Sean O’Casey’s Plough and Stars Reviewed

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01/04/2018 by socialistfight

By Gerry Downing

The Plough and The Stars at the Lyric HammersmithObsessed with their own relationship while a man lies dying is contempt for the workers at their worst.

A number of us leftists, Socialist Fight supporters and friends, went to see Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith on 24 March. We were not impressed either by its political message or the ‘modernist’ way the production was presented. In googling reviews and comments, I was amazed at the number of favourable reviews of the present and previous productions had got on the left; right-wing pro-establishment favourable reviews from The Telegraph and that ilk are ten-a-penny. Exeunt magazine published this on 23:

“The Plough and the Stars is a mordant, sideways look at Big Events happening just off-stage, seen from the perspective of ordinary Dubliners trembling on the fringes of the action. There is much broad comedy in the petty squabbling between the inebriated Protestant loyalist Bessie Burgess and the coarsely gossiping Catholic charwoman Mrs Gogan, and between Peter Flynn’s peacock Republican ex-soldier and The Young Covey’s provocative Marxist intellectual, as well as in the futile attempts of handyman Fluther Good to give up booze. Meanwhile, more seriously, Nora Clitheroe is desperately trying to stop her husband Jack from rejoining the Irish Citizen Army in their planned revolt against British colonialism.” [1]

Image result for The Plough and the Stars Lyric Hammersmith imagesImage result for The Plough and the Stars Lyric Hammersmith imagesImage result for The Plough and the Stars Lyric Hammersmith images

We need to understand O’Casey’s political evolution and background to see how he became the catspaw of reaction in the middle 1920s in Ireland. He came from a very middle-class Protestant family, but the father died in 1886 when he was six, leaving a family of 13 to struggle through in very difficult circumstances. He worked as an office boy, messenger, manual labourer and railway worker, all the time studying and educating himself.  Initially he was a romantic Irish nationalist and then he veered to the syndicalist left and became a supporter of James Larkin in the Dublin Lockout of 1913. He became Honorary General Secretary of the Irish Citizen’s Army under Larkin and then James Connolly. He resigned on 24 July 1914 when his motion calling on the Countess Markievicz to “sever her connection” with the nationalist movement if she was to remain active in the labour movement fell. The motion read:

“Seeing that Madame Markievicz was, through Cumann na mBan, attached to the Volunteers, and on intimate terms with many of the Volunteer leaders, and as the Volunteers’ Association was, in its methods and aims, inimical to the first interests of Labour, it could not be expected that Madame could retain the confidence of the Council; and that she be now asked to sever her connection with either the Volunteers or the Irish Citizen Army.”

Image result for Countess Markievicz images

Countess Markievicz came from the Gore-Booth family of the Protestant Ascendancy like Yeats and O’Casey. She retained her commitment to Irish Republicanism. At that time the Suffragette movement was in full swing and her sister, Eva, was foremost in that fight and with her longtime partner Ester Roper. Not only did the pair champion the cause of the working class, and working-class women they pioneered LBGTI sexuality in work that is very modern:

“In 1916, along with transwoman Irene Clyde, the couple (Eva and Ester) co-founded a privately circulated journal promoting their pioneering views on gender and sexuality. Published six times a year, Urania (meaning homosexual or third gender) contained clippings of articles from national and international press about same-sex relationships and cross-dressing. Other content included discussions of outrageous (for the time) themes such as why women shouldn’t marry — challenging convention that unmarried women were just not attractive enough to bag a man; why we should live in a genderless society; and how passionate lesbian relationships are a great alternative to marriage.” [2]

O’Casey went from romantic Irish nationalism to the militant syndicalism of Jim Larkin to the reaction of the Irish middle classes after the end of the Civil War in 1923 to the bogus socialism of Joe Stalin after 1933. He never managed to combine nationalism, socialism and human liberation in one theory. The Young Covey is a ridiculous farce of a character like Wolfie Smith. The Republicans are even more stupid, and the women are drunkards and stupid and oppressed and even the best of them lack heart. But empathy with the working class would be Marxism and he never cut it.

However, I did find one reviewer who spoke my mind on the Plough and Stars very well. A Dublin woman, Orla, who had obviously developed her own critical faculties and was not content to be told what to think, wrote in Goodreads in Feb 2012 of that Dublin production:

“It isn’t that O’Casey isn’t a good writer. He is. He’s a brilliant writer but a not so brilliant human. Some people think that doesn’t matter in a play. That it doesn’t matter that O’Casey thinks women are capricious and worthless, that the poor are too stupid to even understand their own plight and the rich even more so. That bravery is only fear hidden. Of course, bravery is only fear hidden. But I’ll never understand why O’Casey thinks that’s a bad thing. Some people think it’s only the technical skill of the playwright that matters. I disagree.”

The following review of some reviewers shows where his evolution led him and why he is still popular with reaction today.

