Author logo Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars - study guide

Preparing to study
What happens in the play?
Theatrical elements
The playwright's naturalism
Public events and ordinary lives
Contrast and juxtaposition
The play as political criticism
Example questions


This study guide is intended for students taking examinations in English literature, drama or theatre arts at GCE Advanced (A2) and Advanced Supplementary (AS) level. It may also be of general interest to students of modern theatre in general and the plays of Sean O'Casey in particular. Please use the hyperlinks in the table above to navigate this page. If you have any comments or suggestions to make about this guide, please contact me.

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Preparing to study

This guide is written to support your study of The Plough and the Stars. The guide indicates the terms in which examiners will expect you to understand the play. It should be used in conjunction with study of The Plough and the Stars in performance, as far as possible, and of the text in one or more editions designed for study at your level.

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What happens in The Plough and the Stars?

Act One | Act Two | Act Three | Act Four

The play is effectively in two halves: Acts One and Two (in November 1915) look forward to the glorious citizen-led liberation of Ireland.

In Acts Three and Four (Easter 1916) reality has imposed itself - we see the suppression (predictable and irresistible) of the citizen uprising.

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Act One

The opening scene or episode seems shapeless - a cameo of normal life: we see Mrs. Gogan's snooping, comments on Nora, the teasing of Peter. Both Fluther and Mrs. Gogan refer to the Nationalist rising, and the Covey's arrival brings hot news of the evening's demo. We see first of Peter's quarrels with the Covey - both characters are comic, but Peter more obviously so: while the Covey is a political bore, Peter is a posturing coward.

The next entrance is Nora's - she appears to have influence over these four, but is intimidated by Bessie. Fluther's exit leads to tea-scene - Nora presiding, Peter and Covey sparring. These leave - and we see an apparently intimate scene. But this is shattered by Brennan's revelation and Nora's confession. Jack leaves the real (?) woman for the mythical Shan Van Vok/Cathleen ni Houlihan.

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The act is naturalistic in

  • shapelessness,
  • mixing up of elements, and in
  • lack of obviously significant incident.

The act serves to establish character and give background information. It seems that focus of play is to be the Clitheroes - but this is less clear in subsequent acts (not at all in Act Two, from which Nora is absent).

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Act Two

This was originally a single-act play which stood alone, called The Cooing of Doves. It is not clear that O'Casey has integrated it into the longer structure of the four-act play. The main episodes are these:

  • The prostitute and the barman listen to the rabble-rouser (Pearse) outside. While Rosie bemoans the lack of custom, she endorses the “sacred truth” of the patriot's speech.
  • Peter and Fluther enter roused to a high pitch of excitement by what they have heard. Yet Peter is a coward and Fluther will later criticise patriotic fervour.
  • As these leave the Covey enters, disgusted by Pearse's speech (but no more understanding it than Peter and Fluther). Rosie attempts to interest him but he backs off in fear. We see that he is fearful of the physical reality of sex.
  • Peter and Fluther return, joined by Mrs. Gogan, with her baby. Mrs. Gogan's comments on sacrifice for Ireland lead to Fluther's twitting of Peter.
  • The entry of Bessie and the Covey allows Peter to recognise his real enemy, but the two women intervene with their own quarrel - Mrs. Gogan, thinking of Ireland and Bessie of the loyalists who have gone to fight in France and Belgium. This degenerates into personal abuse (despite Fluther's and Peter's intervention) with the result that Mrs. Gogan hands her child to Peter, in order to fight her tormentor. The barman throws out both women, and Peter pursues Mrs. Gogan with the baby.
  • Fluther now becomes comically chivalrous and takes up cudgels with the Covey over his abuse of Rosie. To prevent a fight, the barman throws out the young man and we see a mock-romantic episode - Fluther as shining knight and Rosie as damsel in distress.

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In the middle of this scene, which ends with Fluther's leaving with the prostitute who sings a bawdy song, we have the solemnity of Brennan, Langdon and Clitheroe, as if in religious liturgy, declaring that Ireland is greater than wife or mother, and embracing death for her independence. Which is the right course? That of Fluther or that of Clitheroe?

The act works by juxtapositions - notably that of Pearse's speech against the events inside the pub. The comic, colloquial but natural speech of Fluther and company contrasts with the rabble-rousing oratory of the fanatic. Pearse's words stir up the simple, who do not wholly comprehend, but make of them what they want to hear. Who makes history? The demagogue, Pearse, or the ordinary people he inspires to bravery or folly?

