The Rising of the Moon

by Isabella Augusta Persse

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In The Rising of the Moon, what is the play's theme?

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One of the main themes of The Rising of the Moon is the subversion of national identity by colonialism. In the play, the Sergeant has subverted his own Irish identity in order to enforce British colonial rule as a police officer. The Ragged Man reminds him of this lost identity by singing the Irish nationalist ballad of Granuaile.

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This play by Lady Gregory explores the theme of loyalty and betrayal. The police sergeant is placed with the difficult decision of whether he should be loyal to England, as his job obligates him to be, or to the Irish republic that challenges English rule. This theme is gradually revealed to the audience, which initially believes that the sergeant’s goal is to apprehend the escaped prisoner and earn the monetary benefit of the attached reward. The two men are presented as antagonists before they even meet. When he does meet the escapee, he does not know it, as the ragged man offers assistance. As they converse, the sergeant develops a rapport with him, in part through his singing. An important element that helps bring them together is their fondness for the same song.

As the play develops, therefore, the audience learns that the sergeant is loyal to the sentiments the song expresses: Irish independence. Because of his Irish heritage, he cannot bring himself to turn in the escapee. The cost of doing so would be far greater than that of forfeiting the reward. It would be a spiritual price that he decides is too high. Loyalty to the Irish cause wins out, which forces him to turn away from his avowed obligation to the English rulers.

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The Rising of the Moon is a play written by Isabella Augusta Persse which centers on three Irish police officers who serve the occupying English government and one escaped political prisoner who is loyal to the Irish nationalists. The play opens with the three police officers hanging wanted posters which describe the 100-pound reward for the fugitive.

The Sergeant, suspecting the fugitive will try to escape via the sea, waits at the wharf while the other two police officers continue hanging posters. Soon, a man in rags claiming to be a ballad singer approaches the wharf, and the Sergeant orders him to leave by way of the town, as he expects the prisoner. The man in rags looks at the wanted poster and reveals information about the fugitive which forces the Sergeant to keep him close. The man in rags sings rebel songs, which launches a discussion in which it is revealed that the Sergeant was at one point partial to the Irish cause.

When a passing ship responds to the man in rags, it is revealed that the man in rags is the prisoner, and eventually the Sergeant lets him escape without capturing him.

The major theme of the play is identity. The characters' identities are immediately introduced as that of police sergeant and fugitive, which seem to be inherently good and inherently bad, respectively. However, once the Sergeant and the fugitive are able to connect through conversation, they realize they share their Irish identity, which ultimately supersedes their identities as sergeant and criminal.

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One of the themes of the play is the subversion of national identity by colonialism. The Sergeant, no less than the escaped rebel he hopes to recapture, is a proud Irishman. However, unlike the rebel, he has chosen to suppress his identity as an Irishman in the service of British colonial rule.

The Sergeant's work as a police officer has severed him from his cultural roots. This is illustrated in the scene when the Ragged Man starts singing an old nationalist ballad about an Irish martyr called Granuaile. The Sergeant stops the man from singing the song as he considers the lyrics to be dangerously subversive, especially at a time of heightened tensions between Britain and Ireland. The suggestion here is that the Sergeant's lost touch with his cultural heritage; he thinks and acts like a policeman, a colonial functionary, not as an Irishman. Once upon a time, the Sergeant used to sing such ballads himself, but not anymore. He's internalized British colonial rule to such an extent that he no longer knows who he really is.

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Interestingly, the author of this play wrote a number of plays featuring Irish peasants, but she herself insisted that these were not overtly political works, but the title refers to a popular Irish ballad where the "rising" of the moon refers to the "rising" of the powers in revolt, which contradicts her so-called peaceful intentions in writing this play. Clearly, this play acts as a pageant of all the sorrows that Ireland suffered thanks to English rule. Note the high number of traditional Irish ballads that are shared by the Ragged Man and the Sergeant. In particular, the play draws attention explicitly to one such song, where Granuaile, the old and suffering woman in the ballad, is a symbol of Ireland. The Ragged Man omits the last line of this song, which the Sergeant fills in for him: "Her gown she wore was stained with gore." Such an obvious reference to Irish martyrs and those who had shed blood as a result of resisting English rule certainly led to the authorities believing this was a subversive work.

Such a backdrop to this play highlights its theme of individual choice in response to political realities. The character of the Sergeant is key in this respect: as the moonlight impacts his character, he is forced to consider his identity as an officer in the pay of the English or an Irish sympathiser. The play suggests that there is no middle road, and you either stand with the oppressors or against them. The way in which the Sergeant is left by himself at the end of the play, puzzling over who he is, supports this theme of personal responsibility in the face of armed rule.

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