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Features Published 8 November 2017

Listening to Women in Irish Theatre

As Dublin's Gate Theatre becomes the centre of allegations of sexual harassment, Chris McCormack explores the history of womens' public testimony in Irish theatre.
Chris McCormack
Gate Theatre, Dublin. By Sir James - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7978979

Gate Theatre, Dublin. By Sir James – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7978979

In 1911, Susanne R. Day is sitting inside a crowded meeting hall in Cork and preparing to make a speech.

The playwright and honorary secretary of the local suffragist league is being nominated as one of the county’s first women poor law guardians. Predictably, some take exception. ‘Maybe it’s to cure a lonely heart she’s going up herself,’ says a man.

‘I don’t hold with unmarried women going on public boards at all – much they know about babies of children either,’ another shouts. ‘Wait till she have a dozen of her own,’ someone says.

Under this wave of intimidation, Day’s knees begin to shake. But as she stands and states her campaign goals, she’s reassured by a certain skill. ‘Thank goodness I can always control my voice,’ she recorded afterwards.

A lot has been said about women’s voices since the overwhelming accusations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein. Defiance and nerve has imaginably been part of their speaking out, on stage and off. Such resilience should be remembered; if Day’s 1916 book, The Amazing Philanthropists: Being Extracts from the Letters of Lester Martin, P.L.G, is her veiled memoir, her candidacy speech in that meeting hall set councillors squirming in their seats.

This wry publication is a collection of letters – authored by Lester Martin, a likely disguise for Day, and addressed to Jill, a probable stand-in for the playwright the book is dedicated to, Geraldine Cummins. In one correspondence, Day asks her confidante’s opinion about the optics of a woman running for election: ‘Ought I to look as solemn as a Gothic arch? … Perhaps the bonnet would inspire confidence. You know you always tell me my hats are frivolous’. (A photograph shows her smiling under a wide-brimmed Bergère).

Most resonant about The Amazing Philanthropists is how Day warns Cummins about dangerous men. ‘He informed me that he was very partial to the ladies,’ she says of an experienced councillor.

Regularly dismissed and objectified, Day cuts loose in crude portraits of her offenders: ‘I have been snubbed, and by a common little, fat little man with a head the shape of an egg, rising to a point on top’. Cummins might have appreciated these caricatures with deep understanding of power and exclusion. A dramaturg revising Day’s work, Thomas Conway, recently speculated that the two were lesbians.

Both women communicated in secret about sexual harassment but in public, using the stage, they spoke unabashedly about economic issues devastating women. Their play Broken Faith premiered at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1913, and channelled the period’s frustrations around labour organisation. It finds a woman struggling to survive while a wealthy businessman buys up the village. Her husband, a farmer skipping work, is drawn as undeniably feckless.

Committed to realism but bound by broad melodramatic-style plotting, this play mightn’t be received any better today than it was in 1913; it ran for only four performances, though the Abbey revived it a few months later when Dublin was the scene of major-scale industrial dispute. Insistent on cartoonish portrayals – from a town councillor more concerned with appearances than battling corruption, to a grandmother making endless excuses for her adult son – it might be best seen as agitprop.

Dorothy Macardle’s Ann Kavanagh (1922) is an interesting comparison. An unapologetic propagandist for Irish Independence, Macardle spoke out against militaristic violence using this popular drama. It follows a woman in the days of a past Irish revolution trying to dissuade her rebel-husband from violence.

Where Day and Cummins adopted rhythms of melodrama, Macardle’s play is sparely written, as if any embellishment of the antagonist would muddle the message. Both dramas lean into activism and – given more skewed angles – engaging audiences critically, as enshrined later by Bertolt Brecht. Contemporary theatre artists might still make those links.

Macardle was a journalist, and, like other women in public life, inevitably had her sex life commented upon. Many presumed she was in love with her political leader, Éamon de Valera. Macardle’s biographer observes that her closest relationship was with a fellow activist, Florence O’Byrne.

These women in Irish theatre used their voices to decry economic inequality and political violence, but what about transgressions that target them physically and psychologically? Day and Cummins could only alert each other in code. Many others seem to have been doing the same ever since.

Nearly two weeks ago, director Grace Dyas published an accusation of harassment on her blog, and anticipated retribution for it: ‘I knew and accepted early on that there was no way I could do this without some kind of legal or material fallout’. There’s good reason to fear Ireland’s defamation laws; a ‘presumption of falsity’ means that the plaintiff must prove the defamatory nature of the defendant’s statement, not necessarily the untruth of it. A 1991 recommendation by the Law Reform Commission to abolish that element hasn’t been acted upon. Veiled and indirect accounts like The Amazing Philanthropists might be the only way to go.

Instead, Dublin’s Gate Theatre has become the necessary centre of several agonising testimonies. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has encouraged any abuses of power there to be reported using the theatre’s confidential email address. Notwithstanding the Gate’s new and sympathetic artistic director, victims suspecting the theatre liable might sooner seek legal advice.

That doesn’t make a safe path for speaking out much clearer. Despite the risk, voices are multiplying and reverberating. Are we to owe this to recent waves of testimony in Ireland, including the telling of personal stories for marriage equality and repealing the constitutional amendment illegalising abortion? The women standing up to Harvey Weinstein are an obvious inspiration but Waking the Feminists, a campaign for Irish theatre to expose and confront its gender inequality that was prompted by the Abbey Theatre’s own male-dominated programming, must also have been a spark.

There’s little protection and a lot to lose for those who say it out. Be sure to listen.

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Chris McCormack is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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