Guided by Stars

The Starry Plough flag, at the Irish National Museum, Collins Barracks

We are going through a period in our history that feels like a Rubicon crossing. Decisions made now will have ramifications that will be long, deep and unperceived from our current viewing spot. Brexit was one of those ramifying decisions, and the U.S. presidential election is another.

Historians are good at naming those moments where a vortex is encountered, and certainly the Western world went through one following World War I. Having recently been in the Habsburg capital of Vienna, I was reminded of how quickly the topographic distribution of power can shift. How many anticipated how quickly one of Europe’s most powerful dynasties would come to an abrupt end?

(And of course Vienna played a crucial part in the events that led to a second World War. Adolph Hitler, a footloose and forlornly lost 17 year old, came to Vienna and decided he wanted to study at the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He sat for the two day exam and was completely dumbfounded when he was not accepted. He tried once more and was rejected again. How can we not wonder what might have happened had the outcome been different.)

The vortex of change at the end of World War I has a particularly important Irish version as well. This year is the Centenary celebration of the Easter Rising that began in Dublin, a rebellion that eventually led to the Irish Free State declared in 1922. While I was visiting friends in the southwest of Ireland last May, I heard many regional accounts of how the rebellion played out in that remote corner of the Emerald Isle. And as part of this year long commemoration, friend and artist Cormac Boydell created a gorgeous series of ceramic pieces heralding the rich Irish lineage of stories, icons and legends. (For more examples of his work, click here.)

The Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s premiere theater—founded by none other than W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904—is currently in Boston to perform one of Ireland’s most seminal plays about the battle for Home Rule, The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey. Named after the Starry Plough constellation that was used on the banner of the Irish Citizen Army, the play was met with controversy when it was first performed in 1926. O’Casey was no apologist for the rebellion, and his overtly political play questions many of the decisions that led to the bloody feud that continued to fester until very recently. But this is an essential narrative to all things Irish, a narrative that is captured so poignantly when visiting Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery as well as the National Museum of Ireland at the Collins Barracks.

The Abbey Theatre’s production preserves the historical events of 1916 as seen through the eyes of a group of Dubliners, but the play is staged in a brutally post-industrial, urban wasteland that brings the story into a contemporary context. The fate of these characters is harsh as is the landscape of their lives. O’Casey does not delve into his characters in depth—his approach suggests E. M. Forster‘s description of Charles Dickens‘ characters as “flat but vibrating furiously.” But O’Casey’s play still honors the redemptive qualities of Irish unflappability and indefatigableness. Those qualities, ones that have carried the Irish forward as a nation with a unique proclivity for expressiveness and artful storytelling, are evident even in this tragic account of rebellion and loss.

The Plough and the Stars runs at Am Rep in Cambridge through October 9.

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