Fay, Frank J. (Francis John) (1870–1931), actor and theatre producer, was born 30 August 1870 at 10 Lower Dorset Street, Dublin, the eldest son of four children of William Patrick Fay, a government clerk, and his wife, Martha Fay (née Dowling). He was educated at Belvedere College, Dublin, where he learned shorthand and typing, before leaving to become a secretary for an accountancy firm in Dublin. From an early age he had a passion for the theatre and immersed himself in books on the subject, becoming a drama expert. His brother William George Fay (qv) shared his enthusiasm and they took part in many amateur productions, setting up the Ormonde Dramatic Company in 1891.
Fay was an ardent nationalist and Arthur Griffith (qv) appointed him drama critic for his newspaper the United Irishman (1899–1902), where he developed his ideas on how the theatre should be run. Initially in favour of plays in the Irish language, he soon abandoned this as unworkable. In May 1901 he attacked W. B. Yeats (qv) for his faulty notions about theatre and even his work as a dramatist, ending with the fiercely nationalistic assertion that ‘there is a herd of Saxon and other swine fattening on us. They must be swept into the sea with the pestilent breed of West Britons with which we are troubled, or they will sweep us there’ (Hogan, Towards a national theatre, 53); Yeats's and Lady Gregory's (qv) next play was ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’. In 1902 Fay wrote a famous article advocating a national theatre company that would ‘be the nursery of an Irish dramatic literature which, while making a world-wide appeal, would see life through Irish eyes’ (Hogan, op. cit., 56). He was a member of his brother's National Dramatic Society, which merged with the Irish Literary Theatre in 1902 to form the Irish National Theatre Society, the originating body of the Abbey Theatre; the following year Yeats declared that the national theatre owed its existence to the two Fay brothers. Frank soon abandoned Griffith and began to champion the cause of Yeats.
An excellent tragic actor, Fay could make audiences forget his short stature (he was less than five feet six inches tall) through the power of his voice. When the Abbey opened on 27 December 1904 he starred in Yeats's ‘On Baile strand’ as Cú-Chulainn (qv), a role he made his own. Frank spent much time training the other actors. As an elocution teacher he had no equal; one play had Yeats leaving with his ‘head on fire’ (Flannery, 174) because of the quality of the voices on stage. Yeats dedicated his play ‘The king's threshold’ (1904) with the words: ‘In memory of Frank Fay and his beautiful speaking in the character of Seanchan.’
Frank had a close but turbulent relationship with his brother Willie, whom he deferred to in all theatrical matters except acting; their heated arguments sometimes led to blows. His temper was always volatile and he was prone to histrionics and fits of depression. After 1905 the Abbey became a limited company owing to the patronage of Annie Horniman (qv), and the Fays lost most of their control, which resulted in much tension and bitterness. In 1907 Frank played Shawn Keogh in the first production of ‘The playboy of the western world’ by J. M. Synge (qv). Disagreements with Yeats over the approach to choosing and staging of plays came to a head late in that year and the Fays resigned on 13 January 1908; on 13 March they were suspended from the Irish National Theatre Society. They toured America with Charles Frohman before separating. Frank then toured England in minor Shakespearean roles and melodrama. Between 1912 and 1914 Thomas MacDonagh (qv) and Joseph Mary Plunkett (qv) attempted to persuade him to become actor-manager of an Irish theatre. In 1918 he returned to the Abbey in two short-lived revivals, of Yeats's ‘The hour glass’ and ‘The king's threshold’. He retired to Dublin permanently in 1921, teaching elocution and directing plays in local colleges.
Fay married, in 1912, Freda, known as ‘Bird’. They lived at Upper Mount Street, Dublin, and had one son, Gerard, who became a popular writer and memoirist. Frank Fay died 2 January 1931, having never really recovered from the death of his wife, and was buried at Glasnevin cemetery. He is credited with creating the Abbey Theatre style of acting, which became internationally known, and influenced many other schools of acting. He wanted actors to behave as naturally as possible and to speak the lines as people would in real life, rather than with an exaggerated stage delivery. His training was a major influence on subsequent generations, as actors learned to ‘speak words with quiet force, like feathers borne on puffs of wind’ (Frazier, 98).