A Terrible Beauty Stillborn
The Plough and the Stars by Sean O'Casey at the Schubert Theatre through Monday
SEAN O'CASEY'S play, The Plough and the Stars, begins with a lock on a door. In a Dublin tenement, Fluther Good has just installed the new lock on the flat occupied by Nora and Jack Clitheroe. Nora's lock is resented by her neighbors, Bessie Burgess (upstairs) and Mrs. Gogan, the charwoman who lives below. But the newlywed Mrs. Clitheroe persists in her efforts to shut out the slum around her; when the play opens, in November 1915, she has almost created an island of grace and quiet in the middle of the dirt and violence. Nora's is a tacky paradise; its furnishings are in rather bad taste, but nonetheless it's her place, where she can lock the door and be alone with "her Jack."
Nora, however, cannot lock out the crescendo of revolution in the streets of Dublin outside her window, an uprising that would culminate in the Easter revolution of 1916. At the end of the play, having lost her husband and child to the violence of the revolt she was trying to shut out, Nora escapes the madhouse that Dublin has become by refusing to acknowledge it, by creating a fantasy world in which she imagines herself walking with her Jack in the country.
O'Casey sees the Plough and Stars (the flag of the IRA) from the window of a Dublin flat, and through women's eyes. This view of the Easter Revolution was cynical enough to cause riots when it first was staged. In O'Casey's portrayal, the Irishmen in the Citizen Army died shitting with fear; their wives went mad trying to keep them safe at home. The only heroes in The Plough and Stars are those who neither fight nor spout rhetoric: Fluther Good, the working man whose honest dignity defies the British to do their worst, though he is terrified of gunshot; Bessie Burgess, who nurses Nora through losing a baby and husband and is killed trying to get Nora away from a dangerous window; and Mrs. Gogan, who at the end of the play performs the last rituals of civilization, keeping afloat the ceremonies of innocence, or at least of decency.
Tragic, comic and sentimental as only Irish plays can be, The Plough and the Stars is one of the plays that has made Ireland's Abbey Theatre world-renowned (not only as a center of culture, but as the focus of controversy). The Plough and the Stars was chosen for the Abbey's bicentennial tour in New York and Boston because it was definitive in developing the "Abbey style" of Irish realism: perfect brogues, meticulous blocking, sublime melodrama.
The play is a subltly modulated blend of humor (verging on slapstick) with tragedy (verging on bathos). The Abbey's great achievement in the past has been its ability to stage O'Casey without falling into either abyss. While the production now at the Schubert does not fall from the tightrope acting the play demands, neither does it evoke gasps.
Though two of the Abbey's finest actors, Cyril Cusack and Siobhan McKenna, returned for this production, the acting somehow seems stagey and lackluster. Surface characterization is emphasized at the expense of deeper emotional involvement. Siobhan McKenna plays Bessie Burgess with grandeur but drops the ends of her lines; Scorcha Cusack staggers a bit too much as Nora. Bill Foley, as Peter Flynn, says his lines as though reading them for the first time. Maire O'Neil, as the prostitute Rosie, makes immediate some of O'Casey's profoundest lines, his true revolutionary credo of communism--but her characterization slips occasionally into caricature. Still, Angela Newman, as Mrs. Gogan, manages to build a comprehensible and psychologically real persona, and Cyril Cusack, as Fluther Good, deftly plays on the entire keyboard of emotion, from deadpan humor to quiet bravery.
BUT THE PLAY lacks the direction tht would have made it progress steadily up to the grand tragedy of the last act. Since her character is not developed from the beginning, Bessie Burgess' heroism seems to come from nowhere. Her death fails to be convincingly tragic. And in Nora's madness there are heard none of the Ophelian overtones that O'Casey's lines can convey: what appears onstage is little more than hysteria.
The Abbey players cannot act O'Casey badly; his style is second nature to them. But this production lacks freshness. Though they go through all the preparatory motions there comes no climax, no emotional catharsis. This Plough and Stars processes slowly and without stirring our hearts. Like a tired warhouse decked in its old trappings, this production holds itself proudly, but does not prance.