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.’
The Plough and the Stars was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1926, less than ten years after the Easter Rising of 1916. On the night of the fourth performance, the Abbey Company was met by an unruly audience who protested against what they believed was a grotesque distortion of historical events slandering those who had died for Ireland.
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.
And W.B. Yeats gave a less-impromptu speech lacerating the rioters for cultural recidivism: ‘You have disgraced yourselves again. Is this to be the recurring celebration of Irish genius?’
On the night that the Plough opened, in a nation wounded by poverty and inequality, with a government in limbo, vendors were selling copies of the Proclamation in the street.