Sexuality, Marriage and Women's Life Narratives in Teresa Deevy's a Disciple (1931), the King of Spain's Daughter (1935) and Katie Roche (1936)

Article excerpt

In August 1931, Teresa Deevy's play A Disciple was premiered on the stage of Dublin's Abbey Theatre. Despite being directed by Lennox Robinson, featuring a strong cast and sharing the bill with the iconic Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Deevy's play received dismal critical reviews and was quickly exorcised from the Abbey's repertoire. (1) However, despite its wretched reception, the play presented a striking critique of rural Ireland. A Disciple, like Katie Roche and The King of Spain's Daughter, constitutes an intervention by Deevy in the broader political, social and cultural consensus that was being promoted by the Catholic Church and by successive Irish Free-State governments. In these dramas, Deevy explores the ideological tensions that existed in the post-independent state. (2) These tensions are particularly manifest in her representations of female sexuality and in her portrayal of stagnant rural communities that stifle the vitality and potential of young Irish women. Deevy's work positions her within the post-revolutionary culture of disillusionment articulated by writers such as Frank O'Connor and Liam O'Flaherty; however, her focus on women's experience within the postcolonial order and her engagement with female sexuality and frustration within this context presents an alternative perspective on that period. This essay examines Deevy's representations of marriage, female sexuality and the life options available to women during the 1930s.

C.L. Innes has argued that, in the years preceding the War for Independence, Catholic nationalism 'exalted Irishwomen as emblematic mothers or desexualized spiritual maidens' (1993: 35). Despite the consciousness raising of both the suffrage and radical nationalist movements, this trend continued in the decades after the Civil War. According to Margaret Ward, by 1932 'there was considerable agreement between pro- and anti-Treatyites that women's primary role should be that of wife and mother' (2002: 182-183). Certainly, in the culture promoted by the new state, women become increasingly the sites of contestation rather than the agents of their own desire. Louise Ryan argues that women were explicitly identified as 'boundary guards between national sovereignty and the contamination of foreign influences' (1998: 189). For example, in a 1926 sermon entitled 'Foreign Dances and Indecent Dress', Archbishop Gilmartin stated that the 'future of the country was bound up with the dignity and purity of the women of Ireland'. (3) In contrast to such prevailing orthodoxies, Deevy presents dramas where the action is pushed forward by sexually vital women. These productions would have been challenging at a time when the state was rolling back on much of the emancipatory promise of the revolutionary period and when successive Pastoral Letters castigated the immodest behaviour of young Irish women. (4) Deevy's character descriptions and stage directions are unusual in how they depict these female heroines; their sheer physicality is itself an interesting anomaly in a society that was shutting down outlets for such expression of everyday female sexuality. This was a society where religious organisations had pronounced on the 'laxity in that maidenly decorum in dress and in conduct which is the greatest safeguard of female virtue' (5) and where an educational institution for women saw fit to formulate a 'Modest Dress and Deportment Crusade'. (6)

Within this context, it is worth considering the character of Nan Bowers in Deevy's Wife to James Whelan. (7) Nan is twenty-one at the start of the play. She is in old plain clothes but she wears no stockings and 'stretches her legs out to the sun'. Even the other characters feel compelled to 'delay to watch her' (Deevy 1995: 30). Similarly striking is the presence of Annie Kinsella in The King of Spain's Daughter (2003): she first appears on stage as a young woman of twenty who is attired in the traditional peasant costume of red dress, dark shawl, shoes and stockings. …