The Queen's Theatre - Transcript
Published on 8th November 2016
The following is a transcript of 'The Queen's Theatre', a talk by Cecil Allen in Pearse Street Library on 24 August, 2016.
Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. In this episode award winning writer Cecil Allen talks about the colourful history of The Queen's Theatre, which was located in Pearse Street and which, from its earliest days until its closure in 1969, celebrated Ireland’s heroes and her historical characters. Recorded in front of a live audience in Pearse Street Library on 24 August 2016.
Tonight’s speaker, Cecil Allen, has a very good pedigree. He is grandson of the actor Ira Alan who performed at The Queen’s Theatre, Pearse Street. He has written actually a book on the subject called ‘The Actor’, a novel, and it was published in 2014. We have a few copies of it available in our public libraries if you want to borrow it. He is also a retired college professor from Dublin Institute of Technology and he has got 20 years broadcasting experience in RTÉ. I think it is going to be a good talk tonight, I am looking forward to it. So you are welcome Cecil. (Applause)
Okay, thank you very much Ellen [name error]. That was a great introduction. Even I am looking forward to what I have to say. There’s The Queen’s Theatre. A fine old building. Well I was seven years of age when I first experienced the magical involved world of The Queen’s Theatre. My mother took my brothers and I to see a pantomime – Cinderella. We sat in the auditorium, the lights faded, the audience went quiet and the big red curtain rose. I was captivated by everything I saw and heard – the lights, the sets, the colourful costumes, the music, the magic. I fell in love with Cinderella. I didn’t like Cinderella’s mother, especially when she was mean to Cinderella but I did laugh heartily at the comedians, I booed the ugly sisters and I really was enchanted by everything I saw in there and that was my first memory of The Queen’s Theatre. But that’s only very little about the history of The Queen’s Theatre. For most of its time The Queen’s Theatre was known as the home of Irish drama.
Now, The Queen’s Theatre was located on Brunswick Street, now called Pearse Street, this very street, and it was located right down by Trinity College, right opposite where the fire brigade station is now. And for nearly 200 years there was a theatre on that site. The first theatre was called The New Olympic Circus and that opened in 1823. Unfortunately it was demolished six years later. In December 1929 a new theatre, The Adelphi Theatre, opened on that site and here we have a drawing of The Adelphi Theatre. Opening night’s play was the melodrama ‘The Old Oak Chest’. Now, the Adelphi Theatre lasted a little longer than The New Olympic Circus. The Adelphi lasted 15 years. Then in 1844 the theatre was sold to a John Charles Joseph who promptly tore it down and built a much grander theatre on the site and he called this new theatre The Queen’s Theatre. That’s an old picture of the original, well of the drawing when they were building The Queen’s Theatre. It was called The Queen’s Royal Theatre because it was granted a royal patent. The Queen’s Theatre opened with three short melodramas – ‘The Devil In It’, ‘The Lottery Ticket’ and ‘The Miller’s Maid’. The new theatre was a big success and Dubliners quickly nicknamed her The Queen’s.
Now, The Queen’s was a very large theatre for its type at the time. It seated about 2,000 people – as big as Bord Gáis Theatre now in terms of seating capacity. It had 750 people in the pit or the stalls as we would call it. It had 200 people in two rows of boxes which ran right across the front of the theatre. And there were 400 people in the lower balcony and 700 in the upper balcony. So it was a very big theatre. Now, down through the years many famous actors appeared on the stage of The Queen’s Theatre. In 1860 the London actor Henry Irving appeared at The Queen’s Theatre and he endured one of the worst theatrical experiences of his life. The story goes that Irving was 22 years of age and he had been engaged to take over the part of Laertes in Hamlet because a Dublin actor by the name of Vincent had been dismissed for some reason or other. When Irving came on stage the audience started to hiss, catcall and boo and to the end of the engagement poor old Henry Irving didn’t get a chance to say a word without being interrupted. And this was so traumatic for the actor that he never spoke of it for 25 years and we don’t know how he reacted or if he ever learned that the whole fracas was orchestrated by the actor Vincent who had been summarily dismissed.
