When it premiered at The Abbey Theatre in 1926, The Plough and the Stars initially opened to acclaim. However, word got out that O’Casey had written a play critical of Irish nationalism and religion, and the acclaim turned to disapprobation. O’Casey elected to focus on the hapless Dubliners, many women and children, who had been swept up in the bloodshed of the Easter Rising of 1916. During the five days of fierce fighting between the British and the Irish Citizen Army and Irish Republican Brotherhood, the British who had brought in heavy artillery, machine guns and bombshells with over nine times the troop strength of the Irish converted central Dublin and the tenements where citizens lived into a war zone. Because of the hundreds of citizen fatalities and thousands injured, the Irish rebels surrendered to save the city. The British took revenge with arrests and summary executions of the organizers, sealing the ill-will of Ireland and guaranteeing the irrevocability of Irish Independence.
In this last production of the Dublin Trilogy, the Irish Repertory Theatre, which has presented an amazing season of Sean O’Casey’s works, ends with its most masterful and emotional production to date. Directed by Charlotte Moore, O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars remains a sterling and representative human drama that soars into the heavens with the timeless message that there are no victors when members of the human family take up arms and kill each other. Assuredly, it is the innocent trying to make it to the next day, who become the casualties of violent conflicts. Those who die achieve a final peace; the living have to deal with the horrible memories and consequences of the aftermath of war.
The actors expertly shepherded by Moore effect O’Casey’s themes with emotional grist and power. As an ensemble their work together is exquisite, paced, focused, present. Because of their attention to moment-to-moment living onstage, the impact that rises from scene to scene and especially in the last scenes when the conflict and suspense are greatest are breathtakingly real and tragic.
The play follows the homely interactions of tenement dwellers in the latter part of 1915 and during the Easter Rebellion of 1916. These scenes of the every day lives of the tenement dwellers draw our empathy. In their discussions we become apprised that there are marches and meetings of various Irish groups who are gathering to amass political sentiment in support of the hoped for Irish rebellion and move toward independence. The meetings which have gained fervent advocates eventually come to a head and the play’s action shifts to events in Dublin during Easter Week 1916. It is then that O’Casey most acutely and poignantly reveals how these horrific events impact the lives of the Dubliners who live and hide in the tenements as they are shelled, shot at and warred against by the British Tommies who attempt to quash the rebellion.
In the first part of the production we note how O’Casey illustrates the divisions among the Irish citizens living in one lower middle class Dublin tenement. These characterizations develop and remain the focal point of the play. Some of the Dubliners have antithetical political affiliations like protestant, pro-British Bessie Burgess (the wonderful Maryann Plunkett who gives a heartfelt, frenzied, emotional portrayal throughout). Bessie’s son fought and died with the British as a Dublin Fusilier during early battles of The Great War. Her expressed rage and fury at the supporters of Irish Independence is understandable, though the other tenants think she is loathsome. Indeed, by the play’s end O’Casey’s twist of characterization proves her a formidable human being; and Maryann Plunkett brings this out in spades.
Others, like fiesty Peter Flynn (the humorous Robert Langdon Lloyd), the life-worn Mrs. Gogan (the fine Una Clancy) and Fluther Good (Michael Mellamphy is spot-on in his rousing portrayal of the carpenter who represents the typical working man) empathize with the Irish cause of independence as Catholics. Meanwhile, The Young Covey (the excellent James Russell) is the critical, anti-religious, acerbic intellectual who strafes the cause of independence with his caustic remarks. He is frustrated that the socialist cause he advocates has been redirected from the Worker’s of the World uniting to overthrow the capitalistic system.
