Waddell, Samuel John (‘Rutherford Mayne’) (1878–1967), playwright, actor, and civil servant, was born 15 July 1878 in Tokyo, Japan, the fourth child (and fourth son) among eight sons and two daughters of the Revd Hugh Waddell (1840–1901), a presbyterian missionary born in Glenarm, Co. Antrim, and Jane Waddell (née Martin), of Katesbridge Co. Down. His sister was Helen Waddell (qv), a prominent Latin scholar and author. He received primary education in Tokyo under his parents' tutelage.
His father's liberal and tolerant outlook, and erudition in secular as well as religious literature, influenced Samuel's attitudes and interests; his perspective on the land question in Ireland was informed by having observed the plight of the peasantry amid the social upheavals of early Meiji Japan. The family went to Belfast in 1892 during his mother's terminal illness. After his father's remarriage and return to Japan (1893), Samuel and his five eldest siblings remained with relatives in Ireland. Though secondary sources assert that he was educated at the RBAI, matriculation documentation pertinent to the RUI states that he attended St Malachy's College, Belfast (at neither can his attendance be confirmed by primary documentation). Evidence indicates that at some undetermined point in his life he converted to catholicism.
He was employed for a time by McLaughlin & Harvey, building contractors in Belfast. After taking university classes part-time at Kelvin House, Belfast, and studying at QCB, he qualified as an engineer from the RUI (BE, 1907), and was made resident engineer under the county surveyor of Co. Down. Joining the Irish land commission as a junior surveyor in 1909, he worked in the west of Ireland, including Westport, Co. Mayo, and Galway city, involved in redistribution of estate lands. Based subsequently in Dublin, he continued to travel extensively on commission duty in the west and south. He became the commission's chief inspector, and was one of four lay commissioners at his retirement in 1950.
Pursuing a parallel career as playwright and amateur actor, Waddell was the leading figure in Ulster theatre in the first half of the twentieth century. He was introduced in 1902 by a college friend, David Parkhill (qv), to the members of a small, nationalist-minded amateur dramatic company styling itself the Ulster branch of the Irish Literary Theatre, which staged Belfast productions of plays by the Dublin-based literary revivalists, such as W. B. Yeats (qv), George Russell (qv) (‘Æ’), and James Cousins (qv). After a row with Yeats over performance rights, the company reconstituted in 1904 as the Ulster Literary Theatre (ULT) (renamed the Ulster Theatre in 1915), of which Waddell was a founding member, along with Parkhill, Bulmer Hobson (qv), Joseph Campbell (qv), and six others. He contributed to Uladh, the theatre's short-lived publication (November 1904–May 1905), which articulated the company's aim to produce original plays reflecting the distinct and diverse character of Ulster, as one of many regional and sectional identities within Ireland. He first acted with the company in the role of Rab in Parkhill's ‘The enthusiast’ (1905).
Throughout his career, Waddell wrote and performed under the pseudonym ‘Rutherford Mayne’, the two elements of which derived from the names of his paternal granduncle, the American-based adventure writer Captain Mayne Reid (qv), and Reid's maternal grandfather, the Revd Samuel Rutherford; they are also the middle names of two of his own brothers. His first play, ‘The turn of the road’, played to favourable houses when premiered in Belfast in a private production at QCB and publicly in the Ulster Minor Hall (December 1906), and received enthusiastic reviews when performed by the ULT at the Abbey theatre, Dublin (March 1907). Set in rural Co. Down, and dealing with the intense conflict between a young traditional musician and his philistine family and community, the work was the first of Mayne's six realistic ‘farmer's kitchen’ plays written over eight years. He exploited similar themes to comic effect in his highly acclaimed second play, ‘The drone’, a satire on the Ulster work ethic, which became the most popular Irish folk comedy of the early twentieth century. After its first production in two acts by the ULT at the Abbey theatre (April 1908), with the author in the role of Sam Brown, an expanded three-act version was performed in the Belfast Grand Opera House (May 1909) and the Abbey (November 1909), in which form the play was regularly revived in Ireland and Britain for many years.
In 1908, the year before he joined the land commission, Mayne acted professionally with William Mollison's Shakespearean Company on tour in England and Ireland. His third play, ‘The troth’, a one-act tragedy about two nineteenth-century peasant farmers, one catholic and one protestant, who conspire to murder their landlord when threatened with eviction, was premiered by Mollison's company at the Crown theatre, London (October 1908), and at the Gaiety theatre, Dublin (November 1908), and became a popular curtain-raiser for the ULT in ensuing years. Impressed by Mayne's theatrical style, the Ulster-born actor Whitford Kane (1881–1956) sponsored the ULT on successful runs in Liverpool and Manchester (May 1911), and in London (February 1912), which led to an ill-fated American tour (December 1912), which saw ‘The drone’ bomb in NY after only two performances; the American audiences, accustomed to stage-Irish conventions, disliked the lifelike acting, and found nothing comic about a parasitic idler who cunningly dupes his soberly industrious kinfolk.
