Often, especially in taxis, if I’m asked what I do for a living I’ll say I’m a cleaner. No one tells you how to clean, what mop to use, what detergent to favour, what brand of elbow grease will get the shiniest shine. Say you’re a poet and within a couple of sentences they are telling you what to write about, telling you they themselves are also poets and what’s more their poetry rhymes, and inviting you to prove your poetic credentials. Are you a published poet? How much do you earn? You should be writing about Brown Envelopes, Big Pharma, Monsanto, Sex Abuse, The Celtic Tiger, The Banks, The Crash, The Troika, Unemployment, Austerity, Gay Marriage, Immigrants, Emi-grants, The Water War.
So when Minnie Powell opines to Donal Davoren that “Poetry is a grand thing, Mr Davoren, I’d love to be able to write a poem – a lovely poem on Ireland an’ the men o’ ’98” we get an inkling of what was expected, at least in the folk memory, of a poet of the times in such a place, Hilljoy Square. The setting is based on the real Mountjoy Square, just north of the Liffey, not far from where you are watching the play.
Everyone has an opinion about what Davoren should be doing. And even if they think he is using poetry as a smokescreen for revolutionary activism, that he is, as the original title of the play had it, On the Run, he is still called upon to witness other char-acters’ engagements with language. What he is actually doing remains mysterious. His life would drive him mad were it not for the fact that he never knew any other, O’Casey tells us in the opening stage directions. He is merciless in his scrutiny of Davoren and I believe it is ultimately self-scrutiny: a backward look at a younger version of himself and the dangerous potency of rhetoric and reputation.
Donal Davoren is thirty years of age. He has no visible means of support and he shares a room with Seumas Shields, a pedlar, who is the official tenant, himself already eleven weeks behind on the rent. Davoren’s banter with Shields is straight out of the music hall; it’s a pattern, a template, for the double acts that O’Casey uses to comitragic effect in all the tenement plays.
It is May of 1920 and the country is in the grip of a savage War of Independence that already holds the seeds of the civil war to come. Minnie says more than she knows, for the sparse amount of Davoren’s actual poetry that we get to witness is already for 1920 old fashioned, redolent of the mannerisms of the nineteenth century. That Promethean figure Percy Bysshe Shelley is invoked all the way through the play and this reminds us of the treatment Shelley received when he came to Ireland in 1812 to publish his revolutionary tract, An Address to the Irish People, and to help free us of our Imperial yoke. Shelly was spat at and jeered by the Dublin mob.
Davoren is most a poet when he corrects Minnie — wildflowers not weeds —and he knows the actual names of the wildflowers, including the Latin name of the Wake Robin, the Arum Macula-tum, (a kind of shadow relative of the Easter Lily), the Wild Vi-olets, (in Victorian times associated with mourning and loss), and that harbinger of spring, that most Romantic of wildflowers, the Celandine.
The poetry O’Casey puts in the mouth of Davoren is work up-cycled from O’Casey’s own notebooks, love poems he wrote for Máire Keating, a schoolteacher involved with the St Laurence O’Toole Club whose members performed some of his early sketches and where he learned his stagecraft. The Shadow of a Gunman was the sixth playscript O’Casey had submitted to the Abbey; the first to be accepted for production. It was premiered in 1923, only three years after the events it dramatizes, part of a double bill with T.C. Murray’s Sovereign Love. O’Casey saw the Cork playwright as a rival but he needn’t have worried; though the crowds came to see Murray’s comedy of rural life, O’Casey’s new and edgy take on the urban dispossessed blew the Murray, as they say, off the stage. O’Casey was 43 at the time and this success and the subsequent success and notoriety in rapid succession of the other two plays in his tenement trilogy, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, must have persuaded him that a glorious and long lasting relationship with the national theatre was underway.
If the War of Independence is the historical backdrop to the play, that struggle also frames the questions underlying the action. What is a poet to do in the face of political violence? What is the proper work of the poet? Where — in the lower depths of Hilljoy Square, in the cast off Georgian townhouses of the As-cendancy, teeming with diphtheria, tuberculosis, alcoholism, family violence, all the desperation of extreme poverty — where do we look for beauty?
For beauty there is: we find it in the language. As a child of those selfsame tenements myself I hear the cadences, the rococo ornamentation, the argot wrought from country sayings, snatches of Shakespeare, songs, hymns, prayers, charms, doggerel, riddles, curses, political philosophy, political cant, political rhetoric, socialism, monarchism, crawthumping, biblethumping, courting talk, and hifalutin’ theorizing: the Dublin songlines.
Davoren the poet is deaf to the power of the language in use all around him, mired as he is in the tropes of nineteenth century verse. O’Casey though is not deaf. He rises magnificently to the poetry of his circumstances.
When I was a university student O’Casey was accused of making caricatures of Dublin tenement dwellers. I never bought that. I believe that his characters, having absolutely nothing, not a pot to piss in, as the expression has it, made art out of what they did have — their personalities. It is O’Casey’s cold and accurate portraits of the suffered lives of the dispossessed that is the sustained and sustaining triumph of his tenement plays.
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