Celtic Junction Arts Review

Teresa Deevy: Ireland’s Little Known Chekhov

Steven Griffith

Teresa Deevy, photographed by Olaf Deevy, courtesy of the Deevy family.

It can be argued that the Abbey Theatre’s rejection of Waterford playwright Teresa Deevy’s play Wife to James Whelan in 1942 was a misjudgment only surpassed in enormity by its rejection of Seán O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie in 1928. In rejecting Deevy’s play, the theatre in Dublin not only cut itself off from one of Ireland’s most popular playwrights of the time, but pushed Deevy from live theatre to radio drama. While O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie was thought much too expressionistic by the Abbey’s founding father, W. B. Yeats, Deevy’s Wife to James Whelan fell prey to the narrow-mindedness of the Abbey’s later management. Tremendously hurt by the theatre’s decision to not produce the play (after it announced it would do so) and the tactless way in which the rejection was communicated to her, Teresa Deevy turned to other venues for her theatrical work. Over time her work faded from public view.

Teresa Deevy, Wife of James Whelan by Mint Theater
Jeremy S. Holm and Janie Brookshire in WIFE TO JAMES WHELAN by Teresa Deevy
Photo: Carol Rosegg Photography.

Thankfully in the last ten years, Jonathan Bank and the Mint Theater in New York City whose mission is to re-examine the work of underappreciated playwrights has brought Deevy and her work back to life and re-introduced it to U.S. audiences. My own introduction to Teresa Deevy and her theatrical work was in preparation for a recent class I taught in the Celtic Junction Arts Center’s Irish College of Minnesota. Participants in the course, Hidden in Plain Sight: Five Women Irish Playwrights, explored the work of five Irish women playwrights overshadowed by the men in the pantheon of Irish drama, Yeats, Synge, and O’Casey. The plays discussed in the class all found early success at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

Yeats, Gregory, Synge
Yeats, Gregory, Synge and Abbey Theatre’s opening night playbill.
The Plough and the Stars prompt script.

Founded in 1904 by W.B. Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and John Millington Synge, the National Irish Theatre Society Ltd., was the outgrowth of earlier attempts by Yeats and others to establish a theatre in Dublin that would produce theatre of high artistic merit on subjects indigenous to Irish history and culture. The Abbey, as it became known due to its location on Abbey Street just north of the River Liffey in Ireland’s capital of Dublin, and its founders were central players in the Irish literary renaissance and the country’s search for identity in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although not always supported by nationalists like Arthur Griffith, Douglas Hyde, and Yeats’ would be lover, Maude Gonne, the Abbey served as the crucible for ongoing debate of what it meant to be Irish. It was a debate within the nationalist community that occasionally played out violently on the Abbey stage, reaching a peak with “riots” in the theatre during the opening week of Synge’s, Playboy of the Western World in 1907 and again in 1926 with Seán O’Casey’s, The Plough and the Stars. In both instances, nationalists believed that what was called Ireland’s “National” theatre was denigrating Irish identity instead of lifting it up. By the time Teresa Deevy came of age as a playwright in the 1930s, the Abbey had fallen into a predictable pattern of “peasant” plays that, while audience pleasing, were not artistically interesting to the likes of Dublin’s literati.

By the mid-1930s, the Abbey’s original founders were gone. Synge died at the age of 38 in 1909. Lady Gregory died in 1932. After O’Casey (angered by the rejection of the The Silver Tassie) withdrew his plays from the Abbey repertory, Yeats grew less and less interested in the day to day affairs of the Abbey and died in 1939 while living in France. He had come to realize that his dream of a theatre that produced original work of high artistic and literary quality by Irish authors about Irish themes was not to be. Management of the theatre had been turned over to a succession of directors, among them Lennox Robinson, who by most accounts, was a better playwright than theatre manager.

“Landscape,” the family home of the Deevy family in Waterford.

