As I was writing of Aideen’s sojourn alone in London in the last post, I realised that I hadn’t yet shared with you this period of her life – before Arthur, before World War II, before Hollywood, before her drinking became out of control. I thought about going back to fill in that space but the chronology bothered me … Have we now come too far to go back?, I asked myself.
But then, in watching the children write in the Cinemobile last week, I noticed the ease and joy with which their stories changed direction. If at any point in the plot someone invents a superpower, or introduces a unicorn or even a lesbian love affair (we’ve had all three), then we simply take it in and carry on. In fact, it reminded me somehow of ‘hyperlinks’, which have become so essential to the way people read today. Perusing blogs, or articles on line, readers expect the ability to change direction as they please. In fact, we can finish the article as it is before reverting to an earlier point and taking off in a different direction.
So, indulge me here. Let’s pretend there’s a hyperlink over 1936 that you hadn’t yet pressed. Let’s change course, and go down the trapdoor we had previously side-stepped. The Aideen we meet is a girl of twenty-three again: blonder, thinner, fresh-faced.
She was so young and innocent on her first Abbey tour to the US that her father, Vincent Paul, appointed the actor William Gorman to be her chaperone. The envelopes arriving in Ranelagh from Aideen included polite notes from Mr Gorman, commenting on her diet and how much sleep she was getting. Thankfully, he left out the incident where Aideen and Frolie were caught up too late by Arthur Shields. He heard their late-night giggling and came banging on the door of their train sleeper. Despite her naivety, Aideen was distinctively outgoing and charming with the American press, who soon were pronouncing her ‘the company’s prettiest actress’. When they had afternoon tea with Judy O’Grady of the Detroit News in January 1935:
Her blue eyes sparkled as she talked of the American impressions … she wore a sparkling afternoon frock that exactly matched those dancing eyes, too, she talked of tea in Ireland which is composed of homemade cake and heavily buttered scones (pronounced scons) … she talked of how Irish girls walked so much more than we Americans, but admitted that there wasn’t a city in Ireland where one couldn’t be right out in the country after walking for ten minutes … she talked reverently of William Butler Yeats … and described him as a SO handsome gentleman with snow white hair, one lock of hair which is always dripping over his forehead …
Her first taste of scandal came the following autumn, back in the Abbey. Sean O’Casey had a controverisal new play entitled The Silver Tassie and she was cast as the young love interest, Jessie Taite.
O’Casey describes the girl he conjured into being:
Later, in a scene at the local dance, two neighbours observe her:
Simon: And Jessie’s looking as if she was tired of her maidenhood, too.
On her very first entrance to the stage a bystander comments on ‘the shameful way she’s showing her legs’. Arthur Shields cast those legs.
If Aideen’s sisters didn’t attend the performance (as was usual), they did hear about the debacle that followed it. The play closed in a week, denounced by the church. But something had already changed for Aideen. With her appearance as Jessie Taite, Aideen stepped out onto the stage as a sultry and alluring young lady. She may indeed have been growing tired of her maidenhood.
At a performance in The Abbey some months, word trickled backstage that there was a young playwright in the audience looking to cast an Irish accent. After a flurry of excitement, there was nothing further. Aideen kept her secret until the Company were on tour in Belfast, when the papers broke the news that she’d be making her West End debut. She had needed time to persuade her father and set up digs for herself in London, but there was no going back now. The writer was Michael Egan and his play, The Dominant Sex, opened in the Embassy Theatre, Hampstead on 23 November 1936. The reviews of the play itself are mixed; they all laud Aideen’s talent, beauty and presence. One of the London papers comments:
Miss Aideen O’Connor, the young Abbey actress, whose first part in London this is, made everybody feel her charm and admire her grace and the deftness of her art. She has moreover obviously much talent that is still latent. Her personality is winning and her power will grow with her technique which is already remarkable for such a young actress.
Set in a studio in Chelsea, the play centres on a bohemian artist, Maurice Holmes, who is trying to choose a wife from a trio of female types. As Sheila, Aideen appeared as the convent-educated daughter of Mr Holmes’s butler, the demure colleen who is on her first trip to London from Ireland. The cuttings in her scrapbook share tantalising references to Aideen singing the ‘Londonderry Air’ in Irish, although one paper is adamant the tune was sung by an invisible substitute in the wings. (I’d love to know the truth; there’s no other evidence Aideen was a singer.)
She kept up to date with her friends in the Abbey; reviews of Wind from the West, in which both Frolie and Arthur appeared, made their way to her London lodgings. Despite rumours of a West End transfer, Aideen came home to Dublin to spend Christmas with her family. I can see her on Christmas Eve, in her bedroom in Ranelagh. Exhausted from the boat trip, she is wrapping the gifts she bought in London before she dresses for midnight mass. As she yawns, she looks out on the street: grey, quiet, dull. Despite the awful cooking of the Digs Lady in London, she misses the hustle and bustle of the city. But rehearsals will start soon for Shadow and Substance.
(During that run of Shadow and Substance, Mac discovered Aideen’s affair with Arthur. Did she rue her decision to come home? Did she know that The Dominant Sex was going to be made into a film, with some of the original stage cast? Google can be markedly deficient in answering questions, despite its popularity.)
That wasn’t the end of opportunities in London. In 1939, when Higgins was keeping her out of roles, Aideen took the boat over again to renew acquaintances with casting agents. In fact, when Arthur sent word from New York that she should join him, she had been offered a part in a new play by Terence Rattigan. She told Eddie Choates: “I’m rescued from a 10 weeks English tour of French Without Tears!’
Even taking Arthur out of the equation, escaping French Without Tears seemed a good decision. Her school French was enough to get her through the role of the maid in a French school for English teenagers on the south coast of France. But from Rattigan’s own account, the rehearsals were a shambles and the rumblings of World War II were growing louder and louder. Aideen couldn’t have known that in 1940, French Without Tears would also be made into hugely popular and successful film.
A different decision, a different trapdoor and Aideen could have been a figure on the silver screen years before Arthur Shields was cast by John Ford.
Did she think about this – lazing in the sun on the rooftop of the North Cherokee apartment building as she waited for news of the War and for Arthur to come back from the studios? Did she wonder, as she entered the cool shade of Pantages Movie Theatre for the third time that week, how it would feel to be a movie actress? Would she choose a different dirrection if she could go back to 1936?
Then I remember: Aideen didn’t know about hyperlinks.
But I do – which means that I can take this blog pretty much anywhere I’d like … And this week, I’m off to Wicklow. People might say (with good reason) that this trip is further evidence of my stalking of the playwright Mark O’Rowe. But in fact, he’s speaking in Avondale House, where Ria Mooney spent an interesting visit in the 1930s. And it’s close to Glencree, where Ria hid out with Fred Higgins. So I may write about both places, and add a little something about Mark O’Rowe in case you care to choose that particular link …