Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Learning the Ropes - Walter Macken and Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe in the 1930s

It is perhaps true to say that Walter Macken is always identified to the flowering of activity at Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe in the 1940s. He was a central figure in this development, bringing industriousness and a drive to the theatre that encouraged others to get involved. However, this role did not occur within a vacuum. It has to be viewed within the context of the evolution of Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe in the 1930s, and what Walter Macken learned at the Taibhdhearc from 1933 to 1936, and in particular what he learned from the producer at the time, Frank Dermody. We will then look briefly at his return as artistic director, and everything else that he did to promote the theatre and Irish language drama at the time. In his semi-autobiographical novel Sullivan (1957) he wrote:

He worked an average of twelve to fourteen hours a day . . . He designed and painted the scenery, he made flats and stretched the canvas on them, he kept the accounts, drew up the advertising, learned off long parts, trained raw actors to become presentable . . . He did all this for a feverish love.

He not only acted as administrator, dealing with the day-to-day running of the theatre, dealing with the Board of Directors and everything else, but also dealt with every aspect of the artistic process of the theatre, from getting production rights, to translations, to casting, set design, rehearsals, publicity and productions, as well as doing much of the acting himself.

The idea of an Irish language theatre had been around as a possibility for some years before it’s actual establishment in Galway in 1928, and it was the culmination of many years endeavour. Writing in May 1919 in Fáinne an Lae, Tomás Ó Máille (Professor of Irish language, Philology and Literature at UCG from 1909 to 1938) outlined their reasons for seeking an Irish language theatre in Galway.

Tá lucht cabhartha na Gaedhilge sa mbaile seo le tamall ag cur rompú taidbhdhearc Gaedhealach agus cuallacht taidhbhreadóirí a chur ar bun I nGaillimh le drámanna nó taidhbhréimeanna i n-ár dtrangaidh dhúthchais a thaidbhsiú agus a fhiorléarú i nGaillimh agus ar fud na hÉireann.
Other sponsors of the plan included Fr. Tomás Ceallaigh, Dr. Séamus Ó Beirn and Liam Ó Briain (Professor of Romance Languages at UCG, 1917 – 1958). Given the unstable nature of the country in the 1920s, however, this early attempt fell into abeyance. Several of the theatre supporters were on the run, some were imprisoned, including both Ó Briain and Ó Máille.

The idea of an Irish language theatre was revived in 1927. Galway was viewed as an ideal location for an Irish language theatre, because of it’s proximity to Ireland’s largest Gaeltacht as well as its concentration of Irish-speaking institutions. The city had a large Irish-speaking population, An Céad Cath (the Irish speaking battalion of the Irish army stationed at Renmore) and a large number of Irish language enthusiasts and scholars at University College Galway. A committee of eleven was formed, and the project benefited from the personal interest of the then Minister for Finance, Ernest Blythe, who was keen to establish the cultural credentials of the Irish language within the new Irish state. The committee approached Micheál Mac Liammóir to act as artistic director, and he did most of the early plays from 1928 to the end of 1930, before committing to the development of Dublin’s Gate Theatre with Hilton Edwards.

There had been a decline in the number of plays produced in the theatre in 1930, reflecting Mac Liammóir’s reduced involvement and it was clear that replacement producer-directors were needed. At the end of 1929 Blythe and Richard Maulcahy (Minister for Defence) arranged for Prionsias Mac Diarmada, a corporal in An Céad Cath, to transfer to Cathal Brugha Barracks and learn production skills at the Gate Theatre with MacLiammóir and Edwards. MacDiarmada (later known as Frank Dermody) had joined the army in 1923 and had been involved with the Taibhdhearc from an early stage, having played the part of Oisín in their first production Diarmuid agus Gráinne.

At the end of 1930 the Committee was cut down from eleven to 3, and it was decided to appoint Frank Dermody as Manager and Secretary. His appointment certainly met with the approval of Ernest Blythe, who commented in a letter to Liam Ó Briain in a letter of 11th February 1931 “I am satisfied that the arrangement which has now come about is the only one under which Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe has a chance of developinig as it ought to develop”. Mac Diarmada’s first production was J.M. Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows (Deirdre na mBróin), translated by Ó Briain. Supported by Tommy King in the more practical aspects of organising the theatre, Mac Diarmada brought an energy and enthusiasm to the job that ensured a good selection of actors and a wide spectrum of productions. Tensions within the Board of Directors centred on the what productions should be done, Ó Briain favoured translations of European works with comparable Irish language plays, Ó Beirn’s focus wanted more kitchen-comedy style plays to build support for the theatre. Mac Diarmada and Ó Briain did not always see eye to eye either, although Ó Briain was instrumental in keeping the Departments of Finance and Education onside with the theatre’s activities.

