Category: Archive

Theater Storm revives ‘Arrah-na-Pogue,’ an old Irish masterpiece

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

ARRAH-NA-POGUE (Arrah of the Kiss), by Dion Boucicault. Directed by Peter Dobbins. Featuring Kate Brennan. Conn Horgan, Laurence Drozd, Marian Tomas Griffin, Bernard Smith, Honor Finnegan, Moira Rogers and John Aherne. A Storm Theatre presentation. Playing at The Studio Theatre, 145 West 46 St. Through Feb. 5.

Dion Boucicault didn’t exactly create the stereotypical character known as the "stage Irishman," but he did something vastly more significant. He turned the stock Hibernian character, developed by English writers as a way of deriding and diminishing the Irish, into a hero, possessing great courage, particularly under fire, and capable of valorous acts requiring daring and imagination.

He wrote the character over and over, without ever sacrificing the recognizable traits and characteristics that the British had deployed to make the Irish seem ridiculous and even contemptible. Moreover, the Dublin-born Boucicault, an actor as well as an outstanding playwright and manager, managed to write a series of "stage Irishmen" that he played to great popular effect in the Victorian period in Australia, New Zealand, and particularly in New York, where his celebrity and his influence could hardly be overestimated.

The role for which Boucicault is probably best known is the title role in 1875’s "The Shaughraun," seen in two productions locally within the last two seasons, but an almost equally emphatic example of the "stage Irishman" as hero is contained in a play the playwright had created 11 years earlier, "Arrah-na-Pogue."

That 1864 comedy adventure, which translates literally as "Arrah of the Kiss," and is sometimes known as "The Wicklow Wedding," is back on a New York stage for the first time in many seasons in an appealing, spirited production by the Storm Theatre, the troupe responsible for the first of the two recent stagings of "The Shaughraun."

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Once again, as in Storm’s "Shaughraun," the role made famous by the author is undertaken by Conn Horgan, who seems to have something of special understanding of Boucicault’s initially buffoonish, ultimately triumphant rural stalwarts. This time he’s Shaun the Post, engaged to the play’s titular heroine, and an unprepossessing hero who nearly surrenders his life when Arrah is accused of forbidden political activity on behalf of United Irishmen, a loosely organized group of insurgents that operated in Wicklow in 1798, the year in which the play is set, and which the Storm program identifies, with some justification, as "one of the first major outbreaks of Irish nationalism."

Strictly defined, the term "United Irishmen" refers to a political society founded in October 1791 by Samuel McTier and Robert Simms, with a goal of reforming the Irish Parliament.

Boucicault, though he had lived outside of Ireland since 1838, when he was only 18, had a keen sense of the Irish political landscape, and used it frequently in his plays, which number between 150 and 200, depending on the source consulted.

The playwright was the illegitimate son of a scientist, Dr. Donysius Lardner, but took the name of the French Huguenot family, long transplanted to Dublin, that had raised him. By 1841, when he was 21, his comedy "London Assurance," performed at London’s Covent Garden, had made him famous in England.

By 1845, he had had 22 plays produced on London stages, but married a wealthy French widow, and moved to Paris. Three years later, when his wife died under circumstances which were decidedly unclear, he returned to London, resumed his British career, and met an actress named Agnes Robertson.

In 1853, when Robertson emigrated to America, Boucicault followed her, married her, and spent most of the remaining 37 years of his life mainly in this country, where, in addition to becoming even more famous than he had been earlier, he was influential in starting fledgling theatrical unions, and in improving the situation for writers in terms of their royalty payments.

And, of course, he wrote relentlessly, creating most of his best-known plays, "The Octoroon," "The Colleen Bawn," "The Shaughraun," and "Arrah-na-Pogue," these last three sometimes referred to as his "Irish trilogy," during is tenure in New York.

In "Arrah-na-Pogue," which is generally considered a "political melodrama," Beamish MacCoul, gracefully played here by Storm regular Laurence Drozd, has returned to the Wicklow Mountains from a period in France, intent upon organizing an insurrection, and equally eager to marry his sweetheart, Fanny Power, movingly performed in director Peter Dobbins’s production by Marian Tomas Griffin, an actress and singer perhaps best known for her work with the Irish Repertory Theatre.

On the run from the authorities, MacCoul hides in the cottage of the titular heroine, Arrah, on the eve of her marriage to Shaun, where he is discovered, a situation that leads unswervingly to the plot complications of which Boucicault had become expert: mistaken identity, misdelivered messages, treachery, betrayal, hidden agendas, crossed purposes.

When Arrah, in the comely person of Kate Brennan, is accused of complicity with the United Irishmen, Shaun takes the blame on his own sturdy shoulders, even though he fears she may have been unfaithful to him, and is promptly sent to Dublin, court-martialed and sentenced to death for his efforts.

Aware of the Victorian audience’s fondness for stage spectacle, the playwright inserted what became known as the "sensation scene" in the work’s London production. In the scene in question, just before Shaun is granted a last-minute reprieve by the secretary of state, he attempts a risky escape by scaling the ivy-covered walls of the tower in which he is being held. The scene, understandably, became an enormous favorite with Boucicault’s audiences.

The writer, in his original manuscript, called for the use of "the Wearing of the Green," using a specific version that was eventually banned in productions of "Arrah-na-Pogue" throughout the British Empire.

The Storm Theatre’s handling of the play is long on energy, talent and enthusiasm, although understandably somewhat short in the area of production values.

Outstanding contributions are made by, among others, Bernard Smith, as Boucicault’s stock peasant-villain, this time named Michael Feeney, and by such musically oriented performers as singer Honor Finnegan, and the step-dancing duo of Moira Rogers and John Aherne, who also choreographed the show.

The looming unit set by Mary Houston serves mainly as something to fill the open vastness of the playing area of the Storm Theatre’s new midtown home on West 46th Street. It also has the advantage of providing a couple of additional performance levels.

The Storm Theatre and its courageous managers, Mark O’Toole and John Regis, are to be commended for unearthing and mounting an example of popular 19th century stagecraft of which most audiences, even those familiar with Irish and Irish-oriented theater, are probably aware only vaguely.

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