(Caoilfhionn Ni Bheachain’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 4/3; Photo: Teresa Deevy: in recent years, critical attention has turned to her radio drama. The Irish Times.)
BEST KNOWN FOR HER PRODUCTIONS at the Abbey, the Waterford playwright also wrote for radio, and there’s a mystery surrounding the origins of unpublished work under a pseudonym
For more than four decades after her death in 1963, Teresa Deevy’s papers were stored in a large green suitcase under a bed in the family home, Landscape, in Waterford city. Since 2011, they have resided in the excellent archive at Maynooth University. In recent years, facilitated by New York-based Mint Theatre’s project to republish Deevy’s one-act plays, critical attention has turned to her radio drama. Such acts of recovery are interconnected and enabling. Notably, at a recent international conference on Deevy at Waterford Institute of Technology, the two keynote speakers focused on the radio play In the Cellar of My Friend. This reframing of Deevy’s oeuvre is welcome and necessary. Little known though she is, her reputation fossilised at the moment of her greatest critical success: as a popular Abbey playwright, with six plays produced in as many years. This emphasis on her Abbey career has unwittingly overshadowed her later life when she courageously embraced new media, and when she engaged with other theatrical spaces and communities.
Deevy was born in Waterford on January 21st, 1894, the youngest of 13 children in a successful merchant family. Her father died when she was three years old and she was raised by her mother in a supportive but conservative environment, aware of class distinctions and expected to adhere to religious and social orthodoxies. She attended the Ursuline Convent School in Waterford before studying first in UCD and then at UCC. While at university she was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an affliction which resulted in her complete deafness within a few years. She moved to London to study lip reading and while there became deeply immersed in theatre, deciding to become a playwright so that she “would put the sort of life we have in Ireland into a play”.
The unpublished script of Deevy’s first Abbey play, The Reapers, has never been recovered. Set in 1923 in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, its subject matter and significance are only accessible through fragmented commentary and contemporary reviews. During its one-week run at the Abbey Theatre in 1930, the critic Con Leventhal compared it in a letter to a “Wagner melody”, while an unnamed Irish Times critic highlighted a powerful theme sentence uttered at the end of the play: “Life must be lived, not simply accepted.” Concluding with a marriage between the adult children of two warring families, The Reapers meditated on the legacy of internecine strife on subsequent generations. The loss of this script reveals much about the plight of women’s literary and creative work, and its occlusion within Irish cultural history.
Throughout the 1930s, Deevy’s profile remained high. Her third Abbey play, Temporal Powers, tied for first place with Paul Vincent Carroll’s Things that are Caesar’s in the 1932 Aonach Tailteann Dramatic Arts competition. An intellectual drama that explored issues such as emigration, the Land Annuities crisis and rural poverty, the panel noted that Deevy’s play was “strikingly original and of fine literary quality”. Her two subsequent plays, Katie Roche and The King of Spain’s Daughter, were hailed as theatrical triumphs although one critic ominously complained that Katie Roche “seems to be little more than a clever psychological study of an illegitimate girl”. In recent years, Deevy has been rightly recognised for such female protagonists, taking centre stage in the Abbey Theatre at a moment when women were being pushed to the margins of Irish society. Four of her six Abbey plays feature young women grappling with the scarcity of life paths available to them and Deevy often hints at shadow experiences beyond the frame of the stage, be it emigration under duress or the threat of Magdalene laundries.
Following the banning in 1936 of Seán Ó Faoláin’s novel Bird Alone, Deevy wrote to The Irish Times. Her words excoriate the culture of censorship that had taken hold: “If, in Ireland, we are not to be allowed to read of those whose faith differs from ours – if we are not to be allowed to read any criticism of priests or religious orders – let that be said. But let us have an end to insults – lowering to those who offer them and to the nation that tolerates such practices… Who are the censors? By what right do they hold office? And how, in case of proved incompetence, can they be removed?”