Much of the humor in the first part of the play centers around O’Casey’s identification of the cross section of individuals who are disparate from one another in beliefs, religion and intellectual ethos. Yet they live in Dublin tenements and make up the culture and society of the city as they remain economically oppressed and without a voice in the government. We laugh as they carp and criticize each other to the extent that one wonders how the country will unite against the British at any level. Into this convulsed and funny hodgepodge of characters come the newly weds, the sweet, romantic Nora (Clare O’Malley gives a fervent, emotional and powerful performance throughout) and husband Jack (the sensitive and forceful Adam Petherbridge) who eventually, despite Nora’s surreptitious attempts to prevent this, is proudly made Commandant in the Irish Citizen Army.
Jack, infuriated that Nora withheld information of his promotion out of fear for his death, argues with her vehemently. Indeed, her self-interest and duplicity push him right into the arms of his mates. The scene where she admits she lied is dynamic and powerful. O’Casey’s characterizations are authentic and the actors (O’Malley and Petherbridge) are so letter perfect that we imagine such scenes playing out in households throughout Dublin and in a universal sense that this occurs in every war fought regardless of politics or nation. The timeless quality of war as a sacrifice of innocents is everpresent and beautifully rendered thematically in this scene.
As Young Covey, Fluther and Flynn meet and have drinks in a Public House after listening to speakers and continuing to listen to them from inside the pub, we meet additional Dublin denizens who will be impacted by the coming rebellion. These are the “lady of the night” Rosie Redmond (Sarah Street) and the Bartender who also plays Sargent Tinley (Harry Smith). In this interlude at the pub, the tension outside is rising and we note the success of the march and the rousing political speeches meant to mobilize the crowds.
When Jack and his mates come into the pub and conclude the scene with their nationalistic cries, they wave the flag (The Plough and the Stars, and the Tricolor Flag of Irish Independence). As these volunteers uphold their allegiance to a free Ireland, they put their family, wives and homes second. Nora is abandoned and forgotten as Ireland becomes Jack’s family.
In the next scenes that take place during the Easter week, April 1916, the irony of Jack’s heady, ebullient nationalistic sentiment is pitted against the frightful horrors that these volunteers and tenement dwellers face in the violence during the five days they confront heavy artillery and machine guns. The booming sounds are heard in the distance. Nora who looks for Jack to bring him home (an ignominious, selfish and cowardly action from Jack’s perspective) proclaims that she sees the fear in the Irish soldiers’ eyes while the soldiers she meets tell her she is shaming Jack.
In this fabulously directed scene that is tense, frightful, poignant and rage-filled, Nora struggles physically with Jack to keep him with her. And Bessie screams epithets and insults at Jack, Captain Brennan (John Keating) and the wounded dying Lieutenant Langon (Ed Malone). At the height of the drama, Jack berates Nora for attempting to keep him from fighting the cause, then he and the others leave to look for a doctor. Bessie who has a turn of empathy for Nora brings her safely inside, then runs for a doctor to help Mrs. Gogan’s dying daughter Mollser (Meg Hennessy). Kudos to the superb ensemble and the principals whose urgency and focus create the incredible tension in the scene. The audience is enthralled throughout.
As marvelous as Act III is, O’Casey’s climax in Act IV is without parallel and Moore and the actors are beyond exceptional in bringing the conclusion to its final glowing draw-down. O’Casey hammers his themes. These, he has seeded earlier in the play. In the final act they foment with the growing chaos which sweeps up various individuals unwittingly caught in the rebellion, i.e. The Woman from Rathmines (Terry Donnelly). Everyone who can be represented is. O’Casey reveals the tragedy and futility of innocents dying as they are mistaken for “the enemy.” In this last act of this most incredibly paced and dramatically written of his plays, we understand the genius of his message to humanity, which has been ignored and will continue to be ignored long into the next century.
There is no spoiler alert. You will just have to see how the conclusion unfolds ironically in this must-see production which is truly magnificent and fiercely trenchant and timely. I cannot praise this production with high enough encomiums for the director and cast except to say it will be a damn shame if you miss it.
Charlie Cororan (Scenic Design) Linda Fisher and David Toser (Costume Design) Michael Gottlieb (Lighting Design) Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab (Sound Design) and Ryan Rumery (Original Music) and others on the artistic team do a superb job in bringing about the authenticity of this production.
