TERRY PRONE: Our inability to choose how we will be remembered is Deeply Regretted

‘Two or three decades of formidable theatrical achievement is more evanescent than the froth on a cappuccino: half-remembered moments in the memories of committed older theatre-goers, but no contemporary currency at all.’

THE problem with funerals is that, once the mourners go home and scrape the graveyard mud off their shoes, that’s it.

We still feel sympathy with the widow or the widower, the son or the daughter, but we don’t do much about expressing that sympathy. Which is why the St Vincent de Paul Society, a while back, asked me to come up with a trigger video which would jolt their volunteers into a new understanding of how abandoned the bereaved can feel in the weeks after a death in the family.

I wrote a short play about a woman whose husband drops dead on the golf course. It was little more than a monologue. The widow talks about how the golf club returns the clothes her husband had left in his locker. Very kindly returns them.

Of course, whoever delivered them doesn’t knock at the door and hand them in. He stows them neatly in the porch. Because he doesn’t want to intrude on the widow. Like everybody else, he knows she needs time on her own. He knows it because it lets him off the hook. It allows him to interpret as altruism his own embarrassment at the chance of meeting her and maybe not saying the right thing to her.

The widow, of course, doesn’t need him to say the right thing. She doesn’t need him to say anything. She just needs someone to mitigate the echoing emptiness of a house recently filled with her husband’s laughter and roared reactions to great golf shots on TV and snores and arguments.

She needs someone to arrive and shut up and listen to her talking her way through the atmospheres of a loved one’s death. But — in the weeks after her husband’s death, nobody came. Nobody came.

To save money, the short play was filmed in a friend’s sitting room, because the SVP couldn’t spend a lot of money on the production. Then it was shown to 30 volunteers. They were supposed to give comments directly afterwards, but none of them could talk. Thirty middle-aged men wandered out into the car park to recover, some of them not even bothering to pretend that they weren’t crying.

It changed their lives and their behaviour. Or, rather, she did: the woman who played the widow. I knew she would when I wrote it. The only thing I was afraid of was that she wouldn’t do it for the pathetic fee.

Joan O’Hara knew she was good and insisted on being properly paid. Except in this instance, when she did the job for free, because she liked the tiny playlet and what the production was setting out to achieve. She was — unsurprisingly — wonderful in the role.

Stage actors who worked with her during the decades when she was a member of the Abbey Theatre’s repertory company regarded her as a phenomenon. She could do Shakespeare and Lady Gregory, Lorca and Synge. No matter what part she played, she laid on it such a stamp that if you were her understudy — as I was, a couple of times — you needed to be a good mimic, because there was no point in trying to reinvent the role. You just played it as closely as you could to her definitive interpretation.

SHE earned that unique unseen validation from other actors: they would stand in the wings to watch her onstage. But when she came off, they would rarely compliment her, because she had a west of Ireland tongue on her that’d peel the skin off you and she couldn’t take flattery. Or pomposity. Or being dragooned. Anyone she didn’t like was subjected to devastating impersonation backstage. One systems-driven production manager was mortified one night when he overheard her take-off of his dictatorial announcements.

“There will be a bus outside at 11,” she was telling the cast. “Be under it.”

If you didn’t draw the searing wit on you though, her dressing-room was the one to share, even if it meant getting home an hour later than you would if you shared with anybody else, because the craic was mighty.

Joan had weird theories linking her wide promiscuous reading in different fields, and, once she got launched on one of them, suspension of disbelief was total and involuntary. Later, you might decide that what she’d said was daft, but you’d be kind of sorry you hadn’t recorded it, because she did daft in an uniquely entrancing way.

Her death, last week, was surrounded by injustices, not least of them the fact that such a fitness freak (she was a year-round sea-swimmer) should not have survived into serious old age. The ultimate injustice, however, was the media coverage. It was sadly brief, even in the middle of silly season, demonstrating that two or three decades of formidable theatrical achievement is more evanescent than the froth on a cappuccino: half-remembered moments in the memories of committed older theatre-goers, but no contemporary currency at all.

That’s just one of the tragedies attendant upon our National Theatre. Its greatest names — Eileen Crowe, May Craig, FJ McCormack — are just that: names. Its next-greatest names — Barry Fitzgerald and Sarah Allgood among them — survive in films demonstrating the least of their capacities and in some cases showing them in Godawful potboiling Begorragh mode. You don’t get to choose what you’ll be remembered for.

The stories about O’Hara, for example, majored on her playing an eccentric in TV’s Fair City, which is a little like defining Hemingway by saying he drove a good ambulance. Yes, he did. And a wartime ambulance is important. And maybe he drove it outstandingly well. But it ain’t what matters in his working life. It assuredly is not how he would choose to be remembered.

When it comes to acting, however, being remembered as a stage performer is possible only as long as the last fan lives, and the remembrance is small and cellular. Telling a third party how Joan O’Hara made a great Juno in a production of O’Casey’s play is about as effective as recounting last night’s dream. People may tolerate it out of kindness, but it moves them not.

The half-life of TV fame, on the other hand, can be infinite, frozen forever on film. In this context, it might not be a bad idea, by way of a tribute, for RTÉ to re-run the Maeve Binchy play Deeply Regretted By, starring Joan O’Hara as the Irish widow of a man who worked mostly in Britain. She learns, after his death, that he had another wife and family across the Irish Sea.

TV fame shrinks the multi-talented and subtle into the single-faceted and crude. So Joan O’Hara gets reduced to “the actress who played the eccentric oul wan in Fair City”.

Not that she’d care. Joan O’Hara knew that an actor’s job is to inhabit a different soul on stage or onscreen but get back to your own oddball privacy, your own argumentative, tetchy, funny, reflective reality as soon as the show’s over. She was good at both.


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