Friday, April 8, 2011

Kilroy Making Theatre History

Thomas Kilroy's first play to reach the public was in fact a radio play, The Door, which won a BBC radio play competition and was broadcast in 1967 with Cyril Cusack in the main role. However, his first work for the stage, submitted to the Abbey in 1964, was The O'Neill (The Abbey, 1969). It cast into dramatic form a few episodes in the Ulster chief's fortunes, round about the Battle of the Yellow Ford (1598), and it was the first of Thomas Kilroy's "history plays" (seven of his original plays could be called that). He sought opinions about the draft play from the Abbey Theatre, from Hilton Edwards, Mary O'Malley, and Cyril Cusack, and got some interesting replies.

Cyril Cusack in Genet's
The Balcony,
Cyril Cusack's letter is, in his own description, "ultra-cautious"; he does not think himself a good judge of a play, but despite all mincing of words he makes this comment on the play and on himself: "As it is, this is not the play I would ask, above all, to put on, and, alas, that is the only kind of play upon which I could possibly take a risk" (28 December 1964). An O'Neill could not beat him for mixing diplomacy with boldness.

Ernest Blythe, then director of the Abbey Theatre, reported that there were widely differing opinions on the Abbey board about the play. He himself committed himself as far as to say that "while O'Neill is not a play which might be expected to be wildly popular or a money-spinner and might indeed even provoke some public anger, we think it is far better than any previous play about O'Neill which has come to us and merits the most serious consideration" (24 May 1966).

However, despite such good feedback from The Abbey, The O'Neill suffered the fate of a quixotic journey via the desks of three successive directors and various others, before the Abbey finally produced it in May and June of 1969, with Dubliner Joseph O'Connor in the lead role. In the meantime, Kilroy's second play, The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche, was turned down by the Abbey in 1966 or early 1967, and then overtook The O'Neill by reaching the stage first (Dublin Theatre Festival, 1968).

Revival of "The O'Neill" on the anniversary of O'Neill's departure from Rathmullen
It's also noteworthy that when Brian Friel wrote his own play about Hugh O'Neill, Making History (produced by Field Day in 1988), he and Kilroy were in correspondence about it. There is an essay by Anne Fogarty about the way either dramatist makes sense of "The Great O'Neill" and of historiography. (Irish University Review, vol 32 no.1, Spring/Summer 2002) 18-32.
Vera Orschel

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