Mr Kennedy Miller transcript
Published on 28th January 2011
The following is a transcript of the fourteenth Sir John T. Gilbert Commemorative Lecture by Dr Christopher Fitz-Simon, at Dublin City Library and Archive on 24 January 2011. Audio
Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. In this episode, 'Mr J. Kennedy Miller's very capable company of Irish players', Christopher Fitz-Simon details Miller's successful Irish theatre company which toured Ireland and Britain during the period 1889 - 1906. The fourteenth annual Sir John T. Gilbert Commemorative Lecture, was recorded in front of a live audience at Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse Street on 24 January 2011.
My Lord Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen, in December 1891 the critic of the Irish Playgoer magazine expressed this opinion: “The play A True son of Erin by Mr J W Whitbread, at the Queen’s Royal Theatre, was presented by Mr J Kennedy Miller’s very capable company of Irish Players, who each and all seem to know the pulse of the particular audiences invariably to be found in this theatre…”
During most of the 19th century and well into the 20th the big Dublin theatres relied exclusively on what were known as ‘cross-channel attractions’, whether it was for opera, musical comedy, the latest west end plays, major productions of Shakespeare with starry names, music-hall variety and even the Christmas pantomime. Indigenous productions were a rarity though Irish ‘acts’ were to be seen in some variety programmes and Irish comedians and chorus were usually engaged for the London-produced pantos, to give a bit of local colour. The big Dublin theatres – the Royal, the Gaiety, the Queen’s Royal Theatre, the Empire Palace (later known as the Olympia) the Tivoli and the Lyric – were what was known in the trade as ‘receiving houses’, mostly owned and managed by Dublin business people such as the Gunn family at the Gaiety or the Figgis’s (of bookshop fame) at the Empire Palace: but they did not produce their own shows.
Dublin was simply another city on the ‘British’ provincial touring circuit: what we saw this week in our theatres, Glasgow, Leeds, and Stockton-upon-Tees had seen last week in theirs. Yet a trawl through period copies of ‘The Era’, the weekly paper that gave details of all productions on the road, shows an interesting difference between Dublin and other cities: touring managements tended to allocate longer runs to Dublin than, for instance, Manchester. This strengthens the view, strongly promoted by the Hibernian press, that Dublin was more ‘appreciative’ of the theatre than other ‘British’ cities. The French actor-producer Constant-Benoit Coquelin gave seven performances at the Gaiety in 1899 of (on alternate nights) Molière’s ‘Les Précieuses Ridicules’ and ‘Le Tartuffe’ and Rostand’s ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ – in French! – when he only gave three nights in other ‘British’ cities outside London.
We all know about the fringe theatres that developed towards the end of the 19th century in Dublin, out of which in 1904 emerged the Abbey; several thousand books and learned magazine articles have been devoted to this phenomenon: its playwrights, its actors, its associated personalities and its impact abroad, which was considerable in literary and artistic circles before becoming an international industry. My subject this evening is not the Abbey or the grubby ateliers of Camden Street and Capel Street, but the Dublin metropolitan or boulevard houses with their dress-circles, parterres and boxes, and especially of one of these, the Queen’s Royal Theatre in Brunswick Street just a quarter-mile from where you are now sitting. More particularly, I’m looking at one Company that was based there for seventeen years and produced, exclusively, major productions of Irish plays with Irish players. This company was known as Mr J. Kennedy Miller’s Combination and it flourished here and on tour throughout the British Isles from 1889 until Mr Miller’s untimely death in 1906.
