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From Somme to Silver Tassie: Seán O’Casey & the Contested Legacy of 1916
Sketch of Seán O'Casey by Reginald V. Gray Photo: New York Times

From Somme to Silver Tassie: Seán O’Casey & the Contested Legacy of 1916

by Ed Mulhall

In the final scene of Sean O’Casey’s play about 1916, The Plough and the Stars, two British soldiers guard the dead bodies of a working class Loyalist woman and two children in the attic of a Dublin tenement. They drink tea and sing the army marching song “Keep the Home Fires Burning”. As the playwright Frank McGuinness has observed they are “turning the song into a universal longing to return to the Eden of where one belongs, far from every battle field”. It was inevitable then, says McGuinness, that O’Casey would turn next to the First World War in his next play as he did with The Silver Tassie. McGuinness’s own World War One play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching toward the Somme was seen by Fintan O’Toole in its first production as the re-introduction to the Irish theatre of the neglected heritage of the late Sean O’Casey: “its expressionism, its use of religious language, its concern with the First World War, its probing of the power of Protestantism, it takes up after more than 50 years some of the impulses that the Abbey rejected when it turned down The Silver Tassie.” The nature of that rejection, in particular as articulated by W.B. Yeats, speaks directly to the contested legacies of 1916 on this island and to the role of the artist in confronting them. For in The Silver Tassie, just as with Observe the Sons of Ulster, over 50 years later, O’Casey was giving voice to the silenced victims of the Somme.

No battle is mentioned in the O’Casey play; the landscape is deliberately distorted to represent the discord of war: “…a scene of jagged and lacerated ruins of what was once a monastery. Every feature of the scene seems a little distorted from its original appearance.” The only road sign is an ironic one “Hyde Park Corner”. It is however clearly France and most likely mid-war; the soldiers at the battle-field, like those in Observe, have recently returned from leave. There has been a recent ‘great push’, the soldiers have been waiting for thirty days, the Germans are about to start a counter offensive and it is before November (as a key character looks forward to that month as his possible doom). The combat unit is an artillery unit (from possibly the 31st Division) and is mainly English with some Irish included, perhaps reflecting the situation after the first day of the battle when many units had to be reformed due to the heavy causalities. The Somme also loomed large in the civilian memory of the war, thanks to a film of The Battle of the Somme which, according to a biographer, O’Casey was likely to have seen in Dublin in the Theatre Royal in September 1916. But the play is not about historical representation. It is about finding the truth of the experience from the words of the characters. This was a truth O’Casey felt he knew from a lifetime of listening to those in Dublin who had fought in previous wars: his uncle who had been wounded in Balaclava; a brother who had fought with the Dublin Fusiliers in the Boer War; a brother who had enlisted for the First World War, but principally from those soldiers whom he met, talked with and sang with in Dublin and in England, particularly those men he met in two hospitals, St Vincent’s and The Richmond.

Wounded soldiers arrive in Dublin from the front in 1914. (Image: Irish Life, 13 Nov 1914. Full collection of Irish Life available at the National Library of Ireland)

O’Casey spent some time in St. Vincent’s hospital on Stephen’s Green in August 1915. It was being used as a field hospital for the front and the first casualties home from the landings at Gallipoli. O’Casey was there when news of the disaster at Suvla was becoming known. The mix in the wards of St Vincent’s of civilian patients and the wounded from battle is thought to be a model for Act III of The Silver Tassie. But there was an added poignancy when O’Casey’s surgeon Richard Tobin heard that his son Paddy was one of the 174 out of 250 of D Company of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers not to return. O’Casey described Tobin, who was deafened from his own war service, leaning in to patients anxiously to catch some word of the overseas battleground …“he seemed to think that when he was close to them, he was closer to his son”. In one of those other ironies of history Richard Tobin was later to attend to O’Casey’s friend and comrade James Connolly in the days prior to his execution.