Incidentally, Henry Irving had a dresser. That’s what they called him and like a dresser was a personal assistant, and he was a Dubliner and his name was Bram Stoker. He was the man who wrote Dracula. Indeed, it has been said that Henry Irving’s personality can be seen in Dracula. They would say that.
The golden age of The Queen’s Theatre began in 1882 when a young English actor, producer and manager by the name of James W. Whitbread joined the theatre. The Queen’s at that time was a stock company. Now, a stock company is a permanent company of actors who performed one play in the evening and rehearsed another play in the afternoons. Now, like most theatre managers Whitbread found it difficult to continually find interesting plays for his company. However, because The Queen’s Theatre was a royal theatre or a patent theatre he could and he did invite many of Britain’s great touring companies to perform in the theatre and before long The Queen’s Theatre became a number one date for tour companies touring out of England. Now touring companies were important to The Queen’s Theatre because they came with very high standards of acting, of sets and of costumes and this high standard of production became the accepted norm for the theatre goers at The Queen’s Theatre. The touring companies performed operas, operettas, dramas and melodramas. The big crowd pleaser was always melodrama. Audiences loved them and they came in their thousands to see them. There we have melodrama. Now, the word melodrama is two words – the original pronunciation was melo drame – melo meaning music and drame meaning drama. So melodrama is drama with music or really music with drama. Music was used throughout the production to heighten emotion, intensify the action, to create mood – very much like a film soundtrack today and these music scripts, if you like, they were specially composed for each melodrama or it was other music especially adapted for it and The Queen’s Theatre took it seriously. They had a twelve piece orchestra.
Now, here we go, the traditional Victorian melodrama featured six characters – a dancer who could be in distress, a not very bright hero and his often very silly or stupid friend, a silly or infirmed parent, a good natured servant for the aged parent and most important of all a sneaky scheming cowardly villain. The villain was usually the central character of the play and indeed the best role in the play. The dastardly villain would work the audience into a hissing frenzy relying on his comic timing and acting skills to produce laughter, tears or boos. Now, plots in melodrama were usually sensational, featuring a murder, theft and of course love. Often the good but not very bright hero is duped by the scheming villain who has eyes on the heroine. The villain would confuse, frustrate and cheat the hero until fate intervenes and good triumphs over evil. The characters in melodrama were highly exaggerated and stereotypical characters. The acting was elaborate and with very big gestures and ready emotions. Actors talked directly to the audience as I am to you. Each act ended with what we call an artistic tableau. In a tableau the actors would freeze in a dramatic position and create a powerful reasoning image. This is probably a tableau. You can see how the exaggerated emotion of our heroine here tearing her hair out literally and the villain accusing her of killing probably the hero who was only unconscious and saying ‘I’ll go get the police and you’ll go to prison’ and the poor girl was distraught. But what’s interesting about this actual etching is the fact that the audience takes up more room in the picture than the action on the stage and you can see the interest in the audience, they are captivated by what they see. They are enthralled and obviously very worried for this poor young lady.
Special effects were important in melodrama. Sets were elaborate and it was the responsibility of the theatre’s machinist to supervise all these special effects and stage machines. Now, the stage machines were enormous contraptions, like practical waterfalls, exploding towers, exploding erupting volcanoes, boats on cliffs. Other special items were trap doors, secret panels, flying harnesses were also a constant feature in melodramas. If you’ve seen Phantom of the Opera either here in the Point Theatre or indeed if you’ve seen it anywhere else they used a lot of the melodrama stage machines at that time. They were very effective. They had boats on lakes and they had secret mirrors and all that kind of stuff and it’s very entertaining to watch and indeed in Billy Elliot they have a flying harness which they use on one of the dancers.
