It was Mr. Bernard Shaw who, in commenting on the rowdy reception of the Irish players in some American theatres, spoke of Lady Gregory as “the greatest living Irishwoman.” She is certainly a remarkable enough writer to put a generous critic a little off his balance. Equal mistress in comedy and tragedy, essayist, gatherer of the humours of folk-lore, imaginative translator of heroic literature, venturesome translator of Moliere, she has contributed a greater variety of grotesque and beautiful things to Anglo-Irish literature than any of her contemporaries.
She owes her chief fame, perhaps, to the way in which, along with Mr. G.A. Birmingham and the authors of Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., she has kept alive the tradition of Ireland as a country in which Laughter has frequent occasion to hold both his sides. She surpasses the others in the quality of her comedy, however. Not that she is more comic, but that she is more comprehensively true to life. Mr. Birmingham has given us farce with a salt of reality; Miss Somerville and Miss Ross, practical jokers of literature, turned to reality as upper-class patrons of the comic; but Lady Gregory has gone to reality as to a cave of treasure. She is one of the discoverers of Ireland. Her genius, like Synge’s, opened its eyes one day and saw spread below it the immense sea of Irish common speech, with its colour, its laughter, and its music. It is a sort of second birth which many Irish men and women of the last generation or so have experienced. The beggar on the road, the piper at the door, the old people in the workhouse, are henceforth accepted as a sort of aristocracy in exile.
Lady Gregory obviously sought out their company as the heirs to a great inheritance—an inheritance of imaginative and humorous speech. Not that she plundered them of their fantastic tropes so greedily as Synge did. She studied rather their common turn of phrase, its heights and its hollows, its exquisite illogic, its passionate underflow of poetry. Has she not herself told us how she could not get on with the character of Bartley Fallon in Spreading the News, till one day she met a melancholy man by the sea at Duras, who, after describing the crosses he endured at home, said: “But I’m thinking if I went to America, it’s long ago I’d be dead. And it’s a great expense for a poor man to be buried in America.” Out of sentences like these—sentences seized upon with the genius of the note-book—she has made much of what is most delightful in her plays. Her sentences are steeped and dyed in life, even when her situations are as mad as hatters.