Micheál Mac Liammóir
Micheál Mac Liammóir
25 October 1899
Willesden, London, U.K.
|Died||6 March 1978 (aged 78)|
|Occupation||Actor, author, playwright, painter, poet, impresario|
|Known for||Founding Gate Theatre|
Micheál Mac Liammóir (born Alfred Willmore; 25 October 1899–6 March 1978) was an actor, designer, dramatist, writer and impresario in 20th-century Ireland. Though born in London to an English family with no Irish connections, he emigrated to Ireland in early adulthood, changed his name, invented an Irish ancestry, and remained based there for the rest of his life, successfully maintaining a fabricated identity as a native Irishman born in Cork.
With his partner, Hilton Edwards, Mac Liammóir founded the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and became one of the most recognisable figures in the arts in twentieth-century Ireland. As well as acting at the Gate and internationally, he designed numerous productions, wrote eleven plays and published stories, verse and travel books in Irish and English. He wrote and appeared in three one-man shows, of which The Importance of Being Oscar (1960) was the most celebrated, achieving more than 1,300 performances.
Life and career
Mac Liammóir was born Alfred Lee Willmore, in Willesden, in north-west London, into a family with no Irish connections. He was the youngest child and only son of Alfred George Willmore (1863–1934), a forage buyer for the firm of Whitney's of Bayswater, and his wife, Mary, née Lee (1867–1918).[n 1] He attended primary school in Willesden and then attended a children's theatre academy run by Lila Field. He became a professional actor at the age of twelve; his sister Marjorie took charge of his general education and was his chaperone on tours that included visits to venues in Ireland as well as Britain. He made his debut as 1911, as King Goldfish in Field's play The Goldfish, alongside another child actor, Noël Coward. He later said, "I learned from Lila Field the absolute ABC of getting on and off the stage without disgracing oneself; I learned what a cue meant, what a stick of greasepaint was, the elements of timing, and that ghastly thing, the exploitation of childish charm". In September of that year he first worked for Sir Herbert Tree, playing Macduff's son in Macbeth. From Tree he quickly learned "a rude lesson" that charm was not enough: "I think it was Tree who first awoke the actor's imagination in me and made me feel the terror of the Witches' Cavern and the horror of the ghost-haunted banquet".
In the Christmas season of 1911 he played Michael Darling in Peter Pan, and in June 1912, he played Oliver Twist in Tree's revival of the stage version of the novel. After two further child roles, and appearances in four silent films (now lost) he temporarily abandoned acting. After a summer in Spain, visiting his grandparents and becoming fluent in Spanish, he studied painting at Willesden Polytechnic and then the Slade School of Art in 1915–16.
With a fellow student, Mary O'Keefe, he attended Irish language classes at the Ludgate Circus branch of the Gaelic League; the biographer Christopher Fitz-Simon thinks it probable that they saw plays by W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge during the visits of the Abbey Theatre company in this period.[n 2] Both students developed a keen interest in the Irish Literary Revival.
Move to Ireland
Mac Liammóir, now calling himself "Michael Willmore", made a brief return to the stage in February 1917, in Felix Gets a Month, a "whimsical comedy" at the Haymarket Theatre. The following month he went with O'Keefe and her mother to Ireland, the former having contracted tuberculosis and been prescribed "fresh air", the latter anxious to escape Zeppelin raids. Fitz-Simon suggests that Mac Liammóir's motive was to escape conscription into the army in the latter stages of the First World War.
In Ireland Mac Liammóir earned a modest living as a freelance illustrator for newspapers and books, acted from time to time, and designed for the Irish Theatre and Dublin Drama League. He assimilated himself into Irish culture and politics. He campaigned for Sinn Féin in the 1918 General Election, published his first book, a collection of stories in Irish, in 1922, and continued to write verse and prose in Irish and English. He experimented with various gaelicised versions of his name, including "Mac Uaimmhóir" and "Mac Liaimmhóir". He built up a fictitious identity as a native Irishman born in Cork.
During most of the 1920s Mac Liammóir continued to live with the O'Keefes. In search of a healthy environment for Mary they moved between Switzerland and the French riviera. He exhibited successfully in local galleries and, in 1923, at the Leigh Gallery in London. He later wrote a book of recollections – in Irish – about his travels. In 1925 he starred in a silent film, Land of Her Fathers with a cast of mainly Abbey Theatre players.
Mary O'Keefe died in 1927 and Mac Liammóir, now known by that name, returned to the theatre. His sister Marjorie had married the actor-manager Anew McMaster whose touring company Mac Liammóir joined, playing Shakespearean roles including Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, Laertes in Hamlet and Cassio in Othello. While on tour in the south of Ireland, he met another young English actor, Hilton Edwards, who was to become his lifelong partner, both personal and professional. Mac Liammóir and Edwards decided to settle in Dublin, with the intention of setting up their own theatre there.
