Transcending Irishness and Reading History in Selected Plays by Sean O’Casey and Frank McGuinness

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01/04/2018 by socialistfight

Reima Shakeir,  A Thesis in the Field of English, For the Degree of Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies Harvard University, May 2016


Image result for Sean O'Casey imagesThe political cynicism of Sean O’Casey as an old man. 

Enough here to politically estimate both O’Casey and McGuinness, and the author, Reima Shakeir.



I would like to express my gratitude to my thesis director: Prof. Daniel Donoghue who these past couple of years has been a steadfast source of guidance, encouragement and inspiration in my journey to the ALM thesis. Prof. Donoghue’s class was my first at the university and gave me the motivation to see the program to the end. I would also like to thank my thesis advisor: Dr.Talaya Delaney for her guidance, support and mutual love of Irish Drama. I would like to express my love to my mother who up to this moment does not know that I had embarked on a journey to a M.A degree at Harvard. I hope this brings her joy, delight and is a beautiful surprise after undergoing displacement from war and revolution in the Middle East.

Chapter I


The interplay between historical context and dramatic output has always been one of the distinctive features of Irish drama. Such an interaction is bidirectional in the sense that not only is history represented on stage through the medium of drama, but also that the literary text in general, and drama in particular, are often the product of history. As far back as Boucicault, the self-conscious representation of Ireland has been a major preoccupation of Irish drama. Such a representation is, to quote the words of Nicholas Grene in his book The Politics of Irish Drama, “created as much to be viewed from outside as from inside Ireland” (3). Grene argues that “Ireland continues to be matter for interpretation, a space, a place, a people needing explanation…” (48).The problematics of Irish history, its ongoing political difficulties, the Northern Troubles, and the unique status of the two Irelands within the English-speaking world are, according to Grene, the principal motives behind the obsession of Irish playwrights with history.

The main objective of this thesis is reading history as represented in selected plays by Sean O’Casey (1880-1964) and Frank McGuinness (1953- ) to demonstrate that these two particular dramatists transcend the narrow confines of “Irishness” towards the broader horizons of internationalism. Six representative plays are selected from O’Caseyean canon. As for McGuinness, his five plays included within the scope of this study represent the main works of his on-going creative activity. The plays by O’Casey included in this study are: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and The Paycock (1924), The Plough and the Stars (1926), The Silver Tassie (1928), The Stars Turn Red (1940) and Red Roses For Me (1942). The plays by McGuiness included in this study are:

Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme (1985), Carthaginians (1988), Mary and Lizzie (1989), Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me (1992) and Dolly West’s Kitchen (1999).

The choice of these two dramatists is justified by their dealing with similar historical events (the struggle for independence from England, the 1916 Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921, the Partition of 1920, the Free State of 1922, and the Civil War of 1921-1923) in many of their plays. And further, by evidence of intertextuality between their work, and by a common tendency to transcend the narrow confines of “Irishness” towards the broader horizons of internationalism or more universal themes accessible for the many. The thesis attempts to answer the following questions: How far are O’Casey and McGuinness’s recreations of Irish history influenced by the political, social, and cultural circumstances of their respective times? To what extent, if any, are their very different personal backgrounds reflected in their plays? How might we compose the approaches to the historical events they dramatize? What are the aims of O’Casey and McGuinness in their deliberate choice to interpret specific historical episodes at specific historical moments (the civil strife of the twenties in the South, and the more recent sectarian violence of the North)? In other words, how do their approaches assist us in making the local global?

Sean O’Casey was an Anglo-Irish Protestant who lived half his life among the predominantly Catholic working class of Dublin, and the other half in self-imposed exile in England. “At one time or another, the young O’Casey was intensely identified with all of the major issues of his time and country”1.

These issues include education and culture, nationalism, the Irish language, labor, religion, and the theater. His youthful years coincide with the cultural and literary Renaissance of the turn of the century. In Inventing Ireland, Declan Kiberd writes that at the turn of the twentieth century “London was the crucible in which the elements to make a modern Ireland were distilled” (99). In London, W.B. Yeats met with other activists such as Michael Collins, a young post office clerk who later became a lethal guerilla warfare commander; Desmond Fitzgerald, 1916 rebel and minister of the first Free State Government; Padraic O’Connaire, author of the first novel in the Irish language, and others. These political activists, as well as creative artists, according to Kiberd, first formed an idea of a new Ireland at their meetings in the Gaelic Athletic Association (founded in 1884), the Irish Literary Society (1891), and the Gaelic League (1893). Kiberd comments that “this loose federation of personalities was one of the very first groups of decolonizing intellectuals to formulate a vision of their native country during a youthful sojourn in an imperial capital—and then return to implement it” (100).

When the Irish Literary Theatre (The Abbey) was inaugurated in Dublin in 1899, there were notable differences between it and contemporary continental theaters. According to McHugh and Harmon, these continental theaters, except in the case of Norway, “had centuries of native drama behind them and were trying to reform by artistic innovation, while Yeats and his friends were facing the more formidable task of creating an Irish dramatic tradition where none existed” (147).

Two kinds of innovation are described by McHugh and Harmon: “the authentic artistic use of Irish material—which…would dispose summarily of the Boucicault tradition and what Yeats called that ‘comic scarecrow, the stage Irishman’—and…the restoration of poetic and imaginative drama to the [English-speaking] stage”(147).

Lady Gregory was one of the mainstays of the Irish dramatic movement from the time she met Yeats in 1896 till her death in 1932. As a playwright, advisor, and collector of Irish folk tales, her role is indispensable. McHugh and Harmon quote from Lady Gregory’s 1927 journal: “I did feel proud and satisfied—a theatre of our own, Irish plays, such a fine one by our countryman [in reference to O’Casey’s The Plough and The Stars]—company to play it so splendidly, all our own—something to have lived to see!” (177). The years from 1923 to 1928 have been immortalized in the history of Irish drama as “the years of O’Casey”—primarily because his Dublin trilogy, as well as a few slight one-acters, had helped to save the Abbey Theatre. In The Irish Dramatic Movement, Una Ellis Fermor describes O’Casey’s place in the movement as one “of great importance, for he turned into new channels the sharp, fierce or bitter social criticism which had shown itself from time to time in other writers…and in so doing he added to its strength and force as to bring it to the verge of tragic potency” (199).

