Friday 8 March 2019

Is Sean O'Casy Still Relevant?

I once missed Led Zeppelin in Madison Square Garden, and didn’t attend The Who, with The Clash opening, at Shea Stadium, so help me god! 

I even scalped a ticket to Bruce Springsteen for thrice the price in lean times, but under no circumstances will I miss the upcoming Dublin Trilogy of Sean O’Casey at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

It’s not as if I haven’t seen The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, or The Plough and the Stars before – I even attended opening night of the latter back in 1988 when it was the Rep’s first offering.

But to see all three in sequence will be like getting a front seat to one of Ireland’s most turbulent periods of history as seen through the jaundiced eye of its greatest playwright.

Nor was O’Casey some casual hurler on the ditch, he was an active participant in the years of industrial turmoil that led to Dublin’s 1913 Lockout right through to the end of the Civil War in 1923.
My grandfather adored these three plays and thought nothing of driving the 80 miles to Dublin for a decent production.

Odd in itself as Thomas Hughes was a conservative Catholic Republican. O’Casey on the other hand had strong communist sympathies, and was a Protestant to boot.

But their world was “in a state of chassis” - many Republicans had been excommunicated, while many Christians had grown to question the alliance of their churches with a brutal capitalist world order.

One thing Sean O’Casey and Thomas Hughes had in common was a dislike for James Connolly. I once heard my grandfather mutter that “Connolly was nothing but a little Scottish troublemaker,” a sentiment shared by O’Casey.

They both, however, adored Big Jim Larkin, labor agitator supreme and founder of the Irish Transport & General Workers Union – strange in my grandfather’s case, since he was a small businessman.
But that’s part of the magic of this dynamic era, and O’Casey captures it so well in his plays.

William Butler Yeats, O’Casey’s champion at the Abbey Theatre, said that poetry should be “cold and passionate as the dawn.” He was intimating that balance is essential in all things, especially art.
He could have been speaking about O’Casey’s trilogy, all tragicomedies balancing on a fine fulcrum. 

Set in Dublin’s fatigued tenements, tragedy lurks around every corner, and humor one of the few ways of combating the roiling poverty.

But overplay either tragedy or mirth and the audience can be in for a long evening. 

There’s little fear of that happening at the Rep. They know their O’Casey, and although Charlotte Moore and CiarĂ¡n O’Reilly have differing directorial skills and process, they always highlight O’Casey’s sheer humanity and love for his characters.

One way or another all three directors will have a wonderful repertory cast to work with.

As ever I’m interested in seeing Terry Donnelly and John Keating, two of my favorite Rep veterans, both outstanding O’Casey interpreters.

Terry is what I call a “light-stealer.” No matter the part she soaks up the light onstage and I always await her entrance – the energy in the room shifts and it’s hard to take your eyes off her.

Though John’s entrances are equally powerful, at first his comedic chops sweep all before him, but gradually he coaxes out the tragedy inherent in all O’Casey’s major characters. 

There’s a pathos to this 20th Century playwright that some modern interpreters are wary of. Bald as it may be it never bothers me, for those times were indeed tragic. A dream was betrayed, and the Irish people traded one set of masters for another.

Sean O’Casey never lets us forget that. And over the next four months the Irish Repertory Theatre will bring his turbulent world roaring back to life. 

O’Casey bared the soul of a nation in these plays. The political and social questions he asked have yet to be answered.

And yet, Captain Boyle’s innocent, if enigmatic, inquiry to Joxer Daly is still my favorite, “What is the stars?”

Perhaps The Rep will answer it this time round.