TERRY PRONE: Curtain rises on abuse and sexual discrimination in Ireland’s theatres

Abuse and sexual discrimination have always been part and parcel of the theatre in Ireland, right back to the old days of the Abbey and the Gate, writes Terry Prone

Let us not dress up the past as better than it was, in order to unfavorably compare the present with it. Particularly at the Gate Theatre.

Suggestions have been made in other newspapers at the weekend, that because Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards were shining lights of the time when they ran the Gate and because they were known to be gay partners, that they’d personified the capacity of the arts, and in particular the theatre, to be places of freedom where sexual discrimination didn’t happen.

Untrue. Totally untrue. First of all, they were known to be gay partners in the same contemporary way that dozens of people in theatre were known to be gay partners. It was an inner circle who knew.

The rest of theatre-going Ireland suspected, but neither man ever confirmed the suspicions. Neither ever, during their lifetime, outed themselves. They would have been fools to do it, given the laws and attitudes at the time, but let’s not position references to “partnership” as openness when such references could be and were taken as touching on their artistic and business work together, rather than their sexual relationship.

Being flagrantly camp, as MacLiammoir was, didn’t amount to an announcement of status, but rather a reversal into cherished oddity.

MacLiammoir’s entire backstory was a fiction he maintained with a creativity as admirable as his seminal one-man show about Oscar Wilde. He was also one of the most vicious verbal abusers of his time, telling one actress (that’s how they were known back then) in the middle of a rehearsal that he hoped her womb would fester and fall out.

As vulgar abuse goes, that’s up there with more recent examples. The actress involved continued to produce wonderful work for Edwards and MacLiammoir and continued to be branded as part of a wonderful generation of Gate Theatre performers. Why? For a rake of reasons. Firstly, she had little in the way of alternatives.

The Abbey Theatre, at the time, was a very different kettle of fish to the Gate. The Gate was all class and period English drama. The Abbey was all underclass and Irish peasantry, run by a bully named Earnest Blythe, where no actor could get in, never mind succeed, unless they could act “as Gaeilge”.

Blythe, a northern Protestant who learned Irish from Sinead Flanagan, the future wife of Éamon de Valera, fought in the War of Independence and went on to become a minister of finance in the 1930s. As minister, he provided a financial grant to the Abbey Theatre, making it the first state-subsidised national theatre in the world.

The Abbey, and WB Yeats, remembered that and so Blythe became a director of the theatre in 1935 at Yeats’ invitation and from 1941 to 1967 was managing director. For nigh-on two decades, in other words, he was all-powerful.

In the ’60s, the novelist Walter Macken was appointed as the first artistic director, but if anybody hoped this would back Blythe into a more financial management role, they were much mistaken. He was across every decision in the theatre, right down to the selection of teenagers for the embryonic Abbey Theatre School of Acting.

His dead hand when it came to the selection of plays to be staged meant that artistic leadership went to tiny theatres like the Pike, where Caroline Swift and Alan Simpson took risks, got arrested (for staging The Rose Tattoo) and created an excitement sorely missing from the Abbey’s respectable, bland and boring productions. At the time, the external criticism of Blythe was savage. His response was implacable.

“Most people in Ireland,” he wrote, “are the habituees of farmhouse kitchens, city tenements or middle-class sitting-rooms and their loves and hates, disappointments and triumphs, griefs and joys, are just as interesting and amusing, or as touching, as those of, shall we say alliteratively, denizens of ducal drawing-rooms, or boozers in denizened brothels.”

But, I hear you say, he never made invasive comments about the sexual lives of his employees, as we’ve heard alleged against more recent holders of theatrical power. Sorry. He did. Blythe would never have used the abusive language you might expect of “boozers in denizened brothels,” but he got up close and personal to his actors, nonetheless. All in the interests of the theatre, of course.

One of the best performers of the time, Maire Ni Dhomhnaill, was married to another actor, named Geoffrey Golden.

The Goldens had a fair number of babies, and although Maire worked in the theatre up to the last possible moment and returned to the stage at the first possible moment, maternity leave being a concept far in the future, her fecundity irritated Blythe, who instructed her to replace the Golden double bed with two singles in two separate rooms.

If memory serves, he indicated that the theatre would financially contribute to this approach to contraception.

It was a different kind of invasion and abuse, that of MacLiammoir and Blythe, but it was invasion and abuse, whichever way you slice it. It suggests a gloss on Lord Acton’s famous dictum: All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The fact is that all power corrupts and absolute power tends to express itself in sexual language and abuse.

Yet the question continues — idiotically — to be asked: Why didn’t the victims go to management? Or go public? Or walk?

In the case of the old Gate and Abbey, the answer is that the people dealing out the abuse were management. Of course, there were others. Other members of the boards, but you know what?

They would have seen this kind of stuff as a legitimate form of hazing designed to strengthen the character of the actors. Anybody who ever raised a complaint would have encountered that most Irish of responses: “Ah, sure you know Michael/Ernest/Whoever.” The option of going public never existed.

Just as it’s now tempting to elevate the old Gate to an abuse-free zone because of the softening of focus created by time, so it’s a constant temptation to elevate mainstream media of the past into a fearless force for good, which it never was.

It would never have occurred to any actor of the time to go to a newspaper with their story, and RTÉ, the sole home-grown TV outlet, had nothing comparable to Prime Time Investigates — and that’s what it would have taken, concealed cameras and all — to produce the evidence.

Of course the actors could have walked. I wrote in this page a couple of weeks ago about the crushing verbal abuse dealt out by Frank Dermody, who headed up the Abbey Theatre School of Acting. Of all the bright, talented and ambitious young actors who were members of that school at the time, only one ever walked out. Only one. She was arguably the best of her generation.

She walked knowing what was ahead of her: work in a dry cleaners and a mother who was proud of her dignity but distraught over her career.

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