I’ve been absent from the blogosphere because I’ve been caught up with Waking the Feminists duties and I spent two full weeks immersed in the Galway International Arts Festival. Yet even when I’m not writing I am watching and thinking about Irish actresses.
During GIAF, I spent one Saturday afternoon watching an Irish actress being studiously avoided by the public. This beautiful, talented lady was relaxing on her day off, wandering around Galway and attending a reading, before appearing that night in a sell-out hit of the festival. The small gathering of theatre-literate people (as Galway audiences generally are) assiduously overlooked her as she lingered in the lobby, alone, and then joined the queue to enter the theatre. It wasn’t that she was given the cold shoulder, or spurned; but it was a very deliberate ‘we know who you are, but we aren’t taking a blind bit of notice’. Except everyone was taking notice. That she had been recognised was noted from the sidelong glances and the occasional whisper.
She presented her (purchased) ticket, filed in politely and took a seat near the door. Despite the busy space, nobody sat in the seats on either side of her. People formed a circle around her, without deigning to take an adjoining seat. And as she blushed and buried her face in the programme, I thought about how difficult it must be to be a ‘female celebrity performer’ in Ireland, where communities are small and women can acquire ‘notions’ with the flash of an eye.
[Why is it that a solitary male is a ‘lone wolf’: with connotations of pride, genius and danger. A woman alone is eccentric, or odd, or demanding. Are there lone she wolves?]
It is said that as long as she lived, May Craig was approached on the streets of Dublin with shouts and whoops, asking her to deliver particular lines. Craig received a gift of a film camera from her husband in the 1930s, which she used to record public forays at home and abroad. Did this allow her disappear into the crowds of fans when needed? Eileen Crowe was less likely to pander to her public outside the theatre (Beckett once referred to her as ‘that ineffable bitch’) but she did have Joseph Holloway to afternoon tea and hosted Christmas parties in New York hotels. Frolie Mulhern became something of a celebrity in her mother’s home town of Enniskillen, where she was famous not just for her Abbey profile but for offering her hilarious skits and mimicry to raise funds for the local church.
But while Craig and Crowe had their children, and Aideen and Frolie had each other, perhaps Ria Mooney stands out as the most isolated woman in Irish theatre in 1930s. We can never know how much that professional distance was desired, and how much it was enforced. But there’s no doubt that photographs of her later in life show a woman weighed down with the pressures that she was bearing all alone.
When rehearsals began in 1933 for Wuthering Heights, she found an ally that understood how it felt to be loitering on the boundaries of polite Irish society. Gate directors Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards were an openly gay couple in a city that refused to acknowledge such relationships existed. They paraded around town in full make-up and threw opulent parties in their Harcourt Street home, but nobody would speak about their relationship as homosexual. It was simply ‘theatrical.’
On being given the role of Catherine Earnshaw in her own adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Ria Mooney set to preparing in her usual solitary manner, working away at the lines and motivations on her own before going into the rehearsal room. It was to be the first Gate production of 1934 and huge success was close, but again fragile self-esteem threatened her performance. She worried away at the script on her own, increasingly doubting her ability to play the passionate heroine. Mooney believed she was far from ‘an ideal Catherine’ on the basis that she was physically ‘too small’ and also because she knew every line and comma in the script. As she had under Le Gallienne’s tutelage, Mooney drove herself on relentlessly, intent on securing the right interpretation of each line. Her discipline was a gift but it was also a noose, strangling her instincts.
But this time, the director was Hilton Edwards. Unlike Le Gallienne, who terrified her with her brilliance but also her steely dedication to parts, Edwards nurtured her talent and was gentle with her ego. From early rehearsals, he noticed she was stilted and correctly adduced that she was anticipating all of Catherine’s reactions and emotions throughout the action of the play. In Stanislavski’s terms, she had worked out the ‘through line’ of the character’s actions, but was failing to ‘experience’ the play’s moments. Edwards coaxed her to focus on one objective, one scene at a time. In this way, he massaged away her insecurities and enticed her back into a fluid, vivid performance. Mooney re-connected with the role, embodying the passions of Catherine; Edwards’ attention eased her back into an assured performance. Critics and audiences fell in love with her. The Irish Times said, ‘It is a performance of quite remarkable force, and in the course of it she never seems to strike a strong note.’
I can’t help asking if Edwards’ nurturing of his charge (so different from the patriarchal system at the Abbey during this time) is an early example of ‘feminist directing’ in Dublin, or speculating as to how Mooney’s talents might have been furthered by Edwards’ technique if she’d remained at the Gate. But she didn’t, so that is mere speculation.
I can picture Ria Mooney leaving the theatre late at night, packing her things into a bag while the others celebrated in the bar. It was a three-hour play, and she might have been running from the top of O’Connell Street to catch the last tram home, as I often do.
This night, her co-star James Mason (Hindley Earnshaw in the 1935 revival) catches her in the lobby and tries to persuade her to stay, have a drink, discuss their scenes. She demurs. Flushed, Ria scurries past the unsavoury types lingering on the street corners and the slightly sozzled couples leaving the bar of the Gresham Hotel. It’s January: cold, dark, sleety. She barely makes her tram, and wipes the last of her make-up from her face as they trundle out of the city centre. At home, her father is sitting up waiting for her. She makes tea and toast.
How easy is it for any actor to separate their professional and personal lives?
Ria Mooney saw at first hand how Le Gallienne lived her personal life through her productions. An only, spoilt child, Eva became an actress that adapted hairstyles, clothing, personal circumstances and relationships to connect with the parts she was playing. While it did affect her emotional health at times, it was a huge part of her success. I often think that in the small town of Dublin (whatever about anywhere else) that luxury is seldom afforded actresses.
For three hours each evening, Ria was a romantic heroine. But during the day, she was a jobbing actress: teaching where she could; bringing home her meagre salary to contribute to the household costs.
Ria Mooney kept such a clear divide between her personal and professional life, that for a long time I thought she had no family, or certainly none that understood her importance to Irish theatre. But one of the most lovely developments in the last few months has been connecting with Ria’s family, and realising that her family in Goatstown were always there to support her. My sense is that she didn’t share much of her work life at home: as the only theatre professional in the house, she possibly feared they’d laugh or dismiss her. But they did love their aunt. Here is a recently discovered picture of Ria at the wedding of Sile’s parents. And here too are Sile Brady and Niall Mooney, niece and nephew of Ria, when they re-united this summer during Sile’s visit from her home in Canada and I was able to meet them. (The day we met, her children and grandchildren were going backstage at the Abbey, hoping to see the portrait of Ria.)
Critics of my work have often asked whether I’ve a right to pry into the personal lives of these women, or why I see it as impacting on their work in any meaningful way. It’s a hard question to answer. All I can say is that I’ve done all I have to get to know them better out of respect, admiration and love. And as much as we like to suggest acting is a job, a trade like any other, that we can throw after the curtain has come down, my growing sense is that’s a challenge. Life leaks into the performance; the performance leaks into life. Strange things can happen in the lobby, where life and performance meet.