Garry Hynes brings Sean O'Casey's Dublin trilogy to life
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Garry Hynes brings Sean O'Casey's Dublin trilogy to life
Director Garry Hynes, who has traveled to New York with her acclaimed production of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy, at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan on Sept. 28, 2023. At NYU Skirball, Druid’s marathon production depicts the beginning of a free Irish state through the voices of the working class. (Lila Barth/The New York Times)

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK, NY.- In the back room of a hotel cafe in lower Manhattan, Irish director Garry Hynes was talking about Sean O’Casey, the laborer turned playwright whose frequently funny, sometimes blood-chilling, canonical 1920s tragicomedies are set amid the tenements of Dublin.

Mostly, Hynes called him O’Casey, but a few times she called him Sean, and the warmth of that familiarity melted away any sepia encrustation that has accumulated around his name. Hynes, 70, the artistic director and a co-founder of the Druid theater company in Galway, Ireland, imagines O’Casey was “a bit of a joker,” “grumpy” and given to provoking people “just for the sake of provoking.” Not easy, in other words, but playful.

She has long believed O’Casey, who died at 84 in 1964, in his adopted England, to be miscategorized as a playwright — lumped in with the naturalists when really he is up to something richer than that.

Steeped in him of late, she has brought his famous Dublin trilogy to New York in the acclaimed production DruidO’Casey. A five-star review in the London Observer called the marathon experience of it “revelatory,” and said it “probes the ambiguities and indeterminacies of O’Casey’s texts,” bringing “his impoverished characters to rumbustious life.”

Together the three plays tell a story of the beginning of a free Irish state: “The Shadow of a Gunman” (1923), set in 1920 during the Irish War of Independence; “Juno and the Paycock” (1924), set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War; and “The Plough and the Stars” (1926), set in 1915 and ’16, leading up to and during the Easter Rising against the British.

Home is the locus of each play, all first staged at the Abbey Theater in Dublin when the historical events in them were recent memories.

But combat seeps into every crevice of the lives of O’Casey’s Dubliners — characters who, as the Druid Ensemble member Rory Nolan said by phone, “aren’t even aware that they’re going through gigantic societal changes and through moments in history that will echo down the ages to where we are now.”

Hynes has interpreted O’Casey for New York audiences before: in “Juno,” a musical adaptation of “Juno and the Paycock,” starring Victoria Clark, for Encores! in 2008. A decade earlier, she became the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing — in 1998 for “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” on the same night that Julie Taymor won for “The Lion King,” but a few minutes sooner.

For years she had wanted to direct a single company of actors in the entire Dublin trilogy, much as she did with her lauded play cycles DruidSynge, DruidShakespeare and DruidMurphy. A cast of 18 will perform DruidO’Casey through Oct. 14 at NYU Skirball in New York, then Oct. 18-21 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Audiences can see single shows or, for the cumulative effect, the full marathon in one day.

Hynes chatted about DruidO’Casey one morning last week over coffee and a bagel with cream cheese. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Why are you doing the marathon chronologically in order of the action of the plays rather than of the dates when they were written?

We discussed it a lot. You can see O’Casey develop as a writer over the three plays if you do them in the order in which they were written. Then somebody said to me, “But do we want 6 1/2 hours of theater — of some of the greatest theater that this country’s produced — to end [as ‘Plough’ does] with two British soldiers singing in a Dublin house, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning,’ or do you want the trilogy to end [as ‘Juno’ does] with two women walking into a future that they have no idea what it is?”

That’s the argument.

That’s the argument, yeah. Like when the last scenes of “Juno” were played for the first or second or third time in the Abbey Theater in the 1920s, nobody knew what the future would be. But when we do them, we know.

What do you hear in O’Casey’s voice that he’s saying to the present?

It is pretty shocking for us to realize that the struggles that are going on in Ireland through those three plays are homes, houses, health, which are the things that are happening in Ireland now. You know, O’Casey did not agree with the Rising in 1916. He was politically against it. He thought that the whole movement was beginning to be less about what the people’s needs are, and more about historic deeds: fighting for the freedom of Ireland rather than fighting for the freedom of Irish people to live in proper homes.

Why did you want to stage the trilogy?

I did “Plough and the Stars” [with Brendan Gleeson] as the first production I directed in the Abbey when I became artistic director there. And then I did a “Juno” with Michael Gambon. But one of the things I felt is that, as well as being great plays, they were talked of as naturalism, and increasingly, my experience of the plays was that they’re not naturalism — that O’Casey’s whole experience of the theater was coming from the music hall, and coming from [19th-century Irish melodramatist Dion] Boucicault.

O’Casey gave to very poor people great passions. Because he did that, he was regarded as a naturalist, but I believe the plays are far more interesting than that. They’re an extraordinary sort of mix whereby you can be laughing one moment and crying the next. We want to provide an ability for the plays to be performed as pieces of theatrical writing that were asked to be performed, not asked to be endured.

O’Casey roots them in the inescapably domestic.

What is so wonderful is that the domestic is constantly reflecting on what’s outside. So you’re hearing about all the things going on out in the streets. They’re marching. They’re striking. They’re killing people. They’re doing all these kind of things out there on the street. And it’s like it’s [solely] out there. But actually it’s not, because inside they’re fighting. So the two things are playing off each other in counterpoint all the time.

And these are war plays that have women in them. He doesn’t erase the fact of who else is living through that history.

Yeah, absolutely.

Tell me about him and women.

About Sean and women? Well, he dedicates “Plough” “To the gay laugh of my mother at the gate of the grave.” He created wonderful characters all through. But his women were the mainstay of life, you know?

He sees them as whole humans.

He absolutely does. But I don’t think he hero-worships them either.

He doesn’t do that with anyone. A striking thing is his absolute refusal to valorize violence. He presents all sorts of characters who do that, but he is not doing it himself.

It’s marvelous because the argument about what is valorous or not, what is worthy or not, is being had there on that stage, constantly.

Why does O’Casey matter?

O’Casey matters because he wrote plays that can get inside. Inside you. Inside your head, inside your heart. He fiercely believed in people being treated properly. And he never abandoned that even when others abandoned it. He was never not completely true to what he believed, although he had many opportunities to not be. I know if I knew him, we’d probably row. But he is a hero of mine.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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