Theater archives

Prisoner of the Crown’s Hero: Traitor or Greater?


Patriot and traitor, liberator and exploiter, hero and failure—you could hardly find a more dramatic central figure for a play than Roger Casement (1864­–1916). Knighted for his services to the British crown and executed five years later for treason to the same crown, Casement sits on a pivotal page of European history, the human equivalent of a Rorschach blot: Your view of his story tends to reveal more about yourself than about him.

Even what’s left of Casement’s corpse still offers discomfiting multiple meanings: Buried at London’s Pentonville prison after his execution for treason in wartime, his remains were dug up in 1965 and reburied, with full military honors, in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery—an affront to many, since his last request had been for burial at his boyhood home, near Antrim, in Northern Ireland. Nobody’s even sure the skeleton shipped to Glasnevin was actually his. One of the more imaginative treatments of the case, David Rudkin’s 1974 radio play Cries From Casement, imagines the ghost of the poisoner Wainwright, also hanged at Pentonville, objecting vociferously to having his bones mingled with Casement’s.

Nothing quite that surreal occurs in Prisoner of the Crown, the time-jumbled but otherwise largely straightforward dramatization of Casement’s story, by Richard F. Stockton and Richard T. Herd, currently onstage at the Irish Rep in a sharp, snappily paced production by Ciaran O’Reilly. Much of Stockton and Herd’s script is historically arguable, and in their anxiety to present Casement as an Irish hero, they miss some of his significance to the larger world, but O’Reilly keeps the scenes whizzing by so authoritatively that any argument gets postponed till later.

Casement’s consciousness of his Irish identity came late. An indigent army officer’s son, orphaned early and raised by well-connected Protestant relatives, he worked his way up from a clerk’s desk in a shipping company to fairly high posts in the British consular service. With the leverage these gave him, he became one of the leading human-rights crusaders of his time. Posted in 1904 to what was politely called the Congo Free State— essentially run by Belgium’s King Leopold as his private domain—Casement published reports, replete with stomach-turning details, on the torture and mutilation by which workers on the royal rubber plantations were kept in line. The resulting uproar changed history: Leopold’s “free state” became a government-administered Belgian colony, which hardly increased the natives’ happiness, but sharply reduced the incidence of torture and mutilation. The news also sharply reduced the number of King Leopold’s public appearances, while Casement became an international hero, the patron saint of every nascent liberation movement.

He repeated the process when transferred to a similar post in a rubber- producing region of Peru, exposing equally lethal practices by the area’s industrial moguls; some historians believe that his campaign saved the Putumayo Indians from being worked into extinction. By the time King George V knighted him—at a ceremony which his tropically acquired malaria and exhaustion made him too weak to attend—a fair number of Englishmen must have viewed his name as a synonym for “hero.”

Of all this, Stockton and Herd say almost nothing, perhaps because what follows, and makes up the main body of their play, is considerably more complex. Having been knighted by England for his battle to liberate the natives of the Congo and the Putumayo, he came home and began his efforts to liberate the natives of Ireland from the British. He traveled to America, urging Irish Americans to supply money and guns for Irish rebels. Ironically mirroring his activities, Sir Frederick Smith—who as attorney general would shortly oversee Casement’s prosecution—was abetting the flow of arms to Northern Ireland’s British Empire loyalists. One of Stockton and Herd’s more egregious errors is to depict the Crown’s case as a matter of personal animosity between the two men. But the larger issues were real enough: When World War I broke out, Casement went to Germany, attempting to raise a rebel regiment among the Irish POWs.

His effort was futile: However much they hated King George, the Irish Tommies didn’t view Kaiser Wilhelm as any improvement. Meant to coincide with the 1916 Easter Week uprising in Dublin, the planned regimental landing never took place. Instead, a U-boat put Casement ashore by himself at Tralee Bay, where he was immediately arrested. The legal situation was a knotty one: Casement had not committed espionage; since his speeches urging rebellion had been made on German soil, it was not even clear that he had committed treason. The matter literally came down to a courtroom dispute over the placement of a comma in an ancient Norman statute. Nevertheless, any English jury in 1916 would unquestionably have found him guilty; Stockton and Herd’s second most dubious tactic is their effort to squeeze 12-angry-men-style melodrama from the jury’s deliberations. Given Casement’s earlier popularity, the ambiguity of the case, and the bitterness in Ireland over the crushing of the Easter Rebellion, the only real question was whether England would commute his death sentence or manufacture another Irish martyr by hanging him.

England quelled the clemency petitioners by the discreet circulation of pages from what became known as the “black diaries”: eyebrow-raising journal entries detailing Casement’s homosexual adventures among the nonwhite natives of the areas where he had battled slavery. Their authenticity has been much challenged—the jury is still out on this point—but it seems hard to imagine the wartime Home Office taking the trouble, much less having the finesse, to forge them convincingly. Many gays, not unreasonably, view Casement as a man martyred by rebels and Union Jackers alike for his sexual preference. He himself made no comment on the subject, unless the diaries constitute one. Deciding whose hero—or how much of a hero—Casement was remains a puzzle. Stockton and Herd juggle its pieces informatively, if sometimes unhelpfully. Philip Goodwin, pale and grave, embodies him persuasively at the head of a solidly effective cast that zips from role to role with ease, aided by Brian Nason’s swiftly changing lights.