The Queen’s, as it was popularly known, was a receiving house like all the others. At the time of which I’m speaking its lessee was Mr J.W. Whitbread, an English entrepreneur who had settled here and rescued the Queen’s from its apparently deplorable condition. ‘The Graphic’, a London weekly of arts and fashion, said of the Queen’s “the plays were low, the actors vile, the authors rough exceedingly. Mr Whitbread… by main energy, patience, wisdom and expenditure, dragged all out of the mire.” (laughter) The Queen’s visiting attractions were no different from those at the Gaiety or the Royal, though on a smaller scale: it was a ‘No.2 house’ on the circuit and did not have the space to stage the most crowded dramatic and operatic productions. Typical were plays with titles like ‘A Woman’s Revenge’ or ‘Lost in New York’; F.B. Gilbert’s Grand Opera Company was a regular visitor in ‘Maritana’, ‘Satanella’ and ‘The Daughter of the Regiment’. Medium sized rather than grand I would have thought. Whitbread was an unusual manager, for he was more than a businessman: he fancied himself as a playwright, and indeed in 1886 he wrote a play called ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ which he produced with a touring management, first in Limerick, before allowing the same company to grace his own stage in Dublin. Clearly the out-of-town opening was a precaution; had it failed in distant Limerick it certainly would not have proceeded to the bright lights of Brunswick Street, and Mr Whitbread may have been prudently questioning his own dramatic talent.
Whitbread gave his next play, ‘The Irishman’, to the touring management of Kennedy Miller who brought it out in 1889 in London at the Elephant and Castle Theatre. Why there? The answer is quite simple: Kennedy Miller’s company was rehearsing the play while performing other works on the road in England and it was apparently deemed to be ready by the time they reached the splendid new suburban house seating 2,203 patrons, and designed by the leading theatre architect of the time, Frank Matcham. A largish number of seats to be filled for a week, you will be thinking, especially for an Irish play by an unknown author. It would appear from the reviews that Kennedy Miller’s staging was particularly impressive, especially the multiple setting of castle interior, exterior and adjacent lakeside in the final act, and a spectacular visual occurrence earlier in the play when a battering ram is used to demolish a cottage from which the inhabitants are seen to be cruelly evicted.
Who was this Kennedy Miller who was to have such a fruitful 17-year career as a director of Irish plays? Well, he was a Scot who claimed Irish ancestry. His first name was actually Andrew though he never used that professionally. His initial employment was as bit-part actor and assistant-stage-manager – there was nothing like Drama School at that time. His apprenticeship was at the Grand Theatre, Glasgow. In an interview with the ‘Irish Playgoer’ after his own company was well established Kennedy Miller modestly declared that his early experience had been ‘very varied’, travelling with “operas, comedies, dramas, pantomimes …and the band belonging to His Majesty the King of Siam.” It was typical training-on-the-job. He found himself engaged more and more frequently as ‘acting manager’ – we would now use the term ‘director’: the person who directs the actors in rehearsal and is responsible for the interpretation and co-ordination of the piece. He came to Whitbread’s notice when productions he’d directed visited various theatres in Dublin.
It would appear that the two men, now in their enterprising thirties, saw the potential for writing and producing specifically Irish plays. The Irish melodramas of Dion Boucicault were still very popular through Boucicault was no longer active on the circuit – he died in New York in 1890. As well as this there appeared to be a distinct vogue for Irish topics on the London stage – and also, indeed in the rest of Britain. Why was this? Certainly for English theatregoers Ireland was near enough to be the scene of patently credible, if bizarre, incidents, but yet removed enough for these not to impinge too heavily on the tranquil minds of the bourgeois theatregoing public: agrarian disturbance, rebellion, prison escapes, evictions, courtroom reversals, political assassination, such things did not happen in Tunbridge Wells. (laughter) There was also, for the English theatregoer, the “engagingly humorous way our brave neighbours across the Irish Sea have of expressing themselves in the English language – if you could call it English my dear though I don’t think I would”. This ‘humorous’ Irish mode of speech was especially prevalent when stage characters were attempting to climb out of tricky situations, whether domestic, legal or military. Of the six stage productions that grossed the most money in the British Isles in 1895, no less than three were on Irish topics: revivals of Boucicault’s ‘The Shaughraun’ and ‘The Colleen Bawn’ and Buckstone’s ‘The Green Bushes’. There were 160 professional theatres and music-halls in Greater London and about 380 on the provincial circuit – which included Ireland. So there was consumer partiality for Irish work and ample accommodation.
