Paper from a conference held at Trinity College, Dublin on 21 and 22 April 2006, organised by The Ireland Institute and Dublin University History Society.
Author: Declan Kiberd
It will always be debateable whether a great public event like the Easter Rebellion is best captured by a play or a poem – so today I want to contrast the image of the Rising which we find in Yeats’s famous poem Easter 1916 and in O’Casey’s greatest play The Plough and the Stars. On the surface, it would seem that O’Casey had all the advantages for when he strode into the Post Office on Easter Monday and read his Proclamation to a few ‘thin perfunctory cheers’, Pearse was initiating one of the most theatrical insurrections in the history of western Europe. Despite his manifest sincerity, Pearse was, in the words of one of his staunchest admirers, ‘a bit of a pose’. All through Easter Week he wore an ancient sword in the midst of an urban guerrilla confrontation, and he insisted on formally handing over this sword to the leader of the British forces at the moment of eventual surrender – a gesture which had all the theatricality of a bygone heroic age. That theatricality was clear also in the rebels’ choice of a date – Easter, with all its connotations of Spring, April, new life from dead land, and, above all, the traditional religious associations of resurrection and redemption of a moribund people through sacrifice in blood. The location of the rebel centre in the GPO was also more dramatic than military in its underlying logic – for the building was disastrous as a military fortress, leaving the insurgents exposed on all sides, but deeply symbolic as a central building in the main thoroughfare, which cut across the life of the entire city. Many of the signatories of the Proclamation were literary men as much as soldiers – Pearse, Plunkett, and MacDonagh were poets, playwrights, and theatrical producers, and they deported themselves in the Rising as if they were acting a nobly desperate role in the last act of a classic tragedy (MacDonagh with his sword, stick, and cloak; Ceannt with his kilt and bagpipes; Plunkett with his Celtic rings and bracelets, marrying the beautiful Grace Gifford in a midnight ceremony on the night before his execution at dawn; or the wounded Connolly, tied onto a stretcher as he smiled at the firing-party that executed him – and, finally, Pearse himself reading out the Proclamation with the classical front and Ionic pillars of the GPO serving as a background, and then on the night before his execution writing that moving poem to his mother). Viewing events from inside the Post Office, the young insurgent Michael Collins said they had ‘the air of a Greek tragedy’. The rebels in many ways seemed to have conceived of themselves as characters in a tragedy; in casting themselves as sacrificial heroes, they were conscious of re-enacting the Cuchulain myth. Politics and literature seemed to intersect at every stage of the proceedings – and, indeed, in all the decades which led up to the Rising. As always, Yeats was at the very point of intersection, most notably in the year 1902 with the acclaimed production of his short play Cathleen Ni Houlihan with Maud Gonne in the title role. She personified Ireland as a poor old woman who would become a queen again only when young men became as gallant as Cuchulain and thought her worth dying for. For the revolutionary Countess Markievicz, this play became (in her own words) ‘a kind of gospel’; but for the constitutional nationalist Stephen Gwynn, it was something very different:
he effect of Cathleen Ni Houlihan on me was that I went home asking myself if such plays should be produced unless one was prepared for people to go out and to shoot and be shot. Maud Gonne’s impersonation stirred the audience as I have never seen another audience stirred.
We can even find traces of Yeats’s personification in the opening lines of the Proclamation: ‘Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag’. It was little wonder that the stunned poet in 1916 could only wonder if any of the links which forged the chain of responsibility for the Rising came from his workshop – a question which he repeated in a late poem:
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
Of course, he may have over-estimated his influence – he was a Romantic who wanted to believe Shelley’s declaration that the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but he was honest enough to admit that such a description better fits the Special Branch and the Secret Police.
Nevertheless, the tradition of Ireland as a woman was undeniably powerful – so powerful that Pearse admitted that as a boy he had genuinely believed that Ireland was a person with a soul, a view which he was to express in a famous poem in Irish:
Sine mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra
Mór mo ghlóir:
Mé a rug Cú Chulainn cróga.
Mór mo náir:
Mo chlann féin a dhíol a máthair.
