(Peter Crawley’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 3/18.)
When Seán O’Casey took his seat for the fourth night of his new drama The Plough and the Stars he dryly noted that two plays were actually taking place: “One on the stage and one in the auditorium.”
That night, on February 11th, 1926, both of them turned out to be memorable performances. We tend to think about riots in Irish theatre as spontaneous, reactionary events confined to puritanical and hot-tempered times. “Audience broke up in disorder at the word ‘shift’,” was Lady Gregory’s summary of the Playboy of the Western World eruption. But the truth has always been more complicated.
The disorder that greeted The Plough and the Stars was a while brewing. Offended members of the audience hissed and jeered. People hurled lumps of coal at the stage. Audience members and actors traded punches. Widows of the rebels, who had attended with aggrieved members of Cumann na mBan and Sinn Féin, gave impromptu speeches lacerating the writer and the performers for betraying the men of Easter Week and selling out to the English.