The Centenary of The Abbey Theatre and ‘Bloomsday’

By Kathleen Dixon Donnelly

The West of Ireland, Summer 1904

In the big house in Coole Park, a serving girl carried a tray of afternoon tea up the grand staircase, and placed it on the floor outside a bedroom door. Inside was the poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, just turned 39. His friend and hostess, Lady Augusta Gregory, 52, made sure that each day Willie had his tea brought up to him so he wouldn’t lose time on his work. He was beginning a play based on the Celtic tale of Deidre, a popular subject with his friends in the Irish Literary Renaissance.

From the bank of the small lake behind the house, his fellow houseguest and poet, George Russell, 37, always called “AE,” was watching the swans. Earlier in the year, he and Yeats, his friend from high school days, had had a huge row over the operation of their Irish National Theatre Society. As the most well-liked and the most practical of the group, AE had pulled off a major reorganization, forming a limited company with Yeats and Lady Gregory as the directors. Things were running more smoothly now and they were all enjoying this summer at Coole.

As AE headed back to the house to resume his own writing, Douglas Hyde, 44, came riding up on his bicycle. Hyde had spent his day cycling around the local countryside, every once in a while pretending that his bike had broken down so he could engage the locals in conversation and record their Irish dialects and stories in his notebook. He had stopped by to see how Lady Gregory was coming on her revision of one of his plays, The Poorhouse.

In another room of the big house, their young friend and fellow theatre director, John Millington Synge, 33, was working on a new play based on his experiences visiting the nearby Aran Islands. His one-act drama, Riders to Sea, had just been produced that February, and the clothes provided by his friends on the Aran Islands had made for truly authentic costumes. Audiences had loved it, but George Moore, 52, one of the founders of the theatre who was now estranged from the group, had dismissed it with a sneer. This time out, Synge was working on a comedy inspired by an Aran story of a man who claimed to have killed his father.

One of the other founders, Edward Martyn, 45, was walking over from Tullira, the large, grey stone house, complete with turrets, he had grown up in. As one of the few rich Catholics in all of Ireland, he had supplied a lot of the financing for the early years of the theatre, while writing and producing plays as well.

Seven summers before, Augusta had first gotten to know Yeats at Martyn’s home, and they had come to Coole Park to lay the plans for a theatre that would present plays based on Irish folktales. This was a radical idea in a time when most contemporary plays concerned members of the British upper classes drinking tea in drawing rooms.

Earlier that year, Miss Anne Horniman, a wealthy Englishwoman with a crush on Yeats, bought the Mechanics’ Institute and morgue on Lower Abbey Street in Dublin, to give the theatre a permanent home.

Miss Horniman and Yeats gave evidence to get the proper license, and the government granted a patent in Lady Gregory’s name. Although they were all British subjects, only Lady Gregory was an Irish resident. As Augusta later jealously wrote in her journal, “Miss Horniman made the building, not the theatre.”

This summer evening, Augusta had invited them all to gather in her drawing room in Coole Park to discuss the most important piece of business facing their theatre. The first step was to get rid of the confusion of names they had performed under in the past. Now that they had a permanent home on Lower Abbey Street, they would be known as the Abbey Theatre.

Happy “Bloomsday”!

Over 100 years ago, on June 16th, 1904, during the same summer when Lady Gregory and her friends in Coole Park changed the name of their theatre, James Joyce had his first date with the woman who was to become his wife, Nora Barnacle. He chose to immortalize the day in his epic, Ulysses, which covers every detail of one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, a Jew living in Dublin, in only 783 pages.

Many think that June 16th is the date that James and Nora met, but indeed that was June 10th. After coyly putting him off for about a week, she finally agreed to go out with him. If you’ve seen pictures of Nora you know she must have had a wonderful personality.

Joyce was younger than Yeats and his Abbey Theatre friends, and not very admiring of their efforts. He introduced himself to AE one day on the steps of the National Library in Dublin, and after a chat, the poet encouraged the budding novelist to ask Lady Gregory to give him money for his trip to Europe, where he had accepted a teaching position. Reluctantly, she obliged.

