispatches from Yeats to American newspapers were being compiled by a Brown University professor named Horace Reynolds, whose collection would eventually be published as Letters to the New Island. In the preface he wrote for that work, Yeats admitted: "my friends and I have created a theatre famous for its folk art, for its realistic studies of life, but done little for an other art that was to come, as I hoped, out of modern culture where it is most sensitive, profound and learned." Implicit in this statement is an admission that the kind of theatre the Abbey had become was not the kind of theatre that Yeats envisioned when he conceptualized a new kind of Irish drama in 1897. Yet the admission does not quite go far enough, because in 1934 Yeats was still pretending that the Abbey was essentially the theatre of Synge, when in actuality, it had become the theatre of George Shiels. a degraded dramaturgy? In a 1952 essay on the Abbey for Poetry magazine, the famously caustic Eric Bentley wrote: "It was ironic, calamitous, and yet inevitable that the Abbey should sink into the slough of lower middle class respectability and Catholic Gemutlichkeit, for in modern Ireland these constitute 'normalcy.' (Something like them constitutes normalcy everywhere.)" Even if it was inevitable that the Abbey's repertoire would veer from Synge to Shiels, from poetic tragicomedy to conventional kitchen comedy, from the highbrow to the middlebrow, that evolution still invites a question related to a specifically Irish-American context: were the Thomas Davis Irish Players simply following the lead of the Abbey's management in giving the New York Irish audiences the light comedy they wanted, or does the TDIP's neglect of Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory and Sean O'Casey suggest something more fundamental about the literary and cultural taste of the New York Irish? No doubt these questions can be connected to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's accusation that by the early 1960s "those who would most value their Irishness seem[ed] least able to respond" to the literary achievements of "Shaw, Wilde, Yeats, O'Casey, Joyce and the like." Moynihan suggested that New York's middle-class Irish-Catholics rejected these influential, iconoclastic modern writers because of a sensibility mired in an attachment to "the Irish cause and the Irish culture of the nineteenth century." A group named after the progenitor of much of that nineteenth century cultural nationalism might seem like the perfect specimen of those charges, but by the time Moynihan was writing the Thomas Davis Players had been performing the dramatic achievements of twentieth century Irish playwrights for three decades.
And so instead of condemning the conspicuous absence of work by Shaw and Wilde, Yeats and Gregory, Synge and O'Casey, Joyce and Beckett, perhaps we should instead commend the presence of work by Sheils and Robinson and McNamara, as well as by Brigid G. MacCarthy and Bernard Duffy and St. John Ervine and Daniel Corkery and W.D. Hepenstall and Sigerson Clifford and Louis d'Alton and Bryan MacMahon, all of whom were contemporary Irish writers who had been produced by Ireland's national theatre. And perhaps we should not assume that their work was as comfortingly, mind-numbingly middleclass Catholic as Bentley and Moynihan presume.
In an act of scholarly reappraisal titled "The Myth of Benightedness after the Irish Renaissance: The Drama of George Shiels," Paul Murphy of Queen's University Belfast takes issue with the presumption of "an alleged degradation of dramatic standards" after O'Casey's departure in 1926. Murphy offers a close reading of Paul Twyning, Professor Tim and The New Gossoon, as well as The Rugged Path and The Summit (the latter plays were written by Shiels but never performed by the TDIP); these close readings convincingly demonstrate that "the myth of benightedness...is tenable only so long as one disavows the critical capacity of Shiels' later work." And in another recent example of revisionist literary criticism, Brenda Winter, also of Queen's University, uses her analysis of Paul Twyning and Professor Tim to persuasively argue that "critics have not sufficiently acknowledged the potential of Shiels's early works to function equally well both as critiques of social justice and as 'a good night out' in the theatre." Winter's estimation of Shiels' ability to simultaneously entertain the audience while provoking them to think in critical ways about the