McKenna, Siobhan (1922–1986)

views updated

McKenna, Siobhan (1922–1986)

Irish actress, director, and translator who was celebrated for her interpretations of Shaw's St. Joan and Pegeen Mike in Synge's Playboy of the Western World . Name variations: Siobhán McKenna; Siobhán Nic Cionnaith. Pronunciation: SHE-vawn. Born Siobhán McKenna on May 24, 1922, in Belfast, Northern Ireland; died on November 16, 1986, in Dublin, Ireland; daughter of Eoin McKenna (a university professor) and Margaret (O'Reilly) McKenna; educated at Dominican Convent, Taylors Hill, Galway, and St. Louis Convent, Monaghan; graduated with B.A. (1st class honors) in French, English and Irish, University College, Galway, 1943; married Denis O'Dea, in September 1946; children: son Donnacha O'Dea (b. August 30, 1948).


London Evening Standard Best Actress (1954); Life Member, Abbey Theater (1966); Gold Medal, Eire Society of Boston (1971); Hon. D.Litt, Trinity College, Dublin (1971); Hon. D.Litt, University College, Galway (1974); Member of Council of State (1975); Life Member, Royal Dublin Society (1983).

Joined Abbey Theater (1944); made film debut (1946); made London stage debut (1947); made American stage debut (1955).


Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme , Abbey (1944); The End House , Abbey (1944); (film) Hungry Hill (1946); The White Steed , London (1947); (film) Daughter of Darkness (1947); Mary Rose , her own Irish translation, Abbey (1948); Fading Mansions , London (1949); Heloïse , London (1948); Countess Cathleen , Abbey (1950); directed and acted in her own Irish translation of St. Joan , Galway and Dublin (1950); Playboy of the Western World , Edinburgh (1951); As You Like It, Coriolanus, Macbeth , Stratford-upon-Avon (1952); Purple Dust , English tour (1953); Playboy of the Western World, Arms and the Man , Dublin (1953); Love of Four Colonels, Anna Christie, St. Joan , Dublin (1953); St. Joan , London (1954); Chalk Garden , New York (1955); St. Joan , Cambridge, Mass., Philadelphia, New York; Hamlet , New York (1957); Twelfth Night , Stratford, Ontario (1957); Macbeth , Cambridge, Mass. (1957); The Rope Dancers , New York (1957); Playboy of the Western World , Dublin (1961); (film) King of Kings (1961); St. Joan of the Stockyards , Dublin and London (1961, 1964); (film) Playboy of the Western World (1962); directed Daughter from over the Water , Dublin (1964); (film) Of Human Bondage (1964); (film) Philadelphia Here I Come (1965); (film) Dr. Zhivago (1965); The Cavern , London (1965); Juno and the Paycock , Dublin (1966); directed Playboy of the Western World , New Haven, Connecticut (1967); Loves of Cass Maguire , Abbey (1967); Cherry Orchard , Abbey (1968); Here Are Ladies , one-woman show (1970–75); Fallen Angels , Dublin (1975); A Moon for the Misbegotten , Dublin (1976); The Plough and the Stars , Abbey and U.S. tour (1976); Sons of Oedipus , London (1977); directed Rising of the Moon, Cat and the Moon, Purgatory, Pot of Broth, Riders to the Sea , London (1978); Juno and the Paycock , Abbey (1979); directed Shadow of a Gunman , Vienna (1980); Britannicus , London (1981); directed The Midnight Court , Abbey (1984); Arsenic and Old Lace , Dublin (1985); Long Day's Journey into Night , Abbey (1985); Bailegangáire , Galway, London, and Dublin (1986).

After the Second World War, Siobhan McKenna achieved an international reputation as an actress both on stage and screen, but, unlike a previous generation of actors who had been trained at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, she retained close links with Irish drama and continued to work regularly in Ireland until her death. She was born in 1922 in Belfast, where her father Eoin McKenna was a mathematics teacher. Both her parents had a love of the Irish language, employed an Irish-speaking housekeeper, and brought up Siobhan and her sister speaking Irish. Her parents also loved the theater and from an early age Siobhan attended performances at the Opera House in Belfast. In 1927, the family moved to Galway when her father was appointed to a lectureship in mathematics at University College Galway (UCG). For Siobhan, the beautiful, wild countryside of the west of Ireland was "love at first sight … I think there must be something in the air of the West which is wild and untameable and soaring."

Shaw's definition of a miracle is something strange to those who witness it and simple to those who perform it.

