Analysis: Genevieve Lyons played a central role in Irish theatre in the 1950s at a time the country was undergoing much cultural change
The 1950s in Ireland is often typified as a lost decade. While there are many valid reasons to support this, it can also be seen as a decade of cultural transition. For example, a new generation of theatre-makers emerged with new ideas, energy and a vision for Ireland’s cultural renewal. But who were they? And how are their efforts remembered today?
A proliferation of new small, intimate 'pocket’ theatres emerged across Dublin in the decade. These included the Pike Theatre on Herbert Lane (1953), the Eblana Theatre in the basement at Busáras (1959), the Project Arts Centre (1966) and the Focus Theatre (1967). New companies such as Gemini Productions (1960) and people like Carolyn Swift, Alan Simpson, Deirdre O'Connell, Lelia Doolan, Phyllis Ryan and many more are synonymous with the establishment of a new and experimental wave of Irish theatre in the 1950s and 1960s.
One important but also neglected figure is actor and writer Genevieve Lyons. Born in Dublin in 1930, she developed many new international roles in her career, most performed for the first time in Ireland, and created a new repertoire of female lead roles in Irish theatre.
But Lyons' contribution to Irish culture has been largely overlooked. Her archive has recently been made available from the Hardiman Library at NUI Galway and a diary from the late 1940s and early 1950s offers a personal insight into her emerging career and a social record of life in Dublin city at the time. Working in Bank of Ireland in the city centre, Lyons’ love of the theatre saw her join the Brendan Smith Academy in 1948, where she learned and honed her craft, graduating with a Diploma in Acting in 1950.
Lyons was a founding member of the Globe Theatre Company in Dublin in 1954 along with her husband Godfrey Quigley, Michael O’Herlihy and Dennis Brennan. Established as "a unique experiment in the Irish theatre", the company sought to create a space outside of the urban centre of Dublin city for a professional company. The first play presented by the Globe was the American funeral parlour comedy, The Biggest Thief in Town by Dalton Trumbo (1954).
Based primarily at the Gas Company Theatre in Dun Laoghaire, the Globe regularly performed on major stages in the city such as the Gate, the Olympia and the Gaiety and were frequently part of the annual Dublin Theatre Festival. The group specialised in international theatre, as well as Irish plays, and premiered many new international works for Irish audiences.
Their location within the Gas Company building meant that the audience members had to make their way to their seats by walking through the showroom filled with the latest household appliances, signifying a modernising middle-class interested in the latest material comforts. This record of theatre-going teaches us much about the social and material development of Ireland itself at this time.
Lyons was widely acknowledged by Dublin audiences as a talented and versatile actor and choreographer. The demanding body of roles she played indicate her range as a modern performer, from August Strindberg’s tragedy Miss Julie and the contemporary realism of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge to farce and late night musical revue at the Pike Theatre.
Key performances by Lyons include the role of Marion in the Irish premiere of J.P. Donleavy's stage adaptation of his novel, The Ginger Man, famously censored and shut down by the Catholic Church in 1959. Under charges of blasphemy and indecency, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid intervened and directly ordered the play be withdrawn unless specific cuts were made to the script. Actor Richard Harris, Lyons’ co-star as Sebastian Dangerfield, protested he would go to the Vatican if needs be so that the play would be allowed continue. The play was closed, however, after three performances.
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From RTÉ Archives, Colm Connolly talks to JP Donleavy in 1994 for RTÉ News about The History of the Ginger Man, a book telling the story of life before, during and after The Ginger Man
Lyons also won great acclaim as Sally Bowles in John Van Drutun’s I Am a Camera, which first opened in Ireland at the Gaiety Theatre in March 1956. Based on the novel, Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood and set in 1930s Berlin, I Am a Camera was a key new international work brought to Dublin audiences for the first time by the Globe. Lyons was the undoubted star as lead character, Sally Bowles, a cabaret artist in pre-wartime Berlin.
The play had first opened at the Empire Theatre, New York in 1952 and starred Julie Harris as Sally Bowles. It would evolve to become the later Broadway musical and film smash hit, Cabaret, where the character of Sally Bowles was again played by Harris and in London by Jill Haworth.
The film version starring Harris screened in Dublin cinemas from August through October 1956. At the same time, the Globe ran I am a Camera at the Gas Company Theatre, which ecame their biggest success with over 15,000 people attending the run in autumn 1956. Press reports from the time noted that audiences prefered to go to Dun Laoghaire to see Lyons as Sally Bowles than go to see Harris in the same role on the big screen. Lyons became so recognised as the star of Van Drutun’s play and as Sally Bowles, that a Dublin shop, Kellets, advertised their sale of the ‘Sally Bowles beret’, as worn in the play by Lyons and as modelled by Lyons in the press ads. One of the world’s biggest musical and films of the 20th century found its Irish star in Lyons.
The Lyons' archive includes a range of photographs, annotated scripts, letters, diaries, press cuttings, and other papers from her career on the Dublin stage. The archive is also important as a record to challenge social inequalities and ingrained sexism of the time. Many press reviews (from a near entirely male group of critics) routinely comment on "blonde starlet" or other such comments. It is necessary to revisit these histories and critique the sources for the viewpoints they can perpetuate in accounts of the period. Part of the collection also features over 60 never seen before photographs from Dublin theatreland in the 1940s and 1950s of such figures as Anew McMaster, Pauline Delaney and Milo O'Shea, as well as key moments from Lyons’ career.
The network of artists that Lyons was part of were crucial for the modernisation of Irish culture. They programmed new and innovative international works, exposing Irish audiences to new ideas and forms of theatre. They challenged the often overbearing weight of cultural, political and clerical censorship in mid-century Ireland and created new theatre that spoke to a new Ireland. Lyons was central to this new cultural vision for Ireland and her archive is testament to her often forgotten achievements and contribution to Irish drama.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