Whitbread and Kennedy Miller would certainly have discussed the vexed question of English actors portraying Irish characters – this always raised the hackles of the Dublin critics, from Frank Fay who wrote acidic reviews for the ‘United Irishman’ to Joseph Holloway who wrote sweet ones for the ‘Freeman’s Journal’ and the ‘Irish Times’. A company of genuine Irish actors was the obvious solution.
Kennedy Miller did not produce anything as pretentious as a manifesto – that would have been more in line with the work of the théâtre-à côté on Abbey Street. Nor was he given to expounding dramatic theories. I’m reminded of a character in ‘John Bull’s Other Island’ who says disparagingly of the parish priest, “What would he be doing with a theory?” (laughter) Well, Kennedy Miller was not a theorist, he was a practitioner. It’s clear from the few hints we have from the press that he required complete authenticity from his actors, as he did from his scenic and costume designers. It is also clear that he required absolute discipline.
The Whitbread-Kennedy Miller collaboration had begun tentatively when Kennedy Miller obtained the rights of the Limerick-originated ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’. After that Whitbread penned a succession of plays, mainly on patriotic themes, all of them presented by Kennedy Miller’s company and most of them opening at the Queen’s in Dublin before touring ‘across the water’. Ireland was not populous enough to sustain a production on tour for more than a couple of months. Furthermore, only Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Limerick and Waterford – and Wexford and Derry at a squeeze – could provide theatres with adequate stage facilities. These Kennedy Miller productions were patently not ‘fit up’ shows, though one American scholar has recently and ignorantly described them as such – the fit-up companies played in their own booths or in parish halls and latterly in provincial cinemas. Companies like Kennedy Miller’s required an orchestra pit, a spacious stage and most of all flying facilities for the elaborate scenic effects.
Some theatre historians have been confused by the arrangement between J. Kennedy Miller and J.W. Whitbread. Because most of Whitbread’s plays were seen in Dublin in his own theatre, it has been erroneously assumed that he directed them himself: but there is in fact a clear distinction between the House and the Performing Company. The Queen’s ‘received’ Kennedy Miller’s company; it just so happened that his company contained in its repertoire an increasing number of plays by Whitbread, the manager of the Queen’s. Later, certainly, there was a fusion of talents when in 1899 Kennedy Miller became Whitbread’s deputy and took up residence in Dublin, but there was no alteration in his company touring independently in Ireland and Britain for the greater part of the year.
Now the notion of touring exclusively Irish plays in England, Scotland and Wales worked very well. Kennedy Miller mounted new productions of Boucicault’s ‘The Colleen Bawn’, ‘Arrah-na-Pogue’ and ‘The Shaughraun’, Buckstone’s ‘The Green Bushes’, Travers’s ‘Kathleen Mavourneen’, Falconer’s ‘Peep O’Day’ and Tyrone Power’s ‘Born to Good Luck’. By 1904 the list of Whitbread’s plays which Kennedy Miller produced with the same leading and supporting actors amounted to twelve: the original two, ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ and ‘The Irishman’; then ‘The Nationalist’ – also known as ‘A True Son of Erin’ (you get the picture); then ‘Lord Edward’, initially presented in 1894 in anticipation of popular ferment leading up to the commemoration of the ’98 (1798) Rising. Next, Whitbread’s only historical play that does not have an Irish setting (but there is a leading comic part for a leading Irish actor, in this case Frank Breen), it’s called ‘The Victoria Cross’, a tale of derring-do in India’s sunny clime was brought out in Dublin and toured successfully; then ‘Theobald Wolfe Tone’ hard on the enormous commercial success of ‘Lord Edward’. Next came ‘Rory O’More’, a weak adaptation of Lever’s novel which did not do good business; then ‘The Insurgent Chief’, a clumsy melodrama with the Scarlet Pimpernel figure of Michael Dwyer at its centre. Very much in the same mode is another 1798 play without a famous figure in the title role and not Whitbread’s best (‘The Sham Squire’); and then ‘The Ulster Hero’ who is of course Henry Joy McCracken; and finally, in 1904, ‘Sarsfield’, which probably is Whitbread’s best. ‘Sarsfield’ opened at the Queen’s in Kennedy Miller’s production on the night that Yeats' ‘On Baile’s Strand’ and Lady Gregory’s ‘Spreading the News’ were dress-rehearsing across the river at the Abbey prior to the formal opening of that house on 27th of December 1904.