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Act Three

This act is set in the Clitheroes' home - inside and out. The time is dusk in Easter week, months after Act Two. Mollser is comforted by Jenny Gogan - she is dead within days (before Act Four). The main episodes are as follows:

  • Peter and the Covey (together) bring news of the rising - Bessie foresees defeat of the rebels and gloats.
  • Fluther brings back Nora - she has not found Jack. She rails against the rebellion. The men play dice until interrupted by Bessie (who has returned impossibly quickly).
  • Bessie tells the others of the looting (she has done some - how did she know when to go?) and Fluther and the Covey go to do likewise.
  • An unnamed woman tries to go to Wrathmines. Peter goes into the house.
  • Mrs. Gogan and Bessie argue over the pram. They agree to go looting together. Peter follows but runs home at the sound of heavy artillery.
  • The Young Covey returns with a sack of flour and a ham. Peter shuts him out but someone else lets him in. Mrs. Gogan and Bessie come back, friendly, with their loot.
  • Brennan and Clitheroe appear with the wounded Langon. Bessie taunts them (especially the chicken-butcher, Brennan) from an upstairs window (we see into this room in Act Four). Nora tries to detain Jack, but the men leave. Clitheroe will not be seen again in the play.
  • Fluther returns, drunk and singing and is hauled inside by Bessie. Nora goes into labour (this throws more light on Jack's departure) and Bessie goes to bring the doctor - Fluther is incapable and Mrs. Gogan fearful and needing to attend to the dying Mollser.

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Act Four

This act is set inside Bessie's living room. The time is dusk again, a few days later. Mollser has died, Nora has had a stillbirth and Clitheroe is also dead, unbeknown to her.

  • The three men play cards while Bessie tends Nora. Mollser's coffin stands in the room (why not in her mother's? because of the baby?). We learn of Jenny's background - her consumptive husband died leaving her a baby. Presumably “before he died” refers to “leaving baby...” rather than its birth - that is, he made her pregnant, and then died.
  • Brennan arrives without uniform - he has given up the fight. His account of Clitheroe's heroic death is thus rather hollow, as Bessie shrewdly notes.
  • Nora appears and speaks insanely. Bessie tries to calm her. The Covey reproaches Peter who has spoken of Jack's death. Brennan is fearful of arrest but Fluther tells him to pose as “one of the household”.
  • We have seen the self-appointed citizen soldiers; now we see a real (professional, trained) soldier, Corporal Stoddart. He has come to oversee Mollser's funeral arrangements - a routine duty, but she has died of natural causes. He asks Bessie who is in the house, as he has to round up all of the men. (While the four men carry out the coffin).
  • Sergeant Tinley brings more news of the fighting. He is more brusque than Stoddart and provokes more reaction from Fluther. He threatens to shoot the four men whom he leads out.
  • Nora goes to the window, calling for Jack. Bessie pulls her away, but is shot. (The soldiers assume any figure at a window may be a sniper). Bessie curses Nora but her last words are a hymn of faith in Jesus.
  • Mrs. Gogan takes over the care of Nora whom she leads out. Tinley and Stoddart drink the tea (which Nora has made?). As the soldiers outside sing, they join in the chorus, “Keep the home fires burning”.

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Theatrical elements

These include, among other things:

  • O'Casey's naturalism.
  • The way public events are depicted through ordinary lives.
  • Contrast and juxtaposition.
  • The play's functioning as political criticism.
  • The focus of the play - the collective protagonist.
  • Set, action and special effects.
  • Presentation of character - those who develop (Bessie) or change (Mrs. Gogan, Fluther, The Covey, Nora) and those who don't (Peter, Jack)

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The playwright's naturalism

The play purports to represent authentically the speech and behaviour of the characters. They use lively, vivid colloquialism, colourful speech, malapropisms (Fluther's “derogatory”) and regional accent.

Actions, exits and entrances appear uncontrived - most pointedly, to reassure the audience, at the start, where Fluther mends a lock and Peter wanders around half-dressed while his shirt airs. By comparison Act Four is more economical, though it opens with card-playing and small-talk.

Events are presented in relation to many characters (as in modern naturalistic television soap-opera). The audience's interest is in various characters at various times: Nora, Bessie and Fluther principally.

Vincent De Baun (in O'Casey and the Road to Expressionism) argues that the lack of a central protagonist is an expressionist device, but this argument is unconvincing as De Baun concedes that O'Casey has “created an ordinary group of people whom we see trapped by circumstance”.

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More to the point are De Baun's comments on Act Two. Pearse's speech is broken into short passages, each contrived to coincide with what occurs within. His fanaticism reflects Peter's and Fluther's shallow alcohol-induced patriotism, or, in the middle, the liturgy of Clitheroe, Brennan and Langan.

