Thursday, November 25, 2010

‘Threshold’ Contributors: Seamus Heaney

The Lyric’s literary periodical Threshold sought to encourage submissions from local writers, and there is no more celebrated a Northern Irish writer than Seamus Heaney. Heaney contributed several poems to Threshold, and indeed went on to become editor of the magazine for a short term in the late 1960s.

After reading English Language and Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast, Heaney trained as a teacher at St Joseph’s Teacher Training College and went on to work at St Thomas’ Secondary School in west Belfast. Having begun writing poetry while an undergraduate, Heaney now found a mentor in the headmaster of the school, the Monaghan writer Michael McLaverty. McLaverty proved to be a strong influence on Heaney, encouraging his writing and even becoming a foster father of sorts. With his support, Heaney began publishing his poetry in 1962 and continued to do so over the following decades with huge success.

Copy of Peter Street at Bankside, Lyric Archives, NUI Galway
His involvement with Threshold came about as Mary O'Malley sought to cultivate working relationships with Northern Irish writers, to encourage submissions both for the periodical and for the Lyric Theatre. As her time was increasingly demanded from the Lyric Players, guest editors were brought in  to oversee Threshold. These included people such as Roger McHugh, Brian Friel, and as mentioned earlier, Heaney himself. Heaney was also present at the foundation stone laying ceremony in 1965 when the company built their own theatre at Ridgeway Street, and recited a poem written especially for the occasion, Peter Street at Bankside.

Forty four years later, Heaney was again present at the foundation stone laying ceremony of the new Lyric Theatre home at the same site. A stanza from Peter Street at Bankside is engraved, fittingly, in the threshold stone which will mark the entrance of the new theatre, which is due to open next year.

Lyric Archives, NUI Galway
Heaney maintained his connection with the team behind Threshold, writing to thank Mary and Pearse O’Malley for their congratulations after his ‘Swedish bounty’ in 1995. His continued involvement with the Lyric Theatre is testament to Mary O'Malley's early recognition of his work, and to the inextricably intertwined relationship between author and audience.

Sarah Poutch

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Druid's collaboration with stage and screen

“My father and I have an unspoken rule that we don’t talk about acting” Katherine (Kate) O’Toole said in interview with Fred Johnston, regarding her eight-time Academy Award-nominated father Peter O’Toole.  Speaking here ahead of her debut with Druid Theatre Company in 1989, Kate O’Toole speaks honestly on her upbringing and early forays in acting with the Yale Reparatory theatre.
O Toole’s debut with Druid came with the production of A Little Like Drowning written by Anthony Minghella, following on from her film role in John Huston’s film The Dead. O‘Toole’s brother Tony was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his writing of the film script and adapting it from James Joyce’s novella The Dead. This film as also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.
A Little Like Drowning was also the first collaboration production between Druid and Anthony Minghella.  The piece was originally Minhella first feature film as a director, which was made in 1978. Minghella 's work has secured him the highest accolades during his career, culminating in him being awarded the Academy Award for best Director for the 1996 film The English Patient.He was also nominated for an academy award for his scrrenplay for the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Playbill, photo, flyer and press cuttings from Druid archive
In the playbill notes from A Little Like Drowning, an article by Frank McGuinness states how ‘The drowning get three chances to rise out of the deep, but if life is only a little like drowning then we are given only one chance of love. Anthony Minghella splits his canvas into three: Italy, England and Ireland. In each location, one man, Alfredo Mare, travels through his life, his joys, his sorrows, always in the dark, for until his dying moments  he buries his secret fear, damnation. The Catholic faith of his generation found its home in Hell, with Dire consequences for that same generation, passed onto those that followed them.’ The play was very well received as is documented in the press files of the Druid archives. Numerous reports, reviews and interviews present the social reception of the play that was noted for being Druid’s most controversial and powerful for quite some time.
The production files feature the original playbill, flyers from the production at Druid lane theatre, Galway and also at Limerick’s Belltable theatre. A fantastic series of contact sheets and individual photographs provide a visual insight into the production and presentation of this work which is charged with Religious commentary and ideas on the depths of love, loyalty, faith and pain that is felt in one’s relationships.
Katherine O'Toole in "A Little Like Drowning"

While the Druid archive records and charts the beginning of Katherine O’Toole’s association with Druid and the continued association with the West of Ireland by both Katherine and her father Peter O’Toole, it is also poignant that this week the John Huston archive was officially handed over to the NUI Galway archives housed at the James Hardiman Library. The archive hold a substantial volume of records from the production of the award winning film The Dead based on Joyce’s story and directed by John Huston. Katherine O’Toole had a starring role in this film and was at NUI Galway this week to mark the occasion of the archive handover.
Speaking with Fred Johnston in March of 1989, O’Toole states how “I find it hard to imagine that anyone who wants to act harbours the illusion that it’s a glamorous life”. Be this the case or not, Druid association with the most talented and successful of Irish screen and stage talent cements its legacy within its archive of being one of the most successful and engaging of theatre companies.

