Lady Gregory’s belief in the necessity for and potential vitality of a true Irish National Theatre acted as the essential driving force in her creative, literary and political endeavors. For her, these three facets of self were one in the same and, subsequently, her work was indeed not intended to serve as lighthearted amusement, but as serious action, a literal living drama, to be taken seriously. Although a great deal of Gregory’s language and situational circumstance does read as comical, it is also very directly cutting and unrelenting. This notion is specifically exemplified in an examination of her portrayal of “figures of authority” within her plays.
Spreading the News opens to find a conversation underway between a policeman named Jo Muldoon and the town’s newly appointed Magistrate. Muldoon is giving the Magistrate a tour of the area and updating him on relevant local affairs. The dialogue that takes place between the two men reads as entirely misunderstood as the Magistrate begs question after question without the slightest regard for the answers he receives. He answers his own queries as he projects his apparent prior experience in the Andaman Islands, a former British penal colony. For all practical purposes, these two men may as well be speaking two entirely different languages. Muldoon is simple and literal where the Magistrate is overcomplicating, thoughtless and repetitive: all airs and little to no substance.
MAGISTRATE: I suppose there is a good deal of disorder in this place?
POLICEMAN: There is.
MAGISTRATE: Common assault?
POLICEMAN: It’s common enough.
MAGISTRATE: Agrarian crime, no doubt?
POLICEMAN: That is so.
MAGISTRATE: Boycotting? Maiming of cattle? Firing into houses? (Gregory,
Gregory’s wordplay has a humorous effect, but her assertions have much higher stakes. These two men do appear to embody an element of the “buffoonery” that Gregory so expressly loathed, but she employs them as a comment on the essential fractured nature of law enforcement on both local and national levels. The policeman seemingly does not have the intellectual capacity to understand the Magistrate’s questions and intentions and the Magistrate speaks in questions that are actually statements and assumptions, using phrases such as “I suppose” and “no doubt”. He already has the answer that he requires and has created for himself.
If these two men can literally not understand one another, how can the people that they are “responsible for” be expected to behave with any greater level of tact, forethought or logic? As the action of the play unfolds into a downward spiral of total misunderstanding and lack of communication, the audience sees the same destructive divide within the community as is seen between the men of the law. Despite the fact that in a great deal of Irish drama one might be predisposed to assume that the policeman is the “bad guy”, Gregory is affiliating the people of the town with the policeman and Magistrate and calling all of them into question. She is forcing her audience to see not one person or establishment as being at fault, but to see essentially every character as being at fault and then posing the ultimate question of how something so absurd could have possibly happened.
Lady Gregory again employs the figure of the policeman in another one act, The Rising of the Moon. Here, the scene is quite different from that of Spreading the News. She begins at the “Side of a quay in a seaport town” and the time is night when three policemen enter. (Gregory, 54) They are staking out the area in search of a man at large after having escaped from the local gaol. These men are not named specifically, but rather arbitrarily as Sergeant, Policeman B and Policeman X, producing a very everyman (or, perhaps, any-man) effect. The feeling is quite somber when, quickly, the Sergeant is left alone by the quay to wait for the criminal to appear and, instead, a ragged man selling ballads does in his stead, or so the audience is led to believe. The dialogue that occurs between these two men is quite different from that between Muldoon and the Magistrate. Here, the audience sees two men who, although they are clearly of different social backgrounds, appear to be more on par with one another, perhaps because of the vulnerable nature of the situation, the safe cloak of the night, their momentary isolation, as the conversation progresses and initial tensions lapse.
In Spreading the News, emphasis is placed on the blunder of miscommunication. Here, Gregory places her emphasis on the opposing power of listening. The ragged man is quite romantic, a dreamer, and although the Sergeant is initially unsettled by his singing and hypothesizing, he is eventually capable of consideration:
SERGEANT: That’s a queer thought now, and a true thought. Wait now till I
think it out…If it wasn’t for the sense I have, and for my wife and family, and for me joining the force the time I did, it might be myself now would be after breaking gaol and hiding in the dark, and it might be him that’s hiding in the dark and that got out of gaol would be sitting up here where I am on this barrel. (Gregory, 59)
There is irony in this in that, although he is not (at this juncture) aware of it, he is sitting on the barrel with just the man he has described. It is interesting, however, that in this moment he truly does adopt this man’s thoughts as his own. He expressly says “Wait now till I think it out”. These men, despite their apparent differences, could very logically be interchangeable.
Another essential moment that defines the interaction between these two characters is the point at which the ragged man is singing a ballad and the Sergeant corrects the lyrics he is singing. It is no coincidence that the song in question is extremely nationalistic and that the line that the Sergeant fills in is “’Her gown she wore was stained with gore’”, referring, of course, to Ireland as embodied by a woman. (Gregory, 58) In this instance, the audience sees the two men not as Sergeant and poor man (or, correctly, as Sergeant and criminal), but as Irishman and Irishman. They have both sang the same songs, sang for the troubles of their country. The difference is simply that their “Irishness” has evolved to mean different things to each of them. The Sergeant is “with the law” and the man is “with the people”. (Gregory, 60) Although he wears a uniform, Gregory still shows her audience the Sergeant as a man, first and foremost. He has joined the police force in order to support himself, his family, but it doesn’t take much for the ragged man to evoke intense and genuine national sympathies in this moment. They are, at least on some level, already there. This dynamic is complicated because, as Gregory clearly illustrates, these respective alliances both mean “with Ireland” to each man. They merely have different interpretations of the same ultimate ideal. Perhaps this is why, in a moment of beautiful ambiguity, the Sergeant ultimately allows this criminal to escape. He understands that although their means have been different, they come from the same essential point of origin and, as the criminal pointed out, could have just as easily been in the other one’s shoes.
Ultimately, Lady Gregory utilizes two very different scenarios to communicate the same fundamental cry of distress. The policemen in both Spreading the News and The Rising of the Moon characterize a need for unity which Gregory sees as fundamental to an eventual reimagination of Ireland as a solidified country. It is the complete lack of unity and communication that is the downfall in Spreading the News and the fleeting moment of understanding and brotherhood in The Rising of the Moon that creates a moment of hope. This is also reflective, on a smaller scale, of the way in which Gregory envisioned an Irish National Theatre. For her, this Theatre represented not only a marginalized cultivation of art and literature, but an absolute forum for discussion and unity and means for national self-examination. The issues of Irishness and nationalism are complicated ones, and Gregory does not deny this. She honestly explores the tensions surrounding these ideas and, again, her vision of an Irish Theatre does no less. For Gregory and her contemporaries, these were desperate needs not only for their own work, but for all of Ireland.