In Act Four the tendency is clearer - note timing of cry of “Red Cr...oss” or the sounds of gunfire with events within. In this act there is a pattern of songs and chants and noises:

  • gunfire: rifle, machine-gun, heavy artillery;
  • chant of “Red Cr...oss...Ambu...lance”;
  • two hymns (the first written by a celebrated Catholic);
  • Nora's demented rendition of a sentimental ballad;
  • Stoddart's “mince pie” song and his and Tinley's singing of the sentimental soldiers' song “Keep the home fires burning”.

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Public events and ordinary lives

O'Casey chooses not to present directly the leaders of the movement, nor even to present on stage the rebel attempts to overthrow British rule. We hear one of the leaders (Pearse, in Act Two) but only have parts of his speech. The fighting around the Dublin post office is described (but not depicted), as is Jack's death. The only action we see is Bessie's shooting. Lighting shows the glare of the burning city through windows - but always the fighting is outside.

However, when the soldiers arrive on stage in Act Four the outside world has entered the Clitheroe home. From its symbolic protection the four men are taken away to face public retribution for the actions of their countrymen (one of whom, Brennan, has been passed off as a non-combatant).

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O'Casey cares what is the effect of Pearse's and Connolly's words on ordinary, limited and fallible people. Some - Peter, the Covey and Fluther - may be briefly roused but keep out of the rising as far as they can (though they may exploit it by looting). Others - Clitheroe, Langan and Brennan - are persuaded by Pearse's seductive oratory.

Neither group is admirable:

  • the former are prudent for ignoble reasons (though Fluther does show some nobility);
  • the latter are shown to have been cruelly deceived: two renounce their patriotism, while Clitheroe dies for nothing.

O'Casey implies that the spokesmen of liberty have inspired simple people to get themselves shot, while others who have not taken up arms have also been embroiled in suffering - shown, most extremely, in the shooting of Bessie. She rejects the “Shinners” and all their works, while her son could easily have fought in the same battles as Stoddart and Tinley.

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The characters in the play are all living in straitened circumstances - Nora's affectation of gentility does not hide the fact that she is almost as poor as her tenants. To poverty are added other problems - Mrs. Gogan's consumptive husband and elder child, Bessie's worry about her son's welfare, Nora's uncertainty of her husband, the mutual contempt of Peter and the Covey. Only Fluther seems reasonably content. Life is a struggle already. Defiance of British rule - meant to lessen their troubles - greatly increases them. Thus it is naturalistically improbable but symbolically necessary, for Mollser's death to occur when it does.

O'Casey, perhaps aware that the ordinary person is, like Everyman, non-existent, and inappropriate to naturalistic drama, thus depicts the variety of characters we think of as ordinary people or representative types. The variety is clear (but may seem contrived) and thus allows for types like Bessie and the Covey who could not, singly, stand for the ordinary person in Dublin (as being a protestant or communist, say). Our idea of a decent, ordinary person is nearest to Fluther, perhaps.

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Contrast and juxtaposition

Contrast of character | Contrast of outlook | Contrast of speech | Contrast of strength | Juxtaposition

Contrast in the play can be seen in terms of character, outlook, speech and strength, among other things.

Contrast of character

O'Casey continually pairs or groups characters of different outlook - either in conversation together (Fluther and the Covey, the Covey and Rosie) or on stage in different conversations: Clitheroe, Langan, Brennan opposed to Rosie and Fluther. This use of contrast is explicit in Act One where Nora tries to reconcile warring male characters but is herself thrown into sharper relief by Bessie's verbal attack.

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Contrast of outlook

A character's outlook or conduct may express or contradict his or her personality (frequently the latter - Bessie's theoretical intolerance against her practical charity, Fluther's avowed prudence against his real courage, Peter's posturing against his cowardice). But in dialogue, their outlook causes some characters to adopt combative stances and leads to verbal sparring about these differences:

  • Fluther's simple Catholicism against the Covey's Marxism,
  • the Covey's anti-militarism against Peter's love of uniform,
  • Bessie's loyalism and Protestantism against republican Catholicism in Mrs. Gogan, Clitheroe, and Brennan;
  • the Covey's academic outlook against Rosie's down-to-earth view of life.

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Contrast of speech

In Act Two we see the huge difference between the speech of the pub, which is colloquial and ungrammatical but presented as having a basic honesty, and the stilted rhetoric of Pearse - the one is bound up with life and affirms love and pleasure; the other deifies death, sacrifice and bloodshed. The one does no harm; the other does great harm.

