Review: Irish Joy and Pain Come to Life in Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy

Courtesy of the Druid company: seven hours with playwright Sean O’Casey's Dublin Trilogy, which combines gimlet-eyed humanism with corrosive social critique.

Caitríona Ennis, Marty Rea, and Rory Nolan in The Shadow of a Gunman as part of DruidO’Casey. Ros Kavanagh

DruidO’Casey | Marathon days: 9hrs 30mins. Two intermissions. Two breaks. | NYU Skirball | 566 LaGuardia Place | 212-998-4941 

Spending seven hours with playwright Sean O’Casey (1880–1964), courtesy of the prodigious Druid company, I had time to ponder many things. Like the morning’s headlines about war breaking out between Palestinians and Israelis. The renewed conflict rhymed distantly with O’Casey’s subject, the Irish revolt against British rule in 1916 and the civilian bloodshed that followed. I marveled at how O’Casey’s world practically smelled of newsprint in the 1920s, digesting events as recent as two years previous in Dublin’s memory. I wondered if in a year we’d see an equally poetic American play that wove tragicomedy and ideology around the January 6 riot and its aftermath. O’Casey did it a century ago; why can’t we? 

Enough. Focus on what’s in front of you: the chance to soak up an Irish master who combined gimlet-eyed humanism with corrosive social critique. An ardent socialist in his mid-thirties during the 1916 Easter Rising, O’Casey became disillusioned with vicious internecine fighting between nationalists and unionists during the Irish Civil War, with its sainted leaders and its glorification of terrorism in the name of freedom. “The country is gone mad,” laments born-again salesman Seumas Shields (Rory Nolan) in The Shadow of a Gunman. “Instead of counting their beads now they’re counting’ bullets; their Hail Marys and paternosters are burstin’ bombs an’ the rattle of machine-guns.” Over three plays that span seven tumultuous years in Irish history, O’Casey showed poverty-stricken citizens divided against each other and senselessly slaughtered. 

Hilda Fay in The Plough and the Stars as part of DruidO’Casey. Ros Kavanagh

Druid’s masterful director Garry Hynes orders the Dublin Trilogy not when they were produced, but the years in which they’re set. (The Irish Rep also revived them in 2019.) So the day begins with The Plough and the Stars (1926), in which bricklayer and ex-officer of the Irish Citizen Army Jack Clitheroe (Liam Heslin) is drawn back into the paramilitary group on the eve of the Easter Rising, to the dismay and eventual madness of his wife, Nora (Sophie Lenglinger). The play bursts with colorful tenement dwellers, prostitutes, and drunks in a constant froth of debate and brawling—a clownish prelude to the street violence that’s about to engulf them all. In one pub scene, the Protestant Bessie Burgess (Hilda Fay), a bitter opponent of Irish independence, nearly comes to blows with Catholic Mrs. Gogan (Sarah Morris), but by the next act they’re joining forces to loot the shops while Dublin burns.

The next piece, chronologically, is 1923’s The Shadow of a Gunman, set in a shabby, drafty boarding house (all locations are pointedly shabby, rendered with spare, stark beauty by Francis O’Connor). Politically halfhearted poet Donal Devoren (Marty Rea) shares a room with the aforementioned peddler Shields. In this comedy of hectic comings and goings the room becomes the site for a playful seduction between Devoren and adventure-hungry flapper Minnie Powell (Caitríona Ennis), the drafting of a letter in support of the Irish Republican Army, and finally a terrifying raid by English soldiers looking for guns and bombs. As in Plough, distinctions between innocent and guilty, civilian and soldier, becomes irrelevant by the explosive ending.

Aaron Monaghan and Caitríona Ennis in Juno and the Paycock as part of DruidO’Casey. Ros Kavanagh

Last in a long day is best-known Juno and the Paycock, which premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1924. A blue-collar family sitcom that spins into farce before collapsing into unimaginable grief, the story focuses on the blustery loafer Captain Jack Boyle (Nolan) and his sensible, long-suffering wife, Juno (Hilda Fay). They have a son missing an arm from action in the War for Independence and a sheltered but ambitious daughter in love with a charming lawyer (Heslin) who informs the Boyles that they’ve inherited a fortune. In a blink, Jack and Juno are living large, buying themselves into debt. Again, O’Casey translates the heights of urban folk comedy into the depths of misery. 

The 18-member ensemble may not be uniformly strong (there are too many roles for that), but several blaze forth, cast by a director who steers them from a baseline of comic naturalism to sequences of expressionist weirdness, augmented by James F. Ingalls’ nightmarish color washes or lights slicing through walls. Costumes (by O’Connor and Clíodhna Hallissey) balance the drabness of poverty with thematically relevant hues (intense green uniforms, an orange shawl for an Orange partisan). Over the years, I’ve seen every Druid marathon built around a single writer: John Millington Synge, Tom Murphy, and Shakespeare’s “Henriad.” Besides the honor of watching a world-class company deliver a daylong immersion, it’s a joy to recognize actors I’ve long admired. There’s the bravura comic physicality and vocal attack of Aaron Monaghan, who can endow even the lowest scrounger with pathos and dignity. The lanky and versatile Rea swaggers about as a Marx-spouting fop one hour and cowers as a spineless poetaster the next. I will never tire of Garrett Lombard’s basso profundo, what a heap of peat would sound like if it could talk. And Caitríona Ennis is new to me, a petite dynamo playing vivacious, heroic women kicking against a man’s world. 

Obviously, a theater outing that begins at lunchtime and ends around 10:45 leaves one exhausted and numb. These are extremely talky plays, with Plough the toughest sit, actors’ thick accents and speedy pacing rendering chunks of dialogue a muddle to American ears. (The text becomes much easier to follow as the cycle continues.) If you can see only one, try Shadow. At ninety minutes, it contains all the O’Casey motifs of decent but feckless Dubliners whose lives are chewed up by accident and history, but compression makes it more harrowing, more Greek, if you will. Even so, the trilogy’s a treasure hall of shocking tableaux and stirring poetry, not a second wasted at NYU Skirball. Each piece knocks you sideways by curtain fall. DruidO’Casey provides insight for our debased, radicalized, gun-crazed world—and temporary relief from it. 

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Review: Irish Joy and Pain Come to Life in Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy