Wherein Sean O’Casey takes the measure of ordinary folk in times of great upheaval

By R. J. Donovan
Special to the BIR

Ian-Lloyd Anderson, Lloyd Cooney and Liam Heslin in the Abbey Theatre production of Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars,” playing the American Repertory Theater from September 24 to October 9. Ros Kavanagh photoIan-Lloyd Anderson, Lloyd Cooney and Liam Heslin in the Abbey Theatre production of Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars,” playing the American Repertory Theater from September 24 to October 9. Ros Kavanagh photo
“The Plough and the Stars” has a long history with Dublin’s legendary Abbey Theatre – Ireland’s national theater.  Sean O’Casey’s absorbing play about the liberation of Ireland had its debut at the Abbey in 1926 and has been produced there more than 50 times in the years since.

In “Plough,” named for the Starry Plough banner flown by the Irish Citizen Army, the story begins in November of 1915 and then moves to the Easter Rising in April of 1916.

As tension builds, the residents of a Dublin tenement take shelter from the violence that is sweeping through the city streets. The action is focused not on the revolt raging against British imperial rule but on the impoverished characters struggling to survive in a seemingly doomed existence.

Throughout, O’Casey examines the rhetoric and dangers of patriotism, self-deception, and the bleak existence of tenement life. “Plough’s” first production was not met with open arms. The controversial play triggered full-scale rioting at its premiere.

In marking the Easter Rising centenary, a newly envisioned “Plough” was part of the Abbey’s most recent season. That acclaimed production then played the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. on its way around the States.  This month it comes to the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge for a run from Sept. 24 to Oct. 9.

Olivier Award-winning director Sean Holmes has re-set the piece in contemporary Dublin.  The Washington Post said Holmes’s decision “honors the play’s historical underpinnings while giving it a powerfully relevant modern significance.” 

Fiach Mac Conghail is the Abbey’s director and CEO.  His role is to program, produce, and be fiscally responsible for the more than two dozen productions mounted each year on the company’s two stages. He spoke at length with the BIR about “Plough” in a phone interview from Ireland.

After studying politics and science at Trinity College, Mac Conghail worked as a freelance stage manager.  With a sense of public service, he believed his contribution to Irish society would come by supporting artists and writers as they worked to understand and interpret the constant changing nature of society.

“Often poets and playwrights and artists are the first to get a sense of what’s happening,” he said, “even though sometimes they may not know it themselves.  But they can open us to our subconscious, and that’s something I’ve tried to work with over the last 25 years.”

Q. Why does “Plough and the Stars” remain so vital on the theatrical landscape?
A. It’s one of those plays that every generation should see because it is an extraordinary play about a particular people at a time in history.  About revolution. About idealism. About how to portray art, to portray poverty.

Q. Tell me about the importance of O’Casey’s use of language.
A. He had a great ear for the musicality of the Dublin dialect . . . What he’s achieved extraordinarily well in all his plays . . . and in particular in “The Plough and Stars” is that he’s managed to achieve the musicality of the language.  For people who are not used to hearing it, all they need do is attune their ear for the first five minutes and then go with the music of the play . . . They’ll find it very, very rewarding.

Q. How did you choose Sean Holmes to direct this production?
A. Sean is one of the most extraordinary and gifted directors working in England. What we wanted to do in this centenary production was to invite a director who wasn’t Irish, who might give us a different perspective or a different view of this classic Irish play. In this year of centenary and history, I thought it would not only be an important gesture but a important symbolic invitation. The fact that Sean’s grandparents come from Ireland . . . he has both an Irish sensibility but is truly English in terms of his cultural context. I thought that would add to the understanding of this play.

Q. O’Casey seemed to be ahead of his time in creating female characters.  They may not have traditional power in “Plough,” but they’re clearly the protectors, the nurturers. 
A. I think Sean O’Casey is a feminist. He has portrayed the men of “Plough and the Stars” as men of vanity, men of cowardly inaction, more happy to espouse political doggerel in a bar than take action.  And the strength of the women was, for O’Casey, a key glue to society. He has shown that without the women – the strength of the women – society would crumble.

Q. Whether discussing Brexit or the American presidential campaign, many feel we’re still being misguided by political rhetoric and manipulation. Would O’Casey be surprised or saddened that the more things change, the more they remain the same?
A. That’s a good point. I think he was saying that political leadership has a huge responsibility.  And often the use of language, or the use of rhetoric, can be harmful and can lead to awful consequences. It happened in the first World War, the second World War.  Leaders of today have to be mindful of what they’re saying . . . if they’re in any way ambiguous or open to incitement of hatred, then it can lead to awful consequences . . . I think O’Casey would be angry at the fact that there isn’t a universal kind of solidarity of the people.  And that leaders are not responding well to the responsibility of their being leaders.

Q. American audiences may not be as familiar with the Easter Rising as theatergoers in Ireland.  Is that a challenge for you on tour?
A. I think the key to any production is that any play needs to succeed on many levels.  It has to have a very good story, but it also needs to have a universality about it. I think American audiences realize that, happening all over the world, there are ordinary folk trying to live their lives against major political upheaval.  Whether it’s in Turkey. . . in the US . . . in Syria . . . in Paris . . . This is what Sean O’Casey was interested in . . . He wanted to investigate how ordinary folk eke out their existence against the background of major historical or political change.  I think American audiences will get that.

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.

“The Plough and the Stars,” Sept. 24 - Oct. 9, American Repertory Theater, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge.  Info: 617-547-8300 or americanrepertorytheater.org.