Storm in a tassie: the playwright, the poet and the Abbey Theatre


As Seán O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie opens in Galway, Sara Keatingexamines the Abbey Theatre’s rejection of the play in 1928 – a move that led to a bitter public row in the pages of The Irish Timesbetween O’Casey and WB Yeats

‘YOU HAVE disgraced yourselves again,” WB Yeats reprimanded the audience at the Abbey Theatre on February 11th, 1926, as Sinn Féiner’s booed and cursed Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the Stars, which they found deeply offensive to the memory of those who died in the 1916 Rising.

Two years later, it was perhaps Yeats who disgraced himself in the public spat that followed his rejection of Seán O’Casey’s next play, The Silver Tassie, which will be brought to rare life in a new production by Druid Theatre next week.

While the play itself would not be seen in Ireland until 1935, the drama of its rejection dominated the pages of The Irish Timesfor several weeks. There were leaked letters, threatened lawsuits, literary insults thrown in from both sides, and a lengthy debate about the state and future of the Abbey Theatre, which continued right through to the brief reconciliation between the two writers for the play’s Irish premiere, and which pulled the final curtain down on O’Casey’s relationship with the Abbey Theatre and with Ireland.

Before The Silver Tassiecontroversy, O’Casey was already making headlines. The controversy attendant upon The Plough and the Starsnotwithstanding, The Dublin Trilogyhad become a staple of the Abbey repertoire, and as Yeats publicly admitted “the Abbey owe(s) its recent prosperity to you”. But O’Casey’s fame had reached international heights and, contrary to popular belief that Yeats’s rejection of The Silver Tassiewas the catalyst for his emigration, O’Casey had actually moved to England in 1927, seduced by offers from Hollywood by Alfred Hitchcock among others.

The common topic of gossip in Dublin’s artistic circles was whether O’Casey was more interested in money than in art. However, it was distance from Dublin which allowed O’Casey to begin work on his most ambitious and experimental play yet. The Silver Tassiewould move away from the domestic settings of Dublin to examine the effect of war on a broader canvas, that of the first World War, and from the predominantly realist framework of The Dublin Trilogy, to explore the expressionistic possibilities of the modern stage.

When O’Casey finished the play early in 1928, he sent it to the Abbey Theatre, where Lady Gregory, Lennox Robinson and WB Yeats were all furnished with copies to read. None of them was especially enamoured with the play, whose four acts invoke dissonance rather than dramatic unity (“Aristotle is all balls!” is one of O’Casey’s more famous remarks on the subject), and whose subject matter was far from the increasingly conservative thrust of the Abbey’s programme. The Abbey had only recently been awarded its State subsidy and with several members of the new Free State government on the board of directors, was acutely conscious of potential controversies; the involvement of more than 200,000 Irish soldiers in the first World War was still something of a taboo in the increasingly insular newly independent country.

IT HAS BEEN SUGGESTEDthat the first mistake in the affair that unfolded was Lady Gregory’s. She had been charged with conveying the directors’ reservations to O’Casey in London, but instead she directly forwarded Yeats’s criticisms of the play, the pedantic tone of which left absolutely no room for misinterpretation.

O’Casey, always eager to rabble-rouse, forwarded the letters for publication to a variety of newspapers. The correspondence, published in full in The Irish Timesthroughout the week of June 4th, makes for a thrilling analysis of the two infamously bristling personalities who were enacting a greater battle than personal politics; the tension between classical art and emerging modern modes of thinking.

Yeats’s letter went straight for the jugular, providing a barbed backhanded compliment to O’Casey (“you couldn’t go on writing slum plays forever”) before proceeding to call his pursuit of new territory “sad and discourag[ing].” Apart from specific criticisms about the form of the play (“I don’t think the mixture of the two manners – the realism of the first act and the unrealism of the second – succeeds”), his criticisms went further and took on a strangely subjective and personal tone. The Silver Tassie, Yeats wrote, with no hope that the play might be salvaged, “ha[s] no subject . . . You are not interested in the Great War . . . [which] obtrudes upon the stage as so much dead wood . . . I cannot advise you to amend the play. It is all too abstract after the first act: the second act is an interesting technical experiment . . . and after that there is nothing.”

He ended by extending sympathy where he could not extend practical advice. “I can imagine how much you have toiled over this play. A good scenario writes itself . . . but a bad scenario exacts the most miserable toil.” What seems to have really infuriated O’Casey was the letter from Yeats to Lady Gregory, which had also found its way to him, in which Yeats suggested that O’Casey “withdraw [the play] for revision and let that be known to the press, saying that he himself has become dissatisfied and had written to ask it back”.

Yeats thought to save O’Casey from public embarrassment; O’Casey thought he would stand behind his play instead. It appears to be Yeats’s suggestion that he shirk from publicity that spurred O’Casey on towards the public spat. “Since Mr Yeats has run up and shouted a lot of things in O’Casey’s window,” O’Casey wrote in defence of his decision to leak the personal correspondence, “he shouldn’t be surprised, and he mustn’t be sulky, when he finds O’Casey hammering at the Yeatsian door . . .”