It would be convenient to be able to say that the recherché literary theatre put an end to the popular Irish melodrama, but such was not the case. Melodrama – the Irish version of which J M Synge generously referred to as “the traditional drama of the Irish stage”, it continued until it was superseded throughout the Western world by the motion picture which could present its high-flown sentiments and exotic scenic effects so much more effectively.
Isn’t it remarkable that not only did a commercial touring company manage to play forty eight weeks of the year in large metropolitan houses throughout the United Kingdom in Irish plays, but that it also gave permanent employment to upwards of two dozen actors and technicians. (The stagehands, flymen and orchestra were provided by the receiving house, as were the crowd extras who were recruited locally and rehearsed on the afternoon of the particular show in Aberdeen or Watford or wherever it happened to be.) In an almost entirely free-lance profession there is nothing like the confidence occasioned by a regular pay-packet to give a feeling of company solidarity; this, with a regular director in rehearsal, one might argue, would create a company style. Clearly the actors came to know one another very well indeed: how would they not, sharing cramped dressing-rooms and equally cramped digs in the lanes between Brunswick Street and the river; sitting up all night on the Princess Maud out of Kingstown and waiting for LMS train connections on Sunday afternoons at Crewe or GSR trains at Limerick Junction. Some were married couples and some entered into that state when employed with the company (laughter). Some, indeed, died while in service. Certainly one gathers from the reviews that there was an ‘ensemble’ rather than an ‘ad hoc’ feeling, more like what you’d expect to find in the D’Oyley Carte Opera Company, or in Henry Irving’s Celebrated Troupe of Shakespearian Players. After all, like the D’Oyley Carte and Irving productions, Kennedy Miller had a particular product packaged in a particular way.
What was this ‘Irish melodrama’ and was it any different from any other? Well at the time I’m speaking of, ‘melodramatic’ was not used as a term of disparagement for cheap sensational effects. Later, in the theatre and cinema, it did come to be synonymous with plays – or films – of excessively dramatic content containing exaggerated episodes of horror, violence or domestic strife. I suppose the tern originally meant just what it suggests: Music Drama, with music as background to the spoken passages, or separating incidents, or emphasising mood: the violins – the brass – the timps – depending on the emotional pitch of the scene. In true melodrama everything is larger than life and in these productions assisted by the musical background.
Kennedy Miller was adept at contriving, for example, the action-packed and sentimental finale, as we read from reviews of his productions, rendering them credible to the theatre audience in the heightened atmosphere created. At the close of Whitbread’s patriotic play ‘Theobald Wolfe Tone’ our hero is about to embark from Brest for Bantry Bay in charge of a vast French fleet and army. The final words in the script take place in the camp where Tone has caught up with two spies, Rafferty and Turner, who are in the pay of the English government and are intent on betraying him and his expedition. (‘Betraying’, because they are Irish.) Both spies die dishonourably in the final scene, though Tone generously pleads for their lives for “are they not my countrymen!’ Turner blames Rafferty for their capture and shoots him, while a French firing squad swiftly disposes of Turner. Tone remarks, ‘So perish all traitors!’ and that is the end of the play as we read it in manuscript – but not the end as Kennedy Miller directed it. According to the review in the Dublin ‘Evening Telegraph’ there was an additional scene on the quayside. There was no dialogue, but the Brass Band of the Dublin Workingmen’s Club, Wellington Quay Branch (by kind permission) was on the stage playing for all it was worth dressed in habiliments of the French army, its strains joined from below by the pit orchestra. Mr Alfred Adams as Wolfe Tone mounted the gangway of his vessel, amid the waving of nautical banners and the firing off of muskets, shortly to be joined by none other than the Emperor Napoleon and his charming wife Josephine. (laughter) ‘Vive la France! Vive l’Irlande! Vive La Liberte!’ cried the crowd. – So the painted ship cast off to cheers without even the slightest hint of what might be in store at Bantry. Bantry is not in the play. The ship sails, as the curtain falls. This is not the ship of history, but the ship of theatrical illusion; and that is what Kennedy Miller, with his company of Irish actors, musicians and scenic artists, evidently supplied, for none of it is in the script.
