Rehearsals are currently well underway in Druid for their forthcoming production of Sean O’Casey’s powerful anti-war play The Silver Tassie, which opens at the Town Hall on August 23rd.
This sweeping play follows the lives of two young footballing heroes from the tenements of Dublin through the battlefields of France, and their return home. Using all the resources of the theatre including live music and dance, this is an epic staging of one of O’Casey’s great plays.
Tony Award-winner Garry Hynes directs a cast of 19 – Druid’s biggest ever company of actors – and welcomes back some Druid favourites including Aaron Monaghan, Eamon Morrissey and Derbhle Crotty.
The Tassie is famous as the play which occasioned O’Casey’s acrimonious split with the Abbey in 1928 following its rejection by W. B. Yeats, and the fall-out from that has cast a long shadow over perceptions of the play, as Garry Hynes readily acknowledges when she meets up to discuss her new production of the work.
“The history of the play is so fractious that it’s very hard to get a clear perspective on it,” she observes. “I know that as a theatre artist I still can’t read Yeats’ rejection letter without a shiver going down my spine. It’s an extraordinarily cruel letter to a writer, it’s extraordinarily blind in its assessment of the play and it’s an incredible letter for a writer who had essentially saved the Abbey with the Dublin plays to receive, it’s an incredible letter to receive when he stepped away from the world of those plays to write something else very brave and challenging. The history of the play doesn’t do it any favours. O’Casey’s problem was that he was so outraged by it - as he was entitled to be - that he published the correspondence.”
Hynes continues, “It’s a bit like The Playboy; I’ve always said I’ve longed to read some commentary on The Playboy that doesn’t include the fact that peope rioted at the first production and I long to read something about The Silver Tassie that doesn’t include the controversy over the Abbey’s rejection of it. The play was eventually produced on the equivalent of the West End directed by Raymond Massey, it wasn’t particularly successful and O’Casey is known to have regretted that he didn’t have actors of the kind he would have had in an Abbey production. For me that’s the most poignant thing because for a writer of his stature at the time it’s a very brave play and to have to produced it in those unsupported circumstances of a commercial production rather than in the Abbey was, I think, an awful thing for him. Neither the Abbey nor O’Casey’s work benefitted from the row despite the fact the Abbey subsequently staged the play in 1935”.
Each of the play’s Acts takes place in different locations, and the second Act in particular, with its nightmarish, Expressionistic depiction of the war at the Western Front, has prompted much commentary and debate. Hynes has previously remarked that the Tassie is like four plays in one, but she has come to modify this view as she works on this staging; “I would now say it isn’t like four plays and that’s a discovery made in the process of preparing for production and rehearsing it.
The second Act is extraordinary but it is fundamental to his intentions for the whole play. While it may be the most achieved aspect of what he was trying to do it doesn’t, in my view, necessarily stand alone in the play. I’m hoping that while it is an extraordinary piece of dramatic writing that in the eventual production it will be seen as part of a whole rather than something extraneous. I think the entire play is an experiment in form. O’Casey grew up with Boucicault , with the music hall, he played Fr Dolan in a production of The Shaughraun, and he was absolutely precocious in his robbing of sources. O’Casey had this extraordinary theatrical imagination and in The Silver Tassie he takes a step further with that. I think had the play gone through the process of a production in a supportive environment God knows where O’Casey would have gone afterwards but the fact is that he lived an isolated existence as a professional writer and I don’t think that did him or the Irish theatre any good.”
Music is a major element in The Silver Tassie and Hynes has recruited West End composer Elliot Davis to act as musical director and composer for the production. One innovation he has brought to the play is in his treatment of the songs that run through the second Act and which O’Casey had envisaged being rendered as semi-liturgical plainchants. “The plainchants are interesting but we felt that to sustain them over an entire act wouldn’t work because it becomes too similar,” Hynes notes. “We have used an element of chant in it but Elliot has set O’Casey’s lyrics in a mixture of musical styles.”
The play powerfully portrays the terrible human cost of the Great War and is unflinching in its depiction of the emonotional trauma of wounded soldiers unable to pick up the threads of their former lives. That portrayal rings just as true for the ongoing conflicts of our own day, as Hynes recognises. “Frank McGuinness has written a programme note for us and he talks about how angry and cruel the play is and it is an absolute howl of outrage at the awfulness and waste and destruction of war,” she declares. “The Great War occupies a very strange cultural place in Irish history; when I was at school in the sixties, the only thing we learned that happened between 1910 and 1920 was the Easter Uprising.
This huge thing was hardly even referred to despite the fact that 150,000 Irish soldiers volunteered and that so many of them died; FX Martin has called it the Great Oblivion. Then again, if you think of images of the funerals of soldiers coming back from Iraq, despite the fact that the Tassie deals with the Great War, it’s all too contemporary.”
Wrapping up our interview, Hynes concludes, “This is a huge production for us with a cast of 19. I’d like to think from an audience point of view it represents a change of pace and focus for us. We are all enjoying it and I hope audiences will as well.”
No doubt we will. The Silver Tassie runs at the Town Hall from Monday, August 23rd, to Saturday, September 7th and then goes on tour.