Fay, William George (‘Wille’) (1872–1947), actor and producer, was born 12 November 1872 at Rathmines, Dublin, one of four children of William Patrick Fay, a government clerk, and his wife, Martha (née Dowling), from a midlands farming family. After teaching for a time at the Model School in Marlborough Street, Dublin, William's father worked as a civil servant at the education office in Dublin. William was first educated at Marlborough Street and subsequently at Belvedere College, Dublin, where he displayed little interest in academic matters, failing to pass his intermediate examinations. He also failed the civil service exams and became a clerk to a chartered accountant in Dublin, though it was clear from an early stage that he and his elder brother Frank (qv), given their frequent visits to theatres and musical halls and domestic efforts to replicate what they had seen on stage, were primarily interested in the acting profession. The response of their father, a strict disciplinarian who wanted civil servant sons, was ‘I don't approve, and if you go, it's good-bye’ (Fay, 41). Lessons at Maud Randford's drama school at Westland Row in Dublin city further whetted the appetite for drama, though the underdeveloped state of the theatre in Dublin at the end of the nineteenth century suggested there was little prospect of regular employment.
Together with his brother Frank, William formed the Ormonde Dramatic Company in 1891 and began staging plays in various Dublin locations including St. Theresa's church in Clarendon Street. In order to supplement his income, William became a scene painter for the Gaiety theatre and spent some time travelling both Ireland and Britain with Lloyd's Mexican circus, which afforded him further opportunity to teach himself stage carpentry. An outstanding comedian, William made his first appearance on stage at the Queen's theatre in 1901 and in Dublin started a drama company with the intention of presenting Irish plays. In the same year he directed the first public performance of an Irish language play, Fr Patrick Dinneen's (qv) ‘An tobair draoidheachta’ and in 1902 a turning point in his career was reached with the production of George Russell's (qv) ‘Deirdre’ and a play by W. B. Yeats (qv), ‘Kathleen Ni Houlihan’, both staged in Clarendon Street. He soon caught the attention of other leading theatrical figures such as Maud Gonne (qv) and Augusta Gregory (qv), and Yeats believed that he was without parallel as a comedian on the English-speaking stage. With such artists, the Fay brothers inaugurated in 1902 the W. G. Fay's Irish National Dramatic Company which became the Irish National Theatre Society in 1903, and a year later took up the management of the newly founded Abbey theatre. Although the Fays’ connection with the Abbey was to be short-lived, the historian of the theatre, Hugh Hunt (qv), noted that, even if William was rated as a flawed actor by some, he and his brother transformed ‘a predominantly literary movement into a living theatrical entity with its distinct national flavour and stylistic form’ (Hunt, 32). Their contribution was also acknowledged by George Russell who insisted that the success of the theatre could be attributed to the Fays for providing continuity at a time when Yeats was frequently absent from Dublin. Strongly influenced by new forms of acting emanating from theatre on the Continent, the Fays were driven more by artistic than nationalist motives, and Arthur Griffith (qv) and Maud Gonne resigned from the Irish National Theatre Society in October 1903 because they believed the brothers lacked the required political commitment.
William's real passion was for stage management and production and he gave careful attention to developing an acting style characterised by economy of gesture and movement, which was also reflected in the comic parts which he frequently played, such as the fool in ‘On Baile's strand’ in December 1904 when the Abbey opened, the beggarman in Yeats's ‘Pot of broth’, and his most memorable part, as Christy Mahon in J. M. Synge's (qv) ‘Playboy of the western world’, which gave full scope to his comic gifts. His brother Frank concentrated more on literature, poetry and voice production. Conflict over control of the Abbey was perhaps inevitable given the multitude of artistic temperaments involved and William, sometimes displaying a violent temper, insisted on absolute discipline in his role as production manager. Other tensions were to emerge over the literary and political content of the plays: the selection of dramas by the reading committee and the question of the kind of audience the theatre wished to attract. Regarding the last of these, William was unashamedly a populist – as he recorded in a self-serving biography, written in 1935, he preferred a working class audience ‘who in every country make the best theatrical audiences because they come to the theatre to be entertained and not to digest their dinners’. The Abbey had much initial success, but also courted controversy – largely over touring and funding – the financial support of Annie Horniman (qv), an associate of Yeats, was essential but she disliked the management of William, accusing him of financial and artistic neglect and attempted to have him replaced by an English director. Although this initiative failed, eventually William, who was completely overworked, was forced to share some of his management duties with the English director, Iden Payne. William claimed to have anticipated the Playboy riots of January 1907, recalling that he knew the play would cause serious trouble and had unsuccessfully asked Synge to re-write parts of it.
Ultimately, Fay reached a point where he resented his role, seeing himself as being the hireling of the literary-minded directorate, and confessed that both he and Frank grew tired of the Yeats-Gregory management. Having been informed that the theatre had to operate as a venue for intellectual drama, however unpopular it proved, both Fays promptly resigned from the Abbey and left the country. William first travelled to America where he successfully produced a repertory of Irish plays for Charles Forham and he subsequently built a successful career on the English stage. From 1918 onwards he acted in and produced his own shows in London, and worked as a producer for the Nottingham Repertory Company, and at the Q theatre. From 1925 to 1927 he produced for the Buckingham Repertory Company. He later appeared in films, including Carol Reed's Odd man out (1947), in which he portrayed a Belfast priest. He died 27 October 1947 in London.
William married the actress Brigit O'Dempsey in Glasgow in 1906. They had a son, Desmond (1915–98), who served as a major in the London Irish Rifles during the second world war and won the MC, before eventually settling in Ireland; he was an active figure in Fr James McDyer's (qv) rural development schemes in Co. Donegal and afterwards in the Animal Rescue Group in Dublin.