Micheál MacLiammóir (1899-1978)

[Alfred Willmore; Micheál or Mícheál; not Michael or Mac Liammóir]; b. 15 Nov., London [though he professed a Cork birth]; child actor appearing in Peter Pan under [Sir] Beerbohm Tree; travelled in Spain; studied at Willesden Polytechnic School of Art [Slade by own account]; joined Gaelic League; fell under influence of W. B. Yeats and visited Ireland in 1916; returned to Ireland in 1927 with Anew McMaster, his brother-in-law (1894-1962);
introduced to Hilton Edwards [q.v.], his partner in theatre and life, by McMaster; fnd. Taibhdhearc na Gallaimhe, 1927, producing his own Diarmuid agus Gráinne; co-fnd. Gate Theatre with Edwards, opening with Peer Gynt, 12 Oct. 1928; travelled with the Gate on many successful tours; greatly admired for leading roles incl. Emmet in Denis Johnston’s The Old Lady Says ‘No!’; Larry Doyle in John Bull’s Other Island; Brack in Hedda Gabler; also Romeo, Richard II, Hamlet (1931, 1952); won Kroneburg Gold Medal for his performance as Hamlet in Elsinore; The Importance of Being Oscar, a one-man show on Wilde (1960);
wrote and performed I Must Be Talking to My Friends (1965), another one-man show; his international experience with Orson Welles included productions for film (Iago in Othello, 1951) and stage (Edgar in Lear, 1953); wrote script for pageant of arrival of St. Patrick, dir. Edwards, under aegis of An Tostal, 1953; also appeared in films with Edwards and stage productions with Peter Brook and others; his plays include Ford of the Hurdles (1928); Where Stars Walk (1940), a retelling of ‘The Wooing of Etain’, written c.1928 and revived at the Gate Theatre in 1979; Dreary Shadows (1941); Ill Met My Moonlight (1946), filmed with Edwards in 1956;
issued Portrait of Marian (1947); The Mountains Look Different (1948); Home for Christmas (1950); A Slipper for the Moon (1954); and Prelude in Katbec Street (1973); prose works and memoirs are Put Money in Thy Purse (1952); All for Hecuba (1964); Theatre in Ireland (1950), and Do. [2nd. enl. edn.] (Dublin: Cultural Relations Committee 1964); An Oscar of No Importance (1968), and W. B. Yeats and His World [with Eavan Boland] (1970); Enter a Goldfish, Memoirs of an Irish Actor Young and Old (1977), autobiographical fiction; books in Irish, Ceo Meala Lá Seaca (1952);
issued Aistreorí Faoin Dhá Solas (1956), afterwards translated as Each Actor on His Ass (1961); issued Bláth agus Raibhse (1966); issued a thinly-disguised autobiographical novel as Enter a Goldfish (1977); d. 6 March 1978; an exhibition of papers was held in the Dublin Civic Museum, Oct. 2001 based on papers donated by Robbie Turner, son of Patricia Turner, MacLiammoir’s long-time assistant; there is a bronze head by Marjorie Fitzgibbon in the RDS. NCBE DIW DIL OCIL

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  • Diarmuid agus Gráinne (Dublin: Oifig Dialta Foillseacháin Rialtais 1935).
  • Where Stars Walk (Dublin: Progress House 1962).
  • Ill Met by Moonlight (Dublin: Duffy 1954).
  • The Importance of Being Oscar (Dublin: Dolmen; London: OUP 1963; new edn. 1978), foreword by Hilton Edwards; Do., [rep. of 1978 Edn.] (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1995), 71pp. [one-man show].
Collected Plays
  • John Barrett, sel. and intro. Selected Plays of Micheál Mac Liammóir [Irish Drama Selections, 11] (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1998), 319pp. [‘Where Stars Walk’; ‘Ill Met By Moonlight’, rev.; ‘The Mountains Look Different’; ‘The Liar’; ‘Prelude in Kazbek Street’];
  • Foreword to Padraic Ó Conaire, Deoraíochtí [1910] (Talbot 1973).
  • All for Hecuba [memoir] (London: Methuen 1946), [rev. edn.] (Dublin: Progress House 1961), and Do. [rep. edn.] as All for Hecuba: An Irish Theatrical Autobiography (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2008), 320pp.
  • Put Money in Thy Purse: The Filming of Orson Welles’ ‘Othello’ (London: Methuen 1952), and Do. (London: Virgin 1994), 258pp.
  • Each Actor on His Ass [memoir trans. from his own Irish] (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1961).
  • foreword to Oscar Wilde, The Happy Prince and Other Stories (London: Puffin Books 1962).
  • Theatre in Ireland [1st Edn. 1950] (Dublin: Three Candles 1964).
  • with Edwin Smith, Ireland (London: Thames & Hudson 1966).
  • An Oscar of No Importance [memoir] (London: Heinemann 1968).
  • Enter a Goldfish [autobiog. novel] (London: Thames & Hudson 1977).
  • with Eavan Boland, W. B. Yeats (London: Thames & Hudson 1971), Do. (NY: Viking 1972).
  • [as Michael Willmore,] Seamus O’Kelly, Waysiders: Stories of Connacht (Dublin: Talbot 1917; rep. [c.1919]) (viii), 203pp.;
  • [as Micheal MacLiammoir,] Faery Nights / Oicheanta Sí [bilingual pb. edn.] (Dublin: O’Brien Press 1996; 2nd edn. 2000),100/128pp. [containing 8 stories based on Irish festivals].

