Touch of the Poet

Dearbhla Molly, who plays Nora Melody in A Touch of the Poet, and Gabriel Byrne take a coffee break during rehearsals.

By Marilyn Cole Lownes, Contributor
December / January 2006

Many homes treasure family photos. The award-winning Irish actress Dearbhla Molloy recalls, “I remember, in my grandparents’ house, a glass cabinet with a pair of handcuffs.

“My grandfather Michael Ryan was a `freedom fighter’ involved in the 1916 rebellion and the civil war. He went to prison several times during part of my mother’s childhood.”

Referring to that unusual family heirloom, she explains, “At one point he escaped from jail with his handcuffs on.

“At another point he was imprisoned with Thomas Ashe [the president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who went on hunger strike in prison and died after being brutally force-fed], who had set up an Irish school in Marlborough Street in Dublin,” recounts Molloy. “My grandfather sent my mother to that school in memory of his friend, and I went to it, too.”

Growing up in Malahide, Dublin, as the eldest of seven children, Dearbhla describes, “My father was a civil servant and my mother stayed at home, bringing up all seven of us. When I left school at sixteen, I had a two-year gap to fill before going to university.

“My mother sent me to do a secretarial course, which I hated, so I was given the options of a cookery or drama course,” she recalls. “I chose the latter, which horrified my parents who, to this day, still worry about my financial security. It was after all in the fifties, and a job with a pension was more desirable, as far as they were concerned.”

The Molloys need not have worried. Their daughter was accepted at age eighteen into the famed Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

“The Abbey Theatre, back then was run by Ernest Bly,” explains Dearbhla. “He had been the Minister of Finance, and he managed to get the Abbey a large chunk of money to bring plays to areas of the far western and southern seaboard where people only spoke Irish.

“At that time these were very isolated places; there were no main roads or hotels or anything like that,” she recalls. “So they were desperate for actors who could speak Irish, which I could, because I had been at the Thomas Ashe Irish School. That’s how I got into The Abbey.”

Playing Maggie in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, which transferred to Broadway after a successful run in London’s Royal National theatre, earned Molloy nominations as Best Actress for both the Tony and Drama Desk awards.

Today, she is back in New York to star in Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet opposite Gabriel Byrne. She plays the role of Nora Melody, the wife of Cornelius Melody, played by Byrne.

“Dearbhla is a brilliant actress,” says Gabriel, who was nominated for a Tony for A Moon for the Misbegotten, also by O’Neill. “I worked with her briefly in the movie Frankie Starlight and I’m thrilled to play opposite her on stage once again.

“I’ve known Gabriel since we were children really; we were at The Abbey together.” Dearbhla laughs. Discussing the chemistry between them as man and wife on stage, Dearbhla confirms, “It’s easier to play a long-married couple opposite an actor you know, and we have a history together.”

A Touch of the Poet is the last play that O’Neill wrote. Its central character, Cornelius Melody, an Irishman, is a hard drinking, vulnerable man who was once a major in the Duke of Wellington’s army. His father, Ned Melody, a dubious sheebeen keeper and moneylender from Galway, had sent his son off to Dublin to college, to become an officer and a gentleman.

Cornelius is a haunted man whose bitter pride protects a myth that he has had to make for himself. He brings his wife Nora and their only child Sara to America, after a scandal, to open a pub in Boston and start a new life.

As with many of O’Neill’s plays, the playwright deals with themes that harried him personally all his life. The play, passionately and with pity, tells of a complicated emotional web between the man and his wife and their daughter and their Irish and Yankee contemporaries.

Today, taking a break from rehearsals, Dearbhla Molloy is having coffee in a hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She flicks back a lock of blonde hair that falls across one eye; her skin has a luminous quality that complements a pretty smile, and blue eyes that shine with a steely strength.

“It’s tough,” she says, “because O’Neill is a bit like Shakespeare in that with Shakespeare, as an actor, you don’t have to think about what you say and then say it; he writes the whole thing, it’s all there On the line,’ so there shouldn’t be any gaps. You must just keep going,” explains Molloy.

“O’Neill does the same thing. He explains the thinking in the line and then explains the action, and then talks about the action, and explains the consequences of the action.

“We are now in a different age of thinking in theater, post therapy, if you like. Now, the audience is used to filling in the gaps,” explains Dearbhla. “So plays aren’t written like that anymore. If you think about contemporary playwrights, they write the surface and you fill in the bits underneath it.”

She continues, “O’Neill is a fantastically skilled playwright, but much appears today, in 2005, to be excess. We’ve pared that away to make it leaner.

“That editing process has taken up one whole week, leaving us just two to rehearse.”

