Plunkett’s play 'The Risen People' returns to the Abbey Theatre

In honour of the centenary of the 1913 Lockout, the Abbey Theatre is closing out the year with a rare revival of James Plunkett’s play The Risen People.

Plunkett’s play 'The Risen People' returns to the Abbey Theatre

The Lockout is an infamous event in modern Irish history, a high-stakes dispute waged between Jim Larkin’s union movement and the industrialists of the day. Littered with brutal incidents, it saw 20,000 workers effectively starved into submission by employers who, with the authorities on their side, blackballed them out of work.

First produced at the Abbey in 1958, Plunkett’s play offers a snapshot of life in a Dublin tenement as the Lockout rages. The play would later provide Plunkett with the raw material for his iconic historical novel, Strumpet City.

The historical details may be bleak, but Jimmy Fay, director of the Abbey’s new revival, says the play is also entertaining and charged with the life of Plunkett’s colourful characters. He hopes the production will capture the breadth of working class culture and song from the Dublin of 100 years ago.

“There were some brilliant songs inspired by the Lockout at the time,” says Fay. “In the show we use ‘Who Fears to wear Blood Red Badge?’ and ‘The Freedom Pioneers’, which was written by James Connolly.”

The songs are not Fay’s only touches. The new production has been adapted from Plunkett’s original text but also from a famous production that Jim and Peter Sheridan staged in 1978. But in addition, Fay has also tinkered around with the background characters, removing Mrs Mulhall and replacing her with a character from Strumpet City.

“Lily Maxwell is only referenced once in the original play,” says Fay. “But I decided to bring her more centre-stage. I thought it’d be more interesting to replace Mrs Mulhall with a prostitute who lives in the tenement. Prostitution was a huge thing at that time when people had to live any which bloody way they could. And prostitution is a huge thing in present-day Dublin as well.”

Before Fay is accused of taking liberties, it should be remembered that The Risen People is itself immersed in a complex adaptation history. Indeed, Plunkett would probably eschew the notion of there being any definitive version of the play’s story, a story that he told time and again in numerous formats.

“Its textual history is really interesting,” says Fay. “Plunkett was Larkin’s secretary in the 1940s and it changed his life. When Plunkett first started writing he begun by doing short little pageants for union functions in Liberty Hall. These were just part of the evening’s entertainment. But from these he developed a radio play, Big Jim, in 1956. The radio play was set in the late 1940s. It’s Larkin’s funeral and the characters are looking back on the events of the Lockout.

“Then he got rid of that structure for The Risen People, taking Sean O’Casey’s plays as a kind of role model instead. But Plunkett just never let go of it, and so from there he expanded it to Strumpet City.”

The novel itself was turned into an acclaimed TV series by RTÉ in 1980. Fay — who was 10 at the time — recalls the devotion the weekly episodes inspired in the public. Nevertheless, he insists that his revival of The Risen People should not be mistaken for a version of the TV series nor for any more sentimental piece removed from the politics of the Lockout.

“This play is fundamentally political,” he says. “It is about people who make a stand. So you can’t be afraid of the politics. You can’t make this a portrait of Dublin in the rare auld times. Someone asked me if we would be having any snow in the show, because last year there was a lot of snow in the Abbey’s Christmas production of James Joyce’s The Dead. I said ‘Well if there’s any snow in The Risen People then we’ll have to have a child come out barefoot and die in the snow, OK?’ It’s that kind of play.

“Yet it’s still very entertaining. The first half of this is very raucous and dirty. It’s very Dublinese. There’s excitement to it and it’s not all doom and gloom. Obviously, the second half is a little darker. But the thing was to attack it and to make it as pointed as possible. You don’t need subtlety in a play like this. You need it to be vivid and told from song. And I know that we’re all sick to death of the recession but if you take away the costumes I don’t think the events in this play seem that historical. This is our story and it’s still going on.”