Monday, November 22, 2010

News from NUI Galway Archives - John Huston film archive launch

John Huston

For so many Joyce scholars and the countless others who have read his book Dubliners, one key story stands out among the others, “The Dead”. This tale of Dublin, its people and fleeting glimpses of their lives, relationships, loves and losses was given a definitive adaptation on film by the late John Huston.
Today, the archives of NUI Galway and the James Hardiman library receive the archive of the late John Huston. Given the relationship Huston and his family had and still do with Galway and the West of Ireland, it is a fitting tribute to John Huston that his papers should reside in the university where the film school is named in his honour.
John’s Oscar-nominated son Tony and daughter Allegra will officially hand over the papers at a special event in NUI Galway this evening. The papers will be a tremendous addition to the archival collections of NUI Galway.

“Bringing this material into the public domain is an exciting development for those interested in John Huston’s work. It is at the intersection of American cinema and Irish culture,” Rod Stoneman, director of the Huston School of Film and Digital Media,  said. 

For further coverage of this landmark collection for Irish archives and cultural research see: 

RTE Player: (at 43 minutes, 10 seconds)


With theatrical productions up and running on a regular basis, Mary and Pearse O’Malley’s attentions turned in 1957 to the possibility of establishing a literary magazine to run in tandem with the Lyric Players Theatre. They felt that the theatre’s achievements were receiving scant publicity from the mainstream press and wanted to rectify this. Attracting more publicity was seen as the key to alerting the writing community of the existence of the company, and encouraging new works from them to produce. As well as this, Mary O’Malley saw it as a chance to fill the vacuum of literary magazines in Northern Ireland.

Mary became editor of the fledgling magazine, adding this hat to those she already possessed as theatrical director, producer, and local politician. John Hewitt became Poetry Editor. Settling on the title Threshold after the W.B. Yeats play The King’s Threshold, the first issue was published later that year. It contained a short story by Mary Beckett, articles by John Jordan and Roger McHugh, and poems by Pearse Hutchinson and T.P. Flanagan, amongst other pieces.

Threshold was met with positive comments by many reviewers, including those of the Irish Press, the Observer, the Independent and the Irish Times. The editors aimed to publish the magazine quarterly, a goal which was not always met due to lack of funds. Mary paid tribute though to her husband Pearse, calling the magazine his ‘brainchild’ and recognising that the effort put into it was repaid by the fact that the project introduced the Lyric establishment to many contemporary Irish writers and critics. These included Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Brian Moore, Kate O’Brien, Patrick Galvin and Tom McIntyre. Future contributors would even include politicians, with Seán Lemass contributing an article in 1958. The magazine would also have a future Nobel laureate as editor when Seamus Heaney undertook the role in the late 1960s.

Threshold finally ceased publication in 1990, but future posts will explore its impact and discuss some of the contributors to the magazine.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Signs of the Times

Advertisements are one of the seemingly inconsequential aspects of the historical material which archivists deal with. They are rarely the focus of attention, but personally speaking, they are one of my favourite aspects of archival work. Working with the Lyric Theatre’s programmes has drawn my attention to the history of advertising, and to the archival community’s efforts to preserve them as historical documents in their own right.

Pears Soap, 1900
Modern print advertising has its roots in the newspapers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when classified ads of sorts began to appear. These simple descriptions of products gave way in the nineteenth century to illustrations and colour advertisements as technology improved. An early example of a brand which utilised these new tools was Pears Soap. A manager of the company, Thomas J. Barratt, recognised the potential of advertising and exploited it to great effect, eventually becoming known as the father of modern advertising. Pears advertisements based on the painting Bubbles by Sir John Everett Millais were one of the first long-term ad campaigns, running for decades. Other companies strove to create the same level of brand awareness, but lacked the time or creativity to do so. This led to the emergence of ad agencies, which promised results while allowing the companies to devote their time to manufacturing.

Each subsequent decade has seen the rise in the influence of advertisements. In real terms, we are now bombarded by ads daily – the vast majority of which we do not even notice, having grown so used to them. Looking back on adverts through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries though can be illuminating, throwing light on attitudes and popular opinion of the decade in question (the earlier Pears Soap advertisement on the right is a good example, from around 1890).