He would save face by exposing Yeats’s pomposity and his old-fashioned ideas instead, and O’Casey’s lengthy response, which was also published in The Irish Times, was a brilliantly caustic rebuttal of Yeats’s rejection ( see below).

Yeats’s suggestion that O’Casey was not “interested” in the Great War was particularly injurious to O’Casey. In fact, O’Casey had long been obsessed with the first World War, in which his brother, Mick, fought, while he himself had spent a lengthy period being treated for tuberculosis in St Vincent’s hospital in 1916, which was then being used primarily for treating the war-wounded. Indeed the shadow of the first World War hangs over The Plough in the Stars; Bessie Burgess, the most heroic character in the play, is mother to a soldier who sacrifices his life for King and Country. Just because he did not serve in the war, O’Casey wrote, did not mean he was not qualified to write about it. He taunted Yeats: “Someone I think wrote a poem about Tír na nÓg who never took a header in the Land of Youth.”

Although seriously slighted by the Abbey’s rejection, O’Casey had already secured a publishing contract with Macmillan Press, and, aware that no publicity is bad publicity, requested that the correspondence between him and Yeats be printed as a preface to the play. (Although Macmillan declined, they did publish George Bernard Shaw’s defence of O’Casey on the front cover, and the play sold out its first three print runs.)

Yeats’s response to the massive publicity attending the row was to solicit the Society of Authors for information about breach of copyright, but his motion was defeated and over the next few weeks coverage fizzled out into short letters to the editor from neutral parties. On June 21st, O’Casey made his final public statement about the row in a letter to the editor of The Irish Times: “I feel that the rejection of the play has done more harm to the Abbey than it has done me and it would be inhuman for me to say that I was sorry for that. So for the present goodbye all and cheerio.”

When The Silver Tassiereceived its first production in London in 1929, with Charles Laughton as Harry Heegan and Barry Fitzgerald as Sylvester Heegan, The Irish Times’sLondon correspondent reported that it was a “remarkable” play. “Among the darker threads of the drama now and again pass passages of great poetic beauty . . . even the commonplace and vulgar being submerged in the glamour of the intense acting.”

The London success, though not unanimous, reopened the wider debate that The Silver Tassie’srejection had inspired: about the Abbey’s increasingly conservative artistic policy. For one letter-writer to the newspaper, CPA, The Silver Tassie’ssuccess was evidence that “centre of interest in the arts in Ireland has passed from Dublin to Belfast”. CPA’s fears were perhaps confirmed when in 1931, the Queen’s University dramatic society petitioned for the rights to secure the Irish premiere of The Silver Tassie. O’Casey, who had already made overtures of forgiveness towards Yeats, suggested that the Abbey should not be trumped for such a privilege. Yeats, who had already approached O’Casey about producing his newly finished play, Within the Gates, tentatively agreed, although he still did not like the play.

THE SILVER TASSIE HADits Irish premiere at the Abbey Theatre on August 12th, 1935, in a production directed by Arthur Shields. Perhaps the controversy remained fresh in Dublin theatre-goers’ minds, or perhaps they were just loyal to the popular playwright who had given them Juno and the Paycockand The Plough and the Stars; the play sold out its entire run before it even opened. O’Casey triumphantly travelled back to Dublin for the opening night. However, the production received almost uniformly hostile reviews from newspapers, apart from The Irish Times, which praised its ability to pass from “naturalism to abstraction . . . successfully”. On the same page, an article titled “Democracy On Trial”, anatomising the rise of dictatorships throughout Europe, suggested how prescient The Silver Tassie’sexamination of the dehumanisation of war would soon again become.

For the most part, however, the production caused massive consternation. Priests preached from the pulpit about the play’s “blasphemous” content; the playwright Brinsley MacNamara, who had only recently been elected to the Abbey’s board of directors, resigned; and The Silver Tassieclosed after just five performances despite its box-office credibility.

The Abbey entered a new period of crisis and O’Casey left Dublin, disgusted at the insularity of the Irish imagination.

He would not return to his native country again, except in his plays, where he would continue to excoriate the hypocrisy of a culture that alternately celebrated and censored its artists.

Dear sir Letter to WB Yeats from Seán O’Casey

“You say that ‘I am not interested in the Great War’. Now how do you know that I am not interested in the Great War? Perhaps because I never mentioned it to you. Your statement is to me an impudently ignorant one to make. It happens that I was and am passionately interested in the Great War. Throughout its duration I felt and talked of nothing else . . .

“You say: ‘You never stood on its battlefields.’ Do you really mean that no one should or could write about or speak about a war because one has not stood on the battlefields.

“Were you serious when you dictated that – really serious? . . . some one I think wrote a poem about Tír na n-Óg who never took a header into the Land of Youth.”

This letter first appeared in the Letters page of The Irish Timeson June 4th, 1928

The Silver Tassie