Stratford’s betting on Siobhan

Her name looks unpronounceable, but her fiery genius has made her a toast of the world’s theatre

BARBARA MOON April 13 1957

Stratford’s betting on Siobhan

Her name looks unpronounceable, but her fiery genius has made her a toast of the world’s theatre

BARBARA MOON April 13 1957

Stratford’s betting on Siobhan

Her name looks unpronounceable, but her fiery genius has made her a toast of the world’s theatre


THIS YEAR’S Shakespearean festival at Stratford, Ont., urgently needs a box-office attraction: Alec Guinness guaranteed the first festival’s success; the second year James Mason’s Hollywood glamour brought a good gate. But in 1955, and again last year in 1956, when Stratford tried to do without a headliner, the box office slumped. This season, with a $1,500,000 permanent theatre building in the works, the Festival Foundation needs to sell at least ninetyseven percent of the house right from July 1 to September 7 to make ends meet.

Whether it does so may well depend on a freckled thirty-four-year-old Irish marvel named Siobhan McKenna. Miss McKenna is slated to star as Viola in Twelfth Night which, along with Hamlet, makes up the Stratford bill. Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s most-played comedy; Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most-played tragedy; Miss McKenna has not been seen on a Canadian stage before.

In the perverse world of the stage she is a very special kind of miracle. Her name, which is Gaelic and generally reported to mean “white spirit that weeps when someone dies,” has become so famous so fast that thousands of people who pronounce it reverently still pronounce it wrongly. Broadway columnist Dorothy Kilgallen calls her “Shboom.” Until recently Siobhan (which she says is pronounced Shi-vmv/?) was known only to connoisseurs of the theatre. As Irish as the fog in her white-skinned throat, she acted mostly in Dublin and Galway, and much of the time in Gaelic, her impenetrable mother tongue. Three years ago the role of Shaw’s Saint Joan lured her to London, where Broadway scouts discovered her. In 1955 she was coaxed to the U. S. to star in a hit drawing-room comedy, The Chalk Garden. Except for some recordings of Irish ballads and folk songs, America has scarcely given her a chance to speak Gaelic since. She’s been too much in demand for Anglo-Saxon tours de force. Actors’ Equity even waived, on her continued on page 90

Stratford’s betting on Siobhan

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“One of the greatest!” said one tough critic. She can put on eighteen years without make-up

behalf, its strict rule forbidding alien actors to accept two roles within six months.

In The Chalk Garden she played a character so enigmatic that even the author, Enid Bagnold, confessed she’d never understood her. But a visiting Toronto critic, Herbert Whittaker, reported, “She could stir us reading a seed catalogue and, in fact, does in this play.”

Miss McKenna then played the taxing role of Saint Joan at the Cambridge Drama Festival and in two New York theatres, and shook the critics into reckless superlatives. “One of the greatest living actresses,” said Elliot Norton, a notoriously tough Boston critic. In Dublin and London they’d called her Joan “inspiring.”

Her fame spread beyond the eastern seaboard when she played a nun in a TV drama called Cradle Song. In the course of the action she aged eighteen years on camera without benefit of make-up. It spread still further when she played a disturbing blond-wigged baggage in a TV adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter.

She next showed off seven Irish dialects in excerpts from a mixed bag of Irish plays on Omnibus, Ford Foundation’s experimental showcase. Then she capped all these feats by presenting herself to offBroadway audiences as Hamlet, in the Shakespearean play of the same name. Shakespeare, however, had been altered to make the title part a solo with unseen voices. Siobhan played it alone on a bare stage with eleven actors lobbing lines at

her from the darkness of the wings. The critics took this exercise about as seriously as a performance of Charley’s Aunt, but Miss McKenna, who once played Charley in Charley’s Aunt, had wanted to impersonate Hamlet for a long time.

Her unquenchable virtuosity made a strong impression in all quarters; even when she wasn’t acting, publicity flickered round her like will-o’-the-wisps in a peat bog. On Night Beat, a local New York TV show, she let herself get stampeded into contrasting Jewish business acumen with Irish. The switchboard at her hotel was clogged with phone calls charging anti-Semitism until she appeared on the program again to clarify her remarks. “I’m about as anti-Semitic,” she said fiercely, to the TV camera, “as the chief rabbi in Israel—who, by the way, was born in Dublin.”

