TSI: Teresa Deevy, or What do we know about The Reapers?

Dr. Shelley Troupe

National University of Ireland, Maynooth

 

The first of Teresa Deevy’s plays produced by the Abbey Theatre in 1930 is a very good example of the ephemerality of the art form.  To answer the question “What do we know about The Reapers?” necessitates an exploration of surviving textual and production evidence.  Finding such materials requires that the researcher enter into a Theatre Studies Investigation (TSI) about the work of Teresa Deevy, which results in the discovery that there is little surviving evidence from which to piece together a clear picture of the Abbey’s production of her three-act play.  At present, no known copy of the script has survived and the large-scale efforts to digitize the Abbey Theatre’s archives at the National University of Ireland, Galway, have revealed only the production programme, a copy of which is also available in the Teresa Deevy Archive held by the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.  So, what do we know about The Reapers?  The three main sources of information about Deevy’s play are reviews of the 1930 premiere, academic writing on the play, and the Abbey’s production programme.  From those sources, some interesting observations about the play and the performance can be gleaned.

 

The Play

Without a script, recounting the play’s storyline is contingent on the critical and academic reports of it.  The reviews make clear that The Reapers lacked a clear dramaturgical structure. One reviewer notes: “I am under no obligation to spoil an evening’s pleasure by retelling the plot where in any event the plot is nothing”.[1]  Other reviews echo the sentiment that “the plot is nothing”.[2]  One of the better accounts of the play states:

The plot—it hardly justifies the name—centres on the sale of a mill which has been neglected by Jack Doherty….His son, Ted, a budding patriot, objects to the sale, and thinks the best way to stop it is to get some of his pals of the gun game to kidnap the family solicitor.  His ruse is frustrated by the arrival of a posse of Saorstát [Free State] soldiers to arrest hisself [sic].”[3]

 

Despite any dramatic deficiency, this recounting of The Reapers is particularly interesting in terms of the wider socio-political context of the play’s setting, 1923, which is a significant year in Irish history that marks end of the Irish Civil War.  On 6 December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London.  The Treaty partitioned Saorstát Éireann (the Irish Free State, now known as the Republic of Ireland) from Northern Ireland.  The Irish Civil War began on 28 June 1922 when Pro-Treaty forces attacked Anti-Treaty forces in Dublin.  Anti-Treaty forces ended the Civil War on 24 May 1923.  The Abbey’s production programme specifies that the action of the play’s first act occurs on “a summer afternoon in 1923” while the second act takes place “a few hours later”; the action of the play’s third act transpires “three weeks later”.[4]  Deevy sets the play, then, in the weeks following the cessation of the Irish Civil War, an internal conflict in which Irish citizens fought against each other. 

 

The theme of infighting is found in John Jordan’s 1955 reassessment of Deevy’s work: “This is a play about Catholic ‘big houses’, Ballinrea House and Glenbeg House, and the psychological conflict between the two Doherty families which occupy them”.[5]   Writing in an undated column for Women’s Personality Parade, which is likely to have been published post-1930s, R. M. Fox observes that the play “had a middle class setting. It dealt with business and family troubles and how these affected various people”.[6]  These descriptions point to a play in which a group of middle class Irish Catholics are not only affected by the past but are in conflict with each other.  Setting the The Reapers just after the conclusion of the Irish Civil War draws attention to the conflict through Deevy’s representation of the two ‘big houses’ that are owned by people with the same surname.  Perhaps, then, the play subtly critiques a nation at war with itself. (And the fact that the play was presented as a double bill with W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan, a staple of Irish nationalist theatre in which a young man leaves his family to fight for Ireland’s freedom, provides a unique contrast to this reading of The Reapers.)  There is one example of textual evidence that supports a reading of the play in terms of the Irish Civil War.  A very brief excerpt from the play is found in Temple Lane’s 1946 article “The Dramatic Art of Teresa Deevy” in which the following exchange occurs between the Irish Republican, Ted, and his sister Lena:

LENA:   I’ve been thinking—I could turn Republican, if you like, and you and I could live together, —because really Dad is a terrible person to have to live with—

TED:      And that’s why you’d turn Republican!