society being depicted on stage is supported by this anonymous analysis offered in the Advocate on the occasion of the TDIP's twentieth-fifth anniversary: Perhaps their success is due to the fact that they have honestly and consistently played dramas that depict Irish life as it really is. Irish exiles and people of Irish stock naturally like and expect to see what they consider the best side of the Irish character: the concern with the spiritual, the ardent patriotism, the zest for fun and laughter, but the Irish people at home are human beings and we all know that petty sordidness and snobbishness, hunger for wealth and land often exist side by side with piety, patriotism and good humor. The Davis players have never shirked their responsibility to reveal this dichotimy [sic] of the Irish character to their audience. In 1960, the TDIP would introduce New York audiences to a new play capable of revealing those dichotomies and depravities of the Irish character, John Murphy's The Country Boy. This work dramatizing the return of an Irish emigrant to his Mayo home, with American wife in tow, would go on to be a staple of the TDIP repertoire (performed in 1960/61, 1964/65, 1981, and 1984). During the play's initial run, Daniel Danaher wrote a letter to the editor of the Irish Echo, defending the work against charges made by Echo columnist Frank O'Connor, who had claimed the depiction of the returning Yank was a slander on Irish Americans. Danaher explained that "what the author has done is to take an ordinary Irish family and through its members present the personal and social problems created by emigration, not for the purpose of offering a solution but to reveal, with dramatic effect, the thoughts feelings, hopes and fears of the people in the play." Another play dealing with the thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears of a family on the cusp of emigration is John B. Keane's Many Young Men of Twenty, which the Davis Players performed for the first time in 1967. In the 6 May, 1967 Echo, reviewer C.B.Q. noted that the play "managed to touch on the varied ills of modern life in Ireland, e.g., the bitter legacy of the Civil War, the ineptitude of the Dail and the local T.D.'s patronage, conservatism in religion and education, the caste system in vil-Illustration: The TDIP first performed Sean O'Casey's politically charged tragicomedy, Juno and The Paycock, in April 1972, amid the resurgence of political violence in Northern Ireland, including of course, the notorious Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry on January 30, 1972. O'Casey became a favorite of TDIP audiences throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s. Courtesy of Deirdre Danaher. lage and country life, and above all, the evils of emigration." At the end of the review, C.B.Q. applauded the TDIP's production as "lively entertainment" that "evokes memories that gladden and chasten" and he noted that "in what they attempt - light Irish comedy - they are very successful." During the remainder of the 60s and throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Keane became the playwright the Davis Players successfully performed most often and whom audiences most enjoyed. The bard of Kerry's rural dramas explored life in the Ireland of Devalera that many of the Davis Players had left as young emigrants, and their subject matter no doubt must have conjured memories that gladdened and chastened both performers and playgoers alike. All told, the TDIP staged: Many Young Men of Twenty (1967 and 1977), Sive (1968 and 1976), The Field (1971, 1979 and 1996), The Year of the Hiker (1973), Moll (1983 and 1992) and Big Maggie (1995). Besides Keane, another crowd-pleaser was O'Casey, whose work, the trilogy of Dublin tenement plays as well as two less well known one-act pieces, the TDIP finally began performing in the 1970s: Juno and the Paycock (1972, 1980 and 1987), Bedtime Story (1974), The Shadow of a Gunman (1977 and 1993), The End of the Beginning (1982) and The Plough and the Stars (1986). new directions for an old institution In addition to O'Casey's oeuvre, in the 1980s, the TDIP began to regularly perform the more critically-acclaimed, academically-enshrined plays that by this time the Abbey had revived. For instance, in 1982, along with O'Casey's End of the Beginning, they produced Yeats' Kathleen Ni Houlihan and Synge's In the Shadow of the Glen. Around this time they also performed Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1984), Behan's