O’Casey’s mentions of The Richmond Hospital, on North Brunswick Street in the North inner city, are even more intriguing. This hospital in the grounds of a larger mental institution was assigned specifically for soldiers who were victims of shell shock and other mental disorders. It began this function in mid June of 1916 with Somme casualties then most likely amongst its first patients. Witnessing survivors with such emotional scarring is bound to have contributed to the emotions evident in the final two Acts of The Tassie.

O’Casey also said he followed the progress of the War in great detail but it was the appreciation of two lyrics which inspired him to begin writing the play. The first was a striking miner singing the Robbie Burns song The Silver Tassie which has the verse

But it’s no’ the roar of sea or shore
Wad mak’ me langer wish tae tarry
Nor shout o war that’s heard afar-
It’s leavin thee, my bonnie lassie.

The second was a poem by Wilfred Owen, “Disabled”, written during a time spent in a field hospital in France and published posthumously in 1920. The poem contains the basic plot of the play; a former footballer once carried shoulder high now disabled by his war wounds, looks on as “the women’s eyes passed from him to the strong men that were whole”.

The Silver Tassie opens in familiar O’Casey territory, a room in East Wall Dublin, home of a docker’s family, the Heegans. The war context is immediate as a visitor, Susie Monican, is polishing a Lee Enfield rifle. In the room are the Heegan husband and wife and their friend Simon Norton. The talk is of religion and of the daring deeds of the Heegan son. Soon it is clear that there is anxiety present, waiting for the son to return from a football match and concern that it might make him overdue for his return to the trenches. Connecting the occasion with the soccer street leagues of the time in which East Wall was particularly prominent, gives both a social and community context to the events. Joined by their ‘working class’ neighbour Mrs Foran it is clear that some of the anxiety on the women’s part is due to their need to hold on to their separation allowances. When the soldiers arrive, first Ted Foran, then Harry Heegan and his friend Barney fresh from the soccer field and a cup victory (and followed by Harry’s girlfriend Jess), all the tensions and ambiguities play out in typical O’Casey fashion: the footballing hero reluctant to leave, the struggle between the girls for his attention, the worry about missing the deadline and all mixed with the usual knockabout comedy between the couples. They leave for war with the victory cup singing 'The Silver Tassie'.

In Act II everything changes. The stage directions set the scene:

In the war zone: a scene of jagged and lacerated ruin of what was once a monastery. At back a lost wall and window are indicated by an arched piece of broken coping pointing from left to right, and a similar piece of masonry pointing from the right to the left. Between these two lacerated figures of stone can be seen the country stretching to the horizon where the front trenches are. Here and there heaps of rubbish mark where houses once stood. From some of these, lean, dead hands are protruding. Further on spiky stumps of trees which were once a small wood. The ground is dotted with rayed and shattered shell holes. Across the horizon in the red glare can be seen the crisscross pattern of the barbed wire bordering the trenches. In the sky sometimes a green star, sometimes a white star burns.

Front page of Irish Life showing the ruins of Rheims cathedral in 1914, similar to the condition of he monastery as outlined in the stage directions. (Image: Irish Life, 24 Dec 1914. Full collection of Irish Life available at the National Library of Ireland)

Part of the monastery is being used as a Red Cross station but some religious symbols remain “in the wall figure of the Virgin, white faced wearing a black robe lights inside making the figure vividly apparent and a life sized crucifix, an arm released by a shell so the figure leans forward the released arm outstretched to the virgin”. Beside the crucifix is a gun wheel with Barney from Act I tied to it. Only Barney and one other is identified, all the other soldiers are listed by number or function (stretcher bearer etc), though one is said to look like Teddy. Their individual identities lost to the war. In the centre of the stage is a big howitzer gun, a brazier with a fire burning and above the scene on a ramp a crouched figure. O’Casey's author’s note describes him: “The Croucher’s make up should come as close as possible to a death’s head, a skull: and his hands should show like those of a skeleton. He should look languid as if tired of life.” Soldiers will enter; “in a close mass, as if each was keeping the other from falling, utterly weary and tired out. They should look as if they were almost locked together.”

