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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Anew McMaster, Anglo-Irish Stage Actor

Anew McMaster, Anglo-Irish stage actor, is born in Birkenhead, England, on December 24, 1891. During his nearly 45 year acting career he tours Ireland, Britain, Australia and the United States. For almost 35 years he tours as actor-manager of his own theatrical company performing the works of Shakespeare and other playwrights.

McMaster is born as Andrew McMaster, the son of Liverpool-born Andrew McMaster (1855–1940), a master stevedore, and Alice Maude née Thompson (1865–1895). A number of sources make the erroneous claims, based on details supplied by McMaster himself, that he is born in 1893 or 1894 or even 1895 in County Monaghan in Ireland but, according to the Birth Register and the 1901 United Kingdom Census, he is actually born in 1891 in Birkenhead, England. Like his future brother-in-law Micheál Mac Liammóir, who is born in London as Alfred Willmore but claims to have been born in Cork to Gaelic-speaking parents, McMaster reinvents himself as Irish and claims for himself the town of Monaghan as his birthplace, and Warrenpoint, County Down, as the scene of his earliest memories.

At the age of nineteen McMaster gives up a career in banking to pursue one on the stage. He moves to Ireland and tours the country with the O’Brien-Ireland theatrical company from 1910 to 1914. Success quickly follows with his appearance as Jack O’Hara in Paddy the Next Best Thing at the Savoy Theatre (1920). From 1921 he tours Australia in this and other plays, and in 1925 forms his own company, the McMaster Intimate Theatre Company, a ‘fit-up‘ company to tour in the works of Shakespeare, mainly in Ireland but also in Britain and Australia, touring with his theatrical company until 1959. One of the last actor-managers “of the old school – and an epitome of the type,” on occasions he persuades a ‘big name’ to act with his company as a draw for audiences. Frank Benson (1928), Sara Allgood (1929) and Mrs. Patrick Campbell appear with him.

In 1933 at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon McMaster appears as Hamlet opposite Esme Church as Gertrude, Coriolanus, Macduff in Macbeth, Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing, Prince Escalus in Romeo and Juliet, and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. His greatest roles are as Othello and as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, to which he adds King Lear in 1952. Just before World War II he and his company appear at the Chiswick Empire in a Shakespeare season. He tours the United States as James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill‘s Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1956. Having ‘a great organ voice,’ Harold Pinter, who acts in his company in Ireland from 1951 to 1953 and calls him ‘perhaps the greatest actor-manager of his time,’ later describes McMaster as ‘evasive, proud, affectionate, shrewd, merry.’ In his brief biography Mac (1968), Pinter recalls, “Mac gave about a half dozen magnificent performances of Othello while I was with him… At his best he was the finest Othello I have see. [He] stood dead in the centre of the role, and the great sweeping symphonic playing would begin, the rare tension and release within him, the arrest, the swoop, the savagery, the majesty and repose.”

McMaster’s only film role is an uncredited appearance as the Judge in Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960).

In 1924 McMaster marries the actress and designer Marjorie Willmore (1894–1970), the sister of Micheál Mac Liammóir. They have two children, the actors John Christopher McMaster (1925–1995) and Mary-Rose McMaster (1926–2018).

Anew McMaster dies at the age of 70 at his home in Dublin on August 24, 1962. He is buried with his wife in Deans Grange Cemetery in County Dublin.

McMaster trains a generation of actors who tour with his company and go on to achieve success as actors. These include Pauline Flanagan, Milo O’Shea, T. P. McKenna, Kenneth Haigh, Henry Woolf, Harold Pinter, Donal Donnelly and Patrick Magee. It is while they are touring with McMaster’s company that the actor and dramatist Micheál Mac Liammóir and the actor and producer Hilton Edwards first meet and begin their lifelong partnership.

McMaster’s biography, A Life Remembered: A Memoir of Anew McMaster by his daughter Mary-Rose McMaster, is published in 2017. Harold Pinter also publishes a short biography, Mac, in 1968.


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Oscar Wilde’s “Salomé” Opens in Paris

Oscar Wilde languishes in jail as his play Salomé opens in Paris on February 11, 1896. Salomé is a one act play based on the biblical tale of Salomé, stepdaughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who asks for the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist) on a platter as a reward for dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils. The original 1891 version of the play is in French. Three years later an English translation, with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, is published.

