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Picking a fight in an empty room

This year marks the 137th anniversary of the birth of Seán O’Casey, one of the best-known of all Irish playwrights. His works first enthralled audiences at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre during the 1920s, and in the years since then his dramas have been repeatedly revisited by actors and directors. In particular, O’Casey’s Dublin dramas have repeatedly appeared onstage in some high-profile stagings during the past twelve months.

O’Casey set his best-known play The Plough and the Stars (1926) during the 1916 Easter Rising, and he takes a subversive and irreverent look at all sides in the conflict. This year, Dublin held a series of high-profile commemorative events over the Easter period to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the rebellion, and in the midst of all, O’Casey’s play appeared at the Abbey, which is the National Theatre of Ireland. Simultaneously, at the other end of O’Connell Street, Dublin’s well-known Gate Theatre staged an Easter version of O’Casey’s early work Juno and the Paycock (1924), a drama which is set during the 1922 Civil War. Then, hot on the heels of these shows, the Dublin Theatre Festival featured a four-and-a-half hour play, It’s Not Over, which took its cue from O’Casey’s 1916 script. And during the summer and autumn of 2016, the National Theatre of the UK staged another version of The Plough and the Stars, for which I wrote some programme notes and hosted a day of lectures, where attendees had the chance of hearing from the wonderful O’Casey director Wayne Jordan, the leading theatre-scholar Nicholas Grene, and the acclaimed novelist Mary Morrissy.

What I found so interesting about that day of lectures at the London National Theatre was the way that O’Casey’s work continues to speak to new audiences and to new generations. Mary Morrissy, for example, explained that she had constructed her novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (2013), by deeply immersing herself in O’Casey’s published work, his biography, and his unpublished manuscripts. Director Wayne Jordan described how, in his productions of O’Casey’s drama, he has sought to emphasize the way in which O’Casey casts an clear eye upon the injustices that continue to exist in Irish society. In one of my own lectures, I highlighted the affinities between O’Casey’s subversive political humour and the more recent work of The Rubberbandits and Pat Shortt, whilst Nicholas Grene pointed to the way that O’Casey’s sense of Dublin’s geography might relate to our modern conception of the city.

Some of the onstage appearances of O’Casey’s work during the last year have likewise highlighted a set of contemporary concerns. For example, Sean Holmes’s 2016 version of The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theatre made the character of the child, Mollser, central to the drama. Indeed, in this Brechtian rendering of the play, Mollser began the entire drama by standing alone (dressed in red sneakers and a red Manchester-United shirt) in the spotlight onstage and singing the Irish national anthem, which was interrupted by her coughing and hacking blood into a handkerchief. Mollser then remained an almost ever-present figure on the stage throughout the play, only disappearing from view shortly before her death, after which her coffin took her place. So, unlike in O’Casey’s original script–which makes limited use of the character–either Mollser or Mollser’s body was onstage almost from start to finish.

The idea of having Mollser onstage almost throughout the drama helped to heighten and draw attention to one of the most important and still pertinent themes of O’Casey’s drama: the way that certain children suffer from terrible neglect in poor families. For example, in act two of The Plough and the Stars, a character called Mrs. Gogan brings her baby into a pub and feeds it with whiskey, before getting into a fight and leaving without her child, provoking panic among the men who are left with it. Sean Holmes’s version of the play allowed us to see what we do not usually have visualised: the fact that Mollser, Mrs. Gogan’s other child, was being similarly neglected, left alone at home whilst sickening and dying.

Furthermore, in this production, Mollser was not being played at the Abbey by a white actor but by the talented young performer Mahnoor Saad. In act two, Saad was onstage at the same time as version of Rosie Redmond, a prostitute, who, in this version of the play, yelled in Armenian across the bar at one moment of frustration. The casting of these actors, their distinctive use of voice, and the fact that they were clad in modern-day dress rather than the fashions of 1916, helped to make the point about who the new underclass of modern Ireland might be, and about the struggles of women and children from the New Irish communities.

The Abbey production’s insistent focus upon the child who was dying, who was one of the New Irish, and who was part of our modern economic underclass meant that the production kept pointing to the relevance of O’Casey’s work to our world today. And the performers clearly intended that their work should have a practical outcome too: on Easter Monday, the actor playing Bessie Burgess interrupted the applause to say that the cast would be donating their bank holiday pay to a children’s charity and encouraging the audience to make a contribution too.

There is sometimes a danger that we view the great works of literature as pickled in aspic, to be taken down, and admired, and then replaced on the shelf. But O’Casey– that great argumentative writer who sometimes appeared capable of picking a fight in an empty room–produced works that are still capable of provoking and engaging us. As with Shakespeare’s plays, O’Casey’s rich dramas, with their memorable characters and phrases, and that potent blend of tragedy and comedy, continue to speak afresh as the world continues in its ongoing state of “chassis.”

Featured Image credit: Plaque in Saint Patrick’s Park, Dublin. Emkaer, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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