With Ireland's greatest living cultural heritage rocked by financial mismanagement, infighting and near closure recently, Sally Richardson takes a look at one of the more controversial episodes in the Abbey Theatre's prestigious history.
"IT IS very depressing to go to the theatre, pay for one's seat, and hear nothing of the play," wrote an aggrieved playgoer in Dublin's Evening Herald on 12 February 1926, "and I wondered if the box office would consider that the people had a grievance... and return the money for the seats which they had to vacate."
The performance that had failed to provide its money's worth was the fourth night of the Abbey Theatre's production of Séan O'Casey's new play The Plough and the Stars, set during the Easter Rising. There were hisses and cat-calls during the first act. But this was only a curtain-raiser for the main action of the evening.
Havoc broke out with Act II. The precise details of what happened are confused but various eyewitness accounts agree that there was an enormous din of shouting and heckling, mainly from women, while Hanna Sheehy Skeffington denounced the play from the gallery. The actors tried to continue with the play but could not be heard, and some people in the stalls left their seats.
During Act III the stage was invaded by women, accompanied by a few young men. Scuffles and fights broke out as the actors defended themselves from attack, and Yeats, in a fury, harangued the audience.
The police arrived and the performance was completed to the derision of some of the audience and the approval of the rest. Some protestors were ejected, but no arrests were made and little damage was done apart from two broken footlights.
The protests had not been a spontaneous eruption but had been organized by socialist republican and 1916 widow Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, assisted by Dorothy Macardle, Kathleen Clarke and Margaret Pearse. Frank Ryan (surprisingly, as he was a friend of O'Casey's and admired his work) had drafted in support from Cumann na mBan.
The play continued its run for two more nights with a substantial police presence but there was no more trouble, apart from an attempt to kidnap actor Barry Fitzgerald. Two armed men had turned up at his family home in Clontarf, unaware that he no longer lived there. The bold defenders of Ireland's reputation fled after some sharp words from Fitzgerald's sister.
O'Casey's two previous plays in what came to be known as his Dublin Trilogy, The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock, had been great hits that had actually saved the Abbey from bankruptcy. The new play was eagerly awaited and opened on 8 February 1926.
"The play went splendidly, and the bookings have broken all records," O'Casey wrote two days later to his friend, the Abbey actor Sally Allgood, then appearing in London in Juno and the Paycock.
The rehearsal process, however, had not gone smoothly, Lady Gregory's enthusiastic approval of the script was not shared by everyone. Objections were made, particularly by George O'Brien, the Irish government's appointee to the Abbey board of directors, who stated that unless the play was altered, it might be "difficult or impossible for the government to continue or increase its subsidy".
Lady Gregory attempted to stand firm. "Our position is clear. If we have to choose between the subsidy and our freedom, it is our freedom we choose," she wrote. The subsidy was, in any case, tiny and inadequate. Nevertheless, cuts and changes were made to the script - not enough for two of the actors, who refused to speak some of their lines. "I draw the line at a Vigilance Committee of the Actors," O'Casey responded.
What was it about this play that provoked such extreme reactions - which came not only from narrow-minded bigots, but from some of the most enlightened and progressive voices that were to be heard in Ireland?
The objections to the play are complex, and it is useful to separate the various strands that made up the protestors' motivations. There was certainly much criticism from those who objected to the vulgarity and coarseness of the language. Act II came in for particular abuse, with objections being raised to the appearance in the play of Rosie Redmond, a prostitute (an apparently brilliant performance by Ria Mooney) and a scene where Lieutenant Langon - played by Arthur Shields, who had himself been in the GPO during the Easter Rising - brings a Tricolour into a pub, although a couple of former IRA men assured O'Casey that this was not unknown. O'Casey was also accused of making use of Irish stereotypes.
The 'stage Irishman' had made regular appearances in the English theatre since Elizabethan times. The great dramatist and statesman Richard Brinsley Sheridan came under attack in 1775 when his first play,The Rivals, was produced; the hot-headed Irishman, Sir Lucius O'Trigger, intent on fighting a duel for his lady-love, was thought by some to be a caricature. In fact, Sheridan intended no more than good-natured self-mockery, being himself Irish and having a few years previously actually fought two duels on behalf of Eliza Linley before eloping with her.
By the early twentieth century, sensitivities were particularly acute. Irish identity was being re-shaped and re-defined with an intensity previously unknown. There was a conscious and concerted endeavour to put forward a counter-image to the negative stereotypes of the Irish. As Abbey actor Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh said, "Everybody, writer, politician, artist, was at pains to eulogize over the beauty of the Irish character."
