Sean O’Casey’s great epic drama, The Plough and the Stars, caused riots when it opened at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1926, ten years after the 1916 Easter Rising, a six-day military offensive – launched by the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) – that sought to gain complete independence from the British Crown. The Easter Rising attack on key buildings in Dublin, most famously the General Post Office, caused hundreds of civilian deaths and, following the British Army’s crush of the rebellion, resulted in the immediate executions of its major players, most famously Patrick Pearse and James Connolly. Some background knowledge of O’Casey, who was himself a member of the IRB before becoming disillusioned with its nationalistic principles, helps to understand the disturbing effect of The Plough on Irish Republicans in 1926. In particular,The Plough portrays the Irish patriot as a misguided fool, highlights the violence, poverty and bickering that distract the urban poor from rebelling against their squalid conditions, and ridicules the sacred image of a revered Republican hero, Patrick Pearse. But as the play unfolds, it also expresses deep compassion and concern for the 1916 revolutionaries and for the inhabitants of a Dublin tenement where the action takes place. One imagines that O’Casey’s staunch belief in workers’ rights, and for a just world for all working classes, compelled him to write The Plough and the Stars which is the third play of his Dublin trilogy: the first being The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), the second Juno and the Paycock (1924).
In the first moments of The Plough, we are introduced to Fluther Good, a carpenter (Stephen Kennedy), as he meticulously refines the mechanisms of a door until it works so smoothly that ‛it opens and closes itself’. The pride that Fluther takes in a job well done is offset by the narrow-mindedness of Mrs. Gogan, a charwoman (Josie Walker), who makes mean-spirited comments about Nora Clitheroe (Judith Roddy), and Nora’s relationship with her husband Jack Clitheroe, a bricklayer (Fionn Walton). The dialogue between Nora and Jack foretells of a dark and dangerous outcome, not only for their marriage but for every character in the play. Perhaps it is the heavily pregnant Nora and The Young Covey, her lodger and an ardent socialist (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), who espouse most fervently O’Casey’s own political views. Nora sees through the jingoism that incites men to take up arms, while The Young Covey renounces patriotic fervor: ‛There’s no such thing as an Irishman, or an Englishman, or a German, or a Turk, scientifically speaking, it’s all a question of the accidental gathering of molecules,’ he says. Covey taunts Nora’s Uncle Peter (Lloyd Hutchinson), a comic character adorned in bombastic attire: gold braid, white breeches, sabre sword and ostrich-plumed hat. He bears the whiff of latter day despots: Mussolini, Hitler and Idi Amin. Of pointed interest is the fate of Bessie Burgess, a Protestant-Irish fruit vendor (Justine Mitchell) whose son is fighting for the British Army. O’Casey’s characters are so finely tuned in Act I that the subsequent acts – II, III and IV – play themselves. There can be no other outcome. This is not to say that the play does not hold a surprise or two – it does – as does its visual impact.
The set design (Vicki Mortimer) and the lighting design (James Farncombe) are flawlessly accurate, speak with a romantic vocabulary but sometimes loom too large for the play’s dramatic content. If there is a fault with The Plough it is that, although beautifully acted, the staging sometimes competes with the actors. It needs to be pared back, which is also true of its direction (co-directors Jeremy Herrin, Howard Davies). One has the impression that Herrin and Davies revere O’Casey’s words and were extremely cautious with their interpretation of the text, but the pub brawl between Mrs. Gogan and Bessie needs to be revisited. However, they’ve tackled a monumental work and their love shines through, as does O’Casey’s message that we are all brethren responsible for one another.
E.M. Forster, a contemporary of O’Casey, summed it up when he wrote: ‛If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’
Review by Loretta Monaco
The Plough and the Stars
From November 1915 to Easter 1916, as the rebellion builds to a climax half a mile away, the disparate residents of a Dublin tenement go about their lives, peripheral to Ireland’s history.
Sean O’Casey places a fixed lens to watch as a dozen vivid characters come and go – selfless, hilarious and desperate by turns – while the heroic myth of Ireland is fought over elsewhere.
To mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, the National stages an epic new production of O’Casey’s greatest play.
The Plough and the Stars at the Lyttelton Theatre
National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes inc 20 min interval