Defender of the faith.
Fallaing Aonghusa: Saol Amharclainne An Clochomhar, 2000, no price listed.
IT IS WELL-NIGH IMPOSSIBLE TO EVEN imagine anyone who could speak with greater first-hand authority of the Abbey Theatre than can Tomas Mac Anna. For more than half the Abbey's now almost century long history, he has been directly and centrally involved in all aspects of the theatre's work-writing plays in both Irish and English, doing a big of acting, designing and painting sets and scenery, directing scores of plays in two languages, and serving on more than one occasion as artistic director. During that time he has been acquainted with many of the legendary names of the Irish stage-Ernest blythe, Lennox Robinson, F.J. McCormick, Micheal Mac Liammoir, Sean Barlow, Brendan Behan, Siobhan McKenna, Eamon Kelly, Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, and the list goes on. In this volume of memoirs, Mac Anna introduces us to all of them as he takes us on a backstage tour of the Irish National Theatre, first in the original building on Abbey Street, then across the Liffey to the Queen's Theatre, before returning to the new, un lovely, and not all that lovable facility on the old site.
There is truly something in this book for just about every reader with even a passing interest in the Irish theatre. Some will appreciate the detailed anecdotal recreation of the original theatre from someone who worked in it daily for four years prior to the fire of 1951. Indeed, one of the most memorable sections of the book deals with Mac Anna's own reactions from the time he first learned of the fire on the train from his native Dundalk to his arrival at the scene to see the damage for himself. Others will welcome his personal and sympathetic account of the Abbey's frequently denigrated period of exile in the Queen's, an account that provides an insider's complement to Michael O'Neill's Abbey at the Queen's (1999). Every bit as engaging are his recollections of the young Brendan Behan or of the ongoing Abbey tradition of rows and ructions--here over Seamus Byrne's Design for a Headstone in 1950 and over the political revue A State of Chassis in the Peacock in 1970, in the latter of which Mac Anna himself played a very direct and physical role.
Those interested in theatre in Irish will find Fallaing Aonghusa particularly rewarding. No one has done more for Gaelic theatre for the past fifty years than has Mac Anna. It was to produce plays in Irish that he was first brought to the Abbey by Ernest Blythe in 1947, and since that time he has directed plays in the language at the Abbey, the Peacock, the Darner Hall (Dublin's home for Gaelic drama in the 50s and 60s), Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe, and on tour in the Gaeltacht, in the process working with writers like Behan, Mairead Ni Ghrada (with a Brechtian production of whose An Trial_he created a sensation in the Peacock in 1964), Sean O Tuama, Eoghan O Tuairisc, and Alan Titley, as well as with actors of the class of Cyril Cusack, Siobhan McKenna, Niall Toibin, Macdara O Fatharta, Micheal O Briain, and Eamon Kelly. Perhaps his most successful innovation for the Gaelic stage was the creation and staging at the Abbey of annual geamaireachtai, musical revues in Irish produced during the Christmas season. Mor e popular than any productions in Irish before--or since--these lively and topical geamaireachtai have been given short shrift by even the few scholars interested in Irish-language drama, but Mac Anna here makes a strong and convincing case for their legitimate place in any discussion of Gaelic theatre. And having seen one myself, Mac Anna's own adaptation of Father O'Leary's Seadna, I can attest to their exuberant good fun and success in putting Irish on stage for an audience with an indifferent command of the language. Mac Anna also makes plain that producing plays in Irish--and he often had a hand in writing as well as directing them--was by no means a mere act of linguistic pietas for him. He saw plays in Irish as plays and wanted them to create the same magical bond between actors and audiences he sees at the heart of all good theatre. Moreover, he stresses the important lessons he learned from directing the short, often stylized plays in Irish produced in the Peacock, claiming, for instance, that the "B rechtian" style with which he is credited for reinvigorating the Abbey's English-language offerings in the 60s owed as much to his experience with Gaelic plays as it ever did to Brecht himself!
Mac Anna shows his greatest independence of mind in his treatment of Ernest Blythe's long tenure as director of the Abbey. It has become a truism that it was Blythe who all but singlehandedly caused the Abbey's perceived stagnation in the 40s and 50s, but Mac Anna is having none of that Instead, he paints a picture of Blythe as a fair and courteous man, a loyal friend, a scrupulously honest if headstrong administrator, and a genuine and informed theatre enthusiast. For example, he tells a revealing story about Blythe's finding the then unknown Brendan Behan writing in an empty office near his own in a section of the old Abbey undamaged by the fire of 1951. Despite the young man's accusation that it was Blythe who had imprisoned his father in 1922 and his arrogant assertion that he was at work on a play in Irish and would tolerate no interference, Blythe ceded the office to him so that he could finish the play, a work entitled An Bhean Chiosa, now, alas, lost. Mac Anna also corrects the false belief held by so me that Abbey actors did not go to Blythe's funeral in the Protestant St. Patrick's Cathedral, insisting instead that the whole company was in respectful attendance.
There is also a full and humorous discussion of Mac Anna's involvement with Frank McMahon's Tony Award-winning stage version of Behan's Borstal Boy, a work he both designed and directed and which many in Irish theatre feel would never have become a viable performance piece without his literary input as well. Borstal Boy continues to play to full houses in revival under the directorship of Joe Dowling, who freely acknowledges his indebtedness to Mac Anna's original production.
What most historians and students of the modem Abbey will value most in Fallaing Aonghusa is Mac Anna's frank and unvarnished account of the Abbey's tumultuous fortunes from the mid-80s through the 90s, a period of tight finances, shifting politics, and vitriolic criticism that saw a virtual swinging door on the office of the artistic director, with Mac Anna himself occupying that often thankless hot seat on two different occasions. His discussion of this period is particularly valuable for its lack of petty self-aggrandizement Mac Anna is never short of opinions--as in his championing of the stageworthiness of a late O'Casey play like. The Star Turns Red--but he is also invariably open to the opinions of others, and willing to acknowledge the contributions of those like Garry Hynes, for example, with whom he found himself in frequent disagreement.
At one point in the book, Mac Anna recalls a conversation with Lennox Robinson about theatre critics in which Robinson, speaking in English needless to say, warned the younger man: "Ni mhaithfidh siad a choiche duit bheith anseo san Abbey. Bionn siad i gconai ag tabhairt fuinn. Dearfaidh siad rudai uafasacha fut, tabharfaidh siad ide na muc is na madrai duit, ni bheidh uathu ach caineadh agus mioscais. Ach nuair a bheidh tu aosta go maith, mar ataimse, scriobhfaidh tu do memoirs agus beidh tu in ann dioltas a bhaint amach" (They will never forgive you for being here in the Abbey. They are always attacking us. They will say terrible things about you; they will treat you like a dog; they'll want nothing but abuse and spite. But when you are well on in age, as I am, you will write your memoirs and be able to get your vengeance). It is no small measure of Mac Anna the man that after a lifetime in the rough and tumble world of the Abbey he foregoes the chance to settle old scores in this book.
Instead, Fallaing Aonghusa is characterized throughout by great generosity of spirit. Mac Anna is always eager to make sure others get their due. In particular, he stands up for generations of Abbey actors, feeling their central creative role in the evolution of a distinctive Irish theatrical tradition has never been properly recognized by academics bedazzled by the literary accomplishments of playwrights from Yeats and Synge on. Nor is this a vague craft solidarity. Mac Anna can be quite specific and provocative in his discussions of actors' contributions as when, for example, he draws attention to what he sees as the influence of Eamon Kelly's storytelling shows in the Peacock on Brian Friel's Faith Healer.
It has been my honor and privilege to have worked with Tomas Mac Anna for the past eleven years on Boston College's Abbey Theatre Summer Workshop. From that perspective I can say that the highest praise one can give this book is that it captures the wit and quirky wisdom of the man himself, whether he is telling of his schooldays and abortive soccer career in Dundalk, his hilarious exploits as an Irish customs officer, his time in the bright lights of the Great White Way, or his selfless, lifelong commitment to theatre in the Irish language. This is a wonderfully engaging memoir and a treasure-trove of information and insight on a half-century of Irish theatre.
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|Title Annotation:||Fallaing Aonghusa: Saol Amharclainne An Clochomhar|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
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