Lennox Robinson (remembering one of Douglas Village’s forgotten sons)
by Billy O’Callaghan
Esmé Stuart Lennox Robinson was born in Westgrove, Douglas, on the 4th of October, 1886, the youngest of seven children to Andrew Robinson, a stockbroker, and his wife Emily (nee Jones). Until leaving his teens, he was known exclusively as Stuart, and adopted the name by which he’d become famous only on the advice of his mentor, W.B. Yeats, who suggested Lennox as a far more dramatic and dynamic alternative.
The family resettled in Kinsale early in his childhood, and then moved again, to Ballymoney, during his teens. A sickly child, he was initially home-schooled, then formally educated at Bandon Grammar. He dabbled with writing from quite early on, but through most of his youth his ambitions tended towards a career in music. Then, in late August, 1907, the same week that saw his breakthrough into print with a poem published in the Royal Magazine in London, he made the Saturday afternoon trek from Bandon to the Cork Opera House in order to attend an almost-deserted sitting of four short Abbey Theatre Company plays. The impact of the first play, Yeats’s stirringly patriotic ‘Cathleen Ní Houlihan’, was enough to change, in the space of probably no more than twenty minutes, the entire direction of his life.
By the year’s end, he’d completed his own one-act play, ‘The Clancy Name’, which he submitted to the Abbey. On the 8th of October 1908, after incorporating certain changes suggested by both Yeats and Lady Gregory, his work hit the boards. It was in many ways a remarkable – though not universally appreciated – début, and already displayed the skills that would mark him out as a major talent: a mastery for manipulating tension and an impressively gentle touch with the softer moments, an acute technical assurance with regard to structure, and a flair for bone-hard and thoroughly realistic dialogue.
A year later, Yeats and Lady Gregory made him a stunning offer: the position of Manager and Producer of the Abbey Theatre at a yearly salary of £150. The tragic death of John Millington Synge at just 37 had left the Abbey rudderless. It seemed absurd that Lennox, at barely 23, could be expected to fill such a gaping void, but Yeats reasoned that the Norwegian Theatre in Bergen had taken the same chance on Ibsen at a similar age. And despite widespread doubters, Lennox proved a capable and devoted choice, immersing himself in every aspect of the business, reading widely of the great American and European playwrights, O’Neill, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, Benavente, and even serving a stint – ostensibly as personal secretary – shadowing George Bernard Shaw through script rewrites and rehearsals in London.
It was just the beginning.
Over the next three decades the Abbey would stage nearly two-dozen of his plays. Some, the best of them, plays like ‘Patriots’, ‘Dreamers’, ‘The Whiteheaded Boy’, ‘The Far-Off Hills’, ‘Church Street’ and ‘Drama at Inish’, would enjoy long runs and frequent revivals both at home and abroad. Many achieved great success on Broadway and London’s West End. ‘The Whiteheaded Boy’, his best-known play, written in 1916, held the notable honour of being the second most performed play in Ireland during the half-century prior to 1965, behind only Synge’s ‘Playboy of the Western World’.
Away from the stage, too, he produced an impressive and diverse body of work, with volumes of memoir and essays, a collection of short stories, a history of the Abbey and even an autobiographical novel, ‘A Young Man from the South’, published in 1917. He was also a regular columnist for both the Observer and the Irish Press, and is listed in the Hollywood Press archives as the recipient of an Academy Award for his contribution to the screenplay of ‘The Big House’, a 1930 film starring Robert Montgomery and Wallace Beery, partially and very loosely adapted from Lennox’s controversial play of the same name. In 1931, he even found the time to wed, marrying the artist Dorothy Travers Smith, affectionately known as Dolly, daughter of the renowned spiritualist, Hester, and granddaughter of the literary scholar, Edward Dowden. But as worthwhile and fulfilling as these creative and personal asides must have been, it was his contributions to the theatre that defined him as an artist.
Of course, it wasn’t always smooth running. He frequently clashed with Yeats and, especially, Lady Gregory, over artistic direction of the Abbey, and was forced to temporarily step down from his position with the theatre during the years of the First World War, following a financially disastrous tour of the United States. Several of his plays caused consternation, too, cutting perhaps too close to the bone at a time when the political climate was particularly fraught.
Probably the biggest scandal of his career, though, occurred in 1924. Yeats and Charles Stuart had started a small literary magazine, entitled ‘To-morrow,’ and drew contributions from the likes of Liam O’Flaherty and Maurice Gonne. Lennox offered a short story, ‘The Madonna of Slieve Dun’, which tells of an innocent young country girl who is raped by a tramp and manages to convince herself that she has been ‘visited’ by the Holy Spirit.
Mayhem ensued. The Catholic Church accused him of blasphemy and trying to pervert the nation, and had him dismissed from his position as secretary and treasurer on the board of the Carnegie Trust. Moves were also made to have him removed from the Abbey, but Yeats refused to countenance such suggestions. Meanwhile in Cork, Michael O’Donovan, a librarian with literary aspirations, watched the whole affair with interest, and finally decided that his wisest recourse would be to publish his own stories under a pseudonym. This single act of self-preservation brought the name ‘Frank O’Connor’ into being.
History records Lennox Robinson as one of the most versatile realists of the Irish Literary Revival, heavily influenced by Synge but also the international playwrights, yet marked out as something different due to a rare comedic touch, a deft use of irony and a constant willingness to experiment with form.