Mayne's next several plays failed to match the popular and critical success of his first three offerings. ‘The gomeril’, a one-act farcical comedy, was never revived after its sole performance by the Theatre of Ireland in the Dublin Rotunda (April 1909). His plays of the 1910s all were premiered by the ULT at the Belfast Grand Opera House. ‘The captain of the hosts’ (March 1910) was an excessively verbose Shavian drama of ideas in a contemporary suburban setting, culminating in tragedy; Mayne rewrote it as ‘Neil Gallina’ (December 1916). ‘Red turf’ (December 1911), a one-act agrarian tragedy, described by the Northern Whig as making ‘no concessions . . . to the sugar-and-milk school’ (quoted in Zach, xvi), proved unpopular with both Belfast and Dublin audiences, its grim depiction of Irish land hunger being discordant with prevailing contemporary sentiment. ‘If!’ (November 1913) was a three-act political farce; ‘Evening’ (March 1914), a one-act ‘playlet’ dealing with conflict between the generations, was flawed by a sentimental resolution; ‘Industry’ (December 1917), a two-act melodrama, examined the impact of industrialisation on all classes of traditional Irish rural society. His last play for the Ulster Theatre was ‘Phantoms’, a one-act historical drama produced at the Gaiety theatre, Dublin (November 1923). Its anti-war theme, inspired by the recent conflicts in Ireland and Europe, concentrated on indictment of the arms trade; the play also subverted the clichés of literary revival treatments of ancient Irish heroic saga, and of peasant kitchen drama.
Mayne played the leading role in the Ulster Theatre's production of his sister Helen Waddell's play ‘The spoiled Buddha’ (February 1915). Acting throughout the 1920s with both the Ulster and the Abbey theatres, he was rapturously lauded for his Abbey performance in the title role of Eugene O'Neill's ‘The Emperor Jones’ (1927), which he reprised to further acclaim at the Dublin Gaiety (1944). Though he resigned from the board of the Ulster Theatre in 1930, he continued to appear in some of their productions till the company's demise in 1934. Owing to his close association with Lennox Robinson (qv), he wrote his last two plays for the Abbey; despite unconventional elements in style and subject, they approached the success of his earliest compositions.
‘Peter’ (1930), a comedy about an engineering student soon to strike out on his professional career, is constructed as an extended dream sequence. Exploring the condition of the artist in an independent Ireland dominated by a deeply philistine, newly-moneyed class, in his resolution Mayne affirms the efficacy of securing a satisfying, respectable employment that spares one from making a living by marketing one's artistic talent, a viewpoint with autobiographical resonance. In his most notable achievement, ‘Bridgehead’ (1934), he drew from his experiences in the land commission to compose a partly documentary, partly psychological drama about the redistribution of land from landlords to tenants in the west of Ireland at the turn of the century; it won the Casement award for best Irish play of 1934–5. The play is flawed by an idealised portrayal of land commission officials as universally idealistic, impartial, and conscientious.
Though Mayne was a major figure on the Irish stage for many years, his plays disappeared from the standard repertoire in the 1950s, to the detriment of his posthumous reputation. Having become a member of the Irish Academy of Letters in 1937, he was the body's president in 1956, and was also a member of Irish PEN, serving as its president in 1943. He received an honorary D.Litt. from the NUI (1956), and was appointed a trustee of the Belfast Lyric Players’ Theatre (1960). He married (1910) Josephine Campbell (d. 1941), a catholic, and sister of Joseph Campbell and the painter John Campbell (1883–1962); all three siblings were founding members of the ULT. She acted regularly into the 1920s in Mayne's plays and other ULT productions, at first under the stage name ‘Seveen Canmer’, and after marriage as ‘Josephine Mayne’. The couple had one daughter, the stage and radio actress Ginette Waddell.
Waddell married secondly (1943) his deceased wife's sister Frances, who survived him; they had no children. He resided at Furzefield, Westminister Road, Foxrock, Co. Dublin. An avid golfer, he was sometime captain of Foxrock golf club. He died at Our Lady's Manor, Dalkey, Co. Dublin, on 25 February 1967, and was buried, after funeral mass in Foxrock catholic church, in Deansgrange cemetery. His papers are in the Rutherford Mayne archive at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast. A portrait is held by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.