A Novelist, George A. Birmingham
The Life and works of a Novelist, George A. Birmingham (1865—1950)
What is Birmingham’s true message from General John Regan (1913) ?

General John Regan is Birmingham’s second play. When it was premiered at the Apollo Theatre in London on January 9, 1913, it received great acclaim from both the audience and critics. Many British newspapers reported the production with such favorable comments as “a really satisfactory three-act farce”, “farce of so picturesque and good-natured a quality”, “extremely humorous” and “a great joke”. As the play continued to attract a huge audience, it ran until September 9 of the same year with a brief suspension in June. The play also started at the Hudson Theater in New York in November, and then moved to the Liberty Theatre and continued until December 21. It was acclaimed by the American audience and critics as greatly as by their English counterparts. But, when the play was produced in Westport the next year, the worst riot in the history of Irish theater broke out.

There was an omen of the riot while the play was enjoying a long run at London’s Apollo Theatre. An Irishman who watched one of the productions wrote a letter of bitter criticism to The National Weekly, an Irish magazine. It was published in the February 1, 1913, issue under the title of “A Protest against a London Play”. He criticized the play, saying “I think there is something of a devilish leer in this picture of an Irish doctor, an Irish priest, and of Irish peasants, who for greed of gold enter into a conspiracy of lies and exhibit to the English public the basest, most sordid, and most ignorant qualities of Irish character.”

Two English theater companies went on tour in Ireland with productions of General John Regan. One of them, W. Pane Seldon Company, gave its Irish premiere in Kilkenny on January 26, 1914. After touring in Galway and Castlebar, they came to Westport on February 4. The Irish Times, Ireland’s leading newspaper, gave an extensive coverage of the riot.

As the production in Castlebar met hostile reactions from the audience, a number of police officers were stationed inside and outside the Westport Town Hall where the play was to be produced. As soon as the curtain went up for the first act, fifty or sixty spectators began to groan, boo, whistle and stamp their feet so violently that it was impossible to hear what the players said. When the curtain was raised for the second act and the actor playing Father McCormack appeared, a mob rushed to the stage and made a violent attack on the actor, who was rendered senseless and his clothes were torn off. The police officers drew their batons and tried to clear the stage. The lights were turned off and the production was discontinued. The attackers, who were numbered three and four hundred then, threw chairs and other missiles at the police officers. Although they managed to disperse the mob with another baton-charge, the riot was renewed on the streets. The mob vandalized some property, yelled and booed at the players who took refuge in their hotel, and threw stones to smash the windows. The riot continued until midnight and twenty men were arrested.

Is General John Regan no more than a piece of farce which caricatures and satirizes the Irish?

The setting of the play is a fictional town, Ballymoy, which is supposed to represent Westport. It is an unusually hot day for the west of Ireland. No soul can be seen on the street except a fat dog lying in front of a butcher’s shop because “business, unless it happens to be market day, absolutely ceases in a town like Ballymoy when the thermometer registers anything over eighty degrees.” Even police officers are taking a nap. An American millionaire named Horace P. Billing visits this town and puts himself up at an inn called “The Imperial Hotel”. Finding how dull and inactive the town is, he says to the inn’s proprietor, Timothy Doyle, “This town kind of cries out to be wakened up a bit.” There are a pig-sty and a manure heap in the inn’s yard. Mary Ellen, a maid at the inn, makes her appearance as a slatternly and ineffective girl. She is portrayed as “a very pretty girl, but nearly as dirty as the yard.” She is also very slow in serving food to Billing.

Although the English and American spectators were enchanted by this Irish colleen, their Irish counterparts were angered by her portrayal, considering it to be an insult to Irish maidenhood. The actress playing Mary Ellen in the American tour was Maire O’Neill (1885-1952), ex-fiancée of a renowned Irish playwright, John Millington Synge (1871-1909).

Billing meets Thaddeus Gallagher who is commonly known as Thady and the editor of a local newspaper, the Connacht Eagle. Billing introduces himself as an editor of an American newspaper and tells Thady the purpose of his visit to Ballymoy. He is going to write a biography of a General John Regan who was born in this town and later fought for the liberation of Bolivia. He wants to see a statue erected to the memory of the late General and carry out some research for a biography he is going to write of him. However no one in the town knows about the General and the statue.

The play’s hero, Dr. Lucius O’Grady, now appears. He is a cheerful and optimistic young man full of energy, the same type as J.J. Meldon of Spanish Gold. Although the doctor does not have any knowledge of the General either, he pretends to know about him and tries to hoax Billing. The doctor tells the American a lie that the local council is going to erect the statue soon and makes the American promise to give a large donation when the erection is completed. Under the leadership of the doctor, the people in Ballymoy, though feeling guilty, embarks on a series of conspiracies to hoax the American. The doctor orders Thady to write an article in his newspaper about how much the people in Ballymoy appreciate the General’s achievement. Major Kent, J.J. Meldon’s friend in Spanish Gold, appears in this play again. Although he opposes the absurd idea of erecting a statue of the unknown General, he is eventually persuaded by the doctor to join the hoax.

