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.
“There was a fight going on in the 1920s about what the character of the new Irish Free State was going to be,” says Hynes. “Unfortunately for O’Casey’s the spat over his play fed directly into that.”
Yeats and every other public figure of that era were in a battle, consciously and unconsciously, over who would tell the story of the state, over who was going to determine it’s character and nature.
Yeats most certainly had a dog in that race and so he said no. It’s a play in itself, that struggle between the two great writers.
“We know that they met again a number of years later and Yeats allowed a production to go ahead in 1935. But by that stage the more conservative powers that be had their hands around the neck of the country,” says Hynes.
“There was a riot over the play’s blasphemy. It closed very quickly. Ireland was already a very different place in 1935 than it had been in 1928. All the turmoil and ferment was over and O’Casey was pressed into a place he was not going to come back from. He had missed his opportunity. Now along comes Hynes to restore his contribution, but this time to acclaim.
“One of the actors asked me when we were rehearsing, ‘My God, what was the man on when he wrote this?’ I’m amazed by the passion and the power of this play. The challenges it presents to the audience are immense.
“Directing it I kept asking myself what would have happened if this play had been produced in circumstances where O’Casey had felt safe and supported? I don’t know what changes he might have made.
“I could spend the next three years doing a study of this play and exploring the circumstances of its production and writing and try to imagine where O’Casey might have gone with it. It’s fascinating.”
Although The Silver Tassie addresses the horrors of war, it does have some pointed things to say about the Irish too. For example, Harry the soldier we follow through most of the action discovers his mother and his neighbors and all the people in the tenement want to send their boys back to the trenches so that they can continue to receive maintenance money from the state. So much for guts and glory.
“O’Casey was lost to Ireland,” says Hynes, underlining that it was a tragedy the nation would take decades to recover from. In his place came a general conservative philistinism, especially evident on the Abbey’s stage.
“Would he have been lost anyway? Quite possibly. The defensiveness of the Abbey board, their pseudo naturalism that become enshrined with their kitchen comedies of the 1930s and 1940s -- would that have had less of a hold if they’d kept their nerve and continued to support a great writer who had done so much for them, it’s hard to say. But definitely something was lost.”
On Sunday you’ll have the rare chance to see Hynes and Druid restore O’Casey’s remarkable legacy in a production that’s worthy of the play and the playwright. Don’t miss it.
For tickets visit www.lincolncenterfestival.org/index.php/lcf-2011-silver-tassie