Friday, February 8, 2008

This Day in Theater History (Sean O'Casey's 'Plough and the Stars' Opens at Dublin's Abbey Theatre)

February 8, 1926 – With Sean O’Casey afflicted with his usual painful eye condition and worse-than-normal pre-performance jitters, his latest play, The Plough and the Stars, opened before an appreciative audience at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

As the roar of the crowd cascaded over him, the playwright, disturbed by tensions with his director and cast during rehearsals, figured his troubles with the production were over. In fact, they were about to worsen, leading to one of the great donnybrooks in the annals of world theater.

I love that word “donnybrook,” and its use here harks back to its Irish origins: a seemingly festive occasion that became notorious for drunkenness and disorder.

I alluded to this quintessentially Celtic controversy in a prior post on the American media. But today seems a good time to revisit the play and its part in Irish history.

The Plough and the Stars was the third and final portion of what would later be seen as O’Casey’s nationalist trilogy about boastful or cowardly men and their long-suffering women, set in the tenements of Dublin amid a war of independence and civil war. 

Naturalistic in style, tragicomic in form, the first two O’Casey plays mounted by the Abbey, The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock, had helped rescue the theater from financial ruin earlier in the 1920s.

Origins of a Controversy

But news must have quickly circulated that Plough was dynamite, because only a day after the rapturous opening night, O’Casey was hustled into the office of William Butler Yeats, founder of the Abbey and, with a Nobel Prize in hand, the nation’s leading literary light.

Certain scenes—not only involving vainglorious men during the Easter Rebellion, but also an off-screen orator using phrases from a leader of the Rising, Padriac Pearse, and a prostitute soliciting business—had aroused the ire of the patriotically correct. 

O'Casey's instincts—pacifist, even Marxist, deeply skeptical of a populace that now praised the independence movement to the skies but had as little as possible to do with it during the Easter Rebellion—only irked them more.

Such a commotion was occurring, with objects even being tossed at actors, that Yeats was requesting O’Casey’s agreement that the police would be called so the show could go on. 

The scene was all too reminiscent of the tumult—fueled equally by nationalism and Puritanism—that interrupted the performance of John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World nearly a generation before. As the reluctant playwright contemplated all this, the room was shaken by the roar of the mob, so he glumly gave his assent to police control.

An Angry Playwright in His Memoirs

From a childhood with enough financial, physical and emotional misery to rival that of Charles Dickens, O’Casey mined not only his Dublin trilogy but an autobiography that eventually numbered six volumes.

The fourth volume, Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well, took up the period when he experienced his greatest success and worst controversy. In his late 60s by this time, the playwright looked back with a bitter wit that anticipated Frank McCourt’s, lambasting not just Irish intellectuals and theater critics but also former associates at the Abbey such as Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory and Lennox Robinson.

At times the memoirist could be unfair, as when he wrote that Gregory, the Abbey figure who had done the most to further his career, looked like “an old, elegant nun of a new order.” 

But his derision could also reach heights of brilliance, as in his description of what ensued immediately after his agreement to call in the police:

“Rowdy, clenching, but well-groomed hands reached up to drag down the fading black-and-gold front curtain; others, snarling curiously, tried to tug up the very chairs from their roots in the auditorium; while some, in frenzy, pushed at the stout walls to force them down…The high, hysterical, distorted voices of women kept squealing that Irish girls were noted the world over for their modesty, and that Ireland’s name was holy; that the Republican flag had never seen the inside of a public-house; that this slander would mean the end of the Abbey Theatre; and that Ireland was Ireland through job and through tears.”

With the help of Yeats, in all his scornful brilliance, and the police, in all their bewildered authority, the show did indeed go on.

A Painful Fallout

But the riot led O’Casey to consider why he remained in Ireland while one of his other plays was doing so well in London. By the end of the year, the former soldier in the Irish Citizens' Army had decamped to the British capital, never to live in his native land again.

Just as bad, after Yeats turned down his next, more expressionist play, The Silver Tassie, O’Casey never submitted another original work to the Abbey. The dramas he wrote for the remaining 30 years of his life are now regarded as almost exclusively proletarian propaganda, and rarely performed anymore.

O’Casey’s luck with Hollywood was about as good as it was with the nationalists in Dublin: slim to none. 

With a cast that included Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Fitzgerald (yes, the charming scene-stealer of Going My Way, The Quiet Man, and other films too numerous to mention) and directed by John Ford (director of two classics set in Ireland, The Informer and The Quiet Man), this 1936 production should have been a classic. 

It probably would have been, too, except that the studio, RKO, insisted on ratcheting up the romantic elements of the script at the expense of what mattered most to Ford (and, even more so, to O’Casey): its politics.

''Th' whole worl's in a terrible state o' chassis!,'' an inebriated O’Casey character announces in Juno and the Paycock—and the ironic statement applies just as well to the tumult surrounding The Plough and the Stars, on stage and on screen.

(The image accompanying this post comes from the film adaptation of The Plough and the Stars, starring Ms. Stanwyck as Nora Clitheroe and Preston Foster as her husband Jack.)

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