Tuesday 19 February 2019

Dublin's Lost Theatres – places so important to the city and its people

For decades, residents of the capital flocked to the Queen's, the Royal and the Eblana to see variety acts, melodramas - and even a Hollywood star. With the theatres themselves now long closed or torn down, here Sophie Donaldson meets the enthusiasts who are striving to preserve the memories of Dublin in the dear old days

The Happy Gang perform on the last night of the Queens theatre
The Happy Gang perform on the last night of the Queens theatre
Exit stage: Last night of the Theatre Royal in Hawkins Street, Dublin in 1962
Theatrical titans: Phyllis Ryan, who founded the Eblana Theatre with Sir Alec Guinness at Eblana Theatre in 1962.
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

As a nation famed for having a way with words, it is fitting that Ireland has always had a rich theatrical tradition. Dublin has typically been home to the country's foremost performance venues but despite this storied past many of the people and places integral to the city's theatre history would be largely forgotten, if it were not for the efforts of a handful of committed enthusiasts who are determined to preserve the memory of some of our most significant artistic institutions.

Unless you are prepared to comb through archives, information on these former theatres, and the people who performed there, can be scant. Cecil Allen grew up fascinated by stories of his late grandfather, the actor and playwright Ira Allen. Whilst writing a novel based on Ira's life, Cecil turned to the city archives for information. To promote the finished book, The Actor, Cecil began to give talks about Dublin's Queen's Theatre, in which his grandfather worked and performed. Since his book's publication, Cecil has become something of an accidental custodian of the theatre's history.

"There is no written history about these places because they were commercial institutions. Unlike the Abbey, they didn't have government funding to help archive their materials, so in a way they were forgotten about," he says.

On Dublin's Pearse Street, a busy thoroughfare often clogged with traffic, sits a squat office building. It is certainly more of an eyesore than eye-catching, but the site's history is far more colourful. It was formerly home to the Olympic Circus Theatre, then the Adelphi, which was demolished before the Queen's was erected in its place. It opened its doors in 1844.

Theatrical titans: Phyllis Ryan, who founded the Eblana Theatre with Sir Alec Guinness at Eblana Theatre in 1962.
Theatrical titans: Phyllis Ryan, who founded the Eblana Theatre with Sir Alec Guinness at Eblana Theatre in 1962.

"The golden years of the Queen's began in 1882 when an English producer, James W Whitbread, joined the theatre," Cecil says. "The Queen's theatre was a people's theatre - it was not literary. It was theatrical and audiences were a rather rowdy bunch who sang with the actors, cheered on the heroes and howled at the villain."

Whilst the Queen's may not have been considered highbrow, it drew in vast crowds thanks to the melodramas it staged. Whilst this was popular entertainment, that didn't mean it was light. The theatre staged plays by the likes of Dion Boucicault, one of the period's most prolific playwrights. Despite the unusual name, Boucicault was born and raised in Dublin before relocating to London for his schooling, after which he found success in theatre.

"His plays were always innovative and pioneering and he explored some subjects that other playwrights either ignored or were afraid to tackle, like racism and sexism. He was very important for Irish theatre because up until then Irish characters in plays were always seen as fools and drunks, but Boucicault made them the central character - he made them witty and charming."

Cecil's grandfather Ira Allen, along with JB Burke and James W Whitbread, were among a stable of playwrights who continued to develop compelling, heroic Irish characters at the turn of the century. The theatre was forced to close for much of 1920-21 due to the political unrest rippling through the country. When it reopened, the mood had changed and historically charged melodramas were no longer palatable. The theatre management reverted to genial, light-hearted productions.

"On June 7, 1928, the future of the Queen's came clear when it showed its first film, Old San Francisco," Cecil recalls. "And so, the melodramas, the stable of Irish theatrical life for more than a century, disappeared from the Queen's stage; it got another lease of life after a fire tore through the Abbey Theatre in 1951, causing it to close."

The Abbey leased the Queen's for the following 15 years until the new theatre was built. When the Abbey Theatre company left, the Queen's remained closed for three years until it was demolished in 1969.

