Sam McCready, the actor, director, writer, painter, and teacher, a great friend to WB Yeats and to all lovers of Yeats around the world, has died.
Sam was a vibrant figure, and introduced generations to Yeats’s plays through performances at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo. He repeatedly paid tribute to Mary O’Malley, founder of the Lyric Theatre Belfast where McCready got his break in the acting world in the late 1950s, and who pioneered productions of Yeats’s plays. Many have been paying tribute to him in his turn for his inspiring work in theatre and performance.
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland remembered him as a ‘legend […] revered internationally and remembered locally with unusual warmth and affection’.
The Lyric Theatre Belfast released a statement calling him ‘a titan of Ulster theatre’, and no wonder: for the Lyric he played numerous roles, including Captain Boyle in Juno and the Paycock, King Richard in Richard the Third and Christy Mahon in a musical version of The Playboy of the Western World called A Heart’s A Wonder. He founded the Lyric Drama Studio for younger actors and directed Martin Lynch’s The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty, becoming trustee and Artistic Director of the theatre
Most recently in April 2018 he performed his own adaptation of No Surrender, based on the memoir of a Belfast childhood by Robert Harbinson. His own memoirs of early years at the theatre are available under the title Baptism of Fire from Lagan Press.
McCready’s career took him from Belfast to Bangor in North Wales to off-Broadway productions in New York and to the University of Maryland, where he became Professor of Theatre and is remembered as ‘an extraordinary mentor, teacher, actor, director, and friend to generations of students and to so many people in the UMBC community’.
As an outspoken proponent of the arts McCready insisted on their value as community projects but also on high standards – and practiced what he preached. As he said, ‘one of the things that America has taught me is that people should go out and work for themselves. […] I have to bring that audience in. I don’t want anyone to get money for nothing and I don’t want the taxpayer to be handing out money for nothing. But at the same time the arts must be subsidised. Those in the arts must use that subsidy to do quality work and not see it as an opportunity to do mediocre stuff.’
At the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo McCready was a regular yearly contributor as speaker and director. With his wife Joan he taught inspiring acting and speaking classes and directed each year a production of one of Yeats’s plays: rarely seen theatrical wonders about whose performance he campaigned passionately.
He wrote, performed, and toured one-man plays on the life of Percy French, and The Great Yeats!, about WB Yeats’s father the artist John Butler Yeats. He was known throughout the world as a fine speaker of WB Yeats’s verse, and chose to speak the final lines from Yeats’s play The Resurrection at the closing of the Lyric studio in Derryvolgie Avenue.
Edmund Dulac, ‘The Nightingale’
In one of his last posts Sam recited lines from Keats’s ‘Ode To A Nightingale’: ‘Thou wast not born for death immortal bird / No hungry generations tread thee down’.
Keats’s lines (which continue ‘The voice I hear this passing night was heard / In ancient days by emperor and clown’) were a vital trigger for Yeats’s own meditations on music, death, and immortality, especially when he imagines himself transported among the goldsmiths of ancient Constantinople, posthumously singing to a (sometimes indifferent) royal audience.
Here follows Yeats’s poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, in fond memory of Sam McCready.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.