It is a startling scene, offering great opportunities to directors and designers to create a stunning visual experience. (I recall two contrasting but impactful interpretations, in Hugh Hunt’s production of 1979, John Kavanagh’s Croucher was almost a skull on top of the armaments, a disembodied voice echoing across the landscape., In Garry Hynes’s Druid production of 2010, a large military tank dominated the scene with massive metal authority.)

But the discord and impact of the scene are not just visual. Throughout the act the soldier speaks in a plain chant, sometimes, as with Croucher, in a psalm-like biblical language, often with the ordinary soldier using Cockney rhymes while from the church ruin is heard the sound of the Mass rite. Only the arrival of officers breaks these echoing choruses and even their language is the barked formal orders of military drill. 

The tone is set by the Croucher figure who takes on Ecclesiastes:

And the hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of a valley and I looked and saw a great multitude that stood upon their feet, an exceeding great army.
And he said unto me, Son of man, can this exceeding great army become a valley of dry bones?
..And I answered O Lord God, thou knowest.
And he said, prophesy and say unto the wind, come from the four winds a breath and breathe upon these living that they may die.
And I prophesied and the breath came out of them, and the sinews came away from them and behold a shaking, and their bones fell asunder, bone from his bone, and they died, and the exceeding great army became a valley of dry bones.

Right through this are heard as a counter point the 'Kyrie' and 'Gloria' from the broken monastery. Then the soldiers enter weary preparing for war.

Throughout the Act this interplay continues between the religious symbols and the reality of the soldiers’ experience. Sometimes with grim satirical impact; the tied prisoner on his cross is there for stealing fowl; an officer nearly lights a match on the crucifix before being stopped. Often it is in the doubts of the soldiers: “there’s a Gawd knocking abaht somewhere.”

The brief visit of the officers, barking orders and leaving to return the long way back for fear of shells, emphasises the major gulf between the Generals and the men they are ordering to slaughter. The final section of the Act begins with a hymn to the larger gun on the stage:

Hail Cool heartened tower of steel embossed
With the fevered, figment thoughts of man:
Guardian of our love and hate and fear,
Speak to us to the inner ear of God!

With all the soldiers singing the refrain: "We believe in God and we believe in thee."

The Act ends with an officer urgently returning and calling: "The enemy has broken through, broken through! Every man born of women to the guns, to guns.” All rush to position behind the gun which fires silently into the horizon.

'Every man born of women to the guns...': One of the large field guns brought over by the British Expeditionary Force at the outbreak of hostilites in late 1914. (Image: Irish Life, 27 Nov 1914. Full collection of Irish Life is available at the National Library of Ireland)

This battle scene is the pivotal moment of the play, for the rest sees all changed as the horror of war is brought home. Lives at home are changed forever by this war. We see this first in a field hospital back in Dublin where Sylvester and Simon from Act I mix with casualties from the war and soon all the characters from Act I assemble - their lives dramatically changed. Harry is now in a wheelchair, restless and disturbed. The group is later joined by Ted Foran, blind from battle wounds. Central to the story is Harry railing against his condition and any attempt by those around them to bring him comfort, particularly religious comfort:

I'll say to the pine, ‘Give me the grace and beauty of the beech'; I'll say to the beech, 'Give me the strength and stature of the pine'. In a net I'll catch butterflies in bunches; twist and mangle them between my fingers and fix them wriggling on to mercy's banner. I'll make my chair a juggernaut, and wheel it over the neck and spine of every daffodil that looks at me, and strew them dead to manifest the mercy of God and the justice of man!

The final act of The Silver Tassie sees Harry enact this destruction by smashing the Tassie cup itself in a scene that mirrors the cup presentation scene of Act I to devastating effect. The heroes have returned but there are different heroes now. The medals worn now are those of war service; Barney, the prisoner on the wheel in Act II, now a VC for carrying the wounded Harry from the battlefield, and now too with Harry's girl on his arm in an act of dancing that underlines the gulf between the able-bodied and the disabled. A deeper division is present between those scarred by the battle and those surviving who move on without looking back. The wine to be drunk from the cup now has a further, grimmer, symbolism: "Red wine, red like the faint remembrance of the fires in France; red wine like the poppies that spill their petals on the breasts of dead men. No, white wine, white like the stillness of the millions that have removed their clamors from the crowd of life. No, red wine; red like the blood that was shed for you and for many for the commission of sin." Harry's act in smashing the cup leaves it "mangled and bruised as I am bruised and mangled."

The two wounded veterans leave together: “the Lord hath given and man hath taken away.. Blessed be the name of the Lord!" Those remaining dance, the women characters looking forward rather than back: "It is the misfortune of war. As long as wars are waged, we shall be vexed by woe; strong legs will be made useless and bright eyes made dark. But we, who have come through the fire unharmed, must go on living."

A scene from the Druid Theatre Company's 201 production of The Silver Tassie. (Image: Druid Theatre Company)

Sean O'Casey had written a challenging play and when he submitted it to the Abbey in the Spring of 1928, it was rejected. O'Casey at the time had become the theatre's foremost playwright. His trilogy of Dublin plays had been both controversial and successful. In the aftermath of the protests about The Plough and the Stars against which W.B. Yeats had so robustly retorted, O'Casey had moved to London where his plays were also being produced regularly. So when Yeats, supported by Lady Gregory and Lennox Robinson, told him that he should withdraw the play, O'Casey was affronted and fought back. Yeats set out his reasons in a letter exchange that was soon published in the newspapers and a major debate began between the two, with other writers also taking sides in the debate. The Silver Tassie was criticised not just in terms of quality but authenticity. Bernard Shaw, joining the debate on O'Casey's side, did not accept this judgement. He wrote to O’Casey: "Now if Yeats had said ‘It's too savage: I can't stand it’ he would have been in order. You really are a ruthless ironfisted blaster and blighter of your species; and in this play there is none righteous - no, not one." (Shaw also wrote to Lady Gregory calling it 'one hell of a play' that should and will be produced and that Yeats was wrong in his judgement.)

David Krause, the editor of O'Casey's letters and long time friend of the playwright, presented the letter exchange between O'Casey and Yeats as a a dialogue to show the key areas of disagreement between them:

I am sad and discouraged; you have no subject. You were interested in the Irish Civil War, and at every moment of those plays wrote out of your own amusement with life or your sense of its tragedy; you were excited, and we all caught your excitement; you were exasperated beyond endurance by what you had seen or heard, as a man is by what happens under his window, and you moved us as Swift moved his contemporaries. But you are not interested in the Great War.

Now how do you know I am not interested in the Great War? Perhaps because I never mentioned it to you. Your statement is to me an impudently ignorant one to make, for it happens that I was and am passionately interested in the Great War. Throughout its duration I have felt and talked of nothing else; brooded, wondered and was amazed. In Dublin I talked of the Great War with friends that came to see me and with friends when I went to see them. I talked of the Great War and its terrible consequences with Lady Gregory when I stayed at Coole. I have talked of the Great War with Doctor Pilger, now the cancer expert in Dublin, who served as a surgeon on the front...And now will you tell me the name and give me the age of the human being who having eyes to see, ears to hear and hands to handle, was not interested in the Great War?

You never stood on its battlefields or walked its hospitals, and so write out of your opinions.

