“Such Friends”: 100 years ago, August 10, 1921, Abbey Theatre, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin

Way back at the beginning of the century, when the Abbey Theatre was in its planning stages, the co-founder, poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, then 39, commissioned his friend and fellow Dubliner George Bernard Shaw, almost 10 years older than Willie, to write a play for the opening.

George Bernard Shaw by Alvin Langdon Coburn

Shaw gave the Abbey John Bull’s Other Island, a long political comedy about an Irishman and his English business partner who come to Ireland to look in to developing some land. Yeats rejected it. The official reason was that he felt they wouldn’t be able to find any actors to do the British characters justice. The real reason was that Yeats couldn’t stand Shaw’s argumentative style of playwriting.

An edited version of the play premiered in London at the Royal Court Theatre that same year, 1904, and made Shaw a big hit with the Brits. Reports are that the king laughed so hard during a performance that he fell off his chair.

Royal Court Theatre, London

John Bull’s Other Island was performed at another theatre in Dublin a few years later. And in 1909, when Abbey co-founder John Millington Synge died at age 37, both Yeats and his other Abbey cofounder, Lady Augusta Gregory, then 52, asked Shaw to step into the vacancy and help guide their theatre. He declined.

Now here is Lady Gregory to guide, what is basically her Abbey, 17 years after its opening. Tomorrow night they are putting on their seventh run of Shaw’s political play.

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Performances will be this Thursday and Saturday nights, and a Saturday matinee. In the cast is one of their new stars, Barry Fitzgerald, 33, in the role of Tim Haffigan, which he has done six times already.

Barry came to the Abbey a few years ago through his younger brother, who is both actor and stage manager for this production. Despite his breakthrough success last year in one of Lady Gregory’s own plays, Barry still works his full-time civil service job. Where he is known by his given name, William Shields. Just to be safe.

In addition to his day job, Fitzgerald is appearing tonight and Friday in a new play by Lady Gregory, Aristotle’s Bellows, and Bedmates by George Shiels, 40, his first play produced here.

Augusta feels that the theatre has reached a stable point in its history. But she is always on the lookout for new blood, both actors and playwrights.

“Such Friends”:  100 Years Ago… is the basis for the series, “Such Friends”:  The Literary 1920s. Volume I covering 1920 is available in print and e-book format on Amazon. For more information, email me at kaydee@gypsyteacher.com.

This fall I will be talking about Writers’ Salons in Dublin and London Before the Great War in the Osher Lifelong Learning program at Carnegie-Mellon University.

If you want to walk with me through Bloomsbury, download my audio walking tour, “Such Friends”:  Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.

Manager as Muse, about Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ relationships with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, is available on Amazon in both print and e-book versions.

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