Bernard Shaw said “It was, literally, a hell of a play”

Bernard Shaw said “It was, literally, a hell of a play”

Robert Tanitch reviews The Silver Tassie at National Theatre/Lyttelton

Sean O’Casey’s tragic-comedy is one of the great anti-war plays. Its rejection in 1928 by W.B.Yeats, artistic director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, led to a rift between O’Casey and the Abbey which was never healed and did irreparable harm to both playwright and theatre.

The Silver Tassie had its first performance in London in 1929 when it was presented by C B Cochran, directed by Raymond Massey and designed by Augustus John. The leading role of the football hero, who wins the silver tassie (a cup) three times, goes off to World War 1, and comes back “dead from the belly down,” was played by the 29-year-old Charles Laughton, who didn’t look like he had ever played football in his life.

The first act, set in a Dublin tenement, is written in the characteristic realistic O’Casey manner of The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.

The transition then from Dublin to the battlefields in Flanders is masterly handled in Howard Davies’s production by designer Vicki Mortimer

The second act, set in a ruined monastery, is highly expressionistic: a symbolic treatment of war, a stylization of the soldiers’ suffering; and, in its deathly chanting, it parodies the Communion Service. The use of Christian ritual for satirical purposes (and the strong anti-­religious feeling throughout) caused deep offence in Dublin when the play was eventually performed there in 1935. So did O’Casey’s portrayal of the Irish.

The final scene, which, for many, will recall Wilfred Owen’s deeply moving war poem, “Disabled”, has the embittered former football hero (Ronan Raftery) now a raging cripple in a wheelchair, attending a dance and constantly pursuing his best friend who had saved his life in France and has stolen his former girlfriend. His presence embarrasses everybody. They don’t want this “half-baked Lazarus” to be around, reminding them of the horrors of the war, and spoiling the party.

The callousness to his plight and the plight of a blinded soldier, expressed by the women, cannot fail to shock; but the ex-nurse is, of course, right when she says, “we, who have come through the fire unharmed, must go on living.”

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