I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’
wrote Siegfried Sassoon in 1917, in a brutal fantasy about forcing civilians to understand the reality of war. Yesterday afternoon at the Oxford Playhouse, I saw Sassoon’s vision made real. At the end of the second act of O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie, the monstrous tank that has dominated the set begins to lurch forward threateningly, and just as you think it is going to crush the first row of the stalls, there is an almighty explosion, and then a blackout. You can’t accuse the Druid theatre company of failing to put across O’Casey’s pacifist message with gusto and commitment.
The play is an odd and disparate thing, confused in its intentions, yet with powerful scenes. Yeats famously rejected it in 1929, on behalf of the Abbey Theatre, on the grounds that it was second-hand writing, the product of O’Casey’s opinions, not his experience:
But 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 [….] The mere greatness of the world war has thwarted you, it has refused to become mere background and obtrudes itself upon the stage as so much dead wood that will not burn with the dramatic fire [….] Among the things that dramatic action must burn up are the author’s opinions.
A programme note to the current production points out that O’Casey’s brothers were soldiers, and that he had spent time in hospital with men wounded in the War, but there does indeed seem to be a gap at the heart of the play. O’Casey would have been well-equipped to write a play closely examining Dublin’s reaction to the War, but he wants to include the battlefield itself. To do so, he steps outside his own experience, and writes a scene of expressionist nightmare, a pantomime of military suffering, where a madman rants religious prophecies, staff-officers strut and a victim-soldier endures Field Punishment.
The problem facing a director is how this relates to the rest of the play. You can either present the Dublin scenes as naturalism, and Act II as total contrast, or you can do what Garry Hynes has done in this Druid production, and let the expressionism seep into the other scenes; the first act ends with a big son-and-dance number, and the play’s chorus, the old men Simon and Sylvester, are played as a music-hall double act. I can see why the director made these choices, but I don’t think she solves the play’s problems. The most significant of these is that the characters who should bear most of the play’s emotional weight are under-written. Harry is the star footballer who becomes crippled by war; Jessie is the girl who rejects him when he loses the use of his legs. Aaron Monaghan is a strong presence as Harry, but the play gives him so little to work on in the first act that we cannot care about him as much as we should. The actress playing Jessie is given no hinterland of motivation to work with at all. This is just a shallow girl, all over a star footballer, but dumping him when someone sexier comes along. The change in her feelings happens offstage; O’Casey allows us to assume that her motivations are trivial. So is it really a tragedy that Harry has lost a girl as worthless as this?
Instead of building up these central characters in the first act, O’Casey gives us some broad comedy about Dublin types. For the first quarter of an hour, we see little except for the two chattering old men, Simon and Sylvester, and Susan Monican, a hard-working young woman who expresses her disapproval of this pair of layabouts through her fierce religion. In this production Eamon Morrissey and John Olohan do an immensely skilful job of presenting the pair of wasters as a music-hall double-act (I was reminded of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart doing something similar with Beckett’s tramps in Waiting for Godot). They are tremendously active, though – and since in this play the contrasts between the active and the inactive, the lithe and the still, are crucial, I think this is a mistake. These men, old and neutered and talking, talking, talking while the women do the work, should be pretty near to supine, implicitly suggesting the only future that will be open to Harry when he has lost the use of his legs.
It is the females who should be energetic through the start of this act, whether the puritanical Susan Monican or the hapless Mrs Foran, who fails miserably to cook her husband a decent supper. When male energy finally erupts into the play, it is destructive and useless. Teddy Foran, enraged at the ruin of his meal, smashes all the china in their apartment. Then in come the footballers, wild and tribal, with Harry as their hero and Jessie clinging lustfully to him. Harry drinks from the silver tassie, and dresses for war. When he leaves, we have seen him in his glory, but O’Casey has given us no clue about what impels him so fiercely on the football field, and – more significantly, I think – has not told us why he volunteered for war (since there was no conscription in Ireland). Was it for economic reasons, like many Irishmen in hard times? Or from a desire for adventure and glory? Or did he believe in the cause? O’Casey leaves this important question unexamined.
