On Stage: a woman of substance, lost to history | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: a woman of substance, lost to history 

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When performing-arts student Shannon Branham told her friend Thomas Quinn that she was going to write a play, Quinn suggested she write about turn-of-the-century Irish patriot Maud Gonne. Quinn figured Gonne's life had all the makings of a good story--illegitimate children, supernatural dealings, and a 35-year relationship with poet William Butler Yeats.

Take this story, for instance: "Shortly after her first illegitimate child died," Quinn says, "Maud went to a seance with Yeats, where she was told that the soul of a dead child could enter the body of a subsequent child born to the same parents, provided the second child was born soon enough after the first child's death." So Gonne lured the father back to her son's grave site and actually seduced him in the dead child's crypt. Sure enough, they conceived a daughter, Iseult, and Gonne believed her to possess the dead child's soul.

Maura, Branham's play, is filled with stories like this. Branham, along with Quinn, Adam Meltzer, and Mike Stevenson--who together form the Medicine Wheel Theatre Company--spent about nine months researching, writing, and producing the work, which runs through February at the Rally Theatre. Branham plays Gonne; Stevenson plays Yeats.

The play was conceived last April, when Branham, now in the last year of a master's program at Columbia College, needed a thesis topic. The assignment was to write and produce a play. "I wanted to do something Irish, and I wanted to do something with a feminist bent," she says. "I wanted to find a woman of substance who had been lost to history."

Gonne, born in 1865, was an actress, political activist, and spitfire. She founded the nationalist Daughters of Ireland, helped organize the Irish brigades that fought against the British in the South African War, and fought for the release of Irish political prisoners. Her son, Sean MacBride, continued in her line, earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 for his work as chairman of Amnesty International and with other human-rights organizations.

But Gonne isn't given much coverage in history books for her political work. "She is largely remembered for having jilted Yeats," says Quinn.

When Yeats met her in 1889, he fell in love with her. Gonne acted with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which Yeats founded in 1904, often in parts he wrote for her. Most of Yeats's poems during this period were written for her, about her, or both. Among his nicknames for her was "Maura," a "softer, more intimate version of Maud," says Branham. But Gonne never returned his passion, and although he pursued her for 35 years, "their affair was only consummated during one two-week period near the middle," Quinn says. When he asked her to marry him in 1899, she turned him down. In 1917 he proposed to Iseult Gonne, who also refused him.

Gonne's political activism appealed to Branham. She'd been prelaw as an undergraduate at Michigan State University, and worked on reproductive-rights legislation for the governor of Michigan and on the litigation for an abortion-funding lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court.

So she asked Quinn, who has directed several plays at Columbia, to help her develop a play about Gonne and Yeats and to direct it. Then she hooked up with Mike Stevenson, with whom she had acted in previous shows: "I knew I had to have a Yeats before I could do the play."

She and Stevenson did most of the research; he took Yeats, she took Gonne. Deciding that she needed more than just facts, Branham took a two-week trip to Ireland. "There was an atmosphere that I couldn't get here," she explains. She read most of Gonne's writings at the National Library of Ireland, and met a woman who had once seen Gonne speak.

Meanwhile, Quinn brought in Adam Meltzer, who was interested in both composing music for the play and helping develop the script. The four of them spent a month or so figuring out how to put together all the information they had, and then Branham and Stevenson wrote Maura--in four drafts. The original plan was for the four of them to write the play, "but after trial and error," Stevenson says, "we learned it was better to have just two people do the writing."

They didn't really want Yeats's poetry to be part of Maura, although Branham admits, "We do have it in a couple of times": in a song at the beginning and in a lullaby she sings. "You probably wouldn't notice it," she says. In fact they made an effort to omit poetic language altogether. "One of the reasons we steered clear of melodramatic language is that their lives were so melodramatic," says Quinn.

But the four wanted to do more than just tell a story, so they added poetry in other ways. They made Maura a memory play, with Yeats looking back on his time with Gonne. They added a fictional character from one of Yeats's poems. They had scenery made that can appear and disappear "with the efficacy of an idea," says Quinn, eliminating the need for blackouts between scenes. And they used Meltzer's music.

Irish folk music and classical Indian music were Meltzer's inspirations for the 40 or so minutes of music he composed--for violin, keyboards, flute, recorder, tin whistle, two kinds of guitars, and female voice. His music, he says, is crucial to understanding the play. "This is really a psychological play," he says. "The music's main purpose is to bring that out."

Branham prefers to call the play emotional: "If there's a logic to it, it's an emotional logic. It takes the journey of an emotion."

Maud Gonne did write an autobiography, which Branham says is terrible. "She lied like crazy in it. It was a political biography, though. She needed to sell herself as a political figure." Branham, in her play, sells Gonne as a human being.

Maura runs through February 11 at the Rally Theatre, 5404 N. Clark. Show times are 8 PM Thursday through Saturday and 2 PM Sunday, and tickets are $10, $8 for seniors and students. Make reservations at 275-0801.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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