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The Plough and the Stars – Matinee
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The Plough and the Stars by the Irish by Irish writer Seán O’Casey, was first performed on February 8, 1926 by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It is the third of his well known “Dublin Trilogy” – the other two being “The Shadow of a Gunman” (1923) and “Juno and the Paycock” (1924).
The first two acts of Plough are set in November 1915, looking forward to the liberation of Ireland. The last two acts are set during the Easter Rising, in April 1916. The Plough and the Stars flag was the banner of the Irish Citizens Army and James Connolly said the significance of the banner was that a free Ireland would control its own destiny from the plough to the stars. The flag depicts the constellation of Ursa Major, known as The Plough and the Stars in Ireland and Britain.
Since it was first staged in 1926, it has been alternately criticised by members of the public, the church and nationalist political parties, and championed as one of the best constructed and most brilliantly realised plays in the Irish canon.
The play was written 10 years after the Easter Rising so O’Casey already knew of the effects of the rebellion on Ireland and the Irish people. From his letters, notes and autobiographies we also know that he disagreed strongly with the idea of a violent rebellion against the British. He believed that the government should concentrate on helping the poor rather than focussing on nationalist politics and striving for Irish freedom from Britain.
The plays shows O’Casey’s respect for the Irish people, especially the ordinary people of the Dublin tenements. He was the first Irish playwright to place this “underclass” of society centre-stage and reminded his audience of the great suffering of those people.
In the play, the tenement building is full of life and his characters can prove themselves to be heroes, and their relationships can be just as comic or tragic as a great play of Shakespeare. O’Casey also showed how deeply his characters were effected by the political events in the play and the violence of the Rising, regardless of whether they were soldiers, workers, mothers or children.
The first audiences were furious with O’Casey’s negative portrayal of the Rising, but also with the way he represented the Irish people on stage. His female characters, for instance, are all flawed in some way – Rosie is a prostitute; Nora is a doting wife who challenges her husband’s duty to his country; Bessie Burgess is an alcoholic and Mrs Gogan is a widow who is forced to defend her chastity. These “character flaws” caused great upset, especially at a time when the Irish people and politicians were celebrating the idea of “woman” as a symbol for Irish freedom and glory.