See also Richard Pine & Orla Murphy, Designs & Illustrations 1917-1972, with a foreword by Hilton Edwards [Exhibition Catalogue] (Dublin Arts Festival 1973), 12pp., and Richard Pine, All for Hecuba: The Dublin Gate Theatre 1928-1978 [‘Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, 4 October - 2 November 1978’] (Dublin: Dublin Gate Theatre 1978), [80]pp., ill. [4 lvs. of plates (some color), ports.; 22 x 30 cm].


A “Real Player” version of The Importance of Being Oscar - a Columbia recording made after the successful Broadway run in 1961, and part of a projecte 52 album recording of Wildeana - is available to audit at the New Generation website [link].

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  • Desmond Rushe, ‘Season at the Gate’, in Éire-Ireland, 6, 4 (Winter 1971), pp.120-22, p.121 [see extract];
  • ‘Edwards and Mac Liammóir: We must be talking’, in Des Hickey and Gus Smith, eds., A Paler Shade of Green (London: Leslie Frewin 1972), pp.73-89.
  • Peter Luke, ed., Enter Certain Players: Edwards-MacLiammoir and the Gate 1928-1978 (Dublin: Dolmen 1978) [appendix listing productions 1928-78; see extract].
  • Micheál Ó hAodha, The Importance of being Micheál: A Portrait of MacLiammóir (Dingle: Brandon [1990]), 202pp. [port., 26 ill., 1p. bibl.].
  • Christopher Fitzsimon, The Boys: A Biography of Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards (London: Nick Hern [1994]), 320pp., ill. [see extract].
  • Denis Staunton, Michael MacLiammóir (London: Absolute Press [Troika] 1997).
  • Éibhear Walshe, ‘Sodom and Begorrah, or Game to the Last: Inventing Michael MacLiammoir’, in Éibhear Walshe, ed., Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing (Cork UP 1997), pp.150-69.
  • R. J. Cloughterty, Jr., ‘Micheal Mac Liammoir’ in Bernice Schrank & William Demastes, ed., Irish Playwrights, 1880-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook (CT: Greenwood Press 1997), pp.175-81.
  • John Keyes, The Importance of Being Micheal: A Life in Two Acts (Belfast: Lagan Press [2003]), 206pp.
  • Joan Fitzpatrick Dean, ‘Mac Liammóir’s The Importance of Being Oscar in America’, in Irish Theater in America, ed., John P. Harrington (Syracuse UP 2009) [q.pp.]

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Desmond Rushe, ‘Season at the Gate’, Éire-Ireland, 6, 4 (Winter 1971), pp.120-22. Reviews Micheál MacLiammóir at The Gate Theatre in It’s Later Than You Think, the English translation of Ornifle, by Anouilh ‘[T]he exceptionally meaty part of an aging but insatiable sex sophisticate. MacLiammóir undertook the role with courage and played it with subtlety until he was forced off the stage on the orders of his doctor. [...] It was too much for MacLiammóir who is, after all, now past his 72nd birthday and who had been, prior to Ornifle, hospitalised for a considerable time’. (p.121) Further: ‘Micheál MacLiammóir returned with his classic The Importance of Being Oscar for a week, and played to overflow audiences, mostly young. Nothing remains to be said about this recital; it has become legendary’. (p.121)