Rehearsals for the play’s debut on the London stage, for inclusion in Sarah Bernhardt‘s London season, begin in 1892, but are halted when the Lord Chamberlain‘s licensor of plays bans Salomé on the basis that it is illegal to depict Biblical characters on the stage. The play eventually premiers on February 11, 1896, while Wilde is in prison, in Paris at the Théâtre de la Comédie-Parisienne in a staging by Lugné-Poe‘s theatre group, the Théâtre de l’Œuvre.

In The Pall Mall Gazette of June 29, 1892 Wilde explains why he had written Salomé in French:

“I have one instrument that I know I can command, and that is the English language. There was another instrument to which I had listened all my life, and I wanted once to touch this new instrument to see whether I could make any beautiful thing out of it. […] Of course, there are modes of expression that a Frenchman of letters would not have used, but they give a certain relief or colour to the play. A great deal of the curious effect that Maeterlinck produces comes from the fact that he, a Flamand by grace, writes in an alien language. The same thing is true of Rossetti, who, though he wrote in English, was essentially Latin in temperament.”

A performance of the play is arranged by the New Stage Club at the Bijou Theatre in Archer Street, London, on May 10 and 13, 1905, starring Millicent Murby as Salomé and directed by Florence Farr. In June 1906 the play is presented privately with A Florentine Tragedy by the Literary Theatre Society at King’s Hall, Covent Garden. The Lord Chamberlain’s ban is not lifted for almost forty years. The first public performance of Salomé in England is produced by Nancy Price at the Savoy Theatre on October 5, 1931. She takes the role of Herodias herself and casts her daughter, Joan Maude, as Salomé.

In 1992 the play is performed on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre, under the direction of Robert Allan Ackerman. Sheryl Lee stars as the title role alongside Al Pacino. The play costars Suzanne Bertish, Esai Morales and Arnold Vosloo.

Al Pacino says in an interview that a new production of the play where he will star as King Herod is to open in London’s West End in 2016.

In 2018 a production by Lazarus Theatre is performed at Greenwich Theatre. Directed by Ricky Dukes, the performance portrays Salomé as male.


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Birth of James Bernard Fagan, Producer & Playwright

james-bernard-faganJames Bernard Fagan, Irish-born actor, theatre manager, producer and playwright in England, is born in Belfast on May 18, 1873.

Fagan is the eldest of the five children of Sir James Fagan, a surgeon at the Belfast Royal Hospital and an inspector of Irish reformatories, and Mary Catherine Fagan, née Hughes. He attends Clongowes Wood College near Clane, County Kildare and then moves to England. Initially interested in a career in the church, he begins studying law at Trinity College, Oxford in 1892 but leaves in 1893 without a degree. He works for a time in the Indian Civil Service but abandons this career for the stage.

Fagan begins his career as an actor with the company of Sir Frank Benson for two years, then joining, from 1895 to 1899, the company of Herbert Beerbohm Tree at Her Majesty’s Theatre. There he appears in Katherine and Petruchio, A Man’s Shadow, Julius Caesar, The Musketeers and Carnac Sahib. He starts writing plays in 1899, with The Rebels, for the time forsaking acting. In 1913 he returns to the stage touring as the Rt Hon. Denzil Trevena in his own play, The Earth. He next writes The Fourth of August (1914) and Doctor O’Toole (1917). In 1917 he produces his first play, his own adaptation of the Brieux play Damaged Goods at St. Martin’s Theatre. He next produces The Wonder Tales and The Little Brother at the Ambassadors Theatre in London.

Fagan takes over the Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square as a Shakespearean playhouse in 1920. The Times calls his revivals of Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, Henry the Fourth (Part Two) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream “memorable for their freshness, sanity and distinction, and [deserving of] a place in theatrical history.” At the Court, he revives Damaged Goods and, in 1921, with the assistance of the author, produces George Bernard Shaw‘s Heartbreak House, with Edith Evans as “Lady Utterwood.” In 1922 he produces his play The Wheel at the Apollo Theatre. Its success allows him to repay his creditors. Even more successful is his adaptation of Treasure Island at the Savoy Theatre with Arthur Bourchier as “Long John Silver,” which opens December 26, 1922. It is revived every Christmas until the outbreak of World War II.

