Sally Richardson reviews Staging the Easter Rising: 1916 as theatre by James Moran, Cork University Press, ISBN 1 85918 401 4, £28.00/39.00 euros hbk
COMMENTING ON the 1916 Rising, Michael Collins said, "It had the air of a Greek tragedy about it." He is not the only one to remark on the dramatic nature of the event. It took the form of an elaborate and carefully staged piece of street theatre, complete with an impressive backdrop in the form of the GPO. Moreover, the rebels who participated in it included actors and playwrights, who had argued and represented Ireland's case on the stage in propaganda pieces that served as a sort of dress rehearsal.
James Moran's research has uncovered the text of Connolly's play Under Which Flag?, performed at Liberty Hall just before the Rising. Thomas MacDonagh also turned his hand to play writing; like Connolly's, his work challenges and questions gender stereotypes.
The Irish theatre was "dominated by powerful women" and "had staged controversial plays to challenge traditional female roles." A central theme in James Moran's book is the way women and feminism were effectively written out of the Rising, although they had been essential to it.
The Rising became a contested piece of ground in the Free State, with the forces now in power determined to claim the Rising for themselves, after removing its revolutionary republican and feminist content. The 1935 commemorative pageant "carefully expunged the rebellious women of 1916 and the statements of equality made by the leaders of the insurrection."
Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars deliberately undermined heroic myth and portrayed women who did not conform to the ideal of the passive and sexless mother-figure, whose main duty was to rear sons to sacrifice for Ireland.
O'Casey's play angered both traditionalists and revolutionaries, but it has secured its place in the canon where plays with more conventional portrayals of women have not.
An examination of Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan demonstrates that the play is as much about Irish politics in the early 20th century as it is about French politics of the fifteenth century. The play's gender-bending heroine is closely connected to Shaw's involvement in the defence of another sexual transgressor, Casement.
Here we have surely one of the best of the new books about the Rising. Stylishly written, it analyses theatre's close relationship with politics and how myths are made and shaped (and sometimes exploded) by enactment and re-enactment. It contains new material and fresh interpretations and deserves to be widely read. A paperback edition would be welcome, Cork!
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2006 Sally Richardson