Peter Luke, ed., Enter Certain Players: Edwards-MacLiammoir and the Gate 1928-1978 (Dublin: Dolmen 1978); ‘[A] festschrift to pay homage to two men, Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir, on this the fiftieth anniversary of their theatrical partnership [and] to record for posterity the life-work of this supremely and diversely talented pair, whose corpus of achievement is central to the theatrical history of Ireland.’ Foreword by Peter Luke, note from James Mason. Contributions by Robert Hogan, Terence de Vere White, Séamus Kelly, Mary Manning, Gabriel Fallon, John Jordan, Denis Johnston, Christine, Countess of Longford [all on the Gate Theatre]; and tributes to MacLiammóir by Hilton Edwards’ (intro.), Emlyn Williams, Desmond Rushe, Brendan P. Devlin, Richard Pine, and Edwards; with ‘The Future of the Gate’ by Colm Ó Briain, and Productions 1928-1978, a chronology by Patricia Turner. E.g., MacLiammóir buried on the sloping graveyard in Howth. Mary Manning, ‘The last time I saw him it was in hospital. He whispered, ‘there’s nothing to be said for old age, Mary?’ I said, ‘Nothing, Micheál, nothing.’ And then he whispered again, ‘You wouldn’t put a question mark after Youth’s the Season now, Mary?’ I took his hand and said, ‘No, Micheál, no.’ (p.39) Richard Pine (pp.71-87) prints three illustrations entered on the facing page of stories in Patrick Pearse’s An Mháthair agus sgéalta eile, given him by his mother in 1916. (p.72).

Terence Brown, review of Christopher Fitzsimon, The Boys: A Biography of Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards (London: Nick Hern [1994]), [q. source]: Micheál played Peter Pan and Oliver Twist in precocious boyhood; the outrageousness of M’s impersonation of an Irish genius, to the point where appearance became reality, gets lost somewhat in the plethora of detail about plans, plays, performances and reviews [...] Edward and Christine [Longford] dubbed them ‘the boys’ [...] the sterling legal work of Terence de Vere White and the polite disinclination of Maura Laverty (whose plays Liffey Lane and Tolka Row were steady box-office sure things) to insist on royalties due to her, meant that the perennial threat of bankruptcy never quite materialised. ON the Gate, a theatre that gave Denis Johnstone’s [sic] The Old Lady Says “No!” to the world at the outset of its life and whose founders towards the end of their careers were centrally involved with Brian Friel’s Philadelphia here I Come and that playwright’s earliest successes certain earned its palace in the first rank of modern Irish theatrical achievement.

Colm Tóibín, ‘He’ll have brought it on Himself’, review of Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing , ed. by Éibhear Walshe, and Goodbye to Catholic Ireland , by Mary Kenny (22 May 1997) incls. opening remarks on MacLiammóir: ‘[...] MacLiammóir was, we were told, a great actor, a great Gaelic speaker and a great Irishman. I remember his voice and his presence on the stage; I remember him reclining like a large sleek cat on a chaise-longue, world-weary and knowing and infinitely melancholy, and then standing up and looking at us all, caressing us with his narrowed eyes and speaking as though he was telling us fresh gossip, insinuations he would be asking us to keep secret at least until we had left the theatre. It was strong stuff for a small boy. / By that time, MacLiammóir had performed his one-man show all over the world, and now he was trying it out in rural Ireland. Enniscorthy was important for him: it was here in June 1927 that he met his lifelong partner Hilton Edwards. They became Ireland’s most famous homosexual couple. I remember, on Micheál’s 70th birthday in 1969, watching them being treated as such on Irish television. When he died in 1978, MacLiammóir’s funeral’[available online ; accessed 17.10.2013.]