O’Casey was born of middle-class parents who had fallen on hard times. After the death of his evangelical father, the ailing short-sighted boy suffered the real poverty of the working class. Working as office boy, messenger, manual laborer and railway worker, he nevertheless managed to educate himself. He came in touch with most of the vital currents of his time: the Gaelic League, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.), the Irish Citizen Army (I.C.A.), and the Irish Dramatic Movement. As a young man he was at first highly involved in the Gaelic League, changing his name from John O’Cathasaigh to Sean O’Casey, and using the League to recruit members for the I.R.B. However, the failure of the I.R.B. to stand by the workers against the employers and the police during the 1913 strike known as the Lock-Out, was a turning point in O’Casey’s relation to nationalism. Henceforth, O’Casey swung towards socialism, especially as his worker’s experience made it a more suitable ideology than middle-class nationalism. When Jim Larkin announced the formation of the I.C.A. in 1914 to defend the workers’ rights, O’Casey promptly became the secretary of this militant organization.

A close scrutiny of the course taken by the young O’Casey in relation to all causes which he espoused evolves a characteristic pattern. “First there was a passionate involvement; later his critical mind saw many flaws, sometimes outrageous ones, in the practice [of the cause in question]; and ultimately he became an outspoken critic” (Hogan, Feathers 77)

O’Casey’s relationship to the nationalist cause is a case in point. In his youth O’Casey was an ardent Republican who belonged to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. As late as 1913 O’Casey was still committed to revolutionary Republicanism. However, after the labor struggles of 1913, in which about thirty strikes took place before the explosion of violence on August 31, “Bloody Sunday”, according to R.M. Fox in History of the Irish Citizen Army, O’Casey’s concept of Irish political freedom became strongly influenced by the aims of organized labor. The federation formed in Dublin by some of the major employers, led by the Catholic William Martin Murphy to lock-out workers who joined the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, convinced O’Casey that the oppression of the proletariat was the major issue that had to be fought. He became a confirmed internationalist whose concept of Irish independence was overshadowed by the international struggle between capital and labour.

Furthermore, the barbaric atrocities committed by the Dublin police as they broke into tenements, destroyed property, and assaulted the innocent, justify the drastic ideological change that took place in O’Casey, who was in the middle of it all. After 1913, the real war for O’Casey was not between the Irish Republican and the British Imperialist, but between the workers of the world and international capitalism. The solid conviction that the only war worth fighting is the one for the international abolition of poverty and the ownership of the means of production by the workers remained unshaken in O’Casey the dramatist as will be discussed later on in the thesis.

In the fourth book of his autobiographies, entitled Inishfallen Fare Thee Well, O’Casey describes the “two fierce fights” that were going on for liberty during the tempestuous years surrounding the 1916 Easter Rising. He writes that these battles were taking place in Ireland and Russia simultaneously, and that whereas the first of these battles was “for a liberty of the soul that was to leave the body and mind still in prison, the other [was] for the liberty of the body that was to send the soul and mind as well out into the seething waters of a troubled world on a new and noble venture” (9). O’Casey’s enthusiasm for the second fight bursts throughout his lengthy autobiography, in his multiple denunciations of poverty as the worst kind of slavery, in his outspoken suspicion of the intentions of the middle-classed Irish Nationalist Movement towards the working class, and in his hymns of praise of the Soviet Union.

In the sixth volume of O’Casey’s autobiography, entitled Sunset and Evening Star, he extols “the great achievements of the Soviet Union,” and its ability to start afresh after the Second World War. “The inexhaustible energy, the irresistible enthusiasm of their socialistic efforts, were facts to me, grand facts…” (539). In the same book, O’Casey launches a bitter attack on one of the most famous post-war novels, namely George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In this dystopia Orwell vividly depicts the dehumanizing horrors of life under a totalitarian regime which does not only deprive citizens of the right to own property, but also deprives them of the right to feel or think.

The nightmarish existence in a society where one is watched around the clock by “Big Brother”, where history loses its authenticity as it is routinely falsified on a daily basis, and where one is always betrayed by one’s most intimate friends, is one of the most original representations of life behind “the Iron Curtain”. O’Casey’s staunch defence of socialism is testified to by his harsh dismissal of Orwell’s novel, arguing that Orwell’s feelings of his own impending death are the principal motivators of this work of “selfpity” and “sour revenge”. O’Casey claims that “the decay in [Orwell] was, in his imagination, transmuted into the life of the whole world” (542).

Although some cultural historians, such as David Cairns and Shaun Richards in Writing Ireland, endow O’Casey with a consistent ideology, others such as Daniel Corkery and Declan Kiberd, deny any possible association between O’Casey’s work and a single, consistent ideology. Cairns and Richards emphasize “the centrality of the internationalist opposition to nationalistic idealizations throughout the whole of O’Casey’s work” (128). In his introduction to Sean O’Casey’s Plays, Seamus Heaney succinctly states that O’Casey, “urbanized and demythologized” all nationalistic idealizations (viii). Cairns and Richards claim that the main argument behind O’Casey’s attack on the nationalistic movement can be stated as follows: “Knowledge which does not empower action, and action which does not represent need, are at the heart of O’Casey’s critique of a political movement which embraced abstraction and denied reality” (129).

On the other hand, in Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, Daniel Corkery claims that O’Casey’s work is a “shapeless mass”, and argues that “only for [Synge’s] grounding in music—what discipline is severer—and his toiling in languages and literatures, one cannot but think that his work would have been but a shapeless mass—perhaps not unlike Sean O’Casey’s” (83). In the same book Corkery describes O’Casey as an expatriate who writes for an alien audience. However, whereas the first part of this accusation cannot be denied, the second part bears further investigation within the scope of this thesis.

Satirizing what he calls O’Casey’s “sentimentalization of victims”, Declan Kiberd in Inventing Ireland writes that O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy shows “a profound distrust for anyone who makes an idea the basis for an action” (223). According to Kiberd, O’Casey’s plays offer “a bleak illustration of the old truism that in Ireland ‘socialism’ never stood for much more than a fundamental goodness of heart” (223). Kiberd goes on ruthlessly to stress his point on the same page, maintaining that although 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”, the plays’ argument is always “aborted” at the point when anyone who takes an idea seriously is mocked. Kiberd’s final statement on O’Casey is summed up in the following quotation:

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. (235)

