Critical Evaluation

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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 955 words.)

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