When she appeared on Ed Murrow's Person to Person program, so many people felt inspired to phone her that six extra plugs had to be installed in the hotel switchboard. Strangers phoned simply to chat, or to ask how to pronounce Sean. (“Shawn,” she told them patiently.) Finally, to spare the switchboard operators, she fled to a friend's apartment.

Siobhan’s fame spread as far north as Stratford, Ont., where the problem r stars for each new season is perennially under debate.

Last fall festival directors courted two London West End actors, Paul Scofield and Michael Redgrave, but neither en-

gagement came off. (Though Stratford covets both Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier, it hasn’t, to date, been able to command either.) So at the last minute Tom Patterson, the festival’s founder and director of planning, went to New York to shop for a star. He looked at Julie Harris, who has played leading roles on Broadway in Member of the Wedding and The Lark, and at Marlon Brando, who has been much publicized as a leader of the “torn-shirt” school of American acting. Both Brando and Miss Harris were interested, but Patterson passed them over for Miss McKenna as soon as he saw her in Saint Joan. It’s been her greatest role since she first played it, in Gaelic, six years ago.

Miss McKenna was agreeable: she’d never been to Canada and thought it sounded like a fine place for a summer holiday. (She considered a holiday to be any week in which she played fewer than the eight performances she was doing of Saint Joan at the time.)

Siobhan was then offered her choice of play. Since the role of Hamlet was going to Montreal-born Christopher Plummer. Siobhan suggested Antony and Cleopatra. Tyrone Guthrie, who was booked as guest director, said he was tired of Antony and Cleopatra since he had produced it before. So Twelfth Night, a romantic comedy, was agreed upon and Siobhan was offered the part of Viola, a girl who spends most of the play impersonating a boy and carrying messages between the man she's in love with and the woman who is in love with her. Siobhan, who started her stage life as a comedienne and once doubled as a man and a woman in The Emperor Jones, thought this would be challenging. “Viola is a woman,” she reflected, “and she must never really become a boy. But she must act it pretty well, well enough to hoodwink the Duke.”

With “Yes” and “No” she got the job

Such Chinese-box intricacies suit Miss McKenna very well. “I must always be set with a problem on the stage to retain my interest,” she said recently.

In fact she frequently sets up her own hurdles. She often forgoes make-up. She’s also been known to engage in guerrilla warfare with costume and props men who want too big a hand in creating her stage illusions. In one J. Arthur Rank costume drama she flatly refused to wear the costly period wig created for her, claiming her own hair would do. On another occasion she slashed all the stays out of a wardrobe of costumes designed to redistribute the McKenna contours along more spectacular lines.

She likes the discipline of acting with little or no dialogue. “Words often limit your meaning,” she says. Her first act on getting the television treatment of The Letter was to blue-pencil many of her own lines as unnecessary: the passage she once set herself for a crucial audition was a dialogue between husband and wife in which the husband had nearly all the lines. Siobhan simply sat on his knee, but she said “Yes,” “No,” and “Mmm” so artfully that she got the job.

She is almost a fanatic about an actor’s duty to an audience. One snowy day last winter when she was playing ten performances of Saint Joan a week she overslept and wakened twenty minutes after the matinee curtain time. She later called it “the most sickening thing that has ever happened to me.” She slipped on a pair of slacks, dashed into the street, commandeered a passing car, leaped from it into the first cab she spotted, rerouted its bemused passenger by way of the stage door and raced straight onto the stage. She offered the audience its choice

of a refund or her belated performance and, when they chose the latter, told the stagehands she’d meet their overtime from her own pocket. (Stagehands, normally inflexible about union rules, tend to adore Miss McKenna. They told her they’d work for nothing.)

When she wasn’t on stage herself this winter she made a point of seeing almost every other production in New York. “Herself has a very great will to be best,” said Tom Clancy, an actor compatriot, in New York last month.

Herself is a figure as trim and compact as a Connemara pony. Her five feet five inches are crowned with a shock of coarse black hair, her eyes are agate buttons and her skin is thickly freckled. Al the Abbey Theatre in Dublin they used to tell her admiringly she was “real PQ”—Peasant Quality.

