Last week I discovered an archive so deep and rich I almost drowned in it.
Last week I discovered an archive so deep and rich that I wanted to drown in it, to submerge myself and escape from office work and PhD research and unwritten critical reports and housework and tutorials and tax returns. (That may have been the raging temperature from the flu I was also trying to escape.)
Last week I discovered an archive, but I can’t reveal its location.
It took months to ‘crack the code’ and gain access. It can only be visited in the afternoon, because of humidity levels. I can’t include pictures with this entry, for I wasn’t allowed to take any. I can’t quote directly, for the Keeper of Manuscripts hasn’t granted permission. I haven’t met ‘The Keeper’ but I’m imagining something out of a Harry Potter book, and I’m not prepared to risk its wrath.
Yet, if you’ll allow me—Or, in fact, indulge me, I’ll conjure up two more actresses you may enjoy meeting …
They are fictions conjured entirely by my own pen, you understand.
The first is ‘inspired by’ Arthur (Boss) Shields’s first wife: Bazie (Genevieve) Magee. Originally from Lisburn, Co. Down, she went to work in London as a chauffeur during the war, where she met Arthur Shields in 1919. Soon after, she was a permanent member of the Abbey Company and the married couple were back living in Dublin.
The second is—Let’s call her ‘Denise’. She is an Abbey Company actress and for some time she has been pursued by an aspiring actor/playwright—Let’s call him Richard. Denise is playing hard to get, although she has already fallen hard for him. They are engaged to be married, apparently, but she refuses to wear a ring, he hasn’t made up his mind and nobody believes it will really happen.
It is late September 1927.
Aideen is still in school. This evening she is labouring over French homework for the nuns in Muckross; curly blonde head glittering in the light from the oil lamp, bent over the books on the kitchen table in Ranelagh. Her future husband, Arthur Shields, is in the theatre, running lines and discussing plans for the Dublin Drama League’s next production.
And we are here on Leinster Street South, as the fog thickens and the night grows darker.
Peek in the third floor window (a two-roomed flat) and you’ll see Bazie Magee, waiting for her husband of seven years to return home. The walls are lined with books and the rashers are packed into the frying pan on top of the stove, which is smoking dangerously. The sash window is pushed open a little to let in some air and dispel the intense heat from the fire. There isn’t much wood to burn and by the time the others return it may have gone out. They’ll light the single oil lamp and the one candle so that the little party can continue.
Tall and broad-shouldered and stronger than most men, Bazie scowls relentlessly. She strides across the stage like a soldier; Yeats and Robinson both fear and adore her. Tonight, she is entertaining Richard. Together, they wait for Arthur and Denise to return so they can sit down to a feed of fatty bacon and soda bread thick with salty butter.
Richard is young, dashing and smart as a whip. He has a startling intellect that is by day inhaling all the intricacies of the legal system and by night is reveling in the challenge of the new Irish theatre. He adores Bazie, believing she is both the most interesting and the most dangerous person in Dublin. Her fantasies are gaining pace every time he visits, her mythic life moving further and further from reality. She sees plots and intrigues everywhere. Many of her closest friends, she has already driven away. Denise and Richard are doing their best to warn and improve her, before she loses all human contact, but often now he simply observes her; he studies and takes notes. He thinks of her as something like a character from the world of playwright Pirandello; her mind and her myth-making fascinate and compel him.
Richard’s thin frame is sprawled in the armchair closest to the fire, and with her back to him, as she tends to the stove, Bazie is talking. Fed up of waiting for the others, she is going to feed him. And she is simultaneously berating him. First, for yet again bringing a gift of soap and bath salts that she will never use and secondly, for remaining determined to marry Denise.
She called him a ‘big squeaky elephant’ when he arrived and now he is a ‘big blood hound’.
‘Ach, I don’t know,’ she concedes eventually, setting the plate of rashers in front of him. ‘What the Lambeg you’re doing bothering with her. Marry that girl and you’ll regret it, believe me. You’ll rue the day you took up with that hockey-playing minx. And that family are ALL MAD.’
He wants to explain to her, but his mouth is full of food and she is still talking. He wants to explain the attraction to Denise, to explain how his eccentricities are pitted against hers again and again until everything bursts in a shower of blazing sparks. How he always knows that is the moment to leave, to abandon Denise in her smug circle of upper class respectability. But each time something happens. Each time, her lips twitch and somebody’s hand gets held and then he is kissing her sweet funny mouth and she is calling him a stupid ass and he is retorting that she is an abominably spoilt child.
There is no time to explain any of this, for as he picks fat from his teeth, Bazie has lost touch with reality again. Reality is too much, or the memories of the Great War are too much, or the endless nights of pacing the floor, learning lines and waiting for Boss to come home are too much. She has burnt the pan, or the fire is dying, or something he has said has infuriated her. He rushes to collect his things to leave. She flings open the door as he skitters out and shouts after him down the stairs:
‘You’re a big blue mass of selfishness and you ken keep your big roaring red hot body and throw it to the ducks in Stephen’s Green!’
Striding along Leinster Street are Denise and Arthur Shields. Denise is smaller than the gangly Shields, but she is leonine, with green eyes, and crooked coils of golden hair that always show the sweeping marks of the comb. Yet again, she hadn’t learnt her lines and Boss is trying to coax them out of her.
Abandoning the party planned, Arthur decides to spend the night with his brother and Denise offers to drive Richard home. She has a sports car, which she drives with reckless abandon, all streets and hills and valleys at the same roaring speed. He clambers in and she begins immediately to question when he is going to write a decent, big part for her. She is fed up of the meek, snotty-nosed Norah Clitheroe and wants something more fitting. He is fed up of her committing to too many parts, in too many places. In a month’s time, she will be in the US with The Plough and the Stars, playing Norah. He both longs for the peace and dreads her absence, especially given Sean O’Casey’s determination to romance her. She is still refusing to wear an engagement ring, despite the half-dozen he brought back from Weirs for her to choose from.
‘How is Bazie anyway?’ she says to him when the roar of the engine subsides. ‘She’s one of the few of that lot I can rely on.’ He doesn’t know how to explain it.
Denise has always been close to the motherly Bazie, who not only cooked for them on tour but frequently dosed the girls with painkillers if they had menstrual cramps when they were due to perform.
As she accelerates through Ballsbridge and points in the direction of Lansdowne Road, where he is staying with his parents, Richard realizes that while he will marry Denise, he has no bloody idea what he’ll do with her afterwards.
They did marry, in December of the following year, in a Protestant service in the city centre. The weather was bad and she was, characteristically, grumpy and cranky for the entire day. Their Catholic colleagues from the Abbey Company waited outside on the steps to greet them.
Seven years later, Denise has two children and is living in Greystones. For some time, she has been having an affair with another actor. She refuses to feel repentant, for her husband has been unfaithful to her since the early months of their marriage.
Bazie has one son called Adam and is living in Sandymount. For some months, she has been suspicious about Arthur and his relationship with a young lassie who has joined the Company. Denise has heard similar rumours, and this time decides it isn’t Bazie’s paranoia.
I can see Denise, in her motorcar, foot to the floor and brassy locks pulled back by the wind. The children have been left with their nanny, and she has a bottle of Scotch on the front seat. She is tearing up the coast road towards Sandymount Green, to discuss things with her old friend.
I must peek in the window of that house on Sandymount Road and see if they’re there …