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Postcard of the week ending
Saturday, 21 September 2002

Lillah McCarthy (1875-1960)
English actress
in The Bacchae, Court Theatre, London, November 1908

Lillah McCarthy Lillah McCarthy

‘It can be imagined how compelling a figure Miss Lillah McCarthy looks with the
ivy and the grapes in her hair, and a flame-coloured tunic under her tiger skin -
a strange, Eastern god, full of grace and beauty, and of a subtle, perfume-like charm.’

(photos: Bassano, London, 1908)

These two tinted real photograph postcards, printed in Germany and published in 1908 in London by the Aristophot Co Ltd (series nos., left to right, E.1905 and E.1906), show Lillah McCarthy as Dionysus in Gilbert Murray’s translation of Euripides’s The Bacchae. The production was staged in two matinee performances at the Court Theatre, London, on 10 and 17 November 1908. The cast included Esmé Percy as Pentheus. The play was produced by William Poel, and Jennie Moore designed the costumes.

* * * * * * * *

‘In 1904 J.H. Leigh, then proprietor of the Court Theatre [in Sloane Square], which he had converted from a dingy and uncomfortable house into one of the prettiest in London, sought [Harley] Granville-Barker’s help in the production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Granville-Barker saw his chance. The Court was small and convenient and was just the theatre in which to carry out his ideas. He agreed to help Leigh on condition that he would allow him to present six matinee performances of [G.B.] Shaw’s Candida.
‘So in 1904 the partnership began, [J.E.] Vedrenne attending to the business side while Granville-Barker devoted himself to the artistic direction of the venture. From the first they adopted the principle of short runs, each limited to a fixed number of performances… The management’s achievements were out of all proportion to the size and importance of the theatre. It brought Shaw, whose plays had hitherto been furtively produced at matinee performances, into the light and placed him on the road to international fame. It gave opportunity to young and unknown players and placed many of them, too, on the road to success… Besides that many artistes of established popularity appeared in the productions, among them Ellen Terry, Frederick Kerr, J.H. Barnes, Norman McKinnel, Fanny Brough, Grace Lane, Louis Calvert, Ben Webster and [Granville-Barker’s wife] Lillah McCarthy.
‘Vedrenne and Granville-Barker did not concern themselves with commercial considerations. They were inspired with a single artistic purpose. Their productions were simple but adequate. They discovered new playwrights, in particular helping John Galsworthy and St. John Hankin to develop their talents.
‘The company by continuously performing together built up a perfect ensemble. Shaw very often took an active part in staging his plays…
‘So the little Court Theatre became the temple of high art and built up a following of intelligent playgoers even if it did not draw the general public to any great extent. People began to talk of the New Drama. Shaw became the playwright of the moment. Galsworthy was spoken of with admiration and respect. The Court was discussed and written about to an extent that must have excited the jealousy and envy of all the West End commercial managements and caused actor-managers to open their eyes in wonder. For every week almost there was some exciting new event and some new breach of theatrical convention.’
(A.E. Wilson, Edwardian Theatre, Arthur Barker Ltd, London, 1951, pp.172 and 173)

* * * * * * * *

The Bacchae of Euripides.

