O'Casey, Sean 1880-1964
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
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
Sean O’Casey is the most bookish of all Irish dramatists.2 From The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) to the last three plays, published together, Behind the Green Curtains, Figuro in the Night and The Moon Shines on Kylenamoe (1961), quotations from and references to the books he had read or at the least was aware of (and chiefly from his protracted incubatory period), play an important part in his dramaturgy. The importance of the Book, for that child who preened himself on being able to read Tennyson’s “The Brook”, is nowhere better attested than in certain passages from the third and fourth volumes of his autobiography, where something like moral judgment enters into his...
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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 whatever you call them—all them lights.1
This is how an Irish fellow dramatist, Brendan Behan, reacted to the plays of Sean O'Casey, whom he considered ‘the greatest playwright living in my opinion’,2 and whom he defended vigorously against O'Casey's Irish critics:
In the United States, O'Casey is studied and praised in schools and universities all over the country. In the U.S.S.R. he is a highly respected artist. O'Casey is one of the few remaining unifying influences in a divided world. Why the hell should he care about a few crawthumpers in Ireland?3
Behan's praise, even if worded somewhat exuberantly, is...
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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 an example of naturalism. Equally, all his theatrical output from the 1934 production of Within the Gates, whether labelled expressionist or fantasy, is seen as the stylistic antithesis of the early plays. Biographic reference is used to support this: O'Casey's move from Ireland to England after the Plough riots is taken as the sign of a radical departure in subject matter. To some critics his 1928 break with the Abbey theatre gave him the liberty to explore new dramatic forms. To others it shows limitations that come from writing without the practical discipline of stage production, resulting in flawed language and abstract characterization. In both cases, The Silver Tassie, as the immediate cause of O'Casey's break...
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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 made by man that life is worth living. Man is always hopeful of, always pushing towards, better things; and to bring this about, a change must be made in the actual way of life; so laughter is brought in to mock at things as they are so that they may topple down, and make room for better things to come.
People are somewhat afraid of laughing. Many times, when laughter abounded, I have heard the warning remark, “Oh, give it a rest, or it'll end in a cry.” It is odd how many seem to be curiously envious of laughter, never of grief. You can have more than your fill of grief, and nobody minds: they never grudge your grief to you. You are given the world to grieve in; laughter is more often confined to a corner. We are more...
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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 one-stringed harps, they sit them down by the waters of Anna Livia Plurabelle, and weep for the lone, lost bard. They want him to go back to the writing of another Juno and the Paycock; to the period of the first three “great” or “fine” or “grand”—they always give an uplifting adjective to the noun when they mention them—plays; and, because, so far, he has declined, they are about to build a wailing wall in Dublin to commemorate the poor playwright who took the wrong turning. Am I exaggerating now, or what? I don't think so. Listen; and let us take these critics in the order of their disappearance.
In an issue of the Irish Times in 1940, a critic, whose name doesn't appear on his comments, moans...
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Criticism: The Shadow Of A Gunman
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 that the audience has got itself into a thoroughly rollicking mood (sustained by Mr. Arthur Sinclair's broad diverting humour) and refuses to smile but must needs laugh aloud at everything. The discerning, who in the Second Act begin to see the drift of the playwright's plan, are necessarily grieved. However, I think Mr. O'Casey must share some of the blame for that.
Donal Davoren, a young poet—whether good or bad it was not easy to determine, as Mr. Harry Hutchinson persistently read his verses to the backcloth—is sharing a room in the distraught Dublin of 1920 with a vulgar feckless pedlar, Seumas Shields. The other denizens of the tenement have decided that Donal is a gunman on the run, which...
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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 with tragic emergencies—the compound being characteristic of Mr. O'Casey's method. Have we, then, forgotten all about the horrors in Ireland? Do they mean nothing to us? Or was it, rather, that Mr. Arthur Sinclair, as the pedlar, having compelled mirth, from the depths of his bed, in the first act, could not repress it in the second, where, still in bed, he is beset by the Black-and Tans? For, obviously, Mr. Sinclair is too fine an artist to sentimentalize. He plays his part as it should be played; consistently he is the loud-tongued loafer. What happens to him, in his recumbent posture, or to those about him, isn't, so to speak, his affair: events do not remould middle-aged characters. But the audience, surely, should have discriminated....
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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 play in The Nineteenth Century and After (April, 1925), Andrew E. Malone has declared that “his characters are taken from the slums of Dublin, and his theme is little more than a commentary upon the warlike conditions of the city during the year 1920.” One purpose of this article is to suggest that this verdict is a deceptive half-truth. O'Casey certainly does provide a realistic cross-section of life in a Dublin slum in 1920, and, as will be shown, the play certainly acquires greater significance when it is related to the social and political history of that year. But even where O'Casey's representation is closest to social or historical fact it exhibits a distinctive tone and colouring imparted by his imagination in obedience to a...
