As our neighbors in the UK grapple with the fallout over Brexit, Ireland is much further along in making its peace with its challenging past

As master Irish playwright Sean O'Casey reminds us in The Plough And The Stars (now playing at The Irish Rep in Manhattan) political revolutions come at a cost.

But in The Plough And The Stars, the big guns aren't produced right away. First, the Irish public has to be carefully primed for their appearance. Playwright Sean O'Casey picks a controversial herald for this project: Patrick Pearse.

Before the Rising, Pearse was often dismissed by the people who should have taken him seriously, because to others he struck a heroic figure and he knew how to incite them with his gifted oratory.

Onstage, but half obscured from our view, director Charlotte Moore has an actor play Pearse behind a scrim, as through the prism of history, without ever quite appearing in the light of day.

That decision means that we are simply free to focus on what Pearse is saying instead. He's calling for an armed insurrection, he's calling for open conflict, the truth is he's calling for blood.

There's no question that O'Casey was leery of both the man and his methods, but like Yeats, he still gives him some of his due in this disturbing and unforgettable tragedy about the violent birth of the Irish Republic.

More precisely, O'Casey focuses on the most atavistic aspects of Pearse's writing and oratory and ignores the something else about him that many other writers and historians have remarked on: the weird light in his eyes, his faith in the sacrifice he was making, the time of year that he picked to do it, and the sense that contemporaries had of him that he looked like the future moving through the present.

John Keating, Adam Petherbridge and Clare O’Malley in The Plough and The Stars.

John Keating, Adam Petherbridge and Clare O’Malley in The Plough and The Stars.

O'Casey's politics made him skeptical of armed nationalism of any stripe, which of course set him on a collision course with the conservative mandarins of the newly minted Republic. It took him ten years to get to grips with the legacy of 1916, and this play shows you exactly why.

In the still raw atmosphere of 1926, when the play was first produced at The Abbey, it was greeted with a riot over its portrayal of Pearse, who had in the decade before the play opened attained the status of a saint or martyr for many. He was not to be interrogated, he was only to be adored.

But asking if Pearse's sacrifice meant anything to the working class who were living in squalor in the Dublin tenements (and who were living in squalor still) is a question that was very worth asking.

If we have learned anything from the first 100 years of the new Republic, it's to ask the hard questions now that O'Casey was once asking of his own outraged contemporaries.

Putting too much faith in our idols is a dangerous business he warned us, and after a century of giving unquestioning allegiance to a succession of clerics and political leaders, we have finally learned that he was right.

So in a real sense, we become O'Casey's contemporaries at last. After the Potemkin village, we were living in was thoroughly exposed that is, the changes that came to Ireland have come relatively quickly.

Michael Mellamphy, Sarah Street, Harry Smith, Robert Langdon Lloyd

Michael Mellamphy, Sarah Street, Harry Smith, Robert Langdon Lloyd

But when you're living through moments of revolutionary upheaval you don't have time to reflect on all the wherefores and the whys of it, especially if your life was already hardscrabble to begin with.

When The Plough And The Stars opens, we are introduced to Fluther Good (Michael Mellamphy) and Mrs. Grogan (Una Clancy) two salt of the earth Dubs with a gift for the telling phrase (that tells more about them than they intend).

The lively pair are opining on the doings of their neighbors with so much cheerful Irish malevolence that, as it's played by the two gifted actors, the scene is almost set to music, opening up the world of the play but barely giving a hint of what awaits the characters or the audience.

Soon Nora Clitheroe (Clare O'Malley) appears a young wife who's determined not to let her lowly status as a tenement dweller disrupt her plans for the future with her husband Jack (Adam Petherbridge). O'Malley's character reminds us that revolutions have a body count and it's often young women like herself who are left behind.

Una Clancy and Maryann Plunkett

Una Clancy and Maryann Plunkett

But O'Casey doesn't let anyone off the hook. We learn Nora's husband Jack has abandoned the Irish Citizen's Army because he didn't get the promotion he felt he merited. It's his vanity, not his concern for his wife's pleas for his safety, that is the deciding factor here.

Men share a common trait in each of the three classic Dublin cycle-plays currently being staged by the Rep - they're mostly blowhards, in love with their own voices. It's the women who offer the best assessment of where all the guns and garrisons will end up and it's the women who suffer the most when they finally fall silent.

Playing a character called The Young Covey, actor James Russell is a clear stand-in for the author as he punctures the pretensions of the men and women around him. Russell's character baits Nora's elderly uncle Peter Flynn (Robert Langdon Lloyd) hilariously and relentlessly and the mockery comes from a real disdain for a sentimental nationalism that ignores the class struggle.

Adam Petherbridge and Clare O'Malley as Nora and Jack Clitheroe in The Plough and The Stars

Adam Petherbridge and Clare O'Malley as Nora and Jack Clitheroe in The Plough and The Stars

In this play, it's as if everyone onstage represents the disparate parts of a whole person, where it possible to assemble them all together. Bessie Burgess (Maryann Plunkett in a portrait so finely wrought you are transported to Dublin the moment she appears) is a fiery unionist who blasts her neighbors for their Fenian treachery, yet still finds time to gently nurse Mrs. Grogan's consumptive daughter, despite her hostility to her mother's views.

Rosie Redmond (Sarah Street) is a prostitute who offers the most clear-eyed assessment of the times and men around her, but like women in the Republic that will soon be born, she won't be acknowledged or listened to. 

Everyone in this play, right down to the British soldiers, believe that it's everyone else that is the cause of their woes, they never see their own part in it. That's the very essence of tragedy and that's what makes the Rep's cycle of his plays so timely now: we live in an age where loyalties are being divided again by zip code and ethnicity and we are clearly in for the same tragic immolations that always follow too.

When the Rising happens almost no one in O'Casey's working class Dublin slum supports it. They want a quiet life, to be left alone, to not be caught up in a firestorm. But as the body count mounts and lines are drawn indifference becomes impossible.

Harry Smith and Rory Duffy play British soldiers in The Plough and The Stars

Harry Smith and Rory Duffy play British soldiers in The Plough and The Stars

When circumstances ask Jack to choose between his love of his wife and his love of his country, he barely hesitates. He takes off, rifle in hand, leaving her stunned. But ambivalence is the lifeblood of this play.

Political change that forgets economic change is meaningless and doomed to fail, O'Casey warns us. But who wants to listen to that voice in the wilderness when the guns are going off and the blood's up?

The most poignant scene of all is shared between two young British soldiers (played poignantly by Harry Smith and Rory Duffy) at the end of the play. Caught up in a centuries-long cycle of oppression and resistance, one of them announces that he's a socialist but nevertheless here he is, oppressing other working-class citizens in another country to protect the interests of the mighty.

They're as lost as the people they have oppressed. The curtain falls.

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