O'Casey, Sean 1880-1964

Introduction

Sean O'Casey 1880-1964

Irish dramatist and essayist.

Widely recognized as one of the most original and accomplished dramatists of the twentieth century, O'Casey wrote formally innovative and aggressively iconoclastic plays which condemn war, satirize the follies of the Irish people, and celebrate the perseverance of the working class. A highly controversial figure in life as in the theatre, O'Casey openly expressed his Irish nationalist sympathies and defiantly embraced communism throughout his career. Hailed for his early set of naturalistic tragicomedies generally known as “the Dublin trilogy,” which have been regularly performed since their premieres, O'Casey gradually developed a dramaturgical style marked by expressionistic aesthetics and socialist doctrines, to which critics and audiences alike have responded less enthusiastically—sometimes in anger and even violence.

Biographical Information

Christened John Casey, O'Casey was the son of Protestant, working-class parents in predominantly Catholic Dublin. His father died when O'Casey was six years old, which worsened the family's already precarious economic situation. Consequently, O'Casey received little formal education and no medical treatment for a congenital eye disease, which affected his vision for the rest of his life. Despite these disadvantages, O'Casey extensively read Shakespeare and other classics of English literature as a teenager, while he supported himself with a series of clerical and manual labor jobs. About 1906 he left the Protestant church, became an agnostic, and gradually cultivated zealous nationalist sympathies as a member of the Gaelic League, in which he taught himself the Gaelic language and studied its literature. O'Casey later joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a radical group responsible for plotting the 1916 Easter Rising. Although O'Casey did not participate in the actual rebellion, the event and its aftermath deeply influenced him, inspiring the action of his most famous plays. After publishing several lyrical ballads and poems under the Gaelic pseudonym Sean O'Cathasaigh, as well as The Story of the Irish Citizen Army (1919), he started writing plays and submitted them for production to the renowned Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Despite rejecting his first four submissions, the directors eventually accepted his next effort, The Shadow of a Gunman, which premiered early in 1923 to critical acclaim and reopened later that year, playing to SRO houses. The following spring the Abbey Theatre produced Juno & the Paycock, which also proved popular at the box office and with the critics. O'Casey's theatrical successes usually are credited with saving the Abbey from near bankruptcy. In 1926, during the fourth performance at the Abbey of his next play, The Plough and the Stars, a riot ensued, which temporarily stopped the show as police were called in to restore order. No further disturbances occurred during the rest of its run, but ticket sales boomed, as its controversial subject matter was debated in Irish newspapers. Meanwhile, O'Casey went to England to receive the Hawthornden Prize for Juno & the Paycock and to participate in the London productions of his plays. Despite the commercial and popular success of O'Casey's first three plays, the directors at the Abbey Theatre publicly rejected his experimental play, The Silver Tassie (1929), an action that effectively ended his affiliation with the theatre and forced him into self-imposed exile in England until his death. Soon after The Silver Tassie opened in London, the Great Depression began, which severely limited attendance at live theatrical events. Consequently, O'Casey completed only two plays during the 1930s—Within the Gates (1934) and the one-act The End of the Beginning (1937)—working instead on his six-volume autobiography, which he published intermittently between 1939 and 1954. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s O'Casey continued the dramatic experimentation that he had pursued since The Silver Tassie, abandoning realistic conventions in favor of a rhetorical formalism that emphasized his poetic and ideological sympathies. Notable productions of this period include a series of plays sometimes called his “colored” plays as well as Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), The Bishop's Bonfire (1955), and The Drums of Father Ned (1957). These plays, however, generally failed to attract as much widespread popular or critical acclaim as his early dramas had, especially among Irish audiences and critics who tended to disparage O'Casey's theatrical works. In the 1960s O'Casey's plays experienced a brief revival of scholarly interest, particularly in the United States, which prompted various American university productions of such late plays as Behind the Green Curtains (1962) and Figuro in the Night (1962). O'Casey died in 1964.

