While the imminent New York marathon challenges many people to greater heights of fitness, another kind of marathon is underway at NYU’s Skirball Center. It’s the rare chance to see Sean O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy in one day of six and a half hours of theatre (with staggered breaks at tea and dinner time) to mark the centenary of their first performances.
This is no cultural endurance test, at least not for the audience. Rather, it’s an engaging and thought-provoking event. The plays are shown in order of their historical setting rather than the order in which they were written. One of the unifying themes of the trilogy is the toll of war and violence on ordinary people’s lives – in this case, working class residents of Dublin’s tenement slums. As the war in Ukraine drags on and hostilities have broken out again between Hamas and Israel, the sad truth is that not much seems to have changed in the hundred years since these plays were first performed. In Juno and the Paycock, a character remarks that the whole world is in “a terrible state of chassis” [chaos] – a sentiment which still rings true. In addition to that timeless relevance however, there is much more that resonates across the three plays including the masterful tragicomic blend that is O’Casey’s trademark.
While it’s possible to see the plays individually during the run, there are several opportunities to see all three in one day, starting with The Plough and the Stars, set on the brink of Easter Rising in 1916, but written last in 1926. The Shadow of a Gunman’s action takes place during the Irish War of Independence in 1920 and was written in 1923. The final installment, Juno and the Paycock, is set during the Irish civil war in 1922 and written in 1924. The sets of all three plays are also variations on a theme with fleabitten furniture and the grey careworn walls of the tenement flats turning up in differing configurations in Francis O’Connor’s design. While exact characters don’t carry over, character types do, with a collection of feisty women, deadbeat men, and their drunken sidekicks creating a feeling of familiarity through the dramas. There’s also a distinct authentic and dexterous linguistic style – loquaciousness and consistent malapropisms becoming entertaining stylistic traits.
But when The Plough and Stars first hit the stage in 1924 it provoked outraged riots due to scenes featuring a prostitute. Here Rosie Redmond plays the aging sex-worker bemoaning the fact that the Easter Rising is bad for business. Her clients are more interested in the political developments than in her services. In Redmond’s hands, the part is desperately funny and just plain desperate. It’s hard to imagine that the relatively mild innuendo could cause offense. But as attitudes surrounding the rights of women change in this country, is it not conceivable that such reactions could resurge? Eventually, O’Casey banned the production of his plays in Ireland for the rest of his life (with a few exceptions) in protest of the Roman Catholic Church’s disapproval of their content. Now he is regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest dramatists.
The Plough and Stars revolves around the newlyweds Jack and Nora Clitheroe. Jack is a member of Irish Citizen Army and is torn between his wife’s pleas to stay home and his duty to the cause. At the start of our day-long marathon, the play got off to a stilted start with many in the audience audibly straining to follow the obtuseness of the Irish accents. Some of the direction also seemed to stutter with some uneven timing (all three plays are directed by Garry Hynes). However, several female characters left lasting impressions including Sarah Morris’s raucous rendition of Mrs. Grogan, a nosey neighbor of epic proportions. It transpires however, that her humor is armor against her daughter’s failing health at the hands of tuberculosis. Hilda Fay as Bessie Burgess, a conflicted Protestant whose faith in her loyalty to the British has been strained by the death of her son in the first World War brings true empathy to the role when later she overcomes her prejudices to care for Nora who is Catholic and the wife of a revolutionary. We are also treated to a marvelous cameo from Catherine Walsh as an upper-crust British woman whose only analysis of the turmoil that has enveloped the city is, “Isn’t it awful.” One of the pleasures of seeing the ensemble cast across the three plays in close succession is observing their virtuosity – Walsh reappears in the other two plays transformed as first a brave, but downtrodden wife and then as a bereaved mother.
After an hour-long break, The Shadow of a Gunman began. Here, we meet Donal Davoren, a would-be poet sharing a room with a traveling peddler Seumas Shields – purveyor of faulty suspenders and bent spoons. The unlikely roommates make for entertaining company as Davoren, played with suave charm by Marty Rea, revels in the mistaken assumption of his neighbors that he is in fact a revered member of the Irish Republican Army – the shadow of a gunman. Rory Nolan as Shields also brought a new intensity to the male roles. During a sleepless night, the two discuss the impact of Irish War of Independence, Shields remarking “It’s the civilians who suffer,” and “The people are dying for the gunman.” By now, the audience had perhaps tuned into the Irish pronunciation, or maybe the increase in focus I felt around me was due to the more effective use of the stage with a V-shaped set showing the corner of their shared room. Somehow, the energy picked up markedly for this second play in the series with comedic timing spot on and the reappearance of Anna Healy playing a long-winded woman eager to make the case for IRA interference to quieten her noisy neighbors. But the standout among the women characters here, was Caitrionna Ennis as the flirtatious Minnie Powell. She enchants Davoren with her bold moves and love of poetry. But her ditsy bimbo act is just a cover as she later proves to be the only one with any revolutionary fervor. As the play draws to an end, the walls of the tenement fall away, as Minnie pays for her bravery.
Following dinner, the final part of the trilogy, Juno and the Paycock, once again unfolds in the close quarters of a tenement. Juno is the stalwart mother and rock of the Boyle family. Hilda Fay returned here as Juno, following her powerful performance in the first play. Juno’s frustration with her useless husband, compassion for her wounded son and thwarted ambition for her daughter were portrayed with subtlety. Zara Devlin as the daughter, Mary, was new to the audience as she is not involved in the other plays. She conveyed the limited options for women in early twentieth century Ireland with a deep despair that was scarily moving in our current time. Rory Nolan also reappears as the paycock [peacock] of the title, a drunken loser who embraces notions of grandeur when he apparently inherits a fortune. His partner in inebriation is Joxer, a role in which Aaron Monaghan excelled as he had in a similar part in Plough. Here, as in all three plays there is much physical comedy including an extreme drunk scene where Nolan and Monaghan both appear to be made of rubber. But behind the comic delusions of the paycock lie the tragic consequences of the Irish Civil War. At one point, a mother recites a list of all the young men who have died. “What can God do against the stupidity of men?” Juno asks. It turns out that male stupidity is ruining women’s lives in multiple ways. By the end of the trilogy, we’re left wondering about the capacity of the human race for self-destruction. The walls fall away in the final scene and once again Boyle utters, in what may be a gesture at catharsis, “The world’s in a terrible state of chassis.”
It’s testament to the power of O’Casey’s tragicomic plays that audiences still pack performances. As a theater event, seeing all three Dublin Trilogy plays in one day is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most. As the day wore on, it seemed the admiration for the material deepened and solidified. While the plays capture moments in time, their commentary on the human condition is relevant today, even if the conclusion is that we have made little progress in the hundred years since these dramas were first performed.