The issue of O’Casey’s pacifism has been examined in relation to several plays in this thesis, and the viewpoint that emerges is that O’Casey is ready to fight for the cause of the workers. In Oak Leaves and Lavender the same argument holds true, as when Monica asks Drishogue, “…isn’t it nobler to bring one life into the world than to hunt a hundred out of it?”, to which Drishogue answers, “Depends on the kind you kill” (58). It should be emphasized that Drishogue fights on the side of England simply because in the Second World War the Soviet Union was on the side of England, in face of the common enemy represented by the Nazis. Thus when Kosok writes that in Oak Leaves “there is no trace of O’Casey uncompromising rejection of war as this was evident at the centre of The Silver Tassie”, and that he agrees with the critic who describes Oak Leaves as “surely the most bloodthirsty play ever written by a congenital pacifist” (213), he ignores the historical fact that in the First World War, there was no Soviet Union to make O’Casey condone the fight, as the Bolshevik Revolution took place in 1917. The war indicted by O’Casey in the Trilogy and The Tassie, is a national or international war that does not aim to establish a Workers’ Union. This argument can equally be used to defuse Kosok’s claim about the contrast between Feelim’s “big revenge monologue” (214), at the end of Oak Leaves, and Juno’s call for love at the end of Juno and The Paycock. Both Feelim and Juno have lost a son in war, but whereas the Irish Civil War is a war, according to O’Casey, that left the dispossessed more dispossessed than ever, the Second World War is depicted as an anti-Fascist, pro-Communist war that paves the ground for the establishment of the Workers’ Republic. Therefore, whereas love is called for to put an end to the senseless bloodshed of the Civil War, the death of Drishogue is represented as a necessary sacrifice that requires additional sacrifices before the final goal is achieved. As Drishogue, himself, says in Act I:

We know full well the hardships all before us. Our spring will still have many a frosty morning and a frosty night; our summers hot hold many a burden for us; our autumn glory will still be tinged with many a starless night, the sound of sorrow loud beneath their shrouded silence; but winter’s night of  hopeless woe is gone forever. (52)

The year 1989 witnessed the first performance of McGuinness’s play Mary and Lizzie. It also witnessed the breakdown of the Soviet Union, thus putting an end to the fruits of the Bolshevik Revolution that took place in Russia in 1917 and announcing the failure of one of the most revolutionary political, social, and economic systems in the history of humanity. Far from being a mere coincidence, Mary and Lizzie is closely related to the monumental historical event with which it coincides. Friederick Engels and Karl Marx, the authors of the “Communist Manifesto” of 1847—which proclaims that their theory of “scientific socialism” means that a “class can rule only as long as it is the most productive force within a society, and in an industrial society a revolution of the workers is inevitable”3

, was the intellectual and theoretical basis behind the Soviet Union regime—are the main characters of Mary and Lizzie in addition to Mary and Lizzie themselves. Moreover, the play’s last scene shows a boy speaking in Russian, then in English, asking for his mother and father, and when asked what message he wants to send them, the boy says, “listen” (44) then he weeps. His message is the weeping. The play can be viewed as a thematic antithesis to O’Casey’s Red Plays discussed before, in the sense that it commemorates the downfall of the “red horizon” that O’Casey’s The Star Turns Red and Red Roses For Me, preach as the sole savior of oppressed humanity. However, Mary and Lizzie is much wider in thematic scope than a mere documentation of the downfall of socialism, as it surveys a number of ideologies, and shows how inadequate they proved to be in the course of history. At the end of the play, McGuinness is the prophet who preaches a new “faith”, and tries to “convert” us to it, having proved throughout the play that other ideologies, such as military colonialism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and socialism, failed to deliver the promised salvation to those who believed in them. In the third scene of the play entitled “The Magical Priest”, the character bearing the same title says, “I am no Catholic, no Protestant. I worship both faiths with new eyes”, then he asks Mary and Lizzie, “shall I spell out the faith of the future?” (9). The answer to his crucial question is postponed to the end of the play, when Mother tells Mary and Lizzie, “God didn’t make the earth. We sung it. He heard us and joined in. We did it together, creation. There’s no difference between God and man, or woman…” (48). The three women then join together in a song that names “Love” as the new faith , and the play’s last words are, “For love is lord of all”, to which each of the three women says “so be it” (49). To McGuinness, whose plays show as much preoccupation with the theme of love versus hate as shown by O’Casey’s plays, love, rather than socialism, is the prescribed ideology, a fact that may be related to the different ages in which the two dramatists live.

The play’s structure is built upon nine scenes or episodes, whose main links are the four characters mentioned above. Unlike the other plays discussed in this thesis, Mary and Lizzie is focused on a certain political event, rather, the breakdown of the Soviet Union appears to have been the motivating factor that made McGuinness explore the history of humanity and catalogue a number of ideological systems that tried to regulate the relationship between people, as well as the nature of governments. Through the characters of the two sisters Mary and Lizzie Burns, two Irish maids who live in Ireland before the time of the Famine in 1845-49, and who emigrated to England to join their father who works in Manchester, then meet Frederick Engels and live with him, several political issues are illustrated.

The first four scenes which take place in pre-Famine Ireland employ a combination of fantasy and myth that points to the image of Ireland as the land of fairies, magic, and superstition, and, through the use of expressionism, represent the history of colonial oppression and religious bigotry in Ireland. Scene v, the middle of the play, acts as a transitional zone, as the two girls go to England, and an imaginary meeting between them and Queen Victoria takes place. Scenes vi and viii are ideological discussions about socialism in which Engels, Marx, Jenny— Marx’s wife— in addition to Mary and Lizzie, take part. In scene vii, through the use of the expressionistic technique, the father of Mary and Lizzie is seen as the representative of the Manchester workers in the 1840s. The play’s last scene is also expressionistic, as we meet the Russian “Boy” mentioned above—a representative of the future generations of Russia—and “The Women of The Camps” and “The Women of The Famine”, met before at the beginning of the play.

The title of the first scene, “The City of Women”, refers to Ireland under the British colonial regime, whose military aggression against the Irish people is represented by the literal and metaphorical rape of a colonized nation by the colonial aggressor. In Writing Ireland, Cairns and Richards argue that in, Ireland, the implications of linking femininity as a racial trait with [colonial] subservience were sufficiently recognized for nationalist writers to respond by emphasizing the manly… aspects of the Irish character… [whereas other writers] employed it to castigate the political and organizational ineffectualness of their [Irish] audiences. …[A third group of Irish intellectuals saw that] the establishment of transcendental linguistic and racial categories supplied a mode of access to the past and present of the Celtic-Irish which showed considerable developmental promise for the construction of new relationships and the revalidation of old ones. (50)

The above argument refers to the quotation of Ernest Renan included by Cairns and Richards in the same chapter, that “if it be permitted us to assign sex to nations as to individuals we should have to say without hesitance that the Celtic race… is an essentially feminine race” (46); as well as to the argument of Ashis Nandy (also included in Writing Ireland) about the Indian people. Nandy’s argument is extended by Cairns and Richards to include all colonized nations. Nandy argues that in the English imperial relationship with colonized people, “power, deployed through discourse, narrowed and reshaped the possibilities of sexuality in a colonial people… by emphasizing an aggressive, warrior-like masculinity and as submissive, passive femininity as the ‘normal’ forms of gender” (49). In the first scene of Mary and Lizzie, Lizzie begins the story that sets the tone of the whole play, saying:

They say long ago in this country there was a city of women who lived in the trees. They’d followed soldiers who they believed loved them. At the camp they were received like lepers and were banished into the forest. Fleas ate them, and they drew blood, scratching the world from themselves, weeping up the trees like withered leaves in rain. (1)

Lizzie, Mary, The Pregnant Girl, and The Women of The Camps who become The Women of The Trees, are seen as both, a metaphorical image of an oppressed, colonized, “raped”, country, as well as literal representatives of thousands of Irish women who, during the long centuries of political and military domination by England, either fell in love, or were seduced/raped by British soldiers. The tragedy of these women is that they were ostracized not only by the lover/enemy for whose sake they crossed the tribal divide, but also by their own tribe. Thus McGuinness’s Women of The Camps and Women in The Trees are victims, not only of colonial regime, but also of what Seamus Heaney calls in his poem, “Punishment”, “tribal intimate revenge”.

The Pregnant Girl, who carries a bayonet given to her by the camp soldiers who would not allow her to follow her lover’s regiment, is a symbol of Ireland, pregnant with her history. In scene iv, “The Feast of Famine”, as The Women of The Famine sing their tragic story of The Great Hunger, The Pregnant Girl collects the symbolic objects they have with them, and “cooks” them in a cauldron, using her bayonet to “stir” the ingredients, and also to kill “the gentleman who pays the rent” (18), an Irish euphemism for the character called “Pig”, who enabled the peasants to pay their rents to the landlords for long periods of Ireland’s history. Before The Women of the Famine and The Pregnant Girl “fade” from the scene, Mary and Lizzie ask The Pregnant Girl: “what are you carrying in your belly?”(19), only to discover that she is carrying the objects she took from The Women of The Famine. These symbols of Ireland’s history are, in the words of The Pregnant Girl: “a stone to build my house”, “a book to say to live there”, “rags” to wear, “a spoon to stir my sorrow”, “a straw in the wind”— which is her sorrow—and “the bone of a child” (19). At the end of the play, when The Pregnant girl “gently cuts her belly open with bayonet, …from inside her she takes a wooden box. She opens the lid. It is empty. She lets the box fall into the cauldron. She laughs [and says] at long last, I’ve buried my death” (47).This symbolic delivery from the pains of the past, announces hope in a future where past hostilities are buried, and where McGuinness’s new faith –“love” – heals all wounds.

The same metaphor of birth and death coexisting, used in the case of the womb of The Pregnant Girl giving birth and burying her own death simultaneously, is met in scene ii, “The Earth Opens”, as Mary and Lizzie enter the earth searching for their dead mother. The earth is depicted as both a womb and a grave, and Lizzie says, “I’m afraid of the grave. It’s where I was born. Our mother died when she gave me birth” (8). The atmosphere of fairytales is evoked in the characters Mary and Lizzie meet as they “wander the earth”, such as The Old Woman who may be the devil incarnate, and The Magical Priest who lives underground in scene iii, and who represents a corrupt faith that emerges as the people of Ireland change the commandment of love into hate, and change Christ into Anti-Christ, who preaches, “hate one another as I have hated you. …In this island I preach new religion. Where there is God, take his name in vain. Remember thou keep the Sabbath savage. Kill the honour of father and mother. Steal neighbour’s wife and neighbor’s goods. Convert, convert, and covet, covet” (9). Alluding to the long history of religious intolerance, as well as to the contemporary Troubles of Ireland, civil strife is depicted as cannibalistic brutality, as The Magical Priest says that Lizzie “has brains. They’ll be delicious fried in a little butter. We eat them in our religious sacrifices…” (10-11). Sectarian violence in Northern Ireland is the “strange religion” made up of “a killing combination of two defunct faiths that can only survive by feeding off each other” (11).

True to the episodic nature of fairy-tales, where the protagonist(s) meet(s) several symbolic characters, and goes from place to place without a clear relation of the how and when, Mary and Lizzie meet their mother and The Women of The Famine—who make them a prophecy of The 1845-1849 Great Hunger, and advise them to emigrate to England to join their father in Manchester—in scene iv, and meet Queen Victoria in England in scene v. When Mother asks The Women of The Famine, who’ve all died during childbirth like herself, to “Tell [Mary and Lizzie] what’s coming to poor old Ireland”, they respond chorus-like saying:






SIXTH WOMAN. Fever. (15)

The Women of The Famine sing a dirge “in memory of the race hunger freed” (16), and the cause of the tragedy is given in the words of Mother and Pig. Mother says that, “blight will fall from sky to boil. A million dead. A million gone to foreign lands” (17), and Pig sings, “We’ll call the butcher empire and the knife we’ll call its greed, / And it cut the throat of Ireland, leaving it to bleed” (19).Thus, according to McGuinness’s interpretation of history, both the blight and the greed of the British Empire conspired to cause the Famine. This interpretation coincides with that of Liam De Paor, who writes in The Peoples of Ireland that “In 1845 a bad season caused crop failures over a large part of Europe, … What brought hardship to other countries brought destruction to many parts of Ireland” (243). As for the policy of the decision-makers in England regarding the Famine, De Paor argues that it was “largely dominated by utilitarian and evangelical” ideologies that professed concern “that the starving destitute people in Ireland should not be demoralized by becoming dependent on government hand-outs” on the one hand, and that “applied principles of political economy, and respected the sacred rights of private property to the extent that public relief works… were designed not to enter into competition with private property and enterprise” on the other (243). The inevitable result of such a policy is the tragedy of “the race that hunger freed” in McGuinness’s play.

In Modern Ireland, R.F. Foster argues that the fungal infection that affected the potato crop in Europe in the autumn of 1845, and that showed a course of remissions and exacerbations till 1849, resulted “in areas where the labouring population was dependent on a potato diet, [in] a subsistence crisis that was beyond the powers either of the existing state apparatus or the prevalent conceptions of social responsibility—in Ireland at least” (320). Foster claims that the catastrophic results of the failure of the potato in Ireland, in comparison with “contemporary potato famines in Scotland and Belgium”, is due equally to “government policy [during the Famine, as well as] … the condition of the Irish economy in the years before Famine” (320). However, “Irish economy in the years before the Famine” is the result of the colonial enterprise in Ireland, to the same extent that the “government policy” during the Famine is a colonial consequence. This means that the verdict of a double responsibility for the tragedy—that of the blight and the British Empire— informs Foster’s argument in the same manner that it informs that of De Paor and McGuinness.

