Outside the McCarter Theatre, there is a large black car parked in the space closest to the door with a license plate that reads STG MGR. I love that so much. I love New York. There’s something about the supremely confident, loud, intent focus on success that is so unnerving to an Irish girl and yet also so liberating. And who wouldn’t love Princeton University? In late spring, the blossoms on the cherry blossom trees are so large and thick that it feels like walking into a fog. The leafy surrounds of the 17th century stone buildings with iron-latticed windows are almost disorientating when you realise how close you are to Manhattan. (And to House, the medical series starring Hugh Laurie, which is filmed in the medical centre here.)** The Princeton University students know their Irish theatre; and not just because of their regular global seminar in NUI Galway. In 2006, the Firestone Library received the Leonard L. Milberg Collection of Irish Theater, acquired in large part by antiquarian J. Howard Woolmer and donated in honor of Paul Muldoon. Among its treasures are a poster for a 1916 production of Kathleen ni Houlihan (that never took place) and a presumed-lost one act play by Sean O’Casey entitled The Cooing of the Doves. This play was the basis for The Plough and the Stars. Despite the enticements, this trip I spent less time poring over faded pages in a dark room and more time strolling the campus, trying to fit in, and imagining Aideen’s arrival here in 1934.
The Abbey Company (or family as I sometimes think of them) spent a mere two nights here in October 1934, after performing in Clarke University in Worchester and before heading for Broadway. That winter had seen record lows of -14F (-25C) in New Jersey, but I like to imagine that Aideen arrived to sunshine that made the autumn colours glow and shimmer. The Company probably took the train from Penn Station, and changed at Princeton Junction for the “dinky” – a silver shuttle with brown leather seats that brings you back to campus. The McCarter Theatre is and isn’t part of campus. It sits just on the edge, close to Princeton station, hovering on the side of academia between ‘town and gown’, as the English university towns put it. It hosts everything from stars of America’s Got Talent to new plays directed by Emily Mann. Princeton is a thriving business district, with designer shops and ice cream parlours sitting side-by-side around the pretty Palmer Square. (Think Gilmore Girls but with more class.)** Strolling down McCosh walk, in the middle of campus, using the campus-wide wi-fi to find my way to the Princeton Art Museum, I was thinking over something Joan Scott said at the lecture she gave the previous evening about becoming a feminist historian. Then I started musing about whether Aideen would have liked to go to college, and about my own [on-going] college education, and the next thing I knew I was in tears. My husband will tell you that flying always turns me into an emotional wreck, but there was more going on. I realised how incredibly privileged I’ve been to have the education I have, and to be in Princeton University this week, listening to really smart and successful women talking about how far we’ve come and how far we can go in the future with some foresight. Aideen, more outspoken than did her career any good, would have appreciated that. I’ve been reading Salinger while I’m here, because it seems appropriate rather than because I’m a particular fan. And I discovered that Franny in his novella Franny and Zoey played Pegeen Mike in Synge’s Pegeen Mike! She appears in summer stock, but complains that her counterpart’s ‘lyrical’ interpretation destroyed her own characterisation. The Abbey Company performed Playboy of the Western World for one night at the McCarter, after the laughs the previous night of The Far Off Hills and Lady Gregory’s Hyacinth Halvey. This time the role of Pegeen Mike was played by Eileen Crowe, while May Craig, Aideen and Frolie played the village girls. Crowe played Pegeen Mike in Playboy of the Western World seventeen times, between the mid-1920s and mid-1930s. Later, one critic described her performance:
Miss Eileen Crowe was a capable and homely Pegeen, but she spoke all her passages of sentiment in a maudlin over-pitched tone of voice; this certainly brought out the weakness in the character, the sentimentality that invested her Playboy with a halo of false romance, that infuriated her when she discovered his deceit, and that finally made her cry out for a man who had not exactly justified her affection. ‘O my grief…’ […] Miss Crowe overdid these passages, and her tone was slightly out of control.
As the enduring nature of the play has demonstrated, Synge’s female characters are multi-faceted. Crowe’s interpretation, however, focused on Pegeen’s weaknesses, her sentimental and homely qualities. These choices are as valid as any other interpretation of the role, but are telling of Crowe’s sensibilities. It is also telling that Crowe was cast in the role for that tour. Prior to the Abbey Company’s departure in September 1934, there had been controversy over the inclusion of Playboy in the repertoire because of protests from some Irish Americans about its propriety. This dated back to the initial controversy over the play in America in 1910-11, when certain actors were arrested, and to the consequent fears of the Irish government and Church in the 1930s that such sentiments might be re-ignited. By choosing a homely and sentimental Pegeen, with a deferential presence, the directors set Playboy as a historical piece, with little potential for offence. This production said: Irish women are capable and homely; they are harmless, sentimental and maudlin. I like to believe Aideen and Frolie hated this representation of the character, that they sat in the wings of the McCarter with Aideen making faces and Frolie imitating the high-pitch cries. (For the next tour, Crowe was replaced by Ria Mooney, who radically re-envisioned the part.) Today’s Princeton students wouldn’t accept this reading of Pegeen Mike, and Aideen and Frolie would have thumbs up to that. Aideen O’Connor, ‘Abbey Theatre Players American Tour, 1937-38, Select Theatres Corp, 223 W 48th St, NYC 1937, Feb 20: Hugh Hunt prod of Playboy **Note: all the TV references reflect the discovery that Netflix in the US has a whole host of different programmes not available at home.