Uaigní mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra
So strong was the tradition that the chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers, just a month before the Rising, felt it necessary to explain to his men: ‘There is no such person as Cathleen Ni Houlihan, or Dark Rosaleen, or the old woman who was calling upon us to serve her’. Yet, the myth persisted, as O’Casey showed so skilfully in the scene where the soldiers vow that Ireland is greater than a mother or a wife – a far more seductive and insatiable lady for whom they would suffer even unto death, like the legendary Cuchulain before them, who had defended the Gap of the North against all comers. It is this self-consciously theatrical, even histrionic, element that dominates in the contemporary accounts of the Rising, even in the accounts of those critical of the rebels. When Oliver St. John Gogarty said that without the writings of Yeats the Free State might never have come into being, he was overstating the case, but he had a point. As George Russell observed: ‘it was our literature even more than our political activities which created a true image of our nationality … What was in Pearse’s soul when he fought in Easter Week but an imagination of an ancient hero who stood against a host’.
Surprisingly, it was the poet Yeats, rather then the dramatist O’Casey, who showed himself most responsive to the element of theatrical performance that lay behind the military realities of the insurrection. In his later poetry, in particular, he returned again and again to the image of Connolly, whom he describes as a ‘player’ or an ‘actor’ – but in Yeats’s mind, it is the highest compliment he can pay, for he believed that every man was assigned a role and the only question was whether or not he played it well or ill. This metaphor of war as a tragic play dominates Easter 1916, as we shall see, but it remains a vital element of all Yeats’s later poems on the Rising.
Who was the first man shot that day?
The player Connolly,
Close to the City Hall he died;
Carriage and voice had he;
He lacked those years that go with skill,
But later might have been
A famous, a brilliant figure
Before the painted scene.
Moreover, in the sudden sense of solidarity that united Irishmen in the wake of the executions, Yeats began to see the rebels as they saw themselves – he fully accepted Pearse’s identification as a moment which led to a hopelessly theatrical rebellion, but also, in the longer term, to the break-up of the greatest empire the world has ever known. So he asked in a late poem:
When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side,
What stalked through the Post Office? What intellect,
What calculation, number, measurement, replied?
And the answer was India, Pakistan, Cyprus, Aden, and, hopefully, one day Northern Ireland. The rebels had given up their lives not just to free Ireland and destroy imperialism, but also to prove that heroes like Cuchulain could still be found in the modern world. As an exponent of the heroic gesture who had made Cuchulain the central figure of a whole cycle of plays, Yeats could not but respond to their sacrifice. In an earlier poem, September 1913, he had complained that romantic Ireland was dead and gone with O’Leary in the grave – but now, in Easter 1916, he gladly admits his error. As Maud Gonne said to him, ‘tragic dignity has returned to Ireland’ – the land again is fit for heroes. O’Casey, on the other hand, despises such old-fashioned heroics, which may arise from self congratulation and vanity as often as from selflessness and idealism, but which, whatever their basis, bring terrible suffering to ordinary folk. Where Yeats still believes that gunmen are dying for the people, O’Casey suspects that it is the people who are dying for the gunmen. Where Yeats recalls the names of the warrior dead, O’Casey worries about the anonymous hundreds of civilian casualties who have no memorial, but who were caught in the crossfire of Easter Week. Where Yeats salutes the heroism of the rebels – while questioning its necessity – O’Casey ups the bidding and questions not just the necessity, but the whole idea of an old-fashioned hero. His play is a redefinition of heroism, which he finds where it is least expected – in a bitter alcoholic Loyalist shot and in the capacity of ordinary proletarians to survive the ravages of a war not their own. He sees the cult of heroism, epitomised by Pearse in the second act, not so much a spur to battle as a confession of impotence – it is only the timid and the powerless, he hints, who need the vicarious thrill afforded by the bragging heroism of Pearse, the speaker at the window. We are back to the Mayo villagers in The Playboy and to the fact that it is a sure proof of their timidity and emptiness that they should make a nonentity like Christy Mahon into a celebrity. Just as Synge deflated the notion of a hero (thereby causing nationalists to riot), so O’Casey follows suit, with exactly the same result. In both cases, it is surely the whole attack on the underlying notion of the hero – rather than the actual pretexts such as the word ‘shift’ or the introduction of a prostitute to an Irish pub – it is the attack on the sacred notion of the hero that really roused the ire of the nationalists. They were happy enough with Yeats’s refrain, ‘A terrible beauty is born’, but O’Casey was not – he thought it smacked of false heroism and mocked it by calling one of the chapters in his autobiography ‘a terrible beauty is bones’. [Indeed, the difference between Yeats and O’Casey in their attitudes to this subject is brilliantly captured by the dramatist Brecht in a scene from The Life of Galileo. A young idealist appeals to the aged and tired Galileo to defy the Church and stick up for his rights – and he remonstrates with the old man: ‘Unhappy the land that has no heroes’; and that is the voice of Yeats. But Galileo replies with the shrewd voice of experience: ‘No, my son, unhappy the land that needs a hero’; and that is the voice of O’Casey].
Of course, not everyone concurred with Michael Collins and Yeats in viewing the rebellion as having ‘the air of Greek tragedy’. Certainly, one British officer who presided at the executions was moved by the dignity of the condemned men: ‘They all died bravely’, he said, ‘but MacDonagh died like a prince’ – obviously a man who had read his Yeats. But, it depended on your vantage point. Viewing events from outside the Post Office at the end of the week, another British officer remarked to an American reporter: ‘The Irish ought to be grateful to us, because, with a minimum of casualties to the civilian population, we have succeeded in liquidating some very second-rate poets!’ Of course, the remark is flippant and insensitive – but it also has a kind of honesty about it, the honesty of a man who is still too close to the event to realise its momentous, long-term significance. It is a useful remark in other ways, too, because it reminds us that for every man a great public event is finally an intensely personal experience. Everybody remembers the assassination of John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963 not in terms of what happened at Dallas, but in terms of what they were doing at the time of the news. During the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising in 1966, I remember asking my grandmother what she thought of it all at the time – I expected tales about my grandfather crying when MacNeill issued the countermanding order to the volunteers, but all she wanted to talk about was the difficulty for housewives seeking groceries: ‘you couldn’t get a loaf of bread for love or money on the North Strand all week’. Such personal details would also underlie the public heroism of the rebels, if we could only know – for example, it has been suggested that Pearse timed the Rising for Easter 1916 not for symbolic reasons at all, but simply because his school, St. Enda’s, was plunged deep into debt and a revolution was a very good way of escaping his pressing conditions. Certainly, the greatness of O’Casey’s play and of Yeats’s poem is that they remind us of the personal aspect to a public event. We know, for example, that O’Casey had been secretary to Connolly’s Citizen Army, but had resigned in protest against Connolly’s pact with middle-class nationalists in the Volunteers – that is one reason why he took no part in the insurrection, a public reason; but the more private reason was that he had to look after his ailing and aged mother of whom he was the sole support. That gives unexpected poignancy to his play and to the scene where the rebels declare: ‘Ireland is greater than a mother’ – O’Casey did not agree, and, so, he turned from the abstract mother Ireland to the flesh and blood mother who needed his support back in the East Wall. This, of course, did not prevent him from thrilling to the bravery of the rebels and, at times, even wondering if it was cowardice rather than compassion that had kept him from the fight. For years, through his work for nationalism in the Gaelic League and for socialism in the Citizen Army, he had helped to wind a revolutionary clock – but, just when it was about to strike, it seemed that he had walked away. The same may be said, to a lesser extent, of Yeats, who as a young man had been a leading figure in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and who took a leading part in the riots to mark the centenary of the 1798 rebellion – but, not long afterwards, the Playboy riots marked his first split with militant nationalism. Yeats was dining at a society function in London when news came through of the insurrection, and he was reported to be deeply insulted that the rebels had not consulted him before the action was taken. His own reactions were coloured by as many personal as public factors – his own part in the events leading to the rebellion, especially through the example of his play Cathleen Ni Houlihan; the involvement in the rising of his friend MacDonagh and of Pearse to whom he had made available the Abbey Theatre for a St. Enda’s play – and of the great love and hate of his life, Maud Gonne and her ‘drunken, vainglorious lout’ of a husband, John MacBride. Looked at in this way, we can see O’Casey and Yeats as complementary, but opposed, figures to the rebel leaders – men like Pearse, MacDonagh, and Plunkett had begun as playwrights and poets, but, having failed to achieve greatness as artists, they had turned to a life of action and sought fulfilment and glorification in revolution. O’Casey and Yeats traced a contrary path, beginning as political activists, but, growing more and more cynical of the second-rate leaders of their movements, they turned instead for fulfilment and glory to a life of art. It can thus be argued that while the writers were frustrated revolutionaries, the rebels were frustrated poets. Presumably, this is what the sarcastic British officer meant with his little joke.