His influence, directly and otherwise, helped shape a generation of Irish writers. He was known to be generous to burgeoning talents, and is credited with having discovered and shaped the career of Sean O’Casey. Both Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor have acknowledged the impact of his plays on their formative writing, and a well-thumbed copy of his play, ‘Patriots’, was found among James Joyce’s personal collection following the Dubliner’s death in 1941. Lennox himself died in Monkstown, County Dublin, on the 15th October, 1958, and is buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Listing all of his achievements, it is difficult to say why his reputation here in Ireland has waned to such a degree. It is entirely possible that he simply outlived his time. By the end of his career, highly respected and recognised as the grand old man of the Irish Theatre, the final authentic link with a stellar past, he was the recipient of numerous accolades, including an honorary degree from Trinity College as well as invitations to lecture in universities across the North America, Britain and even China. But at home, playwriting was experiencing a sea change. O’Casey and Behan had dragged realism down a class and added a new ferocity; John B. Keane was cornering the market on earthy and socially cutting humour; and Samuel Beckett’s experimentations in avant garde absurdity made the entire body of early century Irish theatre seem terribly dated.
Even so, it is important to recognise that the world extends beyond these shores, and that fashions change. Well-crafted work will always enjoy the potential for resurrection, and it is gratifying to know that the plays still make regular appearances on international stages. Last March, in the place of his birth, a festival ran in his name, the first of what is intended to be an annual event, with the aim of paying long-overdue tribute to one of Douglas village’s most notable sons, and to raise awareness of his work. Lennox Robinson was far too good a playwright to be allowed simply slip into obscurity.
For the first six years of my own childhood, the towering presence in my life was that of my grandmother. Looking back, she was my great educator, instilling in me not only a love of stories but an awe of them. She was a simple woman, living a small enough life, but she had a softness about her when it came to culture and to me she held all the wisdom of the world. The little that the classroom could offer paled by comparison.
The dead grey winter mornings that saw us collude in our unspoken way on a sore throat or a belly pain in order to justify me staying home from school feel as vivid now as if they were part of the week just gone instead of half a lifetime ago. And we spent those mornings well, huddled up beside the fire while the wind sang in the chimney, she all skull and bones at sixty-two but holding court to her enraptured audience, spinning yarns of the Banshee, the faeries, the Black and Tans, and the Douglas of long ago.
It would have been on one such morning that I’d have first heard her mention Lennox Robinson, a real writer, and born right here in Douglas, a notion as fantastic to me then as any of her stories. At that age, already reading but limited to a few books, probably Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, writing seemed to me a kind of sorcery, and writers nothing less than myth. That our village – still a small enough place thirty-odd years ago – could have produced an actual writer held me spellbound.
Years passed before I got around to reading his work, but in my mind, and in my heart, Lennox Robinson and my grandmother will always be inextricably entwined.
On the surface, the facts would seem to reflect only a fleeting involvement between Lennox and Douglas, informing us that the Robinsons came to Westgrove a few short years before he was born and were on the move again, heading for slightly more western climes, shortly after.
This is accurate enough, as it goes, though it requires that we ignore the depth to which his roots run in these parts, particularly on his mother’s side, the Jones family having been long associated with Donnybrook House and Castletreasure. Actually, it is a link that still endures, through the descendants of his mother’s sister, his beloved aunt Eleanor, who in the mid 1880s married John Frazer Crichton.
But even if there’d been no trace at all of familial blood on the Donnybrook hill, even if the young Robinson clan had simply blown in and almost straight back out again, it should still be impossible to downplay the fact that Douglas was where Lennox Robinson entered the world. The first breath to fill his mouth tasted of our village, and an October breath at that, such a rich, dense, flavoursome month of the year, with its twilit air so haunted and melancholic, summer spent and the dark of winter lying in wait, a time full of shadows and tumbling leaves, and full to brimming with stories.
The foundation years of a writer retain a clarity that shapes a lot of what they will one day write, and Lennox’s experiences in ‘Westgrove’ certainly remained with him. In his book, ‘Three Homes’ he remembers “a long rambling house, built to form two sides of a square, the other two sides of which were formed by stables and farm buildings… Above the library were the nurseries, the day and night nurseries. I used to have to go to bed in the afternoon from three to four and I could read the clock. There was sunshine outside, a buzzing fly in the room, my sister and my brother were screaming in the garden over some game.”
By 1892, the facts had written Douglas out of the story. Lennox’s father, Andrew, having given up the stockbroking profession in order to follow his faith, was assigned the curacy of Kinsale, where he’d serve seven uncomfortable years before being appointed rector of the West Cork parish of Ballymoney. Yet even though Douglas never merits another mention in the records pertaining to Lennox Robinson, my grandmother, for one, remembered him very well indeed. And this, of course, is the problem that all history books must face. The live and die by their facts and can give the essentials of a life, but they invariably lack the blood that gives a story its pulse. I have tried to unfurl the basic facts of Lennox Robinson’s life here today, but this is only to tell part of a story.
Because facts alone can’t begin to tell us how it felt to stand at the side of the road as a child (my grandmother was born in 1918), waving at the carriage that carried him past on one of his not-infrequent visits home, or to lean with arms folded across the top lath of her roadside cottage’s small front gate and watch him stand around in his Dublin finery, waiting outside the forge for the horses to be shod, a tall man cropped to gauntness, already by then quite famous, known in almost every corner of the country, slightly drooping and exceedingly shy, possessed, as Lady Gregory put it, of “a tendency to gloom,” but not too shy to smile a hello, and never too shy to raise a hand and wave back in return. These are the details that encyclopaedias and Who’s Who entries miss, the small connections between people and their places. Connections that are well worth while preserving.
– This lecture was written by Billy O’Callaghan, and presented at a special event in St. Luke’s Church, Douglas, on Saturday, 1st March 2014, as part of the 1st Lennox Robinson Literary Festival.