Friday, April 12, 2013

This Day in Theater History (O’Casey’s ‘Gunman’ Debuts at Ireland’s Abbey Theatre)

April 12, 1923—The Shadow of a Gunman, the first play of Sean O’Casey’s staged by Ireland’s Abbey Theatre after three prior unsuccessful tries by the playwright, opened on a Thursday night to so-so business. But by the end of its four-performance run that weekend, the first of his “Dublin Trilogy” of plays on nationalism and class in revolutionary Ireland had won wide acclaim, saved the renowned theater from hard times, and set its creator on the course of the most successful stage of his career.

Years later, in the fourth volume of his memoir, Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well, O’Casey recalled his chagrin when he received the Abbey's check in the mail for this run: less than four pounds. “Dimly he began to realize that the Abbey Theatre would never provide a living," he wrote of himself in the third person. "It was a blow, a bitter disappointment.”

In another sense, however, he should not have been shocked. That ambitious Irish theatrical institution had not even reached 20 years old at the time of his premiere, and there was a real question if it would endure. 

John Millington Synge, whose The Playboy of the Western World had provided it with its first cause celebre in the form of a riot during its initial run, had died 14 years before; William Butler Yeats, another co-founder, remained with the theater, but his attention was increasingly taken up with his poetry; and the convulsions surrounding Ireland’s War of Independence had left most of Dublin with little interest or opportunity to patronize the institution.

In fact, it might be said that the one force keeping it going throughout this time was Lady Augusta Gregory, one of its artistic directors and a longtime patron of artists. It was in the latter role that, at her family estate of Coole, she nurtured the talent of O’Casey, a socially awkward, guilt-ridden product of the streets of Dublin.

The director of The Shadow of a Gunman was Lennox Robinson, himself a prolific playwright. By the end of the decade, he would be involved with the rejection of a later O’Casey play, The Silver Tassie. Moreover, though Yeats would, in a couple of years, stoutly defend O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, it may have had as more to do with guarding artistic expression than in believing in the play’s quality.

If Yeats was Synge’s biggest partisan among Abbey management in its early years, then Lady Gregory was O’Casey’s at this point. He was self-educated and had never had any theater training.  Everything he knew came from watching performances, including at the Abbey. The rest of the meat of his tenement-set plays from this period came from the raw view of life he had gained as a laborer, including nine years as a railway. 

Lady Gregory got O'Casey to concentrate on his greatest strength--characterization--in this play and the two that followed, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. They were the biggest hits the Abbey had till that point.

O’Casey and Gregory truly made an odd couple, this young Marxist and elderly aristocrat, but they became real soul mates. After the hugely successful premiere of Juno and the Paycock, she even told Yeats, “This is one of the evenings at the Abbey that makes me glad to have been born.”

Yeats may have had one influence on the play. One story goes that he urged O’Casey to change his original title, On the Run, because another play by that name existed. 

Subsequently, the playwright dreamt he saw a “gunman in a mirror.” However, O’Casey’s memoir is silent on this point, so it’s hard to tell how much to make of this.

Part of the reason for the success of The Shadow of a Gunman was simply that it spoke so urgently to its time. The play was set only three years before, in the midst of the war for independence from Great Britain, but the settlement of hostilities between the rebels and the Empire had not ended the violence.

In fact, this treaty, while granting self-rule for the island, had only succeeded in igniting a civil war among the rebels, over provisions requiring an oath of allegiance to the crown and the drawing of a boundary for Ulster that eventually left that broken off from the rest of the republic while still under British rule.

The result: at the time of the premiere, as the Irish Civil War raged outside in the streets, a program note for O’Casey’s play assured the audience that any gunfire heard was part of the plot.

O’Casey’s “Dublin trilogy” has endured as a definitive commentary on the resort of the 20th century to settle issues of nationalist identity through revolutionary violence. 

The playwright was critical of male blustering that left women and the poor disproportionately suffering from the consequences of revolution. If there are any heroic figures in the trilogy, it is not the men who strut and drink their way across the stage, but the wives and mothers who struggle to keep their lives together.

The template for these women was his own mother, who managed to keep her family together after the death of her husband when Sean was only six years old--and who watched over him through painful eye disease. The playwright lived with her until her death, when he was 40, and his inability up to that point to make a decent living that would provide for her burdened him with a guilt that fed his artistic rage.

The Shadow of a Gunman was performed many times over the years by the Abbey, most recently as part of the theater’s 1990 tour. A PBS performance from 1972 starred the Irish actor Jack MacGowran as well as the Americans Frank Converse and Richard Dreyfuss. Twenty years later, two other famous Irish-born actors, Kenneth Branagh and Stephen Rea, starred in a version that was broadcast as part of the BBC2 Performance series.

Ironically, though much of O'Casey's later work would be expressionist in style, the success of his "Dublin Trilogy" influenced the Abbey's definitive turn in the coming years toward social realism.

Frank McCourt, who wrote with a similar seriocomic bent on the miseries of his childhood and his long-suffering mother in the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela's Ashes, summed up the playwright's character about as well as anyone else I have ever come across:

"He's the first Irish writer I ever read who wrote about rags, dirt, hunger, babies, dying. The other writers go on about farms and fairies and the mist that do be on the bog and it's a relief to discover one with bad eyes and a suffering mother."

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