Mícheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards

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A Travelling Theatre Company

In the early twentieth century, the Athenaeum regularly hosted ‘Fit-Up’ shows. ‘Fit-Ups’ were travelling players who journeyed from town to town staging a variety of plays many of which were Shakespearean. They were called ‘Fit-Ups’ because the actors literally transformed or fitted each town hall they visited very quickly, from arranging the seating to organising the lighting and building the stage. However, Enniscorthy provided the peripatetic thespians with a state of the art theatrical experience.

One such travelling theatre company was that of Anew McMaster, an English-born actor, and impresario. It was while McMaster’s company was playing the Athenaeum that two luminaries of Irish theatrical history met for the first time.

Mícheál MacLíammóir and Hilton Edwards were introduced to each other on the stairs of the Athenaeum and began a life-long relationship which brought about the founding of the Gate Theater in Dublin in 1928.

In a brave new move, the Gate introduced European and American theatre to the people of Ireland and also to classics from the modern and old Irish dramas. Cinematic legends, Orson Welles and James Mason began their careers in the Gate. Mícheál MacLíammóir told how events unfolded in his autobiography, All for Hecuba – An Irish Theatrical autobiography (London, 1946)

“Enniscorthy was drowsy in the morning sunshine, furze crowned and flag-bedecked.  We ate, not eggs and bacon, but rashers and eggs, a quite different dish for those who can perceive the subtleties between, say, Buckinghamshire and the County Wexford, and we drank red tea.  There was on the table an enormous cake of soda bread which caused Coralie to lose her head completely, and on the flower-bedizened walls a procession of holy and family portraits, none of which, I feel sure, bore more than the faintest resemblance to the originals.  There was, too, a smell of summer sunshine, of whitewash and turf smoke.  It was the feast of Corpus Christi.

… when we were not rehearsing in the Athenaeum … we spent our time on these honeyed days of June, walking barefoot through miles of jangled blossoming countryside until the senses ached with the perfume of late hawthorn and furze and buttercups, and the skin seemed to soak up the sunshine like a sponge.

… Early next morning we were summoned to rehearsal at the Athenaeum and when we got there in our struggling bands we were told that Mac [Anew McMaster] had arrived by boat in Rosslare, and was expected at any moment.

‘And the new man?’  we asked, and were told that after a week of searching he had been found.’  Four years in the Old Vic’, May Barry, the wardrobe mistress said, for she had met the train and had watched the train and had watched the travellers at their breakfast, ‘and he’s a singer too.  A baritone.  Oh, thanks be to God, Mr Mac has him rooted out! Now, I wouldn’t say, mind you, he was terrible tall, he’s kind of medium.’  Immediately we prepared for Little Tich.  ‘He has a big nose,’ she went on, ‘and he’s very young  and what you’d say decided; oh, he’s real manly but a nice polished way of speaking, though he’s English of course; ah, he’s falling to bits  with the journey, God help him, and Mr Mac says he’s paying him a desperate salary.  Ah, well, sure you wouldn’t expect him to come on summer terms.’

As a result of this description, we naturally formed a composite mental picture of Schnozzle Durante, Freddy Bartholomew, an all-in wrestler, a diplomat, an uncompromising John Bull, a historical ruin, and a bloated capitalist.  A discussion followed as to exactly how far we were going to admit him into our society.  A resolution was swiftly formed to stand no nonsense, and presently I wandered away to the top of the wooden stairs that led from the stage to the street entrance, and at once I heard footsteps, and Mac’s voice saying, ‘Yes, he’s my brother in law; designs some of the scenery for us too, quite mad but very charming –ah, there you are Micheál, how are you?’  Then in perfectly audible stage whisper, ‘Much the best I could find, dear, marvellous audition, bloody expensive, can’t be helped, Mana’s [his wife, MacLiammóir’s sister] exhausted, digs too terribly dear, bitch of a landlady,’ and I saw a sturdily-built young man in a tweed overcoat and a cap coming up the stairs towards me.

‘Ah, here we are,’ said Mac in the voice he genuinely imagined to be his audible one, ‘this is my brother-in-law, Micheál MacLíammóir; this is our new Iago, Micheál, Mr Hilton Edwards.

‘How do you do.’

‘How do you do.’

Our friendship established itself rapidly.

But he was restless, and seemed forever looking over some secret plan in his mind, and one day he said, ‘Would you like a theatre of your own?  I don’t mean now, I don’t mean for ages.  But you won’t be with Mac all your life.  The day will come then you’ll be ready for Romeo not Paris.  Perhaps even Hamlet and not Laertes.  Besides, there are your designs.  You want a place where you could have a permanent stage and play a few parts and bring some of those designs of yours to life…It could be in your precious Dublin if you like.  Something like Peter Godfrey’s Gate in London…

…When we at last discovered the ideal premises, a roomy hall in the heart of the town, with a fair-sized stage, an auditorium with a balcony and seating for three hundred people, and plenty of scene-dock and dressing-room space, it was he who ordered and installed a small but perfect lighting system of impeccable modernity…

… [Hilton] ‘This is from Dublin Corporation.  The Gate’s to be condemned.  The building’s too old.  It’s no longer suitable.  They may not allow it to function as a theatre any longer.’