Do you really mean that no one should or could write about or speak about a war because no one has not stood on the battlefield? Were you really serious when you dictated that - really serious now? Was Shakespeare at Actium or Philippi? Was G.B. Shaw in the boats with the French or in the forts with the British when St Joan and Dunois made the attack that relieved Orleans? And someone, I think wrote a poem about Tír na nÓg who never took a header into the land of youth. And does war consist only of battlefields? But I have walked some of the hospital wards. I have talked and walked and smoked and sung with the blue-suited wounded men fresh from the front. I've been with the armless, the legless, the blind, the gassed and the shell-shocked; one with a head bored by shrapnel who to tack east and tack west before he could reach the point he wished to get to; with one whose head rocked like a frantic moving pendulum. Did you know "Pantosser" and did you ever speak to him? Or watch his funny, terrible antics, or listen to the gurgle of his foolish thoughts? No? Ah, it's a pity you never saw or spoke to "Pantosser”. Or did you know Barney Fay who got field punishment no.1 for stealin' poultry behind the trenches in rest camps, out in France? And does war consist only of hospital wards and battlefields?

There is no dominating character or dominating action, neither psychological unity nor unity of action, and your great power of the past has been the creation of some unique character who dominates all about him and was himself a main impulse in some action that filled the play from beginning to end.

Now is the dominating character more important than a play or is a play more important than a dominating character? I remember talking to Lady Gregory about The Plough before it was produced and I remember her saying that "The Plough mightn’t be so popular as Juno, because there wasn't in the play a character so dominating and all pervading as Juno.”, Yet The Plough is a better work than Juno.

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 deadwood that will not burn with the dramatic fire. Dramatic action is a fire that must burn up everything but itself; there should be no room in the play for anything that does not belong to it; the whole history of the world must be reduced to wallpaper in front of which the characters pose and speak. Among the things that the dramatic action must burn up are the author’s opinions; while he is writing he has no business to know anything that is not a portion of the action.

Your statements about..'psychological unity and unity of action. Dramatic action is a fire that must burn up everything but itself. The history of the world must be reduced to wallpaper. While an author is writing he has no business to know anything that is not a portion of the action.' are, to me, glib, glib, ghosts. It seems to me they have been made and will continue to be spoken for ever and ever by professors in schools for the culture and propagation of the drama (I was nearly saying the Gospel). I have held these infants in my arms a thousand times and they are all the same - fat, life-less, wrinkled things that give one a pain in the belly looking at them.

I see nothing for it but a new theme, something you have found and no newspaper writer has ever found. What business have we with anything but the unique?

And so when I have created the very, very thing you are looking for- something unique- you shout: 'take, oh, take this wine away, and for God's sake, bring me a pot of small beer’. I have pondered in my heart your expression that 'the history of the world must be reduced to wallpaper' and I find in it only the pretentious bigness of a pretentious phrase. I thank you out of mere politeness, but I must refuse even to try to do it. That is exactly, in my opinion, (there goes a cursed opinion again) what most of the Abbey dramatists are trying to do - building up, building up little worlds of wallpaper, and hiding striding life behind them. It is all very well and very easy to say that 'the dramatic action must burn up the author's opinions'. The best way, and the only way, to do that is to burn up the author himself.

O'Casey was as Krause put it 'not for burning’ and forced the Abbey to reject the play. The Silver Tassie was therefore first produced a year later in London in October of 1929. In the cast was Barry Fitzgerald whom O’Casey had earmarked for the Abbey production and a young Charles Laughton, later a major movie star, playing Harry. The sets, which included a dramatic setting for the battle-field, were by the painter Augustus John. Lady Gregory saw it and admitted she had been wrong on its merits and they should not have rejected it (for the Abbey).

Yeats’s rationale however seemed to expose a certain uneasiness in dealing with the legacy of the war. On Armistice Day, that year 1928, the tenth anniversary of the end of the war, in Dublin explosions damaged statues of the British monarchs across the city just ahead of the unveiling of the war memorial in Trinity College. That unveiling, for the Hall of Honour, was in front of war veterans and relatives of those deceased but no member of the Government.

