Category: Archive

The poet and patron

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

AN EVENING IN NEW YORK WITH W.B. YEATS AND JOHN QUINN, adapted and directed by Neil Bradley and Paul Kerry. At The Irish Repertory Theatre’s Studio Theatre. Through March 31.

The life and passions John Quinn, the Irish-American lawyer, art collector and patron of Irish writers, constitute one of the most compelling, but least familiar, literary footnotes in the history of 20 Century literature.

An image of Quinn may be found in a number of snapshots of Irish literary “stars” of the first couple of decades of the last century: J.M. Synge, Lady Gregory, and, especially, William Butler Yeats.

Quinn is the tall, balding, sober-minded figure in the background, never quite smiling, but somehow radiating a sort of passionate interest in and commitment to the better-known individuals with whom he shares the photographic frame.

The wealthy, generous New York lawyer, who died in 1924, is about to become at least a little bit more familiar as the result of a small, finely honed and compelling show that the Irish Repertory Theatre has just installed in its subterranean Studio Theatre for a brief engagement running through the end of this month.

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The event, bearing the no-nonsense title “An Evening in New York with W.B. Yeats and John Quinn,” has been lovingly handcrafted by Neil Bradley and Paul Kerry, the two actors who adapted and directed the material and are appearing in the show, playing, respectively, the writer and his patron.

Though he performs the role with enthusiasm and dexterity, the slight, mild-seeming Kerry doesn’t really resemble the imposing Quinn very much, but Bradley’s impersonation of Yeats, with the pince-nez, flowing black cravat and velvet jacket so familiar from countless photographs of the poet and dramatist is nothing short of astonishing.

Bradley is, of course, a decade or so younger than Yeats was when Quinn sponsored his first American tour, in 1903, and even moreso than the 55-year-old Irish titan who met his patron for an evening of good conversation at the Algonquin Hotel on Sunday, Feb. 22, 1920.

That encounter, recreated so scrupulously by Bradley and Kerry is drawn, in part, from notes made by one Jeanne Foster, who accompanied Quinn to Yeats’s room at the hotel and sat in on the meeting in a conscious attempt to capture at least the essence of the celebrated Irishman’s famous conversational style.

The chat ranged from Quinn’s unrelenting dislike of President Woodrow Wilson, then in his second-last year in office, to Yeats’s admiration of Oscar Wilde’s ability to speak in complete, well-crafted sentences.

Speech, of course, was vital to both men, to Quinn in his role as a lawyer frequently “performing” in the courtroom, and to Yeats, who was used to public speaking as a senator of the Irish Free State, orator, lecturer, and renderer of his own writing.

On one of his lecture tours, a member of the audience challenged Yeats on his method of reciting verse. “I read my poetry as all the great poets from Homer on down read their poetry,” he replied. When the woman, who turned out to be an expert in voice production, asked him how he knew how Homer spoke, his answer was “The ability of the man justifies the assumption.”

On the four U.S. tours he made between 1903 and 1920, Yeats delivered himself of lectures with such titles as “The Intellectual Revival in Ireland,” “Heroic Literature in Ireland,” and “Poetry in the Old Time and in the New,” and “The Theatre and What it Might Be.”

Yeats’s ideas on this last-named topic were bizarre in the extreme, and somewhat elitist. After surveying a full house, he once told Lady Gregory that they must find a way to drive large groups of people away from the theater, and restrict their endeavors to tiny clusters of listeners.

“An Evening in New York with W.B. Yeats and John Quinn” is made up of elements of the conversation, as carefully annotated by Mrs. Foster, bits and pieces of Yeats’s writing, drawn from his poetry and his correspondence, plus a certain measure of direct-to-audience descriptive material, most of it of an anecdotal nature.

All in all, the show lasts just an hour and might easily profit from 15 minutes of additional material. As things stand, however, the show cobbled together so adroitly by performers Bradley and Kerry should prove satisfying to anyone even remotely interested in Irish literature of the 20th Century, and in the manner and personality of one of its true giants, not to mention the Irish-American benefactor who stood behind him over the course of so much of his career as a writer and public figure.

“An Evening in New York with W.B. Yeats and John Quinn” was first performed in 1998 at the Algonquin Hotel, and has, since then, been seen at the American Irish Historical Society and the Writer’s Museum in Dublin’s Parnell Square.

John Quinn died four years after the Yeats “Evening,” while the poet lived until 1939. The original manuscript of the “conversation” is part of the John Quinn Collection of the New York Public Library.

Meanwhile, Yeats and Quinn are lovingly alive at the Irish Repertory Theatre, thanks to the care and devotion of Neil Bradley and Paul Kerry.

— Joseph Hurley

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