Bríd Ní Gríofa and Mairtín Ó Direáin in a scene from Deirdre na mBróin by J.M. Synge [Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe Collection, James Hardiman Library Archives, T1/E/1].
Although there may have been disagreements on the board and it was operating on a shoestring budget, the Taibhdhearc consolidated it’s position, due in no small part to the hard work of Mac Diarmada. The productions from the 1930s staged by Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe included translations, both continental and English plays, as well as original drama in Irish. Other initiatives at the time included the involvement of the players in radio plays with Radio Eireann, and a steady stream of original drama in Irish through An tOireachtas, who ran a competition each year.
It was into this setting, then, that Walter Macken entered. His first acting role with Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe was at the age of 17, when he played the role of Sean-Mhaitias in Pádraig Pearse’s Iosagáin. In the play Iosagáin visits Sean-Mhaitias who is too sick to go to Mass, but he receives hope of solace. It is a sign of Macken’s versatility at this early stage that he was also credited with set design for the play, which ran from the 12th to the 14th December 1933. The play was billed in The Connacht Tribune as an experiment with the boys of St. Ignatius’ College, saying that the public were in for a treat: “it is confidently expected that they will agree that the experiment was justified when they realise what our youth are really capable of” (9 Dec 1933). This would indicate that it was through his school that Walter was first introduced to the Taibhdhearc, and his activity in this production clearly impressed Mac Diarmada.

Walter’s versatility was underlined in March 1934 when he co-wrote Ceart agus Cáiteamh (Mayor Lynch of Galway) based on the story of James Lynch, the 15th century mayor of Galway who infamously condemned his own son to death for having murdered a young Spaniard. Billed as “triumph and tragedy” in medieval Galway, with a cast of fifty and eleven scenes, it was noted that “Mr. Walter Macken collaborated with Mr MacDiarmada in the writing of some of the scenes of the play”.

Scene from Ceart agus Cuiteamh by Prionnsias Mac Diarmada and Bhaitear Ó Maicín, featuring Maire Ni Giolla Mhairtin and Uinsionn Ó Mathuna, Mar 1934 [Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe Collection, James Hardiman Library Archives, T1/E/6].

With Walter’s acting skills being put to good use in various productions, it is no surprise that he took the title role in a show-case production to mark the first seven years of the Taibhdhearc. MacDiarmada’s production of Beatha Iogantach Bhearnáird Óig de Menthon by Ghéon, with its lavish costumes and set, made a statement about the new confidence of the Taibhdhearc. Eamonn de Valera attended the opening night, which coincided with the unveiling of a statue of Pádraic Ó Conaire in Eyre Square. The Connacht Tribune review noted “the central figure of the drama, St. Bernard, was admirably played by Bhailtear Maicin. Mr. Mackin showed admirable restraint in St. Bernard’s mental battle against worldy lives – a restraint which held him from overstepping the bounds into rant”. Seamus O’Sullivan, the noted sculptor who had been involved in the foundation of the Abbey, found Macken’s performance outstanding, and as good as anything he had seen since the heyday of the Abbey.

Walter was next noted as an actor in Na Cruiteachán a translation by Liam Ó Briain of La Farce des Bossus by P Jalabert. In the play a young wife who is married to a miserly man invites a group of wandering musicians in to keep her company. Walter played on of the musicians. It was the first radio-play broadcast by Radió Éireann using the Taibhdhearc, and it was broadcast on Wed. 10th July 1935 at 8pm. It reflects Mac Diarmada’s forward thinking that it was the first of a series of broadcasts, and the fact that he was aware that he was competing with film and provincial theatres to draw an audience into the Taibhdhearc.

Cast list from Na Gaduithe by Gearóid Ó Lochlainn, featuring both Walter and Peggy on the cast list, December 1935 [Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe Collection, James Hardiman Library Archives, T1/D/39].

