When Irish Rep's producing director Ciarán O'Reilly heard that NYPL was planning an exhibit on Lady Augusta Gregory—the co-founder of The Abbey Theatre and the woman who helped shape a new era of modern Irish literature—he began thinking of ways in which IRT could complement the event. The initial idea idea was to curate an evening of Lady Gregory plays, but the more he researched, the bigger the project became.
"I found her life and work so compelling, courageous, and moving," says O'Reilly. "I fell in love and went down a rabbit hole."
Now in performances at Irish Rep through March 22, Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory explores her remarkable life and work. The show draws from her journals and letters, archival material, and features two of Gregory's rarely seen plays, Workhouse Ward and McDonough's Wife—all in a single evening.
We chat with O'Reilly, who directs the world premiere and provided additional material.
A quick catchup for those not in-the-know, who was Lady Gregory and what was her influence on the Irish theatre?
Ciarán O'Reilly: Lady Gregory (1865 -1933) was an Irish Playwright, folklorist, and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre in Ireland, which she ran for decades, with WB Yeats and was the heart and soul of the company. She grew up in Galway and married Sir William Gregory, who was 35 years her senior. After his death, she used her home as a country salon where many of the literary greats of early part of the 20th century converged, including Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, and Seán O’Casey. She accompanied the Abbey Theatre on their early tours of the U.S. where she lectured at many of the great colleges. She was a cultural sensation and was generally regarded as a rock star.
Where did you begin with you research?
My knowledge of Lady Gregory was limited to a few of her well-known plays that we have produced at Irish Rep, including The Rising of the Moon and Kathleen Ni Houlihan which she co-wrote with Yeats. My image was of a dour patron of the arts—a Queen Victoria look alike who belongs on Mount Rushmore, if Ireland had a Rushmore. I read Colm Tóibín’s delightful biography Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, which whetted the glands, followed by the dazzling Lady Gregory, A Literary Portrait by Elizabeth Coxhead, which made a powerful case for a retrospective of her work. James Pethica (who curated the NYPL exhibit) has edited her journals and early writings and is penning his own authorized biography; he supplied many brilliant articles on her life and times. His generosity in time and content has been tremendous.
Was there anything from your research that surprised you?
I hadn’t been aware of her love affairs. One was with the New York lawyer John Quinn, who was 20 years her junior. They became involved during the first Abbey Theatre tour in 1912. When she returned to Ireland, she wrote steamy passionate letters and sent him a ring. He never received it. The letter with the ring was in the mail room of the Titanic.
Is there a pressure or anxiety that comes with trying to encompass a life or a legacy in a single show?
Massive pressure! Off-the-charts anxiety coupled with the guilt of what’s not included. A life as rich as Lady Gregory’s needs all of the 600 pages. An evening in the theatre has two hours and lethal surgery is required. The result is something that touches upon moments without having the format to explore them. Sometimes when using her own words, I have taken her phrases out of context in order to move the story forward, and I kneel and say sorry each night.
What do you hope audiences walk away with after seeing this show?
I hope it makes people want to explore her work further. I hope it will inspire people to go the NYPL for the Exhibit. Her legacy had somehow been diminished over time. Partly, I’m sure, because she stood in the shadow of Yeats and his astounding canon—but also there was willful diminishment with a strong whiff of chauvinism that belittled her literary contribution. Leading literary figures of the day—James Joyce, George Moore and Oliver St. John Gogarty—all poked fun at her unique style. Her current Wikipedia page has a quote from Gogarty that says: ”The perpetual presentation of her plays nearly ruined the Abbey." The records show that her work and life actually saved the Abbey, and that is what should be remembered.
Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory began performances at Irish Rep February 12 and runs through March 22. Úna Clancy stars as Lady G alongside a cast made up of John Keating, Terry Donnelly, and James Russell. Click here for tickets and more information.