CORK-BASED playwright and actor Alice Barry has delved into the life and psyche of an Irish aristocrat for her one-woman play, Violet Gibson: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini.
Gibson, whose father served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland from 1885-1905, had a privileged upbringing in Merrion Square in Dublin and spent time in London where, at the age of 18, she was a debutante in the court of Queen Victoria.
Almost written out of history, Gibson has been the subject of a book and a radio documentary for her daring attempt to assassinate Italy’s fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, in 1926. She was aged 49 at the time.
Barry is playing the role of Gibson in her drama that attempts to get into the character of Violet Gibson and what drove her to do what she did. Gibson was always political and was involved in the suffragette movement, says Barry. “She was very much against Britain going to war. She suffered terribly from various illnesses. She converted to Catholicism having been brought up as a Protestant. Her brother, Willie, had converted before the war. He was a big influence on Violet. She wrote to her father (who disinherited Willie) at the time of her conversion saying there was no other option open to her and that she was sorry to disappoint him. She had very strong religious convictions.”
Barry says that Gibson wanted to do something worthwhile. “I’ve taken some artistic license to make the play more dramatic. How I tell her story is that she didn’t want to be a typical Victorian woman doing needlework and being a dutiful daughter and wife. She never married. There’s documentation that says she met an artist when she was 32. They fell madly in love and were supposed to marry but he died a year later. I feel that after that, she went off the rails. She had no outlet for her depression which was really grief.”
Was shooting Mussolini an act of madness or a well thought out plan to rid the world of a fascist? “That is the question that the play is based around. Violet never said that it was a political act. She always said she did it for the glory of God. There is a psychiatric belief that she was schizophrenic. My take on her is that if you’re not allowed to speak and express yourself, if you’re not allowed to be creative and artistic, you’re going to feel imprisoned. I believe she wanted to break out of that and wanted to make a difference.”
The revolver–carrying Gibson planned her attack. On April 7, 1926, she shot Mussolini while he sat in his car in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome after leaving an assembly of the International Congress of Surgeons to whom he had delivered a speech on modern medicine.
“She had her revolver at point blank range on his temple but he moved his head because a group of boy scouts started singing. She ended up just shooting the tip of his nose. When she went to shoot him again, the bullet got caught in the chamber of the gun. The crowd lynched her. How she got out alive was amazing. The police pulled her away, battered and bruised. In hindsight, we know that if she had succeeded in killing Mussolini, it would have been an amazing feat that might have changed the course of history.”
Barry’s play follows Gibson’s life until she died at the age of 79. Mussolini never pressed charges following the incident. “I feel that had Violet been a man, we’d have all heard of him. Others said to me that if she had been a man, she would probably have been hanged.”
- Violet Gibson: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini is at Cork’s Everyman from August 16-20 and The Mill Theatre, Dundrum, Dublin, from August 25-27.