Thursday, August 2, 2018

Lace Curtains Torn

“The Plough and the Stars,” “Shadow of a Gun Man,” and “Juno and the Paycock,” plays by Sean O’Casey, 1920s

Sean O’Casey grew up a clerk's son in Dublin, Ireland, and he set these three theatre productions in the Dublin tenements around where he lived.  As such, these were the first proletarian plays to come out of Ireland. He was self-taught, not attending Trinity College as did fellow dramatist Samuel Beckett.  His plays are in mostly idiomatic Irish English, the brogue, sort of what Twain did with American slang.  O’Casey helped organize the Irish Citizen Army in 1913, a socialist labor military grouping formed to defend against English aggression and later led by James Connolly.  He was a socialist.  However, in these plays O’Casey takes a ‘tragic-comedic’ eye to the events that followed, which brought political opprobrium on him for his simple and deep humanism. 

Scene from "Juno and the Paycock" (Peacock...)

These three plays could be seen as one long play, really a play cycle, set in Dublin.  They go from the period of the Irish Easter Rising in 1916 (‘Plough’) to the revolutionary war against the English in 1920 (‘Shadow’) to the civil war between the Free-Staters and the Republican Brotherhood in 1922 (‘Juno’).  All involve the impact of the violence on civilians, usually from the viewpoint of a woman.  The men are many times pompous, foolish, drunken or blatherers.  An arrogant Socialist, a bad poet, a drunken and lazy husband display their wares.  The English make only two appearances, both marginal.  World War I, where many more Irish died in the English army than who died in Ireland in 196-1922, is muted to invisible in the ‘Plough.’  The plays are soaked in displays of Irish patriotism, which O’Casey quietly mocks, especially in a scene where a man brags about his pilgrimages to Wolfe Tone’s grave.  So the whole reason why these men are fighting (though women fought too…) is obscure, and perhaps intentionally so.

The women – the grounded and realistic Mrs. Boyle (Juno); the courageous girl Minnie; the suffering wife Nora and her kind neighbor Bessie – all feel the impact of the violence on their brothers, their husbands, their potential boyfriends, their neighbors.  Two of them fall victim to the violence themselves. The men say that ‘a principle is a principle’ and that they’ll ‘die for Ireland’ while the women want them at home half-fed, not starving and alive, not crippled or dead.  A familiar story.

The women are the ‘realists’ while some of the men are the ‘romantics,’ at least in the common parlance.  But given Ireland had been an oppressed country for hundreds of years, a million died of an English-aided famine, tens of thousands of Irishmen were sent to slaughter in ‘Flanders fields’ or Gallipoli, all while Ireland remained a colony of the English empire, its land owned, its people poor wage slaves, its democratic rights almost nil – something had to give.  So there was a powerful political logic here that rose above a granular humanism. The Irish infatuation with ‘gunmen’ and killing shown in these plays - sloppy and sometimes thoughtless – was inevitable given English oppression.  In a way, this continued during the war for Irish independence in northern Ireland, a guerrilla war which only ended in 1994.  Northern Ireland today is still a colony of the less august “United Kingdom” - as the Brexit vote might finally end that. And perhaps Scotland won’t be far behind.

Because of O’Casey’s change of heart, I imagine he is looked on as something of a political cynic in Ireland.  After all, there are consequences to violence, even justified violence.  Beyond the politics though, these plays reveal the hidden lives of typical working class Dubliners in these terrible times – and that is their main strength.  The dialog is dead-on accurate, the settings shabby, the humour immense, the humanity obvious.  People get into debt because of a promise of an inheritance that never comes.  They loot during the rising. They make do with tea and whiskey.  The lace curtains are torn, the windows broken and money scarce.  These years have marked Ireland and the Irish people even to this day, and these plays show how.

And I bought it Chapman Street Books in Ely, Mn.

Red Frog

August 2, 2018

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