Clodagh Finn: Why Abbey playwright Teresa Deevy deserves to be a household name

Teresa Deevy's plays about people on the margins looking for a voice were out of favour in the conservative Ireland of the 1930s, writes Clodagh Finn
Clodagh Finn: Why Abbey playwright Teresa Deevy  deserves to be a household name

Playwright Teresa Deevy's work is being celebrated this week. Photograph by Olaf Deevy, courtesy of the Deevy family.

It is a pity that there is no way to tell Teresa Deevy, the deaf playwright who wrote for the Abbey stage with such luminaries as JM Synge, Seán O’Casey and Lady Gregory, that her time in the limelight would eventually come.

She might not be a household name yet, but the woman once described as the “Irish Chekhov” is being celebrated this week with the first conference entirely dedicated to her work. Under normal circumstances, that might be an event reserved for theatre scholars, but Zoom and lockdown have magically conspired to open up doors that we might not normally pass through.

And what a virtual adventure awaits anyone interested in being introduced to one of Ireland’s foremost, if unfairly forgotten, playwrights. 

She was an early feminist who wrote strong female characters fighting to make the best of the social conventions that hemmed them in

She did that with aplomb in her own life, never allowing her deafness to stand in her way. She lost her hearing after contracting Meniere’s disease while at UCD in 1913 and later went to London to learn to lip-read. While there, she developed an interest in theatre and resolved to be a dramatist.

She cut a colourful figure on the Dublin literary scene in the 1930s, cycling heedlessly through the streets, with her hair tucked up under an array of odd hats. 

Her great-nephew, David Deevy recalled some years ago: 'I like to think of Tessa dashing out of her flat on Waterloo Road in the morning, rescuing the remains of her tall old bicycle from the bushes where she had thrown it the previous evening and rushing into Grafton Street to meet my grandfather — with a metal coat hanger still hanging from her coat'

She lived with her sister Nell, who acted as her ears, and regular visitors included fellow dramatist Lennox Robinson, artist Jack B Yeats, actress Ria Mooney and writer Frank O’Connor.

A celebrated and prolific writer

By the early 1930s, Teresa Deevy was a celebrated and prolific playwright. The Abbey Theatre staged six of her plays in as many years. Her first, Reapers, was hailed as “epoch-making” by critic Abraham Jacob Leventhal. In 1936, critic St. John Ervine saw her most famous play, Katie Roche, and wrote in The Observer: “Miss Deevy may be a genius.”

WB Yeats wanted to rewrite  Teresa Deevy's work.
WB Yeats wanted to rewrite  Teresa Deevy's work.

Then, the commissions stopped. Her plays about people on the margins looking for a voice were out of favour in the conservative Ireland of the 1930s.

“She wouldn’t let us rewrite them for her,” WB Yeats reportedly grumbled when he bumped into Deevy’s friend, Frank O’Connor. The latter recounts the story in his book, The Backward Look.

There was no Waking the Feminists then, alas, but despite the blow, Teresa Deevy went on to write several plays for RTE and BBC radio. Two of them were televised by the BBC. Throughout the 1950s, she continued to seek out studio theatres to produce her plays in her native Waterford, Dublin, London and New York, but she was soon forgotten after her death, aged 68, in 1963.

Reviving a genius

Two decades later, in this newspaper, poet and Irish Examiner columnist Seán Dunne wrote an excellent piece on Teresa Deevy, calling for a revival of her neglected work. In 1995, Judy Friel directed a production of Katie Roche in the Peacock in Dublin and five years later, her work was celebrated anew — off Broadway in New York.

In 2010, Jonathan Bank of the Mint Theatre rediscovered and produced the very play that the Abbey had turned down in 1936, Wife to James Whelan. The New York Times hailed Teresa Deevy as one of the “most prolific and acclaimed female playwrights in the world” under a trumpeting headline: “An Irishwoman back from obscurity.”

Teresa Deevy's plays deserve to get as much limelight as those of J. M. Synge. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery.
Teresa Deevy's plays deserve to get as much limelight as those of J. M. Synge. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery.

Though, she’s not quite all the way back. Not yet. But there is much reason to hope because, as Dr Úna Kealy, lecturer in theatre studies at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), says, Teresa Deevy’s work is as relevant now as it was in the 1930s.

For instance, as Dr Kealy points out, her play The King of Spain’s Daughter talks about women and power and sexuality and how the lead character Annie Kinsella, a young girl, is controlled by the men in her life and forced between two unappealing choices — to work in a factory or marry the dull Jim Harris.

Annie Kinsella might be constrained but she can dream — and she can flirt. Her lines describing kissing Roddy Mann – 'with a name like that, he’s not even the love interest but the sex interest,' says Dr Kealy —  are surprisingly modern

Dr Kealy goes on to say that a new generation of women trying to negotiate their way in the world have much to learn from Teresa Deevy. Let’s hope that, in time, she too will appear on the school syllabus alongside O’Casey, Yeats and Synge.

Deaf culture

Teresa Deevy’s work also shines a light on another area that is too often neglected —  Deaf culture (note the capital ‘D’). Televised Nphet and HSE briefings have made sign language more visible in recent months so it’s a good time to recall that the Irish Sign Language Act (ISL), passed in 2017, has yet to be fully implemented by the Government and public bodies.

And, as CEO of the Irish Deaf Society John Sherwin says, the Act does not even cover employment: In the UK, the Access to Work scheme provides interpreters for Deaf people in their working lives, 9 to 5. This allows them to progress and achieve senior roles in business. No such scheme exists in Ireland despite the fact that it actually makes money for the exchequer in the UK.

In terms of theatre, let’s hope that Talk Real Fine, Just Like a Lady,  the brilliant adaptation of a Teresa Deevy play by performance artist Amada Coogan and Lianne Quigley of the Dublin Theatre of the Deaf, will be staged again. It draws parallels between the boxed-in lives of women in the 1930s and the lived experience of deaf woman.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of Teresa Deevy and her work, which was seen again at the Abbey in 2017, but we can’t sign off without highlighting the importance of archives. Much of her work might have been lost if Jacqui Deevy had not given her great-aunt’s collection of papers — found in a green suitcase under the bed — to Maynooth University.

It makes you realise how much has been written out of history because papers, diaries and letters have been discarded. Why not use these locked-down times to look under the bed and see what other wonderful stories are out there waiting to be rediscovered?

In the meantime, if you feel like a flight into the wonderful imagination of Teresa Deevy and those who study her, it’s free to register for ‘Active Speech’ on Eventbrite, the conference co-organised by Dr Úna Kealy and Dr Kate McCarthy at WIT and Hugh Murphy at Maynooth University.

See you there, on a virtual theatre seat in New York!

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