The Shadow of a Gunman



In this play we are not laughing with, we are laughing at, an assemblage of stage-Irish characters and this will offend Irish audiences now.

I had real problems with this play – not with its production – but with the play itself. Because it is revered as a “classic” (first produced Abbey Theatre 1923) most critics just come along and look at the production; is this production better than the last one I saw aeons ago, is this actor or actress better in the main role than when so-and-so played the part and so on.

Dominic Dromgoole, the director of this play and Artistic Director of The Oxford Stage Company has given us many good things in the recent past, especially Billy Roche’s wonderful The Wexford Trilogy but more ominously these plays were followed recently by productions of what Dominic thinks are “neglected classics.” Neglected maybe, but classics? He got it right with Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow but Bernard Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island, I found creaky and self congratulatory, full of comments about “The Oirish” which posed as aphorisms, but now seem foolish and anachronistic. So it is with The Shadow of a Gunman.

These patronising and nudge-nudge type comments don’t apply now so at best this play is a charming reminder of how far we’ve come, whence we came; we are not any longer the butt of a playwright’s (or comedian’s) humour.

Sadly, in this play we are not laughing with, we are laughing at, an assemblage of stage-Irish characters and this will offend Irish audiences now. There is a letter reading scene which makes much fun of the ignorance and pomposity of ordinary people. As they are sneered at by their betters, looks are exchanged, eyebrows raised at mis-pronunciation and the audience is asked to collude in laughing at these uneducated people. They are the butt of the humour. They are also the actual long-term inhabitants of tenement Dublin and their “better” is none other than the poet Donal, a blow-in, of whom much more later.

The more serious and wholly pervasive debate of the time of course (apart from how to be more stage-Irish) was should you spend all of your time bombing the Brits or just part of it. Ninety nine percent of the Irish people in tenement Dublin would tick the first box, but the self-styled intelligentsia, the writers, were in a self-inflicted torture about it. W.B.Yeats in his own dignified way in a sequence of poems observed this “terrible beauty” (the Easter Rising) being born and in his poem The Second Coming has the lines “the best lack all conviction, the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

This is mirrored on stage in Sean O’Casey’s play when a line of “the worst” all queue up to pay homage (and again it is the playwright’s cruel irony) to the mere “shadow” of a gunman, that person being the afore-mentioned Donal, a poetaster, above and removed from the strife of his country, but mistaken by other long-term, tenement dwellers as an IRA man on the run and in hiding.

Despicably, he enjoys this notoriety, he is a complete dilettante, a bad poet, neither is he a patriot. His room mate, a dosser who quotes Shelley and has read all of Western Philosophy, comes out as an arrant, knee-trembling, hiding-under-the-bed coward; so much for the intelligentsia! But by making the people revere a false and ridiculous God, surely O’Casey is saying, metaphorically, that the War for Independence is a chimera?

The plot of his play is simplistic to an extreme: someone leaves a bag of bombs in a tenement room, it is discovered and the carrier is shot. The Black and Tans who make the dawn raid are not portrayed as sufficiently horrific, they just seem (to modern eyes) professional.

The person arrested, (wrongly) is a young woman called Minnie. Minnie in this production is much taller than Donal, I mean very much taller, but he keeps referring to her as “Little Minnie” as in “Little Minnie this,” Little Minnie that,” or “Oh get away with you, Little Minnie,” which is a bit daft for a number of reasons and will again make modern audiences feel uncomfortable.

It might have been better – from a new audience’s point of view – to present this play as part of an O’Casey trilogy, to include Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.

And actually, just to be fuddy-duddy, I did see this play aeons ago, at Bernard Miles’ Mermaid Theatre with Terry Downes, Britain’s (then) Middle Weight Champion of the World, playing his first part as the Black and Tan. That was frisson

Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn High Rd. Box Office 020 7 328 1000 Until 6 Nov. 04