War Is Hell, Life Is Purgatory; The Silver Tassie Is Heaven

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Eamonn Morrisey, John Olohan (@Stephanie Berger)

How It’s New York:  It’s part of the Lincoln Center Festival, which runs through August 14 features international work including opera, ballet, modern dance music, theatre,
How It’s Irish:  It is a production of Galway’s Druid Theatre Company, one of Ireland’s consistently most exciting troupes, helmed by Garry Hynes, which has brought several outstanding shows here in recent years (Enda Walsh’s plays, including Penelope; Martin McDonagh’s Cripple of Inishmaan).

The play runs through July 31 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre, on Amsterdam between 58th and 59th.  Tickets available here.


Sean O’Casey and Garry Hynes  show us that war truly is Hell.  It’s not on earth, and it’s not part of life; it has its own rules, and they make little sense.


This is an absolutely remarkable production, and one of the most haunting and effective works of theatre I’ve ever seen.   Hynes pulls precise and powerful performances from every member of the cast (a few do double duty).  They sing, they crawl, they turn on a dime from poetry to prose and shift from emotion to emotion.David Bolger and Vanessa Lefrancois are credited with movement, which must include the crawling and stylized gestures in the trench scene.  The design of the play also includes gorgeous music from Elliot Davis, sound design by John Leonard, and moody lighting from David Cunningham.

Yes, Seán O’Casey’s 1928 drama (revised in 1949) The Silver Tassie takes on the horrors and the aftermath of one of the most brutal wars in human history, World War I.  But it’s also full of life, color, and, especially the way director Garry Hynes has approached it, humor.  Each act has a slightly different tone, from kitchen-sink (well, tenement stove) humor, to expressionistic horror (albeit almost entirely sung-through), with gallows humor; to melancholy, to –well, honestly, I don’t know how to label the final act, set at a party, so full of rage, sorrow, and slapstick as it is.


Throughout there is poetry and lyricism, striking imagery and bravura performances.  The play was brought here for just 8 short performances.  I thought when I first saw it at the Ulster Bank Theatre Festival in October (it was there as part of the ReViewed program supported by Culture Ireland, having originally played in Galway a few months earlier) that it should be on Broadway (read my short review of it here).  I still think so, although I’m not sure even Hynes does– she expressed some reservations about that in our chat (watch for it in this week’s podcast!).  Yes, it’s a big show, and a complicated one.  Spider-man, anyone?  Ok, it’s likely less commercial than that, but the thing is, you never know.  Who thought Stoppard’s trilogy about Russian revolutionaries would be the hit of the season a few years ago?  Now and then New York audiences surprise you, and this show is so monumental and so breathtaking that it just really needs to be seen.


And it really does work better seeing it than reading it (though O’Casey should be read, too).   The second act is entirely full of song, and lyrics without melody tend to make for tedious reading.  There’s also a fair amount of O’Casey writing phonetically the way the Dublin accents sound, and the physical humor and how it works against the serious themes seems odd on the page.  All of this really is the mark of a true playwright because a great play just shouldn‘t read as well as it plays.  It needs the actors, the timing, the liveness to work.  It should demand production to reveal itself.  O’Casey created something that is on the one hand experimental and on the other an absolutely recognizable portrait of life.  Some things, like war, like mutilation, like the fickleness of the human heart,  are most accurate when revealed obliquely.  Naturalistic portrayals can seem to just scrape the surface, where an oblique rock lyric, an abstract painting, a poem can reach into your gut and turn it over.


