O'Casey, Sean (Vol. 9)
O'Casey, Sean 1880–1964
An Irish playwright, O'Casey was largely responsible for changing the focus of Irish drama from peasant comedies to highly realistic urban dramas. His strong social and political sentiments are evident in many of his plays, which are concerned with the Irish rebellions against England. In O'Casey's plays vibrant and effective female characters far outnumber males, who are often portrayed as weak and conventional. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5.)
In admiring O'Casey's faithful rendering of dialect … we might tend to overlook the very conscious control he exercised in its use, particularly in his later plays. Increasingly he employed dialect to serve clearly-defined purposes in his dramatic design.
A comparison between any of O'Casey's earliest plays and any 'realistic' play of the same period shows a marked difference in the treatment of language. T. C. Murray and Lennox Robinson used language as the barest instrument of plot and characterisation: it might express feeling or mood but is rarely allowed to obtrude. O'Casey, on the other hand, in these early plays shows a preoccupation with language and an obvious belief in its power to transform reality. (p. 387)
In these early plays, however, O'Casey does occasionally depart from an exact imitation of real or conventionally real speech at heightened moments in the drama. Mrs. Tancred and Juno employ the language of the Catholic missal, Bessie Burgess the words of a Protestant hymn. A more common method of departing from the speech of the streets or the popular tradition was the employment of a form of balanced language which probably owed more to Shaw than any other source. This occurs mainly when the author is clearly speaking his mind through a character. Thus, when Davoren is reproving Shield for his superstition, he exclaims:
… You know as little about truth as anybody else, and you care as little about the church as the least of those that profess her faith; your religion is simply the state of being afraid that God will torture your soul in the next world as you are afraid the Black and Tans will torture your body in this.
This balanced language he continued to use throughout his career as a dramatist and usually for the same effect as in the early plays. His use of dialect, however, became gradually more selective and was subject to more subtle changes than in any of the early 'realistic' plays.
In Within the Gates there are three layers of speech. At the bottom is the Cockney speech of the chair attendants and the Disputants, whereas the other characters employ standard speech. Now, this does not appear to be a simple differentiation of class, as it might be in a more realistic play. The Young Woman and her mother and father (the Atheist) clearly all belong to the lowest stratum of society. But, while the mother and daughter speak in standard English, the father's speech is generally indicated as Cockney. O'Casey seems to have indicated Cockney speech as an arbitrary theatrical convention, purely as a distinguishing mark of the Disputants and the chair attendants. It is merely a device for highlighting their ignorance or stressing the inanity of their argument. (pp. 388-89)
Sometimes within the same play O'Casey uses a dialect to reinforce two contrary attitudes of mind. When he is clearly in sympathy with the sentiments of O'Killigan in Purple Dust, he often expresses those sentiments in the Irish vernacular as a sharp contrast to the language of Stoke and Poges. Yet the Canon, who normally speaks in an approximately standard form of English suddenly reverts to dialect in a moment of passionate bigotry:
Help us to curtail th' damned activity of the devilish dance halls! Open a dance hall, and a month or less the innocent disthrict becomes worse than your Leicester Square….
The Dublin dialect itself is often with O'Casey an indication of a commonsense, earthy attitude to life to which he presumably would subscribe. In The Bishop's Bonfire, to take one example, the speech is often ordinary Dublin dialect and this is generally used when the characters, forgetting their social roles, behave as normal human beings under stress. (p. 390)
Nevertheless, O'Casey's use of the Dublin dialect in some of his later plays is both flexible and subtle enough to suggest other moods. In Behind the Green Curtains, the Dublin dialect predominates. O'Casey, however, uses this dialect for both realistic and symbolic purposes. In the first scene its use is clearly realistic, and Lizzie, Angela and the others who intervene in the conversation, speak in broad Dublin speech.
In the second scene particularly (though not exclusively) McGeera, McGeelish, Horawn and Bunny use the dialect for a purpose other than realism. All of these characters are the supposed representatives of Ireland's cultural life. One would therefore expect them to speak in an approximately standard form of English and certainly in a grammatically correct form. It is worth looking, therefore, at the language used in the argument between McGeera and McGeelish just after the latter has filched the incriminating book from Chatastray's drawer:
MCGEELISH. Youse are takin' the scandal lyin' down. What are we goin' to do about it? (He has kept the photograph and has continued to start at it while he talks) God, what a revelation! A leader of piety and upright thought, and now look at this!