Fay seldom shies away from the politics in any piece and many of his most memorable productions have been political in content. His skill as a director is finding the right key for this content. His production of Brecht’s fascist parody The Irresistible Rise of Arturo Ui was thus playful, provocative and larger than life. By contrast, his more recent show, Owen McCafferty’s play Quietly, was more lean and subtle, befitting McCafferty’s spare meditation on the aftermath of the Troubles. (Notably, the latter enjoyed huge success when the Abbey toured it to Edinburgh this year.)

Fay believes that, if staged with due power, The Risen People will give modern audiences an insight into a historical event that has never quite grappled with.

“I think people are curious about this incident,” he says. “You can understand, to an extent, the events of Easter 1916. And you can understand Collins and all that malarkey.

“But when you look at the Lockout, people were trying to get organised, to stand up for their rights and to get better pay. And they were stopped. And they were starved. Yet even though it’s a story about people being beaten there is still a kind of hope within it and an energy about their actions that I find inspiring.”

* The Risen People runs until Feb 1 at the Abbey

A political writer with a heart

James Plunkett, right, knew trade unionist Jim Larkin (left), and this informed Plunkett’s ‘lockout’ novel, Strumpet City.

Jim Larkin, the pioneering trade unionist, looms large in the writing of James Plunkett. As branch secretary of the Workers’ Union, in the 1940s, the young Plunkett was privy to the thoughts and reminiscences of not just Larkin, but many of the union leaders and workers who had endured the Dublin Lockout of 1913. The lockout would provide Plunkett with the narrative and themes for his great literary work, the historical novel, Strumpet City.

Born in 1920, James Plunkett Kelly was raised in Irishtown, a small Dublin suburb bordered by the well-to-do oligarchs of Sandymount, on one side, and the rabble of the docklands village of Ringsend, on the other.

In biographies of Plunkett, much is made of this socio-cultural crossfire, as it were, yet it certainly informed Strumpet City. Plunkett’s novel throws its weight behind the poor and downtrodden of Dublin’s working class, but he does not vilify the wealthy employer classes as crass, uncaring scapegoats, and, instead, finds their humanity.

Though he was the product of the working classes and of a Catholic family, Plunkett — like many Dubliners of his time — was acutely aware of the ideological ambiguities of early 20th century Ireland.

Plunkett’s father, a chauffeur, had fought for the British army during the First World War, at a time of strident nationalism in Ireland. A firm aversion to the more dogmatic aspects of nationalism would later be observed in Plunkett’s writing.

Aged 17, Plunkett worked as a clerk in the Gas Company, on D’Olier Street, and, in the early 1940s, he began to contribute stories to Seán O’Faoláin’s journal, The Bell.

Tellingly, one of his earliest stories to be published was entitled ‘Working Class’ — O’Faoláin having advised Plunkett to ‘write about what you know’.

Plunkett was a devout Catholic and priests recur in his short stories. Priests are pivotal characters in Strumpet City — the rising of the workers is a challenge not just to the employers, but to the Catholic elite. Yet, in his stories, Plunkett explored the humanity beneath the priest’s collar, and did not portray such characters as vehicles of social or religious office.

Despite his faith, Plunkett fell foul of Church watchdogs, when he visited the Soviet Union in 1955 with a number of other Irish artists. Lambasted in print and in the Dáil, Plunkett later quipped that he had learned little about the Soviet Union from his visit, but a hell of a lot about Ireland.

Having begun to write radio plays, Plunkett took a job as assistant head of drama and variety at RTÉ (he would eventually rise to head of features). His time there coincided with his greatest literary successes, the adaptation of his radio play, Big Jim, into the theatre play, The Risen People, for the Abbey, in 1958, and its subsequent transformation into the novel, Strumpet City, in 1968. A television series adapted from the novel, by Hugh Leonard, became a national sensation in 1980, with Peter O’Toole playing Big Jim Larkin.

In the wake of Strumpet City, Plunkett published two further novels, Farewell Companions and The Circus Animals, and he was honoured with membership of Aosdána.

Plunkett died, aged 83, in May 2003.

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