Court Theatre, London.
‘The theatre can certainly be a valuable means of simplification. The Bacchae, it is well known, is the most puzzling, or at any rate the most hotly discussed, play in all the extant Greek drama. Was it a volet-face, a sort of death-bed repentance, on the part of the old comteptor deorum, or is it all a piece of fiendish irony, or of calculated theoclasm? Is its Dionysus a god, or a religion-monger from the East (they come from the West to-day) with a knack of mesmerism? Did he really (on the stage) destroy the palace of Pentheus by an earthquake and fan the constant smoke from the tomb of Semele into flame, or did he only make the chorus believe that he had? Are the chorus his aiders and abettors in villainy, or sincerely pious, or merely fools? Is Pentheus the hero, or the villain of the play? And what, in general, was Euripides at, when he wrote this baffling but supremely poetical tragedy?
‘All these questions, which force themselves upon the reader in his arm-chair, are either answered or pushed on one side for the moment, when the play is seen in the theatre. The players taken a certain view - or even, not knowing that there are two views or being unable to choose between them, consult merely the theatrical needs of themselves and of the moment - and the vividness, the insistence of the thing seen absorbs the spectator, at any rate until the curtain is down and the puppets are in their box again. There is no time to worry about the minor contradictions or difficulties; and the major are resolved by the simple solution that so it was: things were so, because we see them so.
‘Yesterday’s performance at the Court was in no way a remarkable display of histrionic intelligence or power, and yet it simplified things sufficiently to give us the Bacchae, or at any rate a Bacchae, that was perfectly clear and straightforward. Dionysus was a god; Pentheus was a villain - an excellent fellow no doubt, but too much the policeman in mind to stand for a moment against a mighty spiritual force, or to be particularly worth grieving about when that force had swept over him and destroyed him. His fate was hard, no doubt, too hard for so trifling an opponent as a worthy policeman, but - but so it was. We were told of it by one who saw it; and great spiritual forces take little count of common justice. Dionysus really wrecked the palace, and drew flames from Semele’s tomb. We heard the crash - though it certainly sounded more like the rattle of a tin tray than the fall of a palace, and the erection that stood for the portico did not even adopt Dr. Gilbert Murray’s compromise of shaking; we saw the flames - for that brief twinkle of a red lamp was undoubtedly meant for them. He really bent the pine-tree that Pentheus might see the revels of the Bacchae from its topmost branches. We heard the feat described, and the description gave no support to the suggestion of a modern scholar that it was really a very simple trick, since the pine-tree started a long way down the crag on the summit of which Dionysus was standing, and that all he had to do was to bend the supple top! We saw, in fact, a complete and convincing tragedy, which raised no doubts and left none unanswered - as long as we were in the theatre.
‘The performance, we have said, was not remarkable. One exception ought to be made, and that is the rendering of the choruses. The choruses of the Bacchae are, it is almost safe to say, the most beautiful in all Euripides and the most puzzling. If all their beauty was lost, so was their difficulty; and for the same reason - that scarcely a word of them could be heard. Fresh efforts at rendering the Greek chorus intelligible and tolerable to English ears have constantly been made of late; but, not to mince matters, the practice of dividing every line or sentence equally between four persons is the worst that had yet been attempted. For flowing poetry we had successive bleats, and for a lyric cry spasmodic groans. The passages rendered by a single singer were better; but, without being pedantic, we really cannot agree that Chopin on the piano is a good foundation for the recital of a Greek chorus. And the movements of the four pretty dancers seemed to us to be inspired neither by the music nor by the words.
‘But it is time to come to the principals. The end of the tragedy would certainly have gained by the presence of a more kingly Cadmus [played by R.A. Beaton] and of an Agare [Winifred Mayo] of some tragic dignity and force; but the scenes between Pentheus and Dionysus were all good. It can be imagined how compelling a figure Miss Lillah McCarthy looks with the ivy and the grapes in her hair, and a flame-coloured tunic under her tiger skin - a strange, Eastern god, full of grace and beauty, and of a subtle, perfume-like charm. Rather too humble a Dionysus, perhaps; indeed, at moments almost a sentimental Dionysus. But it is easy to see where that idea comes from, for it is well known that Dr. Murray has lost no opportunity of bringing out what resemblances there may be between the case of Dionysus in the Bacchae and the case of the Founder of Christianity. Still, we think that it is a mistake for the god to show exhaustion - like that of a music-hall "thought-reader" revived from a "trance" after the scene in which he has broken the will of Pentheus and poured the madness into his mind. That is a small complaint, which will seem smaller still if we confess to having entertained a shameful fear that Miss McCarthy, affected by recent theories, might make "passes" over her victim. Mr. Esmé Percy’s Pentheus (some one ought to have explained to others in the cast that the name is not a trisyllable) was a properly manly and gallant Prince, who had all our sympathy for living in circumstances when the policeman’s mind is useless. But was it necessary to put on a piping voice and a mincing gait when Pentheus was dressed as a woman? His subjects would have found the costume sufficiently ridiculous without a grotesquely correspondent demeanour.
‘The scenery, devised by Mr. William Poel, who also produced the play, bore no resemblance to anything that is commonly known of the Greek theatre. There was no orchestra and no thymele. Purple hangings enclosed a stage mainly composed of steps, and bordered in front by moribund conventional trees.’
(The Times, London, Wednesday, 11 November 1908, p.14c)

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© John Culme, 2002