This is re-posted here to tie in with next week’s column, on the forthcoming production of Rough by Grace Dyas at the Axis Ballymun. Originally published in Village, 2007.
On the evening of May 21, 1957, a Garda Inspector arrived at 18a Herbert Lane, an old coach house on a laneway off Baggot St in Dublin. The coach house had been refurbished and opened as the Pike Theatre a few years before. The Inspector asked for the co-owner and director of that evening’s play, Alan Simpson, and read to him from a document issued by the Deputy Garda Commissioner. It had been brought to the attention of the police, read the document, that the play being produced that evening contained “objectionable passages”. These passages were to be removed if the performance was to proceed. If the play went ahead without cuts, Simpson and the co-owner of the theatre, Carolyn Swift (also his wife), would be liable for prosecution. The Inspector would not identify what passages were to be removed, and Simpson and Swift went ahead with the performance.
Unbeknownst to Simpson and Swift, this was not the first police visit to their theatre. There had been plain-clothes officers in the audience almost since the first night. One officer later described in court what he had seen on stage:
“Illicit sex (was) the main motif. The only lawful sex was at the beginning when the widow mentioned her love-making with her husband.”
The vehicle for such depravity was a play by Tennessee Williams, The Rose Tattoo. The play had won the 1951 Tony Award for Best Play, and the 1955 film version had won a number of Academy Awards. The play was the opening production of the inaugural Dublin Theatre Festival, being run under the auspices of An Tóstal, a national festival which had been started in 1953 with the aim of attracting foreign, especially American, visitors to Ireland.
The Pike Theatre had also been running just a few years but had already established a remarkable reputation. It had introduced Dublin to the delights of continental-style late-night revues, to modern international playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Eugène Ionesco, and had staged two notable premieres – the first compete English-language production of Waiting for Godot (the London production had been censored by the Lord Chamberlain) and Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow.
Ulick O’Connor was a regular patron, and a critic for the London Times at the time. “It was probably the finest little theatre in the English speaking world”, he says. (He remembers the opening night of Waiting for Godot, when Liam O’Flaherty stood up in the middle of the play, said “Bollox”, and walked out. “It was like a hand grenade in church, the place was so tiny”.)
The Pike’s reputation as sufficient to attract the London critics – amongst them the influential Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times, who gave it a rave review which captured something of the Pike’s atmosphere:
“Jammed together tight as bricks in a wall, sweating, sticking our elbows into our neighbours, digging our knees into the people in the row in front, sore from the knees of the people in the row behind, we were hit wherever we were most susceptible by the heat, the squalor, the strident passions and the emotions that scream in Mr Williams’s play…”
Singled out in many of the reviews was the young Anna Manahan, who played the lead role, Serafina, a widow paralysed by her idealised memory of her husband. Anna Manahan had lost her husband, Colm O’Kelly, two years before, when he died of a sudden illness while on a theatrical tour in Cairo.
“I suppose the deep sorrow I felt came out through the play. I felt a depth of emotion I had never felt before and I knew how to harness it”, she says.
The Rose Tattoo “sent my career rocketing”, she says. “It catapulted me into a leading position in the theatre, which I’ve never lost.”
The night after the Inspector called, Alan Simpson was arrested and charged with “presenting for gain an indecent and profane performance”. After a night in a cell, he was brought before the District Court, where the prosecution, on behalf of the Attorney General, charged that the Rose Tattoo was “lewd, indecent and offensive, and tends to corrupt minds, morality and good order”. Simpson was granted bail, and the hearing was adjourned.
The Rose Tattoo still had a few nights to run. Alan Simpson stayed away, on the advice of his solicitor, but the show went on, despite the cast being warned they could be prosecuted, and gardai being present at the performances.
Anna Manahan remembers: “I brought a nightdress and a toothbrush with me to the theatre each night, in case I would end up in Mountjoy.”
The night of the initial hearing, a crowd of supporters gathered outside the theatre, amongst them Brendan Behan. Anna Manahan again:
“That night, my last speech was completely drowned out by Brendan in the lane singing The Auld Triangle. He had a case of Guinness and was handing them out and saying, ‘Drink up men and women, and keep the bottles to throw at the police’.”
Six weeks later, amidst a welter of publicity, the hearing went ahead. The prosecution counsel stated that the play “was concerned with sex, that its overall presentation was lustful and in that way the presentation of the play was a breach of the law and was against the society of which we are all members”. A succession of police witnesses gave evidence of the lurid action of the play they had seen.