The Hostage (1981) and The Quare Fellow (1986), Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1984) and Shaw's Candida (1985). In 1985, besides performing George Bernard Shaw for the first time, the company made other surprising choices that broke with old patterns. Victor Power's The Escape was a dark comedy about a priest's decision to leave the priesthood that had not been performed at the Abbey. And William Alfred's Hogan's Goat, a non-Abbey play written in blank-verse that had been a critical and commercial success off-Broadway in the mid-60s, dramatized Irish-American politics in latenineteenth century Brooklyn. In 1988, the group produced Mr. Dooley, a one-man show based on Finley Peter Dunne's famously insightful Chicago bartender. In 1995 the TDIP performed more new, unheralded work: Brendan Loonam's Gone Away with a Sailor, a lyrical set of intertwined monologues reflecting on an Irish family's emigration-fueled disintegration and its complicated regeneration in the Bronx; and Patricia Burke Brogan's Eclipsed, a dramatization of the abuse perpetrated in the Magdalene laundries.
In a frank discussion I had with a former member of the Davis Players, she confessed that these new directions were in many ways a response to demographic changes, as well as to competition from the theatre group at the Irish Arts Center. Trying to balance loyalty to an aging, disappearing audience while also trying to attract new patrons and perform artistically vital work must have been an extremely tricky task for the TDIP. One can easily imagine irreverent and politically active "new" Irish immigrants rolling their eyes at the thought of Photo: Louise O'Neill Danaher performs with her husband Daniel Danaher in Lennox Robinson's The Far-Off Hills. The Danahers' involvement with the TDIP spanned more than five decades. Besides the Danahers, the history of the TDIP includes numerous other theatrical couples, including the group's last artistic director, James Barry, and his wife Anne Marie. Courtesy of Deirdre Danaher. their stodgy narrowback brethren producing upon some parish auditorium stage in the Bronx, for the umpteenth time, a George Shiels or John B. Keane play. But one can also just as easily imagine a staid audience of elderly Irish immigrants out for a night of good, clean fun being shocked by the content of Eclipsed. A little over a year after the TDIP had staged Burke-Brogan's shocking play, in a long headline to a short article describing the establishment of something called the Irish American Theater Company, the Irish Voice wondered: "New York Stage Fans to Face a Celtic Glut?" The article mentioned the TDIP, the Irish Arts Center, and the Irish Repertory Theater as well as "many smaller groups" which no doubt alluded to fleeting NYC institutions like the Daedalus Theatre 1934-36 -McNulty's The Courting of Mary Doyle 1937 -Shiels' Professor Tim 1938 -Shiels' Paul Twyning 1939 -McNamara's Look at the Heffernans 1940 -Shiels' The New Gossoon 1941 -Robinson's The Whiteheaded Boy 1942-46 TDIP Activities suspended during WW II 1947 -Robinson's The Far-Off Hills 1948 -Robinson's The Whiteheaded Boy 1949 -Sheils' Professor Tim 1950 -Shiels' The New Gossoon 1951 -MacCarthy's The Whip Hand 1952 -Duffy's Cupboard Love 1953 -Corkery's The Resurrection MacKeown's The Rale McCoy-- 1954 -Robinson's The Far-Off Hills -Yeats' Kathleen Ni Houlihan 1955 -Robinson' The Far-Off Hills -Ervine's Boyd's Shop 1956 -O'Connor's The Cobweb's Glory 1957 -Hepenstall's Two on a String 1958 MacKeown's Still Running--- 1959 -Shiel's Professor Tim 1960 -Hepenstall's Today and Yesterday 1960-61 -Murphy's The Country Boy 1961 -Clifford's Nano -Shiels' The New Gossoon 1962 NO PERFORMANCES 1963 -d'Alton's Money Doesn't Matter 1964 -d'Alton's They Got What They Wanted -Pearse's The Singer -Murphy's The Country Boy 1965 NO PERFORMANCES 1966 -Tomelty's Is the Priest at Home? [-Pearse's The Singer Moylan's Uncle Pat Drum's Kate Plays Her Part]--- -McNamara's Look at the Heffernans 1967 -Keane's Many Young Men of Twenty 1968 -Keane's Sive 1969 -Kelly's The Boys from the USA 1970 -Carrol's Shadow and Substance -Shiels' Professor Tim 1971 -Keane's The Field 1972 -O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock 1973 -Keane's The Year of the Hiker 1974 -McDonell's All the Kings Horses [-O'Casey's Bedtime Story -Yeats' Kathleen Ni Houlihan -Gregory's Rising of the Moon]--- 1975 -Carroll's The White Steed 1976 -Keane's Sive 1977 -O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman Drum's Kate Plays Her Part -Keane's Many Young Men of Twenty 1978 -Coffey's The Call -Shiels' Professor Tim 1979 -Molloy's Daughter from Over the Water -Keane's The Field 1980 -O'Casey's Juno and The Paycock 1981 -Murphy's The Country Boy -Behan's The Hostage 1982 -O'Casey's The End of the Beginning -Yeats' Kathleen Ni Houlihan -Synge's In the Shadow of the Glen 1983 -Keane's Moll -Carney's The Righteous are Bold 1984 -Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest -Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! -Murphy's The Country Boy 1985 Alfred's Hogan's Goat Power's The Escape -Shaw's Candida 1986 -O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars -Behan's The Quare Fellow 1987 -O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock 1988 Dowd's Mr. Dooley 1989-91 NO PERFORMANCES 1992 -Keane's Moll 1993 -O'Casey's Shadow of a Gunman 1994 -Farrell's I Do Not Like Thee Dr. Fell -Carney's The Righteous are Bold 1995 -Keane's Big Maggie Loonam's Gone Away with a Sailor Burke Brogan's Eclipsed 1996 Loonam's Gone Away with a Sailor -Keane's The Field -Leonard's Pizzazz 1997 Loonam's Gone Away with a Sailor -Indicates that one or more of this playwright's works had been performed (not necessarily produced on submission and debuted, but performed nonetheless) on the stage of the Abbey Theater before it was performed by the Thomas Davis Irish Players. The asterisk does not indicate that the specific play was produced by the Abbey. This information is based on the performance database of the Abbey's digital archives. --Apparently, M.J.J. MacKeown's work was never performed by the Abbey. But in his history The Story of Ireland's National Theatre, Dawson Byrnes mentions that old Abbey mainstays Arthur Sinclair and Maire O'Neill (who, in 1916, broke away and formed their own actors company, also called The Irish Players) performed in The Rale McCoy at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, in 1928. ---Three one-act plays performed on a single bill. tdip performances 1934-1997 Company, Irish Bronx Theatre Company, Macalla Theatre Company, Hazel Wand Theatre Group and the New Irish Works project. The article's concern was prophetic because only the IAC and the Irish Rep have survived that crowded marketplace. The enduring success of these two organizations certainly demonstrates how in the last three decades Irish-American taste has become more hip and less parochial, more cosmopolitan and less rural, more open-minded and less puritanical, more forward-looking and less backwardlooking. Nevertheless, it remains a sad paradox that these evolutions coincided with the decline of a venerable organization like the Thomas Davis Irish Players. Perhaps that decline is not symptomatic of anything more than the unfortunate, untimely passing in August 1997 of the TDIP's last artistic director, Jim Barry. Barry suffered a massive heart attack in August 1997 just a few months after the group had taken Gone Away with a Sailor to the Acting Irish Festival held in Milwaukee that year. The trip to Milwaukee followed a successful tour of Ireland, in which Loonam's play was performed before Irish audiences in Dublin, Galway, Mallow and Listowel. In Listowel the group was feted by none other than John B. Keane, who hosted a roaring party at his pub in their honor. requiem for the tdip A sad coda to the sudden cessation of the TDIP, just as it was finding a new footing in a shifting landscape, is its inexplicable absence from the cultural record of the Irish in New York. For instance, in 2006 when the Irish Rep performed The Field and in 2007 when they performed Sive, Playbill announced that the former was an "American premier" and the latter a "New York City premiere." What's worse, the claims were repeated, without qualification, in the Irish Voice by Cahir O'Doherty. While these claims are technically true, in terms of Actors Equity productions, the plain truth is that the Davis Players first performed Sive in New York City in 1968 and The Field in 1971. Perhaps the TDIP's disappearance from the cultural history of the Irish in New York simply proves that those who write for the Irish Voice have a shallow memory, if not a shallow understanding, when it comes to New York's Irish-American community. But then again, maybe it suggests something more disconcerting about the current conceptualization of Irish culture, and Irish literary culture in particular. Perhaps many in the Irish-American culture industry would like to banish