Are we going to talk about the money?
In 2001, Tom Murphy was asked, on the stage of the Abbey, where the future of Irish playwriting lay. After a considered pause, he said quietly, “Someone has got to start talking about the money.” Something about the wisdom of the observation and its gentle delivery has never left me. In the years since, I often come out of new plays and ask myself: Were they talking about the money? Are we talking about the money yet? I have to say, the answer is invariably ‘no’. Or, in fact, that someone is trying to talk about it but the construction of the play is flawed so that I can’t hear what they’re saying, nor do I particularly want to hear it. Many have tried, some succeeding more than others, but I have the abiding sense we’re still waiting for the ‘big’ play about the money.
Anyway, that’s something of a digression.
Murphy’s comment came back to me because I’d been toying with the idea of discussing the pay for ‘my girls’ in the National Theatre. Their wage packets reveal something about the Abbey women: how they fared, coped and struggled. If I’m forever poking at the decisions they made, and the reasons they made them, then financial factors have to loom large.
Pat Laffan shared with me that when he appeared on stage in London in the 1960s with the doyennes of the Abbey May Craig and Eileen Crowe, the women didn’t speak to each other. They insisted on separate dressing rooms and stayed apart. We speculated that after forty years working together, it might have been simply that they bored each other. Afterwards, I couldn’t help wondering if the discrepancy in wage levels was part of the conflict. May Craig had been cast as Synge when she was still a teenager; Eileen Crowe was a favourite of Lennox Robinson who wrote many of his female parts specifically for her. I wrote about their lives in detail here: 19 – Whodunnit
I avoided the money.
The Abbey Theatre was always, as Frank O’Connor eloquently put it, “an experiment in literary poverty”. There was a blurring between the ‘At Home’ evenings of entertainment of those who made their living elsewhere and the performances on the national stage. If they needed specific details about the reality of unemployment, they might have spoken to Barry Fitzgerald, who had twenty years of working in the Department of Employment in Dublin Castle. (This was in addition to his acting work until his comedy could fully fund his lifestyle.) The Abbey was still shaking off its amateur beginnings in the 1960s, when the actors started putting on pressure to properly recompense the Company.
At a heated meeting of a group of actors and the ‘Players’ Council’ they had elected to represent them in front of Ernest Blythe, Vincent Dowling asked each of the attendants to write down their name, years of service and weekly wage. A straightforward request, he presumed, but May Craig pursed her lips and Eileen Crowe lowered her head. They were both widows with children to support and were still acting regularly. It was not done to air such personal details. As a compromise, Dowling introduced a secret ‘ballot box’ for details to be submitted anonymously. It was an exercise in saving face, as it was easy to match the years of service to the performer. At that point, May Craig had forty-seven years of service and was earning £7 per week. Eileen Crowe, with similar service, earned £19 per week.
Eileen Crowe had always been a favourite of Lennox Robinson, and it may have been he who uttered the oft-quoted lines from her audition: ‘That girl will make a fine nun or a fine actress.’ He ensured her wages reflected her perceived talent, but when she wed F.J. McCormick, she had a shocking discovery. Eileen Crowe knocked on the door of Robinson’s office one day and insisted that her wages be lowered below the earnings of her new husband.
Sisters, we’re doing it for ourselves.
At the age of twenty-one, Aideen O’Connor made a similar approach to Lennox Robinson’s door. I can see her, mounting the back stairs to the offices with trembling hands to present her case. She negotiated an increase in her weekly wage to £3 10 shillings. As the baby of the company about to embark on the US tour, the brokering of this deal says something about her strident character but it was also, quite simply, a necessity. £3 10 shillings was slightly more than Frolie Mulhern earned, and she didn’t seem bothered; but Frolie came from a well-off family on Ailesbury Road; she’d had no other ambitions outside the theatre. Aideen had a good education from the nuns in Muckross (including French, tennis and prayers) and she had also acquired a solid, pensionable office job in Polikoffs’ factory: a clothing factory on the canal. There was no possible ‘leave’ or ‘career break’; when Aideen returned from the tour of the US, she would have no job to return to and no income to keep her self-sufficient. By the early 1940s, when she was seeking work in Hollywood, she was still going to Boss and Barry Fitzgerald for advice on what she discreetly termed ‘the money question’.
I thank my lucky stars every day that I’ve an education and profession that means I can fully support myself. That said, I also worked in the IFSC through much of the boom, watching men get promotions and pay rises while qualified women (particularly those with wedding rings) slogged on from nine to five and never risked standing out. As Ria said about the role of Rosie Redmond: Needless to say, it was the other women …
It seems important that the women who did push open Lennox Robinson’s door and demand a discussion about money were welcomed and respected. But then, perhaps other did the same and because it ended differently, I don’t know about it. There is much talk about glass ceilings, but sometimes the metaphor is useful in that it allows a discrete bypassing of the real facts. Maybe we need to simply talk about the money.