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An Irish Impresario

Martin Greene

The Life of Augustin Daly, by Joseph Francis Daly, Forgotten Books, 726 pp, £16.59, ISBN: 978-1330866313

Joseph Daly’s biography of his brother Augustin has a lasting value for its vivid portrayal of the nineteenth century New York theatre and its account of the family’s Irish origins.

Augustin Daly (1838-1899) was for thirty years the proprietor-manager of one of New York’s most successful theatre companies. Also an accomplished playwright, producer and director, he was a master of all the theatrical trades except acting. He is now seen as a moderniser, within the limits of the theatre of his time.

Daly set up his company for stability, high production standards and commercial viability. He structured it as a “stock company” (a permanent repertory company with its own theatre), resisting the trend towards the commercially more advantageous “combination” system (temporary touring outfits). He favoured ensemble acting rather than the then prevailing model based on a “star” performer supported by “line-of-business” (limited-range) actors. In his productions he aimed for the highest possible level of realism. But for some observers he did not do enough to encourage his audiences to move beyond the established taste for knockabout comedy and melodrama.  

Daly’s repertoire included the English-language classics (especially Shakespeare) and contemporary comedies and melodrama – the latter a combination of original plays and adaptations from mainly French and German originals. The factors underpinning his long-term success included risk-taking (high operating costs, uncertain revenue) and resilience (recovering from both commercial failure and the destruction of one of his theatres by fire). Tragedy visited his private life in 1885 when his two children died in a diphtheria epidemic. His was the first American company to tour Europe (including Dublin in 1886). In 1893, he established a theatre in London – D Forbes-Winslow’s Daly’s The Biography of a Theatre (1944) provides an affectionate account of this undertaking. The Irish actress Ada Rehan was a member of his company for twenty years. Although there were suggestions, towards the end of his career, that his programme had become somewhat stale, he was still running a successful and highly regarded company when he died suddenly during a business visit to Paris in 1899.

George Bernard Shaw saw Daly as the champion of an outmoded form of theatre and castigated him for his failure to embrace the new conception of theatre (the “problem play” and a heightened level of realism) which had begun to gain traction in the 1890s under the influence of Henrik Ibsen. Shaw qualified his criticism to the extent of allowing that Daly had been “in his prime an advanced man relatively to his own time and place, and was a real manager, with definite artistic aims which he trained his company to accomplish”. He also allowed that Daly’s comedies in the 1870s and 1880s were “natural, frank, amusing, and positively lifelike in comparison with the plays then regarded as dramatic masterpieces”. But he couldn’t forgive him for (as he saw it) taking no notice when Ibsen had “smashed up British drama” in 1889.

The Life of Augustin Daly is mainly an account of Daly’s theatrical career. Although there is relatively little on the brothers’ personal lives, their personalities and the exceptionally close relationship between them come through clearly. In addition to its treatment of the family’s Irish origins (of which more later), it provides a rich account of the cut and thrust of the New York theatre of the time. There is also a wealth of detail about Augustin’s productions and the critical and public responses to them. But as Joseph was deeply involved in his brother’s theatrical activities, to the extent of co-writing adaptations and influencing production decisions, readers may want to look elsewhere for an independent assessment of Augustin’s theatrical career.

Those who do so will find only a limited number of sources. These include Don Wilmeth and Rosemary Cullen’s substantial introduction to Plays by Augustin Daly (1984), Marvin Felheim’s The Theatre of Augustin Daly: An Account of the Late Nineteenth Century American Theatre (1956) and Stanley Kauffmann’s essay “Two Vulgar Geniuses: Augustin Daly and David Belasco” (in About the Theatre: Selected Essays, 2010).

Each of these commentators sees Daly as a major figure whose career was characterised by strengths (as a director) and weaknesses (as a playwright) and whose achievements laid the groundwork for the subsequent regeneration of the American theatre with the emergence of figures such as Eugene O’Neill early in the twentieth century. But there are differences of emphasis and approach.