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CRITICISM: JUNO & THE PAYCOCK
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 emphatically at the end of the play, but yielding in the last few minutes of the action to the comic interest, so that the play ends—most unconventionally for a modern drama—in laughter.
Mr. O'Casey, like that other Irish dramatist, Mr. Shaw, is superior to the demands of the ‘well-made play.’ Analyzed—though nobody has any business to analyze a play—Juno and the Paycock seems to deal with a little bit of everything and to have no construction at all; but, having once safely broken all the rules, Mr. O'Casey contrives to produce a work which is universally praised, a few critics even venturing the adjective ‘great.’
In Act I the audience sees the Doyle family living in a humble tenement...
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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 watch their own premiers; while from it, a few seasons ago, issued the company which toured America with Lennox Robinson's “The Whiteheaded Boy.” I doubt, however, whether any piece has been seen at the Abbey finer than “June[sic] and the Paycock.” The week of its production literary Dublin talked of little else. Mr. Yeats, Lennox Robinson, Æ were in agreement as to its high and impartial fidelity; and Lady Gregory (who, being one of the directors of the theater, had read [Juno and the Paycock] in manuscript) journeyed all the way from her home in the west of Ireland to see it performed. James Stephens said of the play that “it is plumped like an orange, full of sap.” One of the local dramatic critics gave as his opinion:...
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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 praise in Dublin, and now in London at the Royalty Theatre, that its donée, its theme, its formula, are of the most familiar known to the modern stage. It is enough that the new dramatist's version of the thriftless work-shy Micawber is, in his dialogue and soliloquy, noc Micawber, but a very real re-creation of a very familiar type—the drunken drifting Jack Boyle, dryland sailor, who lives on a false nautical prestige and upon the devotion of a wife of the sharp-tongued yet endlessly enduring type, whom, as a type, we have seen so often; yet, now, as she is played by Miss Sara Allgood, seem never to have seen before. The daughter of these two, seduced, “betrayed,” is also the daughter of a thousand unfortunates in like...
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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, our initial inclination might be to agree with Juno; however, to do so would be to join the characters in their delusions and to ignore the realities with which O'Casey confronts us. To encourage his audience to see Ireland, and the world, realistically and dispassionately, O'Casey creates a complex pattern of verbal and visual imagery which should prompt our awareness of the sad truths his characters, even Juno, do not see. Through the play this imagery reinforces the message conveyed in the final tableau: that in a world where Boyles and Joxers prevail, two mothers may be relatively “better” but nothing has changed, nor will it, because the delusions and their causes remain.
This view goes against the more optimistic...
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Criticism: The Plough And The Stars
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 Monday evening early in February there was a run on the box office and every seat in the house for that night, as well as for several following, was sold out almost before the ink on the advertisement was dry on the press.
The sensation caused by the same author's The Shadow of a Gunman, eclipsed as it was by that which obtained when his Juno and the Paycock was staged, together with the extraordinary reception given to the latter play in London, aroused considerable speculation as to what Sean O'Casey's next play would be like. It had been known for a long time that he was at work on a new play and rumor was very busy with regard to it.
When the curtain went up on Monday night on The...
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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 share with the same swift alternation of violence and indifference that they bring to their personal quarrels. And how they quarrel! And how much they enjoy it! In this company a death or an insult is an opportunity for rhetoric, and what more can the heart of Celtic charwoman desire?
An English audience, which was not anxious to be critical on Wednesday night, had at the outset a welcome for every piece of grotesque extravagance, for Mr. O'Rourke's green uniform and Mr. Sydney Morgan's red tie, for Mr. Arthur Sinclair's carrot hair and slippery humour, and for each torrent of abuse that flowed from the lips of Miss Sara Allgood or Miss Maire O'Neill; but, when the play began to move towards tragedy, it became clear that...
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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 trilogy, ever since Shakespeare set the legions of Roman civil strife chasing each other over the battlefield of Philippi in Julius Caesar, ever since Aristophanes sent the old men of Athens to a scalding bath at the hands of Lysistrata's conspirators on the Acropolis, the theatre's resources for giving plausibility and illusion to mass action in cross-section and microcosm have been strained to the breaking point. To this illusive and elusive end, the Greek stage invented and the Greek populace accepted conventions of which we have scant record. The Elizabethans, likewise, were content with symbolic stimuli to the imagination—a handful of soldiers with property swords serving as proxy for untold armies locked in mortal strife. In...
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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 of the Irish Citizen Army (1919) are important historical documents. They are also of much literary interest because they reveal some of the sources of his tragedy, The Plough and the Stars, and elucidate some of its main themes.
In The Story of the Irish Citizen Army, O'Casey describes the origins of the Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers, the two patriotic organisations which combined and fought the forces of the Crown during the Easter Rising. In 1912, the political leaders of Ulster organised the army known as the Ulster Volunteers as part of their opposition to the Bill for the institution of an Irish Parliament sponsored by the Liberal Party under H. H. Asquith and supported by John Redmond,...