—Siobhan McKenna

McKenna attended the Dominican Convent School at Taylors Hill, Galway, but after a diagnosis of primary tuberculosis had to spend nearly a year in bed during which she read extensively. She then went to St. Louis Convent School in County Monaghan which had a reputation for academic excellence and which taught in the Irish language. She won a scholarship to University College, Galway, where she studied Irish, French and English. In Galway, there was a semi-professional, Irish-speaking drama company called An Taibhdhearc (Thive-yark) which regularly used students from the university. McKenna was recommended to the director by her French professor, Liam O Briain. The director, Walter Macken, was impressed with McKenna and offered her a small salary, but her father, who did not want her distracted from her studies, refused to allow her to accept it. She continued to act with the company without a salary and appeared in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones and in Macbeth and Mary Rose (which she translated herself). In 1943, she graduated from UCG with a first class honors degree and won a scholarship to University College, Dublin, to study for a master's degree in French.

Liam O Briain mentioned her to Ernest Blythe, the director of the Abbey Theater in Dublin, who asked her to audition. The Abbey had increased the number of plays performed in Irish, and there were opportunities for Irish-speaking actors like McKenna. Though Blythe was unimpressed by her audition, he offered her a contract, and she gave up her postgraduate work, to her father's dismay. McKenna made her debut at the Abbey in April 1944 in Peadar Ó hAnnracháin's Stiana. The following month, she appeared in an Irish translation of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Her first part in English was in Joseph Tomelty's The End House, in which she played a Belfast factory girl. The cast included the finest Abbey actors of the time, F.J. McCormick, Cyril Cusack, Denis O'Dea, Eileen Crowe , and May Craig . Siobhan deeply admired McCormick whom she described, after his untimely death in 1947, as "one of the greatest actors in the world." She and McCormick played opposite each other in Shaw's A Village Wooing, and it was McCormick who advised her not to rush into a film career, and to get more experience at the Abbey, after she had film successes in Hungry Hill and Daughter of Darkness. In September 1946, McKenna married Denis O'Dea, to whom she had been secretly engaged for nearly two years. O'Dea, a handsome, long-established Abbey actor who had been in John Ford's film of Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, could have had a Hollywood career, but he was unambitious and preferred his familiar Dublin surroundings (he was a noted poker player). McKenna trusted his professional advice, but he was 19 years older than she and this led to forebodings from their respective families and friends. Although the marriage endured, there were strains because of the long absences. Their only child, son Donnacha, was born in 1948. From the 1950s, McKenna was the main breadwinner in the family while O'Dea looked after Donnacha.

Siobhan McKenna was anxious to extend her range beyond Irish repertory and appeared in two plays in London, Olivier's production of Jean Anouilh's Fading Mansions and James Forsyth's Heloïse. In 1950, McKenna's first company, An Taibhdhearc, was in severe financial difficulties, and she agreed to give some performances. In what seemed a daring venture, she was determined to stage Shaw's St. Joan in Irish. When Shaw was asked for permission, he replied that he had never seen any sense in the Irish language revival but would let them have the play without a fee. When the director fell ill, McKenna took over and made her directorial debut. The premiere at Christmas 1950 was enthusiastically received, and the play had a short season in Dublin. McKenna also played St. Joan in more illustrious productions, and it became one of her most famous roles, though her inspiration had a more intimate, domestic source, her mother Margaret O'Reilly McKenna , who had a

strong, unquestioning faith. In an interview which she gave to Des Hickey and Gus Smith in 1970, McKenna said: "I am sure it has something to do with prayer, and prayer could be just wishing. My mother had this extraordinary faith and complete acceptance, which used to get on my father's nerves sometimes. … She was like Joan. You couldn't answer back because she had this remarkable common sense."

After seeing McKenna in St. Joan, the director Shelah Richards thought that Siobhan would be an ideal Pegeen Mike in a production of John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World which she was planning for the Edinburgh Festival in 1951. McKenna had played Synge only once before, a minor part in The Playboy. Richards, an ex-Abbey actress, felt that the Abbey's playing of their classic had become too stale and tradition-encrusted. In an extract from her unpublished memoirs quoted in Micheál Ó hAodha's Siobhán, Richards said that the play had lost its original fire and "had turned rather drearily into a sing-song recitation." Richards turned the actors away from this style, and McKenna gave, in Richards' opinion, "a consummate performance." This was also the view of the actor Carroll O'Connor, who played Michael James in the production. O'Connor noted particularly the way McKenna used her magnificent voice which was "capable of the most wonderful contrasts—of great emotional power, and soft, deep gentleness."

