Contributed by Stephanie Schoppe, MA student in Theatre Studies at Montclair State University
This past October, Peak Performances at Montclair State University welcomed the Abbey Theatre to campus for a variety of talks and presentations, all leading up to performances of their touring production of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which ran at the Alexander Kasser Theater from October 20-23, 2016.
Set amidst the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, The Plough and the Stars follows the residents of a Dublin tenement as they react to and shelter from the violence swirling around them. When O’Casey’s play premiered in 1926, the audience rioted for multiple reasons, including the appearance of a prostitute and O’Casey’s perceived criticism of the men involved in the rising. His depiction of sex and religion even led some of the actors in the play to refuse to speak their lines.
At a Live Lit Salon reading in the Kasser Theatre lobby before the performance on Friday, October 21, actors Rachel Gleeson and Gerard Kelly sang songs and read excerpts from O’Casey’s autobiography. During the Q&A session, one audience member asked Gleeson, Kelly, and associate director Ronan Phelan if there was a difference between performing The Plough and the Stars in the States vs. performing the play in Ireland. They mentioned the audience reaction in 1926 and that, during some of their stateside performances, audience members walked out of the theater. Phelan thinks the audience expected an idyllic, romanticized version of Ireland, which was never the company’s intention.
This production was unique in that, while O’Casey’s original text was unchanged, the design and technology used in the play were more modern. One of the most interesting design choices would have to be the loud, pounding, industrial rock music that accompanied set changes and began each act. This was not exactly what one would think of when thinking of Irish music, but using traditional Irish music would not have gotten the point across to the audience. The music was not used to showcase a beautiful, romanticized Ireland; it was used to show the mental and physical toll that the Rising had on the people exposed to it.
Many of us use entertainment as escapism. Whether we choose movies or TV or the theater, it’s nice to go to something at the end of a long day of work or classes and not have to think about all of the bad things that happened during the day. But these different forms of media also are used to educate about history and politics; while we may use them to escape from the world around us, watching the history and politics of another time may possibly reflect our own time. The question is: do we just simply view media as entertainment, or do we really pay attention and make connections to our world?
If you did see The Plough and the Stars while it was playing at the Kasser Theater, take what you saw in this play and apply it to our world today: the stress and heartbreak of Nora Clitheroe waiting for her husband Jack to come home from the army; watching as Mollser slowly succumbs to consumption; seeing the characters persevere and survive while gunshots rain down outside the walls of their tenement. Equate it to similar events going on today or in other periods of our world’s history. See the effects of these events, and promise they will never happen again.