The power of the poem Easter 1916 arises from the tension between Yeats’s personal and political reactions to the event, between his political admiration for the heroism of the rebels and his personal doubts about its necessity. The poem is an assimilation of a very public emotion into a man’s personal life. It is a painfully honest piece of writing, because, for the first time in his career, Yeats has been forced to consider what Synge called the ‘gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed’, between the myth of a violent Cuchulain and the fact of two thousand dead. In a more personal sense, Yeats is asking himself if he can reconcile his known admiration for the glamorous violence of ancient heroes with his clear distaste for contemporary violence and the photographs of dead bodies in the streets. This, finally, is as much a question of personal responsibility as of political response – and, though the subject is a political event, it soon becomes the occasion for a consideration of a deeper theme, the cost in human terms of an abstract political ideal.
At all events, what matters here is that Yeats felt personal responsibility for writing a play that may have helped to bring about the Rising. To that extent, he might have felt a great sympathy with the rebels, a sympathy which would have been enhanced by his love of Maud Gonne, then an exiled leader of the nationalists living in France. Her response to the events was expressed as a recognition of their theatricality – ‘tragic dignity has returned to Ireland’, she said to Yeats, a reaction which he put into the refrain of his stanzas:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
I draw your attention to the exact words – the beauty is terrible because it is tragic, a compound of the pity and terror that Aristotle found to be the source of all tragedy. This theatrical theme is not idly used in the refrain by Yeats, for it stands in deliberate contrast to the many references to comedy all through the poem. Yeats sees the rebels as actors, men who have adopted a heroic pose, who, being born with the self of comedy, have learned by discipline to acquire the anti-self of tragedy, to attain the dignity of tragic self-sacrifice. And, just as these men moved between the extremities of comedy and tragedy, so too does Yeats’s poem move from the casualness of comedy to the intensity of tragedy in its repeated use of the refrain.
The opening of the poem has the flatness and casualness of comedy and this is emphasised by the fact that there is only half-rhyme between ‘faces’ and ‘houses’.
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
The very repetition of ‘polite meaningless words’ evokes a static society, incapable of change or creativity even in its words, let alone its actions:
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club.
The repetition of the ‘meaningless’ phrase underlines its uselessness – and the poet’s previous feeling that these men were fit only to be the butts of his own private jokes with Ascendancy friends in a rich man’s club. Indeed, with ruthless honesty, Yeats includes himself as the butt of the comedy, a member of a paralysed unchanging society that could not achieve a higher dignity:
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
The word ‘motley’ extends and develops the theatrical metaphor, because motley was worn by the fool in Shakespeare’s plays as a traditional sign to the audience that he was the joker in the pack. Yeats is confessing his own error in having misjudged these men – and that confession is implicit even in his title Easter 1916, a self-mocking echo of his earlier poem September 1913, in which he had taunted these same men with the declaration that romantic Ireland was dead and gone. According to Aristotle, the classic comic character is incapable of change – take the Elizabethan fool, he is a static character, who endlessly trips on the same banana skin, incapable of learning or growing. But the tragic character is capable of decisive change, and that is the word Yeats uses, along with the technical term of tragedy, the word ‘terror’, to describe the Maud Gonne response that tragic dignity has returned:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Amidst the disintegration of values and the political violence, the poet discerns an order where there appears to be none. In a time of disorder, the poet moves toward an order in his personal attempt to assimilate the meaning of the event. This progression is manifest in the move from a slack, conversational opening to the formal gravity of the refrain. From the prosaic, fragmented world of casual comedy, it moves to the unified and terrible beauty of tragedy. Yeats once wrote: ‘tragedy breaks down the dykes which separate man from man, whereas it is on these dykes that comedy sets up house’. In other words, comedy is the splintered world of errors, of different men understanding one another at cross purposes, whereas tragedy is a world where all men feel a deep and sudden solidarity in the face of an unthinkable catastrophe – precisely the kind of feeling that Yeats invites us to share in his poem. The rebels had this much in common with Yeats: they had conceived of themselves as tragic heroes, modelled on the Cuchulain of his plays. So, the predominant feeling at the first refrain in the poem must be Maud Gonne’s – an overwhelming sense of the beauty rather than the terror of the event.
