Monday 20 November 2017

Theatre: Maeve Brennan, who had no home to go to

Connection: Eamon Morrissey channels writer Maeve Brennan, whom he met in New York.
Connection: Eamon Morrissey channels writer Maeve Brennan, whom he met in New York.
Maeve Brennan

Maggie Armstrong

Philadelphia, Here I Come hit the big time at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1964. Brian Friel was launched, the play went to Broadway, and the actors involved got a sweet deal.

A 21-year-old Eamon Morrissey had the small part of Ned. But the US Actors' Equity only allowed lead actors to travel with the play, and Eamon was left behind. Until it turned out that the new Ned came from Arizona and his Southern drawl wouldn't do.

"I got a phone call from David Merrick, the all-powerful producer, saying 'Do you want to come to Broadway?', I said 'When?', he said, 'Tomorrow'," recalls the Fair City actor.

He packed his bags and spent one heady year in New York and another eight months on the road.

One day he was on the subway reading The New Yorker. The short story, titled 'The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary', was set in a house on "a narrow side street, a dead end, in the suburbs of Dublin", with "a short flight of stairs, five steps, that led to the two bedrooms". It sounded just like his house in Ranelagh. "It was an almost creepy experience, to be reading so exactly a description of your own house."

He found the author's name at the end, Maeve Brennan. The penny dropped. He knew it had to be the daughter of Republican-turned-diplomat Robert Brennan, who had fought in the Easter Rising with his father, Patrick Morrissey - who had then bought the Brennan's house at 48 Cherryfield Avenue, the house in the story.

Most 23 year olds would have forgotten all about it afterwards. But Eamon liked literature, was perhaps homesick, and wanted to meet Maeve. "I wrote to The New Yorker. Letters went back and forth."

A reply came asking him to meet her in the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street near Broadway. Eamon suspects Maeve was off the booze at the time, hence the tea. He builds this encounter into a story of her life and work in his solo show, Maeve's House, now touring with the Bealtaine Festival.

Maeve was born nine months after the Rising, on January 17, 1917, and grew up on that "dead end" in Ranelagh (now a "very chic and posh place to be", Eamon notes). Her father became the first envoy to the US and aged 17 she was whisked off to Washington DC. She settled in New York, writing fashion copy for Harper's Bazaar, then joining The New Yorker staff. Over four decades she wrote book reviews, columns, more than 50 short stories and a novella.

She was a wry, witty and soulful writer, and a style maven. When she met Eamon, she was 47 and divorced. Her hair was probably piled in a beehive and plumes of cigarette smoke swirled around her. Eamon recalls: "She was beginning to be overdressed. Plenty of make-up.

"We had tea and little cakes," he remembers. "She had a fearsome reputation. She could wipe you out in a couple of sentences. But I found her warm, open and encouraging."

Maeve quizzed him on the books he liked. "I said Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog. And she said: 'Ew yes, you're in the right area.' She preferred Turgenev. At the end of the meeting she brought me to a bookshop and bought me a collection of Russian stories. Her parting words were, 'It's all in there, you know'."

Within a few years, Maeve's life had fallen apart. She had an undiagnosed mental illness and worked too hard, sometimes sleeping nights in the sick bay of The New Yorker offices. She drifted into vagrancy, living between hotels with a menagerie of cats. She died friendless in a nursing home of heart failure aged 76.

"The contrast between her ability to describe other people's lives and her inability to manage her own life was tragic," says Eamon. "I really feel for Maeve."

At 72, he is not a stranger to the solo show.

"They're a terrible night's work. They're so absorbing physically, mentally and spiritually."

But, he adds: "For me theatre is the mother source, it's the well from where we start. I need to keep going back to it, that moment of interaction between the stage and the page, via the actor. Laughter and applause are wonderful, but the silence is so important too. When hundreds of people are silent, focused on just one moment."

Maeve's House tours until May 30. See

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