BBC Radio 3, 4 December 2011
Nadia Molinari's revival was rich in period atmosphere, giving
us a unique insight into tenement life in Dublin during the Easter Rising of 1916. Despite the appalling conditions - with
families living in one another's pockets, to the extent that everyone knew everyone else's business - domesticity was backbone
of the characters' lives: most of the wives were happy to look after their husbands, while the husbands could not
function without their spouses' support.
With the security of knowing who they were and where they came from, the characters
competed with one another for vocal mastery: Fluther (Finbar Lynch), Peter (Stephen Hogan), and the Covey (Jonathan Forbes)
indulged in flights of vocal fancy, each trying to outdo the other in the choice of florid, alliterative language. During
the first two acts at least, we were encouraged to delight in O'Casey's dramatic dialogue, where sound mattered as much
as sense; his characters knew they were talented orators, and hence exercised their verbal skills to the full. Occasionally
their spouses restrained them with a deflationary observation, but for the most part they were content to leave the men to
their own devices, fuelled with liberal amounts of Irish whiskey.
Molinari also showed that this society was fundamentally patriarchal: the women had
little possibility for self-determination, and were often brutally silenced, if they tried to restrain their husbands too
much. At the same this patriarchy helped guarantee social stability: everyone knew their place and was (largely) happy to
remain there. Through the use of telling sound-effects - the crackling of a fire, the sound of chirruping birds - Molinari
suggested that this world was a settled one; most residents were happy with what they had, and expressed their contentment
through popular songs and/or ballads.
However the Easter Rising showed that everything had "changed utterly" (to quote
Yeats' famous poem). Spurred on by their leaders - notably Connelly - Dublin's menfolk were now classed as "freedom
fighters," battling for their future against the British colonizer. While their cause was undoubtedly just, Molinari
was more interested in the effect that the conflict had on family life. In the third act, the sound of cheerful birdsong was
replaced with frequent explosions, which became louder and louder as the action progressed. The characters' voices grew
more animated: Nora (Elaine Cassidy) grew increasingly more desperate to find out what had happened to her husband
Jack (Padraic Delaney), but the other menfolk proved of little help. They preferred to turn their backs on the conflict
and indulge themselves in more drink, while vowing unspeakable revenge on the British.
In the final act, the dialogue took place against an aural backdrop of machine
guns. Traumatized by her husband's loss, Nora retreated into a fantasy-world of domesticity; in a poignant evocation
of the first act, she imagined herself making Jack's tea as he returned home from work. Bessie (Gabrielle Reidy)
moved too close to the tenement window, and was gunned down for her pains. Her death was almost unbearably painful, as she understood
how the Easter Rising had destroyed both herself and her fellow-residents for ever. Nothing could ever be the same.
Molinari left us feeling extremely ambivalent about the Easter Rising and its consequences. While
we could understand the depth of anti-British feeling, as Jack and others fought for their independence, we also understood
how war destroys people's lives - not just the men, but the women committed to a life of drudgery, interspersed occasionally
with a visit to the local pub. Bessie and Nora were embroiled in the conflict
- not because they wanted to - but because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
By contemporary standards, the ending seemed somewhat melodramatic, with Bessie looking
over her past life before death overcame her. However this strategy emphasized O'Casey's debt to a dramatic form which permitted
the kind of florid language we had heard in the first two acts. The Plough and the Stars deliberately draws
on the melodramatic tradition to remind us of just how popular this form of drama was with local audiences in Ireland and
elsewhere during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even in the mid-twentieth century, actor/ managers such
as Anew McMaster toured the country with revivals of Victorian barnstormers such as Maria Marten, or the Murder in
the Red Barn (Harold Pinter cut his acting teeth in one of these tours). The Plough and the Stars is written
in a deliberately popular form, with the emphasis on florid language and verbal flights of fancy, even while it makes a political
point about the consequences of the Easter Rising.
With its focus on the play's verbal flights of fancy as well as its thematic aspects,
this revival proved beyond doubt that The Plough and the Stars could have been written with the radio medium in
mind. I loved it.