Saturday 23 September 2017

Power of silence: Teresa Deevy returns to Abbey

With Deevy's extraordinary body of work experiencing a revival, Melissa Sihra examines the life of the deaf playwright, whose fate was sealed by her detractors

Struggle: Teresa Deevy lived in an internal world of silence whilst also being silenced by external forces
Struggle: Teresa Deevy lived in an internal world of silence whilst also being silenced by external forces

Once regarded as the playwright who would succeed Sean O'Casey as the next shining light of the Abbey Theatre, Teresa Deevy emerged with gusto in the early 1930s, but just over a decade later had fallen into obscurity.

With an extraordinary body of over 25 plays, it is timely that the Abbey is currently reviving Deevy's best-known work, Katie Roche.

Deevy made her playwriting debut at the National Theatre in 1930 with her successful play The Reapers and then began a period of remarkable productivity with an average of one new play per year until Katie Roche in 1936. A place in the repertoire seemed certain when Katie Roche toured the US in 1938, along with plays by Synge and O'Casey.

Upon seeing her award-winning 1932 play Temporal Powers, Frank O'Connor wrote: "Nothing since the Playboy has excited me so much. It's a grand thing to think that Ireland is stepping into the limelight once more."

But Deevy's joy was sadly short-lived; by 1939 she was effectively finished with the Abbey (apart from a brief production of Light Falling in 1948). In spite of hugely positive audience responses and critical acclaim for her work, it was the detractors in the end who sealed Deevy's fate.

WB Yeats, co-founder and director of the Abbey, did not admire her theatrical voice. More devastatingly, it was the incoming despotic Abbey director Ernest Blythe (former Cumann na nGaedheal finance minister) who was the death-knell to Deevy's career as a playwright.

Blythe flatly rejected her play Wife to James Whelan and, she wrote to her friend Florence Hackett, "has no use for my work [and] never asked to see any more." For Blythe, Deevy's plays did not fit into the definition of what a national drama should be - which was to serve the conservative Catholic Church and State ethos.

Deevy's plays focuses on young women who challenge their social environment and demand autonomy and self-gratification. The main thrust of her work was to critique the institution of marriage as a limiting construct, particularly for women. Her plays present women who are stifled by patriarchy and who are not afraid to say so. All of this was intolerable to Blythe.

Added to this, Deevy was an outspoken opponent of the stringent 1920s censorship laws which were in-keeping with the increasing insularity of the newly-formed Irish Free State.

Notions

During this period the Church and State were fervently constructing idealised notions of women as either mothers or 'comely maidens' (to use De Valera's 1943 phrase).

Katie Roche expresses women's dismal lack of options at the time and the brutal effects of patriarchal control one year before the ratification of the Irish Constitution which, to this day, defines Woman 'By her life within the home' in the Family Article 41.

Adding to the poignancy of Blythe's silencing of Deevy's dramatic voice is her own profound relationship with silence. Deevy was born in Co Waterford in 1894 and was one of the first female students to enter University College Dublin to study for a BA. In 1913, while attending university Deevy contracted Meniere's Disease and became completely deaf, which caused her to abandon her studies. Deevy then moved to London to learn to lip-read (it was not taught to adults in Ireland).

In London she attended the theatre to help with lip-reading and saw the works of Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw. She also wrote early plays in London under the pseudonym DV Goode.

Ironically it was in this most visual, aural and physically sensual medium of the arts that she became attuned to the intricacies of language and dialogue - and in particular to a sensitivity to the power of silence, which would become a hallmark of her playwriting.

For Deevy there is immense power in that which is unsaid and her plays are punctuated by scores of interlapping words, silences, ellipses and pauses written with a precision that anticipates Beckett and Pinter. Her plays show a heightened awareness of the possibilities and the failures contained within language as a mode of communication, making her a precursor to Brian Friel.

What we hear within Deevy's moments of silence is the interior life attempting to find expression in an external world. The power of silence in Deevy's plays reveals the gap between what is said and what is felt. Her plays can be seen as an exploration of the need to express oneself as artist - key themes of Beckett and Friel.

This is the struggle Deevy herself endured throughout her life, existing as she did in an interior world of silence whilst also being silenced by external forces.

The poignancy of Deevy's life lies in the fact that while the medium of theatre enabled her to communicate - practically in terms of lip-reading and artistically in terms of her finding her voice as an artist, she was ultimately cruelly silenced through the unexplained rejection by the Abbey.

Deevy went on to write plays for radio, and while very successful on BBC and RTÉ, she never got to see or hear her plays again.

In a way the medium of the radio-play is a metaphor for the stifled voice of Deevy and of Irish women playwrights throughout the 20th Century. Against the odds she continued to write throughout the 1940s and 1950s, constantly seeking expression for the vivid life of her imagination up until her death in 1963.

In Katie Roche we meet a young woman who struggles to have her voice heard. Deevy's stage directions tell us that Katie possesses 'an inward glow'; she is bright, ambitious and proud. Like Ibsen's Nora in A Doll's House she is trapped in a loveless marriage, infantilised and with no outlet for her identity. "I was looking for something great to do", she tells us. Katie Roche is a precursor to Marina Carr's ground-breaking 1996 Abbey play Portia Coughlan, which similarly depicts a woman's quest for self-fulfilment outside the oppressive confines of patriarchy. Portia Coughlan is an unconscious adaptation of Katie Roche, a play evocatively haunted by its 1936 predecessor with the ghostly connection that Derbhle Crotty played both women on the Peacock stage in 1994 and 1996.

This will, perhaps surprisingly, be the sixth production of Katie Roche at the Abbey Theatre and hopefully marks the beginning of a sustained commitment by the Abbey to engage with its remarkable legacy of women dramatists, starting surely with Lady Augusta Gregory, whose dramatic genius has yet to be unearthed.

Teresa Deevy is experiencing a moment; coincidentally currently in New York City the Mint Theatre Company is producing Suitcase Under the Bed - Four Short Plays by Deevy, (three of which are world premieres). Led by Jonathan Banks, The Mint Theatre pioneered 'The Deevy Project' in 2010 to recover her as a vital dramatist of the 20th Century. Waterford too is reclaiming Deevy, with Red Kettle's 2016 production of Wife to James Whelan directed by Jim Nowlan. And Dublin Fringe is bringing Amanda Coogan's sign production of Deevy's Wife to James Whelan with Dublin Theatre of the Deaf as an immersive experience to the Peacock next month.

The Abbey's current revival of Katie Roche is undoubtedly a result of 'Waking The Feminists', the movement which was born in November 2015 in opposition to the notorious male-dominated Abbey Theatre programme 'Waking the Nation' for the 1916 centenary.

It is imperative that we re-engage with these early plays in order to experience the rich tradition of women's work in theatre and, as Marina Carr says, "to provide us with role models".

Too radical for her day, Katie Roche's quest for autonomy is a deeply relevant expression of Irish women's continuing demand for equality. Just as Deevy herself was, in the words of Katie's husband, "too vital" for society at the time, it is Katie Roche's time to shine again, and hopefully from her blazing radiance will come the work of many more Irish women past, present and future.

Katie Roche is showing at the Abbey Theatre until September 23.

Melissa Sihra is Assistant Professor of Drama and Theatre at Trinity College

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment