The letters that arrived at Lilian Roberts’ house on the North Circular Road over the long summer of 1936 were stamped by the postal service with the instruction ‘Use The Telephone’. Aren’t we so lucky that they didn’t?
Are they love letters? Of a kind. At boarding school, Lilian learned about the ‘particular friendships’ between girls and her heroine’s first tryst is with a prefect. Her friendship with Phyllis Ryan was clearly intense, packed with rivalry and passion, sealed with secrets and dreams of the stage. In her novel, ‘Phyllis’ is the name given to the servant that follows her around. ‘Francesca’ is the girl befriended in acting classes, who quickly is noticed by the director.
Of this particular friend, Lilian writes, ‘One felt there were depths beyond depths in her personality while she was on stage. Off stage, one lost that feeling. Very often she did not understand what a play was about, satire or irony or meaningless words. Her driving force was ambition. […] She should have been a potent example to me to tread wearily and to tread alone.’
Oh dear. Poor Phyllis. This particular friendship doesn’t seem to have ended particularly well. Phyllis didn’t believe anyone in the Company had the ‘divine spark’ needed for stardom. She also wrote to tell Lilian what she thought of her acting skills: ‘there was at least one day when you were definitely more than mediocre.’
On 1st September 1935, Lilian Roberts started in the Land Commission as a ‘pen pusher’. On 1st October 1935, she joined the Abbey School of Acting. At the end of the work day, she raced across town to the theatre. Here she is at that time:
Most students attended three times a week, from 5pm to 8pm and there were about twenty students in her class, of all ages. Lilian maintains that the walls of the theatre were still the particular shade of blue that gave it its name: the Peacock. In their first year, there was elocution and recitation. In the ‘intensive course’ (which was either second year, or a more focused series of classes) there was voice production and dance. The ‘senior’ class took the more experienced students, and often figured as a passage into the Company.
I’m discovering that Lilian really is quite the fabricator, and that prying fact from her fiction in Always In My Mind is more difficult than it first appears, as the truth is carefully intertwined with the dramatic. She insists that Yeats and Lady Gregory were very involved in the school. This appears innocuous enough; except that Gregory died in 1932 and by the time Roberts joined the school, Yeats was abroad or too ill (or both) to be reciting poetry for the young students, as she describes. She does insist they all adored Miss Ria Mooney and fondly remembers parties in Mooney’s cottage.
For three nights at the end of each term, the classes put on three plays: two one-act plays and a full length. On the first night, members of the Board attended and on the final night, after short speeches, the certificates were awarded to each student on the stage. Lilian asserts, ‘a certificate from the Abbey was an open sesame to the theatrical world.’ (Hmmm)
The plays Lilian appears in (per the fiction) are Martinez Sierra’s Cradle Song, Lady Gregory’s Spreading the News and Romeo and Juliet.
The Abbey Archive shows that the first two were real productions, with Roberts as a nun in Cradle Song. (Aideen commended her performance in her note.)
But Romeo and Juliet was not performed at the National Theatre until 2008.
In fact, Yeats’ Land of Heart’s Desire was the third play, with Phyllis Ryan as the faery child.
Could Lilian have heard tell of Mooney’s famed production of Romeo and Juliet with her students in the New York repertory company? Or did she simply like the romantic tale? We may never know.
In Lilian’s novel, the night of their final production ends with a generous father taking them all to the Shelbourne Hotel. Lilian has caught the eye of a good-looking, ascendancy type with a flash motorcar, but her friend needs her help. She eventually reveals, in the Ladies’ toilet of the Shelbourne Hotel, that she is ‘in trouble’ and Lilian provides the funds for her to go to England and have the baby.
The reality of that night is both more innocent and more dramatic than that. Phyllis Ryan later said in a letter:
Do you remember our conversation over the ice cream cups the night of Cradle Song? Well, something wonderful, almost incredible, has happened to me since then, and I remember admitting to you that I was afraid of it happening.
Ice cream, rather than the Horseshoe Bar. But dramatic news all the same. Phyllis continues:
Yes, someday I shall tell you about the incredible something. It is the most beautiful thing in life, and although it may lead to unhappiness, I am glad, so glad and thankful for it.
I’m surmising (and hope that Lilian will forgive me) that this ‘something’ was in fact a clandestine relationship with English director Hugh Hunt. Hunt was twenty-four (hardly a cradle-snatcher) and Phyllis sixteen years old; she admitted it all in a later memoir. Of course, it may not have been a man at all. It may have been about her forays into the dressing rooms of the main theatre.
Now here’s a scene that not even Lilian would have tried to pass off as fact.
A room “behind the shop” in Old Baghdad. In the background a large cauldron steaming, for the shop is a sweet-stuff shop and the sugar is boiling. The room has little furniture beyond the carpet, old but unexpectedly choice, and some Persian hangings [geometrical designs, with crude animals and some verses from the Koran hand-printed on linen]. A ramshackle wooden partition in one corner shuts off from a living room what appears to be the shop.
Later, a veiled woman appears to plead with the confectioner, who owns the shop. But his slaves capture her:
ALDER and WILLOW each grip an arm. JUNIPER grips her ankles. YASMIN is held standing. Her cloak falls. She is clothed in a short jacket and trousers of white silk with a pattern of blue flowers: her waist is naked, in the Persian style.
The man declares:
You are Yasmin, the poor, the beautiful, the proud: I am Hassan, rich and passionate and strong. You have hurt me, I will hurt you; it is the rule of the game, and the way of the world. Do I hate you? I do not know or care. Do I love you?– then love shall drive the blade in deep. You are the world’s own stupendous harlot, and I will cut you clean in two.
No, I haven’t lost it completely. Read it again. Picture it.
Alder was the slave played by a blond-haired doll-like girl, Aideen O’Connor. Juniper was played by the elfin creature with huge dark eyes, Phyllis Ryan. And the stupendous harlot? Who else but this students’ adored tutor and the ‘Abbey’s Whore’: Ria Mooney.
Confused? I was. At a push, I might have guessed this kind of orientalism was going on at the Gate Theatre in the 1930s. In fact, this all happened in Hassan by Flecker at the Abbey Theatre in May 1936. It only lasted six nights. Hugh Hunt directed it, and Phyllis noted that it was wonderful ‘except for the acting of a few of the Abbey players.’
Phyllis really had moved into a different world, leaving Lilian behind. They followed their own paths, with Ryan making her career in directing and producing theatre. Lilian kept Phyllis’ letters from 1936 with the love letters to her own husband.
Today, I’m off in search of another shop. A shop-come-bakery in fact. For Tanya Moseiwitch’s set for the confectioner’s home in Baghdad may well have reminded Ria Mooney of the Baggot Street tea rooms where she was born. I’ve finally tracked down the full address, and am finding out all kinds of things about Ria’s background yet to be revealed…