There are several websites I would recommend to anyone interested in this area, or indeed in art and the media in general. Since the 1970s the archivists of the History of Advertising Trust, based in Norwich, have been collecting and preserving UK advertising, and their website is well worth a browse. A slightly different but equally interesting project is Ghostsigns, which aims to preserve hand-painted wall adverts. For American advertising archives, Duke University’s digital collections contain a wonderful searchable online archive with images dating from 1840 to 1929. Lastly, the excellent website Vintage Ad Browser has over one hundred thousand digitised adverts available to view by category and decade – don’t click through to this one unless you have time to spare, as you are guaranteed to lose track of it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Lyric Players Theatre’s First Season

Before Breakfast, 1952
After the triumph of the Christmas party productions, the O’Malleys and a small group of friends gathered at Ulsterville House, the O’Malley family home, in January 1951 to discuss the possibility of further projects. It was decided to put on one act plays initially, and the O’Malleys volunteered the use of their home – beginning a practice which was to continue until the move in 1968 to a purpose-built theatre. That was a long way off at this point however, with the first invited audience of just twenty five people attending the first production, Robert Farren’s Lost Light starring Frances McShane. The first season also saw productions of At the Hawk’s Well by W.B. Yeats and The Kiss by Austin Clarke.

Princely Fortune, 1952
Mary O’Malley originated the name of the Lyric Players Theatre. Her intention was to associate with, but be distinct from, Austin Clarke’s Lyric Theatre in Dublin. The success of the new theatre continued the following year, with productions of Before Breakfast by Eugene O’Neill, Princely Fortune (adapted from the Chinese) and A Swan Song by Anton Chekhov. It was very much a family endeavour, with Mary’s mother making costumes for these early productions and her brother Gerard assisting with props and set design.

In November 1952 the O’Malleys moved to a new home, Beechbank on Derryvolgie Avenue, Belfast. This house was to be the backdrop to dozens more productions and would see the transition of the Lyric Players Theatre from amateur group of enthusiasts to professional theatre company.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Druid Hits a Century

It took Druid theatre a mere seventeen years to make it to a century of productions. In the mid 1970’s when Druid was first established, it would go on to set a precedent for producing and promoting the work on new Irish writers and playwrights as well as producing relevant revivals of classic Irish and international works.
Straw mask as worn in the play
The piece chosen to be Druid’s 100th production in October of 1992 was At the Black Pig’s Dyke and was written by Vincent Woods. The play is a dark, terse and engaging piece that traces the experiences of a life marked by violence and with questions of identity along Ireland’s border between north and south.
'The Black Pig’s Dyke' is a fortified series of divisions and ramparts along the boundary of the historic province of Ulster in old Gaelic society. The people who inhabited this area are known as ‘mummers’ and are presented here at straw-masked tribal warriors. The play is teaming with folklore and stories native to the border region. These ‘mummars’ wander from village to town and entertain those who they meet with local songs and music, all the while dancing and providing a visual spectacle dressed in their towering straw masks, boots and straw skirts dotted with poppies – the first instance of blood imagery and lust for violence.
Original play poster
Quickly the play descends into fear and violence. The wedded union of a catholic girl to a Protestant man sets in motion the cyclical motion of revenge and killing. The sectarianism is a direct and unashamed commentary on the conflict and killing experienced by those in the North. The fact much of this story is based on inherited folklore highlights the sad connection that for many in the North and indeed the South, their inherited legacy was that of fear, distrust and killing. The fact the play is set at ‘the Black Pig’s Dyke’ along the border between north and south sets the play in a void between the sectarianism and where identity and connection with the self as a citizen is blurred.
This 100th production by Druid received headline reviews in national and regional press in the North and South and includes “A remarkable mix of passion and despair”, “The unmasking of brutal violence in stunning new play” and with comments such as “Masked men, eyes glittering fantastically through slitted hoods immediately herald horror. We had and have on our North/South border such disguised murdering avengers who hunt their prey under the cover of darkness”
The play is a supremely important commentary in Irish theatre on the despair, passion, killing and loss suffered for generations in Ireland’s North and its border regions. The play was produced at Druid Lane theatre, Galway and toured nationally to co, Galway, Armagh, Derry, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Cavan, Antrim (Belfast) Meath, Mayo, Tipperary Clare, Offaly, Wexford, Cork, Kerry, Donegal, Waterford and Kilkenny.
The Druid theatre archive contains original documents from the production including programmes, posters, photographs, sketches of costumes and masks, tour handbook for cast members and extensive press file of reviews, cuttings, articles and commentary.

For more information on this production and tour by Druid click here

Monday, November 8, 2010

Flann O’Brien and 'The Dead Spit of Kelly'

This week I discovered a copy of the Brian O’Nolan script The Dead Spit of Kelly amongst many others which were considered for production at the Lyric Theatre. The play, which is about a Dublin taxidermist who murders his employer and assumes his identity, was originally broadcast on RTE for whom O’Nolan wrote sporadically. He is of course more well-known for his fiction, written under the nom de plume Flann O’Brien, and for his bilingual column in the Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen. 

