For some New York theatre critics, the story of Teresa Deevy (1894-1963) seemed too good to be true. Or rather, too true: touched by too many hard truths for her work to be any good. As critics rolled up recently to the Mint Theater, off-Broadway, for director Jonathan Bank’s resuscitation of Deevy’s play, Wife to James Whelan, Michael Feingold of the Village Voice gave voice to the suspicion felt by many.
"Irish, female, and hearing-impaired from the age of twenty", was how Feingold opened his review of the play. "What nonprofit institution wouldn't want the glory of reclaiming from oblivion a gender-oppressed, disabled artist born into a minority nation struggling for its independence?" Add to that the fact of Deevy's rejection by the theatre, the Abbey, which had seemed set to nurture her, and add to that the melancholic image of an effectively deaf playwright finding that the radio is the only medium likely to produce her work. Deevy's "list of grievances," worried Feingold, suggested her as "a prime candidate for special pleading."
But Deevy, as Feingold and his colleagues discovered, asks no favours of her audience. Her work solicits no cushioning in the context of its author's gender, or her era, or the Ireland she could see but could not hear. Certainly, Wife to James Whelan is a vivid portrait of that Ireland, or of one version of it - a small town in the 1930s in which no personal choice can go unshaped, or unwitnessed, by the community - and it is a portrait of the limitations of life as a woman in that Ireland, in which De Valera's Constitution was still new.
Yet first and foremost, it is a play that evokes and explores the complexity of characters who are raw with humanity and laced around with trouble and doubt. James Whelan leaves Kilbeggan for a better job in Dublin; Nan, the girl he loves, wants him to stay but will not beg. Seven years later, James is back in Kilbeggan, running a successful business, and Nan is a young widow who comes to him looking for a job. What Nan does next can only lead to her downfall; what James does next suggests that he is bent on a kind of self-destruction too. In what reconciliation they can manage, there is a loneliness and a longing which might have crept in from Chekhov. Wife to James Whelan is a strange play, in its quiet refusal to thunder towards the kind of climax that seems inevitably in store.
At the Mint Theater, which specialises in recovering the work of forgotten or neglected playwrights, the play has just completed a successful run, garnering strong reviews and winning the Judges' Special Award in the Origin 1st Irish Theatre Festival Awards. The Mint was also part of that festival in 2009, when it staged a well-received production of Lennox Robinson's Is Life Worth Living? the 1933 play that was originally titled Drama at Inish. Bank, who is the Mint's artistic director, knew after the Robinson production that he wanted to look to Ireland again for a neglected play to produce in 2010, and he wanted to find one written by a woman. "I just thought, who were the women writing in Ireland during the first fifty years of the Abbey?" says Bank. "There must have been someone other than Lady Gregory."
He began with Robinson's 1951 history of the Abbey Theatre. "Which isn't a great book, actually," he laughs, "but it does have a complete production history, which I went through in search of full-length plays. And I made a list of the women: Dorothy MacCardle, Margaret O'Leary, Maura Molloy, Maeve O'Callaghan, Mary Rynne, Nora MacAdam, Elizabeth Connor. And Teresa Deevy. And the only one who had anything published was Deevy."
For a play to be rescued by the Mint, it's not essential that it be published, but it certainly helps. As Bank says, it would be "a real shot in the dark" to seek out an unpublished manuscript of stageable quality. It also helps if a play comes from before 1950; a certain length of time needs to have passed, after all, before a play can truly be considered neglected. An element of personal taste chimes in here for Bank, also. "My taste runs towards narrative," he says. "And I'm not sure that we've ever really gotten back to narrative after it was exploded in the 1950s and 1960s."