LENA:   Well, it’s pleasanter to be on the same side as the person you live with.[7]

 

Although Lane goes on to note the “serious undertone” of the passage, she does not make clear the basis of her observation.[8]  It is difficult to imagine, however, that she refers to anything other than the conflict between Pro- and Anti-Treaty forces.  Significantly, Lane’s observation underscores Deevy’s ability to provide discreet assessments of contemporary issues, a trait that recurs in the playwright’s subsequent work such as The King of Spain’s Daughter (1935) and Katie Roche (1936).  Those two plays present subtle interrogations of women’s place in post-independent Ireland that have been analysed by contemporary scholars such as Lisa Fitzpatrick, Christie Fox, and Cathy Leeney.[9]   In both of those plays, Deevy focuses on young women who face limited options, generally related to matrimony.  In The King of Spain’s Daughter, Annie Kinsella must choose between hard labour in a factory and marriage to a man she does not love while Katie Roche’s option is to wed an older man or enter the convent.  In a short excerpt of The Reapers (again from Temple Lane’s article), Lena remarks:

I’ll marry. That’s the best in the long run: you’re settled then for life, or if it turns out unhappy you can take up something with real interest then, because you won’t be thinking of marriage any longer: yes, I’ll marry.[10]

 

The passage indicates that, from the beginning of Deevy’s career, the playwright was interested in exploring the theme of marriage and its consequences for women.

 

At least one other noteworthy observation is found in a number of reviews: Deevy’s style as a playwright, which many critics equate with that of Anton Chekhov.  A significant observation appears in Wiswayo’s review: “I could trace the same type of dialogue as one finds in The Three Sisters, abrupt, argumentative, and unfinished, with that note of hopelessness throughout.”[11] The word “unfinished” reveals an important characteristic found in many of Deevy plays: the characters’ communication relies on what is not said.  This trait is found to some extent in the aforementioned dialogue between Lena and Ted.  In particular, the inclusion of em-dashes to indicate brief pauses suggests to the reader, actor and audience member that something remains unarticulated.  Hence, Temple Lane’s observation of the “serious undertone” hidden in Lena and Ted’s exchange.

 

In conclusion, available evidence regarding Teresa Deevy’s The Reapers provides the researcher with clues about the play’s socio-political context in Irish history as well as some of the Deevy’s features as a playwright.

 

The Performance

To date, no archival material has been uncovered regarding the Abbey Theatre’s production of Teresa Deevy’s The Reapers such as set, light, or costume design or a prompt copy of the script that would indicate actors’ blocking or other production information such as cues for light and sound.  There is, however, some evidence in the reviews and pre-production material that assists in recouping a little about the audience as well as the set and costumes.

 

The Audience

One review notes that “[t]here was a big attendance of playgoers at the Abbey Theatre last night to witness the production of the work of a new Irish dramatist” while the Dublin Opinion finds that “[i]t was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a great play, and people seemed to have sensed this in advance, in some extraordinary fashion, for although the house was quite a good one, the theatre was not so crowded as you would expect it to have been on an Abbey Theatre first night”.[12]  Both observations indicate that the reviewers perceive the number of audience members as large for the opening of an unknown playwright’s untested play.  Another reason for a lower than expected turnout is found in critic A.J. (Con) Leventhal’s letter to Deevy after he saw The Reapers: the premiere took place during Lent.  Leventhal remarks:

If there was error in the play then it erred on the side of reality. Not a reality which audiences are accustomed to accept in exaggeration (as in Strindberg).  You gave us an honest to God [illegible] picture of Irish futility…and since there was no comic relief in the form of sententious patriotic speeches you were unable to make warm the blood of the Lenten critics already mortified by abstention from wine, meat and tobacco.[13]

 

The Set and Costumes

At least two reviews reveal some evidence regarding the set and costumes of The Reapers.  The Irish Times observes that “people go in and out a delightfully set French window, some dressed for tennis, and at least one like a caricature of one of the Misses Bennett, from Jane Austen’s novel [Pride and Prejudice].”[14]  Dublin Opinion adds that “[t]here was…a nice-looking boy in flannels, and there was a tennis-racket, and a modern girl and a fine setting of the sitting-room of a country house.  That was a very good effect the producer got with those large sunlit glass doors.”[15]  These statements certainly support the claims that the play revolves around middle class families: they wear nice clothing and have leisure time to play tennis near the ‘big house’.  A production still, reproduced by the Irish Independent the day before the play’s premiere on 18 April 1930, reveals a sitting room in one of the ‘big houses’ with paintings on the walls (although the French doors are not readily apparent in the photo).[16]  The juxtaposition of a female character who is dressed in a turn of the eighteenth century costume with another character depicted as a “modern girl”, who is also described in another report as “the flapper daughter”.[17] The tension between tradition and modernity is noted by Teresa Deevy herself:

The play has been spoken of as a harvest dance in which the elder and younger branches come forward, dance their steps, and retire to let others have their turn….For the subject of The Reapers blaming the sowers is a very real one, in Ireland.[18]

 

The comment indicates a time of change between old and new forces, a period of evolution; and indeed, as illustrated in the aforementioned reading of the play, the 1920s were a time of flux and transition as the citizens negotiated their way forward in a newly formed state.

