In 1928, Sean O’Casey presented a copy of his latest play, The Silver Tassie, to the London impresario Sir Barry Jackson. Jackson wouldn’t stage it. “You’ve written a fine play, a terrible play,” he told O’Casey. “I dare not put it on.” Soon the triumviral heads of the Abbey Theatre, who had seen their seats and coffers filled by O’Casey’s earlier work, declined the play as well. W.B. Yeats, the script’s harshest critic, told O’Casey that Tassie had “no dominating character, no dominating action, neither psychological unity or unity of action.” O’Casey’s considered reply: “Aristotle is all balls.”
The current revival, by Ireland’s Druid Theatre Company at the Lincoln Center Festival, both confirms and explodes Yeats’s tetchy denigration. There is indeed a marked stylistic break between the second act and the others. While acts I, III, and IV take place in familiar Dublin locales—a tenement room, a hospital ward, a football club—the second act occurs on a battlefield somewhere in France. Staged by director Garry Hynes in the shadow of an enormous tank, it alternates popular songs with misquoted bits of liturgy. The scene forms a perverse mass that viciously satirizes the expediencies that send the young to die and the creeds that justify such a sacrifice.
Yet there’s more unity here than you might think. Francis O’Connor’s set for the first act, with its towering ceilings and blood-red walls, provides a bridge from the naturalism of the opening scene to the expressionism of the second. And Harry Heegan (Garrett Lombard), the footballer borne home triumphant on the shoulders of his pals at the close of the first act, reappears in the second, as a demonic figure, referred to in the script as “the Croucher,” who stands atop the tank intoning lines from the Book of Ezekiel. It’s an unusual doubling—and O’Casey would likely have disapproved of it—but it’s Hynes’s attempt to provide the play with the dominating character Yeats thought it needed.
In 2011, from our post-post-modernist vantage, the dark poetry of the second act makes perfect sense. The devastation of trench warfare would seem to necessitate stylistic disunity—that is, if we imagine the theater can compass it at all. But the play’s lack of a central figure is still a puzzler. As Heegan is absent from all but the end of the first act and is almost unrecognizable in the second, the Tassie’s denunciation of the terrible costs that war exacts feels somewhat impersonal. We meet Heegan again in the third act, now confined to a wheelchair, but we don’t know him well enough to really feel what he now suffers. Indeed, the characters who emerge most clearly are an ancillary chorus composed of Heegan’s father, Sylvester (Eamon Morrissey), and friend Simon (John Olohan), a bowler-hatted pair who seem a better-fed version of Beckett’s tramps.
Maybe it’s kindness on Hyne’s part—and on O’Casey’s—that Heegan remains at some remove. The play is so unrelenting and so comfortless that further intimacy might make it unbearable. Instead Hynes, a lucid and persuasive director, emphasizes the script’s stinging comedy and mordant vigor. It is a fine work, as Jackson suggested, and a terrible one, collapsing any attempt to glamorize victory or anguish. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw described it best in a letter to O’Casey: “What a hell of a play.”