And the circle is complete. Or is it? Can a circle end?
The gentleman in the portrait is J.J. Mulkerns. A talented amateur actor, he was interned with Michael Collins in Frongoch Prison Camp after the 1916 Rising. When he returned to Dublin, with a mop of silver hair, he turned down offers to appear on stage professionally to take a stable job in the GEC Electrical Company, a position that would allow him support his wife and young family. The Mulkerns family weren’t wealthy, but there was one thing always in plentiful supply: free theatre tickets supplied by his many friends and old colleagues.
The lady is his daughter, Val Mulkerns, writer and journalist. Now eighty-seven years old, she continues to write and regularly appears on radio. At the age of ten, her father began to take her to the Abbey on a Saturday afternoon. It was such a regular occurrence, that it later came as a huge shock to learn that some of her classmates had never been to a theatre. I can see a young Val, forehead furrowed and mouth open: ‘What else do families do on a Saturday afternoon?’
In the 1970s, Val edited the autobiography of Ria Mooney, actress and Abbey Theatre Artistic Director. (Bet you didn’t know there was another female Abbey Artistic Director between Lady Gregory and Lelia Doolan. Keep that for the next table quiz.) This is how I found her, as I searched the Irish libraries for this precious autobiography. It eventually arrived on my desk via Jamaica, but that’s another story. By then, I had learnt that Val had seen The Far-Off Hills in the Abbey in the 1930s. That tantalizing glimpse of Aideen and Frolie on stage, playing giggling teenagers in their adjoining beds, actually belonged to somebody. It was my blurry dream and someone else’s memory. Terrifying and thrilling in equal measure, as I negotiate the winding roads of Dalkey in a tropical rainstorm, seeking a yellow front door. Terrifying because I’m getting closer, and if I actually get ‘there’, what will I find? How will I even know I’m there?
Let’s take in a matinee in the Abbey Theatre in 1935, before more philosophizing.
Val remembers entering the lobby of The Abbey Theatre on Marlborough Street, through the grim façade of dark green stone. Her visits would have been after the renovations of 1935, but much of the architecture remained the same. Straight ahead and down a few steps, was the box office, where tickets were collected from the long-serving Mrs Mannix. To the right were the tearooms, where the dwindling sunlight of the afternoon caught the colours of the stained glass windows and spilled it over the monochrome black tiles on the floor. The child lingered, while her parents chatted with friends, looking at the bright patterns of the lunettes and the grim portraits of the Abbey Directors on the walls. The copper-framed decorative mirrors, shaped like classical shields, must have caught her eye. (One remains on display to this day — Next time you go to the Abbey Theatre, try and spot it.)
Tea, coffee and cakes were not only served during the interval; the smart waitresses would happily bring refreshments to your seat during the performance. Smoking was permitted again in 1935, but there was still no alcohol license. Val remembers that quite a lot of people weren’t in the tearooms before and after the show. Undoubtedly, they had taken the back door in the auditorium to nip across to Mooney’s pub where a pint or a short might be shared with some of the acting company.
When the huge, brass gong sounded to announce curtain up, she went down the steps and into the auditorium. The walls were dark rust red, and the red leather seats (individually divided by brass fittings) were newly upholstered. There was a toilet to the right of the stage, if she dared cross the crowd and miss some action, and to the left was the door to the scene dock where sometimes stage manager Dossie Wright could be seen, surrounded by props and waiting for a cue.
The best seats, in Val’s mind’s eye, were six rows from the front of the stalls. Even at that age, she had good instincts: Joseph Holloway, renowned theatre critic, liked the same spot. Or, the Mulkerns family would take the front row of the balcony. Horse-shoe shaped, it gave a good view of the triple-electric lamps and the rest of the 560-strong crowd. But, it lacked one thing: the smells! When sausages were put on the frying pan down stage right during The Plough and the Stars, the aroma wafted across the audience. The child Val was stunned by the smell from the ‘make-believe’ frying pan, and the memory of that surprise has never left her. As Val told me this story, top-to-toe in denim with a silk scarf around her neck, I realised why she is still so vibrant and young-looking: Her pure delight in this magic, this powerful alchemy of fantasy and reality, can be seen in her entire being. She laughs frequently while we talk, even as we discuss Abbey politics. Waving off any feminist arguments, she insists that the Abbey women were simply too busy (and having too much fun) to get married and have children. Over coffee and cherry cake, we speculate about how many of these women could have avoided pregnancy out of wedlock.