One interesting review from The Connacht Tribune comes the following December, when, in a review of Na Gaduithe, the Gearóid Ó Lochlainn play, there was a detailed review of most of the characters. The basic premise, two investigators come to a Gaeltacht hotel on the tail of two robbers, and fall in love with the hotellier’s two daughters. Walter played the role of Brian Ui Neill and Padraic Breathnach played the role of the other investigator, the two daughters were played by Eibhlin Ni Suilleabhain and Peigi Ni Chionnigh. The review of Walter’s role is telling, probably pointing to the writer of the review as Peigi, the only person not to get a detailed review of her performance.

Uaitear O Maicin gave a very good performance as Brian. The young man who was able to move around and enjoy himself while conducting his investigations into the robbery. His scenes with Eibhlin were good, but we were inclined to wonder what passed through his mind when, on the garden scene, he told Eibhlin of his love and was accepted. His smile did not seem to us one of happy contentment.
Walter continued to be a stalwart actor for the Taibhdhearc from 1936 and into 1937, with over thirteen productions in that year it was clear that Mac Diarmada’s industriousness was paying off, and that he was catering to a number of different ideas coming from the Board of Directors. For Walter, acting in Deireadh an Aister (Journey’s End) by R.C. Sherriff and translated by Aodh Mac Dubhainn, must have been particularly poignant given its setting in the trenches of World War One.

Cast list for Mayor Lynch of Galway by Frank Dermody, produced in Galway by the Art Players, 18-19 October 1935 [Christopher Townley Collection, James Hardiman Library Archives].

Walter’s last role in this phase of his involvement with the Taibhdhearc was in January 1937 was Grádh an Spréidhe (Sovereign Love) by T.C. Murray, translated by Mairtín Ó Direáin. Again, the reviewer in The Connacht Tribune was fulsome in their praise of his acting
Uaitear Ui Maicin carried the honours of the Taibhdhearc production. This young actor who has innumerable successes to his name, gave a delightful reading of Domhnall O Cearnaigh, the old farmer who seeks to secure a good “fortune” with his prospective marrying in son-in-law.
The following month he and Peggy had married in Dublin and had moved to London. In a reference written the same day as his marriage, Prionsias Mac Diarmada wrote in glowing terms on his work as leading man and business manager for the theatre, commenting that he had taken leading roles in thirty full length and thirty-six one act plays.

Mr. Macken is in my opinion the most outstanding character actor (comedy or tragedy) in Ireland today not excluding the Abbey Theatre. My contention may be substantiated by a perusal of many press notices which he has received. As regards his personal character I have always found him to be honest upright and trustworthy in every respect.
That thirteen plays were produced in 1936 and 18 more in 1937, bears testimony to the industry of the theatre and to Mac Diarmada’s tenure as producer-director. When Mac Diarmada was appointed as Director of the Abbey School of Acting in October 1938, he moved to Dublin and eventually succeeded Hugh Hunt as producer at the Abbey. An appreciation written following his death in 1978, noted that: “During his years in Galway he devoted all his time and unquestionable talents to bringing the Taibhdhearc into national prominence (Connacht Tribune, 11 July 1978).

Black and white photograph from Aintín Searlaí (Charley’s Aunt) by Brandon Thomas, featuring Eibhlín Ni Suileabháin and Micheál Ó Beirn, produced by Walter Macken [Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe Collection, James Hardiman Library Archives, T1/E/8].

Walter Macken’s association with the Taibhdhearc ended until 1939, when he returned as Artistic Director. His undoubted ability from his time as an actor there, his and Peggy’s wish to return to Galway, and the support of elements within the Board of Directors and Mac Diarmuda, all came together to support his return. In a meeting of 8th April 1939 Captain Ó Concubhair proposed that Uaiteár Ó Maicín would produce the next production and that the Directors would get a sense of whether he was a suitable producer for the theatre. The following meeting, on the 26th April it was noted that his first production would be Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas, and at the following meeting it was proposed by Dr. Tomas Breathnach that Walter Macken would be appointed director at £3 a week, and that he would be sent to the Gaeltacht in August to improve his Irish. He moved on to become one of the most successful artistic directors of the long history of Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe, before moving to the Abbey Theatre as an actor, later becoming a prolific writer.

1 comment:

  1. Go raibh maith agaibh for this post, jam-packed with items of interest! More info on Liam Ó Briain, who translated 'Deirdre na mBrón' or 'Déirdre an Bhróin', here http://www.ainm.ie/Bio.aspx?ID=306 - I wonder was it the first time that Máirtín Ó Direáin (who appears to have played Naoise) encountered one of Synge's plays? Somebody out there may know... maith sibh!