Tracing a tragic life in New York

Eamon Morrissey in Maeve's House, based on  Irish writer Maeve Brennan, whom he met in 1966.
Eamon Morrissey in Maeve's House, based on Irish writer Maeve Brennan, whom he met in 1966.

An incredible coincidence inspired Eamon Morrissey’s show, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

IN 1966, Eamon Morrissey travelled to New York for a Broadway production of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!. He was 23 years of age. He was travelling on the city’s subway system when he began reading a story in the New Yorker magazine that stopped him in his tracks.

“The hairs on the back of my neck began to stand up because it was too close to the bone. The story, although I didn’t realise it at the time, was by Maeve Brennan. Although she lived in New York for most of her life, her short stories were largely set in the little house she was brought up in Cherryfield Avenue in Ranelagh, Dublin.

“It so happens I was brought up in the same house because my parents bought it way back from her parents. It was weird to be reading this story about your own sitting room and fireplace when you’re on the New York subway.”

Morrissey has fashioned a show about his relationship with Brennan and her writings, entitled Maeve’s House, which starts a two-week run at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin today.

Morrissey wrote to the New Yorker and arranged to meet Brennan at the Russian Tea Room, one of Manhattan’s most storied restaurants. “She made quite an impression on me. Of course I was full of auld chat, as you are when you’re 23 and full of ideas about how you’re going to change the world. She was nice — she put up with all that. Without giving away the plot, we discussed writing and her portrayal of the human condition.

“Before she left, she brought me to a bookshop and bought me a collection of Russian short stories. I was very unaware of it at the time, but she had a very unhappy life.”

Brennan, who moved to the United States in her teens, was 49 when she met Morrissey. At the time, she was a star of New York’s literary world — for her short stories and her incisive impressions about New York life in the New Yorker’s famous Talk of the Town section.

Unfortunately, her life slowly began to unravel, however, from alcoholism and mental illness. She ended up homeless. At one stage, she sheltered in the women’s toilets at the New Yorker. She died in a nursing home in 1993.

Her evocation of the lives of Dublin’s quiet, stultifying lower middle classes are timeless, and bring to mind James Joyce, another Irish exile, or the stories of John Cheever’s thwarted lives in New York’s suburbs.

“Her characters are desperately unhappy in their relationships,” says Morrissey. “She writes about this little cul-de-sac in the suburbs, which is close to what Ireland had become after independence and all these hopes that’d come to nought.”

Maeve’s House premiered last year during the Dublin Theatre Festival and has enjoyed successful runs in New York and as part of this summer’s West Cork Fit-Up Theatre Festival.

In keeping with the improvised tradition of fit-up theatre, Morrissey and his production team changed venue for their first performance of that tour in Heir Island last minute.

“They have a lovely little arts centre on the island. It’s very small. More people wanted to come than would fit in it. As it turned out, it was one of those spectacular summer evenings last month so I said, ‘Let’s do it outside.’ So we did it against the gable wall and the audience sat around in a kind of little amphitheatre on the grass or chairs. It was a unique experience.”

Maeve’s House is at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin from Tuesday, August 26 to Saturday, September 6, and also at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, September 10-11.www.abbeytheatre.ie.

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