Major Works

Collectively referred to as “the Dublin trilogy,” O'Casey's first three plays dramatize the plight of Irish slum-dwellers during the political and social upheaval that surrounded the Easter Rising as well as the subsequent Irish civil war of the early 1920s, though not in chronological order. Set in Dublin's tenements in the wake of the Easter Rising, The Shadow of a Gunman portrays the tragic consequences of the guerilla warfare—historically known as “the troubles”—waged by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British soldiers for several inhabitants who get caught up in the political violence. The action of Juno & the Paycock occurs during the hostilities of the civil war, when neighbor killed neighbor. The play chronicles the troubles of an impoverished Dublin family whose dissension and strife mirror the national situation and delineate the nobility and foibles that compose the character of the Irish people. The Plough and the Stars follows the intertwined destinies of Dublin Catholics and Protestants who live in the same tenement during the violence of the Easter Rising. Similarly, The Silver Tassie concerns the brutality and absurdity of war— specifically, the effects of World War I on Irish and British soldiers—but this play also marks a change in O'Casey's dramatic style. Here, the action relies on expressionistic techniques, particularly evident in the second act, which incorporates colloquial speech and plainsong chant with an apocalyptic staging of the front lines at Flanders. Subsequent plays reveal O'Casey's penchant for expressionistic devices and stylized dialogue, including Within the Gates, which symbolically dramatizes the situation of the modern world through the personal interactions in a crowded urban park, and the series of plays usually referred to as “the colored plays.” Comprising The Star Turns Red (1940), Purple Dust (1943), Red Roses for Me (1943), and Oak Leaves and Lavender (1946), these plays explicitly reinforce O'Casey's socialist ideals, and for this reason, many critics dismiss them as propaganda pieces and technically inferior dramas. His later plays, including Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (his personal favorite), The Bishop's Bonfire, Drums for Father Ned, and Behind the Green Curtains, represent a blend of fantasy, ritual, and farcical satire that challenge deeply ingrained Irish attitudes toward politics, religion, sex, and art, which O'Casey portrayed as intellectually repressed and cowed into submission by a hypocritical clergy.

Critical Reception

A common critical response to O'Casey's body of dramatic works has asserted that his “Dublin trilogy” represents his highest achievement, and many critics have acknowledged that these tragicomedies almost single handedly reinvigorated the Irish-Anglo theater with their gritty portraits of industrial, urban life. At the same time, however, critics generally have maintained that O'Casey's plays after The Plough and the Stars fail to attain a similar level of artistic vision, claiming that they are marred by overt didacticism and ideological propaganda. Furthermore, most critics have perceived a noticeable break in his dramaturgical style, beginning with The Silver Tassie, denying any resemblance between the conventions of his early drama and that of his later plays. Despite the widespread acceptance of such views, some recent scholars have characterized O'Casey's dramatic art as a precursor of the “total theater” experience, citing the presence of such diverse elements as vaudeville, melodrama, sentimentality, literary and historical allusions, and alternately poetic and polemical language. While many scholars have hesitantly granted accord with this perspective, they also have been reluctant to deal with O'Casey's ideological commitments in similar fashion, frequently isolating them from his technical accomplishments in the theatre.

Principal Works

The Shadow of a Gunman 1923

Cathleen Listens In 1923

Juno and the Paycock 1924

Nannie's Night Out 1924

The Plough and the Stars 1926

The Silver Tassie 1929

Within the Gates 1934

The End of the Beginning 1937

A Pound on Demand 1939

The Star Turns Red 1940

Purple Dust 1943

Red Roses for Me 1943

Oak Leaves and Lavender 1946

Cock-a-Doodle Dandy 1949

Bedtime Story 1952

Hall of Healing 1952

Time to Go 1952

The Bishop's Bonfire 1955

The Drums of Father Ned 1959

Figuro in the Night 1962

The Moon Shines on Kylenamoe 1962

Behind the Green Curtains 1962

* Feathers from a Green Crow 1962

The Harvest Festival 1980

The Story of the Irish Citizen Army (nonfiction) 1919

I Knock at the Door (autobiography) 1939

Pictures in the Hallway (autobiography) 1942

Drums under the Windows (autobiography) 1945

Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (autobiography) 1949

Rose and Crown (autobiography) 1952

Sunset and the Evening Star (autobiography) 1954

The Green Crow (essays and short stories) 1956

Blasts and Benedictions (essays) (1967)