The second act is the expressionist battlefield fantasy, daringly using the fracturing devices of theatrical modernism to preach a strident message. It is a collage of song, wild ravings, broad comedy and pointless violence. Officers are caricatures, soldiers are tortured victims. A great gun dwarfs the humans, and to me the script seems complicit with the gun’s violence, in that, like the war it disallows the characters full humanity. These are nor the men we leaving Dublin in the first act, but a generic group of typical soldiers, seemingly cockney, with little individuality. The act has moments of effectiveness, and may well have been more striking in 1929, when expressionist techniques were less common in the theatre, but it seemed to me yesterday what it seemed on the page, dramatically inert.
To understand O’Casey’s failure in this scene, we could compare it with another war collage, David Jones’s In Parenthesis written at about the same time. Like O’Casey, Jones interweaves religion, realism, symbolism and suffering into a poetic battlefield collage; the difference is that Jones’s words come from his intense aural memory, not from his political opinions. The speakers of In Parenthesis are wonderfully diverse, and Jones’s amazing aural memory enables him to individualise them. Their moods and reactions are equally diverse. By comparison, O’Casey’s soldiers are the products of indignant imagination, created to convey his message, not their own.
The third act goes back to Dublin, and the kind of civilian hospital where O’Casey mey wounded soldiers while he was a wartime patient. We meet Simon and Sylvester again, and in this production their hyperactivity is beginning to get a little wearisome. O’Casey obviously enjoyed writing these two, and indulged himself. Religious Susan is now a nurse, and Harry, crippled, waits desperately for Jessie to come to him, but she lingers with undamaged Barney below. O’Casey doesn’t not show us the crucial scene between her and Barney. Is she as blameworthy and shallow as Harry thinks? Did Barney have to persuade her? What are the needs that drive her to do something that she must know is cruel? There is material for drama here that O’Casey has avoided, and I’m not sure why.
The last act shows a dance at the football club. We see the effects of war, not just on embittered Harry, but on Teddy Foran, the violent husband of the first act. In that act, Brian Gleeson gave a powerful performance as the big irrational man who dominated his terrified wife. Now he is blind, and she is in control. Once again I was reminded of Beckett, and the reversal in fortune of Pozzo and Lucky. This production conveys this brilliantly.
All Harry can do in the last act is rant and feel sorry for himself. Aaron Monaghan shows us the character’s pain, but can’t raise him to tragic dignity. His destruction of the tassie seems like the frustration of a spoilt child who can’t get what he wants. His story finally isn’t big enough to hang a denunciation of war onto.
It’s O’Casey’s desire to denounce that is the problem, I think. He so much wants to be anti-war that he skirts painful political issues that his best plays would have confronted head-on. Why did these men join up? What is their relation to republicanism? The play is set, I think, in 1915. After the 1916 Easter Rising, when British troops were policing Dublin, many Irish soldiers were given a hard time when they returned home from war. I don’t think there is any hint of this source of friction in the play. But if Harry had lost the use of his legs in a conflict that most no longer believed in, that would surely have been an issue worth exploring.
O’Casey has taken his eye off the details because he wants to make the big statement. Garry Hynes’s production legitimately backs him in this, and gives Act II the full expressionist works. To what effect? Was one member of the Oxford audience yesterday led to think: “War is dreadful – I never realised that.”? Or did we sit back and enjoy our usual opinions being endorsed? The attack of the tank and the big bang at the end of the act is a marvellous coup de théatre – but the impression it made on us was physical, not intellectual or emotional. We stared at each other with pleasure at having been shaken – as one might at the end of a roller-coaster ride.
And yet – I’ve been negative about aspects of this production, but it is well worth seeing. The director has made firm decisions that I don’t always agree with, but they have made me think through my feelings about the play, which I like more after having seen these spirited and committed actors at work on it.