Seán O’Casey once described his play The Silver Tassie (1927-28) as “a generous handful of stones, aimed indiscriminately, with the aim of breaking a few windows.” I love this description, which fits the Druid Theatre Company’s gorgeous production of the piece (running through July 31 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College), not only because it nails the play’s scattershot approach to character, narrative, and plot, but also because it so clearly evokes the Impressionist style in which the play was written. Less a straightforward drama about Irish men serving during World War I, the play is sort of an absurdist-Brechtian-Beckettian-vaudvillian-music hall hodgepodge. Significant scenes take place completely off-stage while characters onstage chat about religion, domesticity, food, and politics; characters appear where they shouldn’t, or suddenly stop doing what one expects of them for no clear reason; characters frequently dance, clown, burst into song, find or lose God at their convenience, and randomly begin to speechify woodenly; characters strike poses (Christ figures galore!) or fixate on props that are thunderingly obvious (like the cup of the title, which is celebrated, revered, sipped from, and inevitably crushed); characters quickly become as abstract and as slippery as the scenes in which they appear.
The problem here is not the production, which is first-rate. It’s the play, which certainly remains compelling throughout, but does not always work. The big picture O'Casey is working with is, after all, nothing new, even if the materials he used in creating it were relatively innovative: war is hell; we all know that. It has the power to crush the strong as well as the weak, to destroy relationships, to make mincemeat of the body and to annihilate the spirit. But the medium remains cool throughout: the reaction is intellectual, but always emotionally distant. At least for me, the play evokes the same reaction as looking at something by Monet: one appreciates the beauty of the thing, and is even occasionally struck breathless by the mastery of the art form, but is likely less moved to empathize, or laugh, or weep, as to distance oneself for further contemplation. This is a brilliant production, and I am happy to have seen it; yet in having seen it, I understand why The Silver Tassie is not nearly as well-known as O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock or The Plough and the Stars.