In Memory of Sam McCready

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.

I

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.

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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.

In Memory of W.B. Yeats

It is eighty years, a lifetime and no time at all, since W.B. Yeats died and was laid to rest at Roquebrune in the south of France. Far from home, friends and energies surrounded him, and he left life still busy working and thinking: “I know for certain my time will not be long. I have put away everything that can be put away that I may speak what I have to speak, & I find my expression is a part of study […]. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put all into a phrase I say, ‘Man can embody truth but he cannot know it’. I must embody it in the completion of my life.”

France, Var, Roquebrune sur Argens, snow in winter on the cliffs of the Rocher de Roquebrune

When his death was announced, the wires hummed with tributes from around the world. Most interesting perhaps were responses from his younger contemporaries, Louis MacNeice and W.H. Auden. They had differed politically from Yeats in the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s, and yet both were moved to respond handsomely. Louis MacNeice would write a one of the earliest and finest books of criticism about the poet, published in 1941, and W.H. Auden wrote several essays and a poem among the finest in the language.

Thoor Ballylee, Galway, March 2018 (from Connacht Tribune)

Auden’s poem is sombre, strangely moral, and reflective, as he works out a strong sense of difference amidst his admiration (in its final version below, the poem was revised to leave out any need for forgiveness: ‘Time […] pardons him for writing well’). It records the effect of the poet’s death on the world, but the world’s impress on all he left behind, including those last to know about his passing, his poems. Yeats had been seeking warm weather for his health, but through Auden’s eyes it was marked indelibly by a symbolically cold winter: ‘What instruments we have agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day.’ With the current cold snap across these islands and in North America it is hard not to recall the words of this probing, bracing tribute, first published later in 1939 as the flames of World War Two were rising.

Chicago and Lake Minnesota, January 2019

In Memory of W.B. Yeats

I
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.

The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

II
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

III
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

From Another Time by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1940 W. H. Auden, renewed by the Estate of W. H. Auden.

 

Ben Bulben, Sligo, January 2018