Her face has the naked planes and blunt angles of a primitive mask but it quickens to any strong mood. Squinting against the light to polish a glass, she’s a good-humored country girl. Head bent in the lamplight, speaking of her eight-year-old son in Ireland — “Och, Donn, I miss him so!” — she’s a swart madonna. Head thrown back, telephone at her ear, she’s an Irish queen. “I can’t be dissipatin’ my time with all those separate appointments,” she says imperiously.

Her voice, in conversation, is low and musical and faintly marked with the sidles and curtsies of Irish brogue. On stage it has led Sir Laurence Olivier to remark, “She has a top and bottom to the voice, but no middle,” and Walter Kerr, drama critic for the New York Herald Tribune, to write, in some awe, “Even the punctuation is audible.”

Kerr had just seen her in Saint Joan, the role Siobhan’s identified herself with so strongly that it’s become a public crusade. a private cause and a personal triumph. (It has also been the occasion of a whole series of barbarous bowl-type haircuts.) She has played it in Ireland in Gaelic (her own translation), and in England and the U. S. in a bursting Irish brogue which she assumes to underline Joan’s peasant stock and fierce nationalism. She’s played Joan for nothing, though she drives hard bargains in other roles.

Siobhan so wanted Joan to be her first U. S. vehicle that she sought to discourage The Chalk Garden management by putting a prohibitive price on her services. They foiled her by meeting her

price. She wanted it to be her first Canadian vehicle, too, and was ready to issue an ultimatum—“No Joan: no Viola.” Director Tyrone Guthrie and Festival-founder Tom Patterson talked her out of it on the grounds that Patterson’s touring Canadian Players had already saturated Canada with Saint Joan.

Siobhan was eleven when she first read about Joan in a history book. She was struck at once. “1 cried, then, because I couldn’t be like Joan,” she remembers. Last year in New York Julie Harris came to Siobhan’s dressing room at the Phoenix Theatre after a performance and embraced her. Miss Harris herself was fresh from playing Jean Anouilh’s version of Joan in The Lark. But she said to Siobhan, “You arc Joan.”

Audiences in three countries have agreed. In Dublin playgoers fainted during the trial scene. In London phlegmatic Britons hissed at her tormenter. Bishop Canchón, and Lady Astor hurried backstage dabbing at her eyes to say. “I wish my dear dead boy could have been here to see you.” Lady Astor's dear boy—otherwise Shaw himself —had written to a theatre in Galway shortly before he died suggesting that an Irish actress named Siobhan McKenna might be Saint Joan material.

In a kirtle and a duster

In America, where she played more than a hundred performances, the reception was every bit as remarkable. Scores of playgoers came backstage after every curtain. Siobhan might be pouring whisky into paper cups for the usherettes, but they would cluster around her dressing-room door to wait. Men were literally in tears; some offered her poems; many squeezed her hand and went without a word: a few stooped and kissed the hem of her costume. “It is a terrible thing, almost unbearable.” she told a friend. “I feel like an impostor.”

In return, though, she played with all the stops out at every single performance. Barefooted, her face bare of make-up, her body clad in a rough kirtle and her head bound in a white duster, she knelt in her dressing room ten minutes before each curtain to ask God’s help. Each time she picked out the Dauphin from the crowd of snickering French courtiers she cried real tears of wonder at seeing her country’s king in the flesh. In each trial scene she let her

"Are you sure this suit is genuine sharkskin . . . ?"

voice grind with passion and defiance, though an actress knows how to counterfeit the voice of desperation to save h¿r throat. She got doctors’ warnings, and finally laryngitis, for this recklessness, but she persisted in it.

Not long ago she tried to account for her zeal to a reporter. “My whole life has led up to Saint Joan,” she said.

Her father, Owen McKenna, was a professor of mathematical physics and a supporter of the limping Gaelic language movement in Ireland. Her mother, who died three years ago, conversed matter-of-factly with the saints whose pictures hung on the parlor walls. “To me my mother was and still is the model of Joan,” Siobhan says. She recalls that once, when McKenna was up for election to a chair in physics, Mrs. McKenna foretold exactly how many votes he’d get on the basis of consultations with her saints.

Siobhan is the younger of two daughters. Her sister is now a dentist. They grew up in Galway using Gaelic in conversation but reading aloud from the English and French classics after dinner. Siobhan used to spend long hours jn an old rocking cot in the attic with i book and a sack of apples.