There you go. Animals too were often featured in melodramas – dogs, monkeys, even bears. In the cowboy drama 'The Cattle Thief', the actor playing the hero usually made his stage entrance by clearing a fence on horseback and he made his exit in the same way. There were many types of melodramas. There were tragic, comic, romantic, historical and later political melodramas.
Now, a word about The Queen’s Theatre audience, let’s have a look at it. There, all 2,000 of them. The Queen’s was a people’s theatre. It was not a literary theatre or a poetic theatre, it was theatrical theatre. Audiences of the 1900s were not polite like today’s audiences, they were a rowdy bunch who sang with the actors, cheered on the hero, advised the heroine and howled at the villain. Often the audience was so familiar with the play that if an actor forgot a line or left it out someone in the audience would should it out (laughter). And one of the great pleasures of going to the theatre in the 1900s was smoking in the theatre, commenting out loud on the action, calling out witty responses to the actors, talking to friends during the performance, eating oranges and when the acting got a little dull going to the bar for a drink. A theatre viewer at the time wrote of one Queen’s Theatre audience:
“At times when the villain held the stage one could scarcely hear with the din and as far as cheering and the hissing, they seldom ceased for a moment. When the villain said something they did not meet with the approval of the audience they were up in arms hissing, howling and calling for the villain’s death. A Queen’s Theatre audience to an actor not used to it must have been a daunting experience.”
Let me talk a little bit about this photograph. This photograph was taken in 1914 and it has got lots of interesting things in it. For one thing you could see here, particularly in the pit, the ladies wore hats all during the performance. They had these rather large hats and God help you if you were sitting behind them. And why didn’t they take their hats off? Well, the hairstyles were devised for a hat and if you took the hat off the hair would flop down so they kept their hats on. Also, you can see the men too have caps on them, so they kept that on. Now, this first balcony if you like is called the dress circle and you can see why it’s called the dress circle they are all in evening dress – bow ties, tuxedos and starched skirts. And up here you had the Gods, not that’s only some of the Gods. There were 600 people up there and all they could see was probably the tops of the heads of the performers but they were the cheap seats.
Audience: When did the theatre open?
Cecil Allen: The Queen’s?
Audience: Yeah, yeah.
Cecil Allen: Oh well in 1830, something like that, yeah. Okay, let’s go on here. Now, going to see a play at The Queen’s was a joyous event. People had their favourite actors and their favourite plays. Melodramas may to us seem very simple but they were very powerful plays. Let me try and give you an idea of some power of the play. The date is 6 November 1914. The place, The Queen’s Theatre. The play, ‘The Lights of London’. The scene is the Thames Embankment. In a top hat, frock coat and waxed moustache the villain stalks on the stage. He cringes at the sight of a child begging. He ought to. He is the father of that child and he deserted the child’s mother years ago. “Curse the brat” he says in a state and oozing with wealth and sympathy a benevolent old gentleman walks on stage. He is on his way to the club. “Oh poor child,” murmurs the old gentleman, breathing through his disinfected handkerchief “I shall give her half a sovereign. That should bring gladness to her heart and her garret”. In melodramas the poor always lived in basements or garrets. Garrets were attics. When the good man has passed out of sight the villain hisses evilly to audience “I’ll show that old fool”. And what do you think he does? You’re right. He steals the child’s knapsack. Oh! This is too much for the audience and they start to boo and to hiss and one lady and the audience jumps to her feet and bellows “You dirty cur. You blackguard. You’re stealing from your own child. I’ll be delighted when you get your comeuppance” and you’ll be glad to know that he did get his comeuppance in the fifth act.
So who wrote these melodramas? Well, throughout the years there were many writers whose work week after week, night after night, filled The Queen’s Theatre but I’m only going to concentrate on four now. A man called Dion Boucicault, J. W. Whitbread, PJ Bourke and my own grandfather, Ira Allen.