The expressionistic technique used to foreground the tragedy of the Famine bears a close resemblance to O’Casey’s use of expressionism to foreground the atrocities of the war in The Silver Tassie, or to depict the socialist utopia of the future in Red Roses For Me. Such a technique is especially suited to the telescoping of history, as is the case in Mary and Lizzie, when the dramatist is reviewing crucial chapters of the world’s history, exploring such international issues as colonialism and socialism, through focusing on the mid-nineteenth-century in Ireland and England.

The middle of the nineteenth century was a tempestuous time on both sides of the Irish Sea, for while Ireland suffered from the Famine of 1845-1849, in which a million died and another million emigrated, Victorian England “was developing into a modern democratic and industrialized state. The changeover was ….a painful one, attended with discord and conflict” (M.H.Abrams 894). Abrams argues that the 1840s came to be known in Victorian England as the “Time of Troubles”, and also as the “Hungry Forties”, as a combination of economic depression, unemployment, and slum conditions in the new industrial towns such as Manchester, “were terrible enough to create fears of revolution” (894). Queen Victoria, the symbol of the ever-expanding British Empire as well as of moral virtue and national pride, is thus highly relevant to the purposes of Mary and Lizzie, a play which essentially deals with historical issues in which Victoria and her government played a crucial part. For not only was the laissez-faire policy adopted in the Victorian era, compounded by centuries of colonial exploitation, responsible for the Famine in Ireland as discussed before, but the conditions of the working class in Manchester were also a direct result of the same policy.

Therefore, when Queen Victoria meets Mary and Lizzie in scene v of the play, and seems equally oblivious and indifferent to both Ireland and Manchester, McGuinness is subtly making a comment on the “Hungry Forties” in Ireland and England. When Mary and Lizzie tell her “we’ve just come from the water” (22), Queen Victoria thinks they must be “mermaids”, rather than the logical explanation of their having come from Ireland. Similarly, when they ask her about Manchester, rather than saying she has seen it or heard about it, she says she has “smelt it”, and that Manchester is “an open sewer” (23), referring to the historically documented unsanitary conditions of Manchester, which also affected the German industrialist Friedrich Engels, whose father owned a textile factory there, that he wrote The Condition of The Working Class in England in 1845, a book that depicts the incredibly brutal conditions under which the factory workers lived and toiled.

Describing the slums of Manchester, Engels writes:

In the houses one seldom sees a wooden or stone floor, while the doors and windows are nearly always broken, … And as for the dirt! Everywhere one sees heaps of refuse, garbage, and filth. There are stagnant pools instead of gutters and the stench alone is so overpowering that no human being, even partially civilized, would find it bearable to live in such a district. (M.H. Abrams 1592)

Engels’s The Condition of The Working Class in England can be seen as the prelude to the Communist Manifesto of 1847, which he wrote in collaboration with Karl Marx. Thus it seems highly appropriate to introduce these two historical figures in McGuinness’s Mary and Lizzie, and intertwine their action with that of the two Irish maids through an elaboration of the line that Mary says will be mentioned by Engels’s biographers, namely that “Frederick Engels lived with two Irishwomen, Mary and Lizzie Burns” (47-8).

The economic transition that takes place as the oppressed working class in England and elsewhere gains their contemporary status, is reflected in the structure of the play. At the end of scene v, Queen Victoria prophesies the end of the British Empire, a prophecy which history proves true. The Queen says that England roams the world searching for “contentment” and never finding it anywhere, and that she worries about “poor” England’s fate when the wandering is over:

Where will it go then but into itself, and what will it find? A tenement. The England that was wont to conquer others now makes a conquest of itself. Some third-rate isle lost among its seas. How shall we cope? By lying, I suppose… The old order changeth, yielding place to the new. …Find it in Manchester. (24)

In scene vi, we see Engels and Marx, two men who plan to change the world, discussing “material powers of production” and “bourgeois relations of production”, and using the metaphor of parricide to denote the change of the old regime. Engels says, “I’d like to kill my father. I wouldn’t call it murder. I’d call it war” (28). However, McGuinness makes a crucial distinction between the driving force behind the ideology of Engels and Marx, for whereas the former is mainly driven by his sympathy and love for the poor, the latter is driven by hatred of all— a hatred that, according to McGuinness, makes him plan to use one class to destroy the other. In McGuinness’s scale of values, such a distinction is enough to account for the fall of the Soviet Union, since it was founded on a theory of “hate” that carried the seeds of failure since the very beginning. Engels says, “I’m lost. I’m lonely. In a funny way I think it’s why I love the poor.

I think they’re lonely too” (27). When he meets Mary and Lizzie, and through them gets nearer to the working class, as he meets their father in scene vii, his love for the poor is so great that he makes a pledge, in the words of the marriage vow, to “change the workings of the world” (32). The figure of the Father, “half-naked, dyed brown, …speaking to his hands, sinking to his knees” (29-30), is an embodiment of the brutal economic system that ignored the humanity of the workers, reducing them to mere “factory hands”. This is reflected in the words of Father, who, throughout the scene, speaks to his hands, and never engages in a dialogue with either his daughters or Engels.

Father sings another version of the song of The Women of The Famine:

Fingers to the bone, fingers to the bone,

Walk through the shite on your way back home.

Skies shite rain, rain shites on all,

Mouth to feed, hunger on the wall.

Army on its stomach, poor like night, Marching, marching, brown as shite. (30)

The reference to the Irish workers in Manchester, made by Engels in the extract from The Condition of The Working Class read by Jenny Marx, the wife of Karl Marx, in scene viii of the play, describes the Irish workers in Manchester as living among “filth and poverty”, with drink as “the only thing which makes [their] life worth living” (40).

Engels argues that the fact that these Irish workers “require less wages than any other” (40), is one of the causes of the low wages of the Manchester workers in general, as the factory owners’ sole aim is to gain maximum profits. However, Engel’s argument is not an indictment of the characteristics of the Irish race—characteristics which Engels writes are those of the working class as a whole— but is an indictment of the oppressive and exploitative regime that produces these characteristics. That the Irish are doubly oppressed, by colonialism and capitalism, explains their worse condition. Engels’s “love” for the poor is a redeeming quality that makes Mary say in the play’s last scene, “Friederick… I remember you. And you will be remembered, because you loved the earth and loved me…” (47).

