Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush is more of a biographical essay than an extensive biography of Lady Gregory, one of the founders with William Butler Yeats of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin and a huge figure in the Irish cultural revival of the 1890’s and early 1900’s. The title of the book is based on a comment she made that reflected her own inconsistencies, that is, her firm roots in the Protestant aristocracy against her support for the culture of rural, Catholic Ireland. When Playboy of the Western World was being produced by the Abbey, there was a huge uproar by Catholic nationalists. Lady Gregory remarked that the dispute was between “those who use a toothbrush and those who don’t.”
Tóibín’s sketch effectively shows the contradictions in Gregory’s character. It would be easy to dismiss her as an elitist snob, but Tóibín makes very clear her contributions to Irish theatre and folk lore. She was one of the first people traveling to rural Ireland to collect Irish folk tales before they were forgotten. As well as writing her own plays as part of the movement to encourage and advance Irish culture, she collaborated with Yeats on his without credit, and some of her contemporaries believed she wrote the bulk of one or two.
An interesting detail from Lady Gregory’s life is how this redoubtable woman cossetted and gave in to Yeats. Tóibín recounts her son Robert’s indignation, for example, when he found that his mother had served Yeats “bottle by bottle” the entirety of his prized Tokay handed down to him by his father.
Tóibín makes very clear the love she had for her husband’s estate, Coole, which she carefully preserved for her son while he was in his minority. There she entertained many of the great talents of Ireland, including Yeats, his brother Jack, J. M. Synge, George Bernard Shaw, and Sean O’Casey. The home no longer stands, Tóibín says it has been covered in concrete, but I myself have seen the great copper beech bearing their initials.
If I have any complaint of this short book, it is at my own ignorance (even though I have done some reading), for my lack of knowledge of the events of this time and particularly of the plays discussed makes it difficult to understand some of Tóibín’s remarks, particularly the furor around some of the plays. Having never read or seen Playboy of the Western World, for example, I don’t understand what was so upsetting (and indeed he implies that a modern audience may not).
Tóibín effectively and elegantly draws a brief but balanced portrait of this complex woman, showing us both her accomplishments and faults. Although I have read some of Yeats’ poems and some of Shaw’s plays, this short work makes me want to do more exploring around these figures in the Irish cultural nationalism movement and their works.