Such is the case with O’Casey’s play.  It’s a relatively simple story of Harry Heagan (Garrett Lombard), a poor young man in the Docklands of Dublin who is a football champion.  He’s won the celebratory title trophy twice, and aon the day he’s to return from his leave to the front lines in France in World War I,  he’s won it again for his team.  He goes to war, comes back paralyzed from the waist down, and realizes he’s lost the love of his pretty girlfriend, Jessie Taite (Charlie Murphy).  She  now prefers Barney Bagnal (handsome Raymond Scannell, who brought his play Mimic to the Irish Arts Center last year).  And he has to come to terms with living in the new reality.  As does everyone else.
Of course, though Harry’s story is the central one, his story is refracted through the lives of everyone around him.  The show opens with two men in bowler hats, a comic vaudeville team.  One is his father, Sylvester, drily played by Eamon Morrissey, and the other is a neighbor, Simon, played with  blustery earnestness by John Olohan.  They trade tales about the feats they’ve seen Harry do (wtih deadpan delivery and “top this” exaggeration you can still hear in Dublin pubs), beginning in front of the curtain, which clues us in immediately that this is not going to be straight naturalism.  Then they enter the large tenement room, with its table full of trophies, bed, and iron stove. Hynes has made an interesting choice to use sets that are Expressionistic– telling us the mood, with high red walls with shaded black near the floor, like no Dublin tenement that ever existed, and realistic props and costumes (Design by Francis O’Connor).  There’s a heightened poetry to the action but we always know when we are, and where.

Eamon Morrissey, Clare Dunne, John Olohan

Susie (played with brittle sensitivity by pretty Clare Dunne, who makes us believe in Susie’s journey from repressed zealot to pragmatic but flirty nurse) chastises the fellows, telling them they should pray more.  

When the two of yous standin quiverin’ together on the dhread day of the Last Judgement, how will the two of yous feel if yous have nothin’ to say but ‘he broke a chain across his bisseps’? Then the two of you’ll know that the wicked go down into hell, an’ all the people who forget God!”

 Religion is in the play from the start, and it’s important that it is, because it threads its way through as everyone struggles to contend with what happens.  It’s no coincidence that Susie loses her need to preach by play’s end.  The people who need religion are the ones most in pain.  There will be  strange preaching in the trenches (where it seems the soldiers are also praying to the tanks).  And prayer in the hospital.

Marion O’Dwyer, Ruth Hegerty

Sylvester knows  that her evangelicism comes out of rejection by Harry, whom she adores.  Upstairs neighbor Mrs. Foran (Marion O’Dwyer)  comes to borrow the Heagan stove to cook some steaks for her own husband Teddy (Liam Carney), who will be returning to the war from his leave as well.  She breaks into song about how happy she will be to be single again.  Harry’s mum (kindly but ineffectual as played by Ruth Hegarty) waits for Harry, and once he returns, anxiously coaxes him to hurry to the boat.


Teddy is a brute, violent and angry.  Hynes plays this domestic violence for laughs– when he chases his wife into the Heagan home with a hatchet, Susie keeps popping her head around the door saying “G-d is looking at you.”  We can’t help but laugh, even though he smashes the wedding bowl she hoped to keep for generations.

Garret Lombard, center

When Harry appears, he and his friends drink from the Silver Tassie.   The first overt break in naturalism comes after Harry half-heartedly suggests deserting: all the people onstage but the soldiers retyurning (Teddy, Barney, Harry) chant “They must go back.”  And they sing, as do the girls, and march out.


When O’Casey’s play was first produced in London (Yeats at the Abbey famously rejected it, leading to a feud between the two men), the war was long over.  When finally produced in Ireland 1935, did people know it wouldn’t really be the war to end wars? I wonder.  There’s something  heartbreaking about the jollity with which the soldiers and their girls cheerfully march away.  We’re implicated in it.

Act Two takes place int he shadow of an enormous tank, in the trenches.  Barney is in chains for having tried to steal a chicken from a French peasant.  The “croucher” squats on the top of the tank with a red cross on his chest, intoning verses from the Bible.  There’s a huge crucifix downstage, somewhat sideways.  The act is nearly sung through with song after song (the soldiers in France are played by Christopher Doyle, Gerard Kelly, Elliot Harper, and Adam Welsh; while I don’t know who did what, as a team they were funny, poetic and beautiful).  English commanders come in and give orders in farcical tones, and a Visitor (Bush Moukarzel, having a ball rolling his r’s and acting silly) raves about how much fun it all is.  The combination of the dim light, the madness of the visitor, the urgency of the orders “to the guns, the intoned songs and the gun of the tank trained on the audience, is bloodcurdling.  O’Casey and Hynes together show us that war truly is Hell.  It’s not on earth, and it’s not part of life; it has its own rules, and they make little sense.  I saw the play in Dublin, so I knew the shock as the tank advances at the end of the act, and knowing it was coming made it worse, not better.  The long intermission takes place here– so the audience can try to recover.  

