The Plough and the Stars

by Anthony Domestico

In February 1926, Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, a play that directly critiqued the Easter Rising of 1916, debuted at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.  The play depicted the co-opting of the Labour Movement by the Nationalists, criticizing the jettisoning of Socialist economic principles in favor of blind, impractical patriotism. On the play’s fourth night, a crowd filled with the widows and supporters of the men of 1916 grew restless.  During Act Two, O’Casey juxtaposes the antics of the prostitute Rosie Redmond with the speechifying of the Figure in the Window, a character based upon the Irish national hero Pádraic Pearse.  While a group of characters sit drinking, flirting, and fighting in a pub, the words of Pearse drift through the window, periodically causing the bar’s occupants to pause, mawkishly praise the speaker’s sentiments, and then go back to their carousing. The scene becomes layered: two different registers – the seedy and the civic, the everyday and the heroic – are compressed into one, as O’Casey formally draws a comparison between the wheedling of the harlot and the wheedling of the patriot, between the drunken lust for sex and the drunken lust for war and bloodshed.

This formal juxtaposition did not sit well with the crowd.  Infuriated by this defaming of the Rebellion and egged on by the widow-martyr Mrs. Sheehy-Skeffington, the February 1926 audience began to riot.  Robert Lowery describes the resulting chaos:

Twenty women rushed from the pit to the stalls.  Two of them succeeded in reaching the stage, where a general melee took place.  The invading women were thrown bodily back into the orchestra.  A young man then tried to reach the stage, but was cut off by the lowering of the curtain.  This he grabbed, swinging out on it in a frantic endeavour to pull it down.  Women rushed to aid him in this project, but he was suddenly thrown into the stalls by a sharp blow from one of the actors.  The pandemonium created a panic among a section of the audience, who dashed for the exits and added to the confusion.[1]

The parallels between this event and the 1907 rioting at the performance of J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World are obvious.  In both, the besmirching of Irish womanhood was used as a pretext to justify a violent reaction; in both, Irish Nationalists took the lead in stoking the fury of the audience; and in both, it was left to W.B. Yeats to palliate the crowd.  Yeats himself made this comparison explicit when addressing the masses at the performance of The Plough and the Stars, crying, “You have disgraced yourselves again.  Is this to be an ever-recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?  Once more you have rocked the cradle of genius.”[2]

One important distinction between the plays, however, is the avowedly political goals of The Plough and the StarsThe Playboy of the Western World was criticized by Sinn Féin leaders for its refusal to treat issues of national importance.  In contrast, O’Casey, a former member of the Irish Citizen Army and a Socialist who had become disillusioned by the cannibalizing of labor issues by unthinking nationalism, declared that he wrote The Plough and the Stars because there was “no play yet around the period of the actual Easter Rising, which was the beginning of all that happened afterward.”[3]   Within the play, different characters become mouthpieces for different ideologies: the Covey is an unsophisticated and preternaturally confident Socialist, proclaiming that “There’s only one freedom for th’ workin’ man: control o’ th’ means o’ production, rates of exchange, an’ th’ means of disthribution” (165), endlessly hawking “Jenersky’s Thesis on the Origin, Development, an’ Consolidation of the Evolutionary Idea of the Proletariat” upon others; Bessie is an unrepentant Loyalist who loudly sings “Rule, Britannia, Britannia rules th’ waves” as British soldiers cut down their Irish counterparts; and Peter is a frazzled Nationalist without the intellectual chops to address the Covey’s Socialist arguments.[4]

This bald political engagement can at times be grating, as the play sometimes reads more like an ideological argument than a coherent piece of dramatic art.  After the Covey declares that “there’s no such thing as an Irishman, or an Englishman, or a German or a Turk…Scientifically speakin’, it’s all a question of the accidental gatherin’ together of mollycewels an’ atoms” (143), Fluther retorts, “There’s no necessity to be raisin’ your voice; shoutin’s no manifestin’ forth of a growin’ mind.”  If O’Casey’s play becomes strained or unimaginative at points, it is because he ignores Fluther’s lesson that bluntness does not always convince or even entertain.

O’Casey’s early plays for the Abbey Theatre, including The Plough and the Stars, Juno and the Peacock, and The Shadow of the Gunman, are often cited as works of realism before the more recognizably modernist techniques of later efforts like Within the Gates, Red Roses for Me, and others.  Upon the London opening of The Plough and the Stars in 1926, James Agate proclaimed, “Mr O’Casey has done what Balzac and Dickens did – he has created an entirely new gallery of living men and women.”[5]   Agate’s comments are astute: if the division between the realist and modernist O’Casey is true, then O’Casey’s early plays, crammed with vital caricatures and symbolic landscapes, more resemble the novels of Dickens and Balzac than, say, the dramas of Chekhov.

Like many Dickensian figures, O’Casey’s characters have their tags, their cartoonish defining tics: Peter is always asking for God to give him patience, the Covey is endlessly recommending a Socialist tract, Mollser is always pathetically but politely wasting away with consumption.  There is an air of purposeful theatricality; Christopher Murray writes that O’Casey’s characters cope with their powerlessness in the face of historical circumstances “by inventing and sustaining eccentricities of manner and speech which force others in the community to beware and to make space for them.”[6]   E.M. Forster said that Dickens’s characters were flat but vibrated furiously.  The same could be said for the characters caught in the historical nexus of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars.

