Often, this work is about nothing except elimination. Weeding out the uninteresting, the irrelevant, and separating the tale that people want to tell you from the tale that you really want to hear. You must listen patiently to the first, to get closer to the latter. Neither, perhaps, is the ‘truth’, but that’s a category I dispensed with long ago. And so, I braved the monsoon weather to get to the Irish Theatre Archives on Pearse Street, where Abbey actress Shelah Richards has left her papers. To eliminate it, mostly, to cross it off the list of ‘must check just in case’, but it seems there are magical moments in the elimination process.
After one day, I love this place already. Many of the records are not in their rightful envelope, some are missing entirely. Yet people are friendly; I was at a desk in five minutes flat (no questionnaire, no photos); and even if I’m cramped between a girl studying for her accountancy finals (God bless her) and a Spanish student learning English, it’s a bright, airy room high above the traffic of Pearse Street with the perfect balance of silence and human presence to work effectively. From that room looking out on the drizzle and the hassled commuters, I was transported back to Broadway in February 1939. There, Aideen was making her professional Broadway debut in Spring Meeting, appearing on stage with Arthur Shields and Shelah Richards.
The fashion report for The Little Theatre in February 1939 described how ‘chiffons wisped airily up and down the aisles, silk wraps appeared again, and prints and lighter colours’ had begun to appear. Spring was creeping up Fifth Avenue, and blossoms braving the air in Central Park. Some of the women wore opera-length gloves in black kid–a rare choice in the age of light and bright-colored evening gloves, but so fitting with the black chiffon it was deemed ‘truly beautiful’. Muffs in both fur and fabric lingered despite the time of year—ermine muffs were particularly well regarded. Flat and limp, shirred over one arm, a pinned camellia could bring an extra touch of colour. For up-to-the-minute accessories, women wore pearls twisted high around the neck, and headdresses of ivory lace ‘like a Martha Washington bonnet’. The high drawstring neckline and short puffed sleeves show marked traces of that ‘new nightgown influence’, and the bandages of soft silk wrapped around the middle from bosom to hipline followed ‘the corselette trend’.
I imagine that Aideen was often to be found peeking out from the curtain before her performance in Spring Meeting, admiring the finery and fashion. The costumes and ‘drawing room’ scenery were lavish and John Gielgud had directed the play, but her part wasn’t much and as Arthur was supporting his wife and child at home, money was scarce. Shelah Richards, an old colleague from the Abbey and a dear friend to Arthur, was older and more experienced. She had two children and aspirations to become a director. Shelah would be waiting in the dressing rooms, running lines for her more substantial part.
In the final days of rehearsals, these three Abbey stalwarts heard the news of the death of W. B. Yeats. He died in France, with his wife George at his side. In their rooms in the Whitby building, looking out on the lights of Broadway, they toasted Yeats and waited for news from home. All three feared for the future of the Abbey under the tyranny of F. R. Higgins, and none of them would return to the stage on Marlborough Street. Far from the mourning in Dublin, they donned their best and went on stage. Aideen was a professional and as much as she admired Yeats, she would not let the charming and handsome Philip Merivale down. [Do you remember Philip? We encountered him in Instalment 10: Friday Night -Date Night.]
I have written before of how I tend to think of Arthur Shields as a man with many lives: republican fighter turned Abbey director turned Hollywood film star. Shelah Richards strikes me as a woman who, similarly, reinvented herself with passion and style. In her first life, the young girl was described as George Yeats as ‘tiresome dog’ who ‘looked delightful but as usual didn’t know her words’. As a glamorous and striking actress she wooed barrister-turned-playwright Denis Johnston. They married in 1928, and lived in a flat beside Arthur Shields and Bazie Magee (his first wife) in Merrion Square. She was the female lead of the Abbey Company, starring in many of the O’Casey plays. By the end of the 1930s, she had separated from Johnston and was considering a new career as a director.
Sadly for me, the archive on Pearse Street is the archive she built herself of her life as ‘Director/Producer’, during the Emergency in Ireland and on into the 1960s. The only (possible) evidence of her connection with Aideen and Arthur seemed to be the Spring Meeting programme. Until I opened this:
… And out tumbled a letter in familiar handwriting. It was from Laurie Shields. ‘He would have wanted you to have this,’ the note tells Shelah Richards. It was 1973 and Boss was three years dead. Laurie urges Shelah to write her memoirs, as she is working on her biography of Boss. (Neither book was ever completed.)
The children’s exercise book has been used to create a promptbook, in exactly the way that I learnt to make a promptbook as a theatre student: cutting out the script pages and affixing them with glue to every second blank page. I’ve never heard of the play, but the familiar tall, sloping letters of Shields’s hand always thrills me. In the 1920s, he worked as a director for Shelah and this promptbook shows the cuts to the scripts they agreed on, the directions for the actors, and the list of props they compiled for the production. Arthur Shields kept it for over forty years, probably filing it in the ‘Green Room’ in the house on Sierra Bonita Avenue.
For me, this notebook (with the ink still vivid) is solid evidence of the strong relationship of Shelah and Arthur: collaborators and friends. Less certain is her relationship to Aideen. There must have been a sense of allegiance to Bazie Magee, with whom Shelah appeared on stage and partied until the small hours in Merrion Square. There was also Shelah’s firm friendship with Ria Mooney, whose lover F. R. Higgins had taken against Aideen and Arthur. Far from her own close friends: Frolie and Anne Yeats, it was a difficult and lonely time for Aideen. But then she made a new friend: Kay.
Christine Shields and I pored over her mother’s journals in Los Angeles last summer, trying to establish the identity of ‘Kay’ who went on to become Aideen’s confidante in New York the following year. I’m now fairly certain (I want to say ‘certain’, but the proof is circumstantial) that this was Kay Swift. Kay Swift was a composer and producer. She wrote the score for the Broadway show Fine and Dandy (1930) and after eloping with a cowboy, she wrote her autobiography Who could ask for anything more? and turned it into a film Never A Dull Moment in 1950. She had a long-term love affair with composer George Gershwin, of Porgy and Bess, until his early death. I love to think of her sipping cocktails in New York with Aideen: strong, talented and independent. I admire her already, and am really excited about getting to know her better.
I’ve laboured over this entry for days, because it doesn’t ‘sit right’. But today I realised it’s not finished because the sense of New York is so fleeting. It’s almost tangible, but it’s not enough. To find it, to really truly absorb it, I need to go back to that city and see it through Aideen’s eyes. All other options have been eliminated. This research trip cannot be put off any longer …