Way back in 2004, I wrote an article for The Sunday Business Post, entitled ‘Play Boys, but few Play Women’ highlighting chronic gender imbalance in Irish Theatre, on the occasion of ‘Abbey One Hundred’, a virtually all-male programme celebrating the centenary the Abbey Theatre, (apart from one children’s play by Paula Meehan, and a shared run for Marina Carr’s ‘Portia Coughlan’ at the Peacock Theatre). That was before the dawn of social media, and my article, a lone voice in a sea of unquestioned misogyny, was received with resounding silence.
Unfortunately, ‘his’ story has a habit of repeating itself, and more than a decade later, on October 28th, 2015 the Abbey Theatre proudly announced ‘Waking the Nation’, its – surprise, surprise – virtually all-male 1916 commemoration programme (apart from a lone monologue by Ali White entitled “Me, Mollser”, jutting out of the programme like Elizabeth O’Farrell’s incongruous little feet behind Patrick Pearse’s iconic 1916 surrender photograph). Nearly as bad was the playing of O’Farrell in both Jordan’s ‘Michael Collins’ and the recent ‘Rebellion’ series on RTE by men. This time, however, Twitter and Facebook ignited with rage at the outrageous gender imbalance, bringing an exciting counter-movement into being, with its own hashtag #WakingtheFeminists, abbreviated, wonderfully, to #WTF. Wasting no time on this occasion, Mná na hEireann, had a “storming of the Bastille” moment at the Abbey Theatre on November 12th, 2015, when over 30 female theatre professionals took to our national theatre’s stage, and the 450-seater auditorium over-owed with women demanding an end to this unacceptable gender imbalance, for ever. A contrite Fiach Mac Conaghail, director of the Abbey Theatre, sat in the auditorium and listened. After each of the 30+ women on stage had had their say, he stood up, looked up, and admitted: “I wasn’t thinking about gender balance. I did not look up. I failed to check my privilege. And I regret that”.
If theatre holds up a mirror to society, this recurring gender imbalance at the Abbey Theatre is indeed a perfect reflection of Irish society, and the nature of Irish cultural ‘His’story – so far. We need look no further than to the iconic 1916 surrender photograph of Patrick Pearse for confirmation of this, with its dodgy silhouette of self-effacing inner city nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell who braved snipers to deliver the surrender order throughout Dublin’s rebel garrisons, only to be airbrushed out of the official surrender picture as published by The Daily Sketch. I was delighted to hear artist Jaki Irvine speak of Elizabeth O’Farrell and her 2013 book about the fearless nurse, ‘Days of Surrender’ (as yet unreviewed in Ireland), from the Abbey stage in its Theatre of Change symposium in January. Irvine is going on to set Elizabeth O’Farrell to music, along with her other female 1916 colleagues in her installation “If the Ground Should Open”, at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in September.
Like Elizabeth O’Farrell who may indeed, as some claim, have deliberately taken a self-effacing step back when that 1916 Patrick Pearse surrender photograph was taken, making it easy for her little feet and large coat skirts to be airbrushed out of our Cúchulain- style national mythology, Lady Gregory (co-founder of the Abbey Theatre) did not actively seek recognition for co-authoring her iconic 1902 play ‘Cathleen Ni Houlihan’ with WB Yeats either. Similarly, a few decades later the self-effacing but fascinating George Yeats chan-nelled a myriad of voices to – yes – CO-AUTHOR ‘A Vision’ (1937), with her husband WB Yeats, but is rarely acknowledged as having done so. Like Elizabeth O’Farrell, the formidable George Yeats (about whom I am making the rst ever radio documentary, entitled ‘Georgie’s Vision’, funded by BAI Sound and Vision, for broadcast on RTE Lyric FM in Autumn 2016), took a step back, and went so far as to say “thank-you for leaving me out”. But – #WTF – is this shyness reason enough for the rest of us to facilitate, and hence perpetuate, the inaccurate masculinisation of, and erasure of women from Irish cultural history?
Another important figure eclipsed by men is Lucia Joyce who could be Ireland’s answer to Camille Claudel, the well-regarded French sculptor who spent 30 years in an asylum (also Rodin’s lover and elder sister to poet, Claude Caudel). Lucia could not have been more different from her mother, Nora, whose entire raison d’être was her man, James Joyce. As well as his lover, cook, maid, and mother to his children, Nora was also James Joyce’s muse, most obviously inspiring Molly Bloom. Even in the Joyces’ modernist milieu, it was alright for a woman to be a muse, but not an artist herself, and certainly not an artist of the body (though in his masterpiece, ‘Ulysses’, James Joyce wrote the epic of the body). A modern young woman in 1920s Paris, Lucia expected her own career and identity, though she had grown up in weirdly close quarters with her unconventional family, and very much in the shadow of her father. When she protested “c’est moi qui est l’artiste”, alas, nobody listened to her.
Tragically, Lucia Joyce (1907 – 1982), was never allowed to ful l her dream of being a professional modern dancer, despite her training with greats Emile Jacques-Dalcroze (founder of Eurhythmics); Raymond Duncan (brother of Isadora, who himself lived like a modern-day Ulysses in his Paris commune “Akademia Raymond Duncan”); Margaret Morris (grand-daughter of William Morris and founder of www.margaretmorrismovement.com); despite her seasons dancing with “Les Six de Rythme et Couleur”, and despite reviews like this one in the Paris Times: “Lucia Joyce is her father’s daughter. She has James Joyce’s enthusiasm, energy, and a not-yet-determined amount of his genius… When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father”. Instead of being given the space to realise her ‘full capacity’, Lucia, who grew up immersed in iconoclastic counter culture and the avant-garde, found herself consigned to mental institutions – for life. Interestingly, after her father’s death in 1941, her family never visited her again. They did however manage to destroy her writings, which are thought to have consisted of diaries and an unpublished novel. Lucia lived out the latter half of her life buried away in a Northampton asylum.
Now that we are here, in 2016, is it not high time to enquire as to why Lucia’s assertion that she herself was equally “the artist”, has never been taken seriously? Why, apart from Carol Loeb Shloss’s controversial 2003 book ‘Lucia Joyce, to Dance in the Wake’, is Lucia only known of in relation to her father, her one-time boyfriend Samuel Beckett (for example in Michael Hastings’ 2004 play, ‘Calico’), and her supposed mental illness? In light of what has emerged about the programming at the Abbey theatre, could it be reasonable to assume this perception might be a mistake, that it might in retrospect, be down to Lucia Joyce’s gender?
So far the nascent Irish #WakingtheFeminists movement has spread to New York, and International Women’s Day (March 8th), will see the 2nd Dublin #WTF event take place at Liberty Hall. Actresses Kate O’Toole, and Meryl Streep, among other international stars, have lent their voices to the campaign for equality for women in Irish theatre. But the ramifications are much farther reaching than that. Watch this exciting new space open up, and its momentum, fuelled by the new energy of social media, effecting improvements in gender balance throughout society. Why not look to Justin Trudeau’s 50/50 gender balanced cabinet in Canada for inspiration, and see what improvements that approach could bring right across Irish society. Do we need a reason why? As Trudeau himself put it, “because it’s 2016”.
Deirdre Mulrooney is giving a talk on #Waking- theFeminists at the 4th Belgrade-Irish Festival at Kultar Centar Belgrade, on March 19th. Her documentary “Journey to YU (in the footsteps of Rebecca West)” is being screened at the 1st Sarajevo-Irish Festival on March 17th, and the radio version “Journey to YU” is being broad- cast on RTE Lyric FM on March 11th at 7pm. Deirdre’s TG4 Splanc! documentary “Damhsa na hEigeandala”/ “Dance Emergency”, about 1940s Irish-German Modern Dance pioneer Erina Brady made its North American premiere on opening night of the 44th Lincoln Center Dance on Camera Festival last month.www.deirdremulrooney.com