*These dates indicate the first publication of Feathers from a Green Crow and The Harvest Festival, which was was originally written between 1918 and 1919. Neither has been performed to date.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

John Jordan (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “The Passionate Autodidact: The Importance of Litera Scripta for O’Casey,” in Irish University Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 59-76.

[In the essay below, Jordan examines the importance of literary allusions in O’Casey’s dramaturgy.]

He took the Reading Lesson-book out of his pocket, opened it, and recited:

I chatther, chatther as I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.

Well, he’d learned poethry and kissed a girl. If he hadn’ gone to school, he’d met the scholars; if he hadn’ gone into the house, he had knocked at the door.1

...

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Heinz Kosok (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Juno and the Playwrights: The Influence of Sean O'Casey on Twentieth-Century Drama,” in Irish Writers and the Theatre,edited by Masaru Sekine, Colin Smythe, 1986, pp. 71-86.

[In the following essay, Kosok demonstrates that O'Casey's influence on contemporary dramatists was negligible beyond his work in the “Dublin trilogy.”]

I come from the same area as Sean O'Casey about whom I don't intend to say anything for the simple reason that it would be like praising the Lakes of Killarney—a piece of impertinence. As far as I'm concerned, all I can say is that O'Casey's like champagne, one's wedding night, or the Aurora Borealis or...

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Christopher Innes (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “The Essential Continuity of Sean O'Casey,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, September, 1990, pp. 419-33.

[In the essay below, Innes argues that O'Casey's dramaturgical development exhibits a consistent pattern rather than a break in styles, as most critics maintain.]

There is a general assumption behind almost all critical approaches to Sean O'Casey's work, which deserves examination, if only because it is so common. Despite Denis Johnston's assertion in 1926, the year of The Plough and the Stars, that O'Casey's first three plays are increasingly poetic in dialogue and expressionistic in form, the Dublin trilogy is almost invariably held up as...

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Criticism: Author Commentary

Sean O'Casey (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: “The Power of Laughter: Weapon Against Evil,” in The Green Crow, George Braziller, Inc., 1956, pp. 226-32.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1953, O'Casey addresses the role and significance of a sense of humor in both literature and life.]

Laughter is wine for the soul—laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness Comedy and tragedy step through life together, arm in arm, all along, out along, down along lea. A laugh is the loud echo of a sigh; a sigh the faint echo of a laugh. A laugh is a great natural stimulator, a pushful entry into life; and once we can laugh, we can live. It is the hilarious declaration...

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Sean O'Casey (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: “Tender Tears for Poor O'Casey,” in The Green Crow, George Braziller, Inc., 1956, pp. 177-90.

[In the following essay, O'Casey responds to the animosity expressed by Dublin critics towards his plays, particularly their relentless berating of The Bishop's Bonfire.]

It touches the heart to think of the deep and lasting affection in which the critics of Dublin hold O'Casey tight, and the big, round tears they shed so sadly over his present irresponsible playwrighting. He is lost! they cry, and will be utterly so, if he doesn't amend his ways, and turn back to first principles. He refuses; he won't: weep on, weep on, his hour is past! Tinkling their...

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Criticism: The Shadow Of A Gunman

Punch (review date 8 June 1927)

SOURCE: A review of The Shadow of a Gunman, in Punch, Vol. 172, June 8, 1927, p. 637.