What distinguished Irish melodrama from English and American was the covert – you may well think overt – nationalistic feeling. The lovely Irish heroine was something other than a young girl wronged like Maria Marten in ‘Murder in the Red Barn’ or Elizabeth in ‘East Lynne’; she, the Irish heroine was the very embodiment of Ireland, a kind of aisling gheal except that in these plays she was usually quite witty. The hero of Irish melodrama, if not taking the purple path to the gallows in order to assuage his country’s wrongs, was at least striving by direct or subversive means to achieve a measure of reform. The Irish villain was far more than a stereotypical mustachio-twirling toff intent on securing the hapless beauty for his own social or sexual gratification – he was the conniving agent of an absentee landlord or worse, an informer against those of his countrymen who were seeking justice. The servants who support their masters in Irish melodrama are, as a matter of course, aiding the national cause by clever stratagems and by means of their sharp tongues: their use of language is far more allusive and colourful than that of any rustics I’ve yet come across in English or American melodrama.
The actors who appear to have been most popular with audiences happen also to have been those who stayed with the Kennedy Miller Combination the longest. There may have been a way in which theatregoers came along to see what their favourite player was appearing in tonight. I certainly remember a vestige of this in the 1950s at the Queen’s, when the Abbey Company was in residence there, people going to see what Harry Brogan was as this week, or Eileen Crowe or Ray McAnally. The actors went in for wonderful make-up disguises so they looked different even if they didn’t sound very different to what they had been portraying last week – and certainly the parts doled out to individual actors were inclined to be stereotyped – there was the Dashing Hero, the Pretty Heroine, the Comic Servant, the Infamous Villain etc. etc. – but often audiences were pleasantly surprised when one of their favourites came up with something quite unexpected and accounted for him- or her-self very well in a different kind of part.
We’ll now have a sos beag for a short slide show. Most of these pictures appear in my book ‘Buffoonery and Easy Sentiment’ which I learn was delivered from the printers today to my highly regarded publishers, the Carysfort Press, and, I’m told, will be available in the foyer in just a few minutes! (laughter) I’ve seen it but I haven’t opened it. Very few images of the actors in Kennedy Miller’s company have survived and most of those that have are of poor quality. Generally only the very famous and well-to-do – like Irving and Coquelin – had production pictures taken of themselves, and there was no theatrical repository in this country to house such material. Fortunately we now have the Dublin City Library and Archive, gradually building up an impressive collection of theatrical memorabilia. All the following pictures (except the photograph of Kennedy Miller which is from the ‘Irish Playgoer’ magazine) are from the archive here in Pearse Street, or Brunswick Street if you like:
- The first is not a photograph but a caricature of Frank Breen drawn by his colleague Ion Ireland. He’s seen here as Feeney in Boucicault’s melodrama ‘Arrah-na-Pogue’, a revival of which is now, as it happens, running at the Abbey Theatre: (The strange noise you may have heard was Yeats and Lady Gregory turning in their graves (laughter) at this class of buffoonery taking place in their theatre.). Frank Breen was from Co Down. He played in many stock companies all over the British Isles before joining Kennedy Miller where he was in revivals of Tyrone Power’s comedy ‘Born to Good Luck’, and he created the parts of Flynn in ‘The Nationalist’, Rafferty the spy in Wolfe Tone, Brander Byrne in ‘The Insurgent Chief ‘and Niblock in ‘The Ulster Hero’. The Evening Herald said Breen was “the most interesting villain on the Irish stage”. Another reporter drew attention to the fact that Breen seemed to enjoy the hisses and catcalls as “tributes to his talent.” Comments of this kind emphasise how much these melodramas were considered to be entertainments: the villain’s presence was relished. This is something recent scholars – particularly those from the New World – fail to understand.
