I’m surprised by how much the Times critic (Charles Morgan?) liked the first production of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie. He thought the expressionist second act “a brilliant failure that might have been at the core of a masterpiece.” He praised the play’s use of poetry, and its ambition, and its moments of “transcendental dialogue”. He applauded O’Casey’s experimental method: “It is rash. It is extravagant; it fails sometimes with a great stumbling failure. But it is a method with a future.”
The play’s central story is of Harry, a star footballer who goes to war, loses the use of his legs, and, reduced to the status of a cripple, bitterly sees his girl go to another man, Barney, the bullying V.C. But rather than naturalistically showing Harry’s actual war experience, he presents a stylised abstract vision of war, with a demented prophet (The Croucher) commenting biblically on the scene, while Cockney Tommies are sent into battle by a ludicrously insensitive staff officer. The stage picture, dominated by a huge gun, balances a toppling crucifix with the figure of a soldier tied to a gunwheel, undergoing Field Punishment Number One.
Yeats was immensely unimpressed, and in a letter rejecting the play on behalf of the Abbey Theatre, told O’Casey:
You are not interested in the Great War; you never stood on its battlefields, never walked in its hospitals, and so write out of your opinions. You illustrate those opinions by a series of unrelated scenes, as you might in a leading article. [….] Among the things that dramatic action must burn up are the author’s opinions.
In his autobiography, O’Casey retorts that unlike socially elitist Yeats, he knew soldiers, that he “had talked and walked and smoked and sung with the blue-suited wounded men fresh from the front” and that he was “one who had been among the armless, the legless, the blind, the gassed, and the shell-shocked.”
Here are two conceptions of truth, and of the right to write. Yeats feels that O’Casey should not write about the experience of the Great War, because unlike the Irish Civil War, in which O’Casey was deeply involved and Yeats tells him, “wrote out of … your sense of its tragedy,” the Great War was something known to him only journalistically and as a matter of opinion, and the expression of opinion is not the business of the artist. As Yeats wrote in 1915,
“I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;”
Against this, O’Casey sets his acquaintance with the war-wounded, and takes on the right (or duty) to speak up abrasively for the victims of the war. Naturalism would not have served his purpose. He listed Journey’s End among the trivial productions of the London theatre in which:
There wasn’t a human heart-beat, no, nor even a human foot-step in one of them; not a knock at the door; not a sob in the silence; not a stone flung through any amiable window of thought.
The Silver Tassie was like a generous handful of stones, aimed a bit indiscriminately, with the intention of breaking a few windows. I don’t think this makes it a good play, but it’s a remarkable one.
Update September 2010: I’ve just seen a remarkable production of the play by the Druid theatre company. My report can be found here.