But, Yeats does not settle for such cosy aphorisms. This poem is remembered by most of us for its refrain, but its real power lies in the build-up of evidence that gradually throws this refrain into question and subtly alters its meaning. For, Yeats goes on to consider the personalities whom he knew in the event, and this complicates his reactions even further. There is, first of all, Constance Markievicz, who lost her beauty in the rough-and-tumble of politics:
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
And then he recounts the unfilled promise of Pearse and MacDonagh, cut down in their prime. All of a sudden, the meaning of the poem begins to change, and we sense that a question is being asked about the cost in human terms of these men’s dreams. The poet goes on to recount in persuasive concrete detail the everyday joys of life, which should tug all idealists back from their dream of death. The political celebration of the rebels’ heroism has suddenly become a horrified personal questioning of its necessity, of its value in the face of the life that has been lost in its prime. Yeats read this stanza to Maud Gonne in Normandy in September 1916 and urged her to forget the stone and choose instead the flashing joy of life – for the stone represents excessive idealism, a rigidity and hardness that are incapable of change or flexibility, unlike the ever-changing stream which eddies past:
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
But, we notice the poet renders the physical sensations of a full life far more persuasively than the vaguer seductions of idealism and dream – instead, he offers a sense of easy familiarity with the lives and couplings of animals:
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
In terms of this enhanced sense of life, the stone seems inhuman; against the sexual coupling of the hens and moor-cocks, it offers only a kind of dead imperviousness to experience. It is significant that there is no refrain after this stanza – as if, by now, the poet was not so sure that he had anything to celebrate. The personal and painful doubts of the poet have at this point in the poem overwhelmed the self-confident public voice of the national bard.
And, as if to demonstrate that growing doubt, we note that the final stanza is just a series of questions – four questions in all, and each one a heart-rending questioning of the wisdom of the event.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That – rather than the Maud Gonne refrain – is the interrogative voice of O’Casey in Juno and the Paycock, where his heroine cries out: ‘Sacred Heart of the Crucified Jesus, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh’. It is no accident that this mother, who has just lost her son, should seize on the image of a heart enchanted into stone by political fanaticism. But, that is a personal prayer, just as Yeats’s ‘when may it suffice?’ is a personal question. On the other hand, the Yeats who wished to be counted one with Davis, Mangan, and Ferguson is also a public and a national poet, and, as such, a successor of the ancient Gaelic bards who mourned dead warriors after the battle. So, he suppresses the painful personal question and reverts to the traditional function of the public bard, listing the names of the warrior dead:
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
But, the questions of a bereaved mother and a baffled guest will not be suppressed – nor judged in the vague rhetoric that says dead warriors are not dead but sleeping:
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death.
And the very stridency of the triple negative ‘no, no, not’ indicates just how much forcing is needed to suppress the personal question if the public bard is to perform his duty. But, another question tumbles out:
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
But, only may keep faith – Yeats was no lover of the British and had learned from John O’Leary to fear three things: the horns of a bull, the hoof of a horse, and the smile of an Englishman. Then came the most terrifying question of all – what if, worse even than a merely technical misjudgement, they were morally WRONG? If their love for Ireland was too great to be distinct from hate?
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
But, that must be suppressed, for the pain of that thought is too great to bear; so, at the last, the poet accepts without further question his ancient duty and lists the names of those who have fallen:
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Only now, it is the terror, rather than the beauty, that is uppermost in our minds – and the effect is no longer simple, but complex, for we are left wondering if a terrible mistake has not just been made. The closing refrain means something quite different from what it did at the beginning – and Maud Gonne’s cliché about tragic dignity has been forced to take account of the cost in human terms of such perfection. It is not surprising that she threw the poem back into Yeats’s face on that Normandy beach and said it was drivel – she was reacting as a public politician, he as a deeply personal poet.