First let’s talk about Dion Boucicault. Dion Boucicault was the true genius of world melodrama. In his lifetime he wrote more than 200 plays and he was the most successful actor/playwright in the world – in the English speaking world and today, more than 125 years after this death his plays are still performed everywhere throughout the world. So who was Dion Boucicault? Well, he was Irish. He was born 1820 and he was educated in Dublin. He lived in Gardiner Street. His mother was Ann Darley, sister of the late Mathematician and Poet George Darley. They were distantly related to the Guinness family. The identity of Boucicault’s father is questionable but he was probably the lodger in his mother’s house. Dionysius Lardner was his name and he financially supported Dion throughout his life. When Dion was thirteen he was sent over to London and he was enrolled in University College school and after that he studied at the University of London. After Boucicault graduated he found instant success – instant success as a dramatist on the London stage. His first play was ‘London Assurance’. He rapidly followed this with ‘The Bastille’, ‘Old Heads and Young Hearts’, ‘The School for Scheming’, ‘Confidence’ and the extremely successful ‘The Corsican Brothers’. Now, Boucicault’s plays were always innovative. The play I just mentioned there to you, ‘The Corsican Brothers’, the Corsican Brothers were twins and Boucicault wrote the play in such a way that one actor played both parts. He used doubles and mirrors and a quick change of costumes and The Abbey Theatre had a production of ‘The Corsican Brothers’ on about ten or fifteen years ago and it was really, really good and it worked a treat and it was a joy to see. So he was always innovative and he was pioneering, for his subjects and the topics he chose were ones that other playwrights were afraid to go near. For instance, in the summer of 1859 Boucicault premiered his play, this one, ‘The Octoroon’. Now the word octoroon means one eighth black. Now if you think about this is in 1860 and the play concerned itself with race and the lives of residents of a Louisiana plantation. It was very controversial and it sparked debate about the abolition of slavery which was still in there and the role of theatre in politics. It was a Broadway sensation and it was so successful that Boucicault had seven companies criss-crossing America performing it for years. ‘The Octoroon’ made Boucicault a very wealthy man.
Boucicault – have a look at him here – seen here on the left married his leading lady, here, Agnes Robinson and in 1860 they returned to England where he wrote and produced his most successful trio of plays – his Irish plays. And once again Boucicault was innovative and pioneering. For one thing, all his plays had Gaelic names. It was 1860 now. Gaelic names! Second, all his main characters were Irish. Before Boucicault Irish characters on the stage were always fools, drunks or simply wild people. The first of Boucicault’s Irish plays was ‘The Colleen Bawn’, the fair haired girl, the blonde. ‘The Colleen Bawn’ was extremely successful and Boucicault performed it in almost every city in Britain and then he took it to America, he toured, he had it on Broadway and then he toured all over the United States. If ‘The Octoroon’ made Boucicault a wealthy man ‘The Colleen Bawn’ made him extremely wealthy. Four years later he produced his second Irish play, ‘Arrah-na-Pogue’, Arrah of the Kiss, this was equally successful and it was followed with his third play, ‘Shaughraun’, the rogue.
And let me talk a little bit about this poster, this is an interesting poster. For one thing, at the time, this was a full colour poster which was very unusual in those days. You can see the simplicity of the poster, it was the name – ‘Shaughraun’ – usually they had the author’s name underneath that and then scenes from the play are depicted in these panels and then this was made by a company called Allen Publishing. But they heard this from many, many, many plays and what ... a company – whether it’s Queen’s or any other company – could buy these posters, put them up and then they would put on these little additional panels which said ‘Queen’s Theatre, twice nightly’ whatever was the time of production. And, well, Boucicault then after that went back to New York City and he made his home there and he lived there for the rest of his life. He continued to write his plays until his death in 1890. Boucicault never performed in The Queen’s Theatre but his work became a staple of The Queen’s Theatre as it did for most theatres in the English speaking world.
