Thursday, January 13, 2022

O'Flaherty and the Gregorys

Yesterday, the latest issue of The Shavian landed in my mailbox, and an article by James Moran reminded me of the links between Bernard Shaw's play O'Flaherty VC and the family of Lady Gregory.

O'Flaherty VC
is one of a handful of short plays Shaw wrote during the First World War. His opposition to the war at its outbreak had turned Shaw into something of a pariah in England, and it was while staying at the home of his friend Lady Gregory in Ireland that he wrote O'Flaherty VC, which likewise takes place in Ireland.

Lady Gregory was a distinguished playwright and one of the co-founders of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It was at her estate, Coole Park, that Shaw wrote his tale of an Irish soldier who is awarded the Victoria Cross and then is sent back to Ireland to participate in a recruitment drive. Since Shaw intended the play to be done at the Abbey, which had few resources at the time, he kept production requirements to a minimum. The play requires a simple set and just four cast members.

Unfortunately, the Abbey kept running into trouble with the authorities during its early years. The British government, which had previously tried to stop the Abbey from producing Shaw's The Showing-up of Blanco Posnet in 1909, stepped in again, and the theatre was forced to withdraw the play in spite of plentiful advance ticket sales. That meant the first production of O'Flaherty VC was not in Ireland, but in Belgium--right near the front lines of the very war is was satirizing!

That production was put on by some amateurs who belonged to the Royal Flying Corps. Men took on the two female roles, and O'Flaherty's girlfriend Teresa was played by Lady Gregory's son Robert. Sadly, Robert Gregory did not survive the war. His Sopwith Camel went down over Italy in 1918. Lady Gregory's friend William Butler Yeats later memorialized Robert in the poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death."

The play was not professionally produced until after the war, when the Stage Society presented it in London. O'Flaherty VC was later broadcast over the radio in 1924, with Shaw himself performing all of the roles in different voices. An estimated four million people are thought to have tuned in for that broadcast. None of this would have happened had it not been for the support of Lady Gregory.