2004, 27th December, Abbey Theatre, Dublin
Visiting my in-laws in Dublin this Christmas, how could I not go to the celebration of the Abbey Theatre’s centenary?
Rounding the corner from Lower Abbey Street, I see crowds forming in the lobby. I angle my way to the bar to secure free champagne, then move to the middle to cheer the announcements from the artistic director, who carefully skirts mentioning the theatre’s current financial troubles. Hell—they always had financial troubles.
Then he introduces the frail man to his left, Michael Yeats, age 83, the son of William Butler Yeats, poet, playwright and Abbey founder.
After getting my slice of birthday cake, I wind my way over to the side where Mr. Yeats is standing on his own. Assuming that his eyesight and hearing aren’t the best, I position myself directly in front of him and shake his hand.
‘Mr. Yeats—we have a mutual friend in Florida, William Murphy. Your friend William Murphy.’
‘Oh, yes,’ he answers, looking confused.
I figure best not to push it, so I smile and move on.
But when I walk out of the theatre, I see Mr. Yeats, by himself with his cane, inching slowly down Lower Abbey Street. Gently, I take his arm.
‘Can I help you, Mr. Yeats?’
‘Oh, yes. There’s a party for me at Wynn’s Hotel, but I have trouble walking.’
I gratefully volunteer:
‘That’s okay. I’ll get you there.’
I deliver the guest of honor safely up the steps of Wynn’s, wondering if the party’s organizers are searching for their star.
After I e-mail William Murphy to tell him of my encounter, he replies,
‘I contacted Michael and he remembered an American woman talking to him at the party. He was so sorry he couldn’t understand what you were saying.’
Michael Yeats died about two years later. I’m glad to have had my two degrees of separation from his father.
1904, 27th December, Abbey Theatre, Dublin
The poster for the premiere performances in the Abbey Theatre reads:
Irish National Theatre Society
Spreading the News
By Lady Gregory
On Baile’s Strand and
Kathleen ni Houlihan
by W B Yeats
In the Shadow of the Glen
by J M Synge
Tues., Dec. 27 1904
Tues. Jan. 3, 1905
Despite the single attribution, both William Butler Yeats, 39, and Lady Augusta Gregory, 52, had written Kathleen ni Houlihan together at her home in the west of Ireland, Coole Park.
For the opening, Lady Gregory is sick at Coole. So the theatre’s English benefactor, Annie Horniman, 44, who arranged the funding to buy the building on Lower Abbey Street, takes the bows with Yeats, who quotes Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen:
‘Be bold, be bold, be bolder still, be yet more bold, but not too bold.’
Later that week, Augusta does make it to the theatre to see the performances, and eventually Miss Horniman pulls her support from the Abbey. As Lady Gregory writes in her journal,
‘Miss Horniman made the building, not the theatre.’