all traces of outer-borough Oirish sentimentalism, and instead, invent an Irish literary tradition that omits and ignores anything smacking of the intellectually middlebrow or the socially middle-class or the morally conventional or the religiously observant. Traces of such a fancifully invented Irish literary tradition can be found in the following anecdote mentioned by John Harrington in his essay "The Abbey in America: The Real Thing" which describes the way the New York media depicted an evening of readings held at The Metropolitan Club in honor of the Abbey's centenary: [Press coverage] kept referring to the Abbey as a theatre known for productions of WB Yeats, James Joyce and Illustration: Between 1967 and 1996, the TDIP produced numerous works by Kerry playwright John B. Keane, including his masterpiece, The Field. Keane's rural dramas were immensely popular with audiences. In 1997 the TDIP made a four-city tour of Ireland, including a performance of Brendan Loonam's Gone Away with a Sailor at the Listowel Arts Center. After the show they were feted by Keane at his famous pub. Samuel Beckett...The New York Times, self-described protector of responsible journalism, opened its story with the words, 'Ah yes, the whiskey was flowing like buttermilk' and throughout conflated the Abbey and James Joyce, as in its headline, 'Another Round of blarney? Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes.' The authorities quoted on the importance of the event were the brothers McCourt. Unfortunately, the misinformation, botched allusions and suspect experts mentioned in this anecdote suggest much of what passes for knowledge about Irish literary culture in New York and throughout America. Of course very little of it concurs with the history of the Abbey Theatre. And none of it bears any resemblance to the realities of the institution that was the Thomas Davis Irish Players. Works by Joyce and Beckett never graced their stage, nor I'd wager, did much whiskey, since some of the members were also members of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. And during their many years in New York, neither Frank nor Malachy McCourt ever graced the boards under the auspices of the TDIP. Rather than the McCourts, for sixty-five years unheralded Irish Americans with names like Daniel and Louise Danaher, Jerry Buckley, Patrick Walsh, Bonnie-Ann Black, James and Anne Marie Barry and dozens upon dozens of others, produced and performed plays that aimed to entertain their friends and families and aimed as well, to evoke in their audiences the bittersweet nature of so much of the Irish and Irish-American experience.
In December 1911, amid the "merry row" provoked by The Playboy, John Quinn, the influential Irish-American patron of Irish artists, wrote a piece for Outlook magazine in which he argued that ultimately, the founders of Abbey Theatre had succeeded because of their courage "in keeping to the narrow limits to which they bound themselves - 'works by Irish writers or on Irish subjects.'" The same sentiment could surely be expressed about the courageously narrow limits of the Thomas Davis Irish Players. On the occasion of their fortieth anniversary, founding member Dan Danaher, wrote: "In measuring the organization's place in the cultural life of our people here, it must be viewed not merely as an ordinary dramatic group but as an instrument for the promotion of Ireland's cultural heritage in America." While there can be no doubt that the nature of Ireland's cultural heritage is a topic of endless, often cantankerous debate, let there be no quarrel about applauding and remembering an organization that exposed so much Irish drama to so many Irish Americans for so long.
Endnotes 1 For an insightful discussion of this incident, one that revises the Manichaean account offered by Lady Gregory in her book Our Irish Theatre, see John P. Harrington's "Synge's Playboy, the Irish Players, and the Anti-Irish Irish Players" in The Irish Play on the New York Stage: 1874-1966 (University Press of Kentucky, 1997). See also "'Weary of Illustration: The Thomas Davis Irish Players performed their distinct brand of Irish drama around the metropolitan area for more than six decades. Brinsley McNamara's comedy Look at the Heffernans is representative of the kind of humorous fare the group offered audiences for much of its long history. The TDIP should be remembered and celebrated for trying to provide both entertainment and cultural enrichment to the New York Irish. Courtesy of Deirdre Danaher. Misrepresentation' - The Abbey Theatre in Irish America, 1911-1913" in my dissertation Irish Writers in Irish America: The Evolution of a Literary Culture and an Ethnic Identity, 1882-1998 (Drew University, 2011). 