In “O’Casey’s Credo,” an essay that appeared in The New York Times and was written in 1958 for the opening of an American production of Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, Sean O’Casey remarked that “the first thing I try to do is to make a play live: live as a part of life, and live in its own right as a work of drama.” This concern with the vitality of his plays marked O’Casey’s craftsmanship as a playwright throughout his career. “Every character, every life,” he continued, “[has] something to say, comic or serious, and to say it well [is] not an easy thing to do.” To express this vitality through his characters’ actions and dialogue was O’Casey’s goal as a dramatist. All of his plays share the blend of comic, serious, and poetic imagination that O’Casey believed should meld in any play worth staging.
O’Casey’s Three Periods
O’Casey’s plays fall into three periods: the early naturalistic tragicomedies, the expressionistic plays of the middle period, and the exuberant, satiric comedies that mark his later work. O’Casey was forty-three years old when his first play, The Shadow of a Gunman, was accepted by the Abbey Theatre. Behind him lay four apprentice plays and more than twenty years of hard experience in Dublin as a laborer, nationalist, and political organizer. He might easily have failed to develop his talent but for the encouragement of Lady Gregory, Yeats, and Lennox Robinson, who read his early scripts and urged him to continue writing. O’Casey was drawn to the theater as a social medium—as the best way for him to express the impact on Dublin’s poor of Ireland’s struggle for independence.
O’Casey’s first play, The Shadow of a Gunman, opened at the Abbey Theatre in April, 1923, and ran for only a few performances, but its modest success encouraged O’Casey to submit Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars within the next three years. O’Casey had lived through the bitter period when Ireland was torn first by insurrection and later by the bloody struggle between the Irish Republican Army and the notorious Black and Tans. In these plays, his Dublin trilogy, he expresses disillusionment and bitterness about the way in which the Irish struggle for independence degenerated into fratricidal bloodshed. Together, these plays present a chronicle history of the Irish conflict between 1916 and 1921. Naturalistic in style and approach, they are noted, as critics have remarked, for their tragicomic tone, their vivid depictions of Dublin tenement dwellers, and their lively and colorful speech.
The second period of O’Casey’s playwriting career began after he left Dublin for London in 1926. Up to this point, he had been an Irish playwright writing for a national theater, but the response to The Plough and the Stars, which provoked a riot at the Abbey Theatre when it opened, may have led him to recognize the limitations of conventional dramatic realism. Seeking ways to expand his artistic vision, O’Casey turned to the expressionistic mode in his next play, The Silver Tassie. Inspired by a London coal vendor’s song, this ambitious play about World War I incorporates songs, chants, ritualistic scenes, allegorized characters, and stylized sets. The play’s action alternates between Dublin and the front as O’Casey depicts the cost of war for all the young men who departed as heroes and returned as cripples and invalids.
Like Synge before him, O’Casey opened new possibilities for Irish theater, but unfortunately, the Abbey Theatre was unwilling to accept his stylistic innovations. When O’Casey submitted The Silver Tassie to the Abbey Theatre in 1928, Yeats rejected it with a sharply worded reply that initiated a bitter exchange; the two were finally reconciled in 1935. Yeats attacked the play for its alleged introduction of propaganda into the theater, for, despite his own experiments with Japanese N theater, he was curiously unreceptive to O’Casey’s attempts to move beyond dramatic realism. O’Casey did not aspire to a “pure” art of theater or cherish a dramatic theory, as did Yeats. Instead, he merely intended to expand the range of tragicomedy using the devices of expressionism. He hoped to use the exuberance of music-hall entertainment—its melodrama, boisterous comedy, burlesque, and farce—to animate serious drama, just as Shakespeare had woven comic interludes into even his most somber tragedies.
After the rejection of The Silver Tassie by the Abbey Theatre, O’Casey turned to a London producer to stage the play. Henceforth, he was to be a playwright without a permanent theater, often forced to publish his plays before they were staged and to depend on commercial productions of varying quality. Though The Silver Tassie enjoyed only a mixed success, O’Casey was committed to expressionism as an artistic direction, and his plays during the next decade show the gradual development of this style.
The 1930’s were a period of diversity for O’Casey. Besides writing several one-act plays and the full-length morality play Within the Gates, he published drama reviews and short stories and began his six-volume autobiography. In his drama reviews and criticism, O’Casey defended other contemporary, experimental playwrights and called for the use of a wider range of theatrical techniques and for a drama criticism receptive to these innovations. He attacked the British critics’ taste for the light drawing-room comedies of Noël Coward and the general lack of variety in the London theater. By this time he had also become a committed left-wing thinker who actively sympathized with Communist causes. His political ideology is evident in two plays of this period, The Star Turns Red and Oak Leaves and Lavender. Unfortunately, art and politics did not mix well for O’Casey, and these are largely inferior works.
Perhaps O’Casey came to realize the limits of ideological drama, or he may simply have grown tired of the war theme, for in the most successful plays of his middle period, he returned to an Irish setting, combining expressionistic techniques with traditional Irish characters, scenes, songs, and material. Also written during the war years, Purple Dust and Red Roses for Me show the refinement of expressionistic techniques that O’Casey had introduced in The Silver Tassie almost fifteen years earlier. These two plays demonstrate the range and quality of O’Casey’s mature lyric imagination as he animates his stage with the song, pageantry, and spectacle of the Elizabethan theater. As he later observed about his plays, “Like [James] Joyce, it is only through an Irish scene that my imagination can weave a way.”
The third period of O’Casey’s career reflects a further enhancement of his artistic vision through a series of exuberant comic fantasies dramatizing the conflict between the affirmative and repressive forces in Irish culture. Here, he sharpened his critique of the provincialism, clericalism, materialism, and restrictive religious morality that he perceived in modern Irish life. Starting with Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, which O’Casey regarded as his favorite, and continuing with The Bishop’s Bonfire, The Drums of Father Ned, and Behind the Green Curtains, the plays of this period mark the height of his mature achievement. In these late plays, O’Casey perfected his distinctive blend of broad comedy, farce, song, fantasy, dance, satire, and melodrama. As his favorite dramatists, Shakespeare and Boucicault, had done before him, O’Casey made his plays infinitely richer and more varied than conventional realistic drama. His expressionism became a medium for his lyricism and gaiety of spirit. This determination to broaden the range of contemporary theater perhaps marks O’Casey’s most distinctive...
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