When times are tough, the tough write poetry. And let’s face it, nobody writes poetry like the Irish. Sean O’Casey had some fierce things to say in “The Silver Tassie” — briefly on view at this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival — about the dehumanizing effects of World War I on the good citizens of Ireland. But judging from the Druid Theater’s expressionistic staging of this 1929 play, helmed with cruel, uncompromising clarity by Garry Hynes, this great playwright put more heart and soul into the play’s anti-war poems, here freshly set to the painfully beautiful music of Elliot Davis.
The wailing red walls of Francis O’Connor’s bare-bones set reveal more about the playwright’s bloody mood than any of the bits and pieces of scenery representing the docklands tenement district of Dublin where much of the drama takes place.
Starkness of the setting suits the harsh simplicity of this harrowing story about Harry Heegan (Garrett Lombard), a strapping local lad on leave from the front, who scores the winning goal in a football match and claims his rewards: a victor’s cup called the Silver Tassie and the heart of his childhood sweetheart (Charlie Murphy).
Then it’s back to the war — brilliantly symbolized here by a hulking tank that squats on the stage as an implacable engine of death — where Harry and his best mate (Raymond Scannell) are fighting alongside unnamed soldiers who are falling right and left.
This is the scene that must have made O’Casey’s blood boil when he was writing it (although it was the playwright’s seething contempt for “peaceable” Ireland’s political detachment that caused the historic controversy over the play). And this is the scene that obviously stirred composer Elliot Davis, whose haunting musical arrangements of O’Casey’s bitter poetry are more emotionally battering than all the guns of war.
Even with the difficulty of bending our ears to catch the meaning of the idiomatic language, it’s impossible to resist the power of a musical cry like: “But wy’r we ‘ere, wy’r we ‘ere — that’s wot we wants to know!” Or to close our hearts to a Brechtian “Ode to the Gun” that proclaims “We believe in God and we believe in thee.” This is verse to die for.
O’Casey boldly experimented with a variety of theatrical styles to convey the insanity of war and Ireland’s childish inclination to laugh in the face of its horrors.
In the same bruising hospital scene in which we learn that Harry is paralyzed for life, two ward patients (hilariously played by Eamon Morrissey and John Olohan) perform a low-comedy routine that’s pure vaudeville. And when Harry returns home in a wheelchair to find that his fiancee has dumped him for his best friend, — and everyone expects him to be a good sport about it — the tragic scene is played in the frivolous style of a madcap comedy.
Harry’s resistance to the mindless merriment of Armistice Day festivities and his angry refusal to be pitied was O’Casey’s final finger in the air. Although thesp Lombard gives it all he has, Harry isn’t any more developed a character than all the other sketched-in players in this drama. And in the end, his furious demand to be heard can’t match the power of the last verses of the “Stretcher Bearer’s Song”: “There’s no more to be said, for when we are dead / We may understand it all, all, all.”