Teresa Deevy and the secrets of the green suitcase
Best known for her productions at the Abbey, the Waterford playwright also wrote for radio, and there’s a mystery surrounding the origins of unpublished work under a pseudonym
Teresa Deevy: in recent years, critical attention has turned to her radio drama.
For more than four decades after her death in 1963, Teresa Deevy’s papers were stored in a large green suitcase under a bed in the family home, Landscape, in Waterford city. Since 2011, they have resided in the excellent archive at Maynooth University. In recent years, facilitated by New York-based Mint Theatre’s project to republish Deevy’s one-act plays, critical attention has turned to her radio drama. Such acts of recovery are interconnected and enabling. Notably, at a recent international conference on Deevy at Waterford Institute of Technology, the two keynote speakers focused on the radio play In the Cellar of My Friend. This reframing of Deevy’s oeuvre is welcome and necessary. Little known though she is, her reputation fossilised at the moment of her greatest critical success: as a popular Abbey playwright, with six plays produced in as many years. This emphasis on her Abbey career has unwittingly overshadowed her later life when she courageously embraced new media, and when she engaged with other theatrical spaces and communities.
Deevy was born in Waterford on January 21st, 1894, the youngest of 13 children in a successful merchant family. Her father died when she was three years old and she was raised by her mother in a supportive but conservative environment, aware of class distinctions and expected to adhere to religious and social orthodoxies. She attended the Ursuline Convent School in Waterford before studying first in UCD and then at UCC. While at university she was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an affliction which resulted in her complete deafness within a few years. She moved to London to study lip reading and while there became deeply immersed in theatre, deciding to become a playwright so that she “would put the sort of life we have in Ireland into a play”.
The unpublished script of Deevy’s first Abbey play, The Reapers, has never been recovered. Set in 1923 in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, its subject matter and significance are only accessible through fragmented commentary and contemporary reviews. During its one-week run at the Abbey Theatre in 1930, the critic Con Leventhal compared it in a letter to a “Wagner melody”, while an unnamed Irish Times critic highlighted a powerful theme sentence uttered at the end of the play: “Life must be lived, not simply accepted.” Concluding with a marriage between the adult children of two warring families, The Reapers meditated on the legacy of internecine strife on subsequent generations. The loss of this script reveals much about the plight of women’s literary and creative work, and its occlusion within Irish cultural history.
Throughout the 1930s, Deevy’s profile remained high. Her third Abbey play, Temporal Powers, tied for first place with Paul Vincent Carroll’s Things that are Caesar’s in the 1932 Aonach Tailteann Dramatic Arts competition. An intellectual drama that explored issues such as emigration, the Land Annuities crisis and rural poverty, the panel noted that Deevy’s play was “strikingly original and of fine literary quality”. Her two subsequent plays, Katie Roche and The King of Spain’s Daughter, were hailed as theatrical triumphs although one critic ominously complained that Katie Roche “seems to be little more than a clever psychological study of an illegitimate girl”. In recent years, Deevy has been rightly recognised for such female protagonists, taking centre stage in the Abbey Theatre at a moment when women were being pushed to the margins of Irish society. Four of her six Abbey plays feature young women grappling with the scarcity of life paths available to them and Deevy often hints at shadow experiences beyond the frame of the stage, be it emigration under duress or the threat of Magdalene laundries.
Following the banning in 1936 of Seán Ó Faoláin’s novel Bird Alone, Deevy wrote to The Irish Times. Her words excoriate the culture of censorship that had taken hold: “If, in Ireland, we are not to be allowed to read of those whose faith differs from ours – if we are not to be allowed to read any criticism of priests or religious orders – let that be said. But let us have an end to insults – lowering to those who offer them and to the nation that tolerates such practices… Who are the censors? By what right do they hold office? And how, in case of proved incompetence, can they be removed?”
As her reputation grew, Deevy was not without her detractors and when Ernest Blythe became artistic director of the Abbey in 1941, he made it clear that his vision was incompatible with hers. Blythe’s rejection of Wife to James Whelan marked the end of Deevy’s close relationship with the National Theatre. This three-act play foregrounded the plight of a young widow with a child who refuses to be bowed by her circumstances, a woman whose plight revealed the emptiness of official rhetoric about mothers not being forced to work outside the home. Writing to her friend Florence Hackett, Deevy noted that “Blythe’s letter when returning it showed clearly that he had no use for my work”.