The Abbey Theatre was in the forefront of the cultural and political movement, but it had gone too far ahead too quickly for some. Irish playwrights, influenced by developments in Scandinavia and elsewhere, wanted to try out new ideas and had no desire merely to present an anodyne portrait of an Ireland populated entirely by paragons of virtue. J M Synge's play In the Shadow of the Glen was attacked as a slur on the character of the Irish peasantry.
The civil war had left great rifts in Irish society. Desmond Greaves stated that "O'Casey's three great Dublin plays were written in pain, anger and disillusionment." His opinion that O'Casey's view of the Easter Rising is heavily influenced by his own lack of involvement in it also deserves consideration. O'Casey had belonged to the IRB and the Citizen Army, but had left both before 1916. To call it a case of sour grapes is perhaps to go too far, but there is undoubtedly a measure of self-justification in his depiction of it. But perhaps the play should be looked at in the context of World War I, during which, of course, it is set.
The contrast O'Casey makes in the play between symbolic bloodshed and its painfully unpleasant reality is one repeatedly made in the work of World War I poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Edmund Blunden.
These poets deliberately set out to jolt public opinion out of its complacency by graphically describing the reality of war. Like O'Casey, they had no use for cardboard-cutout heroes straight out of a Boy's Own story. O'Casey said that "he was not trying, and never would try, to write about heroes". This comes very close to Wilfred Owen's insistence that his poetry was "not about heroes".
The Plough and the Stars shows us the Easter Rising not from the perspective of the leaders but from that of the tenement dwellers. Unheroic as they are, they often display courage, and O'Casey depicts them realistically and unsentimentally as he sees them. Perhaps his lack of moralizing also grated on many of those who disliked the play.
A gender divide is evident in the criticism the play received. The objections to the coarse language and Rosie Redmond's presence seem to have come from men of a conservative cast of mind. The writer in the Evening Herald, quoted at the start of this article, complained that "there is an effort abroad to destroy nationalism and supplant it by internationalism", and called for censorship - one of several such voices.
The political objections came mainly from republican women who, as Dan Breen, in the audience of the night of the protests, remarked, were "in the theatre to vindicate the manhood of 1916". Breen himself knew about the reality of war and was not offended by the play. He became a close friend of O'Casey's.
There seems to have been an uncharacteristic reversion on the part of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and her friends to the type of woman satirized by World War I poets - the sort of woman who defends the glory and heroism of war but who nevertheless prefers to ignore the unpleasant realities. In a debate with O'Casey on 1 March Sheehy Skeffington seemed to bear this out in her objection to 'the meanness, the littleness, the squalor... the little vanities and jealousies' she saw in the play and her complaint that there was "not a single gleam of heroism throughout < em>The Plough and the Stars".
Yet these women were a long way off from the 'white feather' women of the first world war. They knew at first hand what warfare was really like. Cumann na mBan members had often been praised for their courage and unflinching willingness to do whatever was required of them and more.
Hanna Sheehy Skeffington's personal opposition to censorship is well known, although she reserved the right of the audience to express disapproval of a play - perhaps unmindful of the rights of thse who wished to listen and watch! However, if her usual clear-headedness seems to have temporarily deserted her, and if she and the other women protestors were misguided in their attack on O'Casey, it has to be remembered that ten years after the Easter Rising, they were on the defensive. Under a reactionary Free State government, it seemed that the values it represented were being abandoned.
Still, there was much thoughtful and intelligent commentary in the press from those who understood and were sympathetic to what O'Casey was trying to do, including some women. There was also condemnation for what the leader in the Irish Times called "the smug voice of cant". The protest had opened a debate about art and Irish politics. The Plough and the Stars has established itself as part of the canon of classic Irish drama and its popularity has endured.
Perhaps useful parallets can be made between the recent furore over the play Bezhti and the riots over The Plough and the Stars. In both cases the concern was over the representation of ethnic groups anxious to reverse negative stereotyping and assert their respectability. However, censorship must be resisted. If art - including drama - is to have any validity it must not simply affirm received ideas, but question and challenge them as well. A play is not necessarily a mirror-image of society, but a product of imagination which reconstitutes as well as reflects reality.
Censorship is a way of closing off debate and closing off people's minds. Any culture worth its salt accepts debate and contention as part of its vitality. Whatever else we do, we must protect debate.
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Copyright © 2005 Sally Richardson