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Irish Literary Revivals: ‘Under the leadership of Yeats, Ireland seemed to be discovering a manner, a mode. There was a great moment when in Ireland’s history, especially in her theatre. To me, O’Casey was the end of it. I am not as great an admirer of O’Casey as many other people - I think he was as great a dramatist as is believed now - but he was a first-rate man in his own way, a unique figure [...] he arrived on the scene of this great accident, this disaster between the Irish and the English, and there he was, a smart cameraman, taking all those wonderful pictures of it. [...] My best play was probably Ill Met by Moonlight. I say probably; I don’t really know. I think all my plays are good entertainment, and not necessarily marvellous plays. To be quite frank, I think I could have written a much better play, strangely enough, had I not been an actor and had one eye on the public. But there is that actor, that theatre demon, in me, so that every time I want to go all out and be completely and sincerely myself, as every work of art has come from a completion in oneself, an uncompromising thing as Joyce did in his way and Yeats in his - I find myself thinking ‘“Oh, that won’t get over, I don’t think they’ll like that”, so I have really written my plays with one eye on the public.’ (Interview in RTV Guide, 14 Jan. 1966; quoted by Gabriel Fallon, in Seán McCann, ed., The World of Sean O’Casey, Dent [New English Library] 1966), p.196-99.)

See, they return [...]: ‘Can be that these country men and women of his [Synge’s] share in some mysterious way the unearthly life of those ancient figures of mythology round which Yeats built so much of his own symbolism, and that this hidden fire, glowing through the outer modern and recognisable portraits, gives to them their violent power? Certainly, the realists who followed him, and who had, it is likely, guessed nothing of the hidden bloodflowing through the arteries but had observed simply the play of surface muscles under the skin, lacked, even as imitators, his essential qualities. (Theatre in Ireland, Dublin: CRC, 1964, p.15; cited in Anthony Roche, ‘The Two Worlds of Synge’s The Well of Saints’, in Ronald Schleifer, ed., The Genres of Irish Literary Revival, Wolfhound 1980, p.27.)

On Irish Stage-Realism: ‘Since this theatre [the Gate] wsa founded we have presented comparatively few realistic plays, and hasve already avoided realism in production. We consider that realism has been badly overdone, and if the drama has a future that future will not be found to lie in a realistic direction.’ (Quoted in Terence Brown, "Ireland, Modernism and the 1903s", in Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s, ed. Patricia Coughlin & Alex Davis, Cork UP 1995, p.25), Further, Mac Liammoir sought for playwrights writers who could liberate Irish theatre from ‘the limitationcs of htose literal and representative surroundings.’ (Theatre in Ireland, 1967, p.42.) Further - on the staging of Wilde's Salomé (1928) with Evreinov's Theatre of the Soul: ‘It was a strange combination, and called forth a few howls, for in the Evreinov play we acted in a black set with two spotlights and a line-drawing in white and scarlet of an enormous heart rather in the manner of Joan Miro; and in Salome we had a lovely set in silver and viperish green with the entire casts stripped almost naked.’ (All for Hecuba: : An Irish Theatrical Autobiography, Methuen 1946, p.71. [All the foregoing quoted in Shaun Richards, ‘A Dramatic Form “at the end of its tether”: Brian Friel and the Irish Peasant Play’ [lecture], in Proceedings of the Irish Research Group, Natal, Brasil, in 2013.]

Yeats again: ‘But when, in later years, the nation having (most unexpectedly) obeyed the Yeatsian call, having indeed taken it so literally that for some time it seemed that she would never again be able to free herself from the engrossing contemplation of her own perfections and peculiarities, then came the time to open the windows once again and look, not at the glimpses of a world that England chose to show, but at the world itself. (p.21.)‘It is in the expression of profoundly local and intimately known types and places that the dramatist comes closest to the secret of universal portraiture’ (p.38; all cited in Gerry Smyth, Decolonisation and Criticism: The Construction of Irish Literature, London: Pluto Press 1998, p.189.) Note that MacLiammoir called Yeats the author of an ‘intellectual anti-immigration scheme’ (cited in Tuohy, Yeats, 1976).