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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 vague assertions about its ‘ideological bloat and embarrassing bombast.’2 Attempting a more precise description, David Krause emphasises the comic elements of dialogue3 while Robert Hogan looks at such rhetorical devices as ‘the personified adjective’ and ‘the derogatory epithet’.4 Other critics focus on its dynamic qualities. For Raymond Williams, O'Casey's verbal flamboyance is ‘the sound, really, of a long confusion and disintegration’.5 For Ronald Ayling (using words borrowed from Williams), O'Casey's language is a “movement from dialogue to ritual incantation”.6 In a manner consistent with William's and Ayling's approach, I have previously examined the dramatic...
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Criticism: The Silver Tassie
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 theory Mr. O'Casey has definitely abandoned, and has substituted for it another, still very unfamiliar in the theatre, though having its now recognized counterpart in the novels of Mr. Aldous Huxley. We are no longer invited to give attention to one aspect of life and to consider it dominant for the time being. The unity of the work of art is no longer to depend upon the consistency of its material. Instead, as if some diamond were being rolled over and tossed in air before our eyes, we are so to observe its facets of tragedy, comedy, and open farce that their flashing becomes at last one flash and perhaps, by imaginative and symbolic transition, one spiritual light. Unity is to spring from diversity. The elements of drama are to be...
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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 fury at curtain-fall. Bitterness and defeat, indeed, are the emotions which the young Irish playwright depicts with such remarkable power and insight in the successor to Juno and the Paycock. The more the pity, then, that his depiction of these emotions should so often take the form of a rather flamboyant expressionism. The whole of the second act, for instance, is devoted to an interlude in which soldiers on fatigue duty, crouched round a fire, chant in unison curses on their officers and on their own exposure to mud, cold, and rain. And, though it may be granted that this interlude represents very vividly some of the occasional moods of some of the men, it is obviously satire and burlesque rather than drama. Moreover, it holds up the...
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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 to himself; courage enough to depart from fashionable dramatic technique when his work required such a departure; a fiercely critical humor and an extraordinary power to perceive, and to reproduce in the theatre, the entanglement—even the coincidence—of tragedy, comedy and farce on the lives of men. For these reasons, the performance of his new play was a theatrical happening of some importance and was awaited with the more curiosity because The Silver Tassie [recently produced here by the Irish Theatre—Ed.], having been already published and widely discussed, was known to be technically experimental and to contain at least one act—the second—of which no one could certainly foretell the effect on the stage.
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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 stability and spiritual serenity for centuries of European men, a new mood of bewilderment, despair, and cynical alienation tormented millions of disenchanted people in the western world. And as is so often the case, it was the artists, especially the playwrights, who first gave voice to this new cry of hopelessness, frustration, and fear. Beginning with the plays of the German Expressionists, 1912-1916, a new generation of post-war playwrights exerted themselves to assess the full impact of the old order upon those who were left behind to contemplate the ruins and to lament the loss of friends and cherished values. Repeatedly these playwrights recoiled in anger and anguish from the new lines of force in an historical process that was...
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Criticism: Cock-A-Doodle Dandy
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 pantomime—geysers of smoke, glowing whiskey bottles, acrobatic scenery, dancing animals, trick furniture—are weapons in an unholy comic war. Father Domineer (Patrick Magee) is God's angry, implacable, English-vowelled drill-sergeant. A monstrous, life-sized Cock (danced by Berto Pasuka) is the mascot of the poor and the passionate, the proud and pitiful. The troops are enrolled by sex rather than by class, rather as though O'Casey had transferred his propaganda allegiance from the Red Prussian to the White Goddess. All the women are good by light of nature. All the men are evil by darkness of doctrine. In the end, the Church wins and drives out of sacred Ireland the priestesses of love and passion and charity.
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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 committed did all that was possible to drown it; but laughter came safely through the ordeals of fire and water; came smiling through.1
Comedy is Sean O'Casey's primary dramatic strategy. Looking back over his career, he felt he had used laughter as a weapon against evil or folly. There are often dark or repressive forces at work in his plays, and, although he relies upon his comic vision to expose and deflate them, the destructive forces tend to prevail. It is the hard way of the world. Nevertheless, even in defeat, his comic characters linger on as a positive value, a symbol of the human determination to endure. “A laugh is a great natural stimulator,” he wrote, “a pushful entry into life; and once...
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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, whom he portrays as life-enhancing agents who bear his anti-war message.
Benstock, Bernard. “The O'Casey Touch.” In Sean O'Casey, pp. 89-121. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1970.
Analyzes various dramatic techniques and aspects of stagecraft in O'Casey's later plays, beginning with The Silver Tassie.
———. Paycocks and Others: Sean O'Casey's World. New York: Harper and Row, 1976, 318 p.
Identifies general traits of typical characters that populate O'Casey's plays.
Greaves, C. Desmond. Sean O'Casey, Politics & Art. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979, 206 p.
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