As promised, the sequel to last week’s post on the Irish playwright…
Teresa Deevy was a Waterford girl. When she turned forty she was still living at home, where she slept in the bed she’d had since childhood and sought solace in the waves at Tramore when she was having trouble with a script. But after the success of Katie Roche, she more and more felt the pull of the city and the need to be closer to the Dublin theatre scene.
This week, I go back ‘to school’ and prepare for another term of commuting from Dublin to NUI Galway. And again, I wonder: why am I doing this? What is the pull of Dublin when life might be easier and certainly would be cheaper in Galway? Writers, I was once told, have a habit of unbalancing their home lives and refusing to settle in one place. Unbalanced, they use their work as their counterweight to keep them stable. There are also times when I feel I have to be in the capital, where I can go to the theatre on a whim, spend time in Fighting Words and where I’m anonymous. Practically-speaking, it’s harder to live in Dublin, so simply staying put and proving to myself I can do it is a reward in itself.
Thus, I can understand Deevy’s need to be closer to the Abbey and can try to imagine the courage it took to supplant herself to Ballsbridge. Even if she didn’t have the Dublin bike scheme…
It’s 1941 and the trees hanging over the canal at Baggot Street Bridge are flecked with gold. A head appears first over the humpback bridge: a dark head with silver strands and a severe-looking face. She is cycling frantically, long limbs working furiously and skirt flapping. Skipping over the tip, she gains speed but there’s a bus towering over her! The driver sounds the horn. She doesn’t pay any attention (doesn’t hear it). The driver presses the horn again; a gentleman on the footpath stops and raises the tip of his walking stick in some kind of warning or greeting. The bus swerves, narrowly missing her. Tessa rings her bell and politely holds out an arm to indicate her right turn onto Waterloo Road, where her new abode is at No.16.
They have their own front door on the first floor, and two smart rooms. Nell is home and she’s feeding the darling little yellow canary that the Robinsons brought them as a house-warming gift. It sings each morning, according to Nell, and Tessa likes to talk to it although they still haven’t named it. Dolly seems disrespectful, although they’ve had no better ideas. Today, Tess has no time for it – there’s a letter from Blythe on the table. Not a letter. She lifts it, feels the weight of it. A full script returned. An utter rejection. She sinks into a chair. Nell turns to her, and Tessa knows that her darling sister is speaking to her, offering comfort and pity, but she wants none of it.
The play that had been rejected by Blythe was A Wife to James Whelan. Later, she would calmly describe the disappointment as simply “a bit of a blow both to Nell and to me”. It was a hard, violent blow. For the first time, she had been starting to feel confident about her own writing, “I felt the play was good, and felt very confident of it.” But even if it was a strong piece of writing and deserved staging elsewhere, for her, “it is very much an “Abbey” play so I feel rather handicapped.”
Lennox Robinson had championed her work since the beginning, but by the time he presented her with the canary and folded his frame into the armchair in Waterloo Road, he was already lost in a sea of drunkenness. Academic commentators often speak of how Deevy turned to writing for radio after her rejection by the Abbey. They somehow miss the fact that this was a turn driven by desperation, not an active choice. On her first trip to the BBC studio in Belfast, she was convinced she wouldn’t enjoy it. She always continued to write for the stage, altering scripts as needed for radio production. At various points, she told her friend:
It had to be shortened, having been written for the stage. This is the one I sent to the Abbey and they turned down.
… As I may never see this on stage, I thought I’d like to watch them read the parts.
She stayed on in Dublin, attending regular PEN meetings, going to the theatre with Nell, writing for the stage, but being grateful for the money that came in from her radio drama. There were hopeful days:
Only trying and trying and hoping and hoping – and so we go on!
And the days when things seemed harder:
The writing has “gone agen” me once more.
I know that feeling.
Tessa regularly went home to Landscape, the grand house her father had built in Waterford, but she was determined to make a home for herself in Dublin. Now, the city also served as a useful base to go to Belfast to the radio studios. She toiled on, living on little, writing in the mornings and going out in the afternoons. The sisters made a trip to Paris in 1950, staying in a hotel recommended by Ria Mooney. But Nell’s sudden death in 1954 left Tessa more lonely than ever before. She took a “bed-sitting-room arrangement” on Clyde Road with two ‘office girls’ called Barbara and Molly. They were “a decent pair”.
I want more than anything to know if Tessa took the canary to her new ‘arrangement’, or if it was left behind. Such things are omitted from this sheaf of papers, which of course cuts the story short when you want to know so much more.
I do know that in 2010, a full production of A Wife to James Whelan was staged in New York, at the Mint Theatre. (In Ireland, there had only been one stage production: an amateur group in 1956 in a studio on Mount Street.) The theatre was full; the critics raved. People wrote about it on both sides of the Atlantic. Deevy’s success had finally arrived; the hard work and loneliness had paid off. If only she’d been there to see it.