O’Nolan was born in Strabane, county Tyrone in 1911. He studied at UCD, during which time he wrote widely. However, after graduating and moving into the civil service, he found himself constrained by the rules against civil servants publicly expressing political views. This prompted his use of pseudonyms which, while obeying official rules, meant little as his identity was an open secret amongst his colleagues. They found his writing sufficiently entertaining to merit their turning a blind eye.

As Flann O’Brien he wrote two novels famous now despite lukewarm receptions during O’Nolan’s lifetime. At Swim-Two Birds is considered his masterpiece, a complex metafictional work which incorporates existing characters from legend and fiction. The Third Policeman was withdrawn from circulation by the author after failing to find a publisher, only being made available posthumously. It has however found a new audience in recent years due to its inclusion in an episode of the American television drama Lost. Broadcast in February 2006, the episode sparked revived interest in O’Nolan’s work, with the novel selling 15,000 copies in the two days following the show. While O’Nolan has always had a cult following, it is gratifying that this unexpected limelight for The Third Policeman might bring new readers to his work.

For those interested in learning more on Brian O'Nolan's background, there is a three part radio interview with his brother (the artist Michéal O'Nolan) available here.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Christmas 1950: Mary O’Malley’s First Production

MacNeice House, formerly Aquinas Hall
Pearse O’Malley, as well as being a consultant in the Mater Hospital, Belfast, also became President of the Newman Society of Queen’s University after the couple’s move north. Part of this role was to organise lectures and host the Society’s annual dance. As well as this, Pearse discovered that it was his duty to host a Christmas party at Aquinas Hall. He enlisted his wife’s help in making this a success.

Nativity, Christmas 1950
Mary, with her great interest in theatre, took the opportunity to seek like-minded individuals to put on theatrical entertainment for the party guests. She sought advice from her friend Lily Reid, and eventually made contact with several actors who would go on to become the earliest Lyric Players: Paddy Coyle, Frances McShane, Maureen Cremin, Nan McGuigan, Lucy Young, and Bob Haldane. All came onboard and Mary proceeded with her plan to stage two one act plays, The Dear Queen by Andrew Ganly and Nativity by Lady Gregory.

Script for The Dear Queen with Mary O'Malley's notes
The cast had just ten days, during a memorable snow storm, in which to rehearse and perfect their performances. Mary describes herself in her autobiography Never Shake Hands with the Devil as working ‘like a beaver’ taking rehearsals in the O’Malley family home on Ulsterville Road at this time. 

She thrived in the theatrical atmosphere, and the production was a great success. Max Freeland, Assistant Secretary of the university, wrote that ‘it was just wonderful to realize that in these benighted times that there was someone with the skill and initiative to do such a lovely thing’. This triumph sparked the possibility amongst the group of further productions: Mary O’Malley had found her creative outlet in Belfast.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Frank McGuinness's "Dracula" at Druid

Draft artwork from production of "Dracula"
While Halloween may just be passing and the season of Samhain and the month of the souls begins, it is hard to ignore the many films, books and plays designed to scare and thrill readers and viewers. The season of Trick or Treat and ghosts and ghouls is especially remembered in Ireland by those writers and playwrights who inspire to scare. From Sheridan La Fanu to Yeats’ occultism to more recent works by the likes of Conor McPherson have thrilled their audiences by exploring the dark realms of the undead and the unknown.
One piece in particular is by an Irishman who gave the world one of the greatest of horror stories. Bram Stoker’s Dracua has terrified young and old for generations. Druid tackled this work in 1986 and in doing so staged a version by the celebrated Frank McGuinness. Starring Sean McGinley, Jane Brennan, Maeliosa Stafford, Michael Ford, Maurice O’Donoghue, Brendan Conroy, Kate Hogan and directed and designed by Monica Frawley, the production explored the original 1897 reflection on the morality of late Victorian times. 
The production file in the Druid theatre archive contains the original play programme, flyers, a copy of the script, colour photographs of the set, invitation to the opening night’s performance, press reviews of the production and colour artworks and drawings that were used as draft ideas for the play poster and programme.  
In the programme a note by Frank McGuinness describes his thoughts on the evolution of the play: “The first monster s I met were made from celluloid; Frankenstein, Dacula, their brides and curse, daughters and revenge. . .What myth lies behind the powerful hold of Dracula on the European imagination? It is the poetry and power, not the period [of the story] that interests me, for Dracula belongs to a diseased universe, full of blood loss and bloodletting madness. He is not the source but a symptom of that universe, longing for its death.” McGuinness’s version is a powerful production and exploration of moral consequence, a failing human nature and lust for power. Through Frawley’s  hugely skilful design and direction it is a performance that was a success for Druid and not just owing to seasonal influences of Halloween: It was actually produced in April of 1986!

Programme cover from "Dracula" at Druid theatre.