An eternal war between weakness and strength
The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O'Casey at the Tricycle Theatre until 6 November 2004: Box Office: tel 00 44 207 328 1000
The Shadow of a Gunman is really two plays in two acts: the first, a comedy of errors peopled by a melange of quirky caricatures; the second, the tragedy of a semi-accidental heroine who dies in the defence of a coward.
Samuel Beckett called playwright Sean O’Casey "a master of knockabout", and in the first act you can see why. Maggie McCarthy plays busybody Mrs Henderson for belly laughs, as does Patrick Brennan as Grigson, the wife-tormenting Orangeman later forced at gunpoint by the Auxiliaries to sing hymns.
After an act and a half of shirking and shenandling, the Auxiliaries, by the way, raid with a noise and brutality that had half the audience out of their seats. But it’s the testosterone talking afterwards (‘Show the least sign of fright an’ they’d walk on you,’ says Shields to Adolphus Grigson) that makes cowards of those O’Casey tells us, exhibit ‘the superstition, the fear and the malignity of primitive man’.
But the heroism, too, comes from these working class characters. For an IL Peretz, say, this folksy collection of tinkers, talkers and tyrannised tenants would have been the play. For O’Casey, the question is: how do you get a silk purse out of this mass of sows’ ears’?
A raggedy bunch of sows’ ears they are, too. Set designer Michael Taylor’s tattered room in the derelict tenement, with its washing permanently hung out and its gossip as malicious as it comes, is closer to O’Casey’s autobiography than his stage directions, but superb nonetheless. (The play opens with a ring of fire – a mock-Wagnerian reference, perhaps – which turns out to be the bucket ‘frequented’ by the unseen upstairs neighbours.)
These are people devoid of, or denied, the hope of real transformation. As tinker Seumas Shields (played by Frank McCusker) seeks his solace in the Church, Davoren seeks his in poetry. Aidan McArdle gives the latter all the dignity, expressiveness and emerging cognisance of a would-be hero recognising his own frailty.
There is ambivalence brought out well here, though, about Ireland and its people. Shields early on gives vent with his thoughts on the worthless Kathleen ni Houlihan – a reference, perhaps, to O'Casey’s disgusted observation, echoing Connolly, that Irish audiences preferred a ‘Caithlin ni Houlihan in a respectable dress’ to ‘Caithlin in the garb of a working woman’.
There is unlikely heroism at least in this working woman. Feisty Minnie Powell (played here by Jane Murphy) may be, but she’s made so by circumstance. Were it not for the cause, she would be an imprudent young woman taken with the romantic notion of running with a gunman – not even that: the shadow of a gunman.
Davoren, the ‘poet and poltroon’, becomes self-aware in the second act, as he was earlier self-obsessed. And aware of what? That poetry makes nothing happen, as Auden later had it? That, if it’s courage you’re after, cherchez la femme? Or that hope lies not with would-be revolutionaries but with ordinary people made great by faith that an something other than this is possible? ‘His life would drive him mad were it not for fact that he never knew any other,” O’Casey explains Davoren at the beginning of the play.
Minnie, who imagines ‘any other’, suggests that this is hope deferred, not destroyed. O’Casey’s spurts of nationalism came and went (and when they went, they went – notably, in The Plough & the Stars). His socialism, and his faith in another possibility, remained.
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Copyright © 2004 Shayla Warmsley