In some ways the second half of the evening is easier to take   The shifts are less jarring; the worst has happened.   The next two acts are much closer to naturalism than the first two.  What has happened has its own consequences, though, and a naturalistic approach to the horror has its own unbalancing atmosphere.  Hynes points this up by switching tone abruptly.  Act 3 is largely quiet and melancholy, but there’s a fair bit of humor too.  We’re in a hospital in Dublin, where a paralyzed Harry awaits another surgery (that will likely do no good), next to beds containing Sylvester and Simon.  Syl and Simon keep their bowler hats on, and try to get out of taking baths.  Susie, now the ward nurse, refers to them by the numbers on their beds.


She’s confident in her own femininity now, thanks in part to the fussy attentions of the English surgeon (Elliot Harper).  He makes lewd jokes and plays the cello to accompany his own banter.  It’s a punched up moment invented by Hynes, but right in keeping with the innovations O’Casey was trying out.  Contemporary audiences are so used to things that were experimental then (stark downlighting, talking to the audience, etc.) that to show a real break you have to be even more extreme.


The crucifix that was on the tank is hanging high on the hospital wall.  It’s in this act that we learn that Jessie won’t come up to bring Harry the ukelele he played at the front.  Barney brings it up, with the flowers that he repeats are from Jessie.  Scannell’s restraint, almost apologetic but not quite, speaks volumes.  

Liam carney

In the final act, everyone’s at a party at the Avondale Football Club to celebrate the Cup Final.  And again, O’Casey mixes pathos with slapstick.  A telephone ringing inspires a Beckettian routine (which is to say a Music Hall, Abbot and Costello, kind of thing) when Sylvester and Simon first shrink from answering it, then pretend they know how to use it, and fake conversations when all they can really hear is a hum.   This is juxtaposed with the painful entrance of a masked, blinded Teddy.  The bully is now a dependent, made poetic by his infirmity.  Teddy’s wife wastes no time in bullying him now that she can, chastising him when he reminisces about the sight of a woman’s legs.  And Harry rages at seeing Barney and Jessie together.



And he and Teddy understand each other:

HARRY. The rising sap in trees I’ll never feel.
TEDDY. The hues of branch or leaf I’ll never see.
HARRY. There’s something wrong with life when men can walk.
TEDDY. There’s something wrong with life when men can see.
HARRY. I never felt the hand that made me helpless.
TEDDY. I never saw the hand that made me blind.
HARRY. Life came and took away the half of life.
TEDDY. Life took from me the half he left with you.
HARRY. The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away.
TEDDY. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

 

That might all seem a little silly if O’Casey hadn’t prepared us for this (and really, mixing liturgical style poetry with naturalism is not a good idea for most writers )  with the strange religious intoning about dry bones in Act 2, and the sung-through marches.  It’s not as if Teddy and Harry only speak like this of course– it’s because they don’t, that when they do, the poetry lifts and soars.

Harry plays the ukelele

Some people may find the way Hynes punches the comedy jarring, but for me it sharpened the story’s impact.  Encouraged to play the ukelele and sing a negro spiritual, Harry practices a little of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” before the gathered crowd  become distracted by balloons released inside.  He then goes outside to practice.  It’s when he comes back in that he sees his former girlfriend nearly in flagrante with his former best friend.  

You couldn’t wait till I’d gone, so that my eyes wouldn’t see the joy I wanted hurrying away from me over to another? 

He rants at Barney for having saved him (winning both the VC and Jessie as a result), and his rant brings the audience to tears:

Dear God, this crippled form is still your child. [To MRS HEEGAN] Dear mother, this helpless thing is still your son. Harry Heegan, me, who, on the football field, could crash a twelve-stone flyer off his feet. For this dear Club three times I won the Cup, and grieve in reason I was just too weak this year to play again.  