- Here is Kennedy Miller’s leading comic actor, James O’Brien. Were it not for J M Synge’s visit to the Queen’s in 1904 O’Brien’s name would be unknown to students of theatre history. Synge wrote in a magazine article that “Some recent performances of The ‘Shaughraun’ … as they were played the other day by Mr Kennedy Miller’s company, had a breath of native humour that is now rare on the stage. Mr James O’Brien especially…put a genuine richness into his voice… and in listening to him one felt how much the modern stage has lost in substituting impersonal wit for personal humour…” Synge used the term ‘comedians’ in the French manner, meaning ‘actors’ – ‘les comédiens’. One senses that Synge would have liked O’Brien to be cast in The Well of the Saints over the river but of course that was an impossibility. James O’Brien created Danny O’Hea in ‘A True Son of Erin’, Hogan the Raparee in ‘Sarsfield’, Patsy Dooligan in ‘The Old Land’, Thady McGrath in ‘Lord Edward’ and many others.
- This is Ion Ireland. He was known among his colleagues as Harry so Ion must have been a stage name. For Kennedy Miller he created the parts of Squire O’Hanlon in ‘The Old Land’, Captain McMurrough in ‘The Sham Squire’, Captain Ellis in ‘The Ulster Hero’, General Talmash in ‘Sarsfield’ and he also appeared in strong supporting roles in revivals of other plays, generally as officers or members of the landed gentry. After Kennedy Miller’s death in 1906 he and James O’Brien formed their own company called the O’Brien-Ireland Combination. Among the very young members of their company were Anew McMaster and Cyril Cusack.
- H Somerfield Arnold was an English actor recruited by Kennedy Miller to play smart young gentlemen and romantic heroes. Here he is as Phil Hennessy, in ‘The Nationalist’, the landlord who sympathises with the leaders of agrarian reform. He played the lead in ‘The Victoria Cross’. He was Hardress Cregan in ‘The Colleen Bawn’, Beamish MacCoul in ‘Arrah-na-Pogue’ and Captain Molyneux as you might expect in ‘The Shaughraun’. He died shortly after this picture was taken. The obituarist in the ‘Playgoer’ stated that his “greatest triumph was as Lord Edward Fitzgerald”, and that he “had been in constant ill health which he had managed to overcome several times, always returning to the stage. Thus ended the life of one of the most promising actors we have ever met.” Terribly sad.
- Next we have Annie Hylton. She tended to be cast in the straight roles. She created Eileen O’Moore in ‘A True Son of Erin’, Kate Kearney in ‘The Irishman’, Mary Doyle in ‘The Insurgent Chief’ and Lady Rose de Burgh in ‘Sarsfield’. Frank Fay, when theatre critic for the ‘United Irishman’, said that he preferred her Anne Chute in ‘The Colleen Bawn’ to her Fanny Power in ‘Arrah-na-Pogue’, but he didn’t bother to tell us why which was rather remiss of him I think.