Soon after he met Nora, James convinced her to come with him to Switzerland. They had two children and visited Paris in 1920 for just a week, but stayed for the rest of his life. Paris has that affect on people. Even the Irish.

The “Joyces” never actually got married until their children were grown. They presented themselves as a married couple and were always accepted that way.

In Paris he continued writing Ulysses and the other writers living there knew that he was working on something big. He didn’t socialize in their salons on the Left Bank. Often he drank alone, breaking into song late at night in the cafés, especially the Trianon. Cab drivers would bring him home, and Nora would be waiting at the top of the stairs, arms akimbo, like a good Irish wife. “Jimmy,” she’d say, looking down on him lying in a drunken heap, “Your fans think you’re a genius but they should see you now.”

When Dorothy Parker visited the city in the 1920s, she saw him on the street but he didn’t speak to her. She explained later, “Perhaps he was afraid he would drop a pearl.”

Before publication, excerpts from Ulysses began appearing in the Little Review in the States, causing quite a stir because of the language. Virginia and Leonard Woolf, operating their Hogarth Press in London, had sent a rejection slip. Reading Ulysses made Virginia feel as though “someone had stolen my pen and scribbled on the privy wall,” she wrote in her diary.

Sylvia Beach, the American who founded Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, the social center for Paris’ expatriate community, approached him at a party and said, “Mr. Joyce, may I publish your novel Ulysses?” After being rejected by so many who weren’t as adventurous, he was intrigued that this young woman wanted his book.

It took much longer for him to finish than either expected. So for the local artistic community, many of whom had subscribed in response to Beach’s mailed announcement, she held a reading on December 7th, 1921, in her shop. Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, didn’t come; they lived a few blocks away but were preparing for their annual Christmas party. When Beach did publish Ulysses the following February, Alice promptly walked over to Shakespeare & Co and cancelled Gertrude’s membership. They would brook no competitors for her title as greatest writer in English.

After publication, Ulysses was promptly banned in Boston, but a friend of Ernest Hemingway’s smuggled a copy into the United States via Canada.

The landmark case that allowed Random House to publish it in the States in 1932 was argued by Irish-American lawyer John Quinn. Like Beach, he is one of the true heroes of early 20th century art and literature. He helped Yeats and Lady Gregory with the Abbey (and had an affair with Augusta later), bought up lots of Cubist and Post-Impressionist paintings in Paris, lent many of them to the 1913 Armory Show in New York, and argued a case for the shows’ organizers that changed the customs law in the U.S. From that point on, works of art less than 100 years old would be free of tariffs, the same as their classical cousins.

In his later days, working on Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce employed another Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, as his assistant, because his own eyesight was so bad. Joyce died in 1941 at the age of 59 of a duodenal ulcer. Nora lived another ten years.

Beach, who had funded the publication of Ulysses on her own with the help of the paid subscriptions, never saw any profit or royalties from it. Her writer friends helped her keep the bookstore open, but when the Nazis occupied Paris she was interned. In the 50s she wrote a lovely memoir called Shakespeare & Co.

When I married My Irish Husband Tony on St. Patrick’s Day, our friend performing the ceremony announced that we each wanted to read something.

Glancing at my scribbled notes, I vowed that I wouldn’t promise to solve his problems, but would help him to solve them. I wouldn’t promise to love everyone he loved, but would always respect those he loved.

I finished with Molly Bloom’s “Yes!” from the ending of Ulysses, but in the emotion of the moment, I misquoted it. So here is the correct ending for Molly and for me:

“…and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Read more about all the groups by clicking on the pages or categories to the right. Check out the blog about what they were doing 100 years ago this month, or the daily postings to find out what happened on this date. For annotated reading lists about your favorite authors, leave a comment or e-mail me at kaydee@gypsyteacher.com.

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