Hidden Treasures: The plays of Teresa Deevy

Thanks to Internet projects like Google Books, older, lesser-known texts that had been hard to find outside a research library are now more available to scholars and general readers. But what about plays meant, of course, to be acted before audiences? For the past several years the Mint Theater in New York has set itself the task of “unearthing, presenting and preserving forgotten plays of merit,” often by neglected playwrights, sometimes the lesser-known works of more familiar writers. Just steps away from Times Square but far removed in spirit from the tourist attractions of Broadway, the Mint performs the valuable role of enriching the theater’s sense of its own past by sketching in the gaps between the big, bankable names. The theater’s artistic director, Jonathan Bank, has done an admirable job of literary archaeology, bringing to light dramatists who, for one reason or another, have not made it into the theatrical canon.

That applies in spades to the author of the Mint’s current offering, “Temporal Powers,” which has been extended through Oct. 9.  Indeed, before last year’s fine production of her play “Wife to James Whelan” by the same company, it is probably no exaggeration to say that those who had even heard of Teresa Deevy (1894-1963) could have fit comfortably into the Mint’s small space on West 43rd Street. Her obscurity is perhaps more remarkable because she did enjoy a brief period of renown. Born in Waterford, Ireland, the youngest of thirteen, she was stricken in her teens by Meniere’s disease, and by the time she reached 20 she had lost her hearing. Deevy went to London to learn lip-reading and reinforced her lessons by going to the theater to watch the actors enunciate. She turned to writing plays, and in 1932 “Temporal Powers” took first prize in a new play contest at the Abbey Theatre, founded a generation earlier by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, the Irish dramatist.


Through the 1930s the Abbey mounted a number of Deevy’s plays, and audiences not only in Dublin but in London and America saw her popular “Katie Roche” (which will be staged next year as part of the Mint Theater’s ongoing “Teresa Deevy Project”). In 1939 Macmillan published a collection of her plays, and she seemed on her way to becoming an established dramatist. In the 40s, however, a new, more conservative management at the Abbey Theatre rejected one of her works and she largely turned away from the stage to write dramas for the radio, a medium she had never heard in her life. When she died at the age of 68, she had long outlived her fame.

But, as “Wife to James Whelan” made clear, Deevy is a strong writer with a gift for dialogue and the ability to surprise an audience. “Temporal Powers,” an earlier work, is not so complex as the other play, but solid nonetheless. The central characters, Michael and Min Donovan (played by Aidan Redmond and Rosie Benton) are destitute, as their pathetically few possessions make clear, and the action takes place in a ruined hovel where the two find shelter after being forced from their farm. The eviction of tenant farmers and the “tumbling” (wrecking) of their cottages was a sadly familiar scene in nineteenth century rural Ireland. But this is 1927: the hated British are gone.

The implication seems to be that little is different in the new Irish Free State. (As a character in Brendan Behan’s play “The Quare Fellow” observes, about the only change when Ireland won its independence from Britain was that the police wore different badges in their caps.) Certainly the poor are as miserable and have as few choices as ever; one of the themes of the play is, as Min observes, how poverty can make people mean. The tension between the desires of the heart and the demands of the material world—the “temporal powers”—undergirds the play. From the start, Min berates her husband, hard working but dreamy and without ambition. When Michael asserts that he has done his best, she replies, “Your best! Michael Donovan, it was never in your heart to make money. Now, what worse thing could be said of any man?”

But a way out seems to fall in the couple’s path when Michael finds something hidden in a crevice of the wall: 100 pounds wrapped in a piece of cloth. Min immediately sees escape, America, a new life. He, on the other hand, says that the money must belong to someone and the right thing to do is to hand it over to the parish priest. For his wife, this is the last straw: “What is wronger I ask you than crawling through life with tattered rags on your back? … You! With your right and your wrong!” Soon they discover there has been a robbery in the neighborhood and that one of the culprits is Michael’s brother-in-law, Ned Cooney (Con Horgan), just released from prison; the hidden money is the loot he comes to retrieve. Min, sick of poverty, proves willing to do whatever she must to hold onto the money, or part of it: “Keeping the law has the world full of cripples, nothing else.”

In the course of the evening and the following day, the neighbors (most of them unaware that Michael has found the money) come to offer sympathy to the Donovans in their trouble: Michael’s sadly dignified sister, Maggie (Bairbre Dowling); earnest young Moses Barron (Eli James), caught between his overbearing mother, Daisy (Fiana Toibin) and a clinging girlfriend, Lizzie Brennan (Wrenn Schmidt); pompous Jim Slattery (Paul Carlin); and the well-meaning, ineffectual priest, Father O’Brien (Robertson Carricart). Most of them offer advice and opinions on what is “right” (a word repeated many times over), from Slattery’s odd passion for the “grandeur [of] the machine of justice” to Father O’Brien’s insistence that Min acknowledge her wrong-doing. In response, she attacks the hypocrisy of a church that tells the poor to be content in their poverty, “yet when a rich man shows up he’s an ornament to the Church and State.” A church that extols the beauty of the Mother of God but tells women who want to “look nice” that they’re vain.

Though the tone is serious, even grim at times, there is a comic element as Deevy’s characters speak past each other (like those of Chekhov, whom she admired). As in a far more famous Irish play, J.M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World,” we witness a couple who, because of pride and spite, come to grief by leaving too much unsaid. Under pressure, neither husband nor wife is particularly sympathetic: he slaps her at one point, while her last words in the play are a litany of blame for everyone but herself. Redmond, grave and gaunt, embodies Michael as a man of largely unspoken depths, while Barton plays Min in accord with Deevy’s stage directions: “She may be full of despair [but] never merely depressed.”

The rest of the cast is also quite good: in particular, Horgan brings an appropriate roguishness to the thief Ned; James makes Moses more interesting than the callow youth he might have been; and Toibin wins most of the evening’s laughs as the nosy neighbor. Deevy’s language is realistic and down-to-earth (less poetic than Synge’s, for example), and while the actors generally do justice to the text, some of them are not entirely at home with the Irish accent, and I fear the audience missed some of the lines.

Teresa Deevy wrote that a play should have the qualities of “suspense, surprise and inevitability.” All of these are on display in “Temporal Powers,” in which she makes what, in lesser hands, could have been a mere “situation” or contrivance into a rich and heartbreaking moral tale. Thanks are due to Jonathan Bank and the Mint Theater for bringing such a distinctive voice from the past so satisfyingly into the present.

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