Back to the beginning

Eamon Morrissey talks to Pádraic Killeen about his links with writer Maeve Brennan, the subject of his new show

Back  to the beginning

VETERAN Irish actor Eamon Morrissey this week premieres a new show, Maeve’s House, at the Peacock Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Directed by Gerald Stembridge, the one-man show is inspired by the writings of Maeve Brennan, the celebrated short story writer who wrote for The New Yorker in the 1950s and 1960s.

“She is a neglected author in the Irish canon,” says Morrissey. “And she is very definitely an Irish writer, even though she lived most of her life in New York. She’s in that difficult situation where the Americans regard her as an Irish writer and the Irish regard her as an American writer. Both nations should be proud to claim her.”

Morrissey is a past master when it comes to distilling the works of acclaimed Irish authors into one-man shows. He did it most memorably with his enduring hit The Brother, which pieced together extracts from Flann O’Brien’s work, but he has also tasted success with shows celebrating James Joyce and Jonathan Swift. The Dubliner’s tribute to Brennan’s work, while similarly rooted in his admiration for her literary talents, has a more personal dimension, however.

“Maeve wrote a whole series of shorts about the house in Ranelagh that she was brought up in,” explains Morrissey. “It so happens this was the house that I was brought up in as well some years later. My parents bought the house from her parents.”

When Morrissey found himself on Broadway in 1966 in the landmark first production of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come, he managed to arrange a meeting with the celebrated Irishwoman.

“I was reading a story on the subway one day and I realised it was about my own house. So after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, I met up with her and we had a session in the Russian Tea-Rooms. I expected a very formidable lady but she was so nice and charming. I was a 23-year-old talking guff. She was gracious and lovely. She brought me to a shop and bought me an anthology of Russian short stories, which I still treasure.”

Morrissey returned to New York with the premiere of another Friel play, Lovers, in 1968, but he was not destined to meet Brennan again.

“I made an attempt to contact her through The New Yorker office but I didn’t hear from her,” he says. “I got married to my wife Anne in New York the same year, so I had a lot going on. And by then the tragic side of Maeve Brennan’s life had begun to open up. Alcohol was taking its toll and mental distress had begun to affect her. She had a rather sad life from there on, and at one stage wound up as a kind of bag-lady, living for a time in the restrooms of the New Yorker offices.”

Brennan passed away in 1993. Her life was dramatised in one of the most admired plays at last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival – Emma Donohue’s The Talk of the Town. Maeve’s House — which was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre three years ago — is a different beast, however. It finds the actor reminiscing about his own life, reflecting on Brennan’s, and dramatising scenes from Brennan’s stories set in the Ranelagh home each knew well.

Intriguingly, Morrissey’s father and Brennan’s father were both devout foot soldiers of Éamon de Valera. Each man had come through the 1916 Rising, War of Independence, and Civil War. Yet, as Morrissey notes, the happily self-exiled Brennan made little reference to modern Irish history in her stories.

“There was very little in her writings about it,” says Morrissey. “But what you do get is a series of stories about unsatisfactory relationships between couples living in Cherryfield Avenue, and so perhaps she was telling the story of Ireland through those stories. Because I think there was a general sense of disappointment that the rebellion and the ‘new Ireland’ had become so staid and so orthodox. That is certainly in her writings. I remember when I met her that she didn’t show much interest at all in what was going on in Ireland and yet she seemed to know a lot about what was going on. Since then, I learned she was in constant communication back and forth with various people.”

Mounting a new one-man show is no mean feat for an actor who turned 70 earlier this year (especially when he is also starring in RTÉ’s Fair City as charming rogue Cass Cassidy). Morrissey says he had never intended to create a one-man piece but that, somehow, it just ended up developing that way.

“That has happened before,” he laughs. “When I originally did The Brother I had a cast of hundreds in mind and then it wound up being just me. It was cheaper.”

If Maeve’s House enjoys even a fraction of the success Morrissey has found with The Brother over the years he’ll be in clover. The show will transfer to the Irish Arts Centre in New York for three weeks following its run at the Peacock. If it goes down well Morrissey hopes to tour it nationally at a later stage.

*Maeve’s House runs at the Peacock Sep 24 – Oct 12

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