Sean O’Casey’s play “The Silver Tassie” will grow in significance in the years ahead because it is a mirror that is now being held up to modern Ireland—a country which, like the crippled hero of the piece, can no longer cope with platitudes and half-truths, but which has also lost faith in its former causes.
The Great War in Ireland has always been controversial. Sean O’Casey must have known this as he was writing the play The Silver Tassie.
In the late 1920s, the Great War was as recent to his contemporaries as the Afghanistan conflict is to us. Families still felt their loss, old soldiers—or those not so old—homeless or maimed, or both, still hung around streets begging. But Ireland was as emotionally divided by the war then as she had been united in her willingness to participate at its commencement. In the Protestant North, it was, and became even more so, a symbol of her blood sacrifice for the British Crown. Remembered in parades and monuments, the conflict passed quickly from history to mythology. The opposite was true in the newly independent Irish Free State. A jurisdiction whose selective history now started in 1916—not at the killing fields of the Somme but instead on the streets of a Dublin in revolt. The fact that many more Irishmen had joined the British Army in 1914 than had fought in the 1916 Easter Rising was hastily forgotten. The fact that the Home Rule Party had encouraged this earlier enlisting, as a sign of Ireland’s willingness to protect the sovereignty of small nations, was now to be conveniently overlooked. And, with the passing years, as the Irish border and its divisions hardened, so too did a sense of collective amnesia on both sides of it. Perhaps, it is no surprise, therefore, that The Silver Tassie, in Ireland at least, was to become one of O’Casey’s least-known and rarely- performed plays.
The play’s initial rejection by the Abbey Theatre in 1927 may have had something to do with the politicization of the war’s legacy. The Abbey had only recently been awarded a State subsidy. And, as a consequence, there were now several members of the new Free State government on the board of directors. What is beyond dispute, however, is that on receiving the play, with O’Casey so confident of its acceptance that he had sent through a cast list, W.B. Yeats, the Abbey’s founder, rejected it outright, thereby consigning the play to a cultural limbo, and one to which it has never fully recovered.
Today, one is struck by how daring The Silver Tassie is. More a part of the then-Modernist-European trends in the theatre of the time rather than simply an Irish play. In fact, the staging and intricacies of plot and scene, combined with the sharply delineated tones to each act, place it in the then-avant-garde. O’Casey, by now permanently domiciled in England, sidestepped the more obvious national question: Was the Great War a foreign war, or an Irish one? Instead, he chose to see its reality—a war that the Irish suffered in and through, and, thus, one that had a profound effect on the lives of those in the tenements he knew and of whom he was to write. His other works had, in any event, covered Ireland’s troubled period of 1916-21, and so he felt freer now to explore the war’s other, more universal, themes.
And what were these themes? In 1929, when The Silver Tassie finally premiered in London, it followed on from R.C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End. Two plays on the same subject, both with a horror of what had taken place, if coming from very different perspectives: a middle-class English one and the other from a decidedly proletariat Dublin. For many Dubliners, as was the case throughout towns and cities across the British Isles, at least at its beginning, the war represented a romantic, even glamorous, escape from poverty. O’Casey references this with the bands and the noise, and the affected camaraderie that accompanies men going off to war, which is in stark contrast to the bleak poverty they leave behind. The brutality of life in wartime Dublin was in effect little different from what preceded it, if only that some of those doing the brutalizing had now left for the trenches. In the end, a despairing scenario for all concerned: The women were left to fend for themselves and their families; the men were cheered off into what would become industrial carnage.
Act II of The Silver Tassie lays bare the reality of the Front: squalid, tedious, and dangerous, with the pretense of order breaking down all around as death, only a shell or bullet away, creeps ever closer. At this point, a recent London production used noise to terrific effect. The bangs and crashes impact was noticeable. It rattled the audience. It was but a brief taste of what it must have been like day after day, night after night, for men at the Front. Embedded in this act, along with this auditory dislocation, was a pronounced sense of stasis. The men are stuck, hemmed in by war on all sides, simply there to await death—the effect is stifling.
The last two Acts give little by way of relief from this sense, as the story transfers to a hospital ward filled with the wounded. Here the earlier fear has transmuted into despair—the main protagonist, Heegan, now lies crippled. The one-time football hero faces life without hope. He watches as another takes his sweetheart as he is, in turn, watched over by impassive hospital staff while being fed platitudes by indifferent friends and family. At this point, the play is unremitting in forcing the audience to face death and decay in all its manifestations. If the first and second Acts speak of the fear of death then the rest of the play is full of bitterness with life: bitter at the loss of virility, of status, of place and, ultimately, of a future.
In relation to those who had lived through the Great War, the most oft-repeated refrain was that they never talked about it. Looking at The Silver Tassie it is easy to understand why. It was a bloody mess that solved little and left behind a legacy of suffering for generations to come.
It is for these reasons that I suspect The Silver Tassie will grow in significance in the years ahead, not just as a piece of theatre, as much of its time as for all times, but also because it is a mirror that is now being held up to modern Ireland—a country which, like the crippled hero of the piece, can no longer cope with platitudes and half-truths, but which has also lost faith in its former causes.
So there is a particularly contemporary relevance to that final haunting scene with its dance of death, a symbolic reference to all that has gone before for the play’s characters and for the nation they represent. It is also a prophetic warning: Those who refuse to acknowledge the past will never learn its lessons.
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