History From the Margins: UMS is bringing Druid Theatre's productions of Sean O’Casey’s "Dublin Trilogy" to the Power Center


The Plough and the Stars

Jack Clitheroe (Aaron Monaghan) throws up his big brown jug in the Druid Theatre's production of The Plough and the Stars. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

“The whole world’s in a terrible state of chassis!”
—Captain Boyle
Juno and the Paycock

In 1916 a large part of the world was in chaos and crisis. World War I was tearing Europe apart, and in Ireland, the leaders of anti-British forces saw an opportunity to rise against a pre-occupied British government and attempt to finally drive the British government from Ireland.

The deadly events of what is remembered as the Easter Rising were the beginning of a violent eight-year period that would in time free Ireland from British rule but at a high cost. Following the Rising, a war of independence began, ending with a treaty to give Ireland Free State status while still bonded to Britain. That treaty led to a civil war pitting defenders of the treaty against those who believed the treaty was a betrayal.  

Playwright Sean O’Casey grew up in the tenements of Dublin. He was a self-taught reader, a laborer, a railway worker, and eventually, a writer with a keen ear for the language of his native city. In the 1920s, he created three plays that covered the period from the Easter Rising to the Civil War. Each play centers on the lives of tenement dwellers in the Irish capital who become caught up in the frenzy and frustration of the long-running domestic war. O’Casey’s plays are both comic and tragic as well as deeply humane.

The University Musical Society (UMS) is presenting the Druid Theatre’s production of O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy, under the direction of Druid founder and artistic director Garry Hynes, October 18-21. The Galway-based theater company is bringing the play to New York City and Ann Arbor only. 

Hynes was artistic director for Druid Theatre from 1975 to 1991 and again from 1995 to the present. From 1991 to 1994, she was the artistic director of the famed Abbey Theatre, where many of O’Casey’s plays premiered.

In a telephone interview, Hynes said O’Casey’s trilogy is about the working people of Dublin living in the tenements.

“The plays are about the people on the margin and not the people who were central to the events like Padraic Pearse or any of the leaders—effectively, poor people on the margins of those events,” she said. “But at the same time, they are a remarkable dramatization of the significant events that led to violence and that led to the formation of the Irish state. I don’t quite know an equivalent, certainly in any other country, that’s told not directly at the center of the events.”

Each of the three plays is set in a crucial point of the Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War. The plays will be presented individually in chronological order of the historic events on October 18-20. On October 21, the three plays can be experienced in a daylong marathon. Individual tickets will be available for each play.

The Plough and the Stars

Jack Clitheroe (Aaron Monaghan) in the Druid Theatre's production of The Plough and the Stars. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

The series begins October 18 with The Plough and the Stars, set in 1915 and during the turmoil of the Easter Rising in 1916. In an overcrowded tenement, the residents argue, gossip, and show umbrage at the highfalutin’ pretensions of others. A young wife is accused of putting on airs. Her husband, a bricklayer and nervous commandant in the Irish Citizens Army, is awaiting orders to begin the rising. Later his courage is tested. The loyalties of the residents are always a bit tentative. There is rich humor in the grumbling, complaining, and boasting, but the stakes are high for the residents and all of Ireland.

The Plough and the Stars created a sensation early in its run at the Abbey with audiences supposedly outraged by O’Casey’s portrayal of honest working people. They set off a riot. A similar show of outrage accompanied J.M. Singe’s Playboy of the Western World 20 years earlier. 

But Hynes thinks the “riot” at The Plough and the Stars may have been staged.

“The Abbey had been founded as part of their culture of the time,” she said. “It was the literary and political turmoil of the times on which the Abbey was originally founded.” 

She said O’Casey wasn’t fazed by the event.

“I doubt any writer would write plays that he would want people to walk out on,” she said. “There is certainly evidence that the riots were staged as part of a political event. It wasn’t some sort of taking over by people watching the play at the time. This was an exercise in turmoil and was recognized in the theater of the time.”

In dealing with the events of the Easter Rising, O’Casey had strong reservations.

“O’Casey’s attitude to those events is pretty aptly summed up by one of his characters—indeed, there's one character who bears very close resemblance to Sean O’Casey himself and that’s Covey, who says when talking about the rebels, ‘If they were fighting about anything worthwhile, I wouldn’t mind.’”

