Irish Heritage Theatre is preparing for its production of the third part of Sean O’Casey’s “Dublin Trilogy”.
After presenting The Shadow of the Gunman in 2014 and Juno and the Peacock in 2015, the company brings his THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS to Philadelphia in time for the 100th anniversary of the events it depicts. The play is set during the 1916 Easter Rising, when Irish rebels took advantage of British entanglement in World War I to proclaim an independent republic.
Flipping the emotions of a major historical moment upside down
Victoria Bonito as Nora Clitheroe
O’Casey masterfully drops his audience into an unforgiving Irish tenement environment in The Plough and the Stars.
The people are gritty and unapologetic, their living quarters are less than desirable, and their wit, humor, and heart are incomparable. These are people that live passionately above all else, and I have the privilege of trying to unlock what Nora Clitheroe is passionate about.
The Irish theatrical canon is loaded with strong female roles, often images of Hibernia that call true lovers of Ireland to arms. O’Casey has created a different female protagonist here. She at once recognizes the prestige her husband may attain with his service to the ICA and longs for him to do anything but leave her for the fight.
This may be the most striking point about this play—it takes a major historical moment and flips it upside down emotionally. Its heroes are afraid, those who would be strong unravel, and no character is an empty caricature of a distant historical icon. This story is a glimpse of Irish history involving people whose stories may not have been recorded otherwise.
“Disillusioned men who challenge institutions”
Kevin Rodden as The Young Covey
This is my third of O’Casey’s plays, and in all three, I’ve been fortunate to play characters who function as surrogates for the playwright: disillusioned men who challenge institutions.
Playing this kind of outsider provides a unique perspective on Irish life around the time of my great-grandparents. I see the hypocrisies and the self-interest, the naiveté and the hope. But I also feel the English abuse and the Irish outrage—the pride in my familial connection.
“A renewed pride in my Irish heritage”
Michelle Pauls as Mrs. Gogan
I was very excited to be cast in this classic play of the English language, especially after spending some time with the (lighter) Irishy work, Lafferty’s Wake by Susan Turlish, at Society Hill Playhouse. In learning more about the Rising and all the Irish men and women who were willing to spill blood—their own and others—to be free, I have found a renewed pride in my Irish heritage. I discovered that John Lavery [“an Irish painter, best known for his portraits and wartime depictions,” to whom Pauls is related] was tangentially involved in the 1916 Rising. He, apparently, painted at least one of the fighters’ portraits.
“The Easter Rising’s influence on Ireland’s historical trajectory”
Harry Watermeier as Jack Clitheroe
Embarrassingly, before working on The Plough and the Stars, I knew next to nothing about the Irish Citizen Army or the Easter Rising of 1916.
O’Casey evokes the atmosphere and character of this particularly brutal moment in Dublin’s history with a remarkable intimacy and specificity, which has helped me understand the incalculable influence the Easter Rising had on Ireland’s historical trajectory.
“To be a Dubliner in 1916, amongst much turmoil”
Cris Welti as the Bartender
Throughout the rehearsal process, we often discuss what is happening, to try and gain some perspective on the events leading up to The Rising as well—the poverty, the depopulation of the island, and the possibility of forced conscription into the military by the British. The [Irish] rebellion itself was not very well organized and there were many disagreements. These events were truly tragic, with over 50% of the dead being civilians, either caught in the crossfire, or mistaken for rebel soldiers, followed by the executions of many local leaders—some that had no involvement in the rebellion.
“The genius of O’Casey—to give voice to all sides”
Mary Pat Walsh as Bessie Burgess
I’m proud to be part of this production, especially during the centennial commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising. The play resonates with me on many levels, including the depiction of the precarious, difficult, impoverished lives of the Dublin tenement residents … the Catholic / Protestant animosity that has been a profound part of Irish history … the clashes of political views that raged at the time … the larger context and impact of World War I … the very limited options available to women … O’Casey’s glorious language and wonderful characters …
My grandmother left Ireland in 1919 for a better life in the U.S. She shared very few stories of her time growing up there, and those she did tended to be sad. She never had any desire to go back, even for a visit. In fact, she had siblings who stayed behind that she never saw again. By being in this production, I feel like I’m telling some of her story. It’s a story shared by many, and one that needs to be told. I’m not sure that she’d be pleased that I portray Bessie Burgess, a Protestant character, given [Grandma’s] own devout Catholicism, but I think that part of the genius of O’Casey is his ability to give voice to all sides.
“Exploring the Irish dialect”
Kyra Baker as Rosie
O’Casey’s language allows me to connect with the world of the play—and with Rosie. There is much revealed about these characters through the way that the playwright has them communicate with one another. Act II showcases everyday people and their enthusiasm over the looming battle layered with their need to get through the struggles of everyday life. The research I have done has helped me to become more specific about who Rosie is, and what her relationships are to her surroundings, as well as the other characters.
“A never-dissipating black cloud of fear”
Dexter Anderson as Captain Brennan
The process of working on The Plough and the Stars has given me a renewed respect for Ireland as a nation. Having partial Irish ancestry on both sides of my family, Plough has shown me the (possible) plight of my ancestors, and ultimately the good fortune of my existence.
In 1916 Ireland, the infant mortality rate was grossly high, and civilians were getting shot in the streets of Dublin walking from Point A to Point B. There was a constant uneasiness, a never-dissipating black cloud of fear over the heads of the people.
My Irish grandmother told me stories of “the troubles”
Mark Knight as The Man in the Window
The Plough and the Stars reminds me of my youth. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She was born in the North of England of Irish parents. She taught me Irish songs and told me stories of “the troubles.”
To this day, my memories of my grandmother and Ireland are inextricable.
For this interview, originally published by Phindie, click here.