[In the following review of the London premiere of The Shadow of a Gunman, the critic focuses on O'Casey's dramatic technique, observing that the play's comedic overtones undermines its tragic dénouement.]

One assumes that Mr. Sean O'Casey's method of setting his tragedy against a pattern of jokes is not due to ignorance of the difficulties involved but is a deliberate device to heighten the effect of the catastrophe. In The Shadow of a Gunman the tragic ending is effective enough when it arrives, but it is not sufficiently prepared, or perhaps too subtly, so...

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Richard Jennings (review date 18 June 1927)

SOURCE: A review of The Shadow of a Gunman, in The Spectator, Vol. 138, No. 5164, June 18, 1927, p. 1062.

[In the following review of the Court Theatre production of The Shadow of a Gunman, Jennings perceives a problem with O'Casey's comedic timing and the play's tragic intent.]

Mr. Sean O'Casey's Shadow of a Gunman, now running at the Court Theatre, has renewed the old controversy about ill-timed laughter in the theatre. Playgoers will not accept rebuke from dramatic crities, and, in spite of a strong denunciation in the Times, I found an audience, a few nights later, still laughing loudly at scenes that entangled everyday Dublin humours...

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William A. Armstrong (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: “History, Autobiography, and The Shadow of a Gunman,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 2, No. 4, February, 1960, pp. 417-24.

[In the following essay, Armstrong compares The Shadow of Gunman with certain parts of the fourth volume of O'Casey's autobiography, revealing the significance of the personal element that determines the play's formal features.]

Sean O'Casey is said to prefer his first major work, The Shadow of a Gunman, to his next play, Juno and the Paycock. To many of his readers, however, The Shadow of a Gunman has seemed much more limited, local, and topical in appeal. Passing judgement on O'Casey's achievement in this...

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CRITICISM: JUNO & THE PAYCOCK

The Living Age (review date 3 May 1924)

SOURCE: A review of Juno & the Paycock, in The Living Age, Vol. 321, No. 4165, May 3, 1924, pp. 869-70.

[In the following review of the world première of Juno & the Paycock, the critic praises the play's deft blend of comedy and tragedy, particularly the light touch at its end.]

The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which was the scene of the early triumphs of Lady Gregory, Yeats, and Synge, has come into its own again with a new play by Mr. Sean O'Casey, Juno and the Paycock. The play is an extraordinary mingling of light comedy which, from criticisms, appears to verge almost upon farce, with an undercurrent of the bitterest tragedy emerging...

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Edward Alden Jewell (review date 28 May 1924)

SOURCE: A review of Juno & the Paycock, in The Nation, Vol. 118, No. 3073, May 28, 1924, pp. 617-19.

[In the following review of the debut of Juno & the Paycock at the Abbey Theatre, Jewell lauds O'Casey's “unique” interpretation of life in the Dublin slums, especially the authenticity of his characters that surpass cliches of the Irish peasantry.]

The Abbey Theater, Dublin, is a somber little playhouse, rather bleak, and crude in equipment; yet it has brought to light some of the most notable works of modern dramatic art. The late John M. Synge, W. B. Yeats, Padraic Colum, Lady Gregory, Seumas O'Kelly, Lord Dunsany have sat in the stalls to...

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The Spectator (review date 21 November 1925)

SOURCE: A review of Juno & the Paycock, in The Spectator, Vol. 135, No. 5082, November 21, 1925, pp. 923-24.

[In the following review of the London debut of Juno & the Paycock, the critic focuses on the dramatic atmosphere, local color, and Irish idiom of the play.]

What would an Irish play be if it were stripped of its atmosphere and “local colour” and native idiom?

An unfair, an impossible question; a test we need not impose upon a work of art in which form and matter (see Flaubert and Pater) emerge inseparable. We must not complain of Mr. Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, which deserves and has won such high...

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Leslie Thomson (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Opening the Eyes of the Audience: Visual and Verbal Imagery in Juno & the Paycock,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, December, 1986, pp. 556-66.

