Lady Gregory helped found and directed the famous Abby Theater in London. Toibin does a great job of explaining why this theater was very important in the creation of a sense of Irish identity through plays like The Playboy of the Western World by John Synge. When the play was first preformed there were riots at the Abby Theater, partially caused by references to Irish women in "shifts" and by its seeming portrayal of the Irish as loving violence country buffoons . Lady Gregory, as Toibin explains it, referred to the conflict over this play as the battle between those who use a toothbrush, the play's supporters, and those who do not. Like many an aristocrat who cry out their love for the common man, she liked them best in plays and stories.
Toibin help me greatly to understand the importance of Lady Gregory to Irish Theater. Even though it can be argued that she was simply a rich woman buying attention from literary greats with money she inherited from a man who exploited horribly the Irish peasants, there import in the great plays of Synge and O'Casey can be directly traced to her. She did not just give money, she worked very hard to promote the theater and was a still respected student of Irish folklore. It is hard to really determine Yeats true feeling for her, he needed her money so everything has to a bit ambiguous. Toibin handles this brilliantly without forcing an opinion on us.
Toibin's prose is as one would expect wonderful. Lady Gregory's Toothbrush for sure increased my understanding of the Irish culture. I am starting to understand more and more the central import of the plays of John Synge and Toibin was very illuminating in his remarks on Synge. I also learned a good bit more about the background of William Butler Yeat's great poems concerning the death of Lady Gregory's son, the most famous of which is "An Irish Airmen Foresees His Death".
This book was a great pleasure to read. Toibin also lets us see that Lady Gregory, with deep Anglo-Irish aristocratic roots, her money came directly from Irish peasants working in near slave conditions for her husband and his ancestry, was trying desperately to produce an Irish identity for herself while keeping her deeply entrenched belief that she, along with her primary mentor and patronage recipient, were of an old the natural heirs of an Irish aristocracy going back to the Celts and beyond. In Lady Gregory's jest about a toothbrush, one seems beneath layers of pretense.
I very much enjoyed this book, learned a lot from it, and I endorse it to anyone interested in Irish literature or history.
It is available from Lilliput Press, Ireland's leading independent publishing house. A perusal of their catalog is itself a great learning experience.