The Plough and the Stars (with one intermission) and the entire Dublin Trilogy can be seen until 22nd June at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd). For tickets and times go to the website by CLICKING HERE.
Juno and the Paycock, directed by Neil Pepe. is a powerful and trenchant look at the lives and lifestyles of tenement dwellers in Dublin, impacted by the Irish Civil War (June 28, 1922-May 24, 1923). The production is part of The Dublin Trilogy by Sean O’Casey currently featured by the Irish Repertory Theater. O’Casey’s work is populated by singular characters whose flawed humanity rings with truth and tragedy during the birth pangs of a nascent Irish Republic.
Juno Boyle (in a fine, measured performance by Maryann Plunkett) is the long suffering wife of ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle. Ciaran O’Reilly’s spot-on, brilliant “paycock” is humorous, puffed-up and delightfully roguish as well as “haplessly” self-destructive. Both Juno and Captain Jack have managed to carve out an existence for themselves with the help of their daughter Mary (Sarah Street) and their son Johnny (Ed Malone). However, as the play opens we find that they cannot get out from under the dire circumstances fomented by the various stakeholders who fight for and against the evolving movement for independent Irish statehood.
Johnny (Ed Malone does an excellent job as the peevish, complaining, guilt-ridden son) has been badly injured during the Easter Rebellion. He attempts to disengage himself from his former comrades with the Old IRA which has been reconstituted and has become more purposefully violent in its thrust to move toward an Ireland completely free from the British. Mary (Street is excellent as the demure, naive, gentle daughter) is out on strike with the trade unionists who protest pay cuts and the general approach of the “Free State government” which is aligned with Britain.
From this motley group of family, the only one who works and keeps the household “running” is the assertive Juno. She waits on the “paycock,” Captain Jack, and puts up with his squandering money on drink. But she warns Captain Jack about his friendship with tenement drinking buddy the ne-er-do-well Joxer (John Keating’s reprobate, hypocrite is absolutely dastardly and the perfect foil for Captain Jack). Joxer’s exploitative and free-loading ways Juno dislikes and runs down to Captain Jack because of his evil influence.
Helping her family and short-changing herself, the saintly Juno soothes Johnny by answering to his every need. For example she gets Johnny a glass of water when he asks for it, though he is capable of doing it himself.
O’Casey’s characterizations reveal a group of impoverished individuals (mentally and materially). Their hand-to-mouth existence is continually impacted by the turmoil and chaos of a society fractured by civil war and upheaval. When news of the death of one of his former friends reaches the family, Johnny is on edge and “sensitive” rushing into his room, refusing to hear about the details which his sister reads from the paper. We think that he is going through “PTSD,” however, O’Casey develops the seeds of this unrest during the play. Eventually, they blossom into a dark revelation. By the conclusion O’Casey enlightens us so we understand why Johnny carps and whines about Tancred’s death and the chaos of the Civil War happening around them.
For their part, Juno and her “paycock” have achieved a steady routine. Juno harangues Captain Jack and tries to prevent the family from going into the abyss as she encourages her husband to show up for a job and chides him to stop his drinking bouts with Joxer. All is stasis until Mary brings home a gentleman, Charles Bentham (James Russell in an appropriately “high-minded” and slippery portrayal), a teacher. He brings the information that Captain Jack has come into an inheritance that will lift them from poverty. This grand news transforms their spirits. The job that Captain Jack was going to take is now unnecessary and he settles into his role as the preening “paycock,” full time with no recriminating Juno to excoriate him.
Even Johnny seems to be more cheerful as he hopes that they can move away from the area once they receive the money. With this redemption, Mary who has thrown over Jerry Devine (Harry Smith in a softly sweet and heartfelt portrayal) as a boyfriend, becomes enamored of Charles. They become a serious couple with marriage plans. All appears to be rosy with this “dream come true” scenario, and we, who empathized with their rough and tumble former condition are happy that they have in effect “won the lottery” and will not suffer the indignity and wretchedness of poverty any more.