- Here is Monica Kelly. She usually excelled as spirited peasants and outspoken ladies’ maids. She created Kitty Malone in ‘Lord Edward’, Peggy Ryan in ‘Wolfe Tone’ and Eilly Blake in ‘Sarsfield’ – and several other vivacious servant parts so similar one wonders how she managed not to confuse the lines. According to an anonymous columnist in the ‘Playgoer’ “her style is very natural, and she can be pathetic or humorous as occasion demands; while her love-making is always racially droll and mirth provoking” (laughter) – whatever racially droll love-making may be. Monica Kelly was Moya in ‘The Shaughraun’ of which Synge wrote so appreciatively; as you might expect, she also played Eily O’Connor in ‘The Colleen Bawn’ and the title role in ‘Arrah-na-Pogue’.
- Mrs Glenville was the third in the trio of Irish actors, tantalisingly briefly noticed by Synge, in ‘The Shaughraun’ in which she played the mammy, Mrs O’Kelly. She seems to have been with Kennedy Miller for his entire period as a director of Irish plays on tour, that is, 17 years. She created The Widow Moloney in ‘The Old Land’ which Joseph Holloway described as “a real gem of a performance… she is a genuine Irish humourist and her sayings and doings seem to be nature itself…” She had already played the very similar part of Molshee in Kennedy Miller’s revival of Edmund Falconer’s extravaganza ‘Peep o’ Day’ which had been a continuing hit in London since it first came out in 1863 at Covent Garden.
- I’ve included this photograph even though it’s unnamed because it’s such a striking image. My guess is that it is either Maude Tremayne as Lady Rose in ‘Sarsfield’, or, Clara Russell as Kate Maynard in ‘The Victoria Cross’. I don’t know which lady I’m insulting. The carved chair in the photographic studio keeps reappearing.
- This is the only picture I was able to find of the man himself – Kennedy Miller. It’s from the ‘Irish Playgoer’ magazine. You’ll agree that his is an unprepossessing face – someone you might pass in the street without remarking. (The same might be said of many directors.) (laughter) You would hardly imagine that this was the man who selected and directed the large and ‘capable company of Irish players’ and not only that but also organised the complex touring schedule, making sure that this year’s visits to thirty cities did not repeat plays seen there last year or even the year before, and seeing that the actors were well rehearsed before their opening in unfamiliar houses.
- Here is a Queen’s Theatre poster for a revival of ‘Theobald Wolfe Tone’ in 1901, with Frank Breen billed as the villainous Rafferty, a spy, and Tyrone Power as Tone’s garrulous manservant, McMahon. It’s significant that billing is given to the comic characters and not to the actor who played Wolfe Tone (laughter). Incidentally, the Tyrone Power here was the nephew of the actor-playwright of the same name who was so popular on the London and New York stage. Confusingly, a third Tyrone Power was a Hollywood actor in the mid-20th century. The director Tyrone Guthrie was a great grandson of the first Tyrone Power.
- This is an advertisement for a performance of ‘Lord Edward’ by ‘Kennedy Miller’s Powerful Irish Combination’ at the Metropole Theatre, Glasgow, in 1898, “Depicting the Vivid Scenes, Episodes and Vicissitudes in the Life of Lord Edward Fitzgerald” – an entirely adequate description. The orchestra, as well as supplying the incidental music to the play, entertained the audience in the intervals with selections from Donizetti, Suppé and ‘E. Strauss’. E Strauss -who was E Strauss I wonder? Do you think it’s a misprint for J? This was a week-long run – but in some cities of smaller population the programme was changed nightly, so that you might see ‘Lord Edward’ on the Monday, Saturday and Saturday matinee, ‘The Green Bushes’ on Tuesday and Thursday, ‘The Colleen Bawn’ on Wednesday and Friday. You can imagine the amount of effort needed to alternate the stage settings, and also to travel them.
