While walking through St. Kieran’s Cemetery earlier this year, my attention was drawn to a headstone with an unusual middle name, Boetius. Boetius was a Roman martyr and saint. The person who bore the name on the headstone was Michael Egan. Subsequent research revealed that Michael was splendidly named at birth, with a nod to both Rome and Ossory, as Michael Boetius Kieran Egan.
In addition to having his unusual baptismal name, Michael is also credited on the headstone as having been a playwright and author. Enquiries in the city left me with the impression that few, in modern times, had heard of him; however, research revealed that, for a period of fourteen years between 1934 and 1948, the seemingly long-forgotten playwright took the West End theatre district of London by storm. It could actually be said that he took the British theatre world by storm with productions running in cities all over the country. In fact his first play was staged in Europe, America and Australia.
Michael Boetius Kieran Egan was born on 26 June 1895 in Kilkenny. His father was P.M. Egan, the former Mayor of Kilkenny, and his mother was Bride Byrne from Athy, Co. Kildare. He had one brother and three sisters. When P.M. Egan died in 1903, his wife, Bride, was left to rear five young children ranging in age from 12 down to 3.
Aged 20 years in 1915, Michael joined the Royal Navy as an Air Mechanic and served until April 1917.
After the war he spent three years at King’s College. He became a journalist with regular contributions to radio and electrical magazines writing a number of books, among them The Complete Wireless, and The Boys’ Wireless Annual.
In 1932 Michael became the press representative at the Embassy Theatre, Swiss Cottage, London. It was a life-changing move. Two years later he submitted his own play to the Embassy. It was titled THE DOMINANT SEX and was based on the age-old theme of the battle of the sexes within marriage. The play was premiered at the Embassy Theatre on Monday, Dec. 3, 1934.
The first review of a play by Michael Egan appeared in a London theatrical weekly newspaper called The Stage. The critic was impressed, saying: “….. Michael Egan has certainly the right stuff for the making of a successful dramatist……”
The following month the play transferred to the Shaftesbury Theatre in the Mecca of the London Theatre world, the West End, where it opened on Wednesday, January 2. In March it moved to the Aldwych Theatre, also in the West End. By September 1, 1935 it had passed 300 performances and had “hopes of running until Christmas.” In fact it was only half way through its West End stage life!
April 1935 saw the play reach another milestone when it was presented in America. THE DOMINANT SEX was staged at the Garrick in Philadelphia in March and opened at the Cort Theatre on Broadway in New York on April 1, 1935. We don’t know what Michael felt about his new found fame. In fact one of his obituaries emphasises his modesty so it is up to today’s audience to marvel at the success this new playwright had with his first play which received 642 performances in the West End alone not to mention being staged in over 50 cities and towns around Britain over the next five years. Indeed, there can’t be that many Irish dramatists who progressed from a theatre in the suburbs of London to the West End in the space of four weeks and then to Broadway four months later.
1936 began with a return visit to the Embassy Theatre for a new play PRIVATE COMPANY which commenced on Monday, February 10. This too is notable because, again, there cannot be that many Irish playwrights with two plays running simultaneously in London which was now the case with Michael Egan.
On February 20, 1936 The Stage newspaper reported that the landmark 500th performance of THE DOMINANT SEX would take place four days later at the Aldwych in London but then comes the news which must set Michael apart as a unique first-time Irish playwright. This report stated: “The play has recently been produced very successfully in Amsterdam and Stockholm and it will shortly be produced in the Czech language in Prague, in Polish in Warsaw, and in German in Vienna, Zurich and Berlin.” Few new playwrights, and certainly not many Irish ones, can have seen such success so early in their careers. It is truly a remarkable tale.
Back home in the Marble City, in November 1936, the Kilkenny People took delight in a report taken from the Sunday Express which previewed a new play ART AND CRAFT. The ‘People quoted: “….. Egan is the only playwright of recent years ….. in whom the critics have detected intimation of greatness…..” There must have been great pride felt in James’s Street (the family address on the 1901 census) and Archersfield on the Castle Road (where the family lived later) when those incredible words were read.
To add to the delight, later in the month, there was further news from London when it was announced that THE DOMINANT SEX was in production as a film! The movie was made at the famed Elstree Studios and was released in 1937.
We hear next from Michael in December 1938 when a new groundbreaking play about divorce and remarriage drew the crowds back to the West End of which more anon.
