By Joseph Hurley
THE PAINTED BOAT: MAUD GONNE IN EXILE, by Gyavira Lasana. Performed by Helen E. Calthorpe. Monkstown Productions. At the Producers Club, 358 West 44th St., NYC. Final performance Thursday, March 2.
Transplanted County Dublin native Helen E. Calthorpe performed her one-woman show, "The Painted Boat: Maud Gonne in Exile," last Sunday evening at the Producers’ Club before an audience of 13; seven women, five men, and one tiny black mouse. The unfrightened animal darted here and there at several points during the 70-minute, intermissionless venture, in plain view, without causing even one of the actress’ viewers to shriek or leap on the seat of one of the several dozen chairs positioned in the small performance space.
That the modest audience for the second of Calthorpe’s six scheduled shows on West 44th Street kept their unflappable composure attests, perhaps, to the inherently compelling nature of the material, and to the seriousness with which the actress, and the event’s author, Gyavira Lasana, have approached their task.
Calthorpe, a tall, erect woman of the sort that used to be described as "handsome," plays actress and activist Maud Gonne, best known for her long and extremely peculiar "romance" with the poet William Butler Yeats, at a moment in 1917 when, at age 51, she is packing her belongings in her residence in France’s Normandy awaiting the arrival of "Willie" Yeats, who, she hopes, will escort her back to Ireland after a dozen years in exile.
Beginning a letter, and then moving about the sparsely furnished stage, talking to herself and to her audience, as she arranges garments in the trunk she is packing, and sifts through her memories and her varied experiences.
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Gonne, the daughter of a British army officer and educated in France, first came to Ireland at age 16, when her father was posted to Dublin. The year was 1882, and by 1889, when she was 23 and a fully developed beauty, she had met Yeats, who, though she never agreed to marry him, would clearly become the most significant man in her very long life. Much of the bond that linked Gonne and Yeats, Lasana’s intelligently conceived script makes clear, stemmed from their mutual interest in the occult, with the poet’s fascination with spiritualism lasting considerably longer than that of the actress.
Wherever she went, Gonne at least dabbled in matters of the spirit world, including a period during which she was influenced by Madame Blavatsky, who founded the still-enduring religious cult of Theoscophy and who was, it could be said, in some ways the Ayn Rand of her day.
Another influence on Gonne was the French political rebel Lucien Millevoye, with whom she conceived two children, as well as an "alliance" forged in their mutual belief that England was the common enemy of both France and Ireland.
Eventually, Gonne fell out with Millevoye, but not with the political radicalism they shared, and when she returned to Ireland, she continued her fervent activities as writer, speaker and political organized. Books have been written about her relationship with Yeats, and will continue to be, since there are so many unanswered questions and so many unsettled issues regarding the pair.
Yeats definitely proposed to Gonne on more than one occasion, and, at one point, had even asked for the hand of Gonne’s daughter Iseult. He had also written one of his most beloved short plays, "The Countess Cathleen," aka "Cathleen Ni Houlihan," for the actress, who played the title role in the play’s 1902 debut at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.
As Calthorpe rummages through Gonne’s possessions and her memories, most of the familiar names come to the surface, from John O’Leary and Arthur Griffith to Douglas Hyde and the Countess Constance Markievicz. These and other names associated with what came to be known as "the Celtic twilight" come and go throughout Lasana’s text, some of them "explained" and others left to fend for themselves.
Playwright Lasana, an associate of the Nuyorican Poets Theater, reportedly became interested in Maud Gonne and her associates during the course of researching a play on the lives of the American Beat Generation, Kerouac, Ginsberg and the others, whom he found to have been strongly and significantly influenced by the lives and the work of Yeats and the people around him, of whom no one was more dominant than Maud Gonne.
Calthorpe’s program biography lists performances in the works of, among others, J.J. Synge, Brian Friel, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, and particularly, Samuel Beckett and, it goes without saying, W.B. Yeats.
"The Painted Boat: Maud Gonne in Exile" will play just two more performances in its limited run at the Producers’ Club, 358 West 44th Street, tonight and tomorrow night. Starting time both evenings is scheduled for 7.