In 1928 Mac Liammóir wrote, directed, designed and starred in Diarmuid and Gráinne for the opening of the Irish language theatre, An Taibhdhearc, in Galway. He subsequently produced twenty plays there. Later in 1928 he and Edwards founded the Gate Theatre company in Dublin, based at first in the 102-seat Peacock Theatre. They opened with a production of Peer Gynt, and Mac Liammóir subsequently acted in and designed nearly 300 productions at the Peacock and, after the company gained its own home in 1930, at the Gate. He appeared in a wide range of plays, from Shakespeare (Romeo and Othello) to Ibsen (Oswald in Ghosts and the title role in Brand) and Eugene O'Neill (Orin in Mourning Becomes Electra, as well as lighter pieces. Over the next fifty years the Gate Theatre company presented a programme of new or experimental plays by Wilde, Shaw, Coward and many others. Mac Liammóir and Hilton fostered the careers of new Irish dramatists such as Denis Johnston and rising young actors including Orson Welles.[n 3]
Mac Liammóir returned to the West End in 1935, with the Gate company. The theatrical paper The Era rated his Hamlet one of the best in recent years: "charged with force, intelligence, humanity and dramatic certainty … a dominating and moving piece of acting", and said that the Gate company "looks like putting the Abbey in the shade". The cosmopolitan atmosphere of Mac Liammóir and Hilton's Gate Theatre was contrasted with the earnest Celticism of the Abbey, and the two Dublin theatres were affectionately dubbed "Sodom and Begorrah".
Wartime and later years
Mac Liammóir remained based in Ireland during the Second World War. In the post-war years he returned to the West End in his own play Ill Met by Moonlight. The Stage thought the piece "too obscure and too discursive", but praised the performances of Mac Liammóir, Edwards and their supporting cast. The following year the company played a short season on Broadway – Mac Liammóir's début there – giving his Where Stars Walk, Johnston's The Old Lady Says No!, and Shaw's John Bull's Other Island. In 1951 he played Iago to Welles's Othello in the latter's film adaptation. In his early fifties he was unusually old for the role, but Welles wanted Iago played as an older, impotent man consumed by envy of the younger Othello. Mac Liammóir returned to the role onstage at the Dublin Festival in 1962 opposite William Marshall in the title role.[n 4]
In 1954 Mac Liammóir returned to London, playing Brack in Hedda Gabler with Peggy Ashcroft as Hedda. In the role he was judged to be both sinister and amusing. Most of his work continued to be at the Gate, but in 1959 he returned to New York to play Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing, with John Gielgud as Benedick and Margaret Leighton as Beatrice.
Mac Liammóir's biggest theatrical success came in 1960, with his one-man show The Importance of Being Oscar, which won enthusiastic reviews and did well at the box-office. It opened at the Gate, after which he played it on Broadway, in London and on tour around the world. He appeared in the piece more than 1,300 times between 1960 and 1975. He followed this in May 1963 with a new one-man entertainment I Must Be Talking to My Friends, and in 1970 presented a third, Talking About Yeats.
In his later years Mac Liammóir relaxed his insistence on his fictitious origins and admitted the truth to interviewers, but for many years after his death reference books nonetheless continued to record him as a native of Cork.[n 5] Despite Ireland's anti-gay laws, not repealed in their lifetimes, Mac Liammóir and Edwards gained wide acceptance.[n 6] The writer Éibhear Walshe has described them as Ireland's only publicly acknowledged homosexuals. They were jointly created freemen of the city of Dublin in 1973, the first theatre people to be thus honoured. Before that, MacLiammóir had received the Lady Gregory Medal for literature in 1960 and an honorary doctorate from Trinity College in 1963.
MacLiammóir made his final stage performance at the Gate in 1975 in The Importance of Being Oscar. He died at his and Edwards's Dublin home, 4 Harcourt Terrace, on 6 March 1978. Walshe records, "as a measure of the public acceptance of the MacLiammóir–Edwards partnership, the president of Ireland attended Micheál's funeral, two days later, at St Fintan's, Howth, Dublin, and paid his respects to Hilton Edwards as chief mourner".
In his Who's Who in the Theatre entry, Mac Liammóir listed ten plays of which he was the author, as well as the three one-man shows, and an unspecified number of adaptations ("Jane Eyre, The Picture of Dorian Grey, A Tale of Two Cities, etc.")
Biographies and commemorations
Books about Mac Liammóir include Micheál Mac Liammóir: Designs & Illustrations 1917–1972, by Richard Pine and Orla Murphy (1973); Enter Certain Players: Edwards–MacLiammoir and the Gate 1928–1978, edited by Peter Luke (1978); a biography, The Importance of Being Micheál by Micheál Ó hAodha (1990) and The Boys: A Double Biography, by Christopher Fitz-Simon (1996).
In 1985, Orson Welles was the narrator for Two People... With One Pulse, a documentary film about Mac Liammoir and Edwards. To mark Mac Liammóir's centenary in 1999 the BBC commissioned a documentary, Dear Boy: The Story of Michéal Mac Liammóir, which included rare archive footage.
Notes, references and sources
- In Mac Liammóir's fabricated version of his origins his father was "Alfred Anthony MacLiammóir".