So, the public bard celebrates the heroes, while the private man questions their act – and the poem examines one man’s divided response to the event. That inner conflict is central to Yeats’s view of the poet, whose self-questioning distinguishes him from the self-assertive politician. ‘Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric’, says Yeats, ‘but from the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry’. The whole poem enacts that quarrel with himself – there is even a quarrel between the heroic expectations implicit in the title and the painful questions in the poem. Maud Gonne rejected this poem because its stance is that of a perplexed and divided man, whereas she wanted a work of unqualified celebration – a quarrel with the English, not the self. But, it seems to me that somehow Yeats’s celebration of the bravery of these men seems all the richer, all the more moving, because of its capacity to ask and survive the toughest questions. Only a love which can survive its own self-questioning is worth having, says the poet – a love that is quite different from the ‘ignorant goodwill’ of the political woman in the second stanza. The poet is perplexed, but the poem is not, for its four questions represent the four main strands in Irish thinking at the time, along with the fifth and dominant nationalist strand in the refrain. The poem speaks with the simplicity that is the reward for those who can survive a time of confusion and report it with clarity. And see how brilliantly not just the questions, but the individual phrases, enact the poet’s quarrel with himself: ‘ignorant goodwill’, ‘terrible beauty’, where the paradox of grammar suggests the conflict in the poet’s own mind, where the associations sparked off in our minds by one word are called into question by another. Even the grammar and idiom are part of the poet’s quarrel with himself – and part of his indictment of those who can only quarrel with others. This is the final wisdom of a man who knows that there are no answers to any questions worth asking; the wisdom of the man who cried out on his deathbed: ‘What is the answer?’, and, when God or his next of kin failed to reply, went on to ask with a mixture of terror and amusement: ‘Oh well then, what is the bloody question?’. For Yeats, to put those questions clearly was achievement enough. And it must be stressed that they are more questions to himself than to Maud – indeed, the personal voice so overwhelms the public refrain in this poem that I would go so far as to call it a love-lyric rather than a political poem. It comes from a man of fifty-one who has no child – just the memory of a fruitless love for a rigid but beautiful woman. In The Wild Swans at Coole, he had sought to come to terms with that sexual frustration by contrasting the passionate coupling of the swans with his own lonely mortality – they build and couple among rushes, their hearts don’t grow old. In short, what I am hinting is that these images throw a new light on Easter 1916, where the passionately coupling swans have become the hens calling to moor-cocks-and the poet, who has loved too much too long, is simply the victim of a dilemma no different from that of the rebels:
And what if excess of love
Bewildered him till he died?
I cannot help feeling that the poem is as much about Yeats’s own sexual dilemma as it is about the rebels’ sacrifice.
At the root of the poem lies an allegation about the failure of relations between men and women in Ireland – and a belief that sexual frustration gives rise to political fanaticism, that those who have a repressed sex life are more likely to end up shouting slogans of hatred or hurling bombs at an enemy. Maud Gonne had confessed to Yeats that she had ‘a horror of physical love’, and Yeats believed that it was this which made her turn to a rigid politics. He applied the same criteria to the protesters against the Playboy, likening them to eunuchs maddened by their own lack of creativity in the face of the exuberant creativity of Synge. That unease with sexual repression is a common theme in writers of the Irish revival. It was Oliver St. John Gogarty who said, in a speech against censorship in the Senate, that the men of Ireland would have to find some other way to worship God than the hatred of women. It is that same allegation that underlies O’Casey’s play. The basic situation tells all: Jack Clitheroe’s interest in his wife is fading after just a few weeks of marriage – partly, no doubt, because it is almost impossible for the couple to snatch an uninterrupted half-hour of privacy in the crowded tenement. What is astonishing, however, is not Clitheroe’s seven week itch as much as the older people’s acceptance that this is the natural order of things. Mrs. Gogan, for example, says bluntly that ‘after a month or two, the wonder of a woman wears off’. By the end of the play, when Jack is in danger, Mrs. Gogan’s attitude is taken to its logical conclusion when she tries to comfort Nora by saying ‘if you’d been a little longer together, the wrench asunder wouldn’t have been so sharp’ – i.e. if she had been married a little longer, she would be less upset at the loss of a husband. There, in a short line, O’Casey has implied a great deal about the quality of married life in Irish conditions. Moreover, it was probably not so much the introduction of a prostitute into an Irish pub that inflamed the rioters, as the way in which all the other characters seem ready to take her existence for granted. The implication again is clear – in a society where men fail to understand their wives and their needs, the prostitute becomes a familiar on the landscape. [Moreover, she finds life hard, not because she lacks customers (Fluther is only too willing), but because the landlord raises the rent when she brings them home. Again, the implication is clear that the respectable middle-class landlord, like the publican on the stage, is not above making an extra few shillings for himself out of her illegal trade. In O’Casey’s Dublin, as in Blake’s London, the playwright saw that brothels were built with the bricks of religion, to subsidise the evasive lives of an exploiting class. It was these insinuations that offended the purists who hooted down the play].