Having been born in Waterford, Ireland on January 21, 1894, Teresa Deevy was profoundly shaped by her intensely Catholic and politically oriented mother, her large family (she was the youngest of 13) and the death of her father when she was two years old. The family’s fortunes declined after her father’s passing. The entire family was staunchly religious. Two of her sisters became nuns, a brother became a priest, and one of Deevy’s maternal uncles was a priest imprisoned for his Land League activities. After being educated at the Ursuline Convent in Waterford, at 19, Deevy moved to Dublin to attend University College Dublin to become a teacher. In her first year, she was struck with Ménière’s disease which would eventually render her profoundly deaf. As her ability to hear faded, Deevy moved to University College Cork where she could receive treatment and attend classes. In 1914 with her sister Nell, she went to London to learn to lip-read. It was in London where she first found enjoyment in the theatre. Deevy became especially fond of the work of Irishman, George Bernard Shaw, and Russian, Anton Chekhov.

A music class at the Ursuline Convent in Waterford in 1908 when Teresa Deevy would have been a 14 year old student.

In 1919 having completed her course of study, Deevy returned to Ireland in the midst of the Irish War of Independence. She became involved in nationalistic causes, joining Cumann na mBan (a women’s paramilitary organization co-founded by Deevy’s hero, the charismatic Constance Markievicz) and visiting political prisoners in Waterford jail.

Cumann na mBan protest, July 23,1921
Lennox Robinson (1886-1958)

Deevy began to write plays and submit them to the Abbey in the late 1920s. Her first attempts were rejected by managing director Lennox Robinson, but he encouraged her to continue writing and on March 18, 1930, her play, Reapers opened at the Abbey. Critical reception was positive and Deevy would go on to write five more plays in the next five years, all staged at the Abbey Theatre. Her major works include Temporal Powers (1932), which won a new play award at the Abbey that year, The King of Spain’s Daughter (1935), and her best known work, Katie Roche (1936). All of her earliest plays have female protagonists. The Wild Goose, produced at the Abbey in 1936 was a change for her as the central character is a man. Her work was compared favorably to Chekhov for its focus on rich characterizations and intricate family relationships. In her lifetime, Deevy would author more than 20 stage plays and dozens of radio dramas.

Playbill cover for ‘Katie Roche’ produced by Mint Theater, NYC. Illustration by Stefano Imbert.

Her work centers on family, relationships, ethical and moral dilemmas, and the struggle for personal identity. Temporal Powers focuses on poverty and the impact of sudden riches. The play takes place in a ruined building where a poor couple, ousted from their tenant holdings has taken refuge. They find a hidden stash of stolen money. The wife wants to take the money and start a new life. The husband believes they should turn in the money. In the end, they do neither but their marriage is over as they recognize they no longer share each other’s values. Deevy’s best known one-act, The King of Spain’s Daughter introduces her signature theme, a woman struggling to find herself and to choose the right path while being battered (sometimes literally) by the men who surround her. In the play, Annie Kinsella must choose a life of factory drudgery or a loveless marriage. Similarly, the title and central character in Katie Roche, must choose between being trapped as a domestic servant in a small town for the remainder of her life, or the excitement of marriage to an older man that she doesn’t know if she can ever love; all the while being pressured to make the right choice by a physically abusive father. Most of Deevy’s plays pushed against the conventions of the time regarding women and their role in Irish society.

Eamon de Valera
Ernest Blythe, Feb 1922.

Teresa Deevy’s falling out with the Abbey Theatre would come quietly and quickly. In 1939, her play Holiday House was accepted by the Abbey, but without explanation was not produced. She was never told why. In 1941, Ernest Blythe (rebel in the War of Independence, former finance minister in the Irish Free State government, and by all accounts a technocrat who cared little about theatre) became managing director of the Abbey. Not only was Blythe himself rigidly conservative, in late 1930s Ireland the role of women in Irish life was being redrawn by the government headed by Éamon de Valera. The Irish Constitution (written by de Valera in 1937) prescribed a woman’s role to be in the home. This was also the position of the Catholic Church. Quite suddenly, the Abbey Theatre was no longer interested in plays that called into question the traditional authority of men and pushed, however obliquely, for more choice and opportunity for women. Deevy’s next Abbey submission, Wife to James Whalen, in 1942 was rejected outright by Blythe for being too similar to her previous work. The play focuses on a poor woman who chooses money and security over happiness, and lives to deeply regret it.

