Issue 187 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1995 Copyright Socialist Review



A bitter taste

The Silver Tassie
by Sean O'Casey

The image didn't match reality

Written between 1926 and 1928, Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie deals with the First World War and its effects on three young Irishmen, their friends and families. The destruction wrought by the war is conveyed directly when Harry returns paralysed and Teddy blind, and also in the distortion of the relationships between the main characters. From beginning to end Harry's relationship with his mother turns on her receiving the regular army allowance.
The play draws heavily on Wilfred Owen's anti-war poem 'The Disabled' and captures marvellously both the madness of war and the hypocrisy of our rulers. In the first act Susie rants about god in a comic send up of religious vocation which expresses its absurdity and the terrifying grip it had on people's lives. In act two the god of the modern world is revealed to be the gun. Soldiers on their way to the front chant in plainsong, juxtaposing biblical images with those of war.
Act three returns from this poetic expressionism to the reality of the hospital ward. Harry, the footballing hero whose team won the silver tassie (cup), has now lost the use of his legs. His lover, Jessie, spurns him in favour of his friend, Barry. The only comfort he is offered is platitudes: While there's life there's hope'.
The final scene sees the characters celebrating the end of the war against a backdrop of the roll of honour of those who have fallen. Teddy, the jealous husband, is now blind and totally dependent on his wife. Susie declares that 'we, who have come through the fire unharmed, must go on living', but claims also that the two disabled soldiers must now live in a 'separate world'. While criticised for offering the audience little solace, the ending accurately portrays people attempting to carry on with lives which have been permanently damaged.
The play was originally rejected by the poet W B Yeats, who ran the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and led to a break between him and O'Casey. An attempt to get it staged in Dublin in 1930 provoked the ire of the Catholic Church. One priest wrote, 'Dublin is a little too wise to put its lips to a cup that may possibly have been filled from a sewer.' Today it is hard to grasp just how shocking this work was. Nevertheless the play is less dated than much anti-war art produced in the 1920s. Its style still appears innovative, moving from well observed social realism to expressionist imagery.
This production brings out the pace and shifting rhythms of the play brilliantly, coping well with the overly long second scene. The acting is first rate, especially Stuart Graham as Harry who draws out the moving tragedy without becoming mawkish. It may not be O'Casey's greatest play but catch this production if you can.
Kevin Ovenden

Plays at the Almeida Theatre, London N1, until 24 June

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