Analysis

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Last Updated on June 13, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

Seán O’Casey’s play is a satire of the patriotic feelings prevalent during the early years of the Irish Republic, a satire that illuminates a series of contradictions within Irish society and the nationalist movement. The first of these to become evident is the gulf between wealth and poverty, namely between...

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Seán O’Casey’s play is a satire of the patriotic feelings prevalent during the early years of the Irish Republic, a satire that illuminates a series of contradictions within Irish society and the nationalist movement. The first of these to become evident is the gulf between wealth and poverty, namely between the affluent appearance of the Clitheroe apartment, with its fireplace and high windows, and the squalor of their neighbor Bessie’s lodgings. This disparity is emphasized by how closely these realities coexist, with the aspiring Nora Clitheroe lavishing care on the ill and impoverished child of her neighbor Mrs. Gogan and receiving care in turn from the woman whom she and her husband thought of as course and uncivilized. The closeness between wealth and poverty as represented in this play perhaps reflects O’Casey’s notion of the Irish working classes as a close community, united by common interests and aspirations.

O’Casey, however—though a committed socialist and a supporter of Irish independence—is far from an idealist, as indicated by how he contrasts the lofty aspirations of the Irish Citizen Army with the more human aspects of life in the Dublin slums. The timidity of Uncle Peter, the readiness of Fluther and the Covey to loot the shops, and Nora’s use of sex to distract her partner from his obligations to the ICA also speak to the “plough” rather than “the stars,” to the lower instincts that, for O’Casey, were a part of any human society. He goes so far as to portray the ideals of the Irish revolution, characterized by the voice of Pierce, as an intruder that pursues Peter into the public house, a space symbolic both of vice and of community in Irish society.

The satirical view O’Casey takes toward the revolution and the Easter Rising in particular can be viewed as pessimistic in that the play’s most noble characters—Nora with her readiness to care and sacrifice for the dying child, and Bessie with her dedication to Nora—are those who suffer the most in the play, while less virtuous characters such as Fluther and the Covey come out materially better off. The play might even be accused of mocking the revolution by situating characters like “The Figure In The Window,” who is symbolic of Irish nationalism, in the same scene as Rosie the prostitute. The Plough and the Stars received scathing criticism following its first showing in Dublin in 1926, with many in the nationalist movement accusing O’Casey of disrespecting those who had given their lives for Irish patriotism. Nevertheless, The Plough and the Stars remains a classic—one in strength and compassion on a human scale are valued above vague revolutionary rhetoric.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 274

Clitheroe apartment

Clitheroe apartment. Two-room apartment of Jack and Nora Clitheroe in an aging Georgian house in a Dublin slum. The place bears the marks of self-conscious gentility, with lofty windows, a fireplace painted to resemble marble, prints on the walls, and delftware decorations. Together these amenities suggest “an attempt toward a finer expression of domestic life” and represent Nora’s aspirations for domestic tranquility.

Public house

Public house. Bar in which the tenement’s inhabitants encounter Dublin’s street life. The place is defined by a large counter, central window, and comfortable booths where patrons engage in barbed conversation. As armchair patriots debate bromides, the voice of an anonymous patriot drifts in from outside. The voice is that of Padraig Pearse, who is delivering an oration on the steps of the General Post Office which proclaimed Ireland’s independence and inaugurated the Easter Uprising. These words are a dramatic counterpoint to the vapidities of the bar’s customers.

Bessie Burgess’s room

Bessie Burgess’s room. Apartment in the Clitheroe building in which another tenant lives. This home, with its “unmistakable air of poverty bordering on destitution,” stands in stark contrast to the Clitheroes’ place. Burgess is hosting a wake for the dead child of another tenant. Once again the actions on the barricaded streets inform life in the building as soldiers battle and a stray bullet kills Burgess.

Sean O’Casey’s Dublin reveals the hard reality of the slums which nurtured him and the desire for national independence. The contrasting idealism of the Clitheroe home and the grimness of Burgess’s apartment underscore the author’s divided attitudes toward Irish patriotism.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208

Ayling, Ronald. Sean O’Casey: Modern Judgments. Nashville, Tenn.: Aurora Press, 1970. Includes valuable comments on The Plough and the Stars. Considerations of O’Casey’s poetic gifts, his use of symbols, his socialism, and his place in the Irish Dramatic Movement.

Hogan, Robert. The Experiments of Sean O’Casey. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1960. A refreshing synthesis of dramatic theory and theatrical practice. Argues that in his Dublin trilogy O’Casey is expanding his technical capacities, and that The Plough is a stage in his continuing experimentation.

Kilroy, Thomas, ed. Sean O’Casey: A Collection of Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. An excellent selection from leading Irish, British, and American O’Casey critics, discussing his politics, dramatic technique, and development. Represents disagreements about O’Casey’s achievement as a political dramatist.

Krause, David. Sean O’Casey: The Man and His Work. New York: Macmillan, 1975. The best study of O’Casey’s dramatic work. Describes the economic, political, and religious tensions in the Dublin of his time.

Sean O’Casey Review 3 (Spring, 1976). Special issue on The Plough and the Stars. Valuable essays on the first production, O’Casey’s realism and pacifism, socialism, the historical background, the O’Casey-Pearse relationship, and Bessie Burgess as Cathleen Ni Houlihan.

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