The police barrack is disguised as the house where the General lived in his early youth. A ruined house on Doyle’s farm is disguised as his birthplace. While Thady is guiding Billing around these sites, the American asks him about the General’s surviving relatives. As Thady does not want to disappoint the American, he makes up a lie quickly and says that the butcher Kerrigan’s wife is a relative of the General’s. But Kerrigan is still single. To cover up Thady’s mistake, the doctor creates another lie, saying that Kerrigan is going to marry the General’s grandniece soon. Mary Ellen is appointed to the role.

With regard to the production of the statue, the people decide to depend on Doyle’s nephew, a sculptor. As no one knows what the General looked like, the sculptor offers them a statue of a former Deputy-Lieutenant of Ireland, the order of which was cancelled when it was almost completed. The doctor insists that they should invite the present Deputy-Lieutenant to the unveiling ceremony and ask him to grant a subsidy to the town for the building of a pier. Father McCormack prepares himself to give an opening address. Mary Ellen wraps herself in a gorgeous dress which makes her look suitable as a relative of the General’s. The town’s band is formed and the luncheon table is set at Doyle’s inn to welcome the Lord-Lieutenant and his company.

However they suddenly receive a telegram telling them of the cancellation of the Lord-Lieutenant’s visit. Instead of him, his aide-de-camp, Lord Alfred Blakeney, turns up with a very angry appearance. He tells the doctor in a fierce temper why the Lord-Lieutenant has cancelled his visit, and orders him to stop the unveiling ceremony. The people in Ballymoy blame the doctor because they believe that their conspiracy has ended in a total failure and that they will suffer a huge debt in the future.

In the midst of this crisis, Billing reappears and discloses the truth about the mysterious General. He then admires Dr. O’Grady for the unfailing energy with which the doctor has led the people in unison to hoax him, and says, “We haven’t got a medical gentleman on our side of the Atlantic equal to Dr. Lucius O’Grady.” Consequently the American offers a large donation to the people and the unveiling ceremony is held as scheduled.

Certainly there are a number of representations of caricature and satire in this play. But the Irish spectators overlooked the fact that caricature and satire were not only directed at Nationalists, but also at Unionists.

Thaddeus Gallagher is an example of satire on the Nationalist side. When he guides Billing to the ruined house on Doyle’s farm disguised as the General’s birthplace, the American takes off his hat to show his respect to the General, calling him “the immortal founder of the liberties of Bolivia”. On hearing what the American says, Thady talks to him vehemently about how cruelly the English landlords have treated the Irish and declares that Home Rule should be achieved at once in Ireland. At the unveiling ceremony, the town’s band plays an Irish patriotic song, “The Wearing of the Green”. But Thady, being drunk, does not doubt that it is an English song and denounces it as an insult to the cause of Nationalism.

On the other hand, Lord Alfred Blakeney is an example of satire on the Unionist side. He has a dispute with Dr. O’Grady, trying to make him stop the unveiling ceremony. However he is totally puzzled by the doctor’s strange arguments and is completely defeated. The ceremony is held as scheduled and the Lord is forced to make a speech. But he is blamed by the people for his poor speech. The funnier thing is that, as he has no ear for music, he believes that the song being played is the national anthem of England.

Considering this story, General John Regan may seem to be no more than a piece of farce. But the play has a deeper implication and represents Birmingham’s hearty wish for reconciliation between Nationalists and Unionists. If Billing were an honest man with goodwill and Dr. O’Grady attempted to cheat the honest man in conspiracy with the people in Ballymoy, General John Regan could be regarded as a farcical play exhibiting “the basest, most sordid, and most ignorant qualities of Irish character”, as the Irishman who watched a London production put it. But Billing turns out to be a hoaxer, too, and he and the people of Ballymoy become happy at the end. Dr. O’Grady is endowed with both “love and gentleness” like the prophet Isaiah whom Birmingham admires. The doctor works hard for the common benefit of every people of Ballymoy. He is also “brave and strong” and “fears no one except God”. His faith is “unfaltering even in times of utter hopelessness.” Dr. O’Grady is one of those whom Birmingham considers to be the ideal Christian.

When the riot broke out in Westport, Birmingham was in Glasgow for a lecture at the city’s literary club. He was at a loss to understand the reason for the riot. He said that the play was conceived in a spirit, not of satire, but of broad comedy. It is likely that, as his words show, Birmingham wrote General John Regan as a work of pure comedy and did neither intend it to be satire nor to be a representation of the Christian spirit. However, the Christian spirit came out in combination with humor though the author was not conscious of it himself. It was because Birmingham was a very pious, faithful Christian throughout his life.

An article of the General John Regan Riot in Westport published in the Daily Sketch, February 6, 1914
(TCD Manuscripts 3441/37)