Besides reading, she loved hurtling Jown hills on her bicycle, ratting with che family Kerry blue and playacting. Rounding up her playmates, she'd extemporize a plot. “I’m the villain.” she'd say, “and I’m going to kill you.” The victim would ad-lib the next line and the show would be on. “I was always the villain,” she chuckles. "It was the meatiest part.” She was never allowed to go to the cinema: her father thought it would curb her imagination.

She wanted to be a nun, or possibly a missionary to a leper colony.

When she was in her teens, a professional producer spotted her in a convent production of a comic opera and asked permission to put her name up for the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Siobhan was astonished. Her father always dismissed her stage activities scornfully as "playacting” and the convent head had told her, “The leprechaun is fine. But you must use your talents: you could be a really great teacher.”

She enrolled at University College, Galway. She spent a good deal of spare time playing in Gaelic comedies at the Theatre An Taibhdhearc (pronounced An Tiveyark). Her father countenanced this because it was part of his beloved language movement: he mortified her,

though, by making her withdraw from one production. Juno and the Paycock, because she’d been cast as an unmarried mother.

She almost withdrew, herself, from another production. It was Macbeth, and she’d been cast as Lady Macbeth. “I can’t play that,” she protested. “I’m not a tragedienne.” “You are an actress,” the director told her. “Don't be talking nonsense,” she retorted, but she played it to wild applause, and a critic, down from Dublin, took her aside and said, “You must take this thing seriously.”

She still wanted to be a nun or a teacher. She went to Dublin to read for her master’s degree. But there she began playing truant to watch Abbey rehearsals and finally she applied for a job.

The Abbey paid four pounds a week, with half pay for rehearsals, so she lived mostly on butter and eggs sent from home. But she acquired stage technique, mastery of at least eight Irish dialects and respect for the play and playwright above her own part in it. She’d never seen her name in lights till she came to Broadway.

Miss McKenna also acquired a husband. When she joined the company a

tall, blue-eyed Irishman named Denis O’Dea (pronounced O’Dee) was acknowledged to be the leading actor at the Abbey and the second-best poker player in the land. (The status of the best poker player was disputed.) She thought he was vain; he thought she was chasing him; they were married in 1947. Their son, Donnacha, is eight.

The Abbey did not teach her respect for the cinema. On holiday in England she was offered a bit part in a film production of Daphne du Maurier’s Hungry Hill. She boldly demanded, and got, two hundred pounds for it, a figure that worked out to a hundred pounds a minute by the time the film emerged from the cutting-room. A few years later the same magnificent disinterest parlayed an offer of three thousand pounds from Paramount up to ten thousand. The film, Daughter of Darkness, was recently reissued on Broadway to cash in on Siobhan’s U. S. publicity.

O’Dea, on the other hand, has concentrated increasingly on film work, including parts in such successes as Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out. “He keeps house by doing films,” explains Miss McKenna, “while I do arty theatre.”

Arty theatre has brought her a formidable string of successes. She was the first Irish actress ever to be honored by an invitation to Stratford-onAvon for a whole season. She took the lead in the Irish entry at the Paris Arts

Festival, Playboy of the Western World. And for Saint Joan she was given a London 1954-55 “Best Actress of the Year” award.

But she once told a London producer, “In England and France and America I sojourn only. It’s in Ireland I live.” When she’s in far parts she may stock up on Scotch whisky and American cigarettes, but somewhere in her luggage there’ll be Bawnseen sweaters from the Aran Islands to wear, and peat to burn in her fireplace. She’ll bring her son out to Stratford at the end of May to spend the summer with her, and Denis will probably turn up too, “for the last hurrah.”

She’s booked for a Broadway play. The Rope Dancer, next fall, but she’s already planning past that to a Gaelic production of Peter Pan. She’ll translate it herself. Her very dearest dream is to film, someday, the whole life of Joan of Arc. “On a shoestring,” she adds. “That’s very important.” It will be filmed in Ireland, which is even more important.

When Hollywood tried to lure her after The Chalk Garden she told them she was going home to Ireland for the summer. “And they kept saying, ‘Why do you want to go to Ireland?’ ” she recalls. “And I would say, ‘Because I want to.’ ” Her face melts from Irish stubbornness to brooding serenity.

“And I did,” she ends softly,