O’Casey has lured us into their hope for a better life, a hope that all of us experience. This very identification with this family makes the conclusion of O’Casey’s work all the more tragic and heart-wrenching.
At the discovery of their inheritance, the family conflicts subside and these personalities expand despite the chaos in the culture. Captain Jack borrows money against his inheritance as does Juno. For a time, they are floating on clouds of joy as they dance and the couples are at peace, with all distemper ending between and among family members.
Yet, a suggestion of darkness floats in when Charles Bentham describes his belief in Theosophy. His comments give rise to the world of spirits who remain unsettled and without peace. Indeed, he suggests those who are sensitive enough to see into the supernatural may recognize a spirit’s misery and displacement from a peaceful state.
During the discussion Johnny’s emotions unravel. He leaves their company and goes into the bedroom. There, he has an encounter with the supernatural and rushes out of the bedroom. Whether this is his overactive imagination or a spirit coming to plague his soul, a warning, or something else, Ed Malone’s Johnny makes this a harrowing experience. Indeed, in this segment O’Casey suggests there is something that Johnny is deathly afraid of, something no one in his family suspects or knows about.
But like any uncanny, foreshadowing moment, it is easily forgotten and Johnny’s apprehensions are dispelled when it is proven there is nothing alarming or unusual in the room. All is well. Nevertheless, O’Casey quietly grows the seeds he planted at the outset of the play and the tension increases related to the mystery of Johnny’s past involvement with the “Diehards,” the Old IRA and why he has left them.
This tension is carefully, subtly wrought by Pepe’s staging and his precise shepherding of the actors. Our misgivings are confirmed and the pall of death brought in by Mrs. Tancred’s mourning of her son and his funeral convey the shrouds of darkness and doom that overcome the light-heartedness that the family once felt and manifested in song and dance. Each member of the family is enveloped by disaster and tragedy that was foreshadowed at the beginning of the play when Mary read of the Tancred son’s death. Finally, the abyss which Juno had kept from devouring the family, finally comes to call for each of them.
Juno and the Paycock’s stark and tragic human realities of lost lives are realized in this memorable production. It is no wonder that O’Casey was able to write full time after this play was produced at the Abbey Theatre; it is a marvelous work. Our identification with the characters’ downfall is acute and heartfelt. And every foible that threads its way from the beginning in each of the character portraits augments to the point where the civil war in the streets has been manifested internally as a civil war in the lives of each of the family members. For each struggles against their own addictive impulse to destroy themselves in not facing hard realities that can and should be dealt with until it is too late.
O’Casey’s themes about the struggle for survival, lost innocence, the inability to get free of one’s own addictive nature is relayed against the backdrop of war when countrymen fight against countrymen, and those who cannot fight hide and enter into the oblivion of drink. Sadly, the women are left to bury their dead and to mourn, seeking the surcease of sorrow through religion and prayer, which to the men is an inadequate response.
The production shines in the cast’s rendering of O’Casey’s searing portraits of the Dublin tenement-dwellers and their relationships with each other. Included in these not mentioned before are the fine Terry Donnelly as Maisie Madigan, Robert Langdon Lloyd as Needle Nugent, Una Clancy as Mrs. Tancred and members of the Ensemble (Rory Duffy, Meg Hennessy, Michael Mellamphy).
Special kudos go to the creative artists who effected the themes and intentions of the director through their talents and efforts. These include Charlie Corcoran (Scenic Design), Linda Fisher (Costume Design), David Toser (Costume Design), Michael Gottlieb (Lighting Design), Ryan Rumery (Original Music), M. Florian Staab (Sound Design).
Juno and the Paycock runs with one intermission. You can purchase tickets at the Irish Repertory Theatre website by CLICKING HERE.