The second playwright I would like to talk about, a man I have already talked about to you, James W. Whitbread. In addition to being an excellent theatre manager, Whitbread was an extremely talented playwright who introduced ground breaking political melodramas to The Queen’s Theatre. Now, born in 1848 Whitbread was an English man who developed a great affinity for Ireland. Among his many successful melodramas was this one here, ‘Lord Edward’, another play was ‘The Nationalist’, ‘The Irish Dragoon’, ‘Sarsfield’ and his most famous play ‘Theodore Wolfe Tone’. His plays played to crowded houses and one critic wrote of ‘Lord Edward’:
“It is a historically accurate portrayal of the 1798 Rising. The dialogue is theatrically effective, the sets picturesque and the staging excellent.”
Reviewing the opening night of his play ‘Wolfe Tone’ a critic wrote:
“I have experienced many noisy audiences but never such a noisy one as I did on that assemble in The Queen’s Theatre on the afternoon of December 26th 1898. Such a pandemonium of discord and sounds I have seldom experienced. The quality of Mr Whitbread’s writing is excellent. The play’s dialogue is witty, natural and convincing. There was action, energy and deep human interest and the audience followed it with the deepest of interest.”
Now, let me talk about this poster. This is a generic poster made by the Allen Company in Belfast and you see there’s Wolfe Tone and then in small writing J. W. Whitbred. Now I’d call this a political melodrama while Mr Whitbred called it a Romantic Irish drama. Now, this is important because if you remember I said Boucicault made it alright for Irish people to be intelligent and act normally on stage. Whitbred took it one step farther and now they were romantic. Now they were noble. Now they were heroes and that was important to the development of Irish theatre.
After twenty-five years at The Queen’s Theatre, Mr Whitbred left and shortly afterward the theatre closed for extensive renovations. It remained closed for two years and when it re-opened in 1909 it was a much changed theatre. It is now a tight horseshoe that hugged the stage with a balcony and two upper galleries and a much shallower pit or stalls. This meant that the audience was closer to the stage and this suited The Queen’s theatre audiences greatly. What was gone was there was two tiers of boxes right in front there where that balcony is which they could only look after, what, about 200 people. So now it opened the theatre up for greater view for a greater number of people.
Right. The new management at The Queen’s Theatre made little effort to re-establish as the home of Irish drama. Instead it emphasised a sensational English melodrama, pantomimes and the occasional variety show. Now this constant fare of English melodrama was not to the liking of The Queen’s Theatre audience and they failed to attend. However, in 1911 things did change when two Irish playwrights appeared on the Dublin theatrical scene. They were, my grandfather, Ira Allen and his friend and colleague PJ Bourke.
Now, that’s Ira Allen. Ira was born in 1879. During his life he played in more than fifty roles in fifty plays and wrote and acted in more than fifteen of his own. Ira wrote three kinds of melodramas – historical, comic and political melodramas. His leading lady was usually his wife, May Murnane, and she featured in most of his productions. Now, this was May Murnane here on the left and she is in costume as Lilly, Lilly is the Colleen Bawn in the Colleen Bawn. Now you’re going to see she isn’t the Coleen Bawn so she must have wore a wig on stage for the performance. That’s Ira over there when he was about thirty-five and this is a poster for one of his plays ‘Tara’s Halls’ or very un-PC at the time, ‘St Patrick and the Pagans’. Ira emphasised the Irishness of his plays, particularly at this point because he was at The Queen’s and it had sort of went over to English melodramas so they have it on the poster here, I don’t know if you can read it, it says ‘Ancient Irish costumes, Irish scenery and Irish dancing’, so he was to emphasise the Irishness of the plays.
Irish productions were known for their frequent changes of picturesque scenery, the obligatory informer and the use of tableaus at the end of each act. Ira’s most hard hitting political melodramas was this one here, ‘The Boys of Wexford’, ‘The Bailiff of Ballyfoyle’ and ‘Father Murphy’. These political melodramas were more aggressive than the romantic Whitbred plays. Ira, his plays were nationalist, republican, and they took political melodrama to new heights. Ira’s most successful play was ‘Father Murphy’. Seamus de Burca, the Irish theatre historian, said of Ira’s performance:
“His performance as the parish priest of Buaile Mhaodhóg was nothing short of shattering.”
