The veteran director lived and breathed theatre but could not abide any shoddiness, writes Emer O'Kelly
TOMAS MacAnna was not a kind man. And far from being a criticism of him, that's a compliment: he couldn't abide shoddiness in the theatre, and was almost brutally abrasive when he encountered it. Certainly it could have been claimed that maybe his judgments were inclined to be subjective, but then it wasn't his job to be objective. And Tomas knew what he liked: in his canon, he liked what he approved of. And if he approved of something, you could be damn sure that it was top-notch.
He was long officially retired (except that he never actually retired) when a first night audience at the Abbey observed him, halfway through the first act, storming up the aisle muttering audibly "God, rubbish, rubbish, rubbish" as he made his exit. He was a huge, instantly recognisable figure, not easily ignored; the cast must have been devastated, and I'm willing to bet that more than one of them examined their theatrical consciences that night to work out what had so displeased the veteran director.
MacAnna had an epic soul: he liked a large stage, and apparently revelled in his largest stage when he directed the Croke Park pageant that celebrated the 50th anniversary of 1916. But his beginnings in the theatre were rather more limited: his entry on to his own stage was thanks to the Irish language.
It was Ernest Blythe, for whom nationalism and the language were of more importance than any kind of talent, who employed the young MacAnna in 1947 to direct plays in Irish at the Abbey. (He was also given a role as scenic artist). But as happened with more than a few people from that era and afterwards, the talent was real, and outweighed the requirement.
Tomas was obsessed from an early age with German expressionism which had pretty well been seen only once in Ireland, in Denis Johnston's The Old Lady Says No at the Gate. (O'Casey's masterpiece of expressionism The Silver Tassie had been turned down by Yeats in the Twenties). In the same year as directing the 1916 pageant, he fulfilled what apparently had been a long ambition: he broke expressionist ground on the Abbey stage with Brecht's Galileo. (He had studied with the Berliner Ensemble for a period). He also had a hugely successful partnership with P.J. O'Connor when he directed O'Connor's adaptation of the then-neglected Patrick Kavanagh classic Tarry Flynn for the stage, a production which gave the late Donal McCann one of his many iconic roles.
Tomas MacAnna served as artistic director of the Abbey for three separate periods, from 1966 to 1968, from 1973 to 1978 and for another short term during one of the theatre's many crises of directorship in 1985. And while many historians and observers believe that while the Abbey in
those days claimed the title of the National Theatre, it did not fulfil that role in any real sense, limiting itself to productions which reinforced a narrow national consciousness and identity. But Tomas MacAnna, despite the limitations of an artistically suffocating management structure, made one great and glorious leap towards international status: he took Borstal Boy to New York.
Brendan Behan's rambling memoir had been adapted for the stage by the Irish-American writer Frank MacMahon, and Tomas staged it magnificently and touchingly, once again with one of those signature huge casts. And it won a Tony Award as Best Play in the New York season of 1970. The Abbey had broken through the barriers of misty expectation with a piece which was at the sharp end of contemporary theatre: it was even blasphemous in parts and notably sceptical on the purity of "the fight for Irish freedom".
In other words, Tomas MacAnna may have been passionately patriotic, but he was neither blindly nationalistic nor artistically bland.
On the academic side of theatre too, he had numerous credits: he was a frequent visitor to US institutes including Boston College (where he was awarded a Distinguished Alumnus Award for his work there over 18 years) and Carleton College Minnesota, where he was visiting Professor of Drama. It could make him arrogant at times: on one occasion when we had shared a seminar platform he collared me afterwards and confided with surprise, "I never realised you knew so much about O'Casey". Irritated, I replied that I liked to think I was as good at my job as he was at his, which meant that I had to know a lot about O'Casey. The reply was a pat on the shoulder and a whispered "Sorry".
A cranky so-and-so, Tomas MacAnna. And a man who lived, breathed, and passionately cared for theatre.