He smashes the Silveer Tassie he once revered, and is taken home by Teddy, with Sylvester pushing the chair .  Teddy says,

Our best is all behind us – what’s in front we’ll face like men, dear comrade of the blood-fight and the battle-front!

In a final religious exchange, Harry intones, The Lord hath given and man hath taken away!
and from offstage the blind Teddy replies, Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Raymond Scannell, Charlie Murphy, Clare Dunne, Elliot Harper

 There’s no question that Harry has changed for the worse.  But has Teddy?  His injury has given him insight, and has given him faith.  Harry’s has taken his away.  Susie no longer needs it.  War is Hell.  Life is purgatory.  Where does redemption lie?


Susie   still has compassion for Harry, but her time as nurse has made her a realist.   She encourages Jessie to return to the party:

 Jessie, Teddy Foran and Harry Heegan have gone to live their own way in another world. Neither I nor you can lift them out of it…But we, who have come through the fire unharmed, must go on living.

In the play’s final moments Mrs. Foran tries to drink from The Silver Tassie, which leaks, thanks to being smashed.  She regrets Harry didn’t play the ukelele after all, because, she says, there’s nothing I love more then the ukelele’s tinkle, tinkle, tinkle in the nighttime.   Then she passes out.   For her, the ukelele was a diversion missed.  And Hynes (who created the bit with the smashed cup) shows that to some the Tassie is just a cup.   That bit of comedy only underscores the terrible truth of what went before.

Instead of being The War to End Wars, World War I was barely noted by the Irish after it ended.  
According to the program approximately 210,000 served, with 30,000 deaths, but the Easter Rising and Irish Independence featured  much more strongly in Irish history.  It’s telling that though there were famous collections of war poems by British writers (Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke), and one of the most heartbreaking folk songs of all time, “No Man’s Land” (also known as “Willie McBride” and “Green Fields of France”) is by  Scottish-Australian folksinger Eric Bogle (the chorus references “the Last Post” and “The Flooer of the Forest”; according to wikipedia two dead William McBrides were members of the Irish Fusiliers) the Irish did not document their experiences in the same way, perhaps in part they served as colonials.  But this may be changing.  Last year, Irish guitarist- songwriter John Doyle performed a new song “Farewell to All That,” inspired by  Robert Graves’ memoir Goodbye to All That.  And Hynes’ production has been highly successful in Ireland.    This article in the New York Times by former New York Sun editor Eric Grode glances at all the artistic iterations of World War I recently, and what their meaning could be.*  But whatever the motives, including commentary on current wars and their futility and reclaiming history, there’s a grave poetry in the look and feel of this period.  The costumes are beautiful; technology was new (hence O’Casey’s fun with the telephone).  The rural way of life was going, but it wasn’t clear how far away, yet.   We watch a play like The Silver Tassie knowing how things turn out, yet also envying,  the faith and trust about to be shattered.  It’s a kind of nostalgia.


It’s a kind of prayer.

*It’s a good article, but ends with a classic bit of  anti-American condescension from a British intellectual.  War Horse director Tom Morris suggests the US audiences may find the play palatable because, he quotes the book’s author Michael Murpurgo as saying “it was the ultimate example of the Americans going over, sorting things out and coming home,” before adding, “probably the last one.”  Hmm.   Was everything sorted?  We all know WWI led directly to WWII.  Also,  War Horse didn’t win a Tony because it reminded us of the Good Old Days; we  liked the puppets (among other things). I doubt Stephen Spielberg is filming the book because of  subconscious jingoism, but because a boy and his horse facing obstacles is just a profoundly moving human story of love, loyalty and heroism (it’s a little weird to suggest American idealism fuels War Horse’s success in any case as Americans are just not in the play).     On ta personal note, my father and my uncles all served in WWII, (also a note for the Jirish front)  and while America may not have “saved the day” as much as we are taught in school, the entry was important.  But perhaps I just don’t get his point, beyond the gratuitous snark of it.  Hope so.

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