MCGEERA. Divil a one's gettin' a chance to look at it, except yourself. If Chatastray saw the model in real life, then, bedammit, I envy him!
MCGEELISH. As practisin' Catholics youse make me sick. Renan the Atheist and this nude girl….
Now, this extract is a typical sample of the language used by these characters and it is obvious that the dramatist is employing a familiar satirical method. Just as the meanness of their actions is revealed through the act of rifling Chatastray's property, so the lower register of speech reveals the vulgarity of their minds. The satirical diminution is achieved not only through the use of dialect but perhaps even more through the tone. The short exclamatory burst—'What are we goin' to do about it? God, what a revelation!'—suggests the vulgarity of minds too eager to destroy another's reputation.
The same dialect, however, as we have seen before, can reveal in the same play a contrary characteristic as when Reena lapses into familiar Irish speech in her sympathetic recital of Chatastray's virtues.
A close scrutiny of O'Casey's use of dialect, therefore, shows clearly that he seldom in his later plays used dialect merely to lend verisimilitude to the setting. His use of dialect is always conscious and he exploits it for the purposes of mood and attitude. Of course, it is mainly Irish speech that he puts into the mouths of his characters, since his own vision of the world is nearly always related to contemporary Ireland. For this reason his use of dialect can at one moment imply meanness and parochialism, at another, generosity and love of life: the world that is and the world that might be, O'Casey's constant theme. (pp. 390-91)
J. A. Snowden, in Modern Drama (copyright © 1972, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), February, 1972.
The national theme must be given due weight in any assessment of [Juno and the Paycock] as a tragedy. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the play gives more attention to the domestic themes concerning "Captain" Boyle's expectation of a legacy and Mary Boyle's expectation of marrying a school teacher, Charles Bentham. (p. 3)
The national and domestic themes of the play are linked and unified by a number of important parallels and resemblances. In the national theme, the slogan declaimed by Johnny Boyle, "Ireland only half-free'll never be at peace while she has a son left to pull a trigger" … shows how the great hopes of Irish unity and independence … have been thwarted by the partition of Ireland and the civil war which it has precipitated. Correspondingly, the domestic theme of the legacy deals with great expectations which are thwarted by a disappointing partition, because Boyle's hopes of affluence coming from the property left by his cousin William Ellison, are dashed when it is revealed that the will has been so vaguely formulated that the legacy must be partitioned between all of Ellison's first and second cousins, wherever they may be, and that none of them is likely to get anything worthwhile from it. In the other domestic theme, Mary's high hopes of marrying Bentham come to a sad end when he discovers that the Boyle's legacy is worthless, breaks their engagement without warning and departs for England.
The national and domestic themes of the play also acquire unity and depth from the fact that each of them involves the breaking of fundamental human relationships, treachery, and desertion. In the national theme, Ireland is split by the warring factions of Free Staters and Diehards; Johnny Boyle is guilty of treachery when he betrays Robert Tancred, and is subsequently deserted by his former comrade…. In the domestic theme, the Boyle family is split by Mary's disgrace and the loss of the legacy; Boyle and Johnny turn against Mary viciously and treacherously when they hear of her plight …: Boyle's callousness and his delayed revelation of the worthlessness of the legacy impel Juno and Mary to desert him. The family, like the nation, breaks up. Relationships supposedly based on love and friendship dissolve even more quickly. Bentham and Jerry Devine both profess love for Mary, but they betray their high-flown spiritual and humanitarian creeds when they desert her in her time of need. (pp. 3-4)
Early in the play, a connection between the Irish nation and the Boyle family is humorously implied when Boyle talks about his rights as a husband and boasts that Juno will have to take "an oath of allegiance" in the "independent Republic" that he is going to proclaim. This connection acquires a tragic potentiality, however, when the "Troubles" of Ireland are equated with those of the family in Boyle's peevish comment, "More throuble in our native land" … when he is asked to hear the result of Mary's visit to the doctor. This tragic potentiality is realised when Juno, too, uses the key-word "troubles" after hearing that Johnny has been taken away by gunmen: "…is me throubles never goin' to be over?"… The association of the Boyle family, Ireland, and "throubles" blends the tragic with the satiric in the final episode of the play when Boyle in his tipsy meanderings identifies himself with Ireland's plight, "The counthry'll have to steady itself … it's goin' … to hell … Irelan' sober … is Irelan' … free."… (p. 4)
