Tonight I saw a performance of The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey at The National Theatre. It follows a group of Dubliners during the days and months leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916. Although they are not all blood related, the play focuses on a “family” that lives in a tenement house. Tenement housing was the main housing for the middle and lower classes of Ireland, ranging from somewhat bad to incredibly squalid conditions. The playwright, O’Casey, was the secretary of the Irish Citizens Army, which was one of the several militias that began during 1914-1916. The ICA was founded to protect workers from the brutality of the police during the Dublin Lockout of 1913-1914. O’Casey wrote a play about the Dublin that he saw and lived in during this time, rather than the Ireland that some of the Irish Nationalists dreamt of.
In short: this is not a heroic tale.
It’s been brought to my attention how “victorious” we Americans are, but rarely do I actually notice how much Americans love to win. Before this performance, my last example of this was watching the newest Star Trek movie. A foreign friend of mine pointed out how “American” the plot was, and I hadn’t even noticed it. The gruff handsome underdog pulls through for the side of justice right after we think he/she isn’t going to win. Of course there are examples of the American competitiveness every which way, but it’s always more interesting to me in movies, books, or plays. Sorry Irish Nationalists, but the Easter Rising really did not do much for Ireland except kill more civilians than soldiers and add yet another bittersweet memory to the country’s history. (Hopefully the IRA won’t read this..) At intermission I was sitting and thinking, “Why does something not feel right about this show?” I realized it was because I was focusing too much on the search for a glorious victory by the Irish underdogs. I wanted fast action, courageous words, and sacrifice for the sake of redemption. The program put it perfectly,
“There was no glory and no redemption: his was a story of tragedies, large and small, and of the unfolding of history against the backdrop of the monotony of everyday life.”
Victories and losses are everywhere in the monotony of everyday life, although many experience and recount their losses much more than their victories. Which you focus on depends on the type of person you are, and usually one type of person is happier than the other.
The screens (or curtains, as they used to be) split in the middle and opened like a movie screen.It made me feel like we were stepping into the scene rather than the scene being presented to the audience. The set was a multi-sided turn table that had a bar, two apartments, an outside wall, and the front of the tenement building. The top of the building looked like a bomb had crumbled away the roof and left bricks in artistic disarray. There was an almost mustard yellow color that pervaded every room or building. A faded, worn, and poor looking color that added to the air of ordinary depression. Suffering is not a new experience for the Irish, it is something that is somewhat proudly displayed about their history. The pride that the Irish people have persevered through all the hard times and still can sit and laugh with you at the pub. Because most of the scenes were inside, there was a great sense of escaping or yearning to leave from the characters. This was helped by windows constantly glowing with a golden hue casting shadows upon the floor. The light seemed to represented hope for a new future outside of the tenement house, or whatever poor situation they were in-a new life.
The wife, Nora, has a breakdown after she has a miscarriage (due to her husband pushing her to the ground) and has a whole scene very similar to the “Out, damn’d spot” scene in Macbeth. Wait, why is everything coming back to Macbeth? Her husband, Jack, is the commandant of the Irish Volunteers, and very briefly returns to Nora to say hello and goodbye. Nora’s conflict centers around a man’s duty to his wife and family or his duty to his country. It’s very rare that you see men in plays expected to be dutiful to their family, especially as a plead from his wife. The women are supposed to “be brave” and encourage their “heroes,” are they not? When Nora goes to the barricades to search for her husband she is chastised by hussies and soldiers that she is shaming her husband and her country by not wanting him to fight. I think that attitude still stands for most Americans, although it is not seen as so “cowardly” when people avoid fighting. Nora had a very distinct voice-extremely low and scratchy unlike the Irish stereotype of the high melodic voice. Although, I wonder if her voice was hoarse from yelling and howling so much during the production. It never felt gratuitous or annoying, but Nora did yell quite a lot.
Ireland is a gorgeous country that I was fortunate enough to visit in May of 2015. Dublin was a smaller city with idealistic side streets and old brick buildings, filled with some of the most patriotic people that I’ve ever met. I think the sense of nationalism was heightened when I was in the Irish Republic because gay marriage had just been legalized the day before we arrived in Dublin. There weren’t parades or anything wild, but there was just this presence that Irish people carried that was so proud and patriotic. Of course the Irish patriotism and nationalism was a huge part of this play, but O’Casey was focusing on the patriotism of the civilians. A “No matter how bad it gets, be thankful you’re still an Irishmen (or woman)” type of attitude. Once again showing that prideful perseverance in the Irish culture.
A woman in the tenement house, Bessie Boggins, is shot through the back in the last scene of the play (SPOILERS, I know). Her death was very unfortunate, and not because I was mourning her death. Her death was slow, awkward, and quiet. Once again I think my American Hollywood-disorder is coming through. It’s not the lack of drama that made me uncomfortable, but rather the lack of reason for us watching her death. What purpose is O’Casey serving by having us sit and watch this woman lie on the ground for a silent minute? Bessie is one of the most hated characters who ends with a surprising act of kindness. During the Easter Rising more than half of the deaths were of civilians, so I gather Bessie’s death is written in to show how many innocent lives were taken or destroyed (like Nora’s) by this rebellion.
Finally, I’ll talk about the Starry Plough, which was a flag originally used by the Irish Citizen Army, a socialist Irish republican movement. “James Connolly, co-founder of the Irish Citizen Army with Jack White, said the significance of the banner was that a free Ireland would control its own destiny from the plough to the stars.” I never noticed the flag anywhere in the play physically, but it was mentioned like a ghost or a dead relative that no one wishes to speak of. Like any flag or symbol, it brought hope to many and a realization of impending tragedy to others. Although many of the Irish wanted to be part of their own republic, they knew what cost it would be at and were not sure if it was worth it, which is still in debate by some historical scholars.