[In the following essay, Thomson outlines the delusions about Irish reality and the underlying causes that animate Juno & the Paycock, showing how visual and verbal imagery reinforces a pessimistic interpretation of the play's meaning.]

Near the end of Juno and the Paycock, Mary says, “My poor little child that'll have no father!” Juno comforts her, saying, “It'll have what's far betther—It'll have two mothers.”1 Given what we have seen of the men in the play,...

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Criticism: The Plough And The Stars

J. J. Hayes (review date 21 March 1926)

SOURCE: “Another by O'Casey,” in The New York Times, Vol. LXXV, No. 24893, March 21, 1926, p. 2, section 8.

[In the following review of the world premiere of The Plough and the Stars, Hayes assesses the play's mixed approach to comic and tragic themes, preferring its emotional motivation to its realistic presentation.]

By comparison with what it was a decade ago, playwrighting has become almost a lost art in Ireland. First productions at the Abbey Theatre have become the exception rather than the rule and new plays are rarities. For this and other reasons, therefore, when it was announced that a play from the pen of Sean O'Casey would have its première on a...

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The Times (London) (review date 14 May 1926)

SOURCE: A review of The Plough and the Stars, in The Times (London), No. 44271, May 14, 1926, p. 4.

[In the following review of the London debut of The Plough and the Stars, the critic describes the audience's differing responses to the comic and tragic aspects of the play.]

There is a familiar kind of battle-picture which shows groups of civilians moving confusedly across a smoky background of war. This is the general design of Mr. O'Casey's new play. His background is the rebellion of Easter Week in Ireland; his detached study is of the dwellers in a Dublin tenement, caught up in a movement to which none of them gives purposeful support but which they...

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Oliver M. Sayler (review date 10 December 1927)

SOURCE: A review of The Plough and the Stars, in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. IV, No. 20, December 10, 1927, p. 427.

[In the following review of the American premiere of The Plough and the Stars, Sayler addresses the emotional appeal of the play, noting that the production's general disregard for verisimilitude accented its humanistic concerns.]

One of the most difficult tasks the theatre confronts in making dramatic literature oral and visual, in completing and fulfilling its latent promise as drama, is to bring to plausible life on the stage scenes of confusion and combat. Ever since Schiller marshalled the hosts of Wallenstein in his great...

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W. A. Armstrong (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: “The Sources and Themes of The Plough and the Stars,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 4, No. 3, December, 1961, pp 234-42.

[In the following essay, Armstrong identifies specific sources for the main themes of The Plough and the Stars, drawing upon O'Casey's prose works to illuminate their significance.]

Though Sean O'Casey did not fight in the Easter Rising of 1916, he helped to organise the Irish Citizen Army and was a shrewd and passionate observer of life in Dublin before, during, and after the most fateful week in the history of his native city. His autobiographical record of this period, Drums Under the Windows (1945), and his The Story...

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Bernice Schrank (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “‘There's Nothin' Derogatory in th' Use o' th' Word’: A Study in the Use of Language in The Plough and the Stars,” in Irish University Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Autumn, 1985, pp. 169-88.

[In the following essay, Schrank analyzes the dramatic functions of language in The Plough and the Stars, describing the effects of a developing political consciousness on the characters' discourse.]

O'Casey's dramatic language is at once one of the most impressive aspects of his stagecraft and one of the least analysed. Impressionistic responses to O'Casey's language tend to alternate between nebulous enthusiasm for its Elizabethan lushness1 and...

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Criticism: The Silver Tassie

The Times (London) (review date 12 October 1929)

SOURCE: A review of The Silver Tassie, in The Times (London), October 12, 1929, p. 8.

[In the following review of the world premiere of The Silver Tassie, the critic comments on the success of O'Casey's experimental dramatic practices.]

Many years may pass before Mr. O'Casey's art [in The Silver Tassie] ceases to produce confusion in the mind of an audience accustomed by long theatrical usage to consistency of mood. Hitherto it has commonly been demanded of a play that it be tragic, or that it be comic, or, if by profession a tragi-comedy, that the contrasted elements should remain distinct, the one appearing as a “relief” to the other. This...

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The Illustrated London News (review date 19 October 1929)

SOURCE: A review of The Silver Tassie, in The Illustrated London News, October 19, 1929, p. 696.

[In the following review of the London production of The Silver Tassie, the critic admires the “deeply felt and so remorselessly expressed” sentiments of the play.]

The “Tassie” which furnished the title of Mr. Sean O'Casey's new play [The Silver Tassie] is a silver challenge cup which Harry Heegan, in the full flush of his youth and strength, wins for the third time for his football team in the first act, and which, robbed of the use of his limbs by the war and of his sweet-heart by the comrade who has saved his life, he smashes in a jealous...

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Charles Morgan (review date 3 November 1929)

SOURCE: “As London Sees O'Casey,” in The New York Times, November 3, 1929, p. 4, section 9.

[In the following review of The Silver Tassie, Morgan assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the dramatic techniques found in the London production, claiming that O'Casey's political prejudices hurt the aesthetic dimension of the play.]

There is a defiant boldness in Mr. O'Casey's writing that compels attention. Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars made a deep impression even upon those who found them wanting as works of art. It was evident that here was one who possessed many of the qualities of a great dramatist—a view of life proper...

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Ronald G. Rollins and Llewellyn Rabby (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “The Silver Tassie: The Post-World-War-I Legacy,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXII, No. 1, June, 1979, pp. 125-36.

[In the following essay, Rollins and Rabby situate the dramatic patterns and techniques of The Silver Tassie within the context of other contemporary plays that deal with the horror of war, showing how O'Casey's adaptations of the theme contribute to the originality of the work]

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, …

In the final months and in the years following World War I, that extended nightmare that shattered an established hierarchical social order that had provided...

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Criticism: Cock-A-Doodle Dandy

Alan Brien (review date 11 September 1959)

SOURCE: “Weill Away,” in The Spectator, Vol. 203, No. 6846, September 11, 1959, pp. 331-32.

[In the following review of the London debut of Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, Brien faults the eloquence of O'Casey's dramatic language, which, in his opinion, detracts from the action and motivation of the play.]

In Cock-a-Doodle Dandy O'Casey, too, is out to scare the cassock off the priesthood. But he seems oddly unsure what he will find underneath the fancy dress—less than a man or more than a demon? His bog village of Nyadnanave is a haunted battlefield where strange, supernatural powers wrestle for the souls of men. All the farcical byplay of old-fashioned...

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David Krause (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: An introduction in Cock-A-Doodle Dandy by Sean O'Casey, The Catholic University of America Press, 1991, pp. 1-32.

[In the following excerpt, Krause describes the historical and religious contexts of Cock-a-Doodle Dandy in relation to the comedic themes expressed in the play.]

The ban on laughter stretches back to the day when man wore skins and defended himself with the stone hammer. Many enemies have always surrounded laughter, have tried to banish it from life; and many have perished on the high gallows tree because they laughted at those who had been given power over them. Hell-fire tried to burn it, and the weeping for sins...

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Further Reading

Ayling, Robert. “Sean O'Casey and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.” In Sean O'Casey: Centenary Essays, edited by David Krause and Robert G. Lowery, pp. 13-40. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1980.

Attributes the enthusiastic popular reception of O'Casey's early plays to his artistic collaboration with the directorate at the Abbey Theatre.

———. “‘Two Words for Women’: A Reassessment of O'Casey's Heroines.” In Woman in Irish Legend, Life and Literature, edited by S. F. Gallagher, pp. 91-114. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1983.

Reviews the critical tradition with respect to O'Casey's treatment of women in his work,...

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