Wilmeth and Cullen provide a balanced and thoroughly researched assessment of Daly’s career. Felheim strikes an uneasy balance, deploring Daly’s failure to embrace the new conception of theatre in the 1890s, and even judging his earlier productions harshly in the light of the later standards, but also acknowledging that he had some significant achievements to his credit. Kauffmann argues that Daly’s achievements were impressive by any standards and a necessary prerequisite for the later regeneration of the American theatre.

Joseph’s account of the family’s Irish origins merits close attention because it corrects inaccuracies which were introduced into early summary accounts of the family history and which were subsequently widely reproduced (including in the introduction to Plays by Augustin Daly). The effect of these inaccuracies has been to understate the extent of the Irish connection. For example, the Dictionary of American Biography (1930) describes Daly’s Irish maternal grandfather (accurately, as far as it goes) as “a lieutenant in the British army”. Worse, his Irish maternal grandmother is not mentioned, even though she played an important part in his upbringing and was, in fact, the key figure in the family history. 

Joseph’s story begins in the 1790s with a love match between Margaret Moriarity from Tralee and John Duffey from Carlow. The match was vetoed by their families and Margaret “ran away” and “married into the army”. She and John were later reunited, by chance, in Jamaica. He was now an officer in the British army and a widower with two daughters. She was a widow with one daughter. John died within a year of their marriage and, soon afterwards, Margaret gave birth to his posthumous daughter, Elizabeth.  

Over the next twenty-two years, Margaret managed, somehow, to provide a home for her daughters, her stepdaughters and, following the death of her daughter by her first marriage, her orphaned granddaughter. After one of her stepdaughters married and moved to New York, she decided to follow, bringing her remaining dependents with her. On the resulting voyage, she met and subsequently married the ship’s captain. This was Denis Daly, a Limerickman who had served as a “purser’s clerk” in the British navy before emigrating to America, where he established a shipping business. Margaret maintained a joint household with Elizabeth and Denis, first in New York and later in Plymouth, North Carolina. Augustin and Joseph were the sons of Elizabeth and Denis.

When Denis died seven years after their marriage, Elizabeth was left in difficult circumstances owing to legal chicanery involving the shipping business. She and Margaret moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where they again maintained a joint household. They managed somehow – just as Margaret had done in Jamaica – to provide a home for their dependents. Joseph recalls the Norfolk years as a happy time when their mother and grandmother supervised his and Augustin’s education and encouraged their early interest in the theatre. Elizabeth and her sons, probably still accompanied by Margaret, subsequently moved to New York.

Following this upbringing, the brothers set out on their working lives in their mid-teens, Augustin as a clerk in a shipping company and Joseph as an “office boy” in a legal firm. Augustin soon converted a sideline as a theatre reviewer into what was to become an outstandingly successful theatrical career. Joseph was no less successful, becoming the head of the law firm he joined as an office boy and later serving in judicial positions, including a term on the New York Supreme Court – a position to which he failed to be re-elected because of opposition from the Tammany faction.

Augustin doesn’t seem to have been active in Irish-American circles. Nor do Irish themes feature in his work. But Irish immigrants appear in some of his plays, including A Flash of Lightning and Horizon (both included in Plays by Augustin Daly). He held closely to his Catholicism and in his will he left a bequest for the benefit of “immigrant girls”.

Unfortunately Daly is now little-remembered in Ireland – but his play Leah, the Forsaken lives on in Joyce’s Ulysses (see “The Virags and the Blooms”, Dublin Review of Books, Issue 93, October 2017).

The Forgotten Books edition of The Life of Augustin Daly (2017) is a facsimile reproduction of the Macmillan original (1917). The production quality is better than is sometimes the case with publications of this kind – the only defects of any consequence are a small amount of underlining carried forward from the copy of the 1917 edition on which it is based and some loss of definition in the illustrations.

1/12/2018

Martin Greene is a former Irish ambassador to Hungary and Brazil. He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Bradford.

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