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Loss of a legend.

IRISH THEATRE LOST ONE OF ITS LEGENDS with the passing of Tomas Mac Anna on 17 May. In many ways Tomas embodied the history of the Abbey Theatre. When he joined the Abbey as a 22- year-old in 1947, the theatre was still based in its original building, actors who had known Yeats and Lady Gregory were still in the company, and the stage carpenter and set builder Seaghan Barlow was still on the scene with anecdotes of the early days that Tomas absorbed and zestfully shared over the years. He himself first came to the Abbey as a set designer and director of plays in Irish, but went on to adapt, write, and direct plays, and eventually manage the theatre in three stints as artistic director in the 60s, 70s, and briefly in the 80s. In the process he changed forever the course of Irish drama in both of the country's official languages.

He was able to do so because however profound his respect for the Abbey and its history, he was never a sentimental conservative tied to the way things had been done in the glory days. Given the imposing task of implementing Ernest Blythe's ambitious (and unrealistic) policy to Gaelicize the national theatre, Tomas almost immediately recognized that at a time when the language was viewed with both patriotic affection as a symbol of nationality and frequent annoyance as an irrelevant irritant in the daily life of a modernizing Anglophone Ireland--plus ca change!--he would have to \find ways to make plays in Irish at least as novel, attractive, and enjoyable as were the Abbey's offerings in English. Realizing that many in his audiences would not be willing to sit through long plays in a language in which they lacked full command, he broke entirely with what had by then become the traditional Abbey style of production. In his 2000 memoir Fallaing Aonghusa: Saol Amharclainne, he recalled: "Ni fhaca me cad ina thaobh nach mbeadh an dramaiocht Ghaeilge ag dul a bealach fein, beag beann ar an readaiocht, ag brath nios mo ar an scealaiocht agus an rannaireacht agus ar an aifeis. Chuireas chuige na treithe sin a thabhairt chun cinn sna cluichi gearra sina sadh isteach mar aguisini ar an gclar, agus ag deireadh thiar tharla se gur fhan roinnt mhaith den lucht eisteachta siar agus a fhios acu go mbeadh an cluiche Gaeilge eagsuil lena raibh feicthe acu i mBearla" (I did not see why drama in Irish would not go its own way, ignoring realism and relying more on storytelling and verse and extravagance. I set to work to bring those qualities to the forefront in those short plays that were stuck in as little additions to the program, and at last a good share of the audiences stayed, knowing that the play in Irish would be different from what they had seen in English).

This innovative approach to drama in Irish found its fullest expression in Tomas's work with the Abbey's Gaelic geamaireachtai or pantomimes that will forever be associated with his name. While Tomas did not originate this genre--the first Abbey geamaireacht, Frank Dermody's production of Micheal O hAodha's Muireann agus an Prionnsa had been staged in 1945 and Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe had been experimenting with such shows since the 1930s--he was to make these annual Christmastime extravaganzas very much his own. His first show, Brian agus an Claidheamh Soluis, went up in 1948, and by the following year he had already made his mark on the genre, with the poet Mairtin O Direain writing of the 1949 production Niall agus Carmelita that Tomas had performed "eachta leiritheoireachta" (great feats in production). These geamaireachtai, full of singing, dancing, odd characters, and a cavalier disregard for logic or consistency, were a regular feature of the Abby schedule right into the 1970s, drawing the largest audiences ever seen--or ever likely to be seen--for theatre in Irish.

While the geamaireachtai have often--and unfairly--been dismissed as irrelevant fluff, they represent a major anal quite brilliantly creative attempt to build--or perhaps better create--a broad audience for plays in Irish. They also give us an excellent insight into Tomas's inclusive idea of the theatre. He saw theatre very much as show business and he loved all kinds of shows, from Boucicault to Beckett, from Brecht to the Broadway musical. He was committed to the idea that theatre should entertain its audiences as it enlightened them. And these two goals were intimately intertwined in his own work as a director of plays in both English and Irish. Among his early triumphs at the Abbey was his 1956 production of Brecht's The Life of Galileo, a production seen even at the time as a major step in a new direction for the Abbey. His extraordinary agit-prop production of Mairead Ni Ghrada's An Triail at the Damer Hall in 1964, as well as his equally striking 1968 staging of the same author's Breithiunas at the Peacock, strengthened this idea that Tomas was a Brechtian. Yet despite his deep interest in the work of the great German and his spending some time with the Berliner Ensemble under Helene Wiegel, he wrote in Fallaing Aonghusa that while critics might attribute his mature style to the influence of people like Brecht and Meyerhold, "i ndairire, ni raibh me ach ag leanuint den stil a cheapas i dtosach baire agus me ag gabhail do na cluichi beaga i nGaeilge agus an lucht eisteachta ag baint sult as go leor astu" (I was actually just following the style I first created when working with the little plays in Irish, many of which the audiences enjoyed). It is this same sensitivity to his audiences that enabled him to create not only the successful geamaireachtai, but also huge popular spectacles like his pageants to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Easter rising and the centenary of the birth of Patrick Pearse, as well as the updated and unapologetically republican mummer's play he and Robert Ballagh staged on the back of a flatbed lorry on O'Connell St. in the 1990s.


