This weekend I attended the Abbey Theatre’s visiting production of The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey at the A.R.T.
On my way to the theatre, I tried to remind myself of all the things that fascinated me about The Plough and the Stars. In between rainy Sunday afternoon yawns and puddles, I thought about the plot and the characters and the striking images that I couldn’t wait to see realized.
And then, I remembered the windows.
I have a real thing for windows. I don’t know why- maybe it’s because I was raised by an architect and the phrase “double segmented masonry arch” was a part of our regular dinner conversation. Maybe it’s because when I was bored in school, windows were my saving grace. Maybe it’s because a window can simultaneously be a symbol of imprisonment and freedom.
In any case, the windows were one of the reasons I loved reading The Plough and the Stars.
In the second act, O’Casey’s Irish tenement dwellers make their way to the local pub while a nationalist rally takes place outside. O’Casey specifies in his stage directions that “three-fourths of the back [wall] is occupied by a tall, wide, two-paned window.” I remembered the image of that beautiful window in my mind. More importantly, the window is the closest we get to the revolution: “Through the window is silhouetted the figure of a tall man who is speaking to the crowd.” We never see more than the shadow of the speaker, but his nationalist rhetoric cuts into the scene every time he paces past the window, enthralling the characters and preparing us for rebellion.
In the third act, Bessie leans out of the window in her room on the top-floor to sing “Rule Brittania.” She taunts the Irishmen who are fighting for independence while her son is off fighting for the British in World War I.
In the final act, the windows of the tenement become a symbol of danger. The British forces are searching for an enemy sniper by checking for movement at the windows. On the top floor in Bessie’s apartment, Nora approaches the window hysterically looking for her dead husband and child. As Bessie tries to usher her to safety, a bullet enters the room through the window and hits Bessie in the back, killing her.
I imagined that Bessie’s window would be upstage, so that the threat of danger would be coming towards the audience, not from the audience. I loved how the window represents the hope of clarity for Nora, and something completely different for Bessie and the soldiers. I loved how the importance of the window in the final act invokes the window of the second act, when the revolution was only a budding idea. I decided to pay special attention to how this production made use of the window image.
Plot twist: the Abbey Theatre’s pseudo-minimalist production of The Plough and the Stars did not involve any windows at all.
The play still happened. The story was still told. The audience still loved it. I still loved it.
Was it possible that windows are not important at all? That they are not necessary in the world of the play? Was the production successful WITHOUT WINDOWS?!
I do think that the production missed the opportunity to work with such a powerful, reoccurring symbol of perspective and transparency – two concepts which are inevitable in a piece about war. However, this windowless production reminded me that my reading of a play is totally unique. It’s possible that no one at the Abbey Theatre felt that windows were a strong image in The Plough and the Stars, while I could hardly think of anything else when I read it. Cliche as it sounds, each one of us has a valuable perspective to offer, and no one perspective is more worthy than another…
…even if you’re just an undergrad in disagreement with the National Theatre of Ireland.