- Leading players were allowed an annual benefit performance in a favourite role, from which the profits went entirely to that performer. Kennedy Miller was not an actor, so he did not appear in his benefit which was made up of a play supplied by members of its own company, and as his name became more and more celebrated in the profession, actors, singers and musicians from other companies in town that week gave of their services in a kind of enormous variety show. In this one, on February 23rd 1903, his own players gave the main item, Tyrone Power I’s Sheridanesque ‘Born to Good Luck’. It was a very long evening, as the ‘Telegraph’ reported next day, with sixteen supporting items. The ones I would like to have seen were ‘Curtis, Leo and Noblesse, mystifying illusionists’ and the ‘Gibson-Henry Celebrated Comedy Cyclists’ (laughter) – not to speak of ‘The Misses Kinsella and Gorm, Irish Jig Dancers’, no doubt precursors of Miss Lily Comerford. The Edison pictures is an announcement for next week.
Of the contributions of so many participating artistes, the ‘Evening Telegraph’ continued: “It shows the high appreciation in which Mr Kennedy Miller is held in the profession… Mr Miller has been willing, at all times, to give the benefit of his time, labour and experience gratuitously to those anxious to serve laudable, charitable and popular objects in the city…”
To revert for a moment to J M Synge, I think it’s significant that he picked out for praise three comic actors from the company when writing of Kennedy Miller’s ‘Shaughraun’: Judging from other reviews, the preponderance of actors in the company who possessed a highly developed sense of comedy is very striking. I think it’s not at all farfetched to suggest than in melodrama, where the actors constantly addressed the audience, even, where necessary, surreptitiously gesturing their feelings about other characters, or about the situation itself, a sense of comic irony about the very nature of the play is manifest; and an actor’s ability to convey their subliminal thoughts without upsetting the balance of credibility, would have been a godsend. Nor, I think is it farfetched to add, incidentally, that all the truly great Irish actors of the 20th century possessed this inner sense of the comic: Barry Fitzgerald, FJ McCormick, Maureen Delaney, Maire Kean, Cyril Cusack, Donal McCann; yes, they certainly excelled in many grave and unsmiling roles, but an underlying sense of fun – wicked fun, at times – often lent a touching dimension.
Frank Fay wrote in the ‘United Irishman’ that Mr Kennedy Miller’s company is “too good for Mr Whitbread’s pieces.” This all-too-brief evaluation is fascinating. From it we gather that Miller was responsible for achieving exactly what one of the chief jobs of a director is: making the audience suppose that the weak play they are observing is something else – through judicious casting, attractive design, striking choreography, variation of mood and pace, and sheer comprehension of stagecraft; but when the director has the advantage of a first class script, as in the Irish melodramas of Boucicault, or in Power’s farce ‘Born to Good Luck’, clearly Kennedy Miller’s work moved into a higher dimension.
In 1905 Kennedy Miller was stated to be ‘in failing health’ and so he took a three-month sea voyage on his doctor’s recommendation. He died at his home, 1 Belvedere Avenue, North Circular Road, on March 4th, 1906, only a week after his annual benefit presentation. He was buried in St George’s cemetery, Drumcondra, when the chief mourners were Mrs Kennedy Miller, his daughter Miss Kathleen Miller and his friend the actor Mr Dane Clarke. There were representatives from the Queen’s and Gaiety Theatres. The impression is of a small attendance and one wonders why. Certainly he was a man who did not court publicity for himself; this can be seen from the posters – with the exception of those advertising his annual benefit – where the actors and author are generally given much greater prominence.
Certainly J – or Andrew – Kennedy Miller soon joined the legions of the forgotten. This happens to theatre directors, unless they’ve also worked in film or have published influential books. Who, among today’s jeunesse dorée of the theatre, knows anything of Hilton Edwards? And were it not for the great theatre in Minneapolis that is named after him, Tyrone Guthrie would hardly be remembered outside the profession. Once the curtain falls, what has been created on the stage vanishes forever. That is why it is a real honour for me to be given this opportunity by the Dublin City Library & Archive, in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, of recalling to mind the forgotten director and some of the forgotten actors who entertained my grandparents – and your great-grandparents (laughter). My Dublin grandmother used to refer to the Queen’s Theatre as the place where you saw ‘the real Irish plays’. Thank you for your attention to the story of ‘Mr J Kennedy Miller and his very capable company of Irish players’.