In choosing as unexpected heroines such characters as Rosie Redmond and Bessie Burgess, O’Casey may well have offered his own scathing comment on the myth of female purity as beloved of Irish nationalists. Certainly, he wrote along those lines in his autobiography when recalling the riots against his play:
For the first time in his life, Seán felt a surge of hatred for Cathleen Ni Houlihan sweeping over him. He saw how the one who had the walk of a queen could be a bitch at times – She had hounded Parnell to death; she had yelled and torn at Yeats, at Synge, and now she was doing the same to him. What an old snarly gob she could be at times; an ignorant one too.
Of course, far more than Synge, he had asked for this attack in his almost savage depiction of most of the characters on stage. All of the main protagonists are shown as self-deceiving dreamers: Clitheroe is supposed to be a socialist, but shows more interest in the machismo of marching bands and military manoeuvres; the Covey’s socialism seems just as false, a mode of self-display and self-importance rather than humanitarian concern, of which he shows precious little to the prostitute Rosie; Nora’s dreams only of a better life amount to sheer snobbery and one-upmanship on the neighbours, and she is not above exploiting the Covey and Uncle Peter in order to attain her economic aspirations; Uncle Peter is a respectable armchair nationalist who struts in a uniform but would not cross the road to free Ireland; and even the verbal brilliance of Fluther, for all his bravery, may be seen as the showing-off of an impoverished man, the self-deceiving pomposity of the poor tradesman trying to cut a figure before the public: ‘at this point in time the craftsmen’s strike is fully operational’. Each character is marooned in a haze of self-importance – so much so that he can never fully reach out to the others, except for brief glorious moments, as when Fluther braves the bullets or Bessie dies for Nora. But, it is important to note that such ‘heroism’ is heroism in inverted commas, as unintentional as it is surprising. Fluther is blind drunk for most of the play, having retreated into alcohol for comfort, and Bessie’s heroism is an accident of which she repents bitterly at the very moment when she dies. Selfishness and vanity are the dominant elements in every character in the play, whether strutting in uniforms, looting the shops, or refusing to allow their menfolk the right to fight a real enemy. What we are witnessing is finally a social as well as an individual tragedy, the defeat of an entire class. O’Casey is finally as critical of Fluther as he is of the rebels – if the rebels fail to understand the workers in whose name they act, then the workers are even more pathetic in their failure to act in accordance with their own interest as a class. Where Yeats chose the idea of the play as the controlling metaphor of his poem, O’Casey preferred the image of the game of cards or pitch-and-toss as a metaphor which captured the randomness of the fate overtaking them all. Paradoxically, to the socialist playwright the whole idea of the play is absurd, and the posturing speeches of the rebels seem boy-scoutish and self-dramatising by comparison with the blunt honesty of Mollser and Bessie Burgess. As a socialist, however, O’Casey realises that it is not enough to indict the proletarians for their failure to act as a class – at an even deeper level, the play is an implied criticism of the capitalist system, which can create such selfishness and blindness, and an attack on all ‘isms’ as being no more than an assortment of illusions. To the Dublin audience of 1926, celebrating the tenth anniversary of a glorious rising, the play asked them to abandon their illusions about their real situation. But, as Marx said, the demand to give up illusions about a situation is nothing other than the demand to give up the situation that feeds off such illusions.