In 1952, McKenna played a nine-month season at the Shakespeare Memorial Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon, performing in As You Like It, Coriolanus, and Macbeth. In 1953, she toured England in Sam Wanamaker's production of O'Casey's Purple Dust, but to her disappointment it did not get a London production. She also had several arguments with O'Casey and on one occasion was furious when he criticized F.J. McCormick. O'Casey, she told her husband in a letter quoted by Ó hAodha, "contradicts himself all the time by saying things just for effect." Later that year, Cyril Cusack invited her to play Pegeen Mike to his Christy in a Dublin production of Playboy directed by Jack McGowran. In Cusack, McKenna would be playing opposite the foremost interpreter of the Playboy of his generation. As Ó hAodha observed, after her Edinburgh experience she "knew instinctively that she must hold the stage from the first to the last lines … she must be the Muse who sets the Playboy's imagination on fire." The production was a great success, and was later taken to Paris. The partnership between McKenna and Cusack was a memorable one but was not really established until the 1960s and 1970s when they both returned to the Abbey. It was also honed by a competitive edge, and neither was above upstaging the other.

Later in 1953, McKenna joined the MacLiammóir-Edwards company and gave her first performance in English of St. Joan, helped by a fine supporting cast. It received superb notices. McKenna spoke Joan's lines in a simple but direct Connemara (west of Ireland) accent which disconcerted more conservative members of the audience. McKenna recalled that when she first went to the Abbey everyone said she was "real P.Q. I didn't know what they were talking about. … I finally found out it meant 'Peasant Quality.' I felt really complimented." She was less amused when, asked to play the part in London, she was told to discard her "brogue." She refused. In an article on Shaw for the journal Chrysalis in 1956, McKenna said that the distinguished conductor Sir John Barbirolli advised her to approach the role musically, an approach she found congenial:

There is fine music in St. Joan. There is orchestration of voices. The trial scene actually roars. I picture the bullying Duc de Tremouille as a saxophone. I can see the Dauphin as a pathetic flute. There are fiddles, bugles and drums. There's an organ in the cathedral scene. Shaw knew his music—he was a music critic at one time—and his knowledge of the art makes itself felt in St. Joan.

McKenna won the London Evening Standard Best Actress award for her St. Joan. She wanted to take the play to New York, but a production of Anouilh's Joan of Arc play The Lark, starring Julie Harris , was in preparation there. Instead, McKenna's Broadway debut took place in a new play, Enid Bagnold 's The Chalk Garden, in which McKenna portrayed the enigmatic governess of a troubled girl who was the granddaughter of an autocratic old woman (played by Gladys Cooper ). McKenna found the stylized English manner of The Chalk Garden difficult and was convinced it would flop, but it was a success. Siobhan stayed on in New York after her run ended, determined to play St. Joan in America in 1956 which was Shaw's centenary. She finally got the chance in August of that year at the Cambridge Drama Festival in Massachusetts in a production directed by Albert Marre. Elliot Norton, the critic of the Boston Globe, called her the finest Joan of her generation: "There has never been and probably never will be a Joan of such vitality and intensity." The production went on to Philadelphia and reached New York in September 1956. In January 1957, McKenna played Hamlet in an experimental version of Shakespeare's play, but for audiences and critics it was rather too experimental at a time when cross-gender performances were still rarities. McKenna stayed in North America for another year, playing Viola in Twelfth Night at Stratford, Ontario, Lady Macbeth to Jason Robards' Macbeth at Harvard, and on Broadway in Morton Wisengrad's The Rope Dancers.

For the 1960 Dublin Theater Festival, McKenna returned to the role of Pegeen in The Playboy of the Western World. The production transferred to London, where her interpretation was regarded as definitive by even the most exacting critics. Plans were underway for a film of The Playboy, to be directed by Brian Desmond Hurst who had directed Riders to the Sea in the 1930s. Though enthusiastic, McKenna soon became aware of problems. The producers' priority was a cast which would be intelligible internationally, and not necessarily, as McKenna wanted, one experienced in Synge's verbal richness. McKenna's husband, who had considerable film experience, was not cast in any of the character parts, while the role of Christy went to a young Welsh actor, Gary Raymond. When the film appeared, the characters seemed dwarfed by the majestic Kerry landscapes, and, to compound this, Hurst was too stage-bound in his treatment of the actors. McKenna was also, by this time, too old for the part of Pegeen. Nevertheless, the film is valuable as recording the essence of an eminent interpretation.