Marx, on the other hand, tells Engels, “I hate them [the poor]. I hate your sentimental waffle about them. I hate their ignorance. I hate their cruelty. I hate their stupidity. I hate their patience. I hate you for loving them. I hate you for drinking with them, laughing with them. I hate the poor” (27). He explains that his theory does not aim at lightening the “load” off the poor’s shoulder, as the poor are “beasts of burden”, made for the specific purpose of carrying loads. “[B]ut the beasts can be released on civilization, and when they are freed, they will shake the world to its very foundations” (27). Marx concedes that the poor are “tired, broken, despairing, destroyed” (27), but rather than pitying them, he despises them, and plans to use them to topple the order of the world. According to McGuinness, Marx’s concept that the actual course of history is determined by class struggle, does not aim at bringing happiness to a certain class, but rather at equally distributing misery among all classes. The destructive hatred of, and contempt for the working class behind Marx’s ideology, is highlighted in his words to

Mary and Lizzie in scene viii, as he describes the working class in general, telling them, “you’re dangerous, a rotting mass, sitting there, passive, the lowest of the low, you might have your uses, you could be swept into life, but in your condition you’re part and parcel of the old regime” (41).

To sum up, Mary and Lizzie dramatizes, through the use of a multiplicity of techniques—mainly a blend of symbolism and expressionism—the crucial historical epoch of the 1840s, an epoch that demarcates the mainly agricultural and feudal world before it, from the industrial and modern democratic as well as socialist regimes that predominate in the post-1840s. Mary and Lizzie—the protagonists/narrators of the play— are realistic as well as symbolic. The play reviews several political issues that, though primarily related to Irish and British history, are of universal relevance due to the nature of colonialism, and to the emergence of the ideology of scientific socialism that was applied in various countries.

The play explores the relations between these different ideologies and comes up with its own prescription of “love” as the saviour of the human race. The date of the play’s first performance testifies to one of the basic arguments proposed by the present thesis, namely that drama does not only represent history onstage, but is also the product of that history. In other words, the downfall of the Soviet Union provided McGuinness with the necessary stimulation to review the origins of the ideology on which the Soviet Union was built, to try to interpret its failure in view of contemporary ideologies, and to propose an alternative ideology that might save humanity.

McGuinness’s Mary and Lizzie shares an ironic relationship with O’Casey’s Red Plays, O’Casey is “no Party-Liner …but he is no sentimental fellow traveler, clinging to a fuzzy vision of the good life” (Hogan, Feathers 84). His enthusiasm for what Engels and Marx term “scientific socialism”—to differentiate it from the visions of egalitarian utopias that have inspired man since the beginning of time— is as strong as ever in his post-1956 plays. In Rose and Crown, the fifth volume of O’Casey’s autobiography, he writes, “Communism isn’t an invention of Marx; it is a social growth, developing through the ages, since man banded together to fight fear of the unknown…” (345). He then hastens to add that his Bible is the Communist Manifesto, “the rock upon which Communism is built” (345), thus proving that he is not just a well-wisher for humanity, but an apostle of scientific socialism. In the sixth volume of the autobiography, entitled Sunset and Evening Star, O’Casey states unequivocally that, “the Socialism of the Soviet Union is not only the hope of the workers, but also, the hope of the world” (537). For O’Casey, as for Marx and Engels, communism is “the final goal toward which socialist society would constantly build”, and the human goal of abolishing “alienation” between the worker and the product of his activity, as well as between him and other human beings and their inherent potentials.

O’Casey’s work illuminates his persistent loyalty to socialism, even in the plays written after 1956. O’Casey, like Drishogue in Oak Leaves and Lavender, believes that although the Soviet Union is far from being “an order of perfection”, still it represents, “a hard, bitter, glorious struggle towards it” (46). In face of such a glaring instance of ideological commitment throughout O’Casey’s career as a dramatist, McGuinness’s perseverance in reviewing the different ideologies that prevail in the age of contradictions in which he lives, becomes all the more outstanding. Not content to go back to the past and explore different examples of the ideologies of the Western civilization, McGuinness attempts an exploration of the Orient, and specifically, of militant Islam, in Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.

Reading history in Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me raises, once more, the issue of the relation between the past and the present, and how a former empire that used to rule more than half the world can be responsible, though in an indirect manner, for a civil war built on political and religious ideological conflicts, that takes place in a Middle Eastern country in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Different forms of imperialism, old and new, are represented onstage, and the basic similarities between them are highlighted, despite all the superficial differences. Various political issues are discussed within the context of the play, in a very natural manner arising from the play’s basic situation, without the slightest affectation or contrivance on the part of the dramatist. The play is built on a documented historical event that takes place in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, when an American doctor, Adam, an Irish journalist, Edward, and a British university professor, Michael, are taken hostage by Islamic militia.

As the three characters are tied to the wall of their cell by chains throughout the play, there is an obvious challenge to the playwright to sustain interest and tension despite the limitations of minimal movement— a challenge that McGuinness meets headlong by making use of the waiting technique to explore the intricate relationships between the political circumstances of the past and the present. For whereas the three characters are given enough individual traits not to be taken as mere stereotypes of their respective nationalities, the fact that colonial relationship is the common factor that used to bind the three together, as well as being the main link between them and the Arab world in which the play is set, makes the dramatic conflict primarily political.

The setting of the play can be described, both literally and figuratively, as being what Homi Bhabha calls, in The Location of Culture, the “in-between”. Bhabha argues that at the turn of the century, the location of culture, as well as of national and political identities, lies in the realm of the “in-between”, as “we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion” (1). Lebanon, the traditional link between the West and the Arab World, is a literal “in-between”, indebted to the mutual interests of French and British colonial systems for its very existence as a nation-state. Moreover, the hostage cell with the Islamic militants outside—never seen or heard yet overwhelmingly present throughout the play— is a perfect illustration of Bhabha’s “middle passage”— “an interstitial passage between fixed identifications, [that] opens up the possibility of a cultural [and political] hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (4). Thus, the cell, both with its inmates and its guards, acts as an “in-between” or a “middle passage” that allows different nations, whose political, economic, cultural and social interactions are part of the present global scene, to come into contact with each other, and to interact in order to reach a state of hybridity or a at least an acceptance of the other, without having to assign hierarchies of higher and lower or superior and inferior.

As the play employs the dramatic device of waiting—whether for release or execution—the issue of language and its relation to colonialism becomes paramount, as the three characters spend their time talking in English, or rather in British, Irish, and American “englishes” as Bill Ashcroft, in The Empire Writes Back, calls the different variants of English that result from the territorial expansion of the British Empire in the Old and New Worlds. According to Ashcroft, there are two distinct processes by which the language of the colonizer is adapted by the colonized: The first, the abrogation or denial of the privilege of ‘English’ involves a rejection of the metropolitan power over the means of communication.

