nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 20, 2005
Before I saw Coole Lady, all that I really knew about Lady Gregory was that she was an Irish writer who, with William Butler Yeats, founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1904. Now that I've seen Coole Lady, a thoughtful one-person play performed by Joan McCready and written and directed by her husband, Sam, I know a great deal more. Better than that, my interest is piqued to discover still more about this fascinating woman who was a poet, playwright, folklorist, entrepreneur, and patriot.
Isabella Augusta Persse was born in 1852 in County Galway, Ireland, the daughter of two devout Protestants (the father was a proselytizer, the mother an evangelical). She lived at home until a trip to Cannes, caring for an older brother who had taken ill, led to a friendship with Sir William Gregory, former governor of Ceylon, now retired at his estate Coole Park, a few miles from the Persse place. The friendship evolved into a courtship and they married in 1880; she was 27, he was 63. They had one son, Robert; perhaps even more life-changing was Augusta's exposure to the rich intellectual life at Coole Park after years of hunting, farming, and the Bible at home.
The new Lady Gregory's artistic awakening reached its pinnacle with her introduction to Yeats, shortly after the death of her husband. Soon, the young poet and playwright, some 13 years her junior, was spending a great deal of time at Coole Park; she wasn't precisely his muse, but she made him hunker down and write. Eventually, the two hatched a scheme to found an Irish national theatre, inspired by twin desires to put Yeats's works on stage and to bring honor to the rich storytelling traditions of their native country. This theatre became the Abbey, and made Lady Gregory famous in theatrical circles, launching the careers of John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey (whose plays—The Playboy of the Western World and The Plough and the Stars, respectively—aroused enormous controversies at their premieres in Dublin and elsewhere).
Lady Gregory also wrote plays herself, along with volumes collecting Irish folklore and a biography of her nephew, Sir Hugh Lane, who was killed on the Lusitania and whose bequest of valuable artwork to his native Ireland was appropriated by the English, leading to a protracted legal battle that Lady Gregory fought until her death.
All of this and much more is covered in Coole Lady, whose pretense is that a 79-year-old Lady Gregory is rummaging through old letters and books and reminiscing to herself, with the audience as grateful eavesdroppers. She recalls her life chronologically, peppering what amounts to a survey of its events and accomplishments with anecdotes about the people who made the biggest impressions on her, some of them famous like Yeats, Shaw, and O'Casey, and others not-so-well-known, such as the two men with whom she had affairs (at opposite ends of her life) or various members of her family. The McCreadys' goals are clarity and granting this somewhat forgotten figure her due: the play is straightforward and even-handed, if less theatrical and passionate that it could be.
Although it feels like all of Lady Gregory's achievements and endeavors are well-represented here, her writing is mostly absent from it: there is only one excerpt from one early sonnet in Coole Lady—the rest of Lady Gregory's prolific oeuvre is somewhat conspicuously missing. I would have liked to hear excerpts from her plays and prose—I think that would help complete the picture of this remarkable woman (plus it would give us a welcome glimpse at her writing, which I suspect most contemporary theatregoers have not encountered).
Nevertheless, this is a most interesting evening of theatre, and one that anyone curious about the Irish Renaissance of the early 20th century will certainly want to take in. Some of the best bits have to do with what it was like to live in that time of radical historical change: Lady Gregory's accounts of life on the Coole Park estate before and after the Easter Rebellion are particularly enlightening. Bravo to the McCreadys for bringing Lady Gregory's story to the stage, where it certainly belongs; and to Handcart Ensemble for bringing the McCreadys to New York.