Deeply hurt and shaken by her marginalisation, Deevy turned her attention to radio, a remarkable development considering her deafness. This new technology gave her access to an emerging mass audience. She had begun experimenting with the medium prior to her break with the Abbey and she continued to find creative success in radio with her plays subsequently produced by Radio Éireann and the BBC.
Deevy’s family, friends and supporters remained loyal. Deirdre F Brady’s forthcoming volume on Literary Coteries and the Irish Women Writers’ Club (1933-1958) locates her within that milieu. At a formal dinner in the Hibernian Hotel in Dublin in December 1949, nearly 80 guests celebrated her when she was awarded the club’s prize for book of the year. Deevy was also a member of the Irish Chapter of PEN International. Despite her luminous success at the Abbey in the early 1930s, her extraordinary work for radio from the 1930s until her death in 1963, and critical recognition by her peers, Deevy became increasingly impoverished. Occluded within the canon of Irish writers for many years, her work has rarely been in print.
It was in this spirit of trying to understand the lesser-known Deevy that I recently began working through her archive of unpublished stories and plays, incomplete drafts and scraps of writing in notebooks and on loose sheets. In doing so I hoped to better understand the playwright as a young woman. The Deevy archive holds three plays identified as from the period 1914-1919 (during her time in London learning to lipread) and written under the pseudonym “DV Goode”. There has been some speculation that they may have been written by her sister, Josie, with whom she lived in London during those years. Assumed to be unfinished and juvenile work by an amateur playwright, these plays languished in a folder and have never been published or produced. While not entirely unknown, it was clear that these texts had never been closely scrutinised.
It is a researcher’s dream to stumble upon some previously unstudied work by their chosen subject. But what happens then when one stumbles across three plays at once? And not her breakthrough debut, The Reapers, but enigmatic and suspect texts under a cryptic pseudonym that contain familiar stylistic and linguistic elements while being notably different in key respects.
DV Goode wrote three plays: The Firstborn; Practice and Precept; and Let Us Live. These texts are from a much later period than previously assumed – from the 1930s or 1940s. Strikingly, all three have references to motor cars, used as symbolic reference points for modernisation. Two of the plays contain serious crashes. In The Firstborn, the plot includes a collision that foretells the end of the Big House in Ireland, but it decentres the action to the local community in the hinterland of the large estate. An atmospheric one-act play, it was written specifically for radio, suggesting it dates from some point after the late 1930s. There are two crashes in the three-act Practice and Precept: one of these crashes is fatal and precipitates the action within the play. This drama explores questions of forgiveness and gender equality within marriage.
The three-act Let Us Live is a problem play in the style popularised by writers such as George Bernard Shaw. Deevy’s ease with this format was previously evidenced in Temporal Powers and it was an intertextual reference to her prize for this play in 1932 that again revealed the mysterious DV Goode to be writing at a much later date than previously assumed. As a genre, problem plays brought to life a pressing social question and aired it through a discussion of the controversy. Two issues are explored and debated in this play: interfaith marriage and the importance for married women to earn and manage their own money. It is notable that the play concludes with the extended families supporting both the Catholic-Protestant marriage and the decision of the engaged woman to continue to work after the wedding. Set in 1932 as Fianna Fáil extended the Marriage Bar, this play’s utopian “Hollywood” ending is unlike Deevy’s expressionist masterpieces for the Abbey, although there are resonances with the lost play, The Reapers, which concluded with the prospect of a marriage between the children of warring families.
There are various scenarios which could explain the opaque origins of the DV Goode plays and the reason for using a pseudonym. If one of Deevy’s sisters was the mysterious DV Goode, it would be intriguing, further complicating our understanding of women’s cultural production and political critique during this era. If Teresa Deevy used this pseudonym for these plays, then that raises a different set of questions about some stylistic differences within the manuscript but also her evolution as a feminist intellectual. Either way, the slow work of authentication and attribution now begins.
Jacqui Deevy, Teresa’s grandniece and the executor of her literary estate, suggests one reason for using a pen name: “the subject matter of these plays are rooted in family biography, but Tessa’s siblings were religious, conservative and fearful of scandal. They would have been deeply uneasy and nervous of disrespecting the prevailing social and political mores.” In an era of literary censorship and conservative social values and with few independent sources of income, was the author of these plays concerned with social and financial vulnerability?
Sometimes it can seem as if women’s voices were so submerged that there is nothing but the silences to excavate. But occasionally there are interventions hiding in plain sight – in a green suitcase stored under a spare bed or on the stage of the national theatre.
Caoilfhionn Ní Bheacháin lectures in Communications in the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick