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I have seen nothing of Alice's purely commercial work. The earliest I have seen of what might be called her non-commercial painting dates from 1949-50 and shows the very obvious influence of Lionel Feininger sometimes (in my view) spoiled by the presence of stylised human figures.

Cathedral, c1950, priv. coll

In 1956 she had an exhibition in the 'Piccolo Gallery', which was actually a coffee house that accommodated paintings. I would have been eight years old at the time and if I went there with my parents I have no memory of it. I do however have a childhood memory of thinking the Piccolo was the very height of exotic sophistication. A review by Ken Jamison presents the 1956 exhibition as showing work abstracted from a figurative base: '"To abstract" means literally "to take away from" and this is precisely what Mrs Hammerschlag does. She takes away from each experience those elements of colour and texture which seem to her most essential. These abstracted elements she then weaves into a richness of almost prismatic colour and thrilling surface texture.' This painting, from the McCready collection, might serve as an example:

My childhood lake, 1952, Oil, 22 x 18 "Priv coll.

It was about this time that she made contact with the Lyric Players theatre. The brief and inscrutable notes say she designed sets for productions in Belfast and Dublin. Given how little we know about her earlier life it's possible that she had done some work in Dublin but it seems unlikely. According to Mary O'Malley (Never shake hands, p.99) 'First she turned up at the theatre as an audience member. She wrote to me and I finally met her. I got round to the matter of stage design and she seemed interested.' No mention of any previous experience in the field. Her first set for the theatre was Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie in the 1958-9 season. In the 1959-60 season the Lyric Players production of Yeats's playThe Death of Cuchulain, with a set by Alice was taken to Dublin and I suspect that that, and other Lyric Players performances in Dublin, is what is meant. At any rate, the encounter with the Lyric Players Theatre was an event of huge importance in her life.

It was an astonishing venture. From 1951 when it started to 1968 when it moved into a large custom built theatre it was based in a private house, initially in the drawing room of Mary and Pearse O'Malley's house on the Lisburn Road, then moving with them in 1952 to Derryvolgie Avenue where a very small theatre space - a stage measuring about 10' by 12' and an auditorium that sat about 40 people - was created. The driving force behind the venture was Mary O'Malley, a real visionary with the determination, indeed ruthlessness, that enables improbable things to happen. Not just the theatre but a music school, a drama school, an art gallery, a shop devoted to 'Irish Handcrafts' and a literary journal (Threshold).

Pearse O'Malley was a leading neurologist and psychiatrist - he was immensely helpful to me with certain psycho-physical problems I was having about the age of 20. As his name suggests (evoking the poet, teacher and educational theorist Padraig Pearse, who was one of the leaders of the 1916 rising), the O'Malleys were very much on the nationalist side of Northern Ireland's Irish/British identity division. They therefore got little encouragement from the limited patronage the Unionist government was prepared to give the arts, though I am inclined to see the independence and freedom this gave them as a considerable advantage and the theatre still gathered round it a wide variety of people from different cultural, political and class backgrounds. My father, English in origin, was a senior civil servant in the Northern Ireland government. He acted with the theatre in the 1950s and played an important role in steering it towards the larger theatre through the 1960s. My mother, from a quite solidly Ulster Protestant Unionist background, frequently responded to Mary O'Malley's plea - 'Would you ever do a wee thing for me?' - such as providing meals at short notice for an ad hoc party of about thirty people.

The whole thing was wonderfully informal. You could turn up as part of the audience and find yourself - if someone had fallen ill or some other hitch had occurred - whisked off into the wings, stuck into a costume and pushed out onto the stage. There were often small children draped round the front of the stage if seats couldn't be found for them. Sam McCready describes the experience of the actors:

'There was a bay window to one side providing wing space, and on the other side was a door leading to the rest of the house. If you exited one side of the stage to come on the other, you had to go downstairs, run through the house and out by the front door, climb the wooden staircase at the back and enter by the bay window - not the most pleasant experience in frosty December in a light tunic and tights ... We dressed in one of the back bedrooms and used the family bathroom for makeup, a source of irritation to Pearse who was a cleanliness fanatic, always washing his hands.'

(20) Sam McCready: Baptism by fire - My life with Mary O'Malley and the Lyric Players, Belfast, Lagan Press, 2007, p.46.

Sketch of the stage in 11, Derryvolgie Avenue, and production of Sean O'Casey's Red roses for me (1960) with set designed by Alice. Both illustrations taken from Conor O'Malley: A Poet's theatre.

In retrospect I think that my childhood with the Lyric Players spoiled me for theatre. After that, other stages always seemed to me to be too big and the actors too far away.

The emphasis - the core of Mary's vision - was on poetic drama, especially Irish poetic drama, and most especially Yeats, with a real effort to present Yeats's plays as he would have wanted them. As Mary herself says (Never Shake Hands, p.58): 'I had seen Jack Yeats once assist in a production of At the Hawk's Well in the New Theatre Group in Dublin and his explanation of his brother's requirements was to remain indelibly fixed in my mind.' (21) Sam McCready (Baptism, p.70) elaborates: 'Each production she did, not only of Yeats but also of other classic playwrights, was an attempt to get close to the Yeats model, although she would likely deny what I'm saying, insisting, "Sure, for god's sake, I hadn't the room to do anything else."'

(21) Jack Yeats himself, best known of course as a painter, was also a playwright, in my view a very remarkable one, a precursor of the Theatre of the Absurd. The only one of his plays produced by the Lyric was La La Noo, about a group of women taking refuge in a pub from the rain. The title derives from a discussion between the pub's landlord and a male customer concerning the French word 'nue'.

Mary O'Malley's son Conor, himself a theatre director, gives a good account of Alice's engagement with the theatre:

'Expressionistic plays called for an abstract, experimental approach in stage design. It was therefore a natural development to involve the artist in the theatre’s work. Many artists worked at the Lyric, over the years, including Basil Blackshaw, Deborah Brown, Marie and Edna Boyd, Terence Flanagan, Rowel Friers, Alice Berger Hammerschlag, Kenneth Jamison, Colin Middleton, George Morrow, Raymond Piper, Neil Shawcross and Clive Wilson. The requirements for the design of a set were outlined:

'"The designer must first of all know the play intimately, he must then study the director’s approach, the technical requirements, the functional aspect of his design in relation to the production, his use of colour to the mood set and the costumes and accessories to be used."

'The designer had to adapt his creativity to the needs of the text and in the context of the production as a whole. The artist’s creation was incomplete and only when the entire production was ready could the total achievement become apparent.

'Fortunately, there are records available which document the theatre’s achievement in stage design. A substantial number of slides exist which give a clear picture of the style of production, stage and costume design and use of colour. (22) The comments of critics on sets are also on record and included in the archives are many tape recordings. The Viennese-born artist Alice Berger Hammerschlag left a permanent written record. She designed sets for most of Yeats’s plays and much of her own work on canvas was strongly influenced by her stage work:

'"I feel engulfed every time by what his particular philosophy says to me. I have to 'paint it out' on canvas, to render essay in paint unlimited by stage considerations - only then do I feel mentally and emotionally released again.

'In an interview for radio she described her aesthetic response to Yeats’s plays:

'"The form the set takes comes more from the content of the situation, upward streaming for instance, most of the Yeats plays to me are upward streaming. The colour comes from the reaction of the characters, how they are made and how each character stumbles, gets up again, rises, tries again immediately and fails to the outward eye but probably not to the inward - he reaches probably the highest point he can reach."

'Elsewhere she used the example of The Hour Glass to describe the process of set design in action:

'"This play appears to me as a 'brown-blue' one, with subtle green hues; the brown presents itself from the upward-bent struggle within the earth region; blue, for me, is a colour which embodies conscious spiritual values or, differently expressed: knowledge by experience - the Fool in this play and to a lesser degree, the aspirations within each of the other characters. The green-blue colour arises from the desire in each character to attain to a higher level of self-development. Certain shades of toned-down red or orange-red appear in the brown areas, arising from the 'earth-desire-pull' and a doubt in the true abstract values. The form these colours are given is an 'upward streaming, pillar-like one - indicating the search for and the seeking after the truth.'"

'Generally, these abstract sets turned out to be simple in conception. Each Yeats play was designed to a narrow colour scheme selected as a result of consultation between the director and the designer and expressive of its particular atmosphere. The King of the Great Clock Tower was in red and black, The Only Jealousy of Emer was in varying shades of green and The Resurrection used austere white and grey panels as a background while the chorus was brilliant in white and gold. The Player Queen was mounted in hot orange, yellow and black and The Dreaming of the Bones in grey, blue and charcoal. The Death of Cuchulain used deep red and purple. Where possible, the design was reduced to a finely painted abstract panel. Lighting too was specially considered and used to emphasise changes of mood and atmosphere. Costume design was approached with much care to ensure that the final shape, texture and colour complemented the play. Simplicity in line and colour was the keynote and the use of heavy non-shiny materials gave an unobtrusive form of draping - substantial, yet flowing, as in the blues, blue greys and black of The King's Threshold. When ornamentation was used it was generally abstract and economical. The tall head-dresses — part masks, used by Cuchulain, Aoife and Conchobhar in the Cuchulain plays, emphasised the long line of the straight costumes with their necklines contrasting with the short leather tunics with gold embellishment of the younger warriors. Hessian, painted and washed, was used to give a sculptured effect for the peasants’ apparel, particularly the Fool and Blind Man.' (23)

(22) I am guessing that these would be in the Lyric Players Theatre archive in the National University of Ireland in Galway. I haven't had a chance to consult it.

(23) Conor O'Malley: A poets' theatre, Dublin, Elo Press, 1988, pp.43-5.