Writers often fancy they’re being iconoclastic or daring when they’re in receipt of nothing but vigorous approval from critics and audiences. What if your work actually caused a riot while it was being performed, though? Such was the reaction to playwright Sean O’Casey when he suggested that the sainted Irish heroes of the 1916 Easter Rising had it wrong and had caused needless loss of life.
O’Casey was hardly a conservative or an Anglophile — a Protestant born John Casey in Dublin in 1880, he became a Nationalist as a young man and worked for James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. But by 1916 he was a socialist and sat out the Easter Rising because he thought any revolutionary uprising ought to be based on class, not nationality or religion. In The Plough and the Stars, he criticized the destruction of innocent life and the Nationalist cause. On the fourth night of performance, in 1926, a riot broke out in the Abbey Theatre in mid play.
The play is the third in O’Casey’s “Dublin trilogy,” each of which casts doubt on the wisdom of the Irish revolutionary urge from a slightly different historical vantage point. His first produced play, Shadow of a Gunman (1923), is set during the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921), which led to major British concessions and the creation of the Irish Free State, a semi-independent member of the British commonwealth. The second play in the trilogy, Juno and the Paycock (1924), takes place in 1922–23, during the Irish Civil War, in which diehard Irish wanting to sever all ties with Britain, called “Republicans,” clashed with moderate “Nationalists” who were satisfied with the Free State status quo.
All three plays are being performed in repertory at off-Broadway’s Irish Rep through June 22, and together they make for a devastating plea against Irish revolutionary fervor. Along with the finest Broadway play of the season, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, these plays tear into sentimental notions that the armed Irish-independence movements were anything but a moral catastrophe that reverberated down the decades, chewing up innocent lives like a ghastly engine of death. All credit to O’Casey for being among the first on the Irish left to dare to describe matters so clearly.
Juno and the Paycock (which was adapted into an Alfred Hitchcock film in 1930) is the best of the three plays, but the bravest is The Plough and the Stars, which went up when wounds were still raw from the doomed Easter rebellion, during which a small band of ultras took up arms in the General Post Office in the middle of Dublin for six days, only to be overwhelmed, and then cut down or captured, by British troops. Connolly and many other leaders were executed after courts-martial.
Those who revere Connolly and Co. may not be aware, or care, that of the 485 people killed during the Rising, most were civilians: The revolutionaries lit a match and set their neighbors on fire. O’Casey, whose tone veered between mordantly funny and melodramatic, bewails the slaughter in The Plough and the Stars. Bricklayer Jack Clitheroe (Adam Petherbridge), a former commandant in the Irish Citizen Army, is living an ordinary working-class existence with his wife, Nora (Clare O’Malley), in 1915. Many Irish, notably Protestants, are fighting for Britain in the Great War. One of them is the son of Bessie Burgess (Maryann Plunkett), an annoying but harmless neighbor who is loudly loyal to the British. Then demonstrations turn into armed conflict.
O’Casey combined an epigrammatic wit — “When a man finds the wonder of one woman beginning to die, it’s usually beginning to live in another” — with a bitter dismay for pointless sectarianism. Jack gets drawn back into the Irish Citizen Army as the Easter Rising looms, his wife begging him to leave such nonsense behind: “Your vanity will be the ruin of you and me.” Rioting began when the original production brought out the Plough and the Stars flag under which Connolly marched, saying it symbolized Ireland’s need to take control of its destiny “from the plough to the stars.” A socialist, Covey (James Russell), who is something of a stand-in for the author, takes a dim view of the banner: “Look here, comrade, there’s no such thing as an Irishman, or an Englishman, or a German or a Turk; we’re all only human beings.” The play slides inexorably toward tragedy.
As directed by Charlotte Moore and acted by a troupe of performers who harmonize nicely together, The Plough and the Stars remains a detailed and affecting portrayal of how political intransigents lead one another toward disaster. Caught in the middle are the ordinary mass of people whose preference for incremental change simply gets shouted down. Nobody is a jihadist for moderation.