Sixty-six years after an infamous production which led to controversy and obscenity charges, Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo is being revived for the stage and set with a contemporary Irish Traveller community. We meet the cast and team behind it.
“I like the poetry good. Is that a piece of the poetry that you dropped out of your pocket?”
Opened in September 1953 by the couple Alan Simpson and Carolyn Swift, the theatre presented late night revues, plays by Eugene Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre, and it debuted Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow and the English-language production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
Although only capable of seating 55 people, the Pike left a seismic cultural footprint on the city. In the words of Irish Time critic, Ulick O’Connor, “it was probably the finest little theatre in the English speaking world.”
Despite garnering acclaim in the ‘50s for bringing to Dublin the theatrical avant-garde, what became its legacy and undoing was the fall-out from Williams’ erotic drama. Set in New Orleans, the story tells of Serafina delle Rose, an Italian-American mother and dressmaker who plunges into a pit of despair after the death of her husband.
“I knew there had been some big deal about the condom.”
She suffers a miscarriage, fears her daughter will abandon her for the allure of a young sailor and is tormented by rumours of her late spouse’s infidelity. Unable to tell if her memories of a joyful, passionate marriage were little more than lies, Serafina teeters on the verge of a breakdown. But what saves her from her internal turmoil is the reawakening of her sexuality.
It had been adapted for film in 1955 and won three Academy Awards. However, what love Hollywood felt for The Rose Tattoo was not replicated in Catholic Ireland. Chosen as the inaugural play at the Dublin Theatre Festival, it drew the attention of the church and authorities. Plain-clothed Garda attended many of the showings.
“Illicit sex [was] the main motif,” one later told the courts. “The only lawful sex was at the beginning when the widow mentioned her love-making with her husband.”
Then, on 21 May, a Garda Inspector visited the theatre. He told Swift and Simpson “certain objectionable” passages would need to be removed, although these were never specified. If they didn’t comply, the couple risked prosecution. But the couple, unsure what they ought to cut, relented, and Simpson was imprisoned briefly.
In 1958, the obscenity charges were dropped against Simpson. The Pike, however, never recovered, and until this year, Williams’ play hasn’t been produced on these shores.
“The time is the present”
In the third act, a love interest of Serafina drops a condom onstage, described on the page as “a small cellophane-wrapped disc.”
Williams hadn’t intended this to be a provocation, Fielding says. “It’s not some director trying to be progressive in the 1950s.”
But since prophylactic sheaths were an illegal good in Ireland, likely the church found such a prop outrageous.
The four actors; cousins James and Christine Collins, Lloyd Cooney and Shauna Higgins sat around a small table in the centre of the echoing warehouse, quietly taking in the play’s local infamy, much of which was news to them.
“I knew there had been some big deal about the condom,” replied actor Lloyd Cooney.
“I’d only found out when I was going into the audition,” says cast-mate Christine Collins.
It was late March. Six weeks out from opening night, with rehearsals due to begin after Easter Sunday, most of the performers were just meeting one another for the first time as they sat to discuss this latest version of Williams’ play.
This production deviated from the Mississippi-set drama, which blended English with Italian in its dialogue, and depicted a marginalised community of Sicilian migrants in the Deep South. Instead, the story has been directly transposed into a contemporary Irish Traveller community.
From her reading of the script, Collins says the parallels don’t feel contrived. “It’s situated in a coastal area of Dublin, still in the city, but they’re still segregated.”
“They are very much in the middle of everywhere, but on their own because of who they are,” she says. “There are these clear biases highlighted, but it’s more complex. It has to do more with Travellers and settled peoples, rather than Traveller and Irish people.”
Rather than being a reinterpretation of Williams’ story, the script has been translated by Fielding and Catherine Joyce of the Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group. “The Tennessee Williams Estate has strict stipulations in place,” says Joyce. “So, we can’t change certain things. We had to keep true to the story, and literally go through it as a translation, line-by-line.”
There was very little leeway in the translation process, Joyce says. “We try to use Traveller language throughout, or phrases.”
Fielding devised the production in 2019, while doing a workshop with actors on the play, she says.
The Complex centre had just opened at its present location in the north inner-city, and the space – an old banana-ripening warehouse – made her contemplate how to use the space in a meaningful, relevant way, she says. “And in the opening lines of The Rose Tattoo, it says the job of the husband is that he transports bananas.”
As Fielding wondered how to relocate the story into an Irish setting, the idea to place it within a Traveller context grew from her reading of Rosaleen McDonagh’s writings on Traveller feminism, she says.
McDonagh introduced Fielding to Catherine Joyce around 2020, Joyce says. “I had already been involved in a reinterpretation of the play The House of Bernarda Alba with the Blanchardstown Traveller Group.”
Joyce, a community development worker and a human rights activist, had spent the past two decades safeguarding and preserving Traveller culture, she says. “Our identity has been used by artists and songwriters over the years. A lot has been taken from our community and never restored, so my philosophy is that you shouldn’t be doing something about Travellers without Travellers.”
