The Irish Rep is putting on an ebullient season of Sean O’Casey’s works – readings, films and discussions. The golden centerpiece is full productions of his Dublin Trilogy plays, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, all running in repertory until June 22. The complete schedule can be found at IrishRep.org.
Sean O’Casey was born to Protestant parents in Dublin in 1880, though the last 37 years of his life he lived in England, where he died in 1964. O’Casey was a self-educated bricklayer who became one of the great dramatists of the world, and one of the most hotly controversial of all Irish writers.
“Everyone was getting tired of the Abbey plays so I decided to write one for them,” declared O'Casey, who was then in his early 40s. His first four plays were rejected until The Shadow of the Gunman, which turned out to be his breakthrough in 1923. The next year he followed it up with his undisputed masterpiece Juno and the Peacock, and in 1926 wrote a critical favorite The Plough and the Stars, which caused a riot on opening night at the Abbey.
The Shadow of the Gunman
His first, The Shadow of the Gunman, took place between 1919 and 1921 when Sinn Fein declared Irish Independence and there were armed, tumultuous clashes between the IRA, the army of the new Irish Republic and the British police. The action for all O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy plays takes place in a shabby tenement section of town similar to the one O'Casey was brought up in.
Donal Davoren (James Russell) is a mock poet who is trying to type a poem while his sleepy roommate Seumus Shields (Michael Mellamphy), a street peddler and an IRA sympathizer is getting ready to go to work. This cowardly duo acts like they are innocents on a peaceful perch, though we can hear the shouting of local warriors in the square below.
Donal's tenement neighbors think he is a gunman on the run. One sweet young neighbor, Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy), falls in love with this false shadow gunman and flatters him as a “dangerous patriot.” Since O'Casey termed the play a tragicomedy, we know things will soon go from funny banter to panic to tragedy.
The outside world soon moves into the tenement, and Minnie agrees to hide a bag of bombs for a pal of Seumus in her room. Subsequently the intruders' British auxiliaries, the Black and Tans, discover Minnie and the loot, and she is taken away and gets shot. Donal, the poet, is left with only the shame of guilt or terror's revenge. The play has been skillfully directed by Irish Rep's Producing Director Ciaran O'Reilly. O'Casey eloquently captures the tenement's characters, their voices and feelings, though ultimately I felt the play was a bit structurally flawed. In O'Casey's next play all that will be remedied.
Juno and the Paycock
Juno and the Paycock came a year later, in 1924, and this classic stirs O'Casey's deep tragicomedy imagination. It zeros in on another Dublin tenement resident, the Boyle family: “Captain” Jack Boyle, (Reilly this time is on stage acting the Captain), his wife Juno (Maryann Plunkett), named after the month of June and their two children Johnny (Ed Malone), who lost an arm in the rebellion against the Brits and daughter Mary (Sarah Street), who is out of work since the play's timeframe is set during the Irish Civil War (1922-1923), which brought on labor as well as political problems.
The plays major shifting conflict is between the undependable Captain Jack, the “Paycock” of the play, who is in his 60s and out of work, and his responsible wife Juno, 45 years old, who 20 years ago must have been pretty, but as O'Casey notes in his stage directions, "She has the face of the woman of the working class: a look of listless monotony and harassed anxiety, blending with an expression of mechanical resistance.” Juno is the sole wage earner in the Boyle household.
Captain Jack thinks of himself as a swaggering “peacock” of a man and a maritime luminary since he once crossed the Irish Sea and visited Liverpool. He and his tall and lanky sidekick Joxer Daly (John Keating) act like a couple of retired loafers, always in search for that next pint. Captain Jack and Joxer's patter reminds me of a Shakespearian comic character like Falstaff and his cronies at The Boar's Tavern in Eastcheap in Henry IV, Part One. When Juno suggests a job, Jack turns it down, saying his legs couldn't take it. He does get lucky when an English suitor of Mary's tells her father that an inheritance from a wealthy relative has been left to him. Immediately, the Captain borrows from it heavily, buying ample furniture and a gramophone for the apartment.
O'Casey mainly centers the play around the mother Juno, dazzlingly played by Plunkett, whose magnificent acting skills never err and are always breathtaking in her mothering sensibility. It is one of those perfect performance to revere. Years ago I remember seeing Plunkett as a young singing and dancing soubrette with Robert Lindsay in Me and My Girl, for which she won a Tony award. Over the years it has been fascinating to watch her acting skills grow and grow. Most recently at the Public Theater in featured roles in Richard Nelson's Apple Family and Gabriel Family.