Lest, however, it be thought that Tomas was predominantly a populist showman, we should remember how many landmark productions he brought to the stage. The following lists are by no means anywhere near complete, but they should give some idea of the range and significance of his contribution to Irish and indeed world theatre. In addition to the previously noted productions of Ni Ghrada's An Triail and Breithiunas, he directed Ni Ghrada's Stailc Ocrais at the Damer in 1962; Sean O Tuama's Gunna Cam agus Slabhra Oir and his Sceal ar Phadraig (with music by Sean O Riada), the former at the Abbey in 1956, the latter at the Damer in1961; Eoghan O Tuairisc's De Reir na Ruibrici and Cuirt an Mhean Oiche, both at the Damer in 1961 and 1962, respectively; and Alan Titley's Tagann Godot at the Peacock in 1990. Tomas's best-known work in English was his production of Frank MacMahon's adaptation of Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy, which won the Abbey its first Tony Award in 1970. But this was just the most celebrated of his many groundbreaking productions in English. Along with the previously noted Life of Galileo, he directed the Abbey premiere of Behan's The Quare Fella in 1956, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night in 1959, Brian Friel's The Loves of Cass Maguire in 1967 and his Freedom of the City in 1973, Tom Murphy's Famine in 1968, and O'Casey's The Star Turns Red in 1978.

Tomas garnered more than his share of tributes during his long career, among them the Tony, an award presented to him by the president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, to celebrate his extraordinary contributions to theatre in Irish, an evening's tribute at the Abbey in 2000, and an honorary degree as a "distinguished alunmus" of Boston College in 2006. But it was not awards that primarily motivated Tomas, who instead saw those he mentored over the years as his greatest achievements. Several generations of playwrights, directors, actors, designers, technicians, and members of the Abbey staff owe their inspiration and often their positions to Tomas's vision and generosity. I know from personal experience that he was a superb teacher. For twelve summers from 1991 through 2002 I worked with Tomas on the Boston College-Abbey Theatre Summer Workshop, a course created by Tomas, Adele Dalsimer, and Sean White, all of them alas now no longer with us. The course combined academic lectures with workshops conducted by theatre professionals. Tomas's wide-ranging contacts brought in people like Tom Murphy, Marina Carr, Garry Hynes, Patrick Mason, Robert Ballagh, Christopher and Bronwen Casson, Bairbre Ni Chaoimh, Tony Wakefield, Kathleen Barrington, Tom Hickey, Eamonn O'Kelly, Phyllis Ryan (another great Abbey figure who has just left us), Fintan O'Toole, Eamorm Jordan, Christopher Murray, and Cathy Leeney. All of these scholars and theatre people brought a great deal to the students, but it was Tomas through his lectures and informal discussions who held the whole thing together and gave it a focus.

The program ended with a student performance at the Peacock of scenes from Irish theatre selected by Tomas: a mummer's play, a bit from the The Colleen Bawn, Yeat's Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Synge's Playboy, Friel's Translations, and Beckett's Godot (as well as the full Come and Go). The show ended with a rousing performance of the transformation scene from O'Casey's Red Roses for Me. The students we brought every year were a mixed lot--some with a sound background in theatre, some far more interested in studying the stage than ever appearing on one, and some simply eager to visit the land of their ancestors. Within a few days, Tomas had the show cast; within five weeks it was ready to go. I saw some variant of that basic show twelve times, and every time I was amazed at how deftly Tomas had found the right performer for the right part and how successfully he had drawn the best from every student performer. He took them all seriously so that they took themselves and their work just as seriously. Each section of the play was directed by a student, but Tomas oversaw the whole production, intuitively adapting his direction to their needs. I found the show fascinating every time for what he had accomplished and for the real satisfaction it gave the students, the theatre crowd for having honed their skills under a master, the lit types for having survived the experience and done something well they may never have thought they would do at all. And Tomas made it all look easy. Most of the students attended the Abbey tribute to Tomas in 2000. As one of them left the theatre after listening to all the encomia she said to me "Wow! We didn't know." It is too easy to take greatness for granted when it is cloaked in genuine humility. We should all know and remember what Tomas Mac Anna meant to the Irish theatre and the Irish nation. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal, spleodrach, spraiuil

--Boston College
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Author:O'Leary, Philip
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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