2 Murphy, pg 226 in "Irish-American Theatre" in Ethnic Theatre in the United States (Greenwood Press, 1983). 3 Quoted on pg 13 of Robert O'Driscoll's "Introduction" to Theatre and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland (University of Toronto Press, 1971). 4 Dalsimer, pg 87 in "Players in the Western World: The Abbey Theatre's American Tours," Eire-Ireland v. 16, no.4 (Winter 1981). 5 Dalsimer, pgs 87-91. 6 Dalsimer, pg 92. If Dalsimer's description reminds you vaguely of Barry Fitzgerald, this is no coincidence. It was on these later tours that Fitzgerald established the reputation for comedy that would later make him a scene-stealing character-actor. In his essay "Barry Fitzgerald: From Abbey Tours to Hollywood Films," included in Irish Theatre on Tour (Carysfort Press, 2005), Adrian Frazier discusses how Fitzgerald helped to turn even Sean O'Casey's "serious plays" into "Dublin character comedies." According to Frazier, "The productions of Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars that toured America in the early 1930s...meandered comically towards unhappy endings, with startlingly vivid low-life characters" (pgs 92-93). 7 Quoted in Dalsimer, pg 92. 8 27 December, 1937. 9 Tyler, pg 250 in Whatever Goes Up (Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1934). 10 Robinson, pgs 41-42 in Curtain Up (Michael Joseph Ltd., 1942). 11 Reynolds' collection of Yeats' newspaper pieces was later re-edited by George Bornstein and Hugh Witemeyer and re-published as The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume VII: Letters to the New Island (Macmillan, 1989). 12 Yeats, pg 3 in The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume VII: Letters to the New Island. 13 Yeats was more honest and candid in another letter to the new island, one he wrote to schoolboys in San Jose, California, circa 1924, a letter that O'Driscoll re-printed in Theatre and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland. In the letter, Yeats admitted that the Abbey's "new dramatists" wrote plays that deal with "the life of the shop and workshop, and of the welloff farmer" and set them "as a general rule, in or near some considerable town" and populated them with conventional characters speaking stilted dialogue. Yeats lamented that these new Abbey dramatists "introduce such characters so often that I wonder at times if the dialect drama has not exhausted itself - if most of those things have not been said that our generation wants to have said in that particular form." And he actually wondered if "perhaps, having created certain classics, the dramatic genius of Ireland will pass on to something else" (pgs 85-86). 14 Bentley, pg 231 in "Irish Theatre: Splendeurs Et Miseres," Poetry, v. 79, no. 4 (Jan., 1952). 15 Moynihan, pg 253 in Beyond the Melting Pot (The M.I.T. Press, 1970). 16 Bryan MacMahon wrote The Cobweb's Glory with Michael Kenneally and Patrick O'Connor under the pseudonym Bryan Michael O'Connor. 17 Murphy, pg 45 in "The Myth of Benightedness after the Irish Renaissance: The Drama of George Shiels," Moving Worlds v. 3, no. 1 (2003): 45-58. 18 Murphy, pg 57. 19 Winter, pg 54 in "'A Labour Leader in a Frothy Scoundrel': Farce and Social Justice in the Popular Dramaturgy of George Shiels." Popular Entertainment Studies, v. 3, no. 1 (2012): 43-56. 20 25th January, 1958. 21 See my previous article for this journal, "Receptions of an Irish Rebel" (vol. 25, 2011), for a discussion of the remarkable fact that in the months surrounding the 1960 Broadway premiere of Brendan Behan's The Hostage, the coverage of Behan in New York's Irish-American newspapers paled in comparison to the weekly publicity granted to the TDIP's production of The Country Boy. 22 This undated clipping is found in a scrapbook compiled by TDIP founder Daniel Danaher, and loaned to me by his gracious daughter Deirdre. The letter to the editor was probably written circa 1960-1961. 