Thursday, 31 August 2017

Who is Katie Roche? - From the Archives

Programme from opening night, 'Katie Roche', 1936, Abbey Theatre Digital Archive
The story of the eponymous young woman of the play, Katie Roche, is often unbeknown to Irish theatre audiences. Lesser known still is the story of the play’s author, Teresa Deevy. One could be forgiven for confusing the stories of both women, Roche and Deevy – their stories interchangeable where either’s considerable talent and ability were left unfulfilled by demonstrable forces beyond their control. Authority has a habit of getting in the way.

Such was the case for both Deevy and her play Katie Roche. First performed at the Abbey Theatre in March 1936, the play’s opening night review in the Evening Herald included the following remarks: “The point of the play, if point there is, is most evasive. It seems to be little more than a clever psychological study of a girl who gives her name to the piece.” This critic who describes Katie as a “complex creature as near to insanity as makes no difference” spent most of the review trying to define Katie herself, describing her as full of “gamin elfishness . . . queer, fiery, and at times a pitiful character.” We are still left quite unaware of Katie's story or of who she is or the fate that befalls her.
Screenshot from Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, NUI Galway

Deevy’s play presents a young woman, Katie, who as born out of wedlock, is depicted as someone who is somehow, incomplete, unknowable or wild. In marrying an older man, Stanislaus Gregg, an artist of renown, Katie untimely succumbs to the pressures of conformity, to a play ' a role' as a wife and within a family.  

As a reader of this review some eight decades later, one would be none much the wiser as to knowing who Katie is, or what she experienced, or what Deevy sought to accomplish with the play. In fact, the review concludes that the “the people in it are unprobable beings in an unprobable world of their own.” The ‘improbable world’ world the reviewer speaks of relates more to conservative Ireland of the 1930s of which the play is both a product of and a response against. Fintan O’Toole writes that: “It is easy enough to see that she didn’t fit in with the increasingly reactionary atmosphere of the national theatre, however, and that her work raises startlingly blunt questions about the role of women in Éamon de Valera’s Ireland.”

Image from 1975 production of 'Katie Roche'. Abbey Theatre Digital Archive 
The play was one of the most popular at the Abbey theatre throughout the 1930s and foregrounded Waterford-born Deevy as a playwright of much promise, vision and talent. But all would not be so. Newly digitised records from the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, available at the Hardiman library, NUI Galway, allow researchers a new opportunity to study the history of this play and of Teresa Deevy herself. Research by Abbey Theatre Digital Archive Fellow, Tricia O’Beirne, who transcribed the minute books of the first thirty-five years of the Abbey Board as part of a digitisation project discovered that:

In one of the last entries to the minute books, on the 28 April 1939, Teresa Deevy, the playwright who gave the Abbey one of their most successful plays of the thirties in Katie Roche, is rather mysteriously dismissed from her contract. Previous academic research has tended to place Deevy’s break with the Abbey in the early 1940s, when she submitted Wife to James Whelan which was rejected by Blythe, but here is evidence that in response to her inquiring about her play Holiday House, which had been accepted by the board a year previously, the board decide not to produce it ‘and agreed that the contract with Miss Deevy should be allowed to lapse’. This terminology is not employed elsewhere in the minutes and no explanation is given for the dropping of one of their most popular and critically acclaimed playwrights.

Deevy’s involvement with the Abbey theatre, as a playwright of other new work at least, ends with Katie Roche. After its premiere in 1936, the play was revived in 1937, 1938, 1949, 1953, 1954, 1975 and 1994, before being revived currently on the Abbey stage in 2017. The production history and records of the play, newly digitised for the first time at NUI Galway, reveal how this play, much loved by its original audiences has faded into a sporadic production over the subsequent decades.

From the original production, the stage management files, revealing sketches and drawings of the stage and set, lists of props, cue-sheets for lighting and sound, also included detailed annotation down to the detail of the colour of carpets and curtains used on set. In the absence of photographs, for example, these records are an invaluable account of the original staging which was produced by Hugh Hunt and designed by Tania Moiseiwitsch and provide evidence as to why it struck a chord with both audiences and to those who may have considered Katie “a wild” and dangerous figure for modern Ireland.
Stage management files, 1936, 'Katie Roche', Abbey Theatre Digital Archive


Later records, such as prompt-scripts, give further opportunity to follow how the play was and could be mounted, giving an indication of the craft of Deevy the playwright and evidence as to just why exactly she was known as a playwright of such ability before her contract was “allowed to lapse” in such a crude manner.
Digitised audio reels, 1975, 'Katie Roche' Abbey Theatre Digital Archive


Audio visual records, such as audio files from productions in the 1980s and 1990s give a chance for the first time to hear how the play was scored and a how music and affects were integrated into the production. A video recording of the 1994 production of Katie Roche, on the Peacock stage, starring Dearbhla Crotty in the titular role of Katie, brings the archive story of the play full-circle, allowing us to watch, hear and experience, as far as possible, the play in action and brought to life from the past. More than eighty years after the play was first performed, the archive and records of the play’s production and its reception can bring us closer to knowing more about the complex stories of both Katie Roche and Teresa Deevy.

The transcribed minute books of the Board of the Abbey Theatre 1904 - 1939 are available here.

No comments: