Not everyone knows that the Brontes, England’s most accomplished literary family, were actually half Irish. Anne, Emily and Charlotte were raised by Patrick Bronte, a strict father who was born in Co. Down on St. Patrick’s Day, 1777, and who maintained his close ties to the nation all of his life.
That’s why this week’s news that an Irish actress is set headline an Off Broadway revival of a famous play about Charlotte Bronte is so welcome.
Beginning on May 3, Irish actress Maxine Linehan will step into the role of Charlotte Bronte, the most celebrated of all three sisters. It’s the first revival of William Luce’s 'Bronte: A Portrait of Charlotte' since 1983 and it will play at Theater 511 in New York City.
Based on letters written between Charlotte and her childhood friend and confident Ellen Nussey, the play focuses on Charlotte’s fears, her need for love, and her sense of loss and quiet suffering.
Most importantly, it casts light on her staggering genius, which flowered in despite of the religious and repressive environment she grew up in. Every word Charlotte wrote challenged the conventional male wisdom of her era (and ours, unfortunately) that a woman’s place is either in the kitchen or the bedroom, making puddings, knitting socks, playing the piano or raising children.
Linehan’s an ideal pick to embody the fiery Charlotte, whose independence of mind and spirit shocked her own age. It’s for Charlotte's bracing clarity of her thought, her refusal to be relegated to someone else’s limiting ideas of what a women is or should be, and for her startling eloquence when it comes to matters of the heart that she has remained as relevant now as the day she first picked up her pen.
“Sometimes you read something and you just have an overwhelming connection with the material and the character,” Linehan tells the Irish Voice.
“I originally read the play in one sitting and I just felt crazy parallels to my own life. I knew about Charlotte Bronte, but in recent months doing research I’ve discovered she was completely ahead of her time as a feminist as a writer. I want to share all this with the audiences."
What Linehan also discovered, which surprised her, was that Bronte was half Irish.
“Her father Patrick Bronte was born 20 miles from where I was born in Down. One of her friends wrote that one of the things that struck her about Charlotte was the fact that she spoke with this kind of half Irish accent,” she said.
“I found that fascinating because not a lot of people think of them as Irish, but they are half Irish. I’m going to try and raise awareness of the fact. She spent her honeymoon in Ireland and a lot of history connects her to our country.”
Linehan can also see some parallels in her own upbringing to those of Charlotte’s, particularly when it comes to strict parenting and parental expectations. Lots of Irish girls can relate to the elevated expectations that Irish parents can have for a daughter’s career and love life.
“To know what it was like for her and to have this Irish father who would talk about what he expected of his children resonated for me,” Linehan adds.
The play hasn’t been produced on such an ambitious scale since Julie Harris (the five time Tony winner) played the role in 1983. In the 1980s Harris was starring in the long running soap Knotts Landing and due to her busy filming schedule she could never take the play to Broadway.
Harris was never able to commit to a long-term run of the show, but Linehan is quietly hoping it could run from off-Broadway to the Great White Way.
Originally from Cork, where she lived until she was 22, Linehan’s parents weren’t thrilled at the idea of her becoming an actress – which is, let’s face it, a hardscrabble existence even at the best of times – so to placate them and because she was academically gifted, she became a barrister.
“I always wanted to be an actress,” she explains. “I’d worked with the Irish Operatic Repertory Company for the first time when I was 17. But it came to that point in life when it was time to choose a career, acting wasn’t really well received in my family. I enjoyed studying and I did pretty well in school, and then I was called to the bar in London.”
Linehan had immediate success in her new role, eventually practicing law in the U.S. But the pull of her creative background proved stronger, and eventually she committed to pursuing her passion for performing full time.
Theater 511 is located at 511 West 54 Street. For more information and tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit AlloyTheater.org.