I went to see Wicked in London but I can’t tell you if I saw Idina Menzel or her understudy. There; I’ve admitted a horrible secret. But could you tell the difference in the performance?
Only the big West End musicals now use understudies. Irish theatres rarely employ them, unless absolutely necessary (as with rotating child actors) and rarely would have the funds to do so. Some (based on my extensive Twitter research) will work out understudy strategies within the cast, but ‘reading in’ (in strict emergencies) is the norm.
But this week I’ve been wondering: if an Irish actress of the 1930s was in a precarious position, what kind of position was an understudy in? What would an understudy see? Does studying under allow better understanding? I do, of course, have a particular understudy in mind.
In the late 1920s, not long after her success as Rosie, Ria Mooney travelled to London and got the part of Mary Boyle in a touring production of Juno and the Paycock. The producer, J. B. Fagan, wanted her to have an understudy and Ria insisted she knew the right person: hard-working, reliable and talented. That person was Mary Manning. Ria was twenty-one; Mary not yet twenty. Manning had been taught acting at the Abbey School by Sara Allgood, and attended Alexandra school with Shelah Richards. Mary was of Quaker background, well-off and from a Foxrock family friendly with the Becketts. Despite their differences, they became life-long friends. This may not sound startling, until you realise that Manning might have been a difficult person to be friends with. To quote an academic I met recently: “Manning was definitely not a ‘woman’s woman’”. She’s been immortalised in a Beckett novel as a vicious harpy, with equine features, gossiping with her mother. (I keep thinking of Sorcha in Ross O’Carroll Kelly’s sagas.) Her later life was dogged with rumours of affairs, hard drinking and not attending to motherly duties. But she remained loyal to Ria.
By the 1950s, Manning was married, living in the United States and sending letters back to Ria. She had established herself in Boston, where she was requesting articles from people like Eva Le Gallienne (that name again) for her theatre journal. She asked Ria (‘love’) to contribute something, suggesting she dictate something to ‘a minion’ in the Abbey on directing for the National Theatre. There’s no evidence of a reply from Ria, dictated or otherwise.
It wasn’t Manning’s first time as editor. She was something of a pioneer in establishing Motley magazine at the Gate Theatre in the early 1930s. With reviews, gossip and pieces from established writers such as Frank O’Connor, it was hugely popular. She was industrious and enterprising: if her commissioned writers didn’t come through she would simply write the piece herself. So much of the history of the Gate Theatre during this period is caught in those pages, like a historian’s virtuous logging of events.
In Manning’s letters to Ria, she still shared memories of their travelling together as girls: the fun and the suffering. The UK tour took them to all the big cities, and Manning remembered particularly staying in Leeds:
The awful outside lavatories. And having to go through the kitchen to get to them with men seated at the table eating kippers in their shirt sleeves.
They shared a room over a pub in Bolton, where they were woken at 4am by mill workers in clogs clattering their way to work. And there were the almost-dangerous digs, with crime rife and the ‘sinister doctor’ who attended Ria when she had stomach problems. Manning had to cover for a few days; Ria Mooney was terrified of doctors ever after.
James McGlone interviewed Manning for his biography of Mooney’s life, and Manning remembered that Mooney was ‘very nice to travel with,’ though she was ‘always hard up.’ Ria didn’t have wealthy parents supplementing her income and was always concerned about money. While the ladies shared an interest in the arts (Mooney gave her books on architecture; Manning always travelled with a book of Arnold’s poetry in her pocket) there were clear class and financial differences. Manning said that they enjoyed each other’s company although Mooney ‘wasn’t very humorous. She was very earnest and ambitious’.
Time and again in recollections, Mooney is described by men as overly-serious or ‘earnest’; as if her application and determination were faults. Manning, rarely short of money and ready to take on the men as equals in wit and bawdy humour, matches their description.
Back in Dublin after that UK tour, Ria moved between ‘the boys’ and the Abbey, while Mary resolutely stuck with ‘the boys’ (Edwards and MacLiammoir) at the Gate. She edited Motley, and after Edwards took her to task for a nasty review, she put her pen where her mouth was and penned Youth’s the Season—? This drawing-room comedy, about Dublin’s upper-class youth searching for meaning, came with a startling modernist twist and was a huge hit for the Gate. It would be staged again there in 1935 and presented in London. (It was arguably this play which first taught Beckett how to write plays; but that’s another argument.)
The curious thing is that while she was writing plays and working at the Gate, Manning’s name continues to appear in the Abbey Theatre cast list, in bit parts mostly, but there all the same. It’s as if she couldn’t entirely give up her access to the rehearsal room for the solitary desk.
When Ria played the notorious Kitty O’Shea in Fearon’s play Parnell of Avondale at the Abbey Theatre in 1934, Manning played ‘Miss Springfield.’ There’s no script in the archives, so we’re forced to adduce that Manning’s was a small role in the large cast, but did the women continue to discuss theatre in the dressing room and between rehearsals? Manning’s mother took a shine to Ria, and she often visited their home for tea and chat. Did these women (Beckett’s harpies and the Abbey’s whore) discuss Kitty O’Shea over the fire in Foxrock? Or chat about Parnell’s downfall in the Gate bar?
Manning’s role, the understudy that studied assiduously, meant she was perfectly placed to adapt James Joyce’s short story Ivy Day in the Committee Room in Boston in 1955. To hear my detailed thoughts on this play, I’m afraid you’ll have to attend my paper at the Protestant Playwrights Conference in NUI Galway this weekend. (That’s if I’m not thrown out for suggesting Manning taught Samuel Beckett playwriting.)
But if you can’t make Galway, there’s more to come…
Once again: the best part about writing this blog is the serendipitous encounters it engenders. In the National Library this week, researching Mary Manning, I handed in a call slip with Ria Mooney’s name on it. The librarian furrowed her brow: Oh, are you researching her? She’s fascinating. And that’s odd because just this week this stuff came back from conservation and I was working on it in the archives…
Ladies and Gentlemen, the people working away under the radar, the understudies and librarians, are the heroes of this world. And they often know us better than we know ourselves. I’ve an appointment in the picture archives for two weeks time (these appointments are precious) and I will let you know how I fare…