Who’s the Muse: On Gender and Inspiration

Liv Ullmann speaking at the Cape Ann Community Cinema in October 2012

In 1911, Irish actress Máire O’Neill married British critic G.H. Mair. To most of us this might seem like mundane trivia from the Dublin historical theater scene, except for the fact that a few years earlier O’Neill had been the fiancée of Irish playwright John Millington Synge. She was known as his muse.

Máire O'Neill as Pegeen Mike in J.M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre in 1907
Máire O’Neill as “Pegeen Mike” in J.M. Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre in 1907

Synge wrote his most famous character for her, that of Pegeen Mike in The Playboy of the Western World. When the play premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1907, it was greeted with rioting. Dubliner theatregoers had not previously been exposed to a story seemingly about patricide and actresses appearing on stage in undergarments. (The play was later similarly greeted in the U.S. in 1911, with the Abbey Theatre’s co-founder Lady Augusta Gregory in attendance on opening night in New York City, witnessing food being thrown on the stage and men fighting in the aisles.)

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J.M. Synge died in 1909, his marriage to Máire O’Neill (whose real name was Molly Allgood) never having come to fruition. The apparent hesitation on his part was due to the class difference between himself and O’Neill.  After his death, she assisted Irish poet and Abbey Theatre co-founder and playwright W.B. Yeats in writing the completion of Synge’s final play, Deirdre of the Sorrows. In 1910, she went on to play that leading role at the Abbey Theatre.

Like most of theater history, Máire O’Neill is lost to the ages, yet played a significant role in Irish drama—muse to one of the first Irish playwrights who introduced realism to theater.

But what of Máire O’Neill being J.M. Synge’s muse? Perhaps it was the reverse, and he was her muse. The notion of only actresses being known as muses has stymied me for a long time. When an actress is inspired by a male writer (or director), who’s the muse?

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On Synge’s death, I can imagine O’Neill having thought (slightly altering Pegeen Mike’s famous last line from Playboy), “Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only playwright of the western world.”

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In the film world of the 1960’s and early-1970’s, Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann was known as Swedish screenwriter and director Ingmar Bergman’s muse, with Bergman crafting some of his best films while collaborating with Ullmann during (and after) their personal relationship: Persona, Hour of the Wolf, The Passion of Anna, Cries and Whispers, and Scenes from a Marriage. But really, who was the muse?

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman in the late 1960's
Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman in the late-1960’s

As a long-time admirer of Ullmann, I like to think Bergman served as muse to Ullmann—that she was so inspired by him, she delivered some of the most memorable film performances in cinema history. Also, a muse relationship needn’t always be male/female. Ullmann has been my muse as well, someone whose gifts inspire me to craft my own art thanks to what she makes available and offers to the world.

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Over the years, Ullmann’s career has shifted to directing for theater and film—most recently with her critically acclaimed production of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett, and Ullmann’s film adaptation of Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s Miss Julie now playing the film festival circuit.

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Liv Ullmann speaking at the Cape Ann Community Cinema in October 2012
Liv Ullmann speaking at the Cape Ann Community Cinema in Gloucester, MA in October 2012

Two years ago I had the pleasure of walking into the Cape Ann Community Cinema in Gloucester, Massachusetts to see a special screening of a documentary that examines the relationship between Liv and Ingmar. As a sometime resident of Gloucester, Ullmann was in attendance and spoke after the film. I had a front row seat and a cell phone, so I filmed an anecdote. I haven’t shared the video until now. I was concerned she wouldn’t be pleased if she found out since it was surreptitiously filmed and I have the utmost respect for her.  But it’s an anecdote that, in my opinion, is too good to keep hidden away. So with apologies in advance to Ms. Ullmann, here she is speaking about directing the film based on the Ingmar Bergman screenplay, Faithless.

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I sometimes think about the day Ullmann will no longer be around in my lifetime, and I imagine on that day I’ll think, “Oh my grief, I’ve lost her surely. I’ve lost my only muse of the western world.”