 

Given that theatre is an ephemeral art form, it is not surprising that the available archival material allows only a superficial examination of the Abbey Theatre’s 1930 production of Teresa Deevy’s The Reapers.  You are invited to peruse the digitised collection of the relevant reviews, letters, and the production programme for yourself to determine what other information you can find to reconstruct the performance.  For example, what does the programme tell you about casting, music, and the administration of the Abbey?  By availing of NUIM’s Teresa Deevy Archive, you can continue this Theatre Studies Investigation into Teresa Deevy’s play and the Abbey Theatre’s 1930 production of it.



[1]   C.P.C., “Drama Notes: The Reapers.,” Teresa Deevy Archive, http://deevy.nuim.ie/items/show/116.  The review has a handwritten annotation that the publication is the Irish Statesman.

[2]   See, for example, the Irish Times: “What it was that [Deevy] wanted to say got so entangled in her method of saying it, that it failed completely to emerge” (“The Reapers: First Production at the Abbey Theatre”, Irish Times (March 19, 1930), p 4.) and Dublin Opinion:  “What the play lacks is a thing on which many present-day critics have agreed not to insist, and that is a plot, or rather, a good plot” (“Stage and Screen,” Teresa Deevy Archive, http://deevy.nuim.ie/items/show/120).

[3]   “‘The Reapers’: Work of New Woman Dramatist at the Abbey”, Teresa Deevy Archive, http://deevy.nuim.ie/items/show/121.  The review has a handwritten annotation that the publication is the Evening Herald.

[4] “The Reapers”, production programme, Teresa Deevy Archive, http://deevy.nuim.ie/items/show/326.

[5]   John Jordan, “Teresa Deevy: An Introduction”, Irish University Review 1: 8 (Spring, 1956), p. 14.

[6]   R. M. Fox, “Theatre Personalities”, Women’s Personality Parade (no date), no page.

[7]   Temple Lane, “The Dramatic Art of Teresa Deevy,” The Dublin Magazine XXI: 4 (October-December 1946), p. 35.

[8]   Ibid.

[9]   See Lisa Fitzpatrick, “Taking Their Own Road: The Female Protagonists in Three Irish Plays by Women” in Women in Irish Drama: A Century of Authorship and Representation, Ed. Melissa Sihra, Palgrave Macmillan (2007), pp.69-86; Cathy Leeney, “Teresa Deevy (1894-1963: Exile and Silence,” Irish Women Playwrights, 1900-1938: Gender and Violence Onstage, Peter Lang (2010), pp. 161-192; and Christie Fox, “Neither Here Nor There: The Liminal Position of Teresa Deevy and Her Female Characters” in A Century of Irish Drama: Widening the Stage, Eds. Stephen Watt, Eileen Morgan, Shakir Mustafa, Indiana University Press, 2000, pp. 193-203.

[10] Temple Lane, “The Dramatic Art of Teresa Deevy,” The Dublin Magazine XXI: 4 (October-December 1946), p. 35.

[11] Wiswayo, “The Reapers, a play in three acts,” Teresa Deevy Archive, http://deevy.nuim.ie/items/show/133.

[12]“‘The Reapers’ : Work of new woman dramatist at the Abbey”, Teresa Deevy Archive, http://deevy.nuim.ie/items/show/121.  (The review has a handwritten annotation indicating that the publication is the Evening Herald.); “Stage and Screen,” Dublin Opinion, Teresa Deevy Archive, http://deevy.nuim.ie/items/show/120.

[13]  “Letter from C.J. Leventhal,” Teresa Deevy Archive, http://deevy.nuim.ie/items/show/31.

[14]“The Reapers: First Production at the Abbey Theatre”, Irish Times (March 19, 1930), p 4. (Also, Teresa Deevy Archive, http://deevy.nuim.ie/items/show/119.)

[15] “Stage and Screen,” Dublin Opinion, Teresa Deevy Archive, http://deevy.nuim.ie/items/show/120.

[16] “New Abbey Play”, Irish Independent (March 17, 1930), p 3.

[17] “Stage and Screen,” Dublin Opinion, Teresa Deevy Archive, http://deevy.nuim.ie/items/show/120; “‘The Reapers’: Work of new woman dramatist at the Abbey”, Teresa Deevy Archive, http://deevy.nuim.ie/items/show/121 (The review has a handwritten annotation indicating that the publication is the Evening Herald.).

[18] N. Sahal, Sixty Years of Realistic Irish Drama, Macmillan (1971), pp. 136.