In theme, structure, and dialogue, The Rising of the Moon is typical of the series of brief, one-act plays which were presented as curtain-raisers in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin during its celebrated early years, which date from its foundation in 1904 to the attainment of Irish independence and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. A large number of these plays, and almost all those that may be considered artistically successful within their obviously prescribed format, were written by Lady Augusta Gregory. The years in question are celebrated for having inaugurated a new kind of dramaturgy in English, for the discovery of a new generation of Irish playwrights (most notably John Millington Synge), and for making a significant contribution to cultural consciousness and cultural self-respect in Ireland at that time. Lady Gregory made artistic as well as practical contributions to these events, though her managerial skills and moral support meant more to the Abbey Theatre’s survival than her dramatic works.
Although The Rising of the Moon is not in the first rank of the theater’s plays, it does focus attention on the wider world that the theater was addressing and on the Abbey Theatre’s sense of its own importance. The play’s sketchiness, while dramatically limiting, underscores the representation of political activism as an area of stark choices and difficult compromises. Rather than having a plot as such, The Rising of the Moon derives its dramatic impact from a rhetorical conflict which represents mind-sets and forms of discourse in opposition. Although, strictly speaking, the generalized revolutionary sentiments which the Man expresses date from the years before the Abbey Theatre came into being, they denote an idealized sense of risk and suffering which the Man is willing to undertake for the common good. The Sergeant, on the other hand, appears in the service of an opposing dispensation, which seeks to criminalize the Man. The brief progress of the play clarifies and intensifies the character of this opposition between not only the two characters but also two versions of Ireland’s political and cultural destiny.
The play’s title is that of a well-known ballad, the second such song that the Man sings in the play. In this ballad, the rising of the moon coincides with the rising of the Irish people’s hopes for revolutionary success. The lack of historical specificity, the identification of the characters through titles and common rather than proper names, and the folkloric associations of the play’s title all make The Rising of the Moon an illuminating example of the type of generic play that Lady Gregory in effect invented. Referred to as folk plays because of the simplicity of their staging, the skeletal nature of their plot, and their recuperation of populist, if not necessarily popular, political sentiments, these plays convey a series of tableaux based on various purported truisms of the mind-set of ordinary people. In The Rising of the Moon, the conflict between such considerations—as freedom and responsibility, the uniform and the disguise, the Sergeant’s cupidity and the Man’s rhetoric, the tradition of the law and the tradition of the outlaw—may be seen as the dramatic equivalent of a genre painting. Its truth to life may be thought at odds with its vitality.
As in the case of many social and cultural transfers of power, women played a substantial role in enacting and supporting the artistic and political changes which took place in Ireland during the first two decades of the twentieth century. As actresses, activists, ideologues, and combatants, their roles were identical to those of their male counterparts. Lady Augusta Gregory’s career may be construed as an embodiment of the changes in women’s commitment during the heyday of what...
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- Critical Essays