Val and I agree that Ria was never ‘pretty’, but she was extremely ‘handsome’, with strong features and Spanish colouring. I found one part of her autobiography strangely touching: a life-long inferiority complex about her weight and size that she frequently mentions without seeming to realize it. These 1930s women had more in common with us than we may think …
In her autobiography, Ria Mooney says nothing of her long-term love affair with Fred Higgins. While I was initially infuriated by this, perhaps it’s only right that this was ‘her story’ and hers alone. Their intimate relationship was, according to Val, an open secret. Ria had a house in Enniskerry, called ‘the hut’, where she would spend time with Higgins whenever possible. He dedicated an unpublished poem to her, and she hung it on the wall of the hut. The poem mentions ‘the silver ring’, a ring that Fred gave Ria while he was still married to someone else. Ria wore it until the metal wore away and then she kept it in a box. But while Maev (Val’s daughter) and I ponder on the tragedy of this, Val dismisses it with a wave of her hand and another laugh. As Ria’s close friend and editor of her autobiography, she remains uncertain whether Ria would ever have married him, even if he wasn’t married. He wasn’t a film-star lover, apparently!
Ria is in ‘The Table’. That is – she is on the list of suspects of actresses who may have sent the letter to Aideen’s father, revealing her affair. Given her own circumstances, it may seem unlikely she’d decide to be a moral arbiter, but I’m not ruling her out either. Ria’s intimacy with Fred Higgins must have affected her relationship with Aideen, when Higgins turned against her so violently and refused to cast her. Indeed, he may have turned against her because of Ria’s feelings about Aideen, rather than the other way around. So I do need to consider her personality.
In a thoughtful interjection in her autobiography, Ria writes: ‘From the day my mother died, I did exactly what pleased me.’ She then regretfully notes that if there was no one to tell her do wrong, there was also no one to tell her when she was doing right. Ria let herself loose upon on the world. Without the guidance of a maternal figure, or the ‘Father Confessor’ so esteemed by the other women in the Company, she threw herself into adventures and took every opportunity.
On the choppy crossing to the United States in 1937, F.R. Higgins described to his wife May how he visited all of the Abbey Company in their sick beds. Frolie was white as a ghost, Aideen incapable of keeping anything down and Maureen Delany unable to get out of her bunk. And then he says:
Dr Higgins and Nurse Mooney (she was the only woman who survived) went upstairs and […] played House, the boat still heaving.
Her constitution was strong. After her success with Rosie Redmond and other major parts, Ria Mooney struck out on her own. She travelled to London for work, and eventually went to New York to study with the experimental theatre company of Eva le Gallienne. By the time she came back to the Abbey, the company had changed. Her old friends weren’t around: Shelah Richards no longer went on tour and Kate Curling had married and moved to Philadelphia. Aideen and Frolie were firm allies, and doing their best to keep young Phyllis Ryan out of the action. May Craig was widowed and raising five children; Maureen Delaney was comfortably ensconced as the resident comic who could reduce the audience to laughter simply by stepping out on the stage. Ria would have been on the outside, more experienced and more mature than the younger women, without the stability of the married women. Her closest ally and the man she loved: the treacherous, surly Fred Higgins who trusted no one and could never be trusted.
Yet, from my morning with Val Mulkerns, her daughter and her grandson, I am certain that Ria was a good and loyal friend. As she grew older, she retained her stylish clothes and artistic eye. Frequently, she took the Mulkerns for drinks in The Goat pub in Goatstown and the house she shared in Dundrum with her father and sister was always busy with visitors. There was no bitterness or vindictiveness in her nature. She continued to act and direct despite her dislike of the new Abbey Board in the 1940s and 1950s. I’m happy to exclude her from the list of suspects.
More and more questions are coming my way about why I’m doing this, where this is going to end, and what I’m looking for.
I do believe the theatre is in my blood and my genes, but psychoanalysis is best left to the experts.
What am I looking for and where will this end?
This weekend I facilitated a playwrighting workshop in Fighting Words. I can’t say ‘taught a workshop’ because these kids (barely teenagers) always teach me more than I teach them. Terms like ‘genre’, ‘motivation’, ‘unconventional love story’, trip off their tongues like Hollywood executives. But we talked a lot about ‘story arc’ and ‘character journey’, about sending characters on a quest, putting obstacles in their way, watching them respond, change, grow and reach a point of resolution. A resolution, not an ending. Watching them work reminded me about ‘McGuffins’, the objects placed in a story to drive the plot. The McGuffins are the crystal that will explode the Temple of Doom, or the key that will stop the speeding vehicle. It’s the map for the treasure hunt that we set off with, which often gets stolen or lost.
In my case, that letter announcing Aideen’s adultery is a ‘McGuffin’. In the best narrative, the McGuffin falls away but the story remains. We lose interest in what we’re aiming for, because the journey has become the all. Hidden strengths are found and fears overcome. Allies are made and enemies defeated. The character will never be the same again, for good or evil.
Whether that ‘character’ is now Aideen or the writer herself, is for others to decide.