Tuesday, April 6, 2021

LENNOX ROBINSON’S THE BIG HOUSE “Four scenes in its life”


This play keeps marinating in my mind. The more I think about The Big House, the more I comprehend the after-effects World War One had on Ireland and the Irish people.  Thus, it has taken me longer than normal to seat myself in front of the computer to write this post. The Big House was written in 1926 by Lennox Robinson (1886-1958). Robinson was an established Irish playwright, who also served twice as Manager of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (1910-14 and 1919-23). 

                                                                 LENNOX ROBINSON

The title The Big House refers to the grand country homes that had been built and owned for several centuries by Englishmen who often lived on the income their Irish estates afforded them. These families educated their sons in England, practiced Protestantism and married their children to English citizens. There was little attempt by these landowners to treat the Irish men and women, who paid rent to live on their property and to work the land for their landlord’s profit as anything other than servants. Robinson’s story is about a big house in County Cork named Ballydonal House and the playwright immediately informs the reader that the play represents: “Four scenes in its life.”

Scene I. The large drawing-room at Ballydonal House. It is a November morning in 1918, about 10:30 A.M. It is the day the Armistice is to be proclaimed at 11AM. Captain Despard (English) is visiting the Alcock family and he is in love with Kate Alcock. Her brother Ulick is Despard’s best friend. Kate admires Ulick because he cares about the house and property as she does. She plans to work with him when he returns from the war to restore the house and make the land more profitable.  As peace is declared, the Alcock family learn that Ulick was killed in battle three days ago.

Scene II. Dining-room at Ballydonal House. A June evening, 1921. The scene is set in the Dining Room and dinner has concluded. Mr. & Mrs. Alcock are sitting at the table dressed in formal attire.  She is talking about talking a trip.  He will not go anywhere since he is waiting till he is put out of his home or his house is burned down. The Alcocks have very little financial resources since his ancestors sold most of the valuables in the house over the past centuries. Alcock has no income since the Irish tenants stopped paying their rent. Kate arrives pale and upset. Kate speaks of being an outsider in Ireland. She wants to be accepted, since she has known these Irish people all her life.  She believes the problem is based on the thinking that is always “Them” and “Us.” Captain Despard arrives to talk with Kate. Currently he is assigned by the British government to the Auxiliaries, a counter-insurgency unit, until the “Black and Tans” arrive in this area. He never desired to return to civilian life after his service in WWI. ouse. Nov\.   

Scene III. A February night, 1923.  Same room as previous scene but room is somewhat changed. The mail has arrived and there are two letters from Kate who is living and working in London. Unexpectedly, Kate arrives home and she plans to stay. She was “too blatantly Irish” for the Londoners. Kate’s parents reveal that they are broke. They have received no rents for three years. Three Irish men in trench coats enter and tell the family that they have five minutes to leave the house before Ballydonal House is blown up and burned. The family leaves and the Leader tells his men to place the mines where Annie (the maid) showed them.

Scene IV. A corner of the garden early the next morning before sunrise. The cold light grows brighter as the scene progresses. The corner of a summerhouse can also be seen.  Reverend Brown and Atkins, the butler, enter carrying a sofa. The family is in the coach-house. Everything in the Library was lost to the fire, but some other items were saved.  Mr. Alcock is relieved the fire has taken care of his problems and stress. Mrs. Alcock has it all planned that the family will go to Bournemouth, England where she will be happy. Kate will go with her parents to get them settled and then she plans to return to Ballydonal. Kate believes: “Ireland is not more theirs than ours.”  The car arrives and as the family begin to leave, Atkins calls Miss Kate back.  He claims to have seen Master Ulick in the summerhouse.

This play is a major display of the characters’ attitudes (Them and Us) that helps provide some understanding of the issues relating to Ireland’s struggle for independence. Robinson also portrayed many of the circumstances faced by the Ascendancy families who had lived in Ireland for centuries.

However, equally significant is some knowledge regarding the circumstances and relationship between England and Ireland following World War One. This political background is necessary to appreciate The Big House more fully. I selected several of the historic points that are helpful.

1.      Home Rule/Irish self-government was promised in 1912 by the British Liberal Government, but it was never implemented. The British promise was never an acceptable idea by an Irish political group who became known as the Ulster Volunteer Force. By 1914 when WWI started, Ireland seemed bound for civil war, but the European crisis curtailed that movement.


2.      After WWI ended in 1918, the Irish Republican Party won the general election and declared Irish independence in January,1919. This declaration was never granted by England.


3.      The Irish War of Independence (1919-1922) was fought between the Irish Republican Army and British forces. The Black and Tans were auxiliary British forces which joined the fray in 1920 and these units were brutal. Many of the Black and Tan recruits were former soldiers from British units that fought in WWI.


4.      Another consideration that is alluded to in the play is the major loss of life for the generation of men serving in both the British and Irish units. These young men were the next generation who would have represented both countries and perhaps provided different opinions as well as outcomes to the political situation.


The Big House was first performed on September 6, 1926 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin under the direction of the playwright.  It opened in London at The Playhouse on February 21, 1934 staring Alison Leggatt (1904-1990) as Kate.  The Big House had been staged prior to its London premier in other English cities such as Liverpool (1928), South Yorkshire (1929) and Manchester where it opened on February 18,1929. The play was published in 1928 by Macmillan, London.

The Abbey Theatre Irish Players presented The Big House in the United States during its 1932-33 tour of the United States. The play had its New York City debut on January 2, 1933 at the Martin Beck Theatre. This tour presented The Big House in at least seven other American cities.

The Big House was also presented on the British Broadcasting Radio during the Spring of 1939 by the Abbey Theatre Irish Players. The April 10,1939 announcement in The Guardian indicated that the program would be aired in London, North, Wales and Scotland on that evening.

The most recent production of The Big House opened on August 1, 2007 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. This production was presented for five weeks. 


The photo of Lexxon Robinson was the promotional image for his first American lecture tour, October 1928-January 1929.


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