The second, the appropriation and reconstitution of the language of the centre, the process of capturing and remoulding the language to new usages, marks a separation from the site of colonial privilege. (38) Edward’s strong rejection of Michael’s claim that the Irish speak “a dialect of English”, asserting instead that the language spoken by present-day Irish is an authentic and culturally-specific appropriation of the language of the former colonizer, is a case in point. Edward tells Michael, “…it was your language. Not anymore. We’ve taken it from you. We’ve made it our own. And now, we’ve bettered you at it… We took you and your language on, and we won.” (30).

The language issue in America follows a slightly different course, as these former American colonies did not lose their original language as in the case of Gaelic—since the extermination of the Native Americans implies the extermination of their languages— yet, the British English was nevertheless appropriated into a distinct American English. Adam expresses his longing to hear this language, underlining the fact that his cell-mates speak a different language, saying, “Want to hear one American, any American voice” (21).

As for the relation between the language issue and the Arab World that was for a long time among the colonial territories of the British Empire and France, the situation is again different. On the one hand, the onstage symbol of the Arabs—their Holy Book, The Koran—is in the form of an English translation offered by the Islamic militants who hold the hostages, in an attempt to communicate with the political, religious, and racial other.

This implies a clear concession to the fact that the English language, due to various historical causes mostly related to imperialism, is the most widely spread language all over the globe. On the other hand, the Arabs have kept their Arabic language intact despite centuries of political and military subservience, and despite continuous contact with the West. In Culture and Imperialism, Said explains this linguistic phenomenon, arguing that since Arabic is the language of Islam, and since it is “a language with considerable literary community and hieratic force” (370), it is logical that in the Arab World, English is consigned mainly to the level of “a technical language, stripped of expressive and aesthetic characteristics and denuded of any critical or self-conscious dimension” (369). Said reinforces his argument by comparing the devaluation of English to such an attenuated level in the Arab World, especially in the years that witnessed Islamic revivalism, to the remarkable prominence it acquired in other decolonized societies, where it appears in “new communities of literary, critical, and philosophical practice” (370)

The absurdity of trying to separate the issues of colonial hegemony from the cultural hegemony implied in the teaching of the language of the colonizer is emphasized as Michael exclaims, “I don’t know. I really don’t know anything about the political situation in Lebanon. I came here to teach English. I lecture in English. That’s all” (11).

The close relation between the predominance of certain uses of language—such as the  predominance of the technical and practical over the aesthetic—and the dominant politico-economic global systems, is evident as Michael gives the reason for losing his job in England. He was forced to resign as “they’re not teaching much Old and Middle English these days. A dying concern. Rationalization of resources…” (12-13).

Through the language of The Koran, McGuinness represents the confrontation between two momentous powers on the political arena, namely the United States of America and fundamentalist Islam. It is noteworthy that the first performance of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me in 1992, is only one year after the Gulf War in which America dispatched its troops to the Middle East to act as a law enforcement officer, in the wake of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. This heralds a new era of American imperialism, as Said argues that the imperial creed rests on a theory of law-making, expressed by Cicero’s definition of the Roman Empire as, “the domain over which Rome enjoyed the legal right to enforce the law” (Culture and Imperialism 346).

The American character in the play, Adam Canning, with his obsession with physical fitness, is a typical American Adam, whose name connotates with the “Earthly Paradise” tradition linked with the New World. In The Frontier Mind, Arthur K. Moore writes that while some have located this Earthly Paradise in Ireland, it was most commonly located by 17th-century Englishmen in Virginia. He describes it as “a far- distant region of extraordinary fertility, blessed with noble trees, fountains, and rivers, and screened by a perilous barrier—mountain or sea—over which only the valiant may pass” (11). McGuinness highlights the mixture of self-deception and arrogance that make both Michael and Adam—the representatives of old and new imperialism—unable to perceive the crucial role they played in generating civil strife in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Michael’s inability to understand any reason for the seemingly senseless violence is clear as he asks near the end of the play, “is that what all this is for? To see us suffer? And to what end? What is it for?” (57). The same incomprehension floats to the surface through Adam’s angry outburst, I want to kill an Arab. Just one. Throw his body down before his mother and father, his wife and kids, and say, I did it, me, the American. Now you can blame me. You are justified in what you do to me. You have deserved this. I want to see their faces fill with hate. True hate. I want that within my power. (22)

Adam’s inability to find a single reason for his being kept hostage by the Arabs is an illustration of what Moore calls the confused workings of the frontier mind, whose fixation on “the myth of the Earthly Paradise… has been the cause both of its achievement and its affliction” (247). Moreover, Adam’s attitude reflects the deep-seated ambiguity that underlies the energizing myth of America. Martin Green analyzes this ambiguity in The Great American Adventure, writing that while “on the other hand, it has been passionately anti-imperialist, born in rebellion against the British Empire, …on the other hand, it has been triumphantly imperialist” (3). Green sets the initial American rejection of tyranny, aristocracy, militarism, courts and castes, against its later spreading “like a prairie fire”, taking a whole continent away from its inhabitants, and spreading American styles of technology all over the world, to displace other cultures. According to Green, “adventure has been the energizing myth of both aspects of America, and thus has recommended both plain, peaceable manliness and triumphant imperial militarism” (4).

Recognizing— though not understanding—that there is a prevalent and popular antagonism to American politics in the Middle East, Adam refers to his “value” to his captors, saying, “an American is… a valuable asset. A prize possession. Prized, yes, valued, but not loved. There is a price permanently placed on the American’s head” (21).

It is significant that Adam is the only one of the play’s three characters who is interested in reading the Bible and the Koran. This can be explained as natural curiosity to know one’s enemies, since fundamentalist Islam has been traditionally portrayed as the rival power to America’s supremacy over the world, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Adam’s reading of the Islamic doctrine of religious tolerance included in the Koranic quotation, “To you, your religion, to me, my religion” (27), comes as a revelation both to him and to Edward. Edward keeps repeating it, as he discovers in the beautiful simplicity of the concept of tolerance and religious freedom, an end to the centuries of sectarian strife that plagues his own country. Thus, McGuinness extends the historic perspective of his play, and sets the “Troubles” of his country amid a globalized world where one can no longer afford an isolationist reading of history. Therefore, while the Troubles of Ireland and its still partially-colonized status are highlighted from the beginning of the play—as Edward mentions the Northern Ireland cites of Strabane and Omagh in the first scene as worse places than their Beirut prison cell—they are placed within the wider context of colonial legacy and sectarian strife all over the world. The second Koranic quotation that acts as a turning point in Adam’s conception of both Islam and power, comes when he says, “fetch me the Koran that I may read of power” (22), thus emphasizing that America, after the end of the Cold War, has designated Islam as the emergent enemy to be reckoned with. To his utter surprise, Adam discovers that in Islam, power is a synonym of peace rather than violence or war, a concept that seems diametrically opposed both to the tremendous American war machine, and to the Western stereotypical misrepresentation of Islam as a religion of violence and bloodshed; and to the misguided interpretation of Islamic fundamentalists. Adam reads the following Koranic quotation:

The Night of Power is better than a thousand months; Peace it is, till the rising of dawn. (23)

The Holy Quran: English translation of the meanings and Commentary, states— in reference to the first Koranic quotation mentioned above—that “faith is a matter of personal conviction”, and that there is no need to persecute or abuse anyone for his faith or belief’ (2020-2021). As for the second Koranic quotation, the Commentary states that it refers to “the Night of Power (or Honor) in which Revelation came down to the Prophet for the first time through Angel Gabriel”, thus giving rise to peace and security due to the dissipation of spiritual darkness (1984-85).

