ART's "Plough & Stars": Going Brogue

James Hayes & Ciaran O'Brien in "The Plough and the Stars"
(photo:  Ros Kavanagh)

On this, the 90th anniversary of Sean O'Casey's play The Plough and the Stars, Dublin's Abbey Theatre (where the work had its world premiere in 1926) is presenting the tragedy at American Repertory Theatre. The third play in the playwright's “Dublin Trilogy”, it followed his Shadow of a Gunman in 1923 and Juno and the Paycock in 1924. The title of this final part of the triplet references the Irish Citizen Army's flag featuring what is known in the U.S as the Big Dipper, but in Britain and Ireland as “the plough and the stars” (meaning a free Ireland would control the destiny of everything from the earth to the sky). O'Casey dedicated the play thus: To the gay laugh of my mother, at the gate of the grave, a quintessential Irish memento mori  if there ever was one. The work covers events leading up to the Easter Rising, in four acts. If it's unfamiliar to American theatergoers today, a brief synopsis should suffice.

At the flat of Jack Clitheroe (Ian-Lloyd Anderson), a bricklayer, and his wife Nora (Kate Stanley Brennan), Fluther Good (David Ganly), a trade unionist carpenter, a former heavy drinker now on the wagon, is fixing the lock on the door. Charwoman Mrs. Gogan (Janet Moran) delivers a new hat, a gift for Nora. Nora's uncle Peter Flynn (James Hayes), a laborer, and Jack's radical cousin The Young Covey (Ciaran O'Brien), a fitter, argue. Nora comes in, and Jack is suddenly informed he is pressed back into the service of the Irish Citizen Army with a promotion, of which he was previously unaware, since the letter informing him of this never reached him. Mrs. Gogan's daughter Mollser (Rachel Gleeson) who is dying of tuberculosis comes in, after her mother heads for a political meeting. In a public house Jack and others carry in the flag, while Fluther decides to go off with the prostitute Rosie (Nyree Yergainharsian). On Easter Monday, opening day of what would come to be known as the aforementioned Easter Rising, Bessie Burgess (Hilda Fay), a Protestant street vendor, gloats about what she foresees as the rebels' defeat. Jack ignores Nora's plea to stay with her and goes off to fight. What follows is a string of tragedies not to be revealed here, involving Nora, Mollser, Jack and, ironically, Bessie.

It's fitting that the play ends in irony (especially with respect to the fate of the only major Protestant character), as this was typical of O'Casey. When first produced, it hit so close to home that riots broke out in the theater. Much ink has been spilt over how naturalistic and realistic vs. idealistic O'Casey's trilogy is. This current wondrous cast of fourteen is a wonder to behold and to hear, though the brogue can at times be impenetrable. This is no criticism of the actors, as the previous Abbey Theatre production seen in Boston in 1976, with legendary luminaries such as Cyril Cusack and Siobhan McKenna, (not to mention Sorcha Cusack as Nora, now appearing as Mrs. McCarthy, the parish secretary in the Father Brown television series) was equally difficult to understand at times. It would behoove a theatergoer to read the play first in print in order to overcome the language difficulty. (Full disclosure: this critic is of Irish descent and still had problems with the dialect). The brogue is at times all too authentic to absorb, but no matter, as the superb acting skills of this indelible ensemble masterfully convey all their hopes and fears.

This production, as controversially Directed by Sean Holmes, has Set Design by Jon Bausor, Costume Design by Catherine Fay, Lighting Design by Paul Keogan, and Music and Sound Design by Phillip Stewart. Featured aspects of present day Dublin including modern dress and television, which perhaps make the play more universal, can also come across as distractingly auteurist touches. One such concept is the use of the rock song Everybody Speaks, Nobody Hears (a phrase first penned by G.K. Chesterton) and other contemporary music, sometimes sung live with hand mikes. All of the characters break the fourth wall, often speaking to the audience rather than one another, which can be off-putting when dialogue is declaimed. Yet it's a fact that O'Casey frequently has his characters speak of themselves in the third person. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't.

Overall, the magic surely works in the current production of the classic play, since the broad historical events and high-toned rhetoric of the events taking place don't take center stage. It's the tale of ordinary people being impacted by those extraordinary events, which is the genius of the playwright. His focus was not on the epic but on the everyday lives of those simple people. As Nora puts it, she “risked more for love than they would risk for hate”. It's a powerful message when delivered with the eloquence of the ordinary.

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