Just as O’Casey sacrifices subtlety for vitality in his characterization, so does he shunt aside nuance for symbolism in his descriptions of settings: the home of the Clitheroes is “a fine old Georgian house, struggling for its life against the assaults of time, and the more savage assaults of the tenants” (135); Bessie Burgess’s living-room has “a look of compressed confinement,” as there is “an unmistakable air of poverty bordering on destitution” (200).  This is realistic detail of a Balzacian sort, where details do not simply denote reality, as in Barthes’s reality effect, but symbolize entire states of the soul.   Erich Auerbach’s description of Balzac rings true of O’Casey as well: “to him every milieu becomes a moral and physical atmosphere which impregnates the landscape, the dwelling, furniture, implements, clothing, physique, character, surroundings, ideas, activities, and fates of men, and at the same time the general historical situation reappears as a total atmosphere which envelops all its several milieux.”[7]   Beyond his political engagement, O’Casey is perhaps most important for his ability to turn the Dublin tenements into a terrifying symbolic landscape.

Despite this deep connection with 19th-century novelistic realism, however, we can still see affinities between The Plough and the Stars and modernism and its concerns with self-conscious artistry, verbal indeterminacy, and formal innovation.  The play is famously non-linear in structure, with overlapping plots that connect with one another more thematically than dramatically.  O’Casey, like any good modernist, foregrounds the paradoxes of language throughout.  Mrs. Gogan, a character of true verbal vitality (see lines like “Such notions of upperosity she’s gettin’” (137)), introduces paradox into her first description of Nora Clitheroe.  When Fluther describes Nora as “a pretty little Judy,” Mrs. Gogan responds, “Ah, she is, an’ she isn’t.  There’s prettiness an’ prettiness in it” (137).  Prettiness is a quality and a word that cannot be pinned down, that ineffably slips through our fingers and frustrates strict denotation.  Mrs. Gogan implicitly illuminates this inability of reality and language to settle into neat binaries and the necessary ambiguity of all locutions throughout this first scene: of Nora’s obsequious greetings, Mrs. Gogan says, “But there’s politeness an’ politeness in it” (138); of the ability of Nora and Jack to get along, she says, “Ah, they do, an’ they don’t”; discussing whether thoughts of death in a sick man are morbid or not, she says, “It is, an’ it isn’t; it’s both bad an’ good” (141).  It is a sign of the debased nature of public life that even Mrs. Gogan, so seemingly attuned to the shiftiness of language, finds herself convinced by the rhetoric of Irish Nationalism.

The play illustrates throughout the gap between language and event, and the power of words to transform and obscure how we view the world.  When Jack is cross with Nora for playfully complaining about her domestic duties, for instance, she begs him to sing the ditty “When You said You Loved Me,” hoping that the song’s lyrics will gloss over the sordidness of their tenement existence.  The trick works, and the two kiss.  Lyrical melody paints over harsh circumstances.  It is telling that even the title of the sing – “When You said You Loved Me” – privileges statement over fact, language over action.  We never see any violence between the British and the Irish.  It is as if it is not the events that matter so much as what the characters make of them in their telling.  We do not see the deaths of the contemporaneous World War I, but only hear the Figure in the Window declare, “The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields” (164).  The play does have real, tragic consequences – Nora has a mental breakdown after the death of her husband and her newborn child; Mrs. Gogan’s daughter Mollser dies of consumption; and the play ends with Bessie shot by a sniper after moving Nora from the window of her tenement apartment.  The play acknowledges the brutal realities of the Easter Rebellion, but it also forces us to recognize the role that language and narrative played in fostering and reconfiguring these bloody events.

O’Casey was not an unthinking ideologue.  He was a self-conscious artist aware of the problems of ideology and rhetoric who nevertheless chose to create an ideological, rhetorical play.  It is a signal of O’Casey’s capacity for self-criticism that he makes the Socialist figure of the Covey so absurd, as blind to the holes in his philosophy as the Nationalists are.  O’Casey was also surely aware of the reaction that his play was would elicit from the masses.  While sitting around in Nora’s apartment, Fluther discovers a copy of a nude painting, The Sleeping Venus, on the wall.  He hysterically exclaims, “Oh, that’s a terrible picture; oh, that’s a shockin’ picture!” (145).  When Peter responds to the titillating painting with a laugh, Fluther asks, “That’s a nice thing to be hee, hee-in’ at.  Where’s your morality, man?”  O’Casey knew what he was doing in writing this play of ideologies.  It is a testament to his powers of characterization and verbal ingenuity that such a frankly political play has far outlasted its political context.

  1. ↑ A Whirlwind in Dublin: The Plough and the Stars Riot. Edited by Robert Lowery (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984), p. 30.
  2. ↑ Anne I. Miller, The Independent Theatre in Europe, 1887 to the Present (New York: Ayer Publishing, 1972), p. 291.
  3. ↑ Ronald Ayling, O’Casey (Casebook) (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1985), p. 140.
  4. ↑ Sean O’Casey, Three Plays (New York: Macmillan, 1975). All future citations will be page numbers in the body of the wiki.
  5. ↑ James Agate, “The Plough and the Stars,” in Red Letter Nights (New York: Ayer Publishing, 1972), p. 234.
  6. ↑ Christopher Murray, A Faber Critical Guide: Sean O’Casey (New York: Faber and Faber, 2000), p. 104.
  7. ↑ Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 473.