Waking the Feminists and Disturbing Old Ghosts: The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle

Writing.ie | Magazine | Stage & Screen

By Dorothy McArdle

As I type this, my Twitter feed keeps sharing the latest comments on the Abbey Theatre’s ‘Waking the Nation’ programme controversy. If you haven’t heard about it, check out #WakingtheFeminists and come back to me. I won’t rehash the argument, save to say that the exclusion of women from a major commemoration is as infuriating as the responding campaign is heartening. It got me thinking about the use of the word ‘wake’ just as we at Tramp are about to launch the latest title in our Recovered Voices series. A wake can be an opportunity to reflect on what’s passed on, or it can mean a revival and a reanimation. You can reinvigorate something, or you can disturb something lying dormant.

The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle is the second in our Recovered Voices series. Sarah and I aim, once a year or so, to find a book that has fallen from public awareness. I talked about it last year in the Irish Times. Books can disappear from public awareness for all sorts of reasons: a wave of popularity subsides and if there hasn’t been a sufficient print run, the title disappears from shelves. If it’s still within copyright, publishers may not seek a reprint if they’re not confident of good sales. Potential readers won’t find it through college classes, unless their teacher is resourceful about getting texts (and thankfully, they usually are). On the whole, readers won’t discover the text lying around. There’s no conscious conspiracy at play, just an unfortunate confluence of events that defeat even books that are bestsellers in their day.

We’re hardly the first to have thought of this; Persephone Books have been doing it really well for years, and John Williams’s Stoner was recently reissued by Vintage and found a new and wide readership.

One of the inspirations for us though was theatre revivals. It’s always interesting to see how a play changes in subsequent productions, both from the literal production point of view (counter-intuitive casting; a very modern set; a comic actor in a normally sombre role), but mostly from the context of the day. The best of intentions are often thwarted by the real-life drama unfolding outside. The initial run of The Plough and the Stars was scandalous for its anti-nationalist rhetoric, and no one was too surprised about that. Only ten years after the events of 1916, an audience affected by personal loss were understandably furious. Gradually, though, it became a classic of the Irish stage, a safe bet for a night out. In 1991, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Rising, Garry Hynes’s modernist interpretation attracted ire from traditionalists, because it had become a beloved classic that shouldn’t be messed with. Three years ago, a strong production by Wayne Jordan was well reviewed, while the production planned for the controversial 2016 commemorations is already being denounced as part of the problem.

The point of the play was never to keep people happy, so I think O’Casey probably rests easy on that score, but it’s always fun to track the meaning it takes on with each new revival. It shows the importance of revisiting a text once in a while, and letting a new generation experience it in a new context.

As a feminist and fan of Irish theatre, I’m glad to see this row break out over the commemoration if it means a conversation and renewal. Mostly though I’m just furious we keep having to have this argument, in one form or another. Among the worst nonsense spouted by careless apologists were that there are neither good plays by women, nor female playwrights to work with. I think of the angry man writing to the Irish Times in defence of this position and think well sure, if you’ve never heard of them, they as good as don’t exist. This is the other great reason to revive a text.

Dorothy Macardle is one playwright we’ve never heard of. Luke Gibbons (Professor of Irish Literary and Cultural Studies in NUI Maynooth) got in touch with us last year about reissuing The Uninvited, which he teaches. As he writes in the introduction to this new edition, Macardle is: ‘a feminist activist who was also a radical republican; a universalist civil liberties humanitarian who was also a nationalist; a defender of Irish neutrality during World War Two who moved to London to participate in the fight against the Nazis; a brilliant lecturer who held no teaching position; a journalist and historian who was a critic and novelist of distinction; a psychological rationalist who also put in a good word for ghosts and extrasensory experiences.’ Macardle even did time in prison during the Civil War. Like many women involved in revolution, she was dismayed at how women were disenfranchised in the new constitution.

Another thing Macardle did was to write this fantastic haunted house tale, Uneasy Freehold. Its American publication saw the title change to The Uninvited and next thing you know, it was adapted for film. My favourite story Luke Gibbons told us about the film was of Eamon De Valera’s seeing the film in the Savoy and dismissing it as ‘Typical Dorothy’. (We put that in the press pack.) To this day, Martin Scorsese cites The Uninvited as a favourite film of his.

Luke teaches the novel it to students who always enjoy it, but they find it hard to track down a copy. As well as being a champion of Macardle’s work, he wanted his students to have access to decent editions. It was a perfect fit, Luke said: ‘I suppose you could say that recovered voices are always ghosts of a sort, and it is particularly appropriate that a ghost story about lost attachments should figure in the series. All the more so when it is written by a female writer whose committed eloquence needs to be retrieved in the coming decade of commemorations.’

You had us at ‘ghost story’.

It’s a familiar set-up: a couple buys a suspiciously cheap house and is warned about ‘disturbances’. Only this couple, Pamela and Roddy, are a brother and sister, emotionally arrested in many ways, like their friends Peter and Wendy. The inevitable ghostly disturbances are hostile and frightening, but weirdly maternal and cosseting of the house’s last surviving family member, who lives up the road and tries to visit, seeking out this thing that may be trying to destroy her. Pamela and Roddy have to solve the mystery of the house’s former inhabitants to get to the bottom of the haunting.

We love this title for its myriad depictions of mothers; strict and clinical, nurturing and intuitive, haunting in their absence or perhaps literally haunting. It reminded us of Guillermo Del Toro’s Mama meets Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (this particular suburban gothic tale actually predates Jackson’s by about 18 years).

It’s a classic ghost story, but also a subtle commentary on a profound disappointment with the political and culture context of its time. We’re not happy that the ‘Waking the Nation’ fiasco has conferred a similar context for its reissue – old-fashioned sexism is a stale gig – but something has certainly awoken.

(c) Lisa Coen

About The Uninvited

Brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald flee their busy London lives for the beautiful but stormy Devon coastline. They are drawn to the suspiciously inexpensive Cliff End, feared amongst locals as a place of disturbance and ill omen.

Gradually, the Fitzgeralds learn of the mysterious deaths of Mary Meredith and another strange young woman. Together, they must unravel the mystery of Cliff End’s uncanny past – and keep the troubled young Stella, who was raised in the house as a baby, from returning to the nursery where something waits to tuck her in at night …

The second in Tramp’s Recovered Voices series, this strange, bone-chilling story was first published in 1942, and was adapted for the screen as one of Hollywood’s most successful ghost stories, The Uninvited, in 1944.

The Uninvited is in shops now or pick up your copy online here!


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