Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 955
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 dedication of the rebels, he felt that their fanatical actions at best attacked only superficial evils and at worst are suicidal, unleashing forces that destroyed not only the insurrectionists but also large numbers of innocent people caught up in the resulting violence. The ways in which impersonal, abstract ideals can destroy human relationships, a major theme in O’Casey’s previous plays, reaches its fullest statement in The Plough and the Stars.
This theme is illustrated in the play’s first act in the dispute between newlyweds Jack and Nora Clitheroe. In spite of her social and cultural pretensions, Nora is the embodiment of domesticity, valuing only her husband, her home, and her family to be. She can understand neither Jack’s devotion to a political cause nor his apparent taste for the military style; she fears only his injury or death and is willing to deceive him to keep him out of combat. For his part, Jack seems deeply, if sentimentally, in love with Nora, and at times he is tempted to accede to her desires, but his commitment is too strong. He and his comrades are caught up in the fervor of the times.
O’Casey makes the audience wonder, however, how much of that commitment is dedication, how much is ego, and, when the fighting becomes intense, how much is fear of being thought a coward. The outcome of the domestic conflict is predictable: Jack is killed in combat and Nora, too delicate to stand the pressure, goes insane. Others are not so weak. If O’Casey’s vision does not spare those who bring havoc on themselves and their loved ones, he also pays homage to those victims who are forced by circumstance to assume the burdens. Frequently, those who seem the least promising become, under pressure, the most heroic.
Fluther Good behaves like an amiable drunk during most of the play and is quick to loot liquor stores when given the opportunity. When Mollser Gogan dies and Nora has her breakdown, however, Fluther braves bullets and arrest to bring aid and comfort. Bessie Burgess, the lone English partisan in the tenement, seems ill-tempered and bigoted in the early parts of the play, deriding Nora and fighting constantly with Mrs. Gogan, another querulous woman. Yet, in the last act, it is Bessie who ministers to the dying Mollser and the mad Nora, finally sacrificing her life trying to shield the girl from sniper fire. Her rival, Mrs. Gogan, assumes the burdens after Bessie dies.
Bessie and Mrs. Gogan, like Juno in the earlier play, represent the strength of an Ireland torn to pieces by civil war. They do what they can—and must—to keep the continuity of life intact while the men, with their abstract notions of nationalism, heroism, and manhood, destroy. While the fighting rages, young Mollser dies of tuberculosis because there is no one available to help her. Mollser is O’Casey’s symbol for the real Irish situation: poverty and neglect are the real evils, and until they are dealt with, the question of nationalism is largely irrelevant. As long as the Jack Clitheroes and the Brennans can be stirred up to violence by the demagogic appeals of the “Voice,” these problems will continue to be ignored. However, as long as Ireland is capable of producing people like Bessie Burgess, Mrs. Gogan, and Fluther Good, O’Casey suggests that there is hope.