The revolution will be dramatised
In Dublin’s Temple Bar, within gunshot of the General Post Office, a diverse band of Irish citizen actors are planning to strike a blow against war and imperialism and for Irish freedom. This is not a costumed re-enactment of the 1916 Easter Rising but an act of contemporary revolutionary theatre, where the audience for the epic 1970s play the Non Stop Connolly Show, by Margaretta D’Arcy and John Arden, become the cast. Each lunchtime between 27 April and 12 May, volunteers muster at Connolly Books to take reading parts in the play which covers the life, struggles and death of James Connolly. Not only has the fourth wall been broken down, but the spirit of text has spurred solidarity action by the players in support of Maura Harrington, jailed in Mountjoy on Friday for her opposition to Shell’s rape of the the West of Ireland countryside.
The Non Stop Connolly Show has its roots in the radical early 1970s. The war in the North of Ireland was at its bloody height. Workers were on the march across Europe, in Britain the miners brought down the Tory Heath Government. In Vietnam, the US defeated by a guerilla army, was intent on leaving only scorched earth behind it. In Chile, Allende and his socialist movement were brutally destroyed by the CIA-backed Pinochet coup. In Galway, Margaretta D’Arcy and John Arden, ostracised by the mainstream theatre, worked on writing a script for a contemporary mystery play cycle which would tie the events of 1916 directly to the present and cut through the predicted greenwash of the 60th commemoration of the Easter Rising. The production would be 24-hours long.
With backing from Connolly’s union, the Irish Transport and General Workers, who provided Liberty Hall as the venue, and Official Sinn Fein, who gave room in their Gardiner Place HQ for rehearsals and costume making, D’Arcy and Arden began recruiting a band of young players and musicians to perform the play in the 1975. The direction was to be collaborative, shared between the authors, Rob Walker and Jim Sheridan (later to direct My Left Foot). The structure of the play was like a TV box-set drama today, with one-hour acts covering the key periods of Connolly’s life. The lyricism of the dialogue, music and song drove it forward at a cracking pace. Costumes stitched together from second-hand-clothes scavenged from Moore Street market, flags, banners and grotesque masks added to the spectacle. And it worked. For 24 hours over the Easter weekend of 29-30 March 1975, a packed auditorium in Liberty Hall engaged with revolutionary politics and history.
New Society called the play “The major theatrical development in 1970s”. Michael Cohen writing in Theatre Research International describes it as the “most ambitious attempt in English to dramatise working-class and social history.”
Despite the 1975 success, the play has never again been performed in its 24-hour entirety. Theatre producers don’t like taking risks, especially not risks involving revolution. D’Arcy and Arden worked with London’s Almost Free theatre to stage it in parts in 1976. A group of left wing Labour councillors, including Jeremy Corbyn, organised a reading at Islington Town Hall during the same period. In 2006, Sabina Higgins took a part in an abridged production in Galway and a reading was done in a pub on the Arran Islands in the same year.
This year there has been a revival of interest in the play from a new theatrical generation. Shane Dempsey directed a company of young Irish actors in a bravura series of staged readings at the Finborough Theatre in West London. In North London, the New Company of the Eccentric Actor did the same over a weekend at the Torriano Centre.
Margaretta D’Arcy describes the readings in Dublin as: “A quite remarkable event. We have young and older people coming in off the street sitting down at a big table and reading from a script they have never seen before. You don’t have the distraction of looking at an actor, you just hear the words, which means the politics and the story are crystal clear. It is all very intense. No breaks, we just power through the hour, like a juggernaut through history. It is a real collective experience.”
“It is ironic,” D’Arcy continues. “That on the day we are reading about poor James Connolly being left to rot in prison by Keir Hardie, Maura Harrington from Shell to Sea is jailed for trying to protect the natural resources of Ireland. On Saturday all the cast wrote letters and cards to her and a delegation went to Mountjoy after the reading to deliver them. It was quite funny as we were expecting to be refused entry to the prison, but they just let us in and we were able to ask why Maura was being imprisoned and hand over our messages of solidarity. I suppose that’s the way it should be, for even the jails belong to the Irish people.”
Next week, the readings build to the terrible climax, as Connolly experiences defeat in the Dublin Lockout, sees the sectarian Orange card trump Home Rule, and despairs as the Socialist International capitulates to the war mongers and mass slaughter is unleashed across the globe. On Thursday, the last day of the readings, Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army’s fate is decided in the GPO. The cast will finish by marching to Liberty Hall to commemorate Connolly’s last day of life.
To read in the play, simply visit Connolly Books, Essex Street, Temple Bar before 1pm, Mon-Thurs. Free tea and cake supplied courtesy of the Communist Party of Ireland.
Caption: Non Stop Connolly Show