Some critics have found in this attack on all ‘isms’ the underlying weakness of the play, in the sense that O’Casey seems to indicate what he is AGAINST but not what he is FOR. He offers us an excellent insight into the undeveloped habits of mind developed by tenement life – the way in which even an intelligent man like Fluther is forced by his poor education to fall back on the same word ‘derogatory’ no matter what the context; or the way in which no conversation is ever brought to a satisfactory conclusion because another conversation is about to interrupt; or the way in which the Covey’s sound enough ideas are left entirely undeveloped and unapplied in real life. Some critics have even applied this charge to O’Casey himself, saying that, just like the Covey, he is incapable of analysing an idea; that he depicts the suffering of war in his plays, but offers no reasoned analysis of its causes. He implies a question about the social system that gives rise to such blindness, but he never actually asks it. You may think the fact the question is implied rather than asked makes it all the more powerful, just as powerful as the questions left by Yeats. I would not agree, because I expect something more from O’Casey as a socialist – not a party political broadcast on behalf of the ultra-left, not a blast of propaganda, but at least an analysis of why all this has happened. The nearest we get is the Covey’s complaint that more die of bad housing than are killed in the wars – but this is an effect, not an analysis of the cause. ‘It’s all because of the system we’re living under’, he tells the dying Mollser, but his analysis is no more sophisticated than that. No real analysis is offered in this play. Insofar as O’Casey raises the whole issue of socialist analysis, it is merely to mock the exponents of ideas, such as the Covey’s endless and idiotic references to Jenersky’s thesis on the origin and consolidation of the evolutionary idea of the proletariat. Here, analysis is raised as an issue only to be deflected: intellectual idealists are placed on the stage only for the purposes of mockery. The man who wrote this play was not so much a socialist as a cynic, preferring to deal in effects rather than causes. In that sense, he is certainly not a revolutionary dramatist like Brecht, seeking to influence political action, but a powerful descriptive playwright seeking to tell it like it is.
This play, like Yeats’s poem, was dedicated to a brave woman – in O’Casey’s case, ‘to the laughter of my mother at the gate of the grave’. That, finally, is the only heroism which the socialist O’Casey is willing to endorse, the capacity of ordinary people to endure, like Fluther, even in the midst of catastrophe. It is known that he was deeply moved by Terence MacSwiney’s assertion that it was not the people who could inflict the most but those who could endure the most who would survive in the end. Such thinking lies behind a play that insists that true heroism emerges in the most undemonstrative people, often women, who display that capacity for endurance. But, if O’Casey is impressed by that durability, he is also deeply worried by it – because he knows that very often it is blindness and ignorance, rather than insight and understanding, that enables people to go on. In O’Casey’s eyes, such people endure, but they do not really survive – a maimed part of the self lives on, but the fully integrated self has been lost. Though impressed by man’s capacity to go on, O’Casey is also deeply upset by man’s willingness to accommodate himself to catastrophe, to acquiesce in the disasters induced by irresponsible leaders. Though admitting that this is God’s world, he insists that man has the making or breaking of it – he agrees with Marx that the scholars have studied history but our business is to change it. But, it is only in the visionary later plays that he tells us how: by a Christian socialism, which insists that man will only transform the world when he himself has been transformed by religious belief. In the end, neither religion nor socialism alone was enough for O’Casey: ‘Religion has shown me the hollowness of life’, he said, ‘and life has shown me the hollowness of religion’. Only a vision encompassing both could save man, but that vision is hinted at rather than achieved in the death rattle of Bessie Burgess in The Plough and the Stars.
The paths of Yeats and O’Casey crossed most spectacularly on the night of the riots – when Yeats sought to quell the mob with another speech:
You have disgraced yourselves again. Is this to be the ever-recurring celebration of Irish genius? Synge first and then O’Casey. From such a scene in this theatre went forth the fame of Synge. Equally the fame of O’Casey is born here tonight.
Stirring stuff and undeniably true. But behind the confident public rhetoric, a less confident, private Yeats was forced to admit that there was a world of difference between the riots against the Playboy and those who now denounced O’Casey: the earlier group were Irish nationalists in a British occupied Ireland and they lacked real power; the later group included close relations of 1916 heroes, and they had real influence on the thinking of an independent government, which in turn had real power over the Abbey in the shape of a government subsidy. The government came under bitter criticism for continuing its grant to a theatre that produced such work. The Evening Herald accused the playwright of slander, and the Catholic Bulletin assigned him to ‘the Sewage School of drama’. Lady Gregory had advised O’Casey to concentrate on characterisation rather than plot development, with the result that the characters in The Plough loomed far larger than the actual events. For following this advice zealously, O’Casey was rapped on the knuckles by Dublin Opinion, which complained that ‘not even the government could find a plot in the latest O’Casey play’. They couldn’t – but maybe you can.