Tuesday, April 23, 2013

'Macbeth' as Gaeilge - Siobhan McKenna and the Bard

As the literary world salutes William Shakespeare on his birthday today, these items from the Theatre collections of the James Hardiman Library here at NUI Galway show the works of the Bard were never far from the stages of the West.

[James Hardiman Library Archives,
Siobhan McKenna Papers, T20/368]
From 16th to 23rd November 1941 Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe, the Irish language theatre based in Galway, staged a production of Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Translated by S.L O Suilleabhain and directed by Walter Macken, it had been planned that the Taoiseach, Eamonn de Valera, would have attended the opening night. Established in 1928, An Taibhdhearc had found a new lease of life from 1939 with the appointment of Walter Macken as director, who also took the lead in this play. Macken is one of the best loved writers, novelists and literary drivers from the West and his immense contribution is evident throughout the papers and archives An Taibhdhearc. (Full catalogue here)

Siobhan McKenna had just started her Arts degree in University College Galway and had acted in An Sciursa Bhan by Karl Capek in the previous June and in An tImpire Mac Seoin by Eugene O'Neill in September, but this production of 'The Scottish Play' was her first major role with the theatre. Later, when Siobhan went for auditions in the Abbey in 1945, Ernest Blythe asked her for an impromptu speech in Irish; it was, in fact, one from this role she performed. 
[James Hardiman Library Archives,
Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe Collection, T1/D/76.]

[James Hardiman Library Archives,
Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe Collection, T1/D/76.]
McKenna, a fine Shakesperian actor, spent a season at Stratford-on-Avon in 1952. She played a captivating Viola in ‘Twelfth night’, directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie (qv) at the Stratford Festival in Ontario in 1957, and a one-woman Hamlet in the manner of Sarah Bernhardt off Broadway in 1957, which critics panned; but her Lady Macbeth, opposite Jason Robards, at Harvard University in 1959 was of star quality, ‘putting in the greatest mad scene seen in the U.S. since Callas's Lucia di Lamermoor’ (Time).
Extensive records are present in the papers of Siobhan McKenna on her time spent in Stratford-on-Avon and indeed on her personal life and professional career in general. The full catalogue can be seen here.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Theatre Archive Document for April - Arthur Shields and the Abbey Theatre in America 1932-33

Our theatre archive document of the month for April comes from the Arthur Shields (1896-1970) archive and the Abbey Theatre tour of North America, eighty years ago this year.

Arthur Shields
The papers of actor, director and revolutionary Arthur Shields provide a truly personal, textual and visual insight into the life, career of Arthur Shields, as he worked in theatre for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, in America on the Abbey Tours of the 1930s and his later film career and that of his brother Barry Fitzgerald (William Shields, 1888-1961).

Shields was the son of Adolphus Shields, labour organizer, writer for The Freeman’s Journal, and friend of James Connolly and William O’Brien. His mother was of German ancestry, and the parents were by upbringing Protestant—in practice, the family were secular and socialist.  

Shields had three wives, two of whom acted for the Abbey Theatre: Basie McGee, who acted under the name 'Joan Sullavan,' and Una 'Aideen' O'Connor. His third wife Laurie Bailey Shields, an American journalist, was instrumental in collecting additional material for the archive after Arthur's death

The brothers Shields were close friends of Sean O’Casey, and took instrumental roles in the first productions of his ‘Dublin trilogy.’ Arthur Shields was through the 1920s and 30s, the Abbey’s chief ‘handsome lead’; his brother Barry Fitzgerald was the company’s most popular comic actor. Arthur Shields frequently directed plays for the Abbey, and more particularly for George Yeats's 'Dublin Drama Leagure'. In the 1930s, when the Abbey undertook a succession of half-year tours of North America, it was Arthur Shields who handled their management on the road.

These tours won the Abbey a fond welcome in towns and cities across the continent. Broadway producers and Hollywood directors also expressed their interest. John Ford, the great Irish American film director, met with the company in Hollywood, and decided to use some members in The Informer(1935) and all the main players in The Plough and the Stars (1936). Thereafter, Barry Fitzgerald remained in the USA as a film star. Arthur Shields was cast in subsequent movies by Ford. He also was invited to direct plays by Paul Vincent Carroll on Broadway in the late 1930s. By the end of the decade, he and his partner Aideen Shields had left the Abbey for the USA.

It is from these papers relating to the 1932-1933 tour of North America that we focus on this month and highlight the Abbey Tour which took place eighty years ago this year.

Proposed and temporary itinerary for the 1932-1933 Abbey tour of North America. Covers the period from 10 October 1932 to 10 May 1933. 2 identical copies present.



Letter from W.B. Yeats, The Waldorf Astoria, New York addressed to Arthur Shields. Yeats writes that he was of the strong opinion 'that it would be better as far as possible to drop "Words upon the Window Pane" out of our American repertory' because Yeats felt that American audience didn't have sufficient knowledge of Swift's works. 30 October 1932.


 An online exhibition of digitised material from the Shields Archive is available here  

The Shields archive catalogue can be accessed in full here