Lady Gregory's Toothbrush

Lady Gregory's Toothbrush by Colm Tóibín Read Free Book Online

Book: Lady Gregory's Toothbrush by Colm Tóibín Read Free Book Online
Authors: Colm Tóibín
during the time when they ran the theatre a number of enduring masterpieces were produced, notably the plays of Synge and O’Casey, and also George Bernard Shaw’s The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet.
    Both Yeats and Lady Gregory maintained their relationship to a peasant culture they had dreamed into being and at the same time made no effort to repudiate their own Anglo-Irish heritage. This gave them an enormous advantage in both Ireland and London: they were members of aruling class who lost none of their edge or high manners or old friends while espousing a new politics and a new art in Ireland. They were independent and they did what they liked, subject to no peer-group or class pressure. It was the mixture of ambiguity and arrogance in their position which made them ready for the exemplary battles they were now to fight for artistic freedom in Ireland, the right to stage the plays of Synge, Shaw and O’Casey. They, and no one else, had the strength of will and the class confidence and the belief in their cause to do battle with the Playboy rioters, the Catholic Church, the Lord Lieutenant and, when the time came, the new Irish state.
    L ady Gregory first saw John Millington Synge in 1898. “I first saw him”, she later wrote, “in the North Island of Aran. I was staying there, gathering folklore talking to the people, and felt a real pang of indignation when I passed another outsider walking here and there, talking also to the people. I was jealous of not being alone on the island among the fishers and seaweed gatherers. I did not speak to the stranger nor was he inclined to speak to me. He also looked on me as an intruder.” Lady Gregory was forty-six; Synge was twenty-seven. He was a middle-class Protestant and, in Roy Foster’s phrase, “an apprentice bohemian”. He, like Lady Gregory, had proselytizingProtestantism in his background, his uncle having been the first Protestant missionary on the Aran Islands. Both he and Lady Gregory had mothers who were addicted to salvation . Yeats had already met him in Paris, and soon he was invited to Coole.
    Synge was a great mystery: solitary, detached, over-educated , watchful. The exuberance and depth of feeling in his work were strangely absent from his personality. His sophistication, his irony and his wide reading responded warmly to the speech patterns, the way of life and the landscape he found in the west of Ireland. He had, Lady Gregory wrote, “done no good work until he came back to his own country. It was there that he found all he wanted, fable, emotion, style … bringing a cultured mind to a mass of primitive material, putting clearer and lasting form to the clumsily expressed emotion of a whole countryside.” Synge did not make his characters simple or charming or harmless, nor did he seek to stir up national feeling, unless uproarious laughter and wild paganism were forms of national feeling. Although he did not seem to have any special wish, in Lady Gregory’s phrase, to add dignity to Ireland, he wrote with feeling and awe and tenderness about the “folk-imagination of these fine people” in rural Ireland. In his Preface to The Playboy of the Western World he wrote that “anyone who has lived in real intimacy with the Irish peasantry will know that the wildest sayings and ideasin the play are tame indeed, compared with the fancies one may hear in any hillside cabin in Geesala, or Carraroe, or Dingle Bay”. Despite Synge’s invocation of the people, it was clear that the young men who had crowded in to see Cathleen Ni Houlihan , growing slowly more militant and confident in the years that followed its production, were going to be greatly offended by Synge’s plays.
    The Shadow of the Glen , in which a woman runs away with a tramp, was first performed in 1903, and caused a deep rift between Yeats and Lady Gregory on one side and diehard nationalists – including Arthur Griffith,

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