From the Library of Congress, he borrowed a copy of Deevy's Three Plays (1939) comprising The King of Spain's Daughter, Katie Roche and The Wild Goose. "By the time I was two pages into Katie Roche, I said, okay, there's a writer here," says Bank. "It's unmistakable that there's a real voice." And in the 1930s, that was the official thinking on Deevy; during that decade, these plays, along with three others (Reapers, A Disciple and Temporal Powers) were produced by the Abbey, and Katie Roche, the story of a servant girl who dreams of romance, toured to London and to the US. A critic in the Observer thought that she might just be a genius. Lennox Robinson, who directed three of those Abbey productions, at one point called her "the most important dramatist writing for the Irish theatre". Frank O'Connor wrote her a letter to say that he knew something was happening when he saw Reapers, and that when he saw Temporal Powers, he knew that it had happened with a vengeance. There were comparisons to Chekhov and Ibsen. And then, in the early 1940s, there was a rejection letter in Ernest Blythe's blunt hand. It was when Jonathan Bank came across a reference to that rejection that he knew he might have a play worth pursuing. "That's the kind of thing that gets my interest," he says.
Wife to James Whelan was nothing new, Blythe suggested to Deevy; its characters were too much like those of Katie Roche. Some of the actors from Katie Roche, among them a young Cyril Cusack, disagreed with Blythe, and told him so. But it made no difference. The play languished. Deevy, who had been deaf for a decade by the time the first Irish radio drama was broadcast, began to write for that medium, as well as turning her hand to essays and children's books. A version of Wife to James Whelan adapted for RTÉ radio was performed (but not recorded) in 1946, and ten years later a production was staged at the Studio Theatre of Madame Bannard (Toto) Cogley, one of the founding directors of the Gate. And, it appears, every one of those eight scripts were binned. Because when, in the 1980s, the poet Sean Dunne (who was responsible for bringing Deevy's Temporal Powers into print) went in search of a copy of Wife to James Whelan - writing letters, placing classified ads - he received no response. Even the Deevy family had no copy.
Eventually, in the 1990s, a slight overhaul of the Deevy filing system in the family home in Waterford turned up a copy of the script in the envelope in which it had sat for over thirty years. "Not that anybody other than Dunne had really cared," Bank admits. But 1994 brought the centenary of Deevy's birth (she died in 1963) and saw a revival of Katie Roche staged at the Peacock, directed by Judy Friel, followed, in 1995, by a special Irish University Review issue on Deevy, which included the script of Wife to James Whelan. "But how many practitioners are looking at the Irish University Review?" says Bank. And he has a point. Which is that, published or unpublished, Wife was very nearly lost all over again.
It was the Lennox Robinson connection that sent him wandering towards the play. Now, the Mint Theater has plans for what it's calling the Teresa Deevy Project, which, over the course of the next couple of years, will include a production of Temporal Powers, public readings of several one-act plays (The King of Spain's Daughter was read in September), new audio recordings of Deevy's radio plays, the publication of Deevy's Collected Works, and a Deevy conference in collaboration with NYU and Fordham universities. The possibility of touring to Ireland, or of partnering with an Irish production company on a Deevy play or plays, has also been aired.
Bank believes that Deevy's talent is of a very particular nature. "The writing feels inspired," he says. "It's clear from annotations in manuscripts of other plays that she had craft and that she really worked, but it's more than that. The people are so sharply drawn. A lot of plays that you read today, the author's voice is just in every character, or every character speaks in the author's voice, and you can get lost as to who's talking. And with Deevy, that just doesn't happen."
What Wife to James Whelan does illustrate is that Deevy had a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue. As Bank points out, it might seem ironic - or cruel - to say this of a playwright who could not hear, but it's true, and it makes perfect sense. It's perhaps because she had to work so hard to hear her own characters, to hear them talk to one another and to themselves, that their truths and their lies and their struggles ring so true. Deevy's ear is what lends to her language, which at first glance seems so plain, its nuance and its marvelous restraint; it's in what her characters leave silent, the desires they do not confess, the fears they cannot articulate, that the immense moral and emotional power of this play lies.
"Her capacity, through the way her people speak, to identify character, and through dialogue to communicate how complex her people are, it's extraordinary," says Bank. "Her characters surprise you in everything they do, and yet when they do it, it feels consistent, despite the fact that you could never predict it. And that's a gift."
Belinda McKeon is a writer and journalist, living in New York.