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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 9, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

    Don’t Miss This Classic

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Before it reaches the end of its run at the Abbey Theatre, do try and get along to see the latest production of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. It is one of a number of productions of this play I have seen over the years at the national theatre and it happens to be a particularly good one.

    The outstanding performance of Joe Hanley as a bowler-hatted Fluther Good owes much to Beckett and to the actor’s own grasp of the nuances of Dublin working-class speech, mannerism and intonation. Cathy Belton as the funeral-loving Mrs Gogan is a riot and she has an alternative career in stand-up comedy if she ever gets tired of the conventional stage.

    Indeed, the cast in general are excellent and it is great and indeed quite moving to see a new generation of actors getting to grips with and putting their stamp on one of the classics of the Irish stage.

    In reality, though, I would say the play is only “half a classic”. The scenes leading up to the 1916 Rising are hilarious and at the same time very pointed and even profound. The play rather  loses its way after that.

    What a great favour the protesters did when they objected so vociferously to the drama when it first hit the stage in 1926. They made O’Casey’s name forever. Mind you, it must have been hard for them to sit and watch his portrayal of his former comrades in the Irish Citizen Army as egotistical and/or somewhat cowardly shape-throwers. You go away thinking: bloody great writer, nasty little man.

    • robespierre says:

      You might say that about O’Casey Deaglán but I certainly wouldn’t judge him anywhere near as harshly as that. Juno and the Paycock is his more substantial work but in many ways Shadow of a Gunman is the key to all three pieces with its oppressive paranoia and grim gallows humour. What SOTG does is emphasize that these plays are not Shakespearean in their sweep. They are not about people that make things happen. Neither are they about people who watch things happen (though this is hinted throughout). It is really about people who don’t know what is happening, have almost no role in it and yet are devastated by it. It is closer to Steinbeck than Fitzgerald.

      The vaudeville aspects of the two ensemble plays, certainly in the case of Plough, makes the gear-change towards the end of the play melodramatic and it hasn’t aged well. The fight over the pram however remains one of the funniest in Irish theatre nonetheless.

      Getting back to your point however, would you say the same about Siegfried Sassoon or any of the numerous writers who are haunted by the violence they have witnessed? You have been around enough political conventions to recognise a little Irelander or a grandiose Dub for that matter. I believe one ran the country recently (into the ground… boom boom).

      Frank O’Connor got great mileage out of the fíor-Ghael who is close if more thinly drawn than the broader characters O’Casey drew. Flann O’Brien also wrote about these people (in the IT). Did that make them nasty little men or observers / creators of composite characters that in a didactic way represented Irish values and Irish society in the first half of the last century?

    • My point is that O’Casey was a leading light in the Citizen Army, then dropped out when they recruited Countess Markiewicz apparently. He took no part in the Rising but sees fit to present his erstwhile comrades who put their lives on the line as vainglorious, wife-abusing and somewhat cowardly. It’s nasty stuff. Whether the Rising was a good idea or not may be a matter of debate, but the small band who challenged the greatest empire in the world deserve at least recognition of their bravery. Jack, the Citizen Army fellow and his wife Nora are the least successful characters in the play: O’Casey was great at vaudeville but had problems portraying people who could not be turned into figures of fun.

    • robespierre says:

      But there again isn’t the reckless naivety of 1916, the pomposity of a “proclamation”, the folly of going ahead without the Irish volunteers (the minority of a minority of a minority) what he is to some extent lampooning?

      The Citizen Army was a farce made up in the main of an idealistic platoon of Starry Plough trade unionists (most had beards and moustaches back then too).

      When it comes to Countess Markiewicz she is somebody that divides opinion. Some would say O’Casey read her and her acolytes in the ICA well, others like yourself believe that he misrepresented them very unfairly.

      I think it is better we have his trilogy as an historical narrative of those 7 tumultuous years and that we can give thanks and praise to the greater scions of greater men for the peace that we have been blessed with since 1922.

      While 1916 is a milestone in our history, I will always look upon it as an abhorrent event that was in all likelihood unnecessary.

    • I hold no brief for Countess M. though she was said to be very good to the poor. My point really is that the motives of the ICA members were demeaned by O’Casey. Mind you, the presentation of “The Speaker” and his bloodlust in the play is sobering stuff and a good illustration of nationalism in toxic mode. While the Young Covey with his “Jenersky’s Thesis” is hilarious, it is a pity O’Casey did not have a character presenting a serious democratic socialist viewpoint that was different from James Connolly’s.

    • jo bangles says:

      ‘Only half a classic’…damned with faint praise Deaglan…
      It would seem writerly types don’t take kindly to criticism as this response from J.M. Synge to the sister of a friend who had the temerity to dislike ‘The Playboy of The Western World’ demonstrates …
      ‘Lord confound that surly sister,
      Blight her brow with blotch and blister,
      Cramp her larynx lung and liver,
      In her guts a galling give her’…
      I believe the correspondence between O’Casey and his citics was equally acrimonious but highly entertaining nonetheless, as indeed the ‘compliments that flew’ between Behan and Kavanagh and of course dear Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde and humanity generally…I am a mere novice by comparison…!

    • jo bangles says:

      And there’s more…

      ‘Let her live to eat her dinners,
      In Mountjoy with seedy sinners,
      Lord,his judgment swiftly bring,
      I am, your servant, J.M. Synge…’

      Good eh?

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