The structure in which these themes are embodied is highly original. One of the distinctive characteristics of Juno as a tragedy is its modulated movement from the apparently comic to the grievously catastrophic. Perhaps no tragedy provokes as much laughter as Juno does. But the laughter gradually diminishes as the tragic implications of the action deepen, and from the outset O'Casey counterpoints the mirthful with the satirical and with even starker considerations. (p. 5)
The characterisation as well as the structure of Juno and the Paycock is finely calculated. It is based upon a continuous contrast between the masculine and the feminine personages, from which the women emerge as far superior to the men because of their capacity for love, altruism, and wisdom. The men in the play are all deluded, self-centered, and hypocritical. In the political plot, Johnny Boyle's glib slogan, "Ireland only half free'll never be at peace while she has a son left to pull a trigger" …, ill-becomes one who has recently betrayed a fellow-Diehard and is far transcended by Mrs. Tancred's rejection of violence when she appeals to Christ to "Take away this murdherin' hate … an' give us Thine own eternal Love!" … In the love story, Bentham and Devine, for all their high-flown philosophies, are both snobs. Mary Boyle, for all her faults, has a capacity for genuine passion which they lack, as we realise when she tells Juno, "Mother, the best man for a woman is the one for whom she has the most love, and Charlie had it all." … (pp. 6-7)
The most detailed contrast between the feminine and the masculine, however, is the one between Juno and Boyle. The title of the play indicates the importance which O'Casey attached to this contrast. It was Boyle himself, we find, who nicknamed his wife "Juno" because of various events connecting her with the month of June …, but he did not realise that "Juno" was the Roman name for the goddess who presides over justice and loyalty in family life and safeguards women, marriage, childbirth, and finances. Juno Boyle tries to uphold the same ideals and protect the same things in the play. The chariot of the goddess Juno was said to be drawn by peacocks, but in the play Boyle is more hindrance than help to his Juno, and is described as a peacock ("Paycock") chiefly because of the consequential strut of his walk and the colossal vanity of his character …, which remains incorrigible, though many forces besides Mrs. Madigan try to pull "some o' th' gorgeous feathers out o' your tail."…
There is humour as well as satire in O'Casey's portrayal of Boyle: his command of words and his resilience are comparable to Falstaff's. His catchphrase in Act One—"I've a little spirit left in me still" … is an exquisite understatement. As the action of the play develops, however, we are made more and more conscious of the tragic consequences of the complacency and self-absorption which cause men like Boyle to live in a world of dreams, illusions, poses, and lies. (p. 7)
The selfishness at the heart of Boyle's poses emerges more and more ominously in his reactions to death, war, and the life inside his pregnant daughter…. The truly tragic character is often distinguished by the fact that he comes to recognise hard truths through the stress of suffering. But Boyle never suffers and it is one of the great ironies of the play that he applies his catchword "chassis" (i.e. "chaos") to things which are disintegrating—his family, his country, his world—without recognising the bitter truth of his description. (pp. 7-8)
Unlike Boyle, Juno becomes a stronger and wiser character under the stress of tragic circumstances. From the outset, she is an unconscious devotee of the goddess Juno in her efforts to preserve the family in which she is the only wageearner; she provides food, gives Mary sensible advice, comforts Johnny, tries to keep a tidy home and to get Boyle to work. She scolds him for laziness and deflates his talk of having been a seafaring captain when she reveals that he was "only wanst on the wather, in oul' collier from here to Liverpool."… Whereas Boyle uses these fictions to cushion himself against reality, Juno faces it and responds compassionately and constructively to the problems of their time. Boyle says religions have had their day "like everything else" …, but Juno tells Bentham that if people "ud folley up their religion betther there'd be a betther chance for us." … Boyle says the war is "the Government's business," but Juno passionately reminds him of how many men in the adjoining tenements have been killed or maimed, and declares, "if it's not our business, I don't know whose business it is."… Only Boyle's pride is affected by Mary's plight, but Juno's altruism enables her to see that Mary may have forty years of bitterness to endure…. When Mary bewails the fact that her child will have no father, Juno comforts her with her glowing declaration, "It'll have what's far betther—it'll have two mothers."… Juno speaks for all mothers of her generation in Ireland when she ends her last speech by re-echoing Mrs. Tancred's poignant words: "Sacred Heart o' Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh! Take away this murdherin' hate, an' give us Thine own eternal love!"…
