In 1926, when an already-censored Plough and the Stars opened at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the crowd, taking offense at uniformed actors carrying the flag of the Irish Volunteers, rioted, throwing objects at the stage, setting off stink bombs, and fighting with the actors. Barry Fitzgerald, living up to the spirit his character, Fluther Good, even landed an uppercut, sending a rioter into the orchestra pit. Audiences, many of whom had lost family members and friends in the Easter Rebellion, also viewed the juxtaposition of a quotation from one of the executed leaders of the uprising, Patrick Pearse, with a drunk prostitute, Rosie Redmond (Sarah Street), as disrespectful. Famously, W.B. Yeats stormed the stage and, referring to earlier riots over J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, chastised the audience: “You have disgraced yourselves again. Is this going to be an ever-recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?”
In fact, Seán O’Casey’s play is told from the sidelines of the Easter Rebellion. As Rosie listens to a speech by an offstage orator, she flirts with a local haverer, Fluther Good (Michael Mellamphy), who seems to find everything just “a little bit too derogatory.” A young socialist (James Russell) bickers with an old, militant nationalist (Robert Langdon Lloyd). The central drama, if one can be found in this ensemble, is of Nora Clitheroe (Clare O’Malley), the wife of a commandant in the Irish Citizen Army (Adam Petherbridge) who is desperate to both revitalize her marriage and simply keep her husband alive. As the bodies pile up, the critiques of nationalism are palpable. In a sense, then, the original audiences didn’t misread the play; they simply disagreed with its argument.
The Plough and the Stars is the best of the Irish Rep’s O’Casey Season, but it suffers from the same flaws as The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock: twenty-two years since its last mounting at the Irish Rep, director Charlotte Moore has staged a respectful revival, one I suspect is very much the same, or at least one that could have been seen, in 1997, or in 1988, when the company itself debuted with a production of the play. With almost a century of postcolonial struggle that followed The Plough and the Stars—including, of course, the recent border issues raised by Brexit—the safe and conservative choices by Moore feel practically anemic.