It's an Irish Spring at the Irish Rep this season, as Sean O'Casey's classic trilogy is brought to life on stage in Manhattan
No Irish playwright has ever come as close to depicting the real-life experience of the Irish working class than the late, great Sean O'Casey.
And now, 30 years after their first ever stage production, The Irish Rep is mounting an unprecedented three-play cycle of his plays in repertory through May 2019.
The timing is perfect. Ireland never stops creating itself, after all. That's because it's not just a country but an argument. And depending on who you ask, the job of creating Ireland is still only in beginning stages.
For many LGBT Irish people, 2015 felt like Year One, for example. For many Irish women, 2018 felt the same. As Irish playwright Sean O'Casey shows us in his three classic plays, achieving freedom and equality can be a very long and very hard road indeed.
People born outside of Ireland are often taken by surprise by just how many poets, playwrights and writers were a part of the revolutionary Irish period through the Easter Rising and the Civil War, but O'Casey himself would not have been because he knew and worked alongside them for decades. He was one of them himself. He was every bit as radical in his own socialist views and that radicalism makes him modern.
This month The Irish Repertory Theatre will commence an unprecedented cycle of O'Casey's plays back to back in repertory in an event they are calling The O'Casey Cycle. It's a months-long effort that will see gifted Irish actors take to the New York stage to tell the story of Ireland's long and often tragic fight for freedom.
Why does this matter? Because Ireland is again at a crossroads over what kind of society it is going to be, as indeed is America. One exploration can inform and caution the other in a productive and timely exchange, after all. "The Shadow Of A Gunman" and "Juno And The Paycock" and "The Plough And The Stars" still speak to our own time so urgently they might have been written this year.
“These are three great plays that we're doing back to back and then we're going to do them in repertory,” the Rep's producing director Ciaran O'Reilly tells IrishCentral's sister publication, the Irish Voice.
“There will be three Saturdays in May where we'll been doing them all on the same day starting at 11:00 A.M. in the morning. Then we'll take a break and we'll stage another one and another one.”
The ambition is as commendable as the focus. What better time to reflect on what kind of nation Ireland has become then now, near the 100-year anniversary of the War of Independence and the Civil War?
“Well, there's a couple things going on I suppose. It just so happens that the first Rep show was around 30 years ago now and it was an O'Casey play. So you know we've been putting our propaganda out there to the citizens of New York for a long time,” O'Reilly laughs.
After a bit of time passes, legends are quickly formed. Often they have nothing to do with the original reality and no one was more conscious of that than O'Casey himself. In his classic plays, he makes sure the audience realize that not everyone in Dublin was on board with the revolutionary politics of period or the Rising and its aftermath.
“O'Casey reminds us it was not supported by all the people. He reminds us that not everyone who claims they were in the GPO actually were.”
But what's most fascinating about O'Casey is how strangely prophetic his work is. He correctly identifies every major Irish political type that will fill the stage in the forthcoming twentieth century and he puts them all on stage. He foresees the cute hoor-type of politics that will wreck the revolution. He is particularly scathing about hypocritical and short-sighted Irish men.
“I would agree with you that O'Casey creates a lot of shifty men in his plays. The heroines almost always turn out to be women. While the men bluster and talk about this and that the people of action in Shadow and Juno and Plough are women.”
Juno tries to keep her house together as her husband kicks their pregnant daughter out. He's shocked by her behavior but overlooks his own as he proceeds to drink the family dry.
“I think O'Casey was a hundred years ahead of us in terms of his outlook and his politics,” says O'Reilly. “In his plays he represents compassion, he represents integrity.”
O'Casey went on to write many other major works that deserve to be staged and with that awareness, the Rep also plans to stage dramatic readings of neglected works by the Irish master.
“At weekends throughout the festival we will stage dramatic readings,” O'Reilly explains.
“We will also be screening O'Casey scripts that have been made into movies by famous directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. There will also be an exhibition of artifacts from Casey's life and his many productions. His daughter Siobhan will be coming over for the run too.”
So what does O'Casey mean to O'Reilly personally?
“Well he is the father of Irish theater I suppose a lot of ways,” he replies simply.
As for his own performance as Captain Boyle in "Juno And The Paycock," O'Reilly is under no illusions about the doubtful nature of the man he plays. Because Captain Boyle is charming he expects to get off lightly for his own transgressions, even though he's the most judgmental and ruthless person toward others.
He expects big loopholes for himself and biting laws for others, especially for women, and his "forgive me but you're unforgivable yourself" attitude seems to have set the social and political tone for most of 20th-century Ireland among men.
“Boyle has charm and he has storytelling ability, but you know he's basically a very lazy self-centered guy,” says O'Reilly.
“O'Casey writes the last play eight or nine years after the fact and in that time the vents had become sacred as you know to so many. He did not pull any punches as he shows us the mess that was experienced by most people in the Rising."
"Everybody who claimed they were at the post office could not possibly have been there and O'Casey also had the courage to write about all the looting and to write about how half the city were saying to hell with these rebels you know for ruining our day.”
So that's three classic Irish plays by the same celebrated author back to back in the middle of New York City, where the Rep's deep engagement with Irish history, culture and politics seriously enriches the life of the city.
In Ireland where you stand often literally determines what you see. From the leafy suburbs of South Dublin to the housing estates of Limerick to the walled-off communities of East and West Belfast, geography has always been a part of our destinies.
Irish playwright Sean O'Casey was no different and he has as much to say to New York and the United States in 2019 as he once did to Ireland in the 1920's.
Book your tickets now before they sell out, this is certain to be the theater highlight of the year. For tickets visit irishrep.org or call 212-727-2737.