Juno's wisdom connects her with the classical goddess. Her sufferings connect her with other great feminine archetypes. In Irish folk lore, Ireland has long been symbolised by a maternal figure, Cathleen ni Houlihan. When Juno asks "… is me throubles never goin' to be over?"… she embodies the sufferings of the mythical Cathleen. When Boyle peevishly compares her to "Deirdre of the Sorras" …, we recall how Deirdre in the ancient myth abandoned the self-centered King Conchubar of Ulster to create a finer life elsewhere, and that Juno abandons Boyle to make a better life for Mary and her unborn child. By various means, Juno is also connected with "Our Lady of the Sorrows," the Virgin Mary, who, like Mrs. Tancred and Juno, lost a beloved son. In the middle of the rear wall of the Boyle's living-room is a picture of the Virgin, and for most of the play attention is drawn to it by the votive light that burns beneath it. Johnny is anxious to keep the light burning …; he identifies his safety with it. Mrs. Tancred's invocation of the Virgin in her lament in Act Two also concentrates attention on the picture and the light, which become even more significant in Act Three, when the votive lamp gleams more redly than ever … and then suddenly flickers for a moment and goes out…. When Mrs. Madigan enters soon afterwards with the news of Johnny's violent death, the scene takes on the religious quality of an inverted annunciation as Juno stands beneath the picture and the spent lamp and re-echoes Mrs. Tancred's invocation to the Virgin.
This symbolic use of the votive light and the picture is characteristic of O'Casey's brilliant stagecraft in Juno, whereby he succeeds in charging simple properties of a naturalistic kind with a deeper meaning which is sometimes poetic in quality. At the beginning of the play, the mirror and the books by Ibsen on the table symbolise two forces at work on Mary Boyle; her vanity and her genuine desire to improve her mind. In Act Two, every available spot is ornamented with huge vases filled with artificial flowers …, an addition to the furnishings symbolic of the vulgarity and extravagance of the hopes inspired by the Boyles' prospect of a legacy. But O'Casey creates his finest stage-image in Act Three, when all the upholstered furniture acquired on credit is taken away, so that Boyle and Joxer stagger at the end into a room whose bareness and emptiness provide a stark visual symbol of the general chaos proclaimed by the very last words of the play. The movement of the stagecraft of the play from naturalism to symbolism accords with its tragic method, in which political and domestic themes are more and more closely integrated so as to subject the characters to tests which determine their capacity for discriminating between appearance and reality, between the choices that make for sympathy, altruism, and life, and those that lead to selfishness, anarchy, and death. (pp. 8-9)
William A. Armstrong, "The Integrity of 'Juno and the Paycock'," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1974, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), March, 1974, pp. 1-9.
Sean O'Casey simultaneously mimics and modifies some distinguishing dimensions of myth, both Christian and pre-Christian, in his Within the Gates (1934), a modern morality set amidst the vanishing greenness of a crowded London park, and in his Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), an Aristophanic allegory situated in a drought-seared, fence-enclosed Irish garden. Indeed, O'Casey's mythopoeic imagination achieves a marriage of myths in these two dramas as Christian clerics collide with fertility figures, maypole dancing challenges formal Christian worship, and ancient fertility symbols like the silver shaft and the cock's crimson crest contrast with the pious parishioners' cross and rosary beads. O'Casey's basic intent, however, seems to be a desire to use myth both structurally and satirically: (1) to employ myth as a means of organizing his dramas into ritual sequences, and (2) to employ myth as a satiric stratagem which accentuates the difference between the function of mythico-ritualistic elements in the lives of ancient and modern man. Emphasizing the degenerative adaptation of antique mythical patterns—patterns designed to restore potency to people and provinces—O'Casey apparently laments modern man's reluctance to enter joyously into the rites of revivification which could redeem and revitalize both self and society, the sick soul and the modern wasteland. (pp. 11-12)
It is in the constantly evolving natural settings in both plays that we first discover the birth-growth-decay pattern so prominent in various vegetation and fertility rituals designed to mirror the fundamental rhythm of nature. Cyclical in design, O'Casey's dramas are clearly arranged in a ritualistic fashion so as to serve as symbolic representations of the birth and death of one year and one day. The four scenes in Within the Gates, for example, move us from the splendor of spring to the starkness of winter. Scene I unfolds in the park on a clear spring morning as birds search for food and build nests, fowl swim in the water or preen themselves on the banks, and yellow daffodils search for the sun. A chorus of young boys and girls, representing trees and flowers, enters to sing "Our Mother the Earth is a Maiden Again." A sexual union is suggested as the Earth Maiden seeks out her bridegroom, the Sun, in the "lovely confusion" of birds, blossoms, and buds. Scene II occurs during a summer noon yet the colors are now chiefly golden glows tinged with gentle reds. The daffodils have been replaced by hollyhocks which cluster beneath the shrubbery. Red and yellow leaves flutter to the ground and the sunflowers are "gaunt" in Scene III, set on an autumn evening. It is a cold winter's night in Scene IV and the bare branches of the trees form strange patterns against the black canopy of the sky. Only the light from three stars penetrates the chilly darkness.