In the 1960s, Siobhan McKenna began to concentrate on the great O'Casey plays. In 1966, she played Juno in Juno and the Paycock with Peter O'Toole and Jack McGowran. That same year, the new Abbey Theater was opened, replacing the old theater which had burned down in 1951. McKenna and her husband were two of the ten life members appointed to celebrate the new theater. In 1967, she appeared in the new theater in Brian Friel's The Loves of Cass Maguire, which Friel had written with her in mind. In this and as Ranevskaya in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, also at the Abbey in 1968, she gave two of her finest performances.

For some years, the actor and director Micheál MacLiammóir, whose solo show on Oscar Wilde had been an international success, had been urging McKenna to think about her own one-woman show. McKenna was adamant that she did not want anything that smacked of stage-Irishy, and arranged a selection of dramatic vignettes featuring some of the most famous speeches by women in Irish drama and literature: Ginnie Gogan and Mrs. Tancred in The Plough and the Stars, Maurya in Riders to the Sea, St. Joan, Winnie from Beckett's Happy Days, Anna Livia Plurabelle from Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, and most memorably of all, Molly Bloom's soliloquy from Ulysses. The show, which McKenna called Here Are Ladies, opened in London in 1970 and was a triumph for her, especially the Molly Bloom sequence. She subsequently toured the show throughout America, Canada, and Australia. Ironically, it did not reach Dublin until 1975.

The outbreak of the Northern Ireland troubles stirred McKenna's deeply nationalist feelings; she never forgot her Belfast childhood. In 1974, she spoke out against the introduction of internment without trial in Northern Ireland and also protested the forcible feeding of republican women prisoners. She attracted criticism because of her outspoken views but was surprised and gratified when in 1975 her old friend Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, now president of Ireland, appointed her to his advisory Council of State, making her only the second woman to be named. In 1976, she played Bessie Burgess to Cyril Cusack's Fluther Good in the Abbey's 50th-anniversary production of The Plough and the Stars. The production then went on tour to the U.S. She and Cusack had lost none

of their competitive edge, and Cusack complained several times about the length of her death scene.

Despite her acting successes of the late 1960s and 1970s, McKenna increasingly preferred to direct and in 1978 had one of her biggest challenges when she was invited to London to direct five one-act Irish plays for the Greenwich Theater's Horniman season. The year was marred by the death of her husband in November, but McKenna continued to work. She appeared as Juno in the Abbey's 75th-anniversary production of Juno and the Paycock and directed O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman in 1980 for Vienna's English Theater. In 1982, she performed Molly Bloom's soliloquy for the last time at the Abbey for the Joyce centenary celebrations. In 1984, in what was to be her last work with the Abbey, she directed Brian Merriman's Midnight Court in Irish. Before her sudden death in November 1986, there was one last remarkable performance, as Mommo in Thomas Murphy's Bailegangáire (Town Without Laughter), which Murphy had written for McKenna. The play brought McKenna back to Galway to perform with the Druid Theater company. In an interview with the Dublin Sunday Tribune in December 1985, just after the play's premiere, Murphy explained the character of Mommo, a senile woman in her 80s recalling her past for her two granddaughters: "She has a compulsion to tell her story and yet a fear of it. As if distancing herself from the experience, she remembers it in the third person." Fintan O'Toole of the Sunday Tribune found McKenna's Mommo "foul, terrifying and insidious, as well as being somehow haunting and very moving." The praise was repeated when the play moved to London in 1986, but the part of Mommo was an exhausting one for McKenna. In November 1986, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died from a heart attack following two operations; she was buried in Galway. In his funeral address, the playwright Brian Friel said that "in theater, a star was an actress who was unique in that she personified an idea a country has of itself at any particular time…. For people of my generation, Siobhan personified an idea of Ireland."


Hickey, Des, and Gus Smith. A Paler Shade of Green. London: Leslie Frewen, 1972.

McKenna, Siobhán. "Belfast of My Nostalgia," in Irish Press. November 13, 1969.

——. "GBS: A Centenary Bouquet," in Chrysalis. Vol. 9, 1956.

——. Interview in Sunday Tribune (Dublin). November 23, 1986.

Ó Dulaing, Donncha, ed. "Siobhan McKenna," in Voices of Ireland. Dublin: O'Brien Press/RTE, 1984.

Ó hAodha, Micheál. Siobhán: A Memoir of an Actress. Dingle, County Kerry: Brandon Press, 1994.

suggested reading:

Hogan, Robert. The Modern Irish Drama (multivolume survey beginning in 1975). Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Ó hAodha, Micheál. Theater in Ireland. Oxford: Blackwell, 1974.

Deirdre McMahon , Lecturer in History, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

About this article

McKenna, Siobhan (1922–1986)

Updated About content Print Article