The Morning Star’s review

Yvonne Lysandrou in the Morning Star on 26 March has many and valid criticisms of how English director Sean Holmes handled the set and dress. He “rejected O’Casey’s detailed realistic stage directions in favour of an abstract set, complete with scaffolding to represent Dublin tenements and modern dress for its inhabitants”. Her only comment on the political content of the play was that “he lampooned Ireland’s post-independence mythologisation of a long and bloody struggle”. Of course, the Morning Star politically supports his line because he was a fervent supporter of Joe Stalin in his later years. They accept O’Casey’s pacifism, his rejection of the legitimacy of the revolutionary violence of the oppressed and his concomitant endorsement of the violence of the oppressor, of both the army of British imperialism and the even more vicious counter-revolutionary violence of Free Staters in the Civil War in Shadow of a Gunman. The Morning Star traditional title page strapline is “for peace and socialism” and that testifies to their reformism.

In his classic work, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, Declan Kiberd observes:

“The play (Shadow of a Gunman) … amounts to little more than an attack on all -isms and a celebration of those wives who picked up the pieces left in idealism’s wake. O’Casey’s code scarcely moved beyond a sentimentalisation of victims, and this in turn led him to a profound distrust of anyone who makes an idea the basis for an action. … As a dramatist (if not as a prose-writer) O’Casey proves no more capable than any of his characters of developing or analysing an idea.’ … he told people that they had the power to shape their own lives, to be the subjects as well as the objects of history: but he aborted the dialectic at that point in a play which resolutely mocks anyone who takes an idea seriously. C. S. Andrews cited in evidence that the populace who went to see O’Casey’s plays were the new elite, not the poor (Man of No Property, 53-55)

… one can only wonder if he ever suspected that his art might be complicit with the counter-revolution. In the Plough and the Stars, the tradition of the strong woman and hesitant male which lent so much excitement to the plays of Wilde, Synge, Shaw, and Yeats, is degraded to the level of a dead formula. O’Casey gave the appearance of challenging a triumphalist nationalism in his audience: but the truth is that he outraged only the radical republicans in it. Covertly his plays exercised a powerful appeal over the new elite

… Somewhere along the line, the young O’Casey’s project had inverted itself: he who had glimpsed the future at a moment when it could be fully realised in history seemed to fall back, exhausted, upon the available forms.

… for satire presupposes some norm by whose criteria other ways of living are found wanting, whereas O’Casey uses socialism to denounce nationalism, and then finds socialism inadequate anyway. …He thus achieves the unusual feat of making politics one of his obsessive concerns, and yet emerging as a type of the apolitical artist. He is that strangest of modern phenomena, an autodidact who becomes fiercely anti-intellectual. (our emphasis) [3]

Reima Shakeir, in Transcending Irishness and Reading History in Selected Plays by Sean O’Casey and Frank McGuinness,  observes that “O’Casey’s Dublin plays tell the people they have the power to shape their own lives, “to be the subjects as well as the objects of history but the plays’ argument is always aborted at the point when anyone who takes an idea seriously is mocked.” [4]

Image result for Sean O'Casey images

Sinn Fein’s An Phoblacht Magazine

Sinn Fein’s Matt Treacy in the An Phoblacht Magazine hailed the very anti-republican play Shadow of a Gunman as a “Brilliant evocation of O’Casey masterpiece” when it played in the New Theatre, in Dublin a few years ago. “It is a superb play and probably the only one of the Dublin trilogy – that also comprises Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, – that republicans would not find fault with O’Casey’s representation of the period from an ideological point of view” he unbelievably proclaims, just to show us how far Sinn Fein have now moved from any legitimate version of republicanism.

The three plays also use comedy and farce against the working-class poor to ridicule their support for Connolly and Pearse and Republicans in the same way that Bernard Manning used anti-Irish jokes during the recent Troubles and as Punch magazine used it historically against the Irish in general. They are stupid drunkards, corrupt and backward untermench, we simply cannot empathise with such creatures. And as with all racial stereotyping, it has a deadly purpose behind the belly laughs; these people are subhuman, not like us. And that makes it easier for the British Army to kill them. A recent article I saw mentioned that when young British soldiers, snipers and others, were required to kill Irish Republicans and sympathising and often random civilians, they had real difficulty. But they got over it with Bernard Manning’s assistance, as well as the help and sympathy of their commanders, of course.

That reactionary reviewer in An Phoblacht Magazine, Matt Treacy, recounts:

“Parts of Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman are extremely funny and this was brilliantly evoked by the cast of the New Theatre where the play is enjoying an extended run. But apart from being a comic masterpiece it has elements of pathos and tragedy. Amusement at the characters’ false bravado abruptly ends when news of Minnie’s arrest and death become known. Strangely some of the audience still thought this was funny! Whether through drink or lack of empathy I am not certain. What O’Casey does, however, is present the stark reality of the war raging outside on the streets of Dublin. That must have had a powerful impact in 1923.”

Minnie had hidden the Mills bombs to save her fancy man, the bogus IRA fugitive, the British Army found them, she was arrested and, “shot while trying to escape”, the standard British Army coverup story when they murdered Republican prisoners. And the “powerful impact” of the play was to assure the reactionary Dublin middle classes that they were now safe from revolution. Of course, it was “lack of empathy”, that is what O’Casey’s three plays are all about.

