The Plough And The Stars
August 22, 2016
Still from the 1926 production of "The Plough and the Stars."

On Easter Monday (April 24), 1916, some 1,400 revolutionaries, drawn from the ranks of two nationalist militias, the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers, seized possession of about ten strategic sites in Dublin, most prominently the General Post Office, and proclaimed the establishment of an Irish Republic. The Easter Rising was widely recognized, even by some of the participants, as more of a symbolic gesture, the ignition of a spark, than the beginning of an actual war of independence. So few could hardly hope to throw off British control of Ireland, which was ruled from Westminster through a viceregal administration. Although Britain’s military forces, including some 200,000 Irishmen, were fully engaged in fighting the First World War on the continent, Britain found men and resources for suppression of the Rising in Ireland. Troops, heavy artillery, and a gunboat were turned on the rebels, and within a week, the Rising ended in the unconditional surrender of the revolutionaries. By that time, nearly 500 were dead, more than half of them Dublin civilians; swaths of the city were in ruins, burned to the ground or turned to rubble by artillery; and hundreds of businesses had been destroyed by looting.

When Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars opened at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on February 8, 1926, the Easter Rising was ten years in the past. It had concluded with the execution of fifteen of the leaders and the internment of thousands accused of participating. The brutal suppression of an unpopular armed rebellion had resulted in the explosion of nationalist sentiment among the Irish people, most of whom had wanted nothing more than some degree of self- government, or Home Rule, when the Rising began. After the end of the World War, a real War of Independence had broken out in Ireland. When that war concluded with a treaty establishing a Free State in twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties, civil war ensued between those nationalists willing to accept this level of autonomy and those determined to fight on until the entire island of Ireland was independent. Between the War of Independence and the Civil War, Ireland had been in turmoil from 1919 to 1923.

The first half of The Plough and the Stars is set six months before the Rising, and the second during Easter Week 1916. O’Casey looks back at the moment when armed revolution began and reflects on the costs of that doomed, destructive “blood sacrifice." Characters like Peter Flynn, the Covey, Mrs. Gogan, Bessie Burgess and Fluther Good are colorful and comic in their language and their relationships, but lurking within their dialogue are many of the challenges that the fledgling Free State was facing by 1926—the loss of some 35,000 Irishmen serving in the British Army in World War I, the emotional and social scars of the lacerating Civil War, the religiosity that would resist science and cede considerable power to the Church, class divisions that would endure despite the overthrow of an English ruling class, sectarian antagonism, unbalanced gender relations, and grinding poverty.

The main events take place at the edge of the stage in Act II we hear the voice of a “man” addressing a crowd outside the pub in which the scene is set, assuring them that “bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood”. This unidentified figure speaks the ideas of Patrick Pearse, who wrote the Proclamation of the Irish Republic that he and six other leaders of the Rising signed, and who read it out at the door of the General Post Office shortly after noon on Easter Monday. At the end of the act, we hear the same man speaking the actual words that Pearse famously spoke at the graveside of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in August 1915: “They think they have pacified Ireland; think they have foreseen everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools!—they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” The world of national politics and high rhetoric is nearly offstage in The Plough and the Stars, however. O’Casey focuses instead on a Dublin tenement and its residents. These people have different relationships to the events going on around them— some are enthusiastic, some hostile—and are affected by them in very different ways.

It is a world that O’Casey knew well, having been raised in just such a Dublin tenement. Whereas most of the early productions at the Abbey Theatre involved traditional Irish legend and folklore or the lives of country people, O’Casey trained his eye on the lives and language of contemporary urban dwellers. Indeed, we catch a glimpse of O’Casey himself, perhaps, in the play, in the figure of the Covey, an ardent socialist for whom the international plight of the working class is of far greater consequence than the aspirations of Ireland to nationhood.

The 1926 production of The Plough and the Stars provoked protest in Dublin from people who objected strenuously to O’Casey’s cynical view of the Rising and his anti-heroic representation of its participants. So it is highly appropriate that the Abbey Theatre has chosen this play for a new production in 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising. The commemoration of the Rising has been a time of reflection on all that has followed on from it—not only the War of Independence, partition, the Civil War, and the establishment of the Free State and later the Republic, but also the decades of economic hardship and mass emigration, the violence of thirty years of Troubles, membership in the European Union, the Celtic Tiger, and its collapse. The questions still resonate: what did the blood sacrifice achieve? Was the violence necessary? In the words of W.B. Yeats in his poem “Easter 1916,” “Was it needless death after all?”

Dr. Catherine McKenna is the Margaret Brooks Robinson Professor of Celtic Languages and Literatures and Department Chair of the Harvard Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures.

This article originally appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater.

Also in this guide about The Plough And The Stars:

An Interview With Director Sean Holmes

Interview by Ciara Walsh and Matthew Connau


Riots and Risings

by Robert Duffley


About the Abbey Theatre

Publication date:
August 22, 2016

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