A Deep Dive: The Plough and the Stars
Learn more about Druid Theatre’s October 2023 production of The Plough and the Stars, part of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy.
Characters & Cast
Jack Clitheroe, a bricklayer and former member of the Irish Citizen Army // Liam Heslin
Nora Clitheroe, his wife // Sophie Lenglinger
Peter Flynn (a laborer), Nora’s uncle // Bosco Hogan
The Young Covey, a fitter, ardent socialist, and Jack’s cousin // Marty Rea
Bessie Burgess, a street fruit vendor // Hilda Fay
Mrs. Gogan, a charwoman (housecleaner) // Sarah Morris
Mollser, her consumptive child // Tara Cush
Fluther Good, a carpenter // Aaron Monaghan
Lieutenant Langon, of the Irish Volunteers // Gabriel Adewusi
Captain Brennan, of the Irish Citizen Army // Garrett Lombard
Corporal Stoddart, of the British Army’s Wiltshire division // Robbie O’Connor
Sergeant Tinley, of the British Army’s Wiltshire division // Sean Kearns
Rosie Redmond, a prostitute // Anna Healy
A Bartender // Sean Kearns
A Woman // Catherine Walsh
A Figure in the Window // Robbie O’Connor
Act II (Later that evening). The setting is the interior of a pub near the location of a political rally. Rosie complains to the bartender that the meeting is bad for business, while Peter Flynn, Fluther Good, and Young Covey come in and leave again for quick drinks during the speeches. Jack, Lieutenant Langon, and Captain Brennan carry the Plough and the Stars flag, a green, white, and orange tricolor; they are moved by the speeches and determined to fight for Ireland, regardless of the circumstances.
Act III (Easter Week 1916). Mrs. Gogan worries about the health of her daughter, Mollser, who is sick with tuberculosis. Residents in the tenement discuss the fighting that has started in response to a proclamation of Irish independence. Nora is frantically searching for Jack, and when he appears with a wounded rebel soldier, tries to convince him to leave the fight and stay with her. Jack ignores her pleas and leaves with his comrades.
Act IV (A few days later). Mollser has died, and Nora is increasingly delirious searching for Jack. Disillusionment and tragedy from the failed rebellion affect everyone in the tenement, with the struggle for independence juxtaposed with the human cost and personal sacrifices made by ordinary people.
There is one intermission between Acts II and III.
Easter Rising of 1916: The setting for The Plough and the Stars. For information, read A Crash Course in the Irish Revolutionary Period.
Irish Citizen Army (ICA): a well-organized paramilitary socialist organization made up of trained volunteers from the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. Originally formed in 1913 to protect trade union workers during labor strikes, the ICA became a revolutionary army, participating in the Easter Rising of 1916 and in the War of Independence in 1921. Sean O’Casey was very involved in the ICA’s early years, but he withdrew in 1914, criticizing the group for wavering in its socialist mission under James Connolly’s leadership. In The Plough and the Stars, Jack Clitheroe is a Commandant in the ICA.
The Plough and the Stars (Flag): The title of this play references the flag of the Irish Citizen Army, sometimes called the “Starry Plough.” The flag depicts the constellation Ursa Major (the Big Dipper, called “The Plough” in Ireland) over a plough on a green flag. It symbolized a free Ireland that would control its own destiny by controlling its means of production… “from the plough to the stars.”
Tricolor Flag of Ireland: During the Easter Rising, the Irish tricolor flag was flown as well as the Starry Plough; it began to be seen as the national flag when it was raised above Dublin’s General Post Office by the revolutionaries, and has been the official flag of Ireland since it gained independence. Its three colors signify a lasting truce (white) between the Catholics (green) and Protestants (orange).
General James (Jim) Connolly: a co-founder of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) with James Larkin, Jim Connolly was an Irish republican and socialist leader. He was a leader of the Easter Rising and organized the ICA to join the fight. In The Plough and the Stars, Jack Clitheroe is an ICA Commandant under Connolly. After the rising, Connelly was executed by firing squad, despite the fact that he was already dying from wounds sustained during the fight. He was carried out on a stretcher and tied to a chair for the execution, a cruel act that turned public opinion against the British.
Irish Volunteers: The bulk of the revolutionary fighters during the Easter Rising belonged to the military arm of the Irish Republican Brotherhood known as the Irish Volunteers. They fought alongside the much smaller but better-organized ICA.
Dublin Fusiliers: An Irish infantry Regiment of the British Army that began in 1881 and continued until the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. Irish soldiers who fought for the British in World War I were generally Dublin Fusiliers. In The Plough and the Stars, Bessie Burgess’s son is a member.
Tommies: a general term for British soldiers.
Orange: Mrs. Gogan refers to Bessie as “Orange,” meaning that she is a Protestant loyalist, a fact that would have been clear to Irish audiences at the time through contextual references to her hymn-singing, her support of the British in The Great War, and her mockery of her Catholic neighbors
Harp: The official emblem of Ireland; harps are a symbol of national pride and tradition.
Shinner: A pejorative term for a supporter of Sinn Féin, an Irish political party that supported the creation of an independent Irish Republic during the Easter Rising.
In 1926, The Abbey Theatre premiered The Plough and the Stars, the highly-anticipated third installment of what would become known as Sean O’Casey’s “Dublin Plays” or “Dublin Trilogy.” The first two plays, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) and Juno and the Paycock (1924), had been unprecedented successes for both O’Casey and the Abbey. However, some people were becoming increasingly incensed by the themes in O’Casey’s works, particularly his skepticism towards Irish nationalism and his criticism of religion and its moral rigidity. With The Plough and the Stars, these objections reached a boiling point.
Unlike his earlier plays, which premiered either during or immediately after the conflicts in which they were set, The Plough and the Stars was set during The Easter Rising of 1916, ten years prior to its premiere. Over the course of those ten years, the revolutionaries who participated in the Rising had risen to hero and martyr status in Ireland. However, O’Casey chose to focus on the innocent victims of the conflict and to present Ireland as he saw it, refusing to shy away from criticism of nationalism, religion, or prudishness.
After a successful opening for The Plough and the Stars, controversy began to spread throughout Dublin and all subsequent performances were interrupted by demonstrators. Four days later, protests escalated to riots as the play was brought to a halt in the third act. A yelling, booing, and whistling crowd began to throw items at the stage, stink bombs were set off throughout the theater, and a group climbed on stage and began a fight with the actors. After police restored order, W.B. Yeats, then a Senator as well as Director of the Abbey, chastised the crowd from the stage.
Of course, there’s nothing like a riot to gain attention, and O’Casey’s fame began to spread far beyond Ireland. Simultaneously, O’Casey began to feel alienated from his homeland. O’Casey soon moved to England, where he remained in self-exile with his wife and family.