It was the demure and kindly Mrs George Yeats who spilled the beans on the scandal backstage at the Abbey Theatre in March 1937. In a breathless letter to her husband, W. B., who was in London, she reported that the affair between Aideen and Arthur had been communicated to Shields’s wife, Bazie Magee, and to Vincent Paul O’Connor, Aideen’s father, by an anonymous letter. The wording suggests that George (and indeed the rest of the company) knew the identity of the female member of the company (she) who had done this; yet nobody mentions any names.
As the committed reader knows, this information came to me late, revising all my guess-timates of when the affair began, during which production they fell in love, and how it developed so fast. Yet only now, with time to reflect on the other members of the company, have I become consumed by the question: Who dunnit? And why?
What motivated another woman to intervene in this way? Informing the scorned wife is something I understand, but divulging to the respectable Master of Dublin Port the details of the romantic life of his twenty-four-year-old single daughter?
There are hoards of academic feminists who may be waiting for me to attack the patriarchal nature of the 1930s and the chauvinistic institution of the Irish National Theatre, but unfortunately the truth is more complex and painful: They did it to themselves. Lennox Robinson insisted on paying Eileen Crowe twice what he was paying her husband, F.J. McCormick; It was only Eileen herself who protested. When Ria Mooney accepted the part of Rosie Redmond in 1928 and agreed to play the rouged and swaggering prostitute, it wasn’t the men or the church leaders who damned her for it. Years later, she admitted in her autobiography, ‘I need hardly say that it was some of the women who tried to put me off.’ Perhaps in the belief they were protecting each other’s honour, or guarding each other’s place in Heaven, they entrenched women all the more in the Catholic mud of submission, guilt and shame.
As I think about Aideen’s letter, the finger of suspicion moves slowly around the shabby grandeur of the Abbey Green Room, from the older women in the comfortable armchairs to the pretty young lassies leaning against the stove. The brooding portrait of Lady Gregory looms down over them all. The ever-superstitious Maureen Delaney is peering out the window looking for a cloudless new moon and the schoolgirl Phyllis Ryan is simply hoping somebody will talk to her while they have their cups of tea, and wait for Hunt to call them to the wings.
Or, the finger of suspicion moves along the rows of the Excel Spreadsheet. My wise supervisor suggested I begin compiling a database of the Irish actresses working around Aideen during this period, organizing the facts of their lives into a readily accessible form. And it works, this table I’m creating, an easy reference check for dates and facts: who married who when, parts they played, made famous, and passed on, those who have left descendants and those that have not. It won’t quite contain the personalities, or impose order on the group, but it helps to keep them in lines! To complete some of the gaps, I went to the UCD Special Collections room this week, to view the scrapbooks, scripts and personal reminiscences of May Craig.
UCD Archives charge twenty euro per page (yes, I did say twenty euro per page) to make a copy of any documents, and refuse to let you bring in a digital camera. While I wouldn’t pay it on principle, it may have been worth it to copy a portrait photo and show you how beautiful May Craig was. My words cannot do justice to her stately beauty; her regal glamour suggesting that as she aged she became more and more striking. She had blue eyes, mournful and tragic when she wasn’t smiling and sparkling when she was. Black curls, high cheekbones, a generous chest and curvy hips shown off by elegant posture. In 1907, when still a teenager, she cried watching a rehearsal of Playboy from the stalls and Synge himself was struck by the sadness in those eyes. She joined the Company soon after.
It was a priest that introduced May Craig to the two dominating loves of her life: Fr Eugene McCarthy brought her to the Abbey that day to take a silent role in the new play being staged, and it was also at the house of the local parish priest that she was introduced to accountant Vincent Power-Fardy. Power-Fardy was born in America, of Wexford-born parents. His father was a journalist who worked in Albany, but following the early deaths of both parents he and his two sisters were sent back to Ireland. While his two sisters were brought up by a maternal aunt, he was old enough to join Craig Gardner and embark on a career as an auditor, with specific responsibilities for the Irish Sweepstakes. (I can’t get away from these accountants, no matter how hard I try!) He tried his hand at playwriting, and May’s archives lovingly preserve three programmes of his plays produced in the Empire Theatre in Belfast.
May was a character actress, playing a range of roles from Irish housekeepers to English ladies, and many of the American newspapers were struck by how younger and more glamorous she looked off stage, when she had removed the heavy greasepaint and kohled wrinkles. An audience in Cork in 1935 were ‘thrilled through and through’ by her ‘sheer humanness and realism’.
She had recently completed her training with the Abbey School of Acting when she and Power-Fardy married, and May continued to perform while they had no less than five children in quick succession: Reggie, Raymond, Edna, Vera and Una. In 1931 she spent her first Christmas away from her young family. While she was performing in the US with the Abbey, Vincent stayed at home with the children. She was shocked and hurt to read in the US papers while travelling on the train between venues that the newspapers had somehow learnt that Ms Craig had in fact given birth to six children, but had lost one. However, she did talk openly to the US newspaper about her ability to balance a career and family life.
She told the Boston Globe in July 1938:
The Irish actress never has to face the problem of a home or a career … We don’t worry which one comes first, because they blend together … There is no conscious placing of either home or career above the other ..
Her adoration for her husband is evident as she describes how:
‘He understands my interest in my professional work and encourages me in it.’
And in Detroit in 1933, she said:
**TAKE HEED SINGLE LADIES – GOOD ADVICE COMING UP!**
” I consider [my husband’s] wishes before anything else. If you don’t consider each other and if you don’t love each other enough, marriage is left holding the bag. … My husband never forces his will on me. He considers me capable of making up my own mind and he is a darling. Know why? He’s an American!”
May Craig knew how lucky she was to be married to an American man, who accepted their somewhat unconventional arrangement. Tragically, less than four months after giving this interview, May Craig found herself a widow. Arthur Shields, Barry Fitzgerald and other Abbey stars visited her at her home on Clonliffe Road after Vincent died suddenly at the age of forty-one and they stood with her at the funeral. Soon afterwards, she bought a house in Booterstown and her sister Madge came to live with her to help raise the children.
In the heap of yellowing papers UCD are guarding, there is a touching description of the forty-four-year-old widow attending a first night at the Gate Theatre less than a year after her husband’s death, accompanied by her sixteen-year-old son. The social columnist for the Dublin Evening Mail describes him as ‘very manly’, standing erect and gallantly by his mother, in the place of his father.
Putting her grief behind her, May Craig continued to perform until close to her death in 1972, including in small parts in films.
The Evening Mail encountered Reggie again in September 1936, when May Craig took full advantage of a mild and bright Sunday afternoon to throw a garden party in her house in Booterstown. She served cocktails, mixed to a special recipe she had picked up on tour in United States, and her daughters handed around plates of scrumptious ‘dainties’. In one of the elegantly furnished drawing rooms, music was playing while members of the Abbey Company mixed with the guests of honour, some visiting American friends in the garden.
Was the host watching her guests closely as the cocktails flowed and the music spilled out into the garden?
Did Bazie Magee drink too much and attack Aideen for her shameless flirting?
Did somebody see Aideen and Arthur talking a little too intimately?
As the bottles emptied, the press left, and the autumn air cooled, who was the first to leave? And who was the last?
Could such a dignified and elegant woman send such a venomous letter?
The finger wavers and moves on.
Who is next in my Spreadsheet? Shelah Richards I’ve covered, so next are Maureen Delaney and Ria Mooney.
The answer may be in the cells.