Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Isabella Augusta Persse is better known as Lady Gregory, friend and patron of William Butler Yeats and founder of the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre, where The Rising of the Moon was first staged on March 9, 1907. Persse married Sir William Gregory in 1880 and in doing so became the mistress of Coole Park, which she quickly made an important center of the Irish Literary Revival, inviting various writers such as Yeats, Synge, and O’Casey to stay there and draw inspiration from their surroundings. Like many of the major Irish writers born in the second half of the nineteenth century—Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, and Synge—Lady Gregory was part of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy. One might argue that this small class produced such a profusion of literary talent at least partly because their position was more precarious and anomalous than that of the aristocracy in most countries, forcing them to be unusually aware of and sensitive to their position and their surroundings. Aristocrats typically base their claim to superiority and power on the fact that they represent a patrician class, the original possessors of the land. The Anglo-Irish were interlopers in the country they ruled, still regarded by the Catholic majority as foreigners and oppressors.
Lady Gregory clearly came from a higher social class than the sergeant in The Rising of the Moon, but her dilemma was essentially the same. Was she English or Irish? Would she side with the landowners or the revolutionaries? Over the course of many years, she went through the process that takes the sergeant only a few minutes in her play, moving from Unionism to Republicanism and support for the Irish nationalist cause. In this sense, the sergeant stands as a proxy for the playwright, but her attitude toward him remains somewhat condescending. He is slow-witted and has to be led unconsciously into an attitude of Irish patriotism through the manipulation of the ragged man. When he wonders at the end of the play whether he has done the right thing, his concerns are not moral, but materialistic.
None of the characters in The Rising of the Moon are particularly complex. The play is best understood as a drama of ideas, with the central conversation between the two main characters operating along the lines of a Platonic dialogue, in which the philosopher leads their pupil to the truth. As one might expect of such a text, it is full of symbols, which is to say objects that stand for ideas. The barrel and the pipes symbolize conviviality, bringing the sergeant and the ragged man together. The songs symbolize both the revolutionary cause and its seductive poetry, which transports the sergeant back to his youth. The £100 reward represents the incentive for the policemen to do their job, which is financial rather than moral. The sergeant’s belt and tunic, upon which the ragged man remarks, are symbols of his authority as a representative of the law and also of the constraints placed upon him by this role. The ragged man’s hat and wig symbolize the subterfuges he must adopt in order to survive.
Perhaps the most puzzling symbol in the play is the lantern. It would be natural for this to represent hope or enlightenment, but to argue this is to impose upon it a purpose which it does not serve within the play. The two policemen take it with them when they leave the sergeant to put up the notices, meaning that it is absent while the sergeant is having his illuminating discussion with the ragged man. At the end of the play,...
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Policeman B almost discovers the fugitive with the lantern as he flashes it on the barrel, then offers it twice to the sergeant, who refuses, the second time furiously telling his subordinates to leave and take the lantern with them.
The lantern, therefore, always accompanies the two policemen and is offstage whenever the sergeant is alone with the ragged man, when they are bathed in pale moonlight. The lantern is artificial, harsh, and bright. It represents the search for the fugitive, which is being imposed against the will of the people on a land where he is widely hailed as a hero. The light of the lantern is therefore in direct opposition to the softer, natural light cast by the rising of the moon. The softness of this light reflects the way in which the ragged man gains his objective and converts the sergeant to the nationalist cause, not with violence, as Wolfe Tone did, or even with argument, but with nostalgia for the songs of his youth.