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Irish people are as familiar with the year 1916 as Americans are with 1776 or 1865. It’s the year of the Easter Rising, a year that shaped — or fractured, depending on which narrative you accept — the island nation and laid the ground work for decades of sectarian violence to follow. To be in Dublin at any point during this year is to confront reminders of the 1916 bloodshed seemingly at every corner. Banners noting the Easter Rising’s centennial hang from streetlights and buildings all over the city center, inviting residents and visitors alike to revisit the violence that gripped the city one hundred years ago, when Irish nationalists and British loyalists sprayed bullets across the city and killed more than 250 civilians.
In conversation with this history, the Abbey Theatre — Ireland’s national theater, founded by William Butler Yeats, Edward Martyn and Lady Gregory in the first decade of the 20th century — is exploring its countries war-torn past in two plays presented on either side of the Atlantic. The plays portray characters in different proximities to historical violence — their own, and that of others — and, in doing so, they ask piercing questions of contemporary audiences.
In Dublin, the Abbey has mounted a revival of Frank McGuinness’s “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,” which offers a snapshot of the mostly Protestant Irish soldiers who fought with the British at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the same year that the Easter Rising exploded on the home front. And in New York, the Irish Repertory Theatre and Public Theater have imported the Abbey’s production of “Quietly,” Owen McCafferty’s chamber play about men who grew up on opposite sides of the Troubles — a period of sustained conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted from the late-1960s until the late-1990s — who meet years after a terrorist attack that bonded them for life. Both productions reflect a sustained Irish effort to forge peace from conflict.
Although the events in McGuinness’s “Observe the Sons” date to 1916, they bear but a peripheral relationship to the Easter Rising. It is a memory play, told by the traumatized sole survivor of a group of eight Ulsterian soldiers who fought at the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in recorded history. Ulster is a largely Protestant Irish province that was dissected when the country was split between North and South. At the top of the play, the survivor, Kenneth Pyper, recalls the fellow soldiers — including his lover — whom he watched perish a half-century prior. As these men face certain collective death in France, some of them struggle to forget the factional prejudices they learned in Ireland.
We see men on the brink of death bonded, if unable to fully shake their sense of separateness.
What makes “Observe the Sons,” as performed in Dublin in 2016, compelling is that it gives contemporary audiences a sense of how pervasive the religious and national divides were in Ireland at the time of the Rising and ensuing Civil War. We see men on the brink of death bonded, if unable to fully shake their sense of separateness. The structure of McGuinness’s play supports this, as we meet the men united in training before they are paired off in thematic couples while on final leave before the battle. There are the two men who debate the existence of god, the men from Belfast who helped build the Titanic and drink to forget it, the men who display different fear responses atop a rickety footbridge, and (spoiler?) the men who are gay and engage in a fleeting night of passion.
Through the specificity of character and circumstance in “Observe the Sons,” McGuinness invites the contemporary viewer to reflect on the current military and civilian violence. The fighting that plagued Ireland for much of the 20th Century perhaps has subsided, but globally religious divisions seem to have metastasized. Although guerrilla-style street attacks continue to terrorize certain communities, state-sanctioned violence in the West has become more sophisticated and perhaps even deadlier. For example, the United States historically has depended on infantry units — like those “Sons of Ulster” in McGuinness’s play — to perpetrate its wars, but as the 21st century unfolds, it increasingly engages in drone warfare. As a result, we Americans are distanced from the violence authorized by our elected officials. The “Sons of Ulster” did not have that luxury. They had to kill and die while making eye contact with their enemies, which at the very least endowed their slaughter with a sense of humanity. For me — a non-military theatergoer — the question I’ve grappled with since seeing this haunting production is, “What happens if we never have to see the faces of lives we end?”
In the New York production of the Abbey’s “Quietly,” playwright McCafferty positions the audience more closely to interpersonal violence. We meet Ian, a Protestant, and Jimmy, a Catholic, in a bar 30-something years after Ian tossed a bomb into a different bar and killed Jimmy’s father. Both Ian and Jimmy were kids when the attack happened, in 1974, and both have grown up shouldering its resulting trauma. Where “Sons of Ulster” essentially tells a Protestant story — the creation of which was inherently political, given McGuinness’s roots in the Catholic Irish republic —McCafferty gives equal weight to both perspectives in “Quietly.” Despite the very real politics of the plot, there is no apparent political slant of the production. It seems to suggest that, if violent acts are the responsibility of those who perpetrate them, then the obligation of peace in their aftermath belongs to everyone.
At its core, “Quietly” investigates what happens when we begin to dismantle the identities to which we attach and from which we distinguish one another. In a recent phone conversation, the production’s director, Jimmy Fay, expanded on the play’s ability to represent both sides without favor.
“That’s the nuance of our play,” Fay said. “How does somebody kill in the name of some sort of freedom cause? And it’s kind of frightening, some of the conclusions we’ve come to, because they’re quite ordinary.”
By humanizing the terrorist — here, Ian, who threw the fatal bomb — McCafferty localizes a violence that most people only encounter through media screens. In doing so, he allows viewers to consider their own impulses to violence anew, as well as to imagine alternate paths on which those impulses not only were normalized but also materialized. If “Sons of Ulster” evokes questions of distance from violence, then “Quietly” most assuredly brings those questions home.
Although their stories are specific to the Irish people, their themes of peace and violence resonate across human divisions.
As Fay sees it, there are no easy ways to navigate aggressive assertions of human differences, which often masquerade as nationalism. He pointed to the recent vote in the U.K. to leave the European Union as a particularly challenging example of this. “You look at the North,” Fay said, referring to the British-controlled Northern territories in Ireland. “Brexit has caused more consternations than anything else, because I think the English want to be nationalistic, in the sense that they want the separation from Europe, and they believe in this union. But the whole thing about the North is the ambiguity there, in the sense that you can exist as a nationalist in the North and still be part of the U.K. because you’re a European citizen. You take that European citizenship away, and it’s a lot trickier.”
As the men in “Ulster” and “Quietly” both demonstrate, we ultimately die alone, but we don’t have to live that way. Peace is a tenuous concept, but it is achievable. The Irish people have proven that in their history and art. Playwrights such as McGuinness and McCafferty remind us that when we allow our baser instincts to overpower a sense of responsibility to one another, everybody loses. Although their stories are specific to the Irish people, their themes of peace and violence resonate across human divisions.