Fagan is persuaded by Jane Ellis, the actress who with Alfred Ballard founds the Oxford Playhouse “Red Barn” in 1923, to be its first manager. His first production at the Oxford Playhouse is a restaging of Shaw’s Heartbreak House and numbered Shaw among the audience. He produces The Cherry Orchard, at various theatres, to favourable reviews, popularising Anton Chekhov in Britain. From November 16, 1925, with Dennis Eadie, he presents Juno and the Paycock at the Royalty Theatre, thus bringing Seán O’Casey to the attention of London’s theatre-going public. O’Casey’s The Plough follows the next year.

Fagan receives little support from the University of Oxford or the play-going public and resigns in 1929. His successor is Stanford Holme, who broadens its appeal and, despite the straitened times, makes it financially viable. In 1929, he is a director of the Festival Theatre, Cambridge, where his friend Terence Gray is director. He also produces many works for the Irish Players.

Beginning in the 1920s, several of Fagan’s plays are adapted for film. He moves to Hollywood in 1929 for the filming by Paramount Pictures of his play The Wheel as The Wheel of Life. Other film work includes his co-adaptation of the screenplay for the 1932 film Smilin’ Through, and he co-writes Paramount’s Forgotten Commandments the same year. His play Bella Donna is filmed four times, including posthumously in 1946, and a 1936 film, The Improper Duchess is based on his 1931 play of the same name.

James Bernard Fagan dies in Hollywood, California, on February 17, 1933 at the age of 59 of a heart attack following a bout of influenza.


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Birth of Arthur Seymour Sullivan, Composer

arthur-seymour-sullivanSir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, English composer and the son of an Irish musician, is born in Lambeth, London, England on May 13, 1842. He is best known for 14 operatic collaborations with the dramatist W. S. Gilbert, including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. His works include 24 operas, 11 major orchestral works, ten choral works and oratorios, two ballets, incidental music to several plays, and numerous church pieces, songs, and piano and chamber pieces. His hymns and songs include “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “The Lost Chord.”

The son of a military bandmaster, Sullivan composes his first anthem at the age of eight and is later a soloist in the boys’ choir of the Chapel Royal. In 1856, at 14, he is awarded the first Mendelssohn Scholarship by the Royal Academy of Music, which allows him to study at the academy and then at the University of Music and Theatre Leipzig in Germany. His graduation piece, incidental music to William Shakespeare‘s The Tempest (1861), is received with acclaim on its first performance in London. Among his early major works are a ballet, L’Île Enchantée (1864), Symphony in E, Cello Concerto in D Major (both 1866) and his Overture di Ballo (1870). To supplement the income from his concert works he writes hymns, parlour music and other light pieces, and works as a church organist and music teacher.

In 1866 Sullivan composes a one-act comic opera, Cox and Box, which is still widely performed. He writes his first opera with W. S. Gilbert, Thespis, in 1871. Four years later, the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte engages Gilbert and Sullivan to create a one-act piece, Trial by Jury (1875). Its box office success leads to a series of twelve full-length comic operas by the collaborators. After the extraordinary success of H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) and The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Carte uses his profits from the partnership to build the Savoy Theatre in 1881, and their joint works become known as the Savoy operas. Among the best known of the later operas are The Mikado (1885) and The Gondoliers (1889). Gilbert breaks from Sullivan and Carte in 1890, after a quarrel over expenses at the Savoy. They reunite in the 1890s for two more operas, but these do not achieve the popularity of their earlier works.

Sullivan’s infrequent serious pieces during the 1880s included two cantatas, The Martyr of Antioch (1880) and The Golden Legend (1886), his most popular choral work. He also writes incidental music for West End productions of several Shakespeare plays and holds conducting and academic appointments. Sullivan’s only grand opera, Ivanhoe, though initially successful in 1891, has rarely been revived. In his last decade Sullivan continues to compose comic operas with various librettists and writes other major and minor works.

Sullivan’s health is never robust. From his thirties kidney disease obliges him to conduct sitting down. He dies at the age of 58 of heart failure, following an attack of bronchitis, at his flat in London on November 22, 1900. Sullivan’s wishes are to be buried in Brompton Cemetery with his parents and brother, but by order of the Queen he is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Arthur Sullivan is regarded as Britain’s foremost composer. His comic opera style serves as a model for generations of musical theatre composers that follow, and his music is still frequently performed, recorded and pastiched.