Although in its day popular with Dublin audiences, Deevy’s work today is considered problematic. Ironically, it is the fact that Deevy doesn’t go far enough to give her female characters agency and autonomy that makes her work difficult for some in today’s audiences. Her plays bring attention to the limited and limiting roles for women in Ireland of the 1930s, but in almost every case, Deevy’s women bend to the male/female convention of the day. In Temporal Power, Min Donovan’s ambition is her undoing. Annie Kinsella in King of Spain’s Daughter eventually succumbs to Jim’s offer of marriage as a way to avoid the factory, and Nan Bowers in Wife for James Whelan is made to grovel at the feet of former boyfriend, James Whelan. Katie, in Deevy’s most popular play, Katie Roche, leaves her much loved village forever with her domineering husband, Stanislaus.

RTE Radio 1 ‘Where to begin – Teresa Deevy’ November 2020.

Although Teresa Deevy’s plays at the Abbey Theatre were popular and she was well-regarded by managing director Lennox Robinson, as early as 1935 she was expressing her concern to friends about the narrowness of the theatre and the attitude toward women in Irish popular culture. In recent years the Free State government had put into place strict censorship laws in the area of cinema and literature and many Irish artists (including James Joyce and Seán O’Casey) felt it necessary to live and work abroad. Deevy was vocal in her opposition to artistic censorship and also to the restrictive impact the Catholic Church was having on artistic and personal freedom. After the Abbey rejected Wife to James Whelan, Deevy began to write radio plays. Her work was well received and she had an active career with the BBC and Raidió Teilifís Éireann (Irish national radio) for much of the remainder of her life.

Jack Butler Yeats
Jack Butler Yeats by Alice Boughton – Smithsonian Photography.
Book Cover Selected Plays of Irish Playwright Teresa Deevy, 1894-1963

Deevy never married, and for much of her adult life shared a flat in Dublin with her sister Nell. As Deevy’s speech was almost unintelligible, Nell acted as Deevy’s interpreter. Their circle of friends and visitors to their home included actors, theatre directors, playwrights, and contemporary artists including Patrick Hennessy and Jack B. Yeats. In 1954 Nell died and Deevy moved from Dublin back to the family home in Waterford. Known in her day as the “Irish Checkov,” Deevy died in 1963 at the age of 68. It is said that in her later years she was not much interested in her personal appearance and that she was well known in Waterford for bicycling throughout the city. She remained a devoted Catholic even as she publically disagreed with church hierarchy, taking communion each day to her end.

Copyright Maynooth University

Deevy’s work faded from public view only to be re-discovered in the past 20 years as scholars began to look more closely at the contribution Lady Gregory and other women had made to Irish drama in the first half of the 20th century, especially dramatic work produced by the Abbey Theatre. The production of several of Deevy’s plays at the Mint Theater beginning in 2010 and the publication of her plays as part of the theatre’s Deevy Project has been essential in bringing the work of this undervalued and important Irish playwright to American audiences. Minnesotans interested Irish drama can only hope that a theatre company in the Twin Cities will soon recognize the value of Teresa Deevy’s contribution to Irish theatre with a production of one of her plays.

The author would like to thank Jonathan Bank of the Mint Theater for his kind help in preparation for the class, Hidden in Plain Sight: Five Women Irish Playwrights. Throughout February and March 2021 the Mint Theater is streaming its production of Katie Roche. Information can be found at: www.minttheater.org. Readers who might be interested in learning more about the Abbey Theatre are encouraged to register for the class: First 25 Years of the Abbey Theatre: Cradle of Irish Identity which begins February 24, 2021 at the Irish College of Minnesota.