The Plough and the Stars, Sean O'Casey's drama about the Irish Easter Rebellion, has a macabre relevance to America's civil rights movement. The play asks, what is a cause worth you? Is it as palpable, as loving as a wife or son? Is a futile cause worth a hero's death, or is wasted bravery worse than cowardice?
Writing in 1926, ten years after the Easter Rebellion, O'Casey can answer these questions, because he can see Ireland's causes in a harsh historical glare. His characters uselessly throw away their lives in a meaningless fight, meaningless because of their empty motivation. Afraid to admit its own fear and surrender at the barricades, the Irish Citizen Army faces overwhelming British forces, and falls.
But the history is only the background for O'Casey's warm, humorous, pathetic characters. Nora and Jack Clitheroe share a Dublin tenement apartment with Peter Flynn, Nora's uncle, and Covey, Jack's cousin. Covey, an international socialist, mocks old Peter, a die-hard Irish nationalist, while Nora attempts to pacify them both. But she cannot control her husband's allegiance to the Citizen Army. He leaves her and dies in the battle.
The Charles Playhouse's excellent production heightens O'Casey's humor, but as an ironic foil for his sadness. The characters' sanguine outlook keeps them from taking themselves or their situation too seriously. They have time for funereal jokes while artillery shells are bursting near them. They take the the edge off their political fervor by going home with a prostitute.
What makes The Plough and the Stars so enchanting for an American is its rich yet unselfconscious Irish slang. Even the simplest expression of emotion have a special liveliness, a weightless presence that sticks in the mind. The actors handle this language with such ease that one could not imagine them speaking any other.
But above the enchantment of the Irish humor hangs the shadow of the rebellion's failure. And our foreknowledge of this doom turns the humor slightly sour, adds to the ironic effect of each scene. At the end both the humor and the idealism have become bitter disillusionment.
As in its previous productions, this company deserves the highest praise. Jane Alexander as Nora is first warm with love and later mad with grief. Terrence Currier's Covey is appropriately sharp and witty, while Robert Gaus's Peter stumbles and mumbles about with humor and sympathy. The rest of the players, as well as director Michael Murray, rate equally loud applause.