A Touch of the Poet not only has a star cast but also a star director. Doug Hughes, an Irish-American, won two Tony awards for his direction of Frozen and Doubt.

“Doug Hughes is fantastic, he is the first American director I’ve worked with. It’s very different because most directors in England have a similar style to each other. The difference with Doug Hughes is that he works in large ideas, and I love that.

“I’ve worked with great directors in England and Ireland. There is similarity in all their styles in that they work with very close analysis of the text, and that’s how you move from one bit to the next.

“Doug Hughes doesn’t work like that at all; he has these great big sweeping ideas so you kind of jump on the idea and then fit the dialogue to the idea. It’s quite difficult to explain because it’s still a work in progress, but I find it very exhilarating and liberating.”

Can you describe the magic of Eugene O’Neill?

“It’s the way he writes about things that are universal, that apply to the human condition, so no matter what culture you come from, you must be able to recognize something or someone from this play that you can identify with.

“There is a strong strand of autobiography in it because his own father was an alcoholic, and he consistently drew on his own experience and his family’s.”

Discussing her character Nora Melody’s love for her husband, Cornelius Melody, Dearbhla reveals, “I’ve had the experience of living with an alcoholic and that whole dysfunctional trap that you get into. The only choice that you really have is the choice whether to leave or not to leave.”

“Dearbhla’s sincerity shines through her work as does her vulnerability,” says Gabriel Byrne. “What makes her really great is that the truth is always at the core of every role she plays. She is incapable of a false note.”

In the play, Nora has to make the best of what she’s got. In order to do that she has to blind herself to many things.

“A familiar pattern, especially for women, in life in general.” says Dearbhla. “No matter how much you love someone it’s always kind of a deal. Nora’s deal is that she keeps Cornelius’ fantasy of being a `gentleman’ going and, in return, she gets to live, to exist. And she does love him.

“What Gabriel and I are trying to do is to show that. That it’s not a tired, old relationship, but it’s active, and that they still do have something going together. But that alcohol and poverty keep getting in the way of it.”

Dearbhla is insightful: “Their love is very passionate; I’m not playing Nora like she is a victim, I hope. I’m playing her as very active and as alive as I can possibly make her. I think the true victim in this play is Sara, their daughter, because she is caught in the middle, in the crossfire between the two of them.

“So each of them gets enough, if you like, from the other to think, `Well, it’s just this moment that’s not as it should be, but tomorrow it will all be alright,’ so they are always kind of hungry for some kind of expected fulfillment.”

Referring to the handsome philandering character, Cornelius Melody, she smiles, “I would definitely have fallen for him in real life. In fact I did! it was typical of my passions in life,” reveals the twice-divorced Dearbhla, who has one son, a musician, by a previous marriage; she has been involved in a stable loving relationship for four years now.

Asked what it takes to be a good actor, Dearbhla says of her craft, “I think it helps to be emotionally intelligent to be good actor.”

She describes a crossroads in her career. “In my mid-thirties I stopped acting to study psychology. I was training to be a therapist. I had to make a choice between committing myself to taking on my own clients or going back to acting, and I thought, `I love this but I don’t want to be in a room with one other person for the rest of my life.’ So that’s the moment when I really committed to acting.”

I point out that the title A Touch of the Poet seems to apply to the Irish people as a whole.

Dearbhla responds, “I think that’s because the Irish have an oral culture, we come from the Druids and they just spoke. Then, during the penal law time, schooling was not allowed to the indigenous Irish people so things had to be talked through; stories and news were relayed verbally from one place to another by traveling people who were mending pots or shoes or whatever.”

Discussing the comedy versus the serious drama she has been in, Molloy says, “I have done tons of comedy and I love it; there is nothing better in the world than having a big laugh come up over an audience. Nothing like it.”

Gabriel Byrne confirms, “Dearbhla is a great gas and a joy to be around.”

When asked the difference between audiences in New York as opposed to London, Dearbhla smiles, “There were some funny moments when I was in Dancing at Lughnasa in New York. A friend told me that she was in the foyer and there was a group of well-dressed women in fur coats and big hair and jewelry and she heard them talk while they were waiting for their car. One woman asked, `So what did you think of it?’ The other one replied, `A play about five Irish women with hairy legs? Nah!’

“Another time in Juno and the Paycock, again it happened; as a woman was leaving the theater, she turned to her friend and said, `I didn’t get it, why didn’t she just get a job?'” Dearbhla laughs.

“Those are a couple of funny stories, but mostly the audiences in New York are sensational; they listen to every word and they are passionate about theater. In England they are reserved, they don’t jump up and give you standing ovations like they do here in Manhattan. I love it when they do that — maybe it’s because I’m Irish.” ♦

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