A reappraisal of Lady Gregory
Augusta Gregory is known as a nationalist but she was also a social reformer insipred by John Ruskin
Lady Gregory in 1911: her good friend George Bernard Shaw once called her “the greatest living Irishwoman”. Photograph: Hulton Getty
“Sure we all know about Lady Gregory,” is a line I often hear in Ireland. “Wasn’t she the one with the big fancy house in Coole Park, a fairly fervent Irish nationalist, a founder of the Abbey Theatre, and the author of lots of little Irish country plays?”
But what if there was more – much more – to discover about her and her life in Ireland? What if she was more than an Ascendancy landowner and a genteel woman from a Protestant family background? And what if she had not in fact been a supporter of Irish nationalism (at least not of the militant kind) at the beginning of the 20th century, despite the fact that, in scholarly accounts of the period, she is still usually described as a woman of strong nationalist convictions?
Bearing these questions in mind, I wrote Lady Gregory and Irish National Theatre: Art, Drama, Politics for the following reasons: to tell the yet untold stories of Lady Augusta Gregory’s life; to reveal how her life-long interest in the visual arts influenced her work for the Abbey Theatre; and to introduce her as a serious social thinker in her own right who believed in the introduction of a new scheme of social reform in Ireland, one that would be beneficial for both tenants and landowners throughout the country. Although new to Ireland, this scheme had been tried and tested in England within the social and artistic circles of the most eminent Victorian critic, John Ruskin.
As for her love of art, this new book reveals the fascinating facts that for about a decade she and her husband, Sir William Gregory, went on numerous Grand Tours of European art and that these tours of continental museums and galleries fundamentally shaped her way of thinking about the Abbey Theatre as one of Ireland’s leading cultural institutions. During these years, Lady Gregory dined with Sir Frederic Burton, president of the National Gallery in London, and Sir John Everett Millais, president of the Royal Academy of Arts, who was also one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England back in 1848.
She was invited to the private views of National Gallery and British Museum exhibitions in London, and she often took children around the exhibition rooms to pass onto them her knowledge and appreciation of the visual arts. The book reveals, for the first time, the significance of her education in the visual arts during these museum visits and those of the Grand Tours of Europe in connection with the foundation of the Abbey Theatre in 1904 and the staging of her plays, as well as those of William Butler Yeats and John Millington Synge, at the Abbey before the Great War of 1914-18. Particularly interesting in this regard are the pictorial works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from the mid to late 19th century: I examine the difference in style between Millais’s and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s work in detail to signal up the differences between the pictorial visions of Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge and Yeats.
Lady Gregory did not believe in that infamous motto of “art for art’s sake”, but advocated instead Ruskin’s famous dictum of “art for the sake of education”. Ruskin thought of all cultural institutions as having one main aim: the education of the general public rather than simply pleasing the taste of “the select few”. For Ruskin, art had a profound social function. Art was to be used for the improvement of the living and working conditions of all classes of Victorian English society. Lady Gregory heeded Ruskin’s advice and championed the cause of the Co-operative Movement in Ireland, founded by Horace Plunkett in 1889.
The Irish Co-operative Movement offered new solutions to some of the centuries-long social and economic problems of Irish society, and, rather uniquely, it forged co-operation between the various segments of Irish society by doing so. Again, for the first time, my book traces the various connections between the literary world of the Abbey Theatre and the socio-political circles of the Co-operative and the Home Industries Movements in Ireland, through the work of Lady Gregory. Some of Lady Gregory’s most popular plays, including Spreading the News and Hyacinth Halvey, are discussed as works that directly addressed co-operative issues disseminated by Horace Plunkett and George Russell (AE).
When discussing Irish society during the late 19th and early 20th century, it is impossible of course to elude politics. The fin de siècle in the 1890s was followed by a period that was politically much more turbulent, but one that was leading Ireland towards achieving a significant degree of political independence from Britain, even if not from the authority of the British crown.
Up to now, there has been a tendency in literary discourse to refer to Lady Gregory as a political nationalist, someone who shared the views of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Patrick Pearse, and the young Yeats. Augusta Gregory’s political allegiances are regularly discussed in relation to “rebel nationalism”, particularly her plays Cathleen ni Houlihan and The Rising of the Moon. While interpretations of these works with regard to the “rebel tradition” in Irish literature have been fruitful and illuminating, they have completely ignored her many other history plays of a far less “nationalist” conviction, plays such as The Canavans or The Wrens. Again, for the first time, Lady Gregory and Irish National Theatre: Art, Drama, Politics examines her history plays in relation to the major political developments of the period and within the context of the Home Rule debates that lasted from the 1880s until the 1910s.
Why should we read about Lady Augusta Gregory in the 2010s? Because she was a woman of extraordinary vision and determination, and a role model for many a young woman of her generation. Because her vision that helped shape the artistic repertoire of the Abbey Theatre was essentially European, influenced as it was by Lady Gregory’s familiarity with the works of Giotto, Raphael, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Velazquez, van Eyck, Dürer, Vermeer, Rubens, Murillo, Monet, Manet and Jean-François Millet. Because the art and social criticism of Ruskin had influenced her and other writers during the period of the Irish Literary Revival far more deeply than has been acknowledged to date. Because Lady Gregory as woman and playwright was more than just a handmaiden to her friend, Nobel Prize winner W.B Yeats, merely there to facilitate his (often blurry) artistic visions. She had her own aspirations for the Abbey Theatre and the future shape of Irish society and culture. And, finally, because one of her aims was to have the Abbey Theatre as a national theatre foster reconciliation between the different social, political, and religious groups, with the aim of building a better, brighter future for a more inclusive Ireland. This last issue in particular is rather pertinent for the world of arts and culture today in the Ireland of the 2010s.
Another Nobel Prize winner, her good friend George Bernard Shaw, once called her “the greatest living Irishwoman”. Shaw’s remarks were seconded by fellow playwright Sean O’Casey, who wrote to her in a letter: “apart from your own personal work altogether, you have done for Art & Literature, not only as much as Ireland would permit, but a great deal more than Ireland would permit you to do.”
Given the praise Shaw lavished on her, it is fitting that this new book on Lady Gregory (the first ever monograph on her aesthetic and social thought) appears in a series Palgrave Macmillan has published on, among other topics, that of Shaw and Ireland. My sincere thanks to the editors of the series, Nelson O’Ceallaigh Ritschel and Peter Gahan, for supporting the publication of my research project.
Dr Eglantina Remport is author of Lady Gregory and Irish National Theatre: Art, Drama, Theatre (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)