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The Plough and The Stars – playing the long bawl

September 26, 2016

The other night my wife and I took ourselves off to the National Theatre in London to watch The Plough and the Stars, Seán O’Casey’s epic play about the 1916 Easter Rising.

Every Irish schoolkid learns about the insurrection in Dublin that took place against the backdrop of World War One. Of how Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and others led a few hundred armed volunteers on an ill-fated attempt to throw off the British yoke. They had chosen a time of perceived weakness on the part of what they saw as the occupying state. But the response was not as weak as they hoped. The rebellion was crushed, the leaders were executed, and much of the centre of Dublin ended up a charred ruin. The Rising took its place in the hallowed narrative of Irish independence.

Ten years later, O’Casey’s play caused riots on its debut in Dublin, largely because it humanised the hallowed. The good folk of the capital were also not pleased at the appearance of a prostitute in Act Two, and some less than complimentary references to religion.

Ninety years on, the Catholic church in Ireland has lost its grip on the morals of the nation, partly because of its resistance to divorce, abortion and contraception, and partly because of the paedophilia scandals that have shaken Catholicism across the world. Buy an Irish tabloid and you will enter a world full of page three girls, and stories of adultery, broken marriages and unconventional sex that would make Eamonn De Valera turn in his grave.

But the heroes of the Rising are still heroes, and the dead are still martyrs – except of course for the soldiers and policemen, many of whom were also Irish, who died trying to suppress the revolt.

For reasons only partly connected to the Easter Rising, I found the play hard to sit through.

I have a passing familiarity with Ireland. My children are half-Irish, from which you can deduce that my wife is from the Republic. I love the country. I’ve always found its people to be welcoming and full of humour. It has landscape and seascape that matches anything to be found on the bigger island next door.

You’re waiting for the but, so here it is. We’re only a decade on from the latest episode of the Troubles, in which organisations such as the IRA, Sinn Fein, the Ulster Volunteers, the Ulster Freedom Fighters dominated the headlines of British newspapers almost on a daily basis. Po-faced protagonists would justify the bombings, the casual murders, the divisions of families and communities in the name of their causes. It was nasty, vicious and often motivated by factors far removed from political idealism: religious bigotry, drug-smuggling, illicit trading across the border with the south and, of course, personal vendettas and power struggles.

Were the motives of the players in 1916 pure and unalloyed? Not according to O’Casey. And it was power struggles between the leading factions that contributed to the relatively quick end to the conflict. Ireland was by no means united behind the republican uprising, and the characters in The Plough and the Stars reflect the differences. The cynical communist who sees everything in terms of the class struggle, the fighter’s wife who desperately tries to detach her husband from the cause as she sees the imminent destruction of her family life. The unionist neighbour who pours scorn on the preening volunteers.

Many British people who lived through the period of bombings on the mainland felt – rightly or wrongly – that the cause of the bombers was not their concern. They would have been happy to have seen the North peacefully united with the South. But references in the play to the organisations of 1916 – the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army and the ever-present Sinn Fein were a disturbing reminder that the most recent Troubles have deep roots. Even if the South has evolved into a mature state, the political undercurrents are still flowing, and may surface again in the North.

None of which fully explains why I found O’Casey’s work so hard to bear. I suppose the main reason was that everyone was so bloody angry with everyone else. From start to finish the play was one long caterwaul. The whole thing was enacted at such high volume that I’m amazed the actors’ voices have lasted for the run. The volume was not confined to human output. At one stage there was a bang so loud that I would have expected a couple of fatal heart attacks – or at the very least mass incontinence – among the well-heeled audience. Of course, in the best traditions of English politeness, no doubt those sitting next to the suddenly expired would have had the courtesy to wait until the interval to remove the corpses.

If you’ve ever witnessed a frank discussion between my wife and one of our daughters you might ask why I’m surprised at the emotional intensity on stage. And no doubt the tenement dwellers O’Casey portrays had much to be angry about. But two hours of unrelenting bawling was an ordeal. At least in my family the disagreements subside, just as do the stormy interludes in a Beethoven symphony.

By the time we got to Act Four – in which Nora, the wife of the volunteer fighter who loses her baby and fails to drag her husband back from the brink, becomes demented with the pain of it all – I’m ashamed to say that I just wanted her to put us out of our misery and jump out of a window. In the manner of Father Ted’s housekeeper, I longed to stand up and shout “ah goo on – yer know yer want ter”.

I daresay the Dublin worthies of 1926 were also not enthralled by the portrayal of drunkenness and looting during the Rising. Fecklessness, opportunism and love of the bottle are aspects of the cartoon Oirishness that have powered a thousand jokes on the mainland and found full expression in TV comedy series that became hits in the UK – such as Ballykissangel, Father Ted and latterly Mrs Brown’s Boys. Weave them in with the pathos of so many episodes in Irish history – the Famine, the emigration, the independence struggle, the Troubles and the recent banking crisis – and you have the basis for a large slice of Irish literature and drama over the past couple of centuries.

For the Irish, so good at laughing at themselves, being Irish is not a joke. For many, it’s a passion. I guess The Plough and the Stars reminds the rest of us of the dark side of rapture.

But boy, was it hard to watch. So hard that we took ourselves off the next night to watch Bridget Jones’s Baby, where a similar audience hooted and howled with laughter through two hours of English eccentricity. Are we English so different from the Irish? Only, perhaps, in our innate and thoroughly unwarranted sense of superiority.

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