This representation of Islam as a religion of peace in McGuinness’s play, comes as a revelation to the American Adam, who is suddenly filled with a sense of remorse and contrition, and falls on his knees, asking forgiveness: “forgive me, my sisters and my brothers, for doubting if you were sisters and brothers. Forgive me, my foes, for calling you my foes. In your good book lies the way to power and to peace” (23). Adam then kisses the Koran, in a gesture of reconciliation between the two conflicting powers of our present world.

Throughout the play the Arabs are unseen and unheard, talking to their captives only through the words of their Holy Book. This deliberate silence allows more than one interpretation. The Irishman Edward interprets it as a sign of power, with which he is familiar in the sectarian strife of his country. He remarks that, “these boys [the Arabs] never say anything. Their strength depends on silence. Careless talk costs lives. That’s scrawled on every wall from Belfast to Derry” (36). Silence here is linked with power, and it is obvious that the play’s basic circumstance puts the Arabs in a position of power. Whether this power is the result of the self-righteousness of all religious fanatics as Edward describes his captors as well as his compatriots back home, or whether it is the result of genuine moral strength derived from religious faith as Adam’s reading of the Koran suggests, is an issue that the play does not presume to settle.The silence of the Arabs in the play can also be taken in the sense that McGuinness, as a Westerner, could not or would not speak for them, they have to tell their own story. Each of the three Western characters is both narrator and narrated, in reference to Bhabha’s argument in Nation and Narration, that to be both subject and object of narrative discourse, makes “untenable any supremacist, or nationalist claims to cultural mastery,… [and makes] the subject graspable only in the passage between telling/told” (301). Thus the fact that within the context of the play the Arabs are only objects and not subjects of narrative discourse, bears a direct reference to Bhabha’s argument that nation is narration, and that people exist to the extent they can speak about themselves and answer the “stories” told by others about them. The representation of the Arabs through the dialogue of their captives is

incredibly stereotypical and in perfect line with the traditional Hollywood version of the Arabs as Bedouins wearing “skirts” and women wearing “yashmaks”, riding camels in the desert, and totally unaware of modern civilization. Edward even inserts “a band of machismo Arabs” (15), who arrive on the scene during his recounting of the Hollywood production of the movie, “Gandhi”, riding white steeds and carrying guns. The inaccuracy of such a description is in accordance with Said’s argument that “no major cultural group …was (and still is) as little known [as the Arabs]” (355). Said writes about the “appalling racist caricatures” that prevail in the West, misrepresenting all Arabs and Muslims as “either terrorists or sheiks”, and depicting the region as “a large arid slum, fit only for profit or war” (364). Said argues that even in the so-called era of multiculturalism, “the very notion that there might be a history, a culture, a society— indeed many societies— [in the Arab World] has not held the stage” (Culture and Imperialism 364).

Another possible interpretation for the silence of the Arabs throughout the play is that deduced from the following quotation by Said in Beginnings, on the truth-value of silence in relation to language. Said claims that, “any absolute truth cannot be expressed in words, for only diminished, flawed versions of the truth are available to language. …for truth has no need of words” (86).

On the other hand, the role played by the media in interpreting past events, as well as in representing present circumstances from the viewpoint of those in a position of power, is highlighted in the multiple references to the press coverage of violence in Northern Ireland and Lebanon, to the BBC World Service, and, above all, to Hollywood movies. Far from being a simple device used by the hostages to fight the boredom of prison, the movies they recount point to the cultural impact of these popular discourses of the Western Civilization on the minds of people in general, and people of the Third World in particular, an impact that is more fatal than the military machine of traditional imperialism. For whereas the latter provokes antagonism and active resistance, the former is readily assimilated to become part of the collective self-image, and to lead to a deification of the West and all what it stands for.

Most of the movies narrated by the hostages offer variations on the theme of the relation between colonizer-colonized, showing the colonial enterprise to be a joint economic and missionary project, where the colonizer seeks to make profit, and to convert the natives. The first movie refers to an Englishman who comes to Beirut, and, like Michael, invites some natives who “speak English”, and who “would seem to know the ropes about the place”, depicting the sort of Westernized natives who are found in every colonized country. However, the colonizer’s sense of entrapment and alienation in the winding streets of the city reflect how he is rejected by the place itself. The second movie is thematically more complex than the first, as it ties the missionary strand of the nun who comes to Beirut teaching children English language and Christian religion, with the Arabs who save the corpse of this same nun from the vultures, and to Gandhi’s message of tolerance and peace, in addition to the “crowd of peasants” dancing and moving scythes. This telescoping of time and space to include several episodes of the world’s history is reminiscent of the technique of Mary and Lizzie.

The different symbolic valencies of the terms “motherland” and “fatherland”, Elleke Boehmer argues, “suggest …that images of mothers and of men occupy different spaces and levels in national iconographies” (232). Boehmer claims that since syntactically, the epithets “mother” and “father” cannot be used interchangeably, so the connotations of the mother metaphor when applied to land, language, and other national entities, are incommensurate with and preclude the idea of the father. According to Boehmer, the term fatherland conventionally lends itself to more “strenuously nationalistic” contexts, where the appeal is to filial duty, and to the bonds of fraternity and paternity. On the other hand, the image of the mother, writes Boehmer, “invites connotations of origins—birth, hearth, home, roots, the umbilical cord—and rests upon the frequent, and some might say ‘natural’, identification of the mother with the beloved earth, the national territory, and the first-spoken language, the national tongue” (232).


Citation Shakeir, Reima. 2016. Transcending Irishness and Reading History in Selected Plays by Sean O’Casey and Frank McGuinness. Master’s thesis, Harvard Extension School. Accessed April 1, 2018 1:26:41 AM EDT Citable Link

Terms of Use This article was downloaded from Harvard University’s DASH repository, and is made available under the terms and conditions applicable to Other Posted Material, as set forth at


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