When in 1929 Sean O'Casey submitted his newest play, The Silver Tassie, at his usual stomping ground, the Abbey Theatre, co-founder W. B. Yeats looked it over and said a resounding no. Lord knows what he made of it. What to make of it now remains a challenge even as the valiant Galway-based Druid Theatre Company brings the rarely seen piece to the John Jay College's Gerald W. Lynch Theater as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2011.
And that's even when today's audiences can boast familiarity with enterprises like, naming three, Joan Littlewood's Oh! What a Lovely War, Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The shock today is that these relatively accessible theater pieces resemble O'Casey's crazy-quilt of a play so much that the only conclusion to draw is their indisputably having been influenced by the obscure earlier work.
O'Casey himself only got around to this infuriated anti-war screed more than a decade after the armistice -- the same year, as it happens, that R. C. Sherriff penned the devastating Journey's End. The implication is it took that long for the English and Irish to look back at the decade during which so many of the young male population was cruelly obliterated.
But whereas Sherriff perhaps made the wiser decision to write a traditional drama, O'Casey -- in four (brief) acts -- preferred to achieve his angry ends through shifting theatrical tones. As a result, he opens with two virtual vaudeville characters, Sylvester Heegan (Eamon Morrissey) and Simon Norton (John Olohan), who nowadays instantly conjure Waiting for Godot's Estragon and Vladimir performing a routine.
Following quickly on their clownish exchange, the pair blend into a scene sending up other stereotypical Irish figures like God-fearing and God-espousing nurse Susie Monican (Clare Dunne), bull-dozing but frightened wife Mrs. Foran (Marion O'Dwyer) and her abusive, china-smashing husband Teddy (Liam Carney). Taking the proceedings over is footballer (meaning soccer player, of course) Harry Heegan (Garrett Lombard), who's just won a silver tassie (read, championship cup) that establishes his prowess while also serving as a symbol of the shining prospects the nation's youth represented as they left for the battle field.
And keep an eye on what eventually happens to that titular tassie.
In the second act -- also marked by symbols such as a large crucifix at one side of the set and at the other a soldier whose arms are spread and chained -- O'Casey calls for a succession of grim music-hall songs as soldiers initially endure trench-warfare boredom and then prepare for "going over the top" to wage futile battle.
The third act runs along the lines of a sweet-and-sour burlesque sketch with Sylvester and Simon malingering in hospital while Harry, whose legs are paralyzed, restlessly wheels himself back and forth. Only in the final, most cynical act does the crusading playwright go realistic, allowing the main characters -- Harry again foremost -- to demonstrate at a post V-Day dance society's irrevocably moving on as the maimed are neglected or totally forgotten. This last act could be the one that connects most effectively with contemporary audiences, since -- whether it's called "shell shock,' as it was during and after World War I, or post-traumatic stress disorder, as it is now -- the condition's manifestation is recognizably the same.
When boldly handing herself this assignment, Druid founder Garry Hynes -- destined to be remembered as the first woman to win a directing Tony (for The Beauty Queen of Leenane) -- undoubtedly knew she was taking a big risk. Some ticket buyers are going to be exhilarated by the act-to-act shifts, just as others will be thrown -- not to mention that the thick accents will go down smoothly with many but may confound just as many others.
Nevertheless, Hynes has persisted and -- with the immeasurable aide of set designer Francis O'Connor--has given the play a stunning look. Predominating are dizzyingly high walls painted the color of dried blood. In act two the walls are mostly obscured by an imposing tank perched atop a deep trench that's book-ended by the Christ and Christ-like figures. The implication of the design is that what the audience is watching is deliberately stylized. Some will get the point; some -- perhaps judging from a narrower esthetic -- will resist it. Sound designer John Leonard and lighting designer Davy Cunningham also contribute importantly.
Hynes's cast is uniformly strong -- whether in O'Connor's military costumes or in his evocative street clothes. Lombard, massively shirtless in act two, makes Harry's losses (particularly of girlfriend Jessie Taite, played by Charlie Murphy) painfully acute. Morrissey and Olohan execute their tandem scenes as if they've long been a comedy team. O'Dwyer's Mrs. Foran is a barrel of energy, and Carney's Teddy Foran gives terrifying a good showing. Dunne is amusingly didactic about the deity's omnipresence, even as O'Casey unloads evidence it just ain't so.
During the second act in a song called "Ode to the Gun," the weary but beautifully harmonizing warriors repeat the hard-nosed phrase "We believe in God/And we believe in thee," -- "thee," meaning the guns they shoulder. (Elliot Davis is the production songwriter.) In "Stretcher Bearer's Song," the solders chant the lyric, "There's no more to be said/For when we are dead/We may understand it all." The fervent declaration is the opposite of promising, but it aptly catches the spirit of what O'Casey believed and how he chose to air it.