The Plough and the Stars Essay - Critical Essays

Sean O'Casey

Critical Evaluation

Sean O’Casey’s bitter childhood and early adulthood help account for his adherence to the Marxist idea of class war. He believed that the Irish would have to reckon with the problem of Irish poverty before they could ever hope to win independence. It is with this problem of some poor people caught in the middle of the famous Easter Rebellion of 1916 that O’Casey deals in The Plough and the Stars. In the play, the desperate situation of a group of tenement dwellers overshadows the dream of national independence. The Covey seems always to give O’Casey’s own views on humanity versus nationality. The play was the cause of a patriotic riot when it was first produced by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

The Plough and the Stars is the last of O’Casey’s realistic plays about the Irish Civil War and, along with Juno and the Paycock (1924), represents the high point of his artistic achievement. Although it may lack the depth of characterization present in Juno and the Paycock, it probably has a greater theatrical impact. Juxtaposing scenes of the most intense pain and violence against moments of earthy, vital humor, O’Casey succeeds in capturing and dramatizing both the folly and the heroism of this Irish national tragedy.

The play is set during the Easter Uprising of 1916, when extremists proclaimed an Irish Republic and seized the Dublin General Post Office. A short, bloody struggle ensued and ravaged most of the city for several days before the nationalists surrendered. The Plough and the Stars describes the impact of these events on the inhabitants of a single tenement dwelling, which, because of O’Casey’s careful selection of characters and conflicts, becomes a microcosm of Dublin at war.

The play’s title points to many of its themes. On one level the title refers to the flag of the Citizen Army, a leftist labor movement that was one of the two groups sponsoring the uprising. Thus, O’Casey specifically identifies himself with the radical workers rather than with the ardent nationalists. On a more symbolic level, however, the flag suggests a conflict—the “plough” versus “the stars”; that is, the practical realities of poverty and human relationships versus the abstract ideal of pure nationalism. While O’Casey admired the courage and...

(The entire section is 955 words.)