Abbey Theatre and the reputation of F.J. McCormick

Madam, - In your edition of November 2nd you published a letter from David Judge, son of the famous Irish Abbey actor F.J

Madam, - In your edition of November 2nd you published a letter from David Judge, son of the famous Irish Abbey actor F.J. McCormick.

The letter concerned a production in the Abbey on August 23rd of a play by Colm Toibin, Beauty in a Broken Place, which purported to deal with events surrounding the premiere of Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theatre. David Judge complained that some Abbey actors associated with that first production had been misrepresented in Toibin's play, and in particular that his father Peter Judge (F.J. McCormick was his stage name) had been "portrayed as a truly despicable human being and an inferior actor as well".

I hadn't seen the play during its performance at the Peacock in August. But Toibin's script has been published in the Abbey Theatre Script Series to mark the Abbey's "continued commitment to promotion and development of new Irish writers", so I was able to purchase it in a bookshop. I was shocked to read denigratory references to F.J. McCormick in a book promoted by the very theatre where he had established a world reputation for his art.

On page 20 these words are put into O'Casey's mouth: "F.J. McCormick made bitter by his own small portion of talent, in love with himself and his booming voice now gone all hoarse".


On page 36 Lady Gregory has these words attributed to her: "And then McCormick, the ghastly McCormick". (In 1928 she dedicated her play Don Quixote to F.J.McCormick.)

On page 39 O'Casey is represented as saying to McCormick: "You were like a headless chicken prancing round with a toothache".

On page 42 the O'Casey character is given these lines: "McCormick is an ecclesiastical cuckoo clock, a failed bully".

McCormick was regarded by many respected theatre people of his era as one of the great actors of his time. Here is what Barry Fitzgerald had to say of him in 1948:

"I know only two other actors with such a gift as McCormick, Charles Laughton and Charlie Chaplin, both, like Peter, actors of genius. His work on the picture Odd Man Out created a sensation here in Hollywood. 'The greatest performance I have ever seen on the screen,' said an internationally famous director to me and I was too proud to tell him that I had known and worked with Peter for many years."

Dame Sybil Thorndike recalls McCormick as follows: "The true actor. . .truly lives this other person, but at the same time is able to be larger than that person. In some mysterious, almost mystic way he can become God looking at that person. This is the actor's ideal, and this is what Peter seemed able to do."

In a personal conversation with Carol Reed, who selected McCormick and directed him in Odd Man Out (in which he played the part of Shell the informer alongside James Mason), Reed recalled that when McCormick was on the set, that rarest of occasions in film-making would occur when "the staff would begin to gather in the background to watch the take, leaving their own work to do so".

I myself was fortunate enough to have had acting lessons from F.J. McCormick and was always struck by the gentleness of his manner and the soft beauty of his speaking voice.

The cult of "faction" in the novel, which consists of using facts to form the basis of a fictional work, became popular in the 1960s. At its best in the non-fiction novel form, it was exemplified by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, but soon fell into the hands of sensationalists such as Irving Stone who brought the form into disrepute as a serious literary device.

It seems now the same disregard for facts is creeping into stage presentations of alleged historical events.

The National Theatre Society has a responsibility in this matter. It has presented a play in which it has allowed one of its great actors to be traduced.

The play has now completed its run. But the book is still for sale in the Abbey Theatre. The least the administration can do is to withdraw it from the theatre's shelves. - Yours, etc.,

ULICK O'CONNOR, Fairfield Park, Rathgar, Dublin 6.