The Happy Gang perform on the last night of the Queens theatre
The Happy Gang perform on the last night of the Queens theatre

Just a few minutes' walk from the Queen's former spot on Pearse Street is Hawkins House, a derelict office block - formerly home to the Department of Health - with an even bleaker edifice. Its history is no less colourful though, given that the Theatre Royal called this site home for some 140 years. It was not the first Theatre Royal to exist in Dublin, there were several in various locations over a few hundred years, three of which were on the Hawkins Street site. The final reincarnation of the Theatre Royal opened with a flourish in 1935, and it is this theatre a certain generation of Dubliners today will remember fondly.

The impressive interior was modelled on the Moorish architecture of the Alhambra capital palace in Granada and was a vast 4,000-seater. For Dublin's population, it was a colossal space, which soon proved too much for its owners who sold up after struggling to fill seats. The Royal was bought by the Elliman family circa 1937. The Ellimans oversaw something of an entertainment empire, owning dozens of cinemas around the country as well as various theatres including the Gaiety, Metropole and Queen's.

Under the Ellimans, the Royal began to stage 'cini-variety' entertainment, which they had also brought to the Queen's after its temporary closure in the 1920s. Cini-variety usually involved a live show with singing and dancing, live music and a sing-a-long, and a film. The cheaper nosebleed seats at the very back of the vast theatre meant that almost any Dubliner could afford this half-day of entertainment.

During WWII, the family managed to keep the theatre running. Foreign acts were no longer travelling and it was this dearth of international talent that elevated Irish performers such as Jimmy O'Dea and Noel Purcell to become household names. After the war, international performers returned, including big names like Danny Kaye, Nat King Cole and Judy Garland. Garland's stint at the Royal has become theatre lore; the Hollywood star was so popular that patrons would crowd outside the theatre in an attempt to catch a glimpse of her. Some evenings she would oblige them, hanging out her dressing room window and singing to the adoring fans below. Despite such an appetite for live performance, a decade later the Royal would close its doors, in June 1962.

It's no coincidence that two of Dublin's biggest theatres closed in the same decade. Whilst the Swinging Sixties might not have been quite as turbulent in Ireland as they were in New York or London, societal change was certainly underfoot. Young people were no longer interested in quaint cini-variety; when the Beatles played the Adelphi Theatre on Abbey Street in 1963 teenagers caused raucous mayhem on the city's streets.

Social housing was being swiftly erected in Dublin's suburbs, meaning that former theatre-goers were no longer within walking distance of the city's entertainment hubs. However, the most pervasive force of change arrived in 1961 with Telefís Éireann's first television broadcast.

Much like Cecil Allen, Conor Doyle has become the unofficial historian of the Theatre Royal - to which he also has a close bond.

"It came about quite by accident; my local community radio was looking for presenters and I said, 'Geez, that'd be great craic', so I did that. It was the 50th anniversary of the Royal closing, and so I made four shows speaking to various people such as Sonny Knowles, who passed away recently, about the theatre," he says.

"Dublin City Archives then asked if I would do a talk at City Hall to fill in for somebody who had dropped out, and so I did that. Then, through a friend of a friend, I heard about these lunchtime concerts at the National Concert Hall in the John Field Room about 'the good old days' and that's how the shows came about."

'Shows' doesn't quite encapsulate the performances that Conor now hosts. Held every six weeks or so in various venues around Dublin, they are part sing-along, part silent movie but mostly a deeply nostalgic, and quite often moving, remembrance of a happy past.

"The audience still know all the songs and recall their time at the theatre with such clarity. At the last show we did in Dublin's Liberties there was around 400 people - we've sold out 12 shows in the John Field Room at the NCH and I've lost count about how many concerts we've done. It just has this resonance with people of the era."

For those who grew up with 3-D cinemas, televisions and the internet, an emotional bond with a theatre may be difficult to fathom. The Royal, and other theatres like it, were not just places to see a show. Restaurant culture did not exist, nor did nights out 'on the tear'. Places like the Royal provided entertainment, but they were also where people's youth was spent, and memories and connections made.

"At the time, I don't think people actually believed they were going to knock the Royal. It closed very quickly, as far as I can gather. It was only when it was gone there was this huge sense of loss. If you come to any of my talks or concerts that's the single recurring theme - the sense of loss that people felt. I have some footage of the theatre being knocked down, and when people see it they're actually in tears. This is where they met their partner, where they spent their formative years and they have so many memories. Even after nearly 60 years people of that generation still feel it."

A story published in the Irish Independent two weeks before the Theatre Royal's final curtain call echoes this lament: "Too late now to ask why or how it happened. The stark reality is that the grim economics of modern progress have decreed it so. And Dublin's last permanent home of variety will have vanished. There is no renovation or reconstruction scheme. No trace of the dear old days will be left for the sentimentalist."

For those born long after these places were demolished, these theatres may indeed seem like relics of the past, but they may be surprised to learn there is another Dublin theatre that was alive and well during their lifetime that is quite literally buried beneath the city. And chances are, they've stood on the very place it lies.

The Eblana Theatre resides in the basement of Dublin's largest bus terminal, Busáras. The theatre closed in 1995 and remains, somewhat eerily, looking much the same as it would have on its final day in business.

"It had a sense of the Mary Celeste ghost ship!" laughs Gavin Murphy, a Dublin-based artist and curator. "It was as though one day they'd done their last production and it was decided 'Right, we're not going to continue'."

Murphy, who had long been fascinated by the snippets of information he'd heard about the theatre that lay in the bowels of the Busáras building, embarked upon a years-long project to uncover the Eblana's past. The resulting research became Double Movement, an installation at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios in 2017 that used various mediums like film and photography to tell the theatre's story.

The Eblana was founded around 1960 by the actress Phyllis Ryan, who had enjoyed a successful career from a young age with the Abbey Theatre Company. Ryan believed there was a need for a new theatrical space that would stage productions from emerging playwrights that would have been considered too controversial elsewhere. So, she went about setting up the Eblana in the vacant premises.

Choosing the basement of a bus station for a theatre space might seem like retrofitting, but the space was always intended as a theatre of sorts. The Busáras building was a pioneering project; at the time, it was the largest post-war civic building initiative in Europe and it garnered international acclaim for its design, which was led by architect Michael Scott.

"The Eblana was converted from a news reel cinema that would have been part of the bus station complex. There were a number of elements to the Busáras building that Michael Scott and his team of architects had envisaged that didn't actually come to fruition, such as a nightclub/restaurant on the top floor overlooking the city, as well as the cinema in the basement," Gavin explains. "It's debatable as to whether it ever was used as that. I've heard varying accounts but I never got a definitive answer. But there certainly was a screen there and a tiny little stage, almost like a podium that was ultimately expanded to make a larger stage for theatre production."

Like the building itself, the Eblana's productions were ground-breaking. Gavin cites plays such as It's A Two Foot Six Inches Above the Ground World, by Kevin Laffan, which dealt with the Catholic church's ban on contraception, as well as other plays that explored themes such as homosexuality, homelessness and drug use. Ryan's vision for a forward-thinking creative hub had come to fruition and she premiered many works by John B Keane, as well as one of Brian Friel's first plays.

"Beyond that, there were actors like Frank Kelly, Des Nealon, Brenda Fricker, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, John Hurt and almost every Irish actor in between," Gavin continues.

The Eblana may have been small but its output was impressive. Despite staging works from acclaimed playwrights and having successful actors tread the boards, the Eblana faced financial difficulty over the years and there were stretches when it was unoccupied. Since its closure, the theatre and its unique design features have lain under a thick layer of dust as thousands of people pass over it every week, almost completely unaware of the significant space that lies beneath.

Across the river, Hawkins House is due to be demolished shortly and a suite of office buildings erected on the site. As well as staging his performances for those who remember the Theatre Royal, Conor - whose aunt Ursula Doyle was married to Royal veteran Jimmy O'Dea - is determined to preserve the theatre's memory for those who may not have known about its existence. He is campaigning to have a pedestrian street across from the site named Theatre Royal Way, and is midway through the formal process with Dublin City Council.

"Variety theatre is forgotten about because it's not seen as an art form, but it was," he says. "I always make that point that ordinary Dubliners and ordinary Irish people wanted escapism and that's why the likes of the Royal, the Capitol, the Queen's, the Gaiety and the Olympia were so important to the city and its people."

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