In May 1938 Michael formed a Playgoer’s Club in London. The object of the club was to offer its members the means of purchasing tickets at reduced prices. He had previously formed a company to produce plays so, from his two business ventures, Michael showed his concern for the most important people connected with theatre, namely, the actors and the audience. In this new venture he received, through a letter, the private blessing of none other than George Bernard Shaw even though, because of reasons of perception, Shaw was unable to publicly support him.
In December 1938 another new play by Michael, titled TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH, was presented at St. Martin’s Theatre in the West End. This play was groundbreaking in that it tackled the thorny issue of remarriage by divorced persons. With the title of one play THE DOMINANT SEX and divorce the subject of another, it is clear Michael’s plays would not have passed the censorship regime in 1940s Ireland and there is no record of his plays being staged here.
In May 1940 a new play FIND THE LADY was premiered at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool. It was described as “…brightly written….”
Michael chose an entirely new situation for his next play SALT OF THE EARTH which opened on Thursday, July 9, 1942 at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand in the West End. It was set in Normandy during the war, ongoing at that time, showing the pressure brought to bear on a French family by the Nazi occupation. One critic wrote: “It suggests authenticity” but added: “It would be even more exciting if it were not quite so long.”
It is noticeable now that this was the second play by Michael to actually premiere in the West End which was a tribute to his drawing power.
We have to wait until September 1943 to hear of Michael again when his play PAINTED LADIES was produced at the Empire Theatre in PENGE in south east London. A critic wrote: “….. Taken as an innocuous piece of light-hearted Irish banter, it certainly has its merits. Much of the dialogue is delightfully racy of the soil and the author has built up a fine character in the free and easy manservant who is seldom off the stage……”
This part was specially written for the Irish-born actor Arthur Sinclair. They proved a productive team as it was the second time that Michael created a role for him.
We jump to 1947 to hear from Michael again. In August it was announced that his play CUPID IN CLOVER would be staged at the Empire Theatre in Peterborough. Described as a “clever comedy,” the newspaper report was headlined as a “Peterboro’ Premiere.”
On Christmas Eve 1947 it was announced that Michael’s new play, BRED IN THE BONE, would be premiered in Cardiff in January and would then open at the Lyric in Hammersmith in London.
The Cardiff critic suggested that the play had echoes of Ibsen, high praise again. The theme was about heredity, environment and class and the critic continued: “…..This interesting play is remarkably free of the political bias which might so easily have clouded the issue and is a genuine attempt to set forth again a recognised problem, though it leaves this unsolved.”
After a remarkable output over fourteen years, beginning in 1934, Michael Egan is no longer heard from in the newspapers after January 1948 until his death which occurred, after an illness, on 26 July 1956. His obituary in The Stage highlighted the 642 performances of his first play THE DOMINANT SEX. His press protégée, George Fearon, wrote a particularly kind obituary alluding to Michael’s generosity to him after the war. He recalled that, anticipating peace in 1943, Michael recreated his theatre publicity organisation and then handed the job over to Fearon two years later on his return from war. In fact during the war Michael was himself a very active Air Raid Precautions warden where he lived in Hampstead in London.
In another obituary in The Times, a well known theatre and film critic, Ernest Betts, wrote of Michael’s generosity, charm and intellectual vigour: “…..To those who knew him best, in fact, he was a deeply religious man, thirsting for knowledge and of an intensely independent spirit …..”
Back home, the Kilkenny People quoted The Times obituary in its report of his death.
During his lifetime, three of Michael’s plays, THE DOMINANT SEX, TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH and PRIVATE COMPANY were published by the Gollancz publishing company, a major British publishing house of the twentieth century.
A year after his death, TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH was adapted for television and was broadcast by the BBC on Thursday, 17 October 1957. This was the second of Michael’s plays to be filmed.
Michael Boetius Kieran Egan is interred in Streatham Vale in London. He was survived by his wife Greta Ida May.
For his output of nine plays and his influence on theatre in the West End, throughout Britain and beyond, between 1934 and 1948, this Kilkenny-born man of letters deserves to be remembered with the Banims, Francis MacManus, Thomas Kilroy, et al.
- Kilkenny Families in the Great War, Kilkenny 2012.
- British Newspaper Archive.
- The Boys’ Wireless Annual, London, c. 1925, ed. Michael Egan.
- Kilkenny People Archive, Kilkenny Archaeological Society Library.
- Francis McEvoy, “Patrick M,. Egan 1843-1903” in “Kilkenny Through The Centuries”, 2009, eds. John Bradley and Michael O’Dwyer.