Now, this poster I’d like to talk about it for a moment, this is probably the best preserved poster that I’ve got. I must say, some of these posters I actually got here in this library, in the Archives section. Now, this was ‘Father Murphy’ and it is the best preserved of the lot. Actually the colour scheme is right, it was on yellow paper, black lettering and some red lettering to emphasise things. Now, you can see that the play was on twice nightly – 6.45 and 9 o’clock and on Saturday they had a matinee, so it was three times on a Saturday, once again emphasising the Irishness of Ira Allen’s company, of Irish players. And then ‘Father Murphy’ and the subtitle ‘The Hero of Tullow’ and the play concerned itself with a man called ... it was a real character, John Murphy who was a priest, the parish of Buaile Mhaodhóg and it tells the story of the fights at Vinegar Hill and right here you can see he gives himself, ‘Father Murphy’, Ira Allen, top billing – big letters. Then, the next two people have nearly as big and then it keeps getting smaller and smaller until it comes to the last one, Grace Gallagher, who happens to be played by Ms May Murnane, Mrs Ira Allen, so.
Then the next part of this poster gives you a detailed scene analysis. It gives you the seven scenes, it tells you what happens in the scene and it gives you a little couple of lines from each scene and then it gives you the price of admittance. There was 3p, 6p, 9p, 1/6 and 10/6. Now, that seems like a big jump but the 10/6 was for a box and you could get 6 people into that box and they all could be seen by the rest of the audience so it was ... you didn’t sit in box to see the play, you went to sit in a box to be seen at the play. Then, next week, ‘A Fast Life’, nothing to do with ‘Father Murphy’. And this is from the 1913 production of the play at The Queen’s, it was originally put on in 1909 and every year after that or every two years it was revived. This poster as I said was specifically made for that and as you can see it’s called Brunswick Street up there. These posters, or on similar ones like it, Ira Allen would take a residency at The Queen’s Theatre – he and other people, J. B. Burke and Carrickford and all that, they would take one, two or three week residency at The Queen’s and then they would tour the play to Cork and Kerry and Galway and Belfast and they had a tour and it would usually end in Dundalk, their tour. Then they would put together a couple of more plays and continue their tour.
Okay, there you go. Ira Allen was also one of Ireland’s first film stars, for he had the title role in the feature film ‘In the Days of St Patrick’, Aimsir Padraig. The film script was based on Ira’s play ‘Tara’s Halls’ and the film was a Killester Production and was directed by Norman Whitten who used to put together a news reel, like Pathé News, although it wasn’t called Pathé News then and it was silent of course. This film, Aimsir Padraig, ‘In the Days of St Patrick’, was a silent bilingual film. Not as odd as you might expect, the title cards, dialogue cards that would come up were in two languages – as Béarla agus as Gaeilge – and this of course was an innovation for the people because most of the films at that time were American or some British and to see Irish writing up there, the Irish actors and Irish scenes, and some of this film was made in the original sites where the drama was supposed to take place. It was made in 1919 and it was shown all over Ireland in cinemas and theatres, parish halls, church hall and three was even a travelling tent version which was like a circus tent and they had a projector and a couple of musicians and off they went, and it had seats of course and the audience. It was also shown in America and in England and it’s in the Irish Film Centre’s Archives now.
Now, let’s see. Now this is a shot from the film, this is Ira over here playing St Patrick and King Laoghaire and this is he drinking a poison chalice and it’s a miracle, he drinks the poison chalice and he survives. For years afterwards when Ira was on tour with his melodramas people would stop him in the street and ask him to come to their farm and bless their children and the animals in the house (laughter) and Ira would explain that he wasn’t St Patrick, that he was merely an actor who had played the part and the people would listen and nod their head and when he had finished they’d say ‘Will you not come to the farm and bless the animals’ (laughter) and Ira always obliged. Ira died in 1927 leaving behind his wife May and their five children. Ira was aged 43.
The next play that I’d like to talk about is this man PJ Bourke. He was a Dubliner, like Ira, and he was born in 1883 and he was a man of many talents. He was a playwright, he was an actor, he was a theatre manager and a company manager. He was also an excellent musician and he possessed a beautiful baritone voice. Peadar Kearney, the author of ‘The Soldier’s Song’ asked PJ to be the first singer to sing the song that became Ireland’s national anthem.
But PJ Bourke’s greatest talent was as a playwright ‘When Wexford Rose’, ‘In Dark and Evil Days’ and ‘For The Land She Loved’ were his most successful melodramas. One critic wrote of Bourke’s play:
“They were politically passionate, thoroughly theatrical and socially aware.”
Now, there was no stage censorship in Ireland but Dublin Castle kept a little eye on what was going on and in 1914, when Bourke’s play ‘In Dark and Evil Days’ was to be performed for the first time the Castle ordered all advertisements for the play to be painted over or taken down and burned. And the reason for that was – it wasn’t this poster – it was one of those generic posters I talked about and the scenes of the play were on it, from the play, and one of the scenes was of a naval battle between the British and the French and the British weren’t doing so well. So 1914 the Castle said “take that down, that’s seditious” and they painted over it and they tore them down and that’s how we don’t have a copy of it. Again, in 1915 when the play ‘For The Land She Loved’ was to be performed, Dublin Castle commented “that such a play, seditious play, should never be performed again”. It was and regularly.
Early in his career PJ Bourke married the seamstress Margaret Kearney and from the day they met Margaret Kearney made most of the costumes for PJ Bourke’s productions and in time the Bourke family became suppliers of costumes, make-ups and props to theatre companies all over Ireland. They had a shop right beside the Olympia Theatre in Dame Street and some of you might remember, it was there for many, many, many years. Throughout their lives PJ and Ira were friends and they often appeared in each other’s plays and productions and indeed after Ira’s death May Murnane, Ira’s wife, continued to appear in PJ’s productions.
Now, what about women? We haven’t talked about them at all. Well not all melodramas were political or historical. Romantic melodramas were always extremely popular and the list of plays performed in Ireland in 1915 reads like a women’s melodrama in itself. This is its title: ‘A Woman’s Honour’, ‘Her Luck in London’ and you’ll love this one, ‘Only a Woman’, ‘The Shop Girl and Her Mask’, ‘The Old Wife’ and ‘The Queen Of The Red Skins’. But, the most particular and the most performed melodrama of all time was this one, ‘East Lynne’. ‘East Lynne’ tells the story of a beautiful young woman who made a tragic mistake. Based on the sensational novel by Ellen Woods, ‘East Lynne’ is a fast paced tale filled with suspense, adultery, a villainous seducer, illegitimacy, murder, deception and disguise. The story goes like this.
“The beautiful and refined young lady Isabelle Carlisle deserts her hard working but cold hearted husband and their infant children to elope with an unprincipled spendthrift Captain Francis Levison. When Captain Levison deserts her a repenting lady Isabelle in disguise takes the position of governess to her own children in the household of her former husband and his new wife.”
Doesn’t that sound like an episode of Downton Abbey? What I never understood was how this man didn’t recognise his first wife, it’s only a few years later, but then that’s melodrama! But that’s ‘East Lynne’, “Look at me, I am your mother”. God help her.
On 28 July 1914 World War I began and by 1915 most UK actors in theatre companies the actors had joined the British Forces and the companies had disappeared. Consequently there were few touring companies coming out of England and of course this was an opportunity for new theatre companies, Irish theatre companies, to put together a play and put them on in The Queen’s Theatre. And they did. Quite a lot of companies developed.