But he does want us to understand that:

“There is evidence of what later emerged as O’Casey’s ‘pacifism’ but which in reality was a rejection of revolutionary violence at least in an Irish context. At one point Shields declares that the people are dying for the gunmen. Not difficult then to see why his work was attempted to be incorporated into the anti-republican propaganda offensive of the 1970s and ‘80s. Dismissed at the time by one cynic of my acquaintance as the “Why O’Casey would have supported extradition” school of literary criticism. But like all great works of literature and drama, O’Casey’s best plays have outlived differing interpretations and survive as more than just a record of the times he sought to portray. Director Ronan Wilmot, the cast and the New Theatre are to be congratulated on reviving the Shadow and hopefully will go on to stage more classics.”

Treacy was not the naive idiot I first assumed, killing Republicans in the Shadow of a Gunman was not such a bad thing and he really should have understood who laughed at this and why. However, a reviewer in the Irish Examiner, Padraic Killeen, in July 2015, found about the same production that, “The Shadow of a Gunman is arguably the most pessimistic (of the trilogy), in that it pitches Irish revolution itself as something on the very edge of farce”. Somewhat to the left of Sean Treacy and Gerry Adams.

Image result for Cumman na NGaeleadh 1932 election posters shadow of the gunmanCumann Na nGaelhedh 1932 election poster using O’Casey’s play to threaten Republicans. They lost the election and De Valera’s Fianna Fail won.

This play was produced in 1926, three years after the Civil War and 10 after the 1916 uprising. It was his third play featuring life in Dublin tenements, The Shadow of a Gunman  was the first in 1923, when the Civil War was winding down to the defeat of the Republic and the counter-revolutionary reaction that engulphed Ireland as a consequence was rampant, with clerical fascist prelates in alliance with British stooge agents in Cumann na nGaedheal imposing black reaction on the population at large and on the Dublin working class in particular. O’Casey mercilessly lampooned Republicans and their working-class supporters in the 1924 Juno and the Paycock, to the delight of middle-class Dublin reaction. It is just one big piss-take of contempt for the working-class poor from start to finish.

A revolutionary movement contains within at all aspects of human liberation. It is an uprising of all the oppressed, in their diversity and in their unity. The Irish revolution of 1916 to 1923 was no different to the Russian Revolution in that respect except it took place in a colony of Britain. The outcome was a neo-colony in the south and a very repressive colony in the north.

O’Casey, who ended up almost in the same right-wing place politically as WB Yates, both retained the Protestant Ascendancy attitude of their origins. For O’Casey romantic nationalism and Larkin’s syndicalism was OK to fight for an improvement in the situation of workers; however defeating British imperialism was a step entirely too far and as for combining both as Connolly tried; well O’Casey saw, or hoped, that was impossible and viewed the prospect with horror; that is the central political theme of the Plough and Stars and that is why it continues to delight reaction ever since.

The politics of Stalinism in the USSR were perfectly compatible with his reactionary outlook in the 30s and 40s; he was Uncle Joe’s biggest fan in the artistic world. Yeats went from romantic, mystical Irish nationalism to neo-fascism against the working class also and the threat of communism. A whole generation of intellectuals did try heroically in those years to fight the oppressors as they saw them, Larkin against capitalism without understanding imperialism and Yeats against British imperialism without understanding socialism. Some, like the Gore-Booth sisters, the militant suffragettes like Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard and Connolly tried to combine all oppression. O’Casey never tried again after he lost that motion against Constance Markievicz in July 1914. That was why he became the favourite of the reactionary middle class in FDublin and then the whole British Empire after the global working class suffered their first serious defeats after the Russian Revolution, in the early to mid-1920s in Italy, Hungary, Germany, and Ireland.

Notes

[1] NEIL DOWDEN, Exeunt magazine, 23 March 2018, Review: The Plough and the Stars, No museum piece: Sean Holmes’ self-aware modern-day Sean O’Casey revival doesn’t feel revolutionary.http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/review-plough-stars-lyric-hammersmith/

[2] Gerry Downing, Time to end the ‘straight-washing’ of Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper, https://socialistfight.com/2018/04/01/time-to-end-the-straight-washing-of-eva-gore-booth-and-esther-roper/

[3] Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (London: Jonathan Cape 1995),   http://www.ricorso.net/rx/library/criticism/critics/mono/Kiberd_D2.htm

[4] Reima Shakeir, MA Theses, Transcending Irishness and Reading History in Selected Plays by Sean O’Casey and Frank McGuinnesshttps://socialistfight.com/2018/04/01/transcending-irishness-and-reading-history-in-selected-plays-by-sean-ocasey-and-frank-mcguinness/,

 

One thought on “Sean O’Casey’s Plough and Stars Reviewed

  1. teresa cgoldrick says:

    Excellent read

    Liked by 1 person

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