Monday, May 11, 2015


Last week while writing about O’Neill’s play Shell Shock, I kept thinking about The Silver Tassie written ten years later by Irish playwright Sean O’Casey (1880-1964).  The obvious reason for this connection is that both plays relate to soldiers returning home from World War One with serious physical and mental problems.  Since I cannot seem to dismiss The Silver Tassie from my mind, I will organize my thoughts and share them.

The Silver Tassie, written between 1926 and 1928, is a play in four acts.  The play’s was considered experimental since it changes styles from one act to the next.  Act One is realistic. It takes place in the Dublin home of Harry Heegan’s parents.  Harry had just played in the Avondale Football Club’s final  game of the season and led the team to victory. For the third time, he achieved winning the coveted silver tassie trophy.  After a brief celebration with family, friends and girlfriend Jessie, Harry heads to the trenches in France.

Act Two is expressionistic in style and it is set somewhere in the war zone in France. Since that style often used no proper names for characters, Harry is not a specified participant, but the audience is aware that he is in this devastated, cruel landscape. There are songs and chants in this act including “The Enemy Has Broken Through” and “Song to the Gun.”  

Act Three, set in a hospital ward in Dublin, shifts back to named characters from Act One as well as into a realistic type of dialogue. Several of Harry’s friends are patients, as is Harry.  He has survived the trenches, but is left paralyzed from the waist down. His girlfriend Jessie, refuses to visit him even though she comes to the hospital. She visits his old rival, Barney.  Harry is bitter, but still hopeful.

Act Four is at the Avondale Football Club for a night of celebration.  Harry confined to his wheelchair, wears his war medals as do the other decorated men. Jessie is at this dance with Barney.  The situation turns nasty and tempers become inflamed before Harry is wheeled away from this party. He is a sad, broken man. 

This plot outline illustrates how unconventional the play was at the time it was written. It mixed styles, incorporated song and chants into a serious play and featured robust comic scenes as well as haunting festivities of war and celebration. It baffled audiences who were used to either realism or naturalism. 

The Abbey Theatre in Dublin had benefitted financially from the successes of O’Casey’s first three plays, but refused to produce “Tassie”.  There has been much written about this rift between O’Casey and William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), who wrote the letter rejecting the play for production. O’Casey was bitter about this rejection since he was Yeats’s protégé, but he secured a production at London’s Apollo Theatre during the fall of 1929.  The play starred Charles Laughton as Harry Heegan. It ran for twenty-six performances which was a disappointment for O’Casey.  The fact that Yeat’s had rejected the play caused some critics to follow suit.  Other reviewers were perplexed by its non traditional storytelling elements. However this play continues to have an interesting, albeit sporadic production history since its London premiere. 

The Silver Tassie finally opened at the Abbey Theatre in August, 1935. The play closed after five performances since it created public anxiety, angst among the priesthood and negative newspaper reviews.  Prior to the Abbey’s production, The Silver Tassie was produced in the United States by the Irish Players in New York during October, 1929.  The play received another New York production again in 1949 by the Interplayers at Carnegie Hall. 

More recently the Druid Theatre Company toured the play in 2010 to cities in Great Britain and Ireland. In 2011 Galway’s Druid Theatre Company also brought the play to the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City for eight performances. 

The National Theatre in London presented The Silver Tassie from April 22-July 3, 2014. The reviews I have read tend to be positive.  Charles Spence states: “It is not an easy play to sit through, because its subject matter is so traumatic, but one leaves the theatre convinced that Yeats failed to recognize a drama of exceptional power and originality.”  In our postmodern era, audiences today can easily handle changes of style.  Audiences can also appreciate the pyrotechnics and the special lighting effects contemporary theatres employ to underscore the action on stage. Today, when we contemplate this play, we can appreciate O’Casey’s attempt to capture the representation of war in a symbolic manner that reveals its traumatic impact.   

O’Casey’s play has come into its own in the twenty-first century and its issues are still relevant.  It is a worthwhile read, or if the opportunity to see The Silver Tassie materializes, grab it!  If you are interested in reading more about O’Casey and his plays, I particularly enjoyed a relatively new resource: Moran, James. The Theatre of Sean O’Casey. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013.

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