As the Abbey revives one of Lennox Robinson’s plays, Alan O’Riordan, looks at the life and legacy of a Cork writer who often doesn’t get the attention he deserves.
WHEN we consider the early years of the Abbey Theatre, those who most spring to mind are WB Yeats, Lady Gregory, and the early playwrights whose genius cemented the theatre’s artistic reputation and
ability to challenge society: the likes of JM Synge and Sean O’Casey.
One key figure, however, is often overlooked: Lennox Robinson, who made the Abbey Theatre his life, as playwright and manager, from 1907 up to his death in 1958.
Robinson, the son of a Cork stockbroker turned clergyman, was born at Westgrove, “a large country house,” in his words, in Donnybrook on the south side of the city. While it would be a stretch to call Westgrove a “big house” in the usual Irish sense, Robinson was part of a strong local Anglo-Irish community, and 20 or so big houses were dotted around the Douglas area at that time. Hugh Lane was born a short distance away from Westgrove, in Ballybrack House.
But it was a milieu that would largely disappear in Robinson’s own lifetime. The numerous housing estates that now carry names like Westgrove are not just testament to Cork’s urban sprawl, but to a disappeared class. Other houses, such as Maryborough, live on, in that case as a hotel; others, such as Bessborough, would have a far grimmer fate.
It was an insecurity felt by Robinson, and he would return to in his 1926 play The Big House. Staged in 1926, it was a worthy companion piece to The Plough and the Stars, commemorating 1916 at the Abbey in a surprisingly challenging way. This was the “National Theatre”, already in receipt of a state subsidy, but producing two plays that questioned the official narrative of independence: O’Casey with a reminder that the poor had been sidelined from that official vision; Robinson with a reminder that the new state was a cold place for Protestants, despite their centrality to the cultural nationalism that played a strong role in stirring the independence movement.
“Ireland is no more theirs than ours,” one character says. “We must glory in our difference, be as proud of it as they theirs.” It would be many years before this became a commonly held opinion in Ireland.
Before he wrote of his own doomed class, Robinson’s work identified strongly with the rural poor he would have encountered as his family moved west, first to Kinsale and then to Ballineen, near Bandon. And how he came to write for the stage is itself an argument for national, state-funded arts institutions. There was little culture in his own household, he admitted, but that all changed when he happened upon a touring Abbey Theatre production at Cork Opera House in 1907.
He was, he wrote in his autobiography Curtain Up, an instant convert to the cultural nationalist project exemplified by the works he saw — Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan and Gregory’s The Rising of the Moon among them.
“The effect the plays had on me was magical,” he wrote. “The world of the theatre … opened to my eyes.”
Within months he’d written a short, realist play of rural life, The Clancy Name, which the Abbey agreed to stage. Yeats’s endorsement was resounding: “He is a serious intellect and may grow to be a great dramatist.” It was accurate, too.
Robinson could have become a great dramatist, but never quite did. UCD professor emeritus Christopher Murray, who edited a selected plays of Robinson, cites personal reasons as a possible explanation for this failure.
“I think he was a depressed man by the mid-30s,” Murray says, “an alcoholic, which I think ruined his career. He was going nowhere and he knew it, and that is a difficult place to be for any writer. He stayed in Ireland and had to adapt and accept the new middle class, the kind that Seán Ó Faoláin was describing and despising at the time, but Lennox was not one for despising. He had a high degree of sympathy and empathy, but as a personality he could be morose, lacking in get up and go. He was a little bit too easy going for his own good.”
It’s possible Robinson’s artistic progress was a victim of the day-to-day demands of the theatre business, which became his lot after Yeats and Gregory proposed he go to London and learn the ropes from George Bernard Shaw, before taking a producer’s role at the Abbey Theatre. Despite those duties, Robinson remained a prolific writer, of broadly realist drama or social comedy.
He created a persona of the aloof, unworldly aesthete, but the plays, if broadly conventional, do evince a socially and artistically engaged mind, one who knew all strata of Irish society. This was a man who, while down a mine in Butte, Montana, was able to share stories of Drimoleague, Clonakilty and Skibbereen with the homesick emigrant “gang he met working there”.
A man who wrote it was “tremendously exhilarating to yank burly men out of the dress circle” during riots that greeted a production of The Playboy of the Western World in New York.
He was also a man engaged with contemporary trends in theatre, belying somewhat the dominant realist tradition he oversaw at the Abbey. He was central to the Irish Drama League, which on Sunday nights staged works by the likes of Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, and Strindberg. His defiant liberalism shone through in a work like his short story The Madonna of Slieve Dun, about a girl who is raped and believes she’s conceived the second coming of Christ. It, of course, brought calumny on Robinson, costing him a job with the Carnegie Library.
On another occasion, he kept the theatre open on the death of King Edward VII, costing it the backing of a key early supporter, Annie Horniman.
These various sides of Robinson can be construed from Drama at Inish, now revived at the Abbey Theatre. A dark, sub-Chekhovian comedy, it involves the arrival of a theatrical troupe to a seaside town, where they are bent on performing “intellectual sort of plays.”
This stirs the locals into suicide pacts, out-of-wedlock fornication, and ultimately, the fall of the government. Yet, the play ends with the circus coming to town. Was this, then, a playwright’s disowning of challenging art?
Nicholas Grene, emeritus professor at Trinity College, sees an ambiguity in the circus’s arrival.
“We see the plays create complete havoc and in the end it’s shut down, we’re back to the circus. You can take that two ways. On the one hand, this is what art does and it’s important and those who shy away are trying to censor it. But I think there is another way. Robinson was a great entertainer, and there is a sense he is giving it both ways. Reassuring a conservative audience, we are not too threatening.”
For Murray, Robinson was reacting to the needs of his audience.
“The audience after the Troubles, the Civil War and all that misery, the audience changed,” he says. “They wanted something lighter. They didn’t appreciate tragedy any more. And I think that’s where Drama at Inish comes in. He’s exploring the difference between reality and illusion in an astute way. He’s toying with those ideas, the idea of how serious drama can be. What is the dramatist’s role, he’s asking. To be funny? If so, up to what point?”
Cal McCrystal is directing the Abbey’s version, and that question, of how funny, is something he says he’s considering. Certainly, McCrystal is qualified to ask it. His CV includes One Man, Two Guvnors and the Paddington films. “I tend to present something that looks like a traditional version but with lots of twists,” he says at the end of a day’s rehearsals. “There’s quite a lot of physical comedy in this. It won’t be too obvious which stuff is mine and which is Lennox’s. I just wanted to do a good, funny and moving version of this play.”
McCrystal won’t be shying away from the darker side of Drama at Inish either. “If I’d wanted to write a play about the effect theatre has on community,” he says, “I’d have written something to say theatre had a wonderful effect. We wouldn’t be talking about suicide pacts, and throwing axes at wives and things. But Robinson does make the point clearly that we do go back to happiness, with the arrival of the circus. The two actors, of course, are horrified, but I don’t see it like that. I think you need both types of entertainment: the heavy stuff and the escapism.”
Heavy stuff and escapism is certain to be found in Robinson’s work, and as revivals over the past 20 years or so have shown, there is plenty for the imaginative director to work with in his plays, despite their seeming conventionality.
As a central figure in the history of Irish theatre he should not be forgotten, but as a writer he has enough about him to continue to intrigue.
Drama at Inish is at the Abbey until January 24