Ploughing history into every production
Theatrical props anchor a play to a time and place. They transport both cast and audience to the heart of the play. This is especially true at the Abbey, where the current production of The Plough and the Starsuses props dating back to the play’s premiere in 1926, writes SARA KEATING
AT THE Abbey, props – that is “theatrical properties” to give them their proper name – provide a secret history of the theatre. The ghosts of long-dead actors sit in chairs that are still recycled between productions, while the shadow of other plays hover above an original Victorian pram that has been used at the Abbey since its very first years. Such objects accrue stories in the same way that cities or buildings or people do. They are a palimpsest of many different lives and different uses.
They carry legends that are usually lost as actors and artists pass on: nobody thinks to write them down.
The props collected by the Abbey for The Plough and the Starssince the play’s controversial premiere in 1926 provide one such alternative narrative of the theatre and the play’s history. The play was censored by the theatre throughout the rehearsal process, with actors refusing to say certain lines and the script being edited right up until opening night, but it still provoked riots as explosive as those that greeted The Playboy of the Western World. It was also the play that was being performed on the night that the Abbey burned down, fatally, in 1951.
The final moment of the play involves a group of British soldiers evicting tenants of the tenement and singing: “Keep the ’ome fires burnin’.” Poetic coincidence, perhaps.
In the Abbey bar, archivist Mairéad Delaney, prop master Stephen Molloy and prop maker Eimear Murphy, introduce me to some of the historical secrets of the play and idiosyncratic details of the contemporary production that lie bound up with the props of The Plough and the Stars.
1 UNCLE PETER’S SWORD
A beautiful dress sword with “fine figaries on it”, the Abbey once had a valuable version of Uncle Peter’s sword, which served the theatre for more than 75 years and was so precious it was guarded by the wardrobe mistress.
There are pictures of it in the Abbey’s archive in every production of the play from 1926 to 1964. But then it “suddenly vanished a few years ago”. “That happens to props,” Murphy says, “especially fake money, which we now stamp with the Bank of the Abbey Theatre to stop people stealing it, but maybe that makes it more attractive!”
The sword, known backstage as Uncle Peter’s Sword, hasn’t been seen since the last production of the play in 2002, so Murphy was charged with finding a replacement. “It is a very particular kind of sword,” she says. “Not like one you would use for duelling in Macbeth. It is a ceremonial one. I couldn’t find anything suitable, so we have ended up renting a reproduction one, which I have dressed up with gold lace and tassels and decorations so that it is the fancy sword that the script asks for.”
2 THE TRICOLOUR/THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS
Some of the starkest visual moments of The Plough and the Starsrevolve around flags, those cloth symbols of nation and ideology. The flags have provided no end of trouble for this production, which is using cloth backdrops as the basis of an abstracted set design, but which is also being confronted with the complexities of historical accuracy (or rather inaccuracy) in the original play.
Meanwhile, the Plough and Stars flag, the flag of the Irish Citizen Army, was the subject of some debate, as different websites offered different colour schemes, some more suited to the aesthetic of director Wayne Jordan’s production than the brassy green and yellow of the original. To compromise, the flag has been distressed and faded by Murphy, who also made the tricolour from scratch.
“I used calico to give it the homemade feel it would have had back then, and washed it out and distressed it. Broken down: that’s what we call it when we have to make something that needs to look old!”
3 MOLLSER’S COFFIN
At the end of Act Three, the young Mollser dies of consumption and her coffin provides a visual centrepiece to the end of the play.
“We’ve loads of coffins, a whole selection in Finglas,” Molloy says. “But for this production, we ended up making two new ones. The [production team] wanted something very specific at the start, so I made that, but really it looked too much like a coffin when it would have been more like a rectangular box they would have made themselves from scrap wood, so I did that too.”
The cobbled-together coffin, made from leftover floorboards by Molloy in “a couple of hours”, is the one they will use on stage.
“But we played a trick with it,” Murphy says. “A real cheat. The actress playing Mollser is absolutely tiny but even she wouldn’t fit into it, it is so small.” Mollser’s death is the symbol of the sacrifice of humanity for revolution in the play. “So we made it smaller to increase the pathos.”
4 MRS GOGAN’S PRAM
The pram being used for the looting in Act Three is one of the oldest props at the Abbey. An original Victorian pram, it was used in the very first production of the play and every production since. Over 100 years old, it is in a delicate state; “one of the wheels is just taped on at this stage”, Murphy says. It was also badly damaged in the fire of 1951, so that while the frame of the pram is original, its casing isn’t. With its delicate frame and unique wooden handles it is totally authentic, and has been especially reserved over the years for The Plough and the Stars.
Murphy is a bit nervous about its performance in this new production, as it becomes the subject of a tug-of-war between Bessie Burgess and Mrs Gogan. The actors are using a different one in rehearsal because “the pram is really on its last legs”.
It will probably retire soon, but the Abbey team wouldn’t dream of getting rid of it. “It will come up to the archive,” Delaney insists, in anticipation of another treasure to add to her trove.
5 BESSIE BURGESS’ SHAWL
For many years at the Abbey, the figure of Bessie Burgess – her face “hardened by toil” and “coarsened by drink” – was defined by the shawl that she wore; a shawl that has been in the Abbey’s costume department since the 1920s.
It is one of a pair of Traveller blankets, striking woven wool blankets that were given to Traveller brides on their wedding day and which were used by Traveller women throughout their life for a variety of purposes.
The first visual evidence of the shawl comes from a production of The Playboy of the Western Worldin 1925 and it has been used in many Synge productions over the years, as well as in every production of The Plough and the Stars.
There is a picture of Siobhan McKenna, coddled by the shawl, haggling over the pram, in the 1976 production of the play. “The audience won’t know that, but these sorts of histories really do help the actors. It gives them a sense of connection and authenticity,” Murphy says. It summons the ghosts of their forebears to the stage with them as inspiration.
6 THE ORIGINAL PROMPT SCRIPT
Not quite a prop, but a vital material artefact for this production of the play, is the original prompt script for The Plough and the Stars, which was discovered by Delaney at the back of a filing cabinet.
It was rescued from the stage on the night of the Abbey fire in 1951 and is singed at the edges, while some of the pages are charred.
The typed script is still legible, however, but the most interesting text is the layered handwriting of O’Casey himself, a variety of production crew, and actors passing by the stage manager’s table, where the script would have sat.
Some of the notes suggest that changes were being made all the time during rehearsals, and some of the changes are dramatic enough to change the entire interpretation of the play.
Wayne Jordan and the production crew for this most recent production have been consulting it throughout this rehearsal period too, to sort out “loads of practical conundrums”, as Delaney says.
“You wouldn’t believe how important finding something like this is to understanding the play.”