By Lee Anna Sherman
Charlotte Headrick laughingly calls herself an “American mutt.”
What she means is that she, like just about everyone else in this land of immigrants, springs from a colorfully diverse ancestry. Her Huguenot forebears — those “fierce, Calvinistic Protestants” — figured most prominently in the stories she heard growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee. But she was aware, too, of another branch of the family, the Celtic branch, the Scots-Irish who came to America decades before the potato famine refugees arrived on Ellis Island. In recent years, she has traced her genealogy back through the MacMillans from County Derry, her sixth great grandfather Doyle (a soldier in the Revolutionary War), and the Hickeys on her maternal grandmother’s side. But during her childhood, the Irish half of the clan floated in the family lore more ghostlike than embodied history.
“I was always interested in the Irish in my family,” says Headrick, a professor of theater at Oregon State University. “My grandmother would talk about ancestors; I remember her talking about the Doyles. But it was kind of vague You’re a kid, you know? This stuff just sifts through you.”
The seven plays collected in the soon-to-be released anthology Irish Women Dramatists 1908 – 2001 (Syracuse University Press, November 2014), edited by Eileen Kearney and Charlotte Headrick, delve into universal themes ranging from friendship in old age to childbirth out of wedlock.
Yet in that sifting, something stuck. She found herself “gravitating toward the Irish writers,” first as a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia and later as a faculty member at Oregon State. The Celtic pull took hold for good in the 1980s after a serendipitous meeting. While attending a Thanksgiving celebration with friends one night, Headrick met a Ph.D. student from the University of Oregon. Her name was Eileen Kearney, and she was knee-deep in her dissertation on pioneering Irish playwright Teresa Deevy.
“We had a conversation, and I said something about how I’d always been interested in Irish drama and almost wrote my dissertation on the great 19th-century Irish melodramatist Dion Boucicault,” Headrick recalls. “And Eileen said, ‘Well, you should come back to it.’ She planted a seed.”
That seed, having sprouted and branched over the subsequent four decades of research, both in the United States and Ireland, will reach full maturity in November. That’s when co-editors Headrick and Kearney will see the release by Syracuse University Press of their many years-
in-coming anthology of Irish women playwrights. Titled Irish Women Dramatists 1908 – 2001, the collection features seven plays spanning the 20th century, when “the quiet rumble of feminist enlightenment” began shaking loose ancient cultural and political bonds in Ireland. Its cover photo — a clump of yellow wildflowers bursting out at the base of a traditional gray Irish stone wall, taken by Kearney in the Aran Islands — is a quiet metaphor for its contents.
“The plays anthologized here illustrate the views of women in their own voices, voices that have been silenced by being marginalized,” Headrick and Kearney write in their introduction. “These playwrights have given us works that stretch our imaginations, cover a myriad of themes, and challenge the stereotype of what it means to be Irish.”
Laughing in the Teeth of Death
Headrick’s was a Southern childhood. Family stories of the Civil War — including the 1865 Sultana steamship disaster near Memphis, which her great-great-great grandfather survived — were told over fried okra, black-eyed peas, greens sautéed with onion and garlic and cornbread baked in her grandmother’s No. 8 cast-iron skillet. Those flavors and aromas still stir up the snugness and warmth of home in her memory.
The Northern Irish influence could be felt all over the South, she says, the result of a “large wave of immigration” from the Emerald Isle starting in the 1700s. “There’s a reason Margaret Mitchell made Scarlett an O’Hara,” Headrick notes. The Civil War classic Gone With the Wind is far from the only literary twining of the two cultures. Another dovetailing takes place at the funny bone. “Gallows humor,” Headrick calls it — “you know, laughing in the teeth of death.” This grimly ironic style of humor, shared by Irish and Southern writers, was the subject of the first paper she presented at the American Conference for Irish Studies.
“It’s a legacy in the dramatic literature of the American South — the commonalities in humor that you find in Irish drama and Southern drama,” she says, adding that her own sense of humor trends toward the dark side. “I think it’s probably healing in some way.”
Beyond Mothers and Whores
A series of snapshots chronicles Headrick’s most recent trip to Ireland. In Dublin, she poses beside the North Earl Street statue of legendary Irish novelist James Joyce. In Galway, she stands beside another statue, this one commemorating the “Magdalenes” — the unwed pregnant girls and women forced to toil in Ireland’s commercial Magdalene Laundries run by Catholic nuns during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. (The Magdalenes have entered the consciousness of American moviegoers through a pair of movies, The Magdalene Sisters in 2002 and Philomena in 2013.)
Headrick’s two photos — one of the highly celebrated Joyce, the other of the mostly anonymous Magdalenes — symbolize the two ends of Irish literary culture at the start of the 1900s: men on the inside wielding power and influence, women on the outside required to conform to strict dictates of tradition and religion.
One of the plays in Headrick’s anthology, Eclipsed, by Patricia Burke Brogan, takes audiences into the hearts of Magdalene women whose babies were taken from them. Through Brogan’s 1992 play, which has been performed in places as far-flung as Peru and Belgium, audiences have shared the sorrow of these stories. In 2010, when Galway city leaders proposed moving the Magdalene statue from a busy thoroughfare to an out-of-the-way location, Brogan told the Connacht Tribune, “I’ll chain myself to the statue” in protest. In 2013, Headrick spent seven weeks in Ireland as a Moore Visiting Fellow at the National University of Ireland, Galway, researching the production history of Brogan’s play.
Unlike novels, whose characters come to life inside the mind of the reader, plays must be performed to fulfill their literary purpose. But staging takes backing, both financial and professional. Without the imprimatur of the powers that be, new playwrights may never see their words come to life in front of an audience.
For more than 100 years, the arbiter and gatekeeper of Irish drama has been the Abbey Theatre, formerly the National Theatre of Ireland. There, audiences from the world over line up to see the works of Irish luminaries like Samuel Beckett and W.B. Yeats. But with a couple of notable
exceptions, including Yeats’ affluent friend Lady Augusta Gregory (who co-founded the Abbey Theatre with him in the early 1900s), very few women have broken in.
“The Abbey has an abysmal record of producing plays by women — abysmal,” Headrick says. “If your play didn’t have a character in the categories of mother or whore, it was rejected.” So for a very long time, scripts by talented Irish women sat on shelves, unseen, unheard and unpublished.
But these days, women playwrights are pushing the parameters of access and content in Ireland. “Women playwrights today are examining their own status in society as well as the status of other powerless groups,” Headrick and Kearney write in their book. Unflinchingly, these playwrights are tackling some of life’s toughest issues: battered wives and bigamy, female prisoners and family violence, searing poverty and labor strife. And, not content to remain under the thumb of the theater establishment, they have looked beyond the Abbey to form their own companies and produce theater on their own terms. “There’s more to Irish drama than what takes place in a pub or a kitchen,” Headrick wryly notes.
For her part, Headrick works tirelessly to not only study but also stage Irish plays. At Oregon State, for instance, her recent directorial highlights include Deevy’s The King of Spain’s Daughter and The Sugar Wife by Elizabeth Kuti. She also has guest-directed numerous Irish plays throughout the Pacific Northwest as well as in Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Kentucky and Indiana.
For Headrick and Kearney’s book, theater critic and scholar Patrick Lonergan of the National University of Ireland, Galway, wrote a blurb summing up its contribution to Irish drama: “Women characters dominate the Irish stage — yet, for decades, Irish women dramatists have been
neglected, ignored and sometimes deliberately marginalized. This wonderful new anthology takes an important step toward addressing and redressing that problem.”