With members of the Company claiming that she ‘couldn’t direct traffic’ and the abiding slur that she was the ‘Abbey whore’, Ria Mooney wasn’t having an easy time of it in the Abbey by the 1950s. Given my determination to rescue her maligned ghost, I set about finding somebody who not only knew but liked her in Dublin during that period. How hard could that be? Surprisingly difficult.
Then I got lucky. The lovely Des Lally, a fellow NUIG student, met somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody …. And lo and behold, I’m having coffee and buns on a Wednesday morning with the actor that was once Ria’s young ‘Pet’ … Isn’t Ireland great?
In April 1959, a young Engineering student who was spending too much time hanging around in UCD Dramsoc went to see O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. He was stunned by the production: the monster text performed without cuts and the mesmerising lead actress. Even this student knew that while these weren’t ‘the starriest actors’ that something special was happening on the Abbey stage; it was a major breakthrough for the institution. For him, “the sheer sincerity of the production was compelling.”
The young student in the auditorium that night had no idea that when the play was revived three years later, he would be in the wings. Ria Mooney would still be the small, feisty, sexy woman he remembered, but this time he would be prompting her. Indeed, he would be trying to prompt her, as she was flailing desperately with lines. It was impossible to save her, even with his presence stage left and an official stage manager prompting from stage right.
By the end of the 1950s, Ria Mooney had had twenty years without the support of her lover F.R. Higgins, or indeed anyone at all. The Abbey building had burned to the ground and she was battling on with Ernest Blythe to keep some kind of order and quality in the Company, now based at the cavernous space of the Queen’s. In the summer of 1961, she called auditions to replace some actors who had been offered film work. One of the young fellows that turned up that morning was Pat Laffan. He had graduated from UCD with a degree in Engineering the previous Friday, but had his eye on a different future. The written response he received noted he was ‘Patrick Laffan, Esq. B.E.’ and that Ria was taken with his “reading and style”. By the end of the week, he was on the stage as ‘Padraig Lafan’.
When I suggested it was his talent that got him into the company so quickly, Laffan laughs away the idea: ‘Not at all! I was as raw as bejaysus!’ But if getting in was luck, it was sheer work, hanging around the theatre and taking a lot of guidance, advice and flack from the older and more experienced actors that led to his future success as an actor on stage and screen, as well as director both at the Peacock and Gate. Partly in tribute to Ria, he has been involved in the continuing work at the Gaiety School of Acting, which she established.
It was so much fun for me to learn about the Abbey Company at the Queen’s: the politics over the upper and lower dressing rooms, the drink being taken, the outside toilet, the incessant ribbing. But amid all the palaver, there was important work going on.
With his usual distaste for anything slightly unconventional, Ernest Blythe passed off to Ria a new play entitled An Enemy Within in 1962. It was written by a first-time playwright: Brian Friel. As I’m trying to picture Brian Friel as a hopeful, struggling dramatist, Laffan, with the expert touch of a lifelong actor, draws him in a few brief sentences. And I can see him: the fresh-faced, well-heeled school teacher with acerbic wit, recently committed to writing full-time and driving the entire cast around Derry in his posh new motorcar. Laffan remembers the script as being simply ‘kind of perfect’. Its brevity also meant that the three-week rehearsal period Blythe imposed wasn’t an impediment to a strong production.
When I moan again that Ria’s role in so many significant careers has been conveniently forgotten, Laffan agrees. But then he wisely observes that she simply wasn’t a self-promoter. She was a worker; by the 1960s, she was single-handedly supporting the household in Dundrum and theatre was the only work she knew. This is not to say she didn’t know the theories of dramatic art.
Some time ago, I gave up looking for the ‘artistic vision’ of Ria Mooney in the pure form sought by academics. I could see the influences of Yeats, of O’Casey and most markedly of Le Gallienne and thereby Eleonora Duse, but there was nothing concrete. Until now.
For in 1962, Ria Mooney was on board a ship heading for Connecticut when she received a note of thanks from Laffan. The well-connected Ria had arranged a job in a Guinness advertisement for him and he had spent some of the earnings on a bunch of flowers. She told him:
… tho[ugh] I do appreciate it [I] am not used to ‘Thank you’ from the majority of our Company, so I don’t expect it.
Her ship had been beset by gales and her arthritic hand (perhaps contracted after her work to recreate the ailment in Long Day’s) was slowing her down, but Ria truly believed in Laffan’s talent. And although disgruntled by the colour of the notepaper, she took the time to advise him. Ria said:
Remember, Stanislavski didn’t write a book on acting. He knew too much about acting to have a ‘method’, or write about it.**
She goes on:
Work, so far as acting is concerned, is learning lines, moving easily and naturally in character and RELAXING INTO THE PART.
It’s a truly beautiful letter. Not only can I hear Ria’s voice and her theories on her craft, but in the intimate tone there is so much of her selfless character and devotion — not only to her art, but to the young actors coming up behind her to take the helm at the Abbey. (That graciousness is being carried on in Laffan’s generosity to me.)
At the end of her letter, Ria apologises for ‘the lecture’, but Laffan has kept the precious words in the ‘green room’ in his home where he keeps a staggering array of play texts. Including this:
Ria was heading to Connecticut on the boat to direct a production of Deirdre of the Sorrows. She was going to stay with … Guess who? Kick Erlanger. Laffan also believes it was common knowledge that it was Kick who provided Ria with the finances to finally retire from the Abbey.
Long-time readers will know that for some time I’ve danced around the area of Ria’s relationship with Kick and her sexuality. My months of careful wording were annihilated by Pat Laffan’s eloquence:
There was a touch of the Sapphic about her.
For that’s exactly it – what I’ve sought to pinpoint – there was a touch of the Sapphic in her character, which inflected her personality and her work.
Laffan had wonderful memories about the Queen’s and about The Far Off Hills. We talked a lot about Lennox Robinson (Why hasn’t the Abbey abortion play Church Street been re-staged?), as well as Hugh Hunt, Siobhán McKenna, the new Smock Alley … The number of possible blog posts is staggering. Where do I go from here?
Last week, I drove up to Glencree. Ria, by all accounts, kept a ‘hut’ up there. It was a retreat that she shared with Higgins when he was alive, and was a place of solace and peace from Blythe and her invalid father through the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, as my car nosed up the steep hills through the heavy fog, all I could think was: How did she get up here? What did she do up here in the depths of winter? And is there any trace of her here at all?
Calling on my instinct, as I always do, I dismissed Glencree. But before passing on, I pulled the car in and watched some filming being done for a period film. And it seems I missed the ‘universe’s clue’ completely … because according to Pat Laffan, Ria Mooney’s role as an influential casting agent in the Irish film industry has been entirely omitted from history. This I will now have to take up as a separate investigation ….
The work goes on, with Ria beating out the time signature as she once beat her fist on the edge of the Abbey stage to teach the actors Yeats’ rhythm. The Work. Goes On.
** Ria didn’t live to see Stanislavski put his theories down on paper.