O'Casey, Sean (Pseudonym of John Casey) 1880–1964
O'Casey, an Irish dramatist and essayist, began his career writing ballads and short fiction. The political struggles of modern Ireland are central to his early work, which is essentially naturalistic in character. His later works blend elements of naturalism with expressionism and are concerned with the universal problem of individuality in an age of conformity. O'Casey used dialect in his plays to add verisimilitude to setting and character and to establish mood. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, 9, 11.)
Because of his unabashed love of melodramatic devices, and particularly because of his self-taught reflections of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dion Boucicault, O'Casey has been regarded with some justice as Synge's opposite. An urban primitivist in contrast with the sophisticated, well-read Bohemian, he is deeply committed to the power of impassioned, idiomatic speech to reform society. His seething resentments are spewed upon a puritanical Catholic clergy, the narrow-minded petite bourgeoisie, and [a] government supported by those twin pillars.
However, as O'Casey's rebellious quest for identity (reflected by two name changes) fixed on the craft and vocation of a writer, a double-layered personality came into view. Long before the Abbey produced The Shadow of a Gunman in 1923 when O'Casey was nearly middle-aged, his romanticism reflected a self which was essentially passionate, optimistic, and rebellious…. Perpetually dissatisfied with the shifting, weighty masses of native Irish conflicts, O'Casey successfully unified these diverse elements in his works only so long as his faith in their ultimate reconciliation in the real world lasted.
Nowhere is the tension between O'Casey's idealistic and analytic drives more evident than in his ambivalence toward the artist's role, craft, and powers, particularly as they are defined and expressed by words. His artist-personae treat poetry as priests do the Mass, using sacred language to bless, prophesy, or curse. Along with his countrymen, he regards the unseen spiritual authority of Catholicism with a mixed awe and dread. To a romantic individualist, moreover, nothing is so infuriating as the unreasoning subordination of "inferiors" to their social and moral superiors, an act of repression which, like the bending of man to God's will, was backed by the full authority of the Church. (pp. 68-9)
O'Casey is not a systematic thinker. Yet he quickly perceived that in a capricious and willfully cruel world, submission to authority is unvariably equated with connivance, escape from it with irresponsibility. Since it is not just a social system but life itself which arouses O'Casey's furious resentment, his lifelong, romantic commitment to communism masks an apocalyptic totalism. Too puritanical and repressed to fully explore man's naked cruelty, O'Casey divides his characters into two main types—deluded, humorless rebels and witty, innovative thinkers, those who embrace violence and those who attempt to withdraw from it. But whether victimizers or victims, almost all of his people are repelled by their own emotions and seek a haven of rest beyond the clash of endless turmoil.
Incapable of being either alone or alone with a lover, O'Casey's characters seek engulfment or isolation from sensation, conveyed at their extremes by fire and water symbolism. The flickering of one's inner aliveness may emerge as an impatient drive to magnify human destiny, to bring life to its conclusion…. Only a fiery cataclysm, it would seem, enables the desperate idealist to grasp certainty from the one true Identity, which was Divine wrath. (p. 70)
Like fire, water symbolism projects radical antitheses of relief and impingement, depending on a character's relatedness to his group. Surrendering to drink, as O'Casey gave in to communist orthodoxy, was a means of controlling one's rebellious drives by submitting to a force larger than oneself. O'Casey's drinkers … merge alcoholically with their worlds. Drink, one should note, is implicitly linked with floating in the amniotic fluid of the mother's womb. For his insecure authoritarians, particularly those who project their fears on societal scapegoats, normally pleasurable sensations threaten submergence in putrefaction…. In the early plays extremes of freedom and subjection are juxtaposed: Jack Boyle's regressive drunkenness stresses his family's vulnerability, while a sense of universal...
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Certain ideas and themes preoccupied Sean O'Casey's mind throughout his life. As we might expect, they recur again and again in his work, in autobiographical narratives and occasional prose writings as well as in the drama. Most important of these recurrent interests, perhaps, is O'Casey's desire to find order and harmony in a world rent by physical and spiritual chaos…. In his drama emphasis is often placed on disorder and selfishness, shown particularly in social and economic exploitation, and in man's inhumanity to man. This subject is shown, notably, in the degrading effects of war and poverty. At the same time, O'Casey subtly realizes the moral ambiguities inherent in the problems of law and order in a country dominated by a superimposed alien system of morality and justice and therefore particularly vulnerable to revolution and anarchy. These problems are naturally most apparent—and often in the forefront of the action—in the early plays set in Ireland during the period from 1915 to 1922, The Plough and the Stars, The Shadow of a Gunman, and Juno and the Paycock (to place them in chronological order of subject-matter rather than order of writing). Yet from the evidence of later works like Purple Dust and Red Roses for Me, where the discussion is continued though in a less prominent manner, it is clear that O'Casey did not consider the matter resolved by the ending of "colonial"/rule in Ireland.
It is surprising how writers on O'Casey have ignored the significant number of references to "law and order" which may be found in his writings, particularly the term's multiple occurance in the six-volume autobiographical narrative…. [Whenever] there is an appeal to such a notion, or the phrase itself is introduced in disputation in O'Casey's plays or Autobiographies it is invariably in an ironic context. Those who invoke the idea are often the least law-abiding themselves. (pp. 265-66)
Whenever O'Casey touches upon the theme of legality in a social or political context it is invariably in a contradictory and ambiguous manner. This serves to demonstrate the conviction that consistently underlies his social morality: that no state in which disorder bred of poverty is found may be regarded as possessing law and order in any meaningful sense. (p. 268)
In an inseparable counterbalance to O'Casey's concern for order and harmony there is his abundant use of stage chaos for satirical and symbolical purposes. Stylistically, this affords one of the playwright's most original contributions to modern drama. (pp. 268-69)
[To O'Casey dehiscence and dissolution] are means to a greater end, elements subservient … to a more inclusive theme. Deeply concerned that order and harmony be achieved in human society and the individual life, O'Casey is painfully aware of disruptive tensions and disorder in both, and follows the theme through to its reductio ad absurdum of destruction. Yet, at the back of the experience, he plainly hints—sometimes not even implicitly but directly—that this anarchy, the product of poverty, bad social organization and individual ignorance, is avoidable. (pp. 269-70)
[The] technique of stage chaos is one O'Casey was to use, with significant variations, throughout his career. Of plays written after 1934, perhaps...
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The Silver Tassie represents a radical departure from Sean O'Casey's early work, and its most significant aspects have been almost consistently misunderstood by his critics. The play is a conscious blend of naturalism and symbolic expressionism, and as such is unified through language, imagery, and theme, rather than through character. O'Casey himself wrote to W. B. Yeats, in their famous controversy over the play [documented in O'Casey's Blasts and Benedictions]: "I'm afraid I can't make my mind mix with the sense of importance you