Were I to write a review of the Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which I saw at the National Theatre last night, ‘bloody marvellous,’ might do it.
Intense, overwhelming, the agonies of Nora, which destroy her, and death of Bessie Burgess, shot by a British soldier who thinks she might be a sniper – they are sustained, stretched out, they leave the audience on a knife edge of emotion, they’re heart-rending and overwhelming. I felt when the lights went up at the end that I’d been an intruder, an uninvited guest, wanting but unable to intervene. This was not a time or place to applaud. (But of course we did.)
Curiously, one reviewer thought the play ‘so heavy going and full of crude stereotypes’ that it’s hard to care about the characters. Michael Billington, in the Guardian, on the other hand, got its measure: … once the play starts to exert its grip, it never lets go, and leaves you shaken and stirred’.
How an audience could fail to be stirred by this production – that disturbs me. Are we so inured to passion and poetry? So stultified by the easy emotions of endless evening soaps that we can’t distinguish real emotion – the real emotion of great theatre – from its cheap substitutes?
Let O’Casey have his say in the subject.
“The beauty, fire and poetry of drama [he’s writing about the early 1930s] have perished in a storm of fake realisms. Let real birds fly through the air; real animals roam through the jungle, real fish swim in the sea, but let us have art in the theatre. There is a deeper life than the life we see and hear with the open ear and the open eye and this is the life important and the life everlasting. So to hell with so-called realism, for it leads nowhere.”
He doesn’t mind going for the jugular, he’s not afraid of big characters and big emotion – and in The Plough and the Stars he gives the roles that rend the hearts to women. This isn’t a play about the front line – that’s around the corner, down the road, at the General Post Office. The confrontations, the aggression, are at home and in the local bar. Long after the event O’Casey reflected on his own life, and explained his aggression:
“I have lived a troublesome life in Ireland, in my youth hard times in the body, and in my manhood years, a hard time in the spirit. Hardship in my young days taught me how to fight hard, for if that characteristic wasn’t developed then, it meant that one became either a slave or a lick-spittle…. “So I learned how to resist all aggressive attempts to make me a docile one, and could hit back as hard as he who could hit hardest. This gift (for an earned gift it is) kept within me when I reached the world of thought as it had been in the world of hard labor – at times, I fear, fighting what I thought to be aggression where none was meant.”
‘…at times, I fear, fighting what I thought to be aggression where none was meant.’
Almost a throwaway line. I’ll always (this is ‘zenpolitics’ after all) argue against anger and aggression, and argue for facing up to it as soon as it arises. O’Casey faced up to it after the event. But given there are no perfections in life, and that theatre – as well as quiet places (walking maybe by the Liffey) – should always play its part in human existence, then I’m almost on O’Casey’s side. Sometimes anger simply does overwhelm. Better to realise that later (as O’Casey does!) than never.
And if one result is great drama, great theatre – well, should I be complaining?
[Quotations above taken from the New York Times O’Casey obituary.]