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Lady Gregory: The Irish Playwright

Lady Gregory
The Irish Playwright
1852–1932, Ireland

Meet Lady Gregory, a prolific writer, playwright, co-founder of the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre, and all-around FUNNY LADY.

She was born Isabella Augusta in Galway in 1852. At the age of 28, she married 63-year-old Sir William Henry Gregory. They traveled around the world and hosted regular salons at their home, with famous guests including Henry James, Robert Browning and Lord Tennyson.

After Sir Gregory’s death in 1892, Lady G’s literary career took off. She edited and published her late husband’s autobiography. She collected and published volumes of Irish folklore. Together with W.B. Yeats and Edward Martyn, she co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre and Dublin's Abbey Theatre.

She also started writing comedy plays galore!

On opening night of the Abbey Theatre in 1904, Lady G’s farce “Spreading the News” was at the top of the bill. This play was about a man accused of murder, only for the victim of the so-called murder to turn up alive.

Eric Weitz writes in Irish University Review that “Spreading the News” was “a shrewdly wrought series of reversals and escalating variations, switching and building upon the angles of comic irony.”

Lady G’s comedies were incredibly popular at the Abbey Theatre, and she wrote many. About the art of crafting comedy, and its distinction from tragedy, she wrote:

“In a lecture I gave last year on playwriting I said I had been forced to write comedy because it was wanted for our theatre, to put on at the end of the verse plays, but that I think tragedy is easier.

“You may let your hero kick or struggle, but he is in the claws all the time, it is a mere question as to how nearly you will let him escape, and when you will allow the pounce. Fate itself is the protagonist, your actor cannot carry much character, it is out of place. You do not want to know the character of a wrestler you see trying his strength at a show.

“But in comedy it is different. Character comes in, and why it is so I cannot explain, but as soon as one creates a character, he begins to put out little feet of his own and take his own way.”

For those who knew her in regular life, it sometimes came as a bit of a surprise that Lady G was such a comedic force. She wrote:

“The son of a Welsh carpenter who had lived at Roxborough in my childhood met me at the theatre door after Spreading the News and said, ‘I never thought, when you used to teach us in Sunday School, you would ever write such merry comedies.’

“This reminded me of the tailor from Gort who wrote home after a visit to the Abbey, ‘No one who knows Lady Gregory would ever think she had so much fun in her.’”

In 1911, Lady G accompanied a troupe of actors from the Abbey Theatre on their first American tour. This tour became legendary as rioters disrupted performances of John Millington Synge’s supposedly indecent “Playboy of the Western World.”

In New York, protestors made noise and threw vegetables. In Philadelphia, the players were actually arrested for public immorality.

George Bernard Shaw came to the company’s defense, publishing a letter in which he proclaimed Lady G was “The greatest living Irishwoman.”

Lady G died from breast cancer at 80 years old. She left behind a body of work that showcased her deft handling of comedy and a deep understanding of the complexity of Irish humor.

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