Last night I dreamt about being at home for the first time since I arrived, and today I cried with utter frustration. Frustration with trying to think and write in this sweltering, dusty place, with people who don’t realise that when I order a coffee I expect hot liquid, with having feet that are now twice their normal size and are blistered and cut from shoes that fit two weeks ago but not anymore. (103 degrees today. 39 degrees celsius.)
I’m fed up living out of a suitcase, of losing bits of my make-up in strange bathrooms, of not being able to figure out how to cross the GODDAMN roads on foot without being mowed down by a rapper in a Lexus, because the cross signals are impossible to figure out. In short, I’m miserably homesick and I’ve had enough. Except the only way to escape is a twelve-hour flight. Sigh.
I’m moaning and being over-dramatic. I also have two wonderful friends here, who feed me ice cream and wine and don’t make jokes about my elephant-man feet. And again, I start comparing my visit here with Aideen’s experience – reflecting on the similarities and recognizing the differences.
On Aideen’s second tour, the Abbey Company travelled through Washington, Chicago, Saint Louis, Kansas and Texas by train, journeying through the winter of 1937 and the spring of 1938. Christine Shields told me last week that her father was the fastest and most efficient packer she’s ever met – No wonder when he spent so much of his life on tour, packing and unpacking, managing girls and stagehands and scenery and props.
Photographs of the time show that their journeys were frequently delayed and postponed due to weather and other unforeseen circumstances. One snapshot captures the young girls sitting on the edge of the platform, with other company members standing around behind them. Aideen is as lady-like as always, with a shy smile. Frolie is relaxed and laughing, her eyes concealed by fashionable sunglasses and she rests her legs on the tracks in a tom-boyish pose. Both are pretending for the camera to thumb a lift, eager to be on their way. Fed up. Homesick perhaps? Aideen’s father was already furious with her, and her elder sister not impressed with her life choices. She had found herself another family in the Abbey Company.
The travelling and performing must have been exhausting. A schedule for the 1934 – 1935 tour shows that it would have been normal for the girls to perform Juno and the Paycock on Monday and Tuesday evening, then The White-Headed Boy for the Wednesday matinee, before Riders to the Sea and Playboy of the Western World that evening. On the Thursday, they presented Juno and the Paycock, on Friday evening Kathleen Ni Houlihan and The White-Headed Boy and on Saturday Juno and the Paycock again. By the second tour, the parts the girls were playing would have made the work even more demanding. Their days were long and their nights even longer; they lived out of a bag and sometimes had no idea where they were leaving and where they would arrive when morning broke and the train pulled into a station. There were good hotels, and bad hotels. Some of the theatres were packed, others were deserted.
I did find newspaper cuttings from a San Francisco newspaper this week that said the Abbey Company absolutely loved being in the US for St Patrick’s Day in 1938 because the pubs were open here, which they weren’t in Dublin … So they celebrated and then they performed … Must have been a good show to watch!
The US audiences were encouraged to choose from the Abbey repertory. In a souvenir programme from the 1934 – 1935 tour, the Abbey declared that it had a repertory of three hundred plays, that it came with twenty seven, and that it preferred to perform twelve. Such a vast repertory meant an enormous amount of learning and rehearsing for the actors. One US newspaper critic called it ‘a rather senseless method’ of production. I can’t imagine how frustrating and nerve-racking it must have been for the actors.
Through all of this touring, Aideen had Frolie with her to joke and laugh and help with the bag packing. Maybe they sat on each other cases to help close them, and fed each other ice cream. After that tour, things changed.
In 1939, the Abbey director FR Higgins ‘took against’ Aideen. Furious, Aideen wrote to a friend: ‘I don’t know when I’ll be playing again [ … ] Higgins appears to hate me with a deadly hate!’ She displays a fiery temper, declaring, ‘One of these days it’ll [my tongue] come unstuck and I’ll tell Higgins what I and the rest of the world think of him – and be fired forever from the Abbey!’ She wasn’t fired, simply ignored in the most insidious way.
Shields had also had enough of Higgins. He organised to return to New York to work on a production of a new play called Kindred, and despite Aideen’s anxiety to go with him, her married lover went alone. Without a Visa, an acting job, or much money, simply ’emigrating’ wasn’t an option. In June, Aideen went to stay with her dead mother’s family in Cobh, Co. Cork, probably because her father was still refusing to speak with her and may even have thrown her out of the house. Life in Cobh was not much better. Unused to housework and childminding, with a touch of selfishness, she wrote:
I had to cable Boss on Sunday about coming earlier. I’ve struck a bad patch at the moment! I’m here with my mother’s people and Uncle Dick arrived home unexpectedly and is very ill … It’s frightful.
Finally receiving confirmation of a part in New York, Aideen sailed directly from Cobh on the President Roosevelt in June, without persuading Frolie to accompany her and without returning to Dublin to say goodbye to her father or her sisters. From the records I’ve seen, she never went home again.
World War II broke out in September 1939, and Aideen was in New York, terrified for her sisters. When she wasn’t rehearsing her (tiny) role in Kindred, she was tramping the streets, looking for an apartment that she and Boss could move in to. She was living out of a suitcase, worrying about Boss’s chest problems and his huge financial investment in the production, without any of her ‘Abbey family’ to confide in. Things came crashing down at Christmas, when she learnt Frolie had died and when the production folded, leaving her with no job and Boss on the verge of bankruptcy. He was taken into hospital to have his lungs collapsed.
I imagine Aideen making the most of Christmas, decorating the tiny rooms (she hated) in the Whitby building in New York where they were staying, starting to cook for the first time in her life. There would have been a new dress, lipstick and presents. She was that kind of gal.
Shortly afterwards, Boss went to California where everyone believed the heat and the oranges would cure his recurring TB. Again, they decided that he would travel and she would stay. Alone.
Sometimes I wonder if she thought then about getting on the boat home, instead of on a train to the West Coast, and how different that choice may have made her life. But now I know, she wasn’t going anywhere but after the man she loved. Europe was at war and her father wouldn’t let her back into the house. Her eldest sister was obsessed with religion and her younger sister was in a bad relationship. What choice did she have? She got on the train, without looking back, and decided to make herself a life in Los Angeles.
I need a little Aideen-power now. This evening I swam at the ‘Y’, where movie-star sightings are ridiculously common. I can skype home to see my family and they’re wonderfully supportive of my crazy lifestyle at the moment. What do I have to complain about?
My latest hunt is for a tram map of Los Angeles in the early 1940s. Neither Aideen nor Boss ever had a car (or a troublesome Sat Nav). They walked everywhere, Aideen taking trams as needed on her own to go to the movies, which she did three or four times a week to escape the heat and the monotony. The grocery store was within walking distance, as was the church of St. Ambrose and Musso & Franks.
I doubt Aideen ever went as far as the sign in the mountains that at that point read ‘HOLLYWOOD LAND’, but she must have seen it. She abhorred July 4th, the noise and the nationalism annoyed and probably upset her. I wonder did the Hollywood sign incite excitement or homesickness? This week, I’m moving into a place on ‘Tuxedo Terrace’ where I can unpack and stay until I fly home. It’s at the foot of the Hollywood hills and the sign is within walking distance of my new sub-let. I’ll wait and see if the fabulous view cures my homesickness, or makes it worse.