Sean O’Casey’s plays mark the culmination, in drama, of the Irish Renaissance. Drama of the Irish Renaissance began as a part of the European movement toward realistic theater in opposition to the French romantic drama but diverged from the dramaturgic techniques of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. Believing that continental and English dramas were too intellectualized, O’Casey, along with his compatriots William Butler Yeats and John Millington Synge, tried to make Irish drama individualistic and realistic by adding heavy doses of Irish local color. Formlessness—ignoring formal dramatic technique to reflect the vigor and vitality of life—was O’Casey’s unique contribution to the Irish movement. In Juno and the Paycock he reached a new peak of realism. He dispensed with an elaborate plot, ideas, and consistency of character, content merely to show Irish characters in action.
Captain Jack Boyle is such a character. “The whole worl’s in a state of chassis (chaos)!” he declares; he is the “paycock” (peacock) of the play. The background of “chassis”—in particular the turbulence of the civil wars that wracked Ireland during the first quarter of the twentieth century—is in O’Casey’s great trilogy of realistic plays about violence and strife in Dublin. The plays are The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars (1926).
Civic disorder provides the atmosphere of general bitterness and tension as well as determines the fate of the son, Johnny, in Juno and the Paycock, the most domestic of the three plays. What happens to the Boyle family is largely the product of their own actions, but, because they embody personal qualities that are common to the Irish, the Boyles are representative. Their actions illuminate the follies, evils, and strengths of the national character in a time of turmoil.
Twice, in the early moments of the play, Mary tells her mother that “a principle’s a principle,” once in reference to her own support of a fellow striker and once in regard to her crippled brother’s nationalistic activities. A short time later Johnny repeats the same slogan to Juno, but this time she answers it emphatically: “Ah, you lost your best principle, me boy, when you lost your arm; them’s the only sort o’ principles that’s any good to a workin’ man.” That exchange sets up the thematic dichotomy of the play: abstract moral principles, based on generalized causes such as nationalism, Marxism, or religion, versus a practical morality based on human loyalties, needs, and sympathies. The abstractions are used either as justifications for violence or as rationalizations for no action at all.
Captain Boyle is a veritable catalog of Irish weaknesses. His capacity for strong drink is exceeded only by his capacity for self-deception and pompous moralizing. Most of his time is spent in idle chatter and drinking with his equally irresponsible crony, Joxer Daly. If offered honest work, Boyle has a sudden attack of leg pains. He continually complains...
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