A similar yet drastically abbreviated cyclical pattern is visible in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy as we move from morning brilliance to evening darkness. Scene I takes place in the garden in front of bog owner Michael Marthraun's house on a glorious summer morning as tough grass, buttercups, daisies, and sunflowers struggle to retain their vivid vitality in the midst of a long drought that has tinted the vegetation with a deep yellow hue. It is noon of the same day in Scene II and although a strong breeze causes the Irish Tricolor to stand out from its flagpole, the "sunshine isn't quite so bright and determined." Scene III occurs appropriately at dusk of the same day now much colder. The vivid reds, greens, and yellows of the earlier scenes have now been replaced by sombre hues. As the sun sets, the flag pole and house stand black against the sky; the sunflowers have also turned a "solemn black" and the evening star is but faintly visible.
The discernible changes in the landscape are correlated with corresponding changes, both physical and psychological, which the two young women, Jannice and Loreleen, undergo as they interact with others, especially the two clergymen. In Scene I of Within the Gates Jannice, despite her concern for her fainting spells resulting from a defective heart, is identified as a courageous and sensitive person whose main desire is "for a bright time of it." She affirms: "If I have to die, I'll die game; I'll die dancing!" In Scene II Jannice is still hopeful and tenacious as she seeks the Bishop's support in arranging a marriage with Ned, the Gardener, and she assures the Dreamer that she has not forgotten his "sweet song" with its carpe diem thesis. Jannice is both faltering and frantic during the cold greyness of the autumn evening in Scene III. Often pale and short of breath, she is increasingly fearful of the fiery torment which she thinks she must endure because of her many transgressions. In the final bleak winter scene, Jannice, breathing erratically with a fixed look of fear on her face, must be supported by the Dreamer in the dancing which she attempts. Drained of energy, she finally collapses and dies as the Bishop assists her in making the sign of the cross.
Yet O'Casey's young woman may not have danced and died in vain. Shortly after her demise the purple-black sky begins to change as it is pierced with golden shafts of light, "as if the sun was rising, and a new day about to begin." Moreover, the Old Woman predicts: "A few moments of time, and Spring'll be dancing among us again … the birds'll be busy at building small worlds of their own … the girls will go rambling round, each big with the thought of life in the loins of young men…." The seasonal sequence prepares to repeat itself. (pp. 12-13)
As two women of beauty, passion, and vigorous affirmation, Jannice and Loreleen emerge as fertility figures whose function is to restore or release energies in both the withering wastelands and their infirm inhabitants—the dead souls. Moreover, the names of both contain mythopoeic overtones. The name Jannice links O'Casey's dancing protagonist with Janus, the Roman god of doorways and the special patron of all new undertakings. As god of beginnings, Janus' blessing was sought at the beginning of each day, month, and year, and at all births, the beginning of life. Jannice is, therefore, O'Casey's guardian of the park gates, and is the fair maid alluded to in the May Day rites in the early moments of Scene I as the chorus of young boys and girls sing "Our Mother the Earth is a Maiden Again."
