Saturday 17 March 2018

Abbey founder written out of popular history

As Yeats looked to create a new national theatre, an Englishwoman paid the price

W.B. Yeats
W.B. Yeats

Colin Murphy

One hundred and ten years ago, the Abbey opened its doors with a trio of new plays, among them On Baile's Strand by WB Yeats. This afternoon in Sligo, there's a unique opportunity to see that rarely-produced play, when Blue Raincoat Theatre Company stage it in the spectacular surrounds of Cummeen Strand, Strandhill, at 1pm, with a film of the performance to be made available later online.

Behind the play, though, there is an extraordinary and largely forgotten story: that of the English woman who helped found the Irish national theatre, only to be marginalised and effectively written out of popular history (I have relied here on Sheila Goodie's biography).

Had you been there on opening night in 1904, you would have heard WB Yeats give profuse thanks to the costume designer for On Baile's Strand, Annie Horniman. Horniman wasn't in the audience that night – she was rather shy, and had gone home to England.

Her costumes were singled out for praise by a number of critics, although, ironically, they had led to her first falling out with Yeats, who had thrown a strop during rehearsals and accused her of making the kings in his play look like Father Christmas. But Yeats was generous that night, for none of it would have happened without Horniman: she had paid for it.

Horniman had been raised in London with an atypical sense of independence and equality, a passion for the arts and an appreciation of philanthropy (her family home would become the Horniman Museum in South London, gifted to the public by her father). An inheritance from the family's tea merchant business left her wealthy, though not (contrary to the perception in Dublin) fabulously so, and she determined to dedicate it to good works.

At first, she poured money into a cultish organisation, the Order of the Golden Dawn, through which she met and befriended WB Yeats.

She withdrew her support when she realised that some of the order's elders, who were living off her money, were focusing rather more on sexual than spiritual enlightenment. Yet she and Yeats remained friends. Horniman believed Yeats could spearhead a new movement in European theatre, one inspired by both the "new" theatre being pioneered by Ibsen and by Celtic mythology and mysticism. As Yeats and colleagues in Dublin attempted to found a new national theatre, she offered her help.

When they found a viable space in the old Mechanics' Institute on Abbey Street, she agreed to fund the lease and renovation of what would become the Abbey Theatre.

She travelled regularly to Dublin and wrote profusely to Yeats, in particular – so much so that she was commonly assumed to be in love with him.

She should be recorded as a founder of the Abbey but, because she didn't live in Ireland, she couldn't apply for the patent in her name. Later, when Yeats and Lady Gregory formed a new theatre company, they neglected to make her a director.

She was a skilled producer, and organised a number of successful tours for the Abbey in Britain. But she detested the politicisation of the theatre and was naïve about Irish politics. She was resented in Dublin and sidelined. Eventually, in 1910, she withdrew to dedicate herself to a pioneering (and very successful) theatre in Manchester.

She wasn't a significant artist, and she wasn't Irish. But amidst the constant celebration of all things Yeats, there should be time to celebrate, too, the contribution to our theatre of Annie Horniman.


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