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Last Updated on June 13, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

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The Plough and the Stars is a four-act play. It was written by Seán O'Casey (Gaelic: Seán Ó Cathasaigh), an Irish playwright who was born on March 30, 1880, and died on September 18, 1964. He was a committed socialist and Irish Nationalist who was a political activist as well as a writer and whose work reflects his political ideas and interest in the lives of the Irish working classes.

The Plough and the Stars opened on February 8, 1926, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The Abbey Theatre was founded by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904 and was the leading Irish theater of the period.

The title The Plough and the Stars refers to the Starry Plough banner, a flag and symbol used by the Irish Citizen Army, of which O'Casey was a general secretary. The play was set during the 1916 Easter Rising, an important episode in the Irish struggle for independence from England.

The play portrays the lives of Jack and Nora Clitheroe and their associates and neighbors and how their lives are affected by the "Troubles" (the Irish conflict with England). Jack is a bricklayer and member of the Irish Citizen Army, while Nora is as much concerned with domesticity and striving for respectability as politics. As the momentum of the armed conflict escalates, one sees how it disrupts the lives of ordinary individuals.

In the first act, the audience encounters the ordinary life of the community, including Fluther Good installing a new lock on the Clitheroes' door and Mrs. Gogan delivering a a hatbox for Nora. Covey and Captain Brennan bring news marking the build-up of tension and calls to direct action that immediately precede the violence of the Easter Rising.

The second act takes place in a public house (tavern) where people are giving speeches and encouraging an armed uprising against the English. While many are enthusiastic, some are concerned about how this will disrupt ordinary life.

The third act takes place on Easter Monday and reflects the violence of the Rising and how the violence is not restricted to direct action against the British but involves widespread looting and danger to bystanders. In the fourth act, later in the Rising, Nora's baby is stillborn, Jack has been killed, and Bessie has been shot by accident. Although the play supports the cause of Irish independence, it also shows how the struggle devastates the lives of ordinary working Irish people.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168

Fluther Good has put a new lock on the door of the Clitheroes, and Mrs. Gogan brings in a hatbox, just delivered for Nora Clitheroe. Mrs. Gogan is convinced that Nora is putting on airs and buying too many new clothes to hold on to her husband. Nora’s uncle, Peter Flynn, drifts in and out, readying his uniform of the Irish National Foresters. Peter has a chip on his shoulder that all the tenement dwellers take turns knocking off. He is an ineffectual man and he knows it.

When the Covey, Nora’s cousin, comes in, telling them that he has been laid off from work because the boys have mobilized for a demonstration for independence, he arouses both Peter and Fluther. The Covey is less inclined to follow the flag of the Plough and the Stars than to go ahead with his work. Peter and the Covey are arguing away when Nora comes home and quiets them, declaring that there is small hope of ever making them respectable. She is pleased with the way Fluther had put on the lock, but Bessie Burgess, a vigorous but rather coarse woman, scornfully berates Nora for treating her neighbors shamefully, not trusting them. As Fluther breaks up the women’s wrangling, Jack Clitheroe comes home and sends Bessie away. He tells Nora that he will speak to Bessie when she is sober again.

Jack is despondent because the Citizen Army is to meet tonight. He had lost the rank of captain to Ned Brennan and, sulking, refuses to attend meetings. Wanting to be a leader, he does not have strength of leadership. Nora tries to get his mind off the meeting by making love to him. They are interrupted by Captain Brennan with a dispatch from the general telling Jack where to report. Jack does not understand why he is to report until Brennan tells him that the boys have given him the title of commandant, word of which is in a letter Nora had never delivered. Disturbed because Nora had withheld the letter, Jack goes to the meeting with Brennan.

Mollser Gogan, a child in the last stages of tuberculosis, asks Nora if she might stay with her, since everyone else has gone to the demonstration. Fluther and Peter, overwhelmed by the oratory of the speakers at the demonstration, go to a bar to pour in more courage. Even in the public house, the voice of the speaker follows them, urging bloodshed and war. Bessie and Mrs. Gogan are engaged in a verbal battle when they enter. Bessie, drunk, is ready for a hair-pulling, but the barman sends both women away. Peter is left holding Mrs. Gogan’s baby, as Mrs. Gogan forgets the child as she is piloted out of the bar. He hurries out to find her.

Fluther, though he had intended to give up drinking before the meeting, decides the time has come for all the liquor he can hold, and he is generous enough to stand treat, even to the Covey and Rosie, a prostitute. Fluther and the Covey get into an argument on the labor movement, and the barman has to separate them. Rosie and Fluther leave when Jack, Brennan, and other officers, their eyes shining with excitement, come in for a drink before moving off with the Citizen Army.

The next day, Mollser is so weak that Mrs. Gogan puts her out in the sun in front of the house; they can hear shooting in the distance. Looking for Jack, Nora and Fluther had spent the night going to all the barricades without finding him. When they come back to the house, Nora is leaning heavily on Fluther. Bessie shouts down curses from her window. The Covey sighs that the fight will do the poor people no good.

Bessie gives Mollser a mug of milk when she comes downstairs. The men begin to gamble to keep their minds off the shooting, but they stop when Bessie reappears, laden down with booty, to say that looting had begun in the shops. Fluther and the Covey leave immediately. The guns scare Mollser so much that Bessie takes her into the house. Even timid Peter starts to follow Bessie and Mrs. Gogan when they set out with a baby carriage to hold their loot, but the sound of the big guns again stops him. He is envious, however, when he sees the Covey, then Bessie and Mrs. Gogan, return with piles of loot.

Brennan and Jack stop at the steps to let a wounded comrade rest. It is with difficulty that Jack gets away from Nora, who had run down to him when she heard his voice. When the two officers finally take their man away, Nora is ready to faint.

Fluther comes back with a jug of whiskey. Roaring drunk, he is too fuddled to go out for a doctor for Mollser, who is suddenly very sick. Bessie, praying when she hears the guns, goes off toward the shooting to find a doctor.

A few days later the rebellion is still going on. Mollser has died, and Nora had a stillborn baby. Both bodies are in the same coffin in Bessie’s room, the only room in the tenement that seems safe from the shooting. Fluther, the Covey, and Peter, having taken refuge there, play cards to while away the time.

Nora is on the verge of insanity. Bessie has stayed up with her for three nights and is herself almost dead for sleep. Each time Bessie sits in the chair in front of the fireplace for a nap, Nora wakes up. Once, when Nora gets up, Brennan, in civilian clothes, is in the room telling the men how Jack had died. Nora does not recognize him. Brennan wants to stay with the others; he says there is nowhere to go any more. Corporal Stoddart, an English soldier, comes in to escort the coffin out of the house. Mrs. Gogan is the only one allowed to go with the coffin. As she is thanking Fluther for making the funeral arrangements, the soldier hears a sniper shoot another English soldier. The English, trying to find the sniper, are rounding up all the men in the district, and so Fluther, the Covey, Peter, and Brennan are forced to go with the corporal to spend the night in the Protestant church.

Bessie has again fallen asleep. Nora gets up to prepare tea for Jack. As she stands at the window looking for him, the soldiers below shout for her to go away. Bessie, awakened, tries to pull her back, but Nora struggles so hard that Bessie falls back against the window frame as she pushes Nora. Two shots, fired quickly, strike Bessie. She is dead before Mrs. Gogan comes home. Two English soldiers, investigating the room for snipers, find the mistake they had made in killing Bessie. They calmly pour themselves cups of tea while Mrs. Gogan takes Nora downstairs to put her into Mollser’s bed.

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