The appointed intellectual of Ireland, Fintan O’Toole, recently wrote in The Irish Times about the new staging of Seán O’Casey’s plays The Plough and the Stars, The Shadow of a Gunman, and Juno and the Paycock at the Galway International Arts Festival.
O’Toole celebrated the reintroduction of the plays because they denigrate the heroic narrative of the Irish Revolution. The plays which originally came out between 1923 and 1926, and were produced by W.B. Yeats, sought to mock the recently dead revolutionaries. The plays also didn’t shy away from showcasing English-derived crude stereotypes of Irish people and, especially, Irish women. O’Toole considered this mocking the tell-tale sign of high art and cultural sophistication. He concluded, “there is such a thing as a vibrant, invigorating, life-giving perversity. Ireland needed it a century ago. The perverse joy of [the new theatrical production] is that it makes it urgently plain that it still does.”
O’Toole leveraged the plays of a past era to critique both the historical Ireland and the present Ireland. To him, Ireland has been and still is a problematic country because of blunders such as men and women standing up for freedom. He is not alone in these sentiments, as the original intention of these plays shared that view. Those sentiments were picked up on by Irish audience members and stimulated a significant backlash, particularly against The Plough and the Stars.
Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, a suffragette and Irish nationalist whose husband died during the Easter Rising, was a prominent leader of protests against the plays when they first were performed.
Sheehy-Skeffington, in the heat of protest in the playhouse, announced “I am one of the widows of Easter Week. It is no wonder that you do not remember the men of Easter Week because none of you fought on either side. The play is going to London soon to be advertised there because it belies Ireland. All you need do now is to sing ‘God Save the King.’”
To her, the play was insulting and the insult was compounded by the fact that the state-funded theatre was producing it. A state, she likely contended, that was founded on the very actions the plays mocked. She also made the connection between the content in the plays and past English chauvinistic depictions of Irish people as being backward.
Such tensions echoed previous protests against other Yeats-produced plays. In 1907, J.M Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World was seen as the worst-possible bigoted depiction of Irish people and caused riots. Arthur Griffith harshly wrote, “Mr. Synge’s play as a play is one of the worst constructed we have witnessed. As a presentation on the public stage it is a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform.” Griffith also noted the anti-woman nature of Synge’s play which O’Casey would later emulate.
In its era, The Plough and the Stars was advertised as a drama that supported women. O’Toole concurred, saying: “O’Casey also turns this world itself upside down by viewing it primarily from the perspective of women.”
The great irony is that the original protestors thought otherwise. O’Toole mentioned Sheehy-Skeffington but left out that the protestors were predominantly women.
So, you have a protest of mostly women led by arguably one of the greatest feminists in Irish history who criticized two men, Yeats and O’Casey, who made a play that stereotyped Irish women as, Sheehy-Skeffington wrote, “backbiting, harridans … neurotics or prostitutes” – yet O’Toole wants us to believe the real feminist message is on the side of the play.
Scholars like Seton Hall University Professor of British and Irish literature Martha Carpentier concluded that it would be incorrect to characterize the play as having a “feminist point of view”, to put it mildly.
O’Toole turned to Yeats as an authority on the validity of the play. He noted Yeats’ argument for the play: “‘The moment a nation reached intellectual maturity,’ he pronounced, ‘it became exceedingly proud and ceased to be vain and when it became exceedingly proud, it did not disguise its faults … but when it was immature it was exceedingly vain, and did not believe in itself, and so long as it did not believe in itself it wanted other people to think well of it, in order that it might get a little reflected confidence.’”
Gaslighting is defined as psychological manipulation of a person that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator. It was coined from a 1944 film Gaslight where an abusive husband uses lies and manipulation on his innocent wife. Yeats’ quote above is gaslighting on a national scale. Insults are complements, according to him and his disciple O’Toole.
This rhetorical sleight of hand is meaningless. The desire to not have slanderous depictions of your people or ridicule of those who died in war is not vanity but common decency. A common decency produced by someone with self-respect for themselves as an individual and as a member of a national community.