There is a popular misconception about The Rose Tattoo: that it was taken off, and/or the cast arrested, because a condom was produced on stage. In the script, Serafina throws a condom on the floor in disgust at the advances of a potential suitor; in the Dublin production, Anna Manahan used an envelope instead (contraceptives being illegal in Ireland). The court heard that the action of the play included this scene with the condom, although no condom had actually been produced on stage.
The District Court hearing got increasingly bizarre, as the Garda witnesses refused to state whose orders they were following and cited “privilege” – a legal device invoked in issues of State security and secrecy. The defence team challenged this in the High Court, lost, appealed to the Supreme Court, and won.
It was almost a year later, June 1958, when the District Court hearing resumed. By then, the Pike Theatre was in severe financial trouble, Simpson and Swift themselves were under strain (their marriage would later break up), and the second Dublin Theatre Festival had collapsed in a further, unrelated “moral” scandal – Archbishop John Charles McQuaid had objected to the inclusion of the “anti-Catholic” writers, James Joyce and Sean O’Casey, in the programme; these had been dropped; this had provoked Samuel Beckett to withdraw his own play, and to place a ban on any of his work being produced in Ireland; and the whole festival collapsed.
On June 8, 1958, Judge Cathal O’Flynn delivered his judgement. He exposed contradictions between Garda evidence and the prosecution case, criticised the treatment of Alan Simpson, and refuted the Garda witnesses’ sex-obsessed account of the play:
“What is the overall effect of the play? I think it is one of sadness, that this humble woman, a woman of great sexual appetite who is widowed by sudden disaster to her husband, lapses once from the path of virtue.”
Judge Cathal O’Flynn found there was insufficient evidence to commit Alan Simpson to trial, and discharged him. Simpson was free, but his theatre and his marriage were on the brink of collapse, and both eventually did.
Alan Simpson subsequently rejuvenated his career as a theatre director in the Abbey. He died in 1980, in his 50s. Carolyn Swift joined RTE, where she forged a successful and varied career that included devising and writing Wanderley Wagon. (RTE received letters asking how they could employ “this pornographer”.) For decades, Swift assumed that they had been victims of a plot orchestrated by the Catholic hierarchy, or else by the lay organisation, the Knights of Columbanus, to have the play pulled off and the theatre closed down.
Then, aged 77, Carolyn Swift decided to write the story of The Rose Tattoo, and asked a younger writer friend, Gerard Whelan, to help her. Between John Charles McQuaid’s papers and the National Archives, Whelan attempted to piece together the story of why, and how, the attempt to stop The Rose Tattoo came about. Whelan came to a surprising conclusion: the attempt to close down The Rose Tattoo was authorised by the Minister for Justice, Oscar Traynor, in a bid to outflank the Church.
Amongst the documents that Whelan unearthed was a 1957 Department of Justice memo to the Minister recommending that the Pike be told to take the play off, and that the Gate be warned against staging it, for two reasons: it was “indecent”; and, “if there is any delay in taking action you may be faced with a demand – possibly a demand made in public – from any one or more of several sources, including the Archbishop, for action, and that you would then be put in the position of having to take no action… or to give the impression to the public that you acted only at the dictation of the Archbishop or of somebody else”.
“They thought McQuaid and the Knights of Columbanus were going to use denunciations of the play in an effort to prove the government weak on censorship”, says Gerard Whelan. “It had nothing to do with the theatre. It was a stroke.
“The whole idea was to intimidate Simpson (so he would close it down). Which is why the court case was such a complete shambles – because they couldn’t believe this little guy would stand up to them.”
In the end, though, “the government got exactly what they wanted from the Rose Tattoo case – they were seen as being utterly draconian”.
In 2002, shortly after Carolyn Swift died, Michael D Higgins raised the case of The Rose Tattoo in the Dáil. He asked that an apology be made on behalf of the State and that remaining papers in the Rose Tattoo file be released.
Tim O’Malley, junior minister at the Department of Justice, ignored the substance of his request for the release of State papers. “It is not possible for us at this remove to revisit the considerations which moved people to act as they did at the time”, Tim O’Malley said. O’Malley concluded:
“The record of this House will note with regret the passing of Carolyn Swift. More importantly, it will also note the outstanding contribution she made, despite adversity, to our cultural life.”
Spiked: Church-State intrigue and The Rose Tattoo, by Gerard Whelan with Carolyn Swift, was published in 2002 by New Island. The details of the case as stated above are taken from this book.