Playwright Teresa Deevy's revival from the sidelines

Waterford woman Teresa Deevy was acclaimed as one of the nation’s best playwrights. So why has she faded from memory, asks Marjorie Brennan

Katie Roche
Caoilfhionn Dunne in Katie Roche at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

TERESA DEEVY isn’t a name you’d often see listed among Ireland’s great playwrights. The Waterford woman’s plays were performed in Ireland, England and the US, but she has been long forgotten in her home place and beyond. Now Deevy’s work is being reclaimed from history and a major production of her best-known work, Katie Roche, is being staged at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

While there has been an increase in scholarly research conducted on Deevy in the last decade or so, much of it due to the revival of her work by New York’s Mint Theatre, her plays have rarely been performed on stage in Ireland. Her sidelining is all the more mystifying given her extraordinary life.

UCC Student

Deevy was born in Waterford in 1894, the youngest of 13 children. Her father died when she was two and she was educated in the Ursuline
Convent near her home at Passage Road. She later studied at UCD but while there she became deaf due to Meniere’s disease and transferred to UCC to complete her studies while receiving care in the Cork Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital on Western Road.

By all accounts, her deafness did not hinder her; she moved to London to learn how to lip-read, continued to write, and later travelled extensively around Europe. She also became involved in Cumann na mBan, visiting republican prisoners in Waterford during the War of Independence.

In the 1930s, the Abbey Theatre produced six of Deevy’s plays in seven years and she was recognised by her contemporaries as being a major voice in Irish theatre. Playwright Lennox Robinson called her “the most important dramatist writing for the Irish theatre”, while the Observer critic St John Ervine wrote: “Miss Deevy may be a genius”.

But Deevy’s meteoric rise came to a halt when her play Wife to James Whelan was rejected by the Abbey’s managing director Ernest Blythe in 1942. Although she later found another outlet for her work, as radio became a popular medium, her career was irrevocably damaged.

So how did Deevy go from being one of the most prolific and critically acclaimed of Irish playwrights to obscurity?

Dr Una Kealy of the Department of Creative and Performing Arts at Waterford Institute of Technology says that it is too simple to blame Ernest Blythe’s rejection of Wife to James Whelan alone.

“To pinpoint Blythe as the one reason as to why Deevy’s work faded into obscurity is to miss the wider context of Irish society’s concerns at the time. Deevy became more obscure because her writing was regarded as too radical at the time.

“Also, Lennox Robinson, who championed Deevy, had lost ground in terms of power in the Abbey. When Blythe wrote the letter [rejecting her work], there was nobody else there to champion her.”

There are many contradictions in Deevy’s life and work, not least the fact that she was a committed Catholic, yet her plays are provocative interrogations of the role religion played in Irish society and its effect on women. The eponymous character in Katie Roche is the illegitimate offspring of an unmarried woman and a married man.

“Katie is in conversation about her past and says: ‘You couldn’t go very much by the Bible. What’s said in one place is unsaid in another.’ Deevy is saying the Bible is contradictory and confusing, which is radical.”

Deevy moved back to Waterford from Dublin when her beloved sister Nell, with whom she lived, died. According to Kealy, Deevy had no-one who could hear the doorbell.

Literary Champion

Poet Seán Dunne, former literary editor of this newspaper, was a later champion of Deevy’s work, getting the play, Temporal Powers, into print, and undertaking a search for a copy of Wife to James Whelan. While his efforts proved unsuccessful at the time, later, in the 1990s, a copy of the script was found in an envelope in the family home.

“Not that anybody other than Dunne had really cared,” said Jonathan Bank, director of the Mint Theatre in New York.

Dunne wrote about Deevy’s later years in the Cork Examiner:

“In the Fifties, she was a thin woman on a bicycle, her grey hair tucked under one of an assortment of strange hats. She rode through the streets of Waterford and those who knew her tensed as she passed in case a car might hit her… She heard nothing and just cycled on with the nonchalance of a girl cycling along a country lane. Her clothes never seemed to match. She was seen wearing sandals or runners, even in the middle of winter. Some people thought she’d once written plays. Others knew it, but it was a long time ago.”

Morna Regan, who has worked on the script for the Abbey production of Katie Roche, was eager to get a deeper insight into Deevy’s work.

“After Waking the Feminists, she was spoken of as a female playwright who had been overlooked. I wanted to know more about her. It is heartbreaking to think of how talented and prolific she was and the fact that she hasn’t been recognised.”

Regan has worked closely with director Caroline Byrne in realising her vision for the play.

“We both had a very similar immediate gut response to the play after reading it: there are two plays struggling inside the script for precedence. One is a domestic three-act drama set in a little house in Ireland, there is also a vaguely European expressionistic play trying to get out of it as well and we knew that is where we wanted to go. I also wanted to really respect and honour Teresa Deevy; it is extensively edited but it is all her words. We are very proud of it and the production looks amazing. It is very modern — we wanted to make sure it wasn’t a history or museum piece, that it was relevant to a 2017 audience. We want people to look at it and ask, ‘Well, how much has changed?’.”

Regan says she would be interested in doing more of Deevy’s work in the future. “Temporal Powers is very funny. She is very wicked, sometimes you have to scratch the surface to see the humour. She should be celebrated; it is really sad to think about how sidelined she has been. She could still become one of our greatest writers.”

Final Days

In her final years, Deevy’s vertigo, a symptom of Meniere’s, worsened and she was moved to a nursing home where she died in 1963. James Cheasty, a Waterford writer whom Deevy
had mentored, wrote in her obituary:

“Teresa Deevy is dead, but she will not be forgotten. Those of us who were her friends can never forget her kindness and her great humanity.

“For remembrance among the general public she has left behind her work, which is monumental.”

More than five decades on, those who are reclaiming her legacy and bringing it to a new audience would surely agree.

  • Katie Roche is at the Abbey Theatre until Sept 23


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