War onstage and off between Sean O’Casey and W.B. Yeats - Silver Tassie at the Druid


Ireland’s world famous Druid theater company will present Sean O’Casey’s epic play The Silver Tassie at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York from July 24-31. It’s a rare opportunity to see the play that led to a bitter public feud between two of Ireland’s greatest writers, O’Casey and W. B. Yeats. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to Tony winning director Garry Hynes about the unmissable new production she’s bringing to New York.

On Sunday, July 24, Ireland’s celebrated Druid theater company will present an epic staging of one of Sean O’Casey’s greatest plays, The Silver Tassie. Druid’s mammoth new staging features a cast of 19 and includes live music and dance, and it’s already tipped to be the highlight of the Lincoln Center Festival when it steps out this Sunday.

For the play’s Tony winning director Garry Hynes it’s a return to the venue where Druid staged their triumphant festival of plays by J.M. Synge in 2006. Appearing at the invitation of the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, Nigel Redden, it’s about as prestigious a platform for the play as the company could ask for.

“Nigel Redden has been very good to us,” Druid’s artistic director Hynes tells the Irish Voice. “He’s been an admirer of the company since 1975 when he first travelled to Ireland to see us. Last year he saw The Silver Tassie performed in our theater in Galway and wanted to bring it over. At the time he said, ‘I want that for my festival.’ So it was just a matter of making the finances work, and years later we’re finally here.”

Hynes freely admits to being an ardent O’Casey fan. She’s staged multiple critically acclaimed productions of his work in Ireland and intends to continue to do them, she says.

“The Silver Tassie is an extraordinary piece because O’Casey throws off all the usual things like coherent narrative, and he just comes out with this great big anti-war roar. It’s theatrically extraordinarily ambitious in what he does,” says Hynes.

“You can see very clearly he’s the same playwright who wrote Juno and the Paycock, but in this case he didn’t train his focus on something as immediately accessible as Irish life. He trained his focus on a group of people the general Irish public wanted to forget: the Irish soldiers who fought for England in the World War.”

But before the Irish public could even get to see the play and make their own minds up about it, the Abbey’s artistic director W.B. Yeats said no to a production.  His insupportable but firm decision had tragic consequences for all affected by it, including the Abbey and O’Casey himself, Hynes says.

“O’Casey didn’t leave Ireland because of Yeats’ refusal to stage The Silver Tassie,” says Hynes. “He was already en route to England. O’Casey was a contrary man, there’s no doubt about that and he didn’t help himself by taking the attitudes he often did.

“The Abbey offered him the opportunity to pretend he had never submitted the play to them, for example. He replied, ‘No, not only will I not pretend, I will publish all of our correspondence about the play.’”

That was the kind of gesture that hardened attitudes, but the truth neither of the two great Irish writers could seem to pass up an opportunity to grandstand, and that tendency led to the impasse.  Something in the Irish character seems to need a foil, or to stand at variance, or to miss the larger point in defense of minor ones.

“Given that the popularity of O’Casey’s cycle of Dublin plays had more or less saved the Abbey financially in the previous eight years, it was very short sighted of Yeats to reject the play,” says Hynes.  “And while O’Casey may have overreacted, it’s certainly an understandable thing.”

The source of Yeats objections to The Silver Tassie, on the surface at least, is well known. But for a nasty scrap like the one he picked with O’Casey, there had to more going on beneath the surface.

Class, creed, cultural conservatism, and more besides all must have played into what on the surface was passed off as an artistic decision.
“Yeats’ telling O’Casey how to write plays is something that I still find unhelpful, let’s put it that way,” says Hynes.

“He basically told O’Casey you mustn’t write about what you don’t know, meaning the First World War, and then he said that in any case war is not a suitable subject for a play. The hectoring, national school aspect of Yeats’ character is on full show in this debacle. Add to that the Abbey’s board taking various sides and it all turned into a dirty little mess.”
Like the soldiers in his ill-fated play, in Ireland O’Casey kept finding himself cast out into a different kind of no man’s land. It ultimately proved unendurable and he took off for more welcoming shores. But at enormous cost to himself, it turned out.