One way to begin to understand Teresa Deevy’s work is to put her in the context of the generation of Irish writers who came before her. She was born in 1894, three years before W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Edward Martyn founded the Irish Literary Theatre (later the Abbey Theatre); and yet, she was never really a part of that generation. In 1913, while attending university, Deevy contracted Ménière'’s disease and lost her hearing. At around the same time, the family fortunes began to decline, a factor that would later increasingly tie her to the family home, Landscape, in Waterford, with her mother and sisters. Nonetheless, as her hearing began to fade, she began attending the theatre in London, where she had gone to learn lip-reading. In the late 1920s, she began to write plays, and on March 18, 1930, (after at least one encouraging rejection), the Abbey Theatre staged Reapers. This was followed in rapid succession by a one-act comedy, A Disciple, in 1931, and her first major play, Temporal Powers, staged by the Abbey in 1932. The latter won the Abbey’s new play competition that year, and was followed by a powerful one-act work, The King of Spain’s Daughter, in 1935. The following year she produced the play for which she is best known today, Katie Roche, and not long after came a sprawling historical play, The Wild Goose.
All told, the middle years of the 1930s saw an impressive burst of creativity on Deevy’s part—six plays in as many years—and, as a result, hopes for her future were high. Reading through reviews from this period, as the Abbey’s founding generation stepped aside, there was a palpable hope that Teresa Deevy would be among those who would take up the mantle as part of a new generation of Irish playwrights for a theatre whose reputation had always rested on its writers. However, it was not to be. Even at the height of her success, it was clear that Deevy was far from comfortable with the Abbey. In a January 1935 letter to her friend Florence Hackett in Kilkenny, Deevy wrote: “Something will have to be done about the theatre in Ireland. It’s appalling.” In public, Deevy was equally critical of other aspects of Irish culture in the 1930s, particularly literary censorship. “Who are the censors?” she demanded in an open letter to the Irish Times in 1936. “By what right do they hold office? And how, in case of proved incompetence, can they be removed?”1
If Deevy was outspoken in her personal capacity, it was not immediately obvious that her plays were subversive. And yet, we need to remember that The King of Spain’s Daughter and her best-known work Katie Roche were on the stage of Ireland’s national theatre at the same time that the 1937 Constitution was being drafted. In The King of Spain’s Daughter, the character of Annie Kinsella must chose between loveless marriage and a life of drudgery in a factory, on a stage dominated by a large sign reading “Road Closed.” Katie Roche develops this theme of the limited opportunities that the new state presented to Irish women; the overwhelming feeling in Katie Roche is of watching a woman who has been trapped by domestic life. All of this is in sharp contrast to the official view of the role of women in the 1937 Constitution, which declares: “The State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” As the Irish Times noted of Katie Roche, “All through the play, one seems to see an almost imperceptible change in the ordinary values of life.”2
Teresa Deevy was ultimately a victim of the culture wars of Ireland in the 1930s. In 1939, a new play, Holiday House, was accepted by the Abbey and a contract issued. However, the play was never staged, and any attempt by Deevy to find out why was met, in her words, “with evasive replies.”3 Similarly, she later wrote to Florence Hackett about the rejection of Wife to James Whelan: Blythe’s letter, when returning it, showed clearly that he has no use for my work – never asked to see any more. ... it may be a good thing to be finished with the Abbey. Yet I love the Abbey, & their actors are fine.4 From that point onwards, apart from one play performed on the Abbey’s experimental stage (Light Falling, 1948), Deevy was effectively finished with the Abbey Theatre. With the major Irish theatre for new playwrights closed to her, Teresa Deevy turned increasingly after 1940 to writing for radio. From one point of view, this was remarkable, given that the first radio broadcast in Ireland took place in 1926, more than a decade after Deevy had become deaf. And yet, in this medium that she could never experience directly, she excelled, both writing specifically for the airwaves and adapting her stage plays. However, she never gave up on the theatre, and some of the works included in the Maynooth Teresa Deevy archive are the texts of plays written after she had parted company with the Abbey. In this regard, her life began to echo the situation of a character like Katie Roche, insofar as a vivid life of the imagination became a necessity in a world of material constraints.
Indeed, if we are looking for the distinguishing feature of Teresa Deevy’s theatre, it may well be this: the quest for a theatrical form that could accommodate the essential privacy of an inner life. In Katie Roche, the title character may be trapped in marriage to a man to whom she seems indifferent; nonetheless, there is triumph in her final lines: “I will be brave! ... I was looking for something great to do—sure now I have it.” Likewise, in Wife to James Whelan, she brings together a group of characters who live closely with one another in a small Irish town, but who each maintain a deeply private self from which the others are excluded. Developing this idea later in a short play called In the Cellar of My Friend, one character observes: “It do seem to me there is no two people can to the full com-pre-hend one another. Not fully ... not as I sees it.”5 In these gaps of comprehension, Teresa Deevy stakes out her theatrical territory. In the years just before her death in 1963, there was a brief, belated, flurry of interest in her work. The script of Wife to James Whelan, which dated back to the early 1940s was finally staged in October 1956. That same year, John Jordan, one of the most respected Irish literary critics of the time, published an influential reassessment of her work in which he argued that she should be seen as a key figure in an Irish dramatic tradition:
Synge and O’Casey are our dramatic geniuses in this century. But there is a distinguished class of those who are only less than great. I believe that Teresa Deevy should be counted among that select band. And, within her chosen field, she is incomparable.6
Today, we can begin to place her even more precisely. Just as her plays do their work with what happens between the lines, Deevy’s work as a whole exists between two generations of Irish playwrights. If some aspects of her work look back to those who preceded her, her ability to create characters with fully realized private lives that are partly obscured from the audience (and from the other characters) anticipates Brian Friel, who was only just beginning his career at the time of Deevy’s death. Considered in this light, she begins to take her proper place as a pivotal figure in Irish theatre. The Teresa Deevy Archive at NUI Maynooth is one of the means by which we can begin to see her work more clearly.
Professor Chris Morash is the Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing in Trinity College Dublin. A noted scholar of the Irish Theatre, and the wider field of Irish Studies, his edited works include Teresa Deevy Reclaimed: Volume I (with Jonathan Banks and John Harrington; Mint Theatre, 2011) Volume II of this complete edition is forthcoming.
1. Teresa Deevy, “The Censorship”, Irish Times (Oct. 20, 1936), p. 4.
2. “Miss Deevy’s New Play”, Irish Times (March 17, 1936), p. 5.
3. “The White Steed”, Irish Times (May 8, 1939), p8.
4. Teresa Deevy, Letter to Florence Hackett, [undated; ca.1941/2) TCD Ms. 10722
5. Teresa Deevy, “In the Cellar of My Friend”, NLI Ms. 29,169
6. John Jordan, “Teresa Deevy: An Introduction”, Irish University Review I:8 (Spring, 1956), p. 26.