It’s been on the go for almost ninety years, yet it only acquired its third artistic director six months ago. It is indelibly associated with the Rotunda Hospital complex but actually began its life on the premises of its great rival, the Abbey.
The Gate Theatre has survived for nearly nine decades mostly, but not always, complementing the work of the National Theatre on Abbey Street. But there were times when it looked highly likely to become an artistic casualty rather than an outstanding success.
The Gate actually opened its doors in 1928 in the Peacock Theatre, little sister to Abbey, under the guidance of the great theatrical and life partners, Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir. Both, as it happens, born in London, around the beginning of the twentieth century.
MacLiammóir was actually Alfred Willmore, once a child actor working with Noël Coward. He later toured Ireland, with his brother-in-law, Anew McMaster’s company. He fell in love with the country—and with fellow actor Hilton Edwards, whom he met while performing in the Athenaeum in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford—and decided to remain. He gaelicised his name, and learned to speak Irish better than most natives. He also made an—as yet unsubstantiated—claim to have had a sexual relationship with Ireland’s premier fascist, the Blueshirt leader Eoin O’Duffy. It could be true, but then MacLiammóir also had a mischievous and iconoclastic sense of humour.
Edwards and MacLiammóir were intent on bringing the best of European theatre to Dublin. The work of major playwrights like Ibsen and Strindberg was produced, first on the Peacock stage, starting with Peer Gynt in 1928. After some months in Abbey Street the company moved to Cavendish row, north of O’Connell Street, and occupied a building on the Rotunda Hospital campus. There the architect Michael Scott helped create the Gate’s compact and iconic home. The theatre seats just under four hundred.
One of the most enthusiastic early supporters of the venture was the corpulent old Etonian, Edward Pakenham, Sixth Earl of Longford, himself a playwright. He became Chairman of the theatre in 1930 and helped raised the funds that kept it alive. Longford could often be found patrolling from Parnell Square to O’Connell Street with a collection box actively seeking funds.
Despite the fame of its founders, and the fact that James Mason and Michael Gambon began their careers at the theatre, there is little doubt that the most distinguished Gate alumnus was Orson Welles, who conned his way into the 1931 production of Jew Suss, as a precocious sixteen year-old. He told Edwards he was an established Broadway star, and, sixty years before the internet, it was enough to get him a successful audition. He was forced back to the USA after a year, because he couldn’t get a work permit to stay. How different theatre and film history might have been had he been allowed remain in Dublin.
Welles continued his association with MacLiammóir and Edwards after his later Hollywood success, working on a number of projects with them, and casting MacLiammóir as Iago in his film production of Shakespeare’s Othello in 1952.
MacLiammóir died in 1978. Hilton Edwards survived him by four years, but by then the Gate had lost its way. It was probably rescued from oblivion by the arrival, as second artistic director, of the supremely self-confident and ebullient—some might even say brash—Michael Colgan, in 1983. During Colgan’s three decades as the Gate’s entrepreneur-in-chief the theatre has often overshadowed the Abbey, and has forged alliances with major dramatists like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. In April of this year Colgan handed over the reins to Artistic Director Number three, Selina Cartmell.
The Gate Theatre opened its doors for the first time, for a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, eighty-nine years ago, on this day.