Neither she nor Fielding wanted to simply transpose Williams’ drama into a version of Ireland from the 1950s, she says. “We wanted it to be contemporary, to maybe give settled people and Travellers food for thought in terms of the ways we are insular, and how we are viewed from the outside.”
“They’ll say, this kind of person doesn’t exist in real life. But she does. She’s just not vocal…Our community is sometimes like that, and I just can’t wait to hear their reactions.”
Insularity is what unites the Sicilians in New Orleans and Ireland’s Traveller communities, Joyce says. “They hold very traditional beliefs and value systems that settled people don’t have and haven’t had for the last 30 years.”
“It is a transferable play when you look at the restraints on women in the Traveller community, and in particular young women,” she says. “There is parts of our community, elements where even if a young woman is 17, and engaged, if she wanted to go to the pictures, she’d have to be chaperoned.”
There are numerous aspects of life in Tennessee Williams’ drama which do not feel contrived when re-contextualised into a modern-day Traveller community, she says. “And because of this, we’re able to say that this remains true to the original context, even if we’re not trying to be true or deliberately provocative.”
When the producers of The Rose Tattoo were dragged through the Irish courts, ultimately leading to the demise of the Pike, Alan Simpson said, “We died so that Irish theatre could be free.”
It was a challenge to the social values of the Irish state then as, Joyce suspects it will prod at those held within the modern-day Traveller community. Serafina, renamed Sarah, is a provocative character in this context, she says. “She has a breakdown, loses her senses and there is a loss of identity because she is married to a man who has died.”
“And because she is living on a site, she was always under this microscope by the people who were around her,” she says. “All of those things were quite easily transferable from the cultural isolation of the Italian community within the French Quarters of New Orleans.”
After sitting in silence, listening reverentially to Fielding and Joyce discuss their translation, Collins spoke up, saying Williams’ outspoken female characters are likely going to startle an audience, at least in part comprised of women from Traveller backgrounds.
“They won’t be nervously laughing,” says the actor, who previously acted in 2012’s King of the Travellers and an episode of the series Glenroe. “They’ll be cringing at the provocativeness of this main character, of how obscenely out there she is with her feelings, her state of mind.”
“They’ll say, this kind of person doesn’t exist in real life,” Collins says. “But she does. She’s just not vocal. It’s like people who thought in Irish society, there weren’t any gay people. But there was. They just weren’t allowed to be gay. Our community is sometimes like that, and I just can’t wait to hear their reactions.”
Joyce characterises the play as a frame through which to reflect upon her and Collins’ own community. “This has been about staying true to the original script and tone,” she says. “But it was also about making sure that this translation isn’t done in a mockery way or to laugh at the Traveller community, or to expose things that are untrue.”
“It’s about looking at this play in our own context, which can give us an opportunity to question ourselves and how we perceive others, particularly women who make choices for themselves,” she says.
The following Sunday evening, James Collins sits in a cafe on the plaza in Smithfield. “It’s exciting to be in a project surrounded by Travellers, he says, while sipping from a bottle of Oasis. “But at the same time, there are few Irish projects that have Travellers in it.”
“So, although I’m more than happy to be in a project like this, I still don’t want to be seen as a Traveller actor,” he says.
Christine’s cousin, James made his own acting debut as a child in John Connors’ King of the Travellers, before appearing in Love/Hate. “It’s hard to explain why it liked it, because I was five or six, and it’s more than ten years ago.”
He didn’t act again until 2021. He acted in several short films, but The Rose Tattoo is set to be the 18-year-old’s first major role, and his theatrical debut.
“Although I’m more than happy to be in a project like this, I still don’t want to be seen as a Traveller actor.”
Theatre, he says, is an opportunity to explore more characters that might otherwise be possible if he opted to act solely in films or on television, he says. “The main roles in Irish media now are in gangland things now, and I want to be seen as diverse.”
“I love emotional roles,” he says. “I don’t want to just be in an ‘I’m gonna kill you’, bang, bang role, and in theatre, you’ll never really see that.”
In The Rose Tattoo, James takes the role of Jack, the boyfriend of Rosie, Sarah’s daughter. Originally a sailor in Williams’ play, in the translation his character comes from within the Traveller community too. “It’s three roles now under my belt as a Traveller, and I don’t want to be stuck in that.”
But, Catherine Joyce says, is that in this production The Rose Tattoo, the hope is to transcend that identity. “Whoever looks at the story in this space should be able to relate it to the Traveller community, and after a few minutes forget it’s in the community and just see the story of Tennessee Williams coming out of these characters.
“If we haven’t done that. We’ve done it wrong.”
The Rose Tattoo runs from Tuesday May 9 until Saturday May 20 in The Complex.
Words: Michael Lanigan
Photos: Sean Breithaupt