‘Filth’ at the Abbey – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Siobhán McKenna and Archbishop McQuaid

A flood of filth was poured across the stage of the Abbey Theatre in September 1967. To merit that charge, things must have been bad, since even Ireland was in the grip of the Swinging Sixties by that time and there was more than dancing going on at the cross-roads of Ireland's villages.

It was a decade since the staging of Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo at the Pike Theatre, which had led to the arrest of the producer and director Alan Simpson on a charge of public indecency because it was (wrongly) asserted that a contraceptive had been brought, or more accurately thrown, on stage.

A lot had changed in 10 years. But here it was in black and white: a flood of filth on the boards of the national theatre.

The perpetrator of the outrage was no less a man than Brian Friel, and the filth in question was his play The Loves of Cass Maguire.

Cass Maguire may not be Friel’s best play by a long chalk, but it is an imaginative and compassionate study of the bleakness of old age as well as the misplacement of emigrant nostalgia.

The central character is a foul-mouthed old Irishwoman who retires home from the US and is placed in an old people’s home where the residents play a desperately sad game of sitting in a specific chair to recall the past as they would like it to have been. Their mantra is “This is my truth.” And finally Cass, for all her bloody-minded determination not to let go of reality, is worn down into accepting escapist unreality as the only means of survival.

And on October 1st, 1967, a Dublin woman wrote to John Charles McQuaid, the feared and all-powerful Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin. She and her husband had attended a performance of the play with a view to being entertained, she said.

“I can’t believe,” she wrote, “that you who have the morals of your people so sincerely at heart are aware of the flood of filth being poured into the Abbey audience night after night.”

“The Loves of Cass Maguire” she continues, “is a masterpiece in obscenity, scurrility and nauseating lewdness.”

His Lordship's correspondent has worked out an explanation for the "flood of filth". She writes: "The author, a Belfast man, must be an absolute gutter-rat." Belfast, lewdness, and gutter-rats clearly being synonymous in the mind of the correspondent.

His Grace’s obedient servant went on to point the finger at the actress who played Cass, the late Siobhán McKenna, herself a native of godless Belfast. She describes her as the “once wonderful St Joan (now sadly) equally depraved. Her very posture is an insult to womanhood, the vile jokes an insult to the gifts of speech and hearing.”

The reference to St Joan recalls an earlier and much-vaunted performance by McKenna in Shaw’s masterpiece, in which she achieved arguably her greatest career recognition and seems to have been seen by McQuaid’s indignant correspondent.

Ironically, she failed to recognise that the charges she was levelling at McKenna as an actress were identical to those levelled by her ecclesiastical accusers at Siobhán’s alter ego, the Maid of Orleans in the Shaw play: her demeanour an insult to womanhood, her “voices” an insult to speech and hearing.

But Cass Maguire was “iniquitous poison being poured into our minds in the name of Art,” she opines. And “shuddering” as she is for “the very future of the country”, she trusts “your grace will give a sympathetic hearing to have my plea to have this play and any other of a similar diabolical nature, banned from our theatres”.

This masterpiece of invective was published a few years ago in the selected letters of Dr McQuaid, edited by Clara Cullen and Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh, entitled His Grace Is Displeased.

And indeed he was on this occasion, as there is a draft response in his papers, which says, “AB deplores bad plays and has specifically spoken about them. Please thank, but say that it is the lay-people who attend the theatre who ought to use every means of lawful protest.”

It seems to have been a classic case of leading from behind, something that in terms of theatre censorship, these letters prove Mc Quaid to have been a masterly proponent.

Determined in 1957 that the Dublin Theatre Festival should not stage either an adaptation of Ulysses or the premiere of O'Casey's The Drums of Father Ned, McQuaid never wrote or uttered the word "censorship". He merely withdrew his august permission for a Mass to be celebrated in the pro-cathedral for the opening of the festival if either of the two plays was included in the programme. And the city fathers meekly threw in the towel. Or maybe enthusiastically would be more the word. Newspaper reports of the time would seem to suggest McQuaid's views could even be described as mild when compared with those of his loyal mouth-frothing subjects.

And I remember reflecting on that in the Abbey Theatre in the 1990s when Patrick Mason staged an Irish production of the previous year's USPulitzer Prize-winning controversial hit, Tony Kushner's Angels in America. It presented a scene of graphic and fairly brutal homosexual sex. Only one person staged what McQuaid would have called a "lawful protest" by walking out.

It was a far cry from Siobhán McKenna disgracing herself as an insult to womanhood in a Brian Friel play in 1967.