- Grandmother of the Irish Theater
Eglantina Remport. Lady Gregory and Irish National Theatre, Art, Drama, Politics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. ix + 237 pp. Cloth $99.00 E–Book $79.99. Volume in the Bernard Shaw and His Contemporaries Series. Nelson O'Çeallaigh Ritschel and Peter Gahan, eds..
AT HER DEATH AT EIGHTY in 1932, Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory, was the grandmother of the Irish theater. Bookish as a girl in relatively isolated County Galway, she had followed common Irish tradition by marrying, in 1880, a wealthy neighboring landowner nearly thirty-five years her elder. Augusta Persse was eighteen.
An M.P., Sir William Henry Gregory, once governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), was devoted to literature and the fine arts. Following the marriage (his second), he escorted his young wife on a succession of grand art tours on the Continent and the Middle East, and to artistic functions in London. By the time of Sir William's death in 1892 she was a fixture in both English and Irish aristocratic and intellectual circles. Unwilling to be a youngish retiring widow, she began editing Gregory's autobiography (1894) and letters (1898), and set to work on her own, influenced by the writings on art, literature and economics by John Ruskin, who had been friend of Sir William. Eglantina Remport, of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, makes much of Ruskin's impact on Lady Gregory, substantiated by a full column under his name in her index.
As Ruskin preached the accessibility of all the arts to the unsophisticated working public, Augusta Gregory, from her Galway estate at Coole, attempted to reach her audiences by translations and adaptations [End Page 287] of Irish sagas and legends, then by peasant comedies and fantasies drawn from folklore. Since plays required playhouses, in 1896 she enlisted a young friend, William Butler Yeats, a poet in whom she saw vast potential, in founding an Irish Literary Theatre based in Dublin. Adept at ameliorating disputes among nationalistic and antagonistic literary aspirants, she would become, with Yeats and others, a director of the new Abbey Theatre in 1904. The Abbey would become a major stimulus to the Irish literary renascence.
Yeats would be her lifelong patron, promoter of her forty colorful comedies and melodramas based on Irish speech and folkways, and her Ruskin-influenced desire to have audiences "see a play as a picture." Her Seven Short Plays (1909) and Yeats's early verse dramas were major elements of the Abbey's beginning repertoire. But her usage of Irish speech could sometimes trip her up when the setting seemed inappropriate. Her The Deliverer (1911) employed Gordon Craig's innovative Egyptian screens to mesh her allegory of the doomed political rebel Charles Stewart Parnell with the biblical prophet Moses, but her intent was lost on her listeners when the Egyptians spoke in Kiltartanese dialect.
Among her vivid later, and longer, comedies, The Image (1910), Dormer's Gold (1913), and her fantasies, The Golden Apple (1916) and The Dragon (1920), evidenced her continued growth, but the death of her only son and heir, Robert, in wartime action, shadowed her further creativity.
The recruitment for the Abbey of Bernard Shaw, who wrote the classic John Bull's Other Island (1904), in his vein of serious farce, which then did not perform it due to Yeats's niggling objections to it as de-meaning the Irish peasantry, nevertheless established her long friendship with G.B.S. "I am not very light-hearted," she wrote to Shaw on 15 September 1915 in a letter Professor Remport quotes, "for Robert is carrying out his desire.…" Perhaps because her book is more critical analysis than biography, Remport does not note Yeats's memorable elegiac poem, "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," nor that Yeats had learned, the pivot of his lines, three weeks after Gregory's death, that "Major Gregory told Mr. Bernard Shaw, who visited him [at an airbase] in France, that the months since he joined the Army had been the happiest of his life. I think they brought him peace of mind.…" It [End Page 288] is likely that neither Lady Gregory, nor Yeats, nor Shaw, knew that...