Like her Roman namesake, Jannice is also a woman with two faces or two distinct aspects to her person. At intervals she thinks of prayer, penance, and self-denial; at other times she favors wine, song, dancing, and sexual self-indulgence. Anxious to emphasize this dichotomy in his heroine, O'Casey thereby links Jannice with Diana, another Roman goddess with two faces. Diana was … the guardian of flocks and fields, the chaste goddess of the hunt. Hence hers was largely a migratory life of abstinence. Yet Sir James Frazer points out in The Golden Bough that Diana evolved from earlier, more primitive fertility figures in ancient vegetation ceremonies. Thus Diana, "as goddess of nature in general, and of fertility in particular," also came to be regarded as "a personification of the teeming life of nature, both animal and vegetable." Hence Diana was associated with both chastity and sensuality.
Although Diana was frequently depicted with a bow, quiver, and javelin, she was also sometimes identified with a crescent. It is not accidental, therefore, that O'Casey repeatedly stresses the fact that his Jannice has a black crescent on her head and a scarlet one on her hip. Jannice's mother, for example, mentions this detail twice in Scene IV, reminding us again of the psychic ambivalence of the heroine. Additionally, the Dreamer reinforces this woman-nature, fertility goddess motif in Scene II when he compares Jannice's legs to the fresh, golden branches of a willow, and her breasts to gay, white apple blossoms. Again in Scene II he states that Jannice's hand resembles a lovely, blue-veined, pink-tipped lilly.
As a fertility figure, Jannice is pursued by many of the males in the park, but it is Ned the Gardener who celebrates her physical beauty in song. Moreover, it is the Gardener's singing that inspires the group of couples to sing of an earlier garden when Adam first saw Eve's "beauty shining through a mist of golden hair." Additionally, it is the Gardener who carries the black maypole, ancient phallic symbol, that is to be used in the folk dancing designed to make England "merry again." Moreover, it is the Man with the Stick who lectures the Gardener about the maypole as "symbol" in Scene I, informing him that "It represents life, new life about to be born; fertility; th'urge wot was in the young lass [Jannice] you hunted away." It is appropriate, therefore, for the chorus of young girls and boys dancing around the maypole to sing the folk song "Haste to the Wedding" because Jannice repeatedly insists that she must have a husband, child, and home to be fulfilled. Ironically, the Gardener does not really want to make things grow; he shuns marriage and so must carry a black maypole, symbolic of his denial of life's creative urges.
Loreleen's name likewise evokes myth. Like the Lorelei of German legend, she is given the alluring traits of a temptress who would lure men to their ruin. In Scene III Father Domineer associates her with the snake and the Garden of Eden. Both Father Domineer and bog owner Marthraun agree that it is the "soft stimulatin' touch" of woman's flesh and the graceful, provocative movements of "goodlookin' women" like Loreleen which place men in peril. Yet Loreleen would tempt men to live not die—would tempt men and women to reject domestic drudgery and Christian duty for dalliance and dance. As defender-performer of the Dionysian dance, Loreleen is likened to a "flower" that has been blown by a winsome wind into a "dread, dhried-up desert." Because she is responsive to the fundamental rhythms of life, especially sexual and instinctive, she is consistently identified with the color green. When she arrives from London in Scene I she wears a dark green dress and a "saucy" hat of brighter green; when she departs in Scene III, refusing to be suffocated under Father Domineer's black clerical cape, she wears a green cloak over her shoulders, an external sign of her inner vitality. Moreover, Loreleen, like Jannice, is associated with the color scarlet—a color which hints at both passion and piety—voluptuous woman and fallen woman—in both plays. If Jannice has a scarlet crescent on her hip, Loreleen has a scarlet crescent on her hat, an ornament which resembles a cock's crimson crest, and it is the crowing cock, with his vivid colors and agile movements, who is obviously an incarnation of the eros of life that animates both men and nature in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy.
If the two questers resemble fertility figures, the two clerics remind us of the sick fisher king whose illness brings a blight—a plague—to the land. The Bishop in Within the Gates, a man of sixty, has lost much of his vitality, and O'Casey indicates that his powers are "beginning to fail." Comfortable, complacent, and hypocritical, he refuses to involve himself in the sordid stress and strife of daily life…. His encounters with Jannice, however, help him discover his deficiencies, and he manifests new energy, humility, and compassionate purpose in his actions at the play's close. Jannice has assisted at his rebirth, which bodes well for future park visitors.