Anyone who reads the canon of Irish nationalist writers can clearly see none of them were hesitant about highlighting where there was room for improvement. For example, the erasure of the Irish language was a fault nationalists pointed out for correction. The difference is that they did so from a motivation of pride and love for their nation which they had the confidence could rise to the occasion once given independence.
The Yeats-O’Toole desire to point out faults, or more so imagined faults, of the Irish nation was very much the product of an immature masochism. Is there anyone more fitting of Yeats’ description — “but when it was immature it was exceedingly vain, and did not believe in itself, and so long as it did not believe in itself it wanted other people to think well of it” — than O’Toole and his ilk seeking the praise of elite liberals for his denunciations?
O’Toole hopes to achieve the applause of those in New York City and London as the most self-hating in a modern western culture of self-hatred. Similarly, Yeats was a man plagued by the insecurity of a failed romantic and an imposter in Irish literature. Yeats faced criticism from nationalists who considered his literature un-Irish, and for that he festered resentment against them.
In the 1907 protests against Synge’s play, Yeats took to the bully pulpit and suggested his critics “did not have books in their houses”- marking them as unfit to question the superiority of his artistic judgement. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter wrote, “although Yeats’s charge was untrue – one of those arrested was Irish language playwright Piaras Beaslaí, and many of the protesters were genuine idealists – it suited Yeats…to assert [his] superiority in class terms.”
In 1926, Yeats similarly lambasted protestors and said they “disgraced themselves again” which was a direct reference to the 1907 controversy. To Yeats, the Irish failed to grasp the civilization he was generously giving them and instead reverted to barbarianism particular to the Irish. The binary of civilized and barbaric was an essential of Yeats’ identity. That doesn’t mean it was true.
In 1925, a political debate led Yeats to proclaim: “I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority [of Anglo-Irish Protestants]. We against whom you [Gaelic-Irish Catholics] have done this thing, are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”
In this screed, Yeats clearly saw his Anglo-Irish Protestants as superior in contrast to the Gaelic-Irish Catholics. While Yeats was not of the strong-arm imperialist variety, his mission of bringing alleged high art to the Irish was his white man’s burden. Underneath Yeats’ awkward romanticism lurked his dark foundation that would be revealed when he would snap at the misbehaved Irish as shown above. Griffith attacked “Yeats as both an imperialist and imperious, and [questioned] his knowledge and scholarship”, according to writer Colum Kenny.
This sentiment pervaded in Yeats decisions from 1907 to 1926. It caused serious tension among leading Irish nationalists who vocally opposed Yeats for his confused and convoluted pursuits. Pádraig Pearse wrote, “Mr Yeats’ precious ‘Irish’ Literary Theatre may, if it develops, give the Gaelic League more trouble…Let us strangle it at its birth. Against Mr. Yeats personally we have nothing to object. He is a mere English poet of the third or fourth rank, and as such he is harmless. But when he attempts to run an ‘Irish’ Literary Theatre it is time for him to be crushed.”
Pearse considered Yeats’ activity in literature and theater a perversity. Griffith considered it a perversity. Sheehy-Skeffington considered it a perversity. The many women who protested The Plough and the Stars considered it a perversity. Whatever merits of Yeats should not distract from these real problems. O’Toole told us “Ireland can be proud of itself only if it can confront its shameful deeds” yet he is unwilling to confront the shamefulness of Yeats. Yeats participated in efforts to produce anti-Irish and anti-women art. The art was criticized not for its sophistication but for its crassness and slobbering attention seeking of an imperialist upper class both in Ireland and England.
O’Toole unfortunately has fallen into the trap of confusing the peculiar opinions of Yeats with an objective methodology of evaluating art.
That methodology demarcates its highest measure as stereotyping and lampooning Gaelic-Irish Catholics in templates laid down by previous English imperialists and compounded by modern western culture. The vanity that O’Toole criticized others of having is actually a projection of his own vain attachment to the mythology of Yeats. O’Toole is, himself, too immature to see that he voluntarily accepts being the butt of an imperialist joke. They are laughing at you Fintan, not with you.