The inheritance falls through because of a legal technicality. The new furniture will have to be returned. Eventually Johnny is accused of knowing about the betrayal of a fallen neighbor and is dragged off by the former comrades and riddled by bullets. This brings out a roar of poetic anguish from Juno in which her words sounds like a tolling death knell. But Juno never holds back. She moves on and starts a life anew, taking care of her unmarried pregnant daughter who has been abandoned by her English boyfriend.
The meticulous direction and sensitive staging of Juno and the Paycock is by Neil Pepe, who is the artistic director of the neighboring Atlantic Theatre Company.
The Plough and the Stars
The Plough and the Stars was the O'Casey play that shocked the Irish audiences the most. Not only did O'Casey say things that they didn't like to hear, but the character had a new kind of real tough-minded vitality of the time. They echoed the people O'Casey lived with, worked with and fought against the Brits in the bloody Easter Rising of 1916, the setting of the play. From April 24 to 29, 500 Irish died, and 3,000 citizens were injured. The characters in The Plough and the Stars are stark and true, and Dublin playgoers were unaccustomed to this kind of theatrical realism. They didn't want to see themselves and their neighbors onstage looting stores, using blasphemous language, and in Act Two see a local prostitute in a neighborhood bar. They just wanted to see themselves as martyrs or heroes
The Plough and the Stars refers to the Irish Citizen Army, which symbolizes the worker's ideal and reality. Like the two previous plays, it is set in the slum tenements, where we meet newlyweds Jack Clitheroe (Adam Petherbridge) and his wife Nora (Clare O'Malley), who is pregnant. He is an officer in the Irregulars, which eventually will evolve into being the IRA. They want him to come back to fight the troubles, but Nora doesn't want him to leave her. He can't resist the call and goes back and dies a hero's death. Nora loses her premature baby and goes mad.
Charlotte Moore, artistic director of the Irish Rep, has given a fine sensitive pace to the proceedings. Once again Maryann Plunkett shines, this time with an entirely different character from her maternal Juno. Here she is the hardened loyalist and coarse fruit monger Bessie Burgess, who is at first hard to accept, but somewhat softens as the terror of the play moves forward. She is surrounded by an array of neighbors like Peter Flynn, a old laborer who dotes on wearing uniforms from the long ago and gets harassed by Young Covey (James Russell), a party lined Socialist, and Fluther Good (Michael Mellamphy), a decent carpenter, who gets inherently braver as the play moves on.
All three plays feature a wonderful repertory company of 14 actors who all play parts in each of the three plays. All are magnificently matchless. Charlie Corcoran's sets and atmospheric theater decor have turned the Irish Rep into a slice of Dublin. Appropriate period costumes are by Linda Fisher and David Toser, with dappled lighting by Michael Gottlieb.
One year after The Plough and the Stars debuted, O’Casey's writing began to break away from realism. He wanted to try a new mold. In The Silver Tassie, a bitter, fiercely anti-war drama, Act II introduced an “expressionist” scene behind the Allied lines of World War I. William Butler Yeats, a poet and dramatist, and a co-director with Lady Gregory of the Abbey Theatre, who verbally fought off rioting audiences opening night of The Plough and the Stars, refused to produce the play. This is when O’Casey left Ireland for England and settled in London (1927-1938), then bought a modest house in Torquay on the coast of Devon.
In England, he wrote a panoply of plays. Once, he professed to have a romance with Communism for a while, and wrote his worst play, The Star Turns Red. Later, he wrote Purple Dust, a French farce, and Red Roses for Me, a wicked satire about Dublin aimed at Irish censorship. His last play was Behind the Green Curtains, a very funny attack on his fellow Irish artists who in denounced censorship in private yet dutifully conformed when pressure was applied.
O’Casey’s greatness as a playwright was the richness of his language and the variety of his characters. He also had a lifelong battle against censorship. Right up until the end of his life he went on trying to create new plays. His eyes had dimmed a lot and it was a struggle to write or to read, but he never stopped creating new works.
In each one of the three plays that make up O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy, we see what a critic of that time called “portraits of hopeless, passionate stupidity.' Ninety-six years later the plays are still pertinent. Just a month ago in Northern Ireland a journalist, Lyra McKee, 29, was killed in a sectarian clash. In Londonderry, temperament is still unyielding, and hatreds still result in the murder of neighborhood people.