- Under the title "The Irish Players", a company from the Abbey played at the Little Theatre in 1915, giving plays by Synge and Lady Gregory, and gave Duty, a comedy about law-breaking by Irish policemen, in the music-hall bill at the London Coliseum.
- Welles was with the Gate company from October 1931 to February 1932, appearing in supporting roles in six productions.
- Marshall was a last-minute replacement for Anew McMaster, who died shortly before the production.
- See, for instance, The Macmillan Dictionary of Irish Literature (2016), p. 411.
- Mac Liammóir was once arrested on an indecency charge, but was acquitted when his landlady attested the purity of his morals: "He's never once tried to take a young lady up to his room".
- Fitz-Simon, Christopher." MacLiammóir, Micheál". Dictionary of Irish Biography, Royal Irish Academy. Retrieved 10 April 2021
- Parker, p. 1039
- "The Little Theatre", The Times, 28 January 1911, p. 12
- "Micheal Mac Liammoir Talking About Friends Who Influenced His Life and Work", The Stage, 21 January, 1965, p. 19
- "Mac Liammóir, Micheál (1899–1978)", AINM. (In Irish.) Retrieved 11 April 2021
- "The Irish Players", The Times, 11 May 1915, p. 11; and "An Irish Police Comedy", The Times, 29 June 1915, p, 6
- "Felix Gets a Month", The Times, 7 February 1917, p. 11
- "A New Irish Film", Irish Independent, 5 October 1925, p. 8
- Walshe, Eibhear. "MacLiammóir, Micheál (formerly Alfred Lee Willmore) (1899–1978), actor and playwright", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2006. Retrieved 11 April (subscription or UK public library membership required)
- "State Subsidy for Gaelic Theatre", Londonderry Sentinel, 30 August 1928, p. 7
- "To Lead World in Drama Ambition of the Irish", Boston Globe, 21 January 1929, p. 22
- Herbert, pp. 1131–1132
- Taylor, p. 12
- "Irish Hamlet at the Westminster", The Era, 19 June 1935, p. 14
- Marriott, R. B. "A Great Man of the Theatre", The Era, 19 June 1935, p. 3
- Vaněk, p. 31
- "The Vaudeville", The Stage, 13 February 1947, p. 1
- Mac Liammóir, p. 26
- "On the Aisle", Chicago Tribune, 9 October 1962, p. 33
- "Hedda Gabler", The Sketch, 6 October 1954, pp. 304–305
- Hope-Wallace, Philip. "Hedda Gabler", The Manchester Guardian, 10 September 1954, p. 5; and "Lyric Theatre Hammersmith", The Times, 9 September 1954, p. 11
- "Much Ado About Nothing", Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 11 April 2021
- Wallace, p. 178
- Castle, p. 22
- Morley, p. 128
- Morley, pp. 129–130
- Walshe, Éibhear. "Sexing the Shamrock", Critical Survey, Vol. 8, No. 2, "Anglo-Irish studies: new developments" (1996), pp. 159–167 (subscription required)
- "Michal MacLiammóir", British Film Institute. Retrieved 12 April 2021
- WorldCat OCLC 877770460
- WorldCat OCLC 4686316
- "The Importance of Being Micheál: A Portrait of MacLiammóir", WorldCat. Retrieved 12 April 2021
- WorldCat OCLC 35661759
- "Two People... With One Pulse", British Film Institute. Retrieved 12 April 2021
- "Dear Boy – The Story of Micheal MacLiammoir", British Film Institute. Retrieved 12 April 2021; and "Dear Boy – The Story of Micheal MacLiammoir", Irish Film Board. Retrieved 12 April 2021
- "The Importance of Being Michael" (sic), Lagan Press. Retrieved 12 April 2021
- Billington, Michael. "Sodom and begorrah", The Guardian, 4 May 2002. Retrieved 12 April 2021
- "2019 Gala Awards Winners Announced", Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, 21 May 2019. Retrieved 12 April 2021
- Castle, Charles (1972). Noël. London: W H Allen. ISBN 978-1-34-907795-3.
- Herbert, Ian (ed) (1977). Who's Who in the Theatre (sixteenth ed.). London and Detroit: Pitman Publishing and Gale Research. ISBN 978-0-273-00163-8.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
- Hogan, Robert (2016). The Macmillan Dictionary of Irish Literature. London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-491-00534-0.
- Mac Liammóir, Micheál (1952). Put Money in Thy Purse: The Diary of the Film "Othello". London: Methuen. OCLC 786105342.
- Morley, Sheridan (2006). Theatre's Strangest Acts: Extraordinary But True Tales from the History of Theatre. London: Robson. ISBN 978-1-86-105674-0.
- Parker, John (ed) (1939). Who's Who in the Theatre (ninth ed.). London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons. OCLC 1036973910.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
- Taylor, John Russell (1998). Orson Welles: A Celebration. London: Pavilion. ISBN 978-1-86-205127-0.
- Vaněk, Joe (2005). Scene Change: One Hundred Years of Theatre Design at the Abbey Theatre. Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art. ISBN 978-1-90-381139-9.
- Wallace, Martin (1983). 100 Irish Lives. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. ISBN 978-0-38-920364-3.