Saturday, May 7, 2016


A British naval and military decoration instituted by royal warrant and bestowed for "Conspicuous bravery or devotion" to the country in the presence of the enemy.

When George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) wrote O’Flaherty V.C. for Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1915, he already had an international reputation as a playwright.  O’Flaherty V.C. is a one-act comedy that Shaw subtitled “A Recruiting Pamphlet.”  The play was written shortly after Michael O’Leary became the first Irish soldier to be decorated with the Victoria Cross. Lieutenant O’Leary had killed eight German soldiers and thereby stopped the assaults from two German barricades. Shaw denied that he was inspired by the real-life soldier, but the newspaper reporters continued to press the comparison.

After being decorated with the Victoria Cross, Shaw’s character, Private Dennis O’Flaherty returned to his village in Ireland to see his mother. She is to meet him at the Irish country home of General Sir Pearce Madigan. It is the summer of 1915. The first half of the play is the discussion between Sir Pearce and O’Flaherty.  The young soldier shares his candid thoughts with his estate master, who is also his general. Mrs. O’Flaherty, an ardent Irish nationalist, arrives and is angry that her son is a soldier in the English army since he told her he was going to fight for the French and the Russians. She is also irate that her son had shaken hands with the King of England. Following a set-to with Teresa, the General’s parlor maid and O’Flaherty’s girlfriend, Mrs. O’Flaherty enters the General’s house to have tea. Both military men agree that life is quieter at the front.

Shaw believed he was writing a play that would help the British recruitments in Ireland that were below the needed number. Part of the problem was that the Irish Nationalists were not interested in assisting England’s World War One efforts. Shaw hoped his comedy might provide humorous insights into the grievances that the Irish held against the British and win over his Abbey Theatre audiences for recruiting purposes.
O’Flaherty V.C. was not produced during the fall of 1915 at the Abbey Theatre as had been planned.  The government of Great Britain intervened through its Dublin Castle administration. There were many newspapers across Great Britain that carried the notice in mid-November 1915, claiming that the play had been suppressed by the Censor. By November 17th other newspapers carried the story that St. John Ervine (1883-1971), the manager of the Abbey Theatre and a playwright, claimed there was “no foundation for the play having been withdrawn.” He stated in the London Daily Mirror on November 17, 1915 that O’Flaherty V.C. had “only been postponed and the military authorities have not interfered in the matter.”  Shaw also denied in the press that his play had not been suppressed by the authorities. So there was no single explanation made to the public about the change of plans.

The Abbey Theatre never presented O’Flaherty V.C. and the play was not produced until 1917. It is noted in Bernard Shaw Selected One Act Plays published in 1965 by Penguin Books that this satire was “first performed by Robert Loraine for the British Expeditionary Force in 1917.”  Robert Loraine (1876-1935) was a successful London actor and friend of Shaw’s.  He was also a pioneer aviator who in 1917 was serving in the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front while stationed at Treizeenes in Belgium. He had created a dramatic society in his squadron and it was this group who premiered Shaw’s play on February 21, 1917.  It was also in 1917 that Hearst’s Magazine published the script of O’Flaherty V.C.

In 1915 a “rough proofed--unpublished” copy of O’Flaherty V.C. was printed by R.R. Clark in Edinburgh. This proof was never released for publication, but it did find its way into a few libraries. The official publication of O’Flaherty V.C. occurred in 1919. It has also been published in collections of George Bernard Shaw’s plays during the twentieth century.

In 1920, Shaw wrote a letter to the Managing Director of the new Celtic Players.  He offered this group, located in the United States, the opportunity to stage the first professional theatre production of O’Flaherty V.C.  This acting company, changed its name to The Irish Players, and opened its season in June, 1920. The Irish Players staged their production at the Thirty-ninth Street Theatre in New York City, with Shaw’s play on the bill. Newspapers across the United States carried stories about this production. The Cincinnati Enquirer carried a special “Correspondence of the Enquirer” story dated New York, June 30, 1920.  There is one sentence in this piece that sums-up my feeling for this play: “O’Flaherty is a real broth of an Irish lad, inspired with some of the keenest wit of the author of his being.”

The first production of O’Flaherty V.C. in England was produced by the Stage Society at the Lyric Theatre on December 19, 1920. This was a theatre society with limited membership which mounted private Sunday performances of new and experimental plays.  The group frequently presented the first English performance of plays that had been banned for public performance by a government authority. This performance was not open to the general public.

The play finally received its largest audience in 1924 when Shaw was invited by the British Broadcasting Company to read the play for a radio audience. The radio broadcast took place on November 20, 1924 and it was sent to every radio station on the network except the one in Belfast. The BBC estimated that this program reached an audience of three million listeners. This was the BBC’s first venture into broadcasting a play and it was Shaw’s first attempt at doing one of his own dramas. There were many positive reviews and some negative ones, but the BBC was encouraged to begin regularly broadcasting plays to its large audience.

This play is a gem and it has a long history of professional and amateur productions throughout the United Kingdom and North America. The play still has the power to capture an audience’s delight. The most recent production of O’Flaherty V.C., that I have seen mentioned in a review, was staged on March 7, 2007 by the Washington Stage Guild. 

NOTE: If you are interested in reading more information about the reasons the Abbey Theatre cancelled its production of O’Flaherty V.C., there is an in-depth article on PROJECT MUSE titled “The Censorship of O’Flaherty V.C”.  The author is Dr. Lauren Arrington.

Source for Image: 

George J. Hagar The Standard American Encyclopedia (New York: University Society Inc., 1916) 12:Victoria Cross

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