23 Maureen Murphy cites an interview with Daniel Danaher in claiming that The Country Boy and Many Young Men of Twenty were "particularly popular with [TDIP] audiences" (232). In email exchanges I conducted with former players Mike Merritt, Ann Marie Barry and Mike O'Mahony, they all identified Keane as one of the most popular, if not the most popular playwright in the repertoire. Also illustrative of this popularity is Joseph Hurley's Irish Echo review of an April 1995 performance of Big Maggie; Hurley describes a "participation obsessed audience" composed of "delighted viewers" who were "vociferously shouting out advice and making their approval and, as the case may be, disapproval[of characters on stage] totally audible." 24 Both Anne Marie Barry and Mike O'Mahony described O'Casey as just as popular as Keane. It is probably no coincidence that the TDIP decided to revive O'Casey's inherently political dramedy amid the resurgence of political violence in the North of Ireland. An April 1972 poster advertising for Juno and the Paycock reads: "The scenes therein are as relevant to the situation in Northern Ireland today as they were to the Ireland of 1922." 25 According to an interview with Bonnie-Ann Black, the group tried to mount Friel's Translations in the Winter/Spring of 1997 but ran into casting difficulties and had to cease production. 26 Conversation with Bonnie-Ann Black. 27 In an email, Anne Marie Barry recounted hearing two "older Irish ladies" exiting a performance of Eclipsed exclaim: "That never happened in Ireland!" 28 Brian Rohan, "Another Irish Stage Group Joins the Fray: New York Stage Fans to Face a Celtic Glut?" (14 January, 1997). 29 Yet, as I was composing this essay, Fintan O'Toole, wrote a provocative piece in the Irish Times about the Irish Rep's latest production, a Troubles play called The Belle of Belfast written by a Los Angeleno named Nate Rufus Edelman. O'Toole worried that a non-Irish playwright "could imagine that all of those [Irish dramatic] clichés amount to an actual society, a way of talking and living and being that you can just put on the stage without the ironies and the games [employed by the likes of Martin McDonagh]." At the end of the piece, O'Toole lamented: "it seems now that, at least in the US, Irishness doesn't have to be handmade any more. You can just buy it off the peg" (22 May, 2015). So much for cultural progress. 30 See Playbill 25 April, 2006 and 27 August, 2007. 31 O'Doherty described the Irish Rep's The Field as the "first ever American production" (3 Jan 2007) and its Sive as "the American premiere" (3 Jan, 2008). 32 In 1978, the Celtic Theatre Company at Seton Hall staged The Field with Michael Duffy in the role of Bull McCabe; Duffy played more than forty roles for the Abbey between 1969-1980, so clearly, there was a high degree of professionalism in the performance. Director Jim McGlone's affinity for Keane's work led to a long relationship between the company and the playwright. In "The Celtic Theatre Company: A Stronghold of Irish Culture in New Jersey" (Studies on the Irish-American Experience in New Jersey and New York. Paper 2) Jim Moore recounts: "Keane even visited the Celtic Theatre Company for the performance of his play, The Crazy Wall, using the opportunity to publicly compliment Jim McGlone's understanding of his work and to thank him for bringing his plays to the attention of American audiences." 33 Harrington, pg 37 in "The Abbey in America: The Real Thing," Irish Theatre on Tour (Carysfort Press, 2005). 34 Malachy actually began his acting career with New York's Irish Players, a group founded by Helena Carroll, daughter of playwright Paul Vincent Carroll. And he did share some printed space with the TDIP: in the 2 April,1966 Advocate, the "Gaelic League Notes" column by Evelyn Burns mentioned that in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, McCourt would participate in a performance of Bryan MacMahon's Seven Men - Seven Days produced by The Columban Fathers in cooperation with The Council of Gaelic Societies. The same column noted that the TDIP had just performed Padraic Pearse's The Singer as part of a Drama Festival sponsored by the Council of Gaelic Societies. 35 16 December, 1911 36 "Thomas Davis Irish Players: The Story of an Ideal and How It All Began." Unpublished typescript in Daniel Danaher's scrapbook, dated February 1975. A revised version of this piece was published as "Davis Players: The Story of an Ideal" in the 30 October, 1982 Irish Echo. 37 To the horror of then-director Ernest Blythe, John B. Keane's Sive was performed by the Listowel Drama Group on the stage of the Abbey for a week in May 1959 after it won the All-Ireland Drama festival that year. Then in 1963/64, the Abbey produced Keane's The Man from Clare. But his plays were not regularly played on the Abbey stage until the 1980s.