W.B. Yeats and the Abbey Theatre rejected The Silver Tassie. (Image: National Library of Ireland)

When the Abbey finally relented and produced the play in 1935 (following a reconciliation between O'Casey and Yeats) a more deep-seated objection emerged about the way the play dealt with religious beliefs and imagery. Brinsley McNamara, author of The Valley of the Squinting Windows, resigned following objections from the Catholic Press and the play only had a short run. O’Casey entered the fray sending Yeats statements defending the play against any accusation of blasphemy. A later revival in 1951 saw further objections on this basis, most notably from Brian O' Nolan (Flann O'Brien/Myles na gCopaleen) as recounted by O'Casey in his autobiography which also shows his late reconciliation with Yeats:

Myles na gCopaleen, after the sermon, gives the priestly curse: "In the Queen's Theatre, the Abbey makes its debut with as loathsome and offensive a 'play' that has ever disgraced the Dublin boards. The second act is a perfectly plain, straightforward travesty of Catholic Church ritual. The rest is bunkum and drool.' The toll has changed into a tocsin! The Irish critics have made all the use they could of the Abbey’s first rejection of the play, and have pursued it with curious and persistent hatred; but it still refuses to lie down. Peace be still, heart of O'Casey: it is only Ireland that abuses the play now. Everywhere else the play has been accepted as a fine and courageous experiment in modern drama...But Yeats was stretched out, alone and motionless, in a grave, thrust away in a far corner of France. The battler had gone from the field. His bow was broken, and the scattered arrows lay where they had fallen. (Rose and Crown p290).

The Abbey did not produce the play again until Hugh Hunt’s production in 1972 when the North had again brought a new context to a story of British soldiers and the tragedies of conflict. When Patrick Mason directed it for the Abbey in 1990 and by 2010 and the Garry Hynes production for Druid, the political context had allowed the World War to return as the central focus. It remained an anomaly: the 1916 play, largely set in Dublin, that does not join what have become O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy.

But the Tassie lives on, the voices of the battlefield, the hospital and the dancehall, talking to a new audience, in the relevance of their own time, about the reality of war and its consequences. Frank McGuinness, writing in 2010 for the Druid programme, saw O'Casey as the angriest of playwrights: “Rage informs every line of The Silver Tassie, an ire so profound, so consuming that it threatens to tear to pieces with its energy the emotional fabric of this play."

McGuinness thus recognized, as Yeats did not, that the fire was burning: "I don't know precisely what to make of it, and O'Casey doesn't want me to, so darkly and deeply does he leave us in the pit that is the aftermath of this war, its desolation, its despair, and the brute force necessary to survive. I should then have some pity for W.B.Yeats and his infamous refusal of this masterwork for the Abbey, but as I said, pity is not an adequate response to this play in any respect. So I will fault him for not recognising that in writing The Silver Tassie with such lonely courage, O'Casey was brilliantly proving that 'out of the quarrel with others, we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry' just as Yeats himself demanded. So he leaves us this poem of a play, hearing beneath its harsh exterior its every sorrow, seeing beneath its tough fabric its every wound, sounding its tragic music of the heart, the human heart breaking."

The voices are being heard.

Ed Mulhall is a former Managing Director of RTÉ News & Current Affairs and Editorial Advisor to Century Ireland

Further Reading
Sean O’Casey, The Silver Tassie, London, 1928, 2014.
Sean O’Casey, Autobiographies 1 and 2, London, 1963,1992
Frank McGuinness, Stirring the Waters, Druid, 2010.
David Krause, Sean O’Casey, The Man and His Work, New York, 1975.
David Krause (editor), The Letters of Sean O’Casey, Volume 1. London, 1975.
Garry O’Connor, Sean O’Casey A Life, London, 1988.
Gabriel Fallon, Sean O’Casey the Man I knew, Dublin, 1965.


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