Article published in the Irish Times
Richard Gibson, who has written a play about the notorious Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin's Temple Bar area, is intrigued by the irony that it lay hidden for 200 years, piously masquerading as a church.
As a child, I spent a great deal of time wondering, as children do, how best to spend the three wishes that we all believed would be on the way. Two of these changed regularly between the usual list: further wishes, abolition of schools, sweet shop ownership, and other such base desires. But one wish never wavered: to own a time machine.
As the years passed and the Wish Fairy continued to be selective, it became clear that I must take steps of my own. So I learned of another kind of time machine, known as a book.
After receiving a commission from Laurence Foster at RTE Radio for a play about the 18th-century actor-manager, Thomas Sheridan, and his eventful tenure at Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre, I eagerly scoured the city's libraries and found a rich and varied choice of such wonderful machines. Many of these are powered by first-hand accounts, including those of Sheridan himself, of a colourful part of Dublin life at that time.
In them, it is possible to take a mental wander through the backstage corridors and "green room" of the theatre, tattle among the nobility in the boxes, brawl with the students in the pit, and parry bottles and orange peel from the rabble up in the gallery.
The result was Gentlemen and Players, whose fine cast includes Stephen Brennan, Alan Barry and Hilary Reynolds, with original music by Andrew Sinnott. The play takes place backstage at Smock Alley, in the auditorium and at a coffee house, and will, it is hoped, allow the listener to step aboard that time machine too, for a flavour of life in 18th-century Dublin.
With so much material, the main difficulty lay in choosing what to leave out, so it was a relief to learn that Sheridan's son, Richard Brinsley, had thoughtfully saved writing The Rivals and The School for Scandal until long after the closing credits, and could safely be left up in the nursery.
After the final full stop had been planted and the script sent to RTE to be turned into proper English, I often returned to Essex Street – formerly known as Smock AIley, from its days as a red-light district – to gaze up at the church of SS Michael and John, on the site where the theatre had stood. Although much of Temple Bar has been preserved, its smooth road surfaces and fragrant pavement cafes are a world away from the muddy potholes and shadowy alleys of the past, concealing murderous cutpurses and sad-eyed whores.
When Thomas Sheridan, an idealistic young graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, took over as manager at Smock Alley, the company was in dire debt, audiences were sparse, and actors regularly absconded. Following a successful début as Richard III, Sheridan had been offered the top job, and he began at once to make radical changes. Guaranteeing staff wages and investing in good scenery, costumes and musicians, resulted in a swift upturn in ticket sales and undying loyalty from the company.
The theatre in those days was hugely popular, and carried irresistible glamour. Successful actors were feted and lauded while they were performing, but as soon as the curtain fell, their status reverted to that of the lowliest servants. In a famous incident, which forms one of the central themes of the play, Sheridan offended the audience by declaring himself a gentleman, in response to a heckler.
Later, in a private argument, Sheridan attacked the protagonist, Edward Kelly, with a stick – an act of such unpardonable presumption from an actor to a gentleman that a contract was taken out on his life, and the theatre was almost destroyed. This might not seem significant today, but in those times, when social standing was of such importance, for a player to declare himself on an equal footing with a gentleman was to imply that gentlemen were, therefore, no better than players.
As a graduate of Trinity, the godson of Dean Jonathan Swift and the scion of a landowning family, Sheridan has some justification for his position. He had aIways had the greatest respect for the theatre, and was determined to raise the theatrical art to the status of a profession. But in the eyes of society, his first step as an actor followed his last as a gentleman. After a further disaster, in which Sheridan misread the political temperature in choosing a play, he left Dublin for London, to work on a dictionary of pronunciation.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Smock Alley's fortunes had waned, and it closed for the final time in 1788, to be replaced by the church of SS Michael and John. This, too, eventually stopped attracting the crowds, and was forced to close for business.
When Temple Bar Properties began to refurbish the interior in the 1990s, to adapt the building for the Viking Adventure Centre, a remarkable discovery was made. When the plaster was removed from the walls, doors and windows were revealed beneath, which exactly matched those of the theatre. Smock Alley, it seemed, had never been demolished, and its sound stone and brickwork had remained intact as the structure of the church.
What delicious irony: Smock Alley, that seat of rioting and licentiousness, still standing after 200 years, piously masquerading as a church… When looked at again, it almost seems obvious. the dimensions are the same, and that distinctive steep roof that characterises the theatre in old engravings, almost seems to smirk knowingly above the façade of the church.
Temple Bar Properties have yet to announce a decision about the permanent use of the building, but, as if to complete the circle, for the first time in almost two centuries, the building this month opened its doors to playgoers, as a temporary venue for this year's ESB Dublin Fringe Festival, known as SS Michael and John.