Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 793
Lady Augusta Gregory’s contribution to the Irish Literary Renaissance was twofold: cofounding the Abbey Theatre with William Butler Yeats and writing what became the Abbey’s most popular plays, including The Rising of the Moon. Most of her drama featured Irish peasants and was not overtly political; she insisted that she was not promoting political rebellion with this play. Nevertheless, in 1907, when the play was first performed, many Irish knew the popular old ballad “The Rising of the Moon,” in which the ascending moon is a signal for “rising,” or rebellion. Lady Gregory’s sympathies were with the people of Ireland. She was, however, adamantly against violence. She sympathized with Irish calls for independence from English rule, but she chose not to join the more strident Irish voices. Her chosen form of political statement was to highlight Irish language and customs. She was convinced that if the English saw the true Gaelic soul, they would sympathize with the desire of the Irish to rule themselves. In this play, the rebel’s cleverness is depicted, not his crimes.
As in other Gregory plays, the dialogue evokes native Irish rhythms and lore. The Ragged Man and the Sergeant share Irish speech and knowledge of old sentimental and patriotic songs, a feature of nearly all Gregory plays. Granuaile, the bound and wailing old woman in the song the Ragged Man sings, is a symbol for suffering Ireland. The line the Ragged Man leaves out and that the Sergeant furnishes is the most agonizing of all: “Her gown she wore was stained with gore.” This reference to Irish martyrs would not have been lost on Lady Gregory’s audience. In fact, when reviewers suspected that the play was a patriotic statement even though Lady Gregory denied it, the Dublin police force took back the uniforms it had previously lent to the drama company as costumes.
In The Rising of the Moon, moonlight plays an important role. Having given their only lantern to his deputies, the Sergeant is at a disadvantage in the dim moonlight. He cannot see clearly. Also, the dimness helps the Ragged Man enhance his frightening stories of the rebel’s past violence to police officers. The moonlight inspires the Sergeant’s reveries and weakens his sense of duty to the British authorities. At the end, when the Sergeant refuses the lantern, he is left alone in the moonlight puzzling over his identity—as an upholder of the law or as an Irish sympathizer.
The fugitive’s cleverness precedes his entrance onstage, as the police officers recall that he is the head of the rebel organization and that he probably won sympathy and assistance from his jailers. This foreshadows the rest of the play. The Ragged Man cleverly wins sympathy from his would-be captor. He sets his trap for the Sergeant’s heart once it is clear that the officer will not let him pass to the water. First, he sings “Johnny Hart,” a romantic song about two lovers forbidden to marry. The sad song creates a melancholy mood and convinces the officer that the man is, indeed, a balladeer. Next, he intrigues the Sergeant into needing him by saying that he knows the escapee personally.
Craftily, the man paints a deadly picture of the powerful fugitive to frighten the Sergeant into wanting company. Then he shows sympathy for the Sergeant’s weariness and suggests they share a seat on the barrel. As they sit back-to-back, the Sergeant cannot compare the man’s face to that on the poster, but their bodies share space and a friendly pipe. The man pretends to be so frightened that he needs to sing a forbidden Irish political ballad, then tricks the Sergeant into revealing his knowledge of the patriotic song. He springs the trap with his assertion that the Sergeant himself harbored Irish sympathies years before and constructs a scenario of the Sergeant’s being part of a rebel group had fate not intervened. Caught, the Sergeant admits the possibility. Startled by the arriving rescue boat, however, he snaps into his uniformed role and acts as protector of the law.
As his fellow officers approach with the lantern the Sergeant must choose between his admitted rebel sympathies and his official duty, which promises rewards. Refusing the lantern and sending the other men away to protect the escaping fugitive, the Sergeant is unsure that he has made the right choice after all. He loses money, promotion, and recognition for himself and his family. The audience is left with admiration for the Ragged Man’s successful strategy as well as sympathy for the officer who had two legitimate but conflicting loyalties. The brief play voices its author’s political message: concern for the human dimensions of a complicated conflict.