"It's a hell of a play!".
SINCE ITS APPEARANCE in 1928, most critics of Scan O'Casey's epic World War I play, The Silver Tassie, have appraised it on its literary merits (or, in the judgment of many, its lack of merit). This is because, statistically speaking, only a handful of critics have ever witnessed a live production of the play. Even those fortunate enough to number themselves among that handful have written performance reviews that are transparently "contaminated" by Yeats' s extra-literary and extra-theatrical response to the play. As one among the handful, having experienced the recent production of The Silver Tassie by Galway's Druid Theatre Company in New York, I must concur with G. B. Shaw's assessment that "It's a hell of a play." Those of us who make our living in theatre know only too well that the aesthetic value of any play is unknown until it has been embodied on the stage by a competent ensemble at the hands of a capable director. Garry Hynes is one such director and her rendering of O'Casey's masterpiece is among the most memorable theatre events I have witnessed in my career (I'm 63). Most theatre artists agree that there are many plays that don't "read" well, but "play" like a house afire in performance. The Silver Tassie is such a play.
Theatre scholar Marvin Carlson has written that "there is no literary device which can guarantee the permanence in the reader's consciousness of anything the words themselves are not at that moment considering. The multiple channels of theatrical reception, however, allow simultaneous statements to be made by a variety of presences, often with powerful emotional effect." Such was my experience of the Druid production. Consider the sensory impact in Act One alone of a blood red interior laced with blackened, stinking mold, Mrs. Foran's smoking steaks (the "scent of the bumin' would penetrate to the street"), plaster descending from the rafters, Teddy's smashing of the wedding bowl ("vividly yellow ... ornamented with crimson roses"), Mrs. Heegan's "chills residin' in my bones," the lilting Dublin brogues of Simon and Sylvester, Harry quaffing burgundy wine from the cup before sampling Jessie's lips, the ship's siren blowing in the distance in competition with a triumphant, rousing chorus (accompanied by concertina) of the strains of "The Silver Tassie."
Then, in Act Two, director Hynes integrates a subtle visual allusion to John Singer Sargent's Great War mural, "Gassed" (during the "Stretcher Bearer's Song") the sound (and sight!) of rain at the front, the percussive potential of the soldier's helmets, music hall melodies, elegy and plain chant (arguably composer Elliot Davis's most significant gift to the production), dance and stylized movement (contributed by David Bolger and Vanessa Lefrancois) and the concussive sound of the howitzer as it pivots in place and fires.
I could detail the sensations of Acts Three and Four, but you get the point. O'Casey's play is a gesamtkuntswerk, an example of "total theatre" at its best. Despite the comic turns of Simon and Sylvester, The Silver Tassie, in the words of Frank McGuinness, is "the cruelest play in all Irish literature." Contrary to Yeats's assertion that O'Casey was "not interested in the Great War," the play is an enduring testament to the horrifying disconnect between the torture of the trenches and the smug jingoism of the home front. Critic Fintan O'Toole has rightly remarked that "Hynes's Tassie is not a play about war at all. It is a play about the way societies develop the capacity not to know about war." Many critics have misinterpreted Susie's ironic remarks at the conclusion of the play--"As long as wars are waged, we shall be vexed by woe; strong legs shall be made useless and bright eyes made dark. But we, Who have come through the fire unharmed, must go on living" as evidence of O'Casey's intention to celebrate life at the the expense of the maimed.
They couldn't be more wrong. And for all of us that fiddle while Rome bums, O'Casey's message is as relevant today as it was when Yeats saw fit to deprive it of an audience.
BY JOHN COUTRYMAN
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|Title Annotation:||The Silver Tassie|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Theater review|
|Date:||Mar 16, 2012|
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