Five years later the fortune of The Queen’s took another turn. The Troubles and the fighting in Ireland caused The Queen’s to close for most of 1920 and 1921 and by the time it re-opened the aggressive, heroic melodramas of Ira Allen and PJ Bourke were badly out of touch with the mood of the time. So the theatre reverted to the earlier, gentler melodramas of Boucicault and Whitbred. Over at The Abbey, remember that, over at The Abbey things had changed too. With the arrival of John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey The Abbey’s offerings changed from literary and poetic theatre to the more popular realistic theatre. They had also stole some of The Queen’s best actors – Barry Fitzgerald, F. J. McCormack, May Craig among them. Then in quick succession The Queen’s suffered another double blow. Ira Allen and PJ Bourke died. They were both still young men and on the evening of 17 June 1928 the future of The Queen’s became clear when it showed its first motion picture ‘Old San Francisco’. The theatre continued to stage Christmas pantomimes for another 23 years but otherwise from 1928 to 1951 the theatre offered exclusively comic reviews and a combination of film and stage act known as Cine Variety and so melodrama – the stable of Irish theatrical life for more than a century disappeared from The Queen’s.
Down through the years there have been many famous actors who appeared at The Queen’s Theatre, actors like Barry Fitzgerald, Jimmy O’Dea, Cyril Cusack, Val Vousden, Harold O’Donovan, F. J. McCormack, May Craig and J. B. Carrickford.
Now, a few words about The Queen’s Theatre pantomime. The Queen’s Theatre pantomimes were great family events. They were usually based on a fairy story – Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Jack and The Beanstalk and Bo Peep. A young actress usually played the part of the male hero, the principle boy, and a male actor usually played the part of the dame. The dame was the comic villain. She was the mother of the ugly sisters in Cinderella or the bad witch in Sleeping Beauty or any other fairy story. The Queen’s had a pantomime almost every year of its existence. In its last years The Queen’s pantomime featured The Happy Gang. Some of you might remember The Happy Gang, they were a troupe of musicians and singers and featured such performers as Paddy Grogan, Danny Cummins, Cecil Nash, Noel Purcell, Mixer Reid and others.
Now, this is The Abbey Theatre, the interior of The Abbey Theatre. In 1951 there was a fire in The Abbey. The theatre had to close for major renovations. Louis Elliman, The Queen’s Manager at the time, realised that audience for Cine Variety were quickly disappearing so he leased the theatre to The Abbey Theatre. And there is The Queen’s, The Abbey Theatre. For fifteen years The Abbey Theatre remained at The Queen’s and in 1966 The Abbey Theatre moved out of The Queen’s into its new home in Abbey Street. The Queen’s Theatre closed and for three years the theatre moulded into decay. Then in April 1969 the theatre was demolished. An office block now stands – Pearse House now stands on that site.
Long before The Abbey Theatre ever existed The Queen’s was known as the home of Irish melodrama. From its earliest days, The Queen’s celebrated Ireland and her historical characters. People like St Patrick, Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward, Robert Emmet and Father Murphy were the subjects of her plays and often these plays were the only history lessons that the people received.
Let me tell you about a project of mine. I wanted to celebrate the work of The Queen’s and indeed the work of my grandfather, Ira Allen, and the research for that project formed the content of this talk this evening. Well I wasn’t able to gather enough information to write a history on the subject so I wrote a fiction story about the theatre and the actors and called it ‘The Actor’. It tells a story of a fictional actor Jim Brevin who becomes an apprentice of the Ira Allen Company of Players. It tells how Jim reluctantly gets involved in the Rising and how he is mistaken for a spy and marries a rebel sister. In time Jim becomes a celebrated Queen’s Theatre actor and at the moment of his greatest theatrical sets he is faced with a stark choice.
Anne-Marie: Well I just would like to say thanks very much because that was really scintillating, I use scintillating just off the cuff but I really do mean it because I think your grandfather seems to live through you, you have such animation and you gave a wonderful lively presentation tonight so it’s something that we’re all going to remember I think.
Anne-Marie: So thanks a million.
Cecil: Well thank you very much and thank you all for coming to it. (Applause)
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