There's an unmistakable energy and focus at work in Teresa Deevy’s play Temporal Powers (now playing through September 25 at the Mint Theater in Manhattan) that marks her out as a first rate playwright. She knows the Irish people in her bones and she presents them to us in all their aspects, with a gimlet eye that will not permit a trace of sentimentality.
Recall that from the 1930s onward Irish playwrights became increasingly reluctant to critique Irish society onstage with the unrestrained candor that they did it off. There was a good reason for this -- they would not have been performed.
Cutting your conscience to suit the fashion of the times became a professional imperative. With Irish writers actively censoring themselves, there was no need for official interference.
Deevy’s is a name that is now lost to Irish writing, but there was a time in the 1930s when she was one of the most popular writers in the nation. Her shows, which grappled with everyday themes that ordinary people could recognize and relate to, packed the theaters.
As well as being a skilled dramatist, Deevy was also a particularly insightful observer of human nature. Her characters are eminently recognizable as Irish types, but she dug deeper into their psychology in a way that riveted audiences.
So thank goodness for the Mint Theater and its visionary director Jonathan Bank. Bank’s theater has taken it upon themselves to stage lost plays and in Deevy’s case restore the critical reputation of a gifted Irish dramatist.
The play’s structure is simple enough. When the recently evicted and nearly destitute Michael and Min Powers take refuge in an old ruin, they accidentally discover a hidden fortune that could change their lives forever. It’s the kind of opportunity that is also a dilemma that Deevy mines expertly to draw out the attitudes of her era.
Min decides that finders should be keepers, but her idealistic dreamer of a husband thinks the proper course is to own up and take it to the parish priest, enraging his wife with his apparent foolishness.
What was remarkable for the audience of her day was Deevy’s decision to write a play about ordinary Irish country people that was neither patronizing or idealizing in the usual manner of her contemporaries.
This is a clear-eyed writer who has keen observations and sharp critiques to offer in an uncommonly direct manner that must have unnerved some of her more conservative contemporaries.
In particular, there is a distinctly modern and feminist undercurrent to Min’s remarkable confrontation scene with the local parish priest that must have startled her audience for its brilliance and frankness.
Had she been allowed to continue (and you may be assured she was not) Deevy’s work might have provided a much-needed dose of reality to the bogus picture postcard Ireland that was being envisioned by her political contemporaries.
Instead of being encouraged, however, the Abbey bluntly rejected her play Wife to James Whelan (performed last year in an outstanding production by the Mint) in a decision that broke Deevy’s heart and ended her career as a playwright.
She turned to writing plays for the radio where she enjoyed some success, but the wider exposure of Ireland’s national theater was lost to her and by 1963 she died, virtually forgotten.
The political reality is that the more indefensible a decision is, the more firmly it is adhered to. In consigning Deevy to an ignoble fate the Abbey did Ireland a profound disservice.
You can count on one hand the number of Irish dramatists who were willing to hold the mirror up to the increasingly reactionary, priest-ridden, outwardly pious but money grasping nation that the Irish republic was rapidly becoming. None of them had Deevy’s facility or insight and yet they made their way, usually flying under the radar.
It’s hard to conclude that Deevy had two strikes against her -- the clarity of her voice and the fact she was a woman.
There is no other woman writer of the period who enjoyed more widespread success or who saw it more cruelly thwarted by clumsy, ever more politically cautious theater professionals who saw which way the wind was blowing and brought her controversies to an end before it could touch them.
For tickets and showtimes visit www.minttheater.org.
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