Public as dragons: ‘Never in a brief thirty years or so has a public, once so diffident and uncertain of its own significance, gained such an overwhelming and in the main unfounded self-confidence as the Irish. Led by the eager and delighted audiences at the Abbey, every characteristic real or unreal of the national temperament is noted and gloated; every twist of phrase, every stroke of wit, every gleam of humour, of oddity, of quaintness, every allusion to a constitutional virtue; piety, bravery, chastity and the like, is taken for granted or cheered to the echo. Every suggestion made by a writer that Ireland may share in the imperfections common to humanity throughout the planet is questioned with a very sincere indionation by members of the public (and not infrequently of the actors) and obliquely attacked by sections of the press with ridicule and belittlement. They are fierce dragons to fight, these strange and self-imposed images of moral impeccability, and maybe their existence is natural enough in a nation geographically isolated from all but a powerful neighbour whose ways, however derided, are almost invariably accepted in the end as inevitable, even if they appear in our midst under some Gaelic label [...]. They are dragons that are inimical to the intellectual growth of any nation, and the means of their overthrow lies, I think, in the will of the leaders of the arts, and of the art of the theatre in particular, to turn the gaze of the people on to Europe as well as inward on to the truth of one’s own soul.’ (Theatre in Ireland, Colm Ó Lochlainn 1950, p.22; quoted in Una Kealy, “George Fitzmaurice” [PhD Thesis] UU 2004, p.86.)

To Certain Anglo-Irish Writers”: ‘Your vaunted “culture” still we spurn / Whose home on British ground is set. / For still the Gaelic flame will burn - / We are not all West Britons yet! / Your alien culture take elsewhere / Ye little gods of Merrion Square!’ (In Philip O’Leary, Gaelic Prose in the Irish Free State, 1922-1939, UCD Press, 766pp.; quoted in review by Kevin Kiely, review, Books Ireland, Nov. 2004, p.262.)

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D. E. S. Maxwell, Modern Irish Drama (1984) lists Ill Met by Moonlight (Duffy 1954); Where Stars Walk (Progress 1962); Diarmuid agus Grainne (Oif. D. Foill. Rialta 1935); other works All for Hecuba (Lon. 1946); Theatre in Ireland (3 Candles, 2nd edn. 1964). Bibl., Bulmer Hobson, The Gate Theatre, Dublin (Gate 1934); Peter Luke, ed., Enter Certain Players: Edwards-MacLiammóir and the Gate (Dolmen 1978).

Robert Hogan, ed., Dictionary of Irish Literature (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1979), adds Enter a Goldfish (London: Thames & Hudson 1977), autobiographical novel; Each Actor on His Ass (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1961), memoir; The Importance of being Oscar (Dublin: Dolmen; London: OUP 1963); An Oscar of No Importance (London: Heinemann 1968); W. B. Yeats, with Eavan Boland (London: Thames & Hudson 1971; NY Viking 1972).

Bernard Share, ed., Far Green Fields, 1500 Years of Irish Travel Writing (Belfast: Blackstaff 1992) contains an extract from MacLiammóir, Put Money in thy Purse (London: Methuen 1952).

Hibernia Books (1996) lists Padraic Ó Conaire, Fair and Field (Dublin: Talbot 1930), ill. Mac Liammóir.

Belfast Public Library holds All for Hecuba (1947); Ill Met By Moonlight (1954); Theatre in Ireland (1950) [sic].

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Cork has it?: Both Henry Boylan, A Dictionary of Irish Biography [rev. edn.] (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1988) and D. J. Doherty & J. E. Hickey, A Chronology of Irish History since 1500 (Gill & Macmillan 1989) erroneously accredit MacLiammoir with a Cork birthplace.

Success with Oscar: The Importance of Being Oscar; first presented at the Gaiety by Gate Theatre Productions, dir. by Hilton Edwards; for the Dublin Theatre Festival in September 1960, transferring to the Apollo Theatre, London. In 1961 it visited the Royal Court Theatre, London, the Paris Festival, and the Lyceum, New York, before touring Europe, the USA, Latin America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, with appearances at the Dublin Theatre Festivals of 1962 and 1964 and further seasons in London at the Aldwych and Haymarket Theatres in 1963 and 1966; six final performances at the Gate in December 1975; recorded on CBS Classics [2 vols.], directed for RTE television by Chloe Gibson in 1964, and the text published by the Dolmen Press and OUP in 1963; text rep. by Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe (1995).

MacLiammoir papers: In October 2001 papers & memorabilia were donated by Robbie Turner to the Irish Theatre Archives [viz., Dublin City Archives] Turner’s mother Patricia acted as the actor’s personal assistant for many years.

Regency home of Hilton Edwards and Michael McLiammoir at 4, Harcourt Tce. saved from demolition by activitists and refurbished by Noel Pearson, having purchsed it for Ir£380,000 in the 1990s, is offered for sale in 2002 with a price tag of €3.2 million in April 2002.

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