Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

The Silver Tassie is an uncompromising antiwar play, focusing on the tragic wound of Harry Heegan, a common soldier who goes to war as mindlessly as he goes to a football match. Sean O’Casey concentrates so intensely on his theme that one wonders how William Butler Yeats or anyone else could have considered the play to lack unity, although this was one of the alleged reasons for Yeats’s rejection of the play when O’Casey offered it to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

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The four acts all show the folly of Harry’s involvement in World War I. In act 1, the play presents Harry in the prime of life, as an athletic hero at the peak of his strength, though completely unaware of the possibilities and values of life. Act 2, a controversial experiment with expressionist and symbolic theater, shows the cynicism and despair of the common soldier at the front lines. Act 3 portrays the bitterness of the veterans in a veterans’ hospital, and act 4 contrasts the grim plight of the disabled Harry Heegan with the vitality of those who were not combatants and have normal lives and futures to anticipate. In its study of Harry’s loss of many of his life’s hopes during and after the war, the play is quite unusual: Few modern dramas cover such an extended period of time. The constant reiteration of the antiwar theme is obvious.

Had Harry been portrayed as a more thoughtful man, his disabling wound and the loss of a normal life might have been considered tragic. However, even when Harry’s lack of self-awareness is taken into account, The Silver Tassie is a strong work, more tragic than comic. The antiwar theme is not confined to Harry’s experience: The effects of the war on Teddy Foran and on Susie Monican are equally strong. Susie, for example, at first appears to be an extremely pious and otherworldly woman, but in the uninhibited atmosphere of the veterans’ hospital, Susie has become a rather worldly woman, perhaps even a little coarse. Thus, O’Casey not only implies that common soldiers like Harry go to war without reflecting on the meaning of the conflict or on the price that they may have to pay, but also that the general effect of war is destructive of ideals and values.

The major symbol of the play is the cup that gives the drama its title, the “Silver Tassie,” which is a symbol of youth and strength and the joy of living. Harry calls attention to this point rather obviously early in the play, and a later reference in the fourth act reiterates the cup’s importance. Harry’s prowess as a soccer player is emblematic of his virility, and his use of the ukelele provides evidence of poetic feeling, despite the fact that Harry is not one of O’Casey’s more sensitive or thoughtful protagonists.

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