Covey is a young man with strong Marxist views who hopes for economic justice and scorns the politics of the Rising.

O’Casey had been one of the leaders of the Irish Citizens Army but he didn’t agree with the uprising.

“O’Casey’s problem was that it was doing nothing to improve the lives of the people. That may have been changing during the independence fight and the free state and everything, but not the Rising—nothing the people needed like transportation and health services,” she said. “It was a time when the poor infant mortality at the time was higher in Ireland than in any other country in the world. That’s what obsessed O’Casey.”

The Shadow of a Gunman

Marty Rea and Rory Nolan in the Druid Theatre’s production The Shadow of a Gunman as part of the 2023 Galway International Arts Festival. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

On October 19, the play is The Shadow of a Gunman, the shortest of the three works. A struggling poet shares a tenement room with a ne’er do well. The poet is mistaken for an Irish Republican Army gunman by a pretty young woman and others in the neighborhood who admire his gunman style. The poet embraces the mistaken celebrity, but things get dangerous when a real IRA gunman comes calling. 

Druid will present, arguably, the most famous play of the trilogy, Juno and the Paycock, on October 20. Juno Boyle is a hard-working, compassionate woman with a shiftless, often inebriated, and much older husband—the paycock (peacock) of the title—called the Captain. He and his equally lazy friend Joxer search for ways to avoid work. Juno struggles to deal with the problems of her two young adult children, both victims of the war in different ways. A promise of an inheritance that never came and the ongoing civil war put severe stress on the poverty-stricken family. The play is notable for its rich humor and its stunning shifts in tone.

Bringing these plays to the United States, with a company of 18 actors, is a major undertaking.

“The Druid has been doing theater of this kind since 2005 and we’ve done many plays like this,” Hynes said. “We started with all of the plays of John Millington Singe and we did plays of Tom Murphy, Shakespeare, and now, O’Casey. So we developed a set of resources, skills, and a team who has experience in doing this.”

One way to handle such an undertaking is to keep things simple. Hynes said the tenements in Georgian houses were noted for their elaborate though aging 18th-century decoration.

“We decided that’s not what we wanted for the plays and we have sets much more plain. It’s not about the decor and, basically, our attention has been to give the actors a space to come to life with the characters,” Hynes said. “The characters that are created, so extraordinary, should be full of life and what you want is an environment that supports the actor and supports the writer and not the decor that gives you a lesson in how people decorated their houses in 1904 or 5. It’s a conscious theatrical setting made up of flats.”

In 2011 Hynes brought Martin McDonough’s The Cripple of Inishmaan to Ann Arbor. When asked how different it was dealing with the plays of the two playwrights, she allowed that one difference is that one is still alive and the other isn’t.

“I didn’t have an opportunity to have conversations with Sean O’Casey like I had with Martin McDonough and I think the plays are very different,” she said. “I think that in a way O’Casey is a stranger writer than people give him credit for. He wrote these plays at a very particular time, between the Victorian music hall theater, which he would have experienced as a child, and the naturalistic theater of Ibsen and his contemporaries. I think that in the way that he wrote and the theater he created, he had a very particular way of writing that I don’t think anybody has matched quite since.”

While playgoers have the option of seeing the plays individually, Hynes said seeing them all in one day with breaks in between is a richer experience.

“I understand why some people don’t want to see three plays in the same day, but I think that seeing in the order of events, they provide a narrative of those important years from 1915 to 1923,” she said. “You can hear the echoes. I believe the plays haunt each other and you can hear the echoes of the plays within each other and experience them and also experience historical events. If someone is asking for my advice, if you can, you should try to see them all.”

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

The University Musical Society will present the Druid Theatre production of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy at The Power Center: The Plough and the Stars at 7:30 pm on Wednesday, October 18, and 1 pm on Saturday, October 21; The Shadow of a Gunman at 7:30 pm on Thursday, October 19, and 4:30 pm on Saturday, October 21; Juno and the Paycock at 7:30 pm on Friday, October 20, and 8 pm on Saturday, October 21. For tickets: ums.org, call 734-764-2538, email umstix@umich.edu, or visit the UMS ticket office at the Burton Memorial Tower, 881 North University Ave., Ann Arbor.