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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1945

Red Roses for Me

page 5

Red Roses for Me

In this year's issue of "Rostrum" there is an Editorial which provides an admirable text for the subject about which I want to write.

If I understand this Editorial rightly—and it is possible that I do not, as it is a very clever Editorial—the author is complaining bitterly about certain individuals who "would restrict the functions of a University to training efficient civil servants and technicians." The Editorial is inspired by an article appearing in a University paper which apparently attacked the intellectuals for sitting back and theorising while Rome burned.

Now I have no doubt that the article which aroused the Editor's anger was a stupid piece of work, but I am equally certain that the opinions of the Editor are more dangerous than those which he is attacking. Let me quote the kernel of his argument:

"In their eagerness for action—which probably springs from a strong moral conviction—they forget that actions have to be evaluated. And as life is very complex, people have always believed in a certain division of labour, where some are concerned mainly with thought, while others are concerned mainly with action. To deride those who undertake one part of the work necessary for life is the occupation of fools."

And, by implication, people who reject the validity of this "division of labour" are accused of a philistinism which would transform the University into the Public Service Staff Training Centre and a series of chain stores selling technical knowledge. This, to use language which the Editor will understand, is an example of the Fallacy of the Consequent.

Our learned dichotomist, then, pictures a world where thought and action are the functions of distinct and separated groups—where the thinkers will provide theoretical tools for the use of the doers. "Culture is a full time occupation," says the Editor. Both Jesus and Marx would have laughed like hell if they'd read this. And both were philosophers of some repute.

All right—let us admit the element of truth in this division of labour theory. Let us admit that with society as it is organised today a certain amount of dichotomy is unavoidable. No one can doubt that there are certain traditions and certain sets of values which must be defended and transmitted. But that does not mean to say that we must be content with this state of affairs. On the contrary, we must work towards a society where all men are thinkers and all men are doers, for the boundary between thinking and doing is artificial, and the one tends to be barren without the other.

And we must remember two other things. First, if the theoreticians of today are to construct tools for the doers, those tools must be related to the problems which the doers are being called upon to solve. If the immediate problem is the cleaning away of a slip, a steam shovel is required, not a delicately carved and beautifully balanced hammer. It is pleasant to dwell in the Lotus-Land of pure theory—but after all a life spent in such a land is about equivalent in value to that of a Casanova. Secondly, and most important, traditions and sets of values are not created by theoreticians any more than the diamond. page 6 is created by the technician who, cuts and polishes it, or the queen who wears it, or the banker who keeps it in one of his vaults.

It is rather extraordinary, when you come to think of it, how many thinkers have also been doers. For The Enemy, about whom we read so much in "Rostrum," does not exist only outside the cloisters, but he has managed to slip inside them too. And his tactics are naturally different inside. Outside, his battle-cry is "Reality"; inside, his trumpet-call is Metaphysics." It is, as I said, extraordinary that so many among the great should have ignored The Enemy's trumpet.

Which leads me to the subject of this essay, which is not metaphysics or "Rostrum," but Sean O'Casey's latest play, "Red Roses For Me." O'Casey's only University was the streets of Dublin; his life was blessed with no comfortable inheritance; pain and suffering, and not roses, were strewn over his path. His story isn't the usual pitiful "local boy makes good" sermon; he'll get a "funeral half a mile long" all right, but there will be few motor cars in the procession, and the people will follow him to his grave in their thousands, as they followed his fellow-countryman Swift. For he has spent his life in the maintenance and defence of those values and traditions which he found by experience to be good and true, and in helping to reshape those which he found were twisted and deformed. He has created much that is beautiful; and his ethic and his philosophy are the richer and the more enduring because he has never been isolated from the class which bore him and has never succumbed to the temptation to disown it.

Please do not think that I am by impliccation sneering at a University education; O'Casey probably would have been a better writer if he had attended Dublin University —provided The Enemy hadn't got at him. With O'Casey his father's books, and the Abbey Theatre, and Shakespeare, and his friends, were a good substitute. But I am certainly maintaining that if O'Casey had not been educated in the streets, if he had not worked and suffered with the people in the Dublin Lockout in 1913, if he had not taken part in the poor little uprising in Easter Week 1916—his work would not have been so valuable or so rich. This doesn't prove anything, except that O' Casey's peculiar type of genius was able to flower beautifully in the soil in which it found itself. In itself, the fact of O'Casey does not prove the Editor of "Rostrum" to be wrong, any more than the fact of Shelley does. It is merely a beetle gnawing at the foundations of his thesis. And the future will provide many more such beetles.

In his latest play, O'Casey returns to Ireland, for the first time for many years. His tenement dramas in the 'twenties, in which he drew on his personal experience of the troubled days in Ireland for material, filled the Abbey Theatre with a new type of audience. The aesthetes and the Gaelic Leaguers and the visionaries were still there, but along with them came the people who had taken a passive part in the unhappy events of the past few years. His audience consisted largely of those who had been unwittingly dragged into the maelstrom, usually against their will; and his early plays emphasised these people, and not the heroes. In "The Plough and the Stars," Padraic Pearse is merely a Voice at the Window, and the main characters are tenement-house dwellers—men who are drunkards and dreamers, and women who are brave. Sometimes revolutionaries enter and exit, but they are only shadows on the wall. Imagine "Hamlet" without the royal family—as a play depicting the reaction of the Court and the people to the spendid events—and you will get an idea of the early O'Casey plays.

To achieve success—and a certain amount of notoriety—in Ireland was easy to a genius who had lived through the events about which he wrote. When he transferred his attention from the microcosm to the macrocosm, O' Casey was not at first so successful. page 7 Although he left Ireland, and wrote about issues which were international, he still had one leg firmly planted on the bridge over the Liffey. He was now writing about people and things which he had not personally known and experienced, and his first ventures into the new field were not particularly happy. "The Silver Tassie" is rather poor stuff; "Within the Gates" is full of beautiful ideas, but they seem cramped and restricted, arid don't often come to the surface, like a bowl of exotic goldfish. In "Purple Dust" he is on surer ground, because the locale is again Ireland, and the spirit of revolt against the old and arid is symbolised by Irish workmen, glowing with the traditions of their country. "The Star Turns Red" probably represents O'Casey's triumph in his new environment.

In "Red Roses For Me," O'Casey takes us back to Ireland and to the Irish people. But it is not the old bitter Ireland of "Juno and the Paycock." Now the people are dreaming strange dreams; flower-sellers drowsing in dejection on the bridge are roused to visions of fair cities and dance together in riots of brilliant colours; there is a strike going on for an extra shilling wages, and when the hero is killed in a charge by the soldiers, the Inspector says: "It wasn't a very noble thing to die for a single shilling," and Sheila replies in a murmur: "Maybe he saw the shilling in th shape of a new world."

It is amazing how much of O'Casey's own youth is woven into "Red Roses For Me." If you read his autobiographical works—especially "Pictures in the Hallway," you will find whole scenes and incidents which have been translated directly into the play. Indeed, one of the defects of the play is that so much of it is inexplicable without a knowledge of O'Casey's life and the intimate history of conflicts in Ireland; one suspects that there are private jokes peeping out of the pages here and there. Ayamonn Breydon, the lover of Shakespeare, the young rebel, is obviously O'Casey himself; Mrs. Breydon is O'Casey's mother" whom he loved so much. (Surely the finest dedication of all is that in "The Plough and the Stars"—"To the gay laugh of my mother at the gate of the grave.") The Rector of St. Burnupus is that Rector of that Church who was O'Casey's friend when he was a boy; the strange and violent religious conflicts actually took place.

"Red Roses For Me" is not the mere return of a wanderer to his native country. O'Casey has returned neither physically nor spiritually to Ireland, and he never will. The Ireland the play is an idealised country—a blend of the universal and the particular in which the universal properly predominates. The realistic and the symbolic are also beautifully intermingled, so that it is often hard to find the exact point at which his characters cease to speak prose and start to talk in poetry. "Red, Roses For Me" is in truth the synthesis of the realism of O'Casey's early tenement dramas and the symbolism of much of his later work; it was only to be expected that Ireland would be the framework for such a synthesis.

It is perhaps unnecessary to add that in this play, as in everything which O'Casey has ever written, there is a hatred of tyranny and intolerance, and a warm love of the strivings of the common people. It does not obtrude, it is subordinate to the theme and the people, but it is there all the time. Mrs. Breydon says of her son:

"His mind, like his poor father's, hates what he sees as a sham; an' shams are powerful things, mustherin' at their broad backs guns that shoot, big jails that hide their foes, and high gallows to choke th' young cryin' against them when th' stones are silent."

But it is no use merely hating shams: it is no use treasuring in your heart values which you know are true unless you also fight openly against the shams which shroud those values. Let there be no mistake about it, the only shams that are really important, the only shams that are really worth fighting, are those which have to protect them guns that shoot, big jails and high gallows. To fight them, you must be armed as The Enemy is armed.