Such is not the case with Father Domineer in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy. An inflexible father who would frighten people into obedience, Domineer defends tradition against individual talent while raging at the carnal desires of men. A bigot and a bully, he has a restricted and restrictive religious code distinguished by an abnormal, Jansenistic fear of the flesh. He surrounds himself with unthinking sycophants who assist him in his activities which include physical abuse, exorcisms, ceremonial marches, and caustic, non-Christian tirades. Loreleen can not enlighten and liberate this cleric, and so the spiritual desolation must remain to stifle the conforming souls of Nyadnanave. The clerical chains remain to choke or confine those who lack the courage to rebel and depart like the young woman in green.
If the two clergymen remind us of the fisher king and his drought or pestilence-plagued land of pre-Christian myth, the two young men who perform choral functions in the two dramas—the Dreamer in Within the Gates and the Messenger in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy—resemble the wandering minstrels of earlier historical interludes. With his soft, broad-rimmed hat and vivid orange scarf, the Dreamer lives off the land, wandering from place to place to peddle his poetry. He gives money to Jannice from the advance which he has received on a book that is to be published, and he patiently strives to diminish Jannice's fear of hellish punishment. After Jannice's death he asserts that God will find room for one "scarlet Blossom" among his "thousand white lillies," and he hopes that future children will "sing and laugh and play where these have moaned in misery." The Messenger wears a silvery-grey coat adorned with a pair of scarlet wings, green beret and sandals, carries a silver staff, and leads the strutting cock around with a green ribbon. Hence he resembles the messenger—attendant to the gods of Greek and Roman myth. Yet his name Robin Adair links him with the Robin Hood romances. With his accordion and gentle airs, this Ariel-like figure finally departs with maid Marion, affirming that passionate young men and women will always obey the impulse to circumvent clerics to engage in the ancient and exhilirating fertility rites of spring.
It is apparent, therefore, that O'Casey both contrasts and commingles ancient ritual and modern, ironic romance in these two ceremonial, song-seasoned dramas, utilizing a congeries of provocative mythical constructs to impose design upon his material and to accentuate his satiric indictment of modern man's spiritual decline. (pp. 14-17)
Certainly the ritual—the patterned pageantry of the past—is transparently present in both of these plays, but the romance is not. True, lovely maidens, wearing gay garments and rehearsing high hopes, dance spiritedly but all too briefly through a green, pastoral world, but the handsome, knightly male, with his heightened ethical awareness and love of comradeship and challenge, is largely absent, replaced by sycophants, false seers and gombeen men. Merriment and marriage have given way to migration and martrydom. And it is the mythical patterns which become the objective correlatives in these ritual-romance dramas, facilitating the audience's cognition of O'Casey's bias for an age with a greater fondness for and commitment to faith and frolic than our own. (p. 17)
Ronald G. Rollins, "From Ritual to Romance in 'Within the Gates' and 'Cock-a-Doodle-Dandy'," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1974, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), March, 1974, pp. 11-17.
O'Casey's pugnacious defense of his writings, which gave him a reputation for arrogance and churlishness, sometimes makes [The Letters of Sean O'Casey] tedious and embarrassing, even to those who love him. Occasionally [the letters] shamed O'Casey himself. But the strength and consequences of his passions also give the correspondence a Shakespearean quality. The effect is heightened by the evidence of his patience and integrity in dealings with individuals who patronized or manipulated him—and profited from his first three plays either personally or on behalf of their organizations.
Time and the correspondence also show that O'Casey's major judgments were acute to the point of prophecy. Politically a realist as well as a humanitarian, he predicted the global successes of socialism, especially if there were repeated wars. He foresaw the consequences of dividing Ireland, and the impossibility of "classless" nationalist struggle. He challenged the exaltation of reckless violence a half century before Conor Cruise O'Brien, and was likewise misunderstood by many. Modern practice has vindicated O'Casey's crusade for fantasy and innovation, although his own later plays are still criticized harshly. Outraged by British philistinism, he sought to educate critics and public alike by pressing the merits of O'Neill, Joyce, and Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral) before they were well known or institutionalized. It is unjust to obscure O'Casey's farsightedness, as critics of this correspondence have done, by recalling only the strident means by which he was driven to express his views. (pp. 389-90)
Irma S. Lustig, in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1976 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Summer, 1976.