If Sean O’Casey is up in Socialist heaven, he is probably looking down at Ireland and saying “I told you so. Have ye not seen The Plough and the Stars?”
Well, the Abbey Theatre’s production of The Plough and the Stars is in Belfast until Saturday this week before continuing its tour and the hugely enjoyable four-act play is well worth a visit.
It’s worth it for the ensemble acting of the 16-strong cast which didn’t have a weak link and in a play where the comic characters can steal the show, there were no solo runs in Wayne Jordan’s splendid production.
The Plough and the Stars is, of course, set at the time of the Easter Rising of 1916, a time when many Dubs proudly saw Dublin as “the second city of the Empire” yet the city had unimaginable poverty and ill-heath.
Twice as many people died from Tuberculosis in Dublin as in London and in Dublin alone, it killed more than 10,000 people a year, more than half of them children, the bacteria that caused it thriving in the overcrowded tenement slums in which huge numbers of people ground out their existence.
The gap between Ireland’s rich and its poor was enormous, political and economic power rested in the hands of
Britain so the time was ripe for an insurrection. O’Casey’s play, however. tells us that the Easter Rising meant nothing for the poor slum-dwellers of Dublin, that it wasn’t about them in the first place.
O’Casey, although an Orangeman in his youth, was a socialist and member of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). He even wrote a constitution for the organisation and penned a history of the ICA in which he quotes Jim Larkin calling on people to follow the example of Edward Carson in the north.
“Labour in its own defence must begin to train itself to act with disciplined courage and with organised and concentrated force. How could they accomplish this? By taking a leaf out of the book of Carson. If Carson had permission to train his braves of the North to fight against the aspirations of the Irish people, then it was legitimate and fair for Labour to organise in the same militant way to preserve their rights and to ensure that if they were attacked they would be able to give a very satisfactory account of themselves,” he wrote.
But O’Casey saw the socialist cause as being commandeered and dragooned into the service of bourgeois nationalism. He himself didn’t take part in the 1916 Rising although James Connolly led 200 members of the Citizen Army into the fray.
Looking around Ireland at the minute, you’d have to see what O’Casey warned about when he wrote the play in 1927. That the path from the 1916 Rising has led to the self-serving ilk of politician that has beggared the country since Independence, the croneyism, the cowboys, the meek subservience to the Church, the banking scandal – the list goes on forever while today’s Nora Clitheroes and Fluther Goods and Bessie Burgesses try to make ends meet while the government bows at the altar of international financial speculation.
Today’s politicians seem to have lost sight of the fact that they exist to be servants of the people and that they have a particular duty of care to the poorest in our society.
If we go along with O’Casey’s thesis, this is the unavoidable legacy of the 1916 Rising and he has a compelling cast of characters to make his point.
Jack Clitheroe who chooses his country (or his ego) over his wife, the upwardly aspiring Nora Clitheroe; Bessie Burgess, the Union Jack-waving Protestant Dub whose son is fighting for the British in the First World War; Uncle Peter and Fluther Good; the young communist Covey (“there’s only one war worth havin’: th’ war for th’ economic emancipation of th’ proletariat”); Mrs Gogan and her consumptive daughter Mollser; Uncle Peter every harking back to the past and, controversially, given Ireland’s pious self-image, prostitute Rosie Redmond. None of these characters are the same at the end of the play as they are at the beginning.
It’s a sign of the success of a play when you find yourself silently shouting at characters to take one course of action or another and it’s hard not to get involved with this community of characters whether you’re for them or against.
Surrounded by a wonderfully evocative set – Dublin itself becomes a flickering character – the production is full of laughter, pathos, excitement and food for thought in this “decade of anniversaries” where this year some are commemorating “loyal” Ulstermen arming themselves and threatening to defy the British government by force while in four years time, we will (or won’t) be celebrating the centenary of the Easter Rising.
Try and get to see The Plough and the Stars if you can. Full details at: www.goh.co.uk/the-plough-and-the-stars
An Grianán, Letterkenny
Tuesday 25 September – Saturday 29 September
Assisted performance: Thursday 27th September
Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge
Tuesday 2 October – Saturday 6 October
Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham
Tuesday 9 October – Saturday 13 October
Theatre Royal, Bath
Tuesday 16 October – Saturday 20 October
Siamsa Tire, Tralee
Tuesday 23 October – Saturday 27 October
Assisted performance:Thursday 25th October
The Lime Tree, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick
Tuesday 30 October – Saturday 3 November
Assisted performance: Thursday 1 November