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Contrast of strength

In Act Three Bessie taunts Brennan with reminders of his usual occupation. His lofty rank means nothing - he remains what he is - good only at choking fowl. Stoddart and Tinley are, in rank, vastly below the position of captain - they are N.C.O.s. But their rank, in a regular army, does mean something. They are professional soldiers. Peter dresses in a colourful outfit and sports a sword - leading to jokes about his “canonicals” or “regimentals” (uniform of a religious or military person). Stoddart is described in a lengthy stage direction - what he carries is the modern (for the time) equipment of an expert soldier. Brennan, by now, has shed his uniform - the would-be soldier is revealed as a frightened civilian. The deaths of Langan (we suppose) and Clitheroe have cured him of his taste for adventure. But Tinley's response to Private Taylor's death is to get on with his work with heightened brutality. Fluther, commenting on Tinley's complaint that the Republicans are not fighting fair, in fact reinforces this idea: the British have greater numbers, more and better equipment, horses and artillery as well as proper training and experience. In effect O'Casey says, through Fluther, that the rising is doomed to failure. On stage Tinley and Stoddart are part of an irresistible force.

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O'Casey presents the audience at the same time, or in rapid succession, with different views. Thus each becomes a critique of the other, or a view advanced as a sacred truth is shown as erroneous. In Act Two we see the juxtaposition of Pearse's speech and the alternative reality of the pub with its speech, characters and outlook. O'Casey does not tell us Pearse is speaking folly but invites us to think so.

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The play as political criticism

In the play O'Casey is at pains to show that the suppression of the rising is not an unfortunate accident of history. While many men take up arms, O'Casey argues that the defeat at the hands of the British was inevitable. The myths of the past and fervent response to the leaders' rhetoric have made men feel ready to give their lives. When they have second thoughts, they are afraid to voice them and turn back - till events overtake them, and the instinct for self-preservation becomes strong - as it does for Brennan when he sees Clitheroe die.

The revolutionaries we see are not presented sympathetically. There is a cold fanaticism and an unwholesome rejection of the pleasure of sexual love for what Rosie calls “higher things than a girl's garthers”. Fluther's pursuit of the whore is shown as a more humane and wise course than Clitheroe's renunciation of his wife. It is true that Nora's attempts to win back Jack are selfish, but his outlook is nonetheless a delusion.

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Maureen Hawkins of the University of Lethbridge, offers a slightly different perspective:

I'm not sure you have the political criticism in the play quite right. It does critique the Rising but not merely on the grounds that it was doomed to defeat. The point for O'Casey is that it was the wrong war for the tenement dwellers (and for that matter, for Corporal Stoddart). Divisive issues of nationalism and religion set them against one another when they should be uniting in the class war. The Covey is a pompous idiot who lacks the true "Communist" spirit (which both Fluther and Bessie have), but, unpleasant as he is, his ideological perceptions are quite accurate: The Plough and the Stars doesn't belong in a purely nationalist battle that will simply change the workers'masters.

My authority for this is not only my own reading but also numerous critics including John Jordan and Ron Ayling (O'Casey's close friend and literary executor) as well as Eileen O'Casey.

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It is worth thinking about what this means for modern theatre productions. O’Casey perhaps writes mainly for a contemporary, mainly Irish (or at least British) audience, that may be familiar with the political situation. Today, the history may be less important as a record of the past, than as embodying timeless and persistent themes. In fact, if the play is only about what happened in Dublin early in the last century, then its value as literature and serious drama may be less.

The director of a play can use techniques of production to move the attention of the audience towards or away from the topical (and now dated) historical account. We see this at work in modern productions of Shakespeare’s history plays. The audience today may not know any other version of the history of Richard II or Henry V – but we see the plays principally as explorations of the nature of kingship and power, of the private individual and his public duty. And we can enjoy Brecht's Mutter Courage without knowing anything much about the Thirty Years War (a safe bet with a British audience). Does O’Casey also explore any themes that go beyond the immediate story that embodies them? Should the director try to show this, and, if so, how?

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Example questions

  • How does the play depict the relationship of public and private events?
  • What guidance would you, as a director, give to an actor playing the part of one one of the following: Fluther, Bessie, Nora, the Young Covey?
  • What devices does O'Casey use to present the Easter Rising critically? How, in performance, should the director and actors make these devices work?
  • Consider the relationship of Act Two to the structure of the whole play. What problems and challenges does this act give the director? How would you seek to overcome them?
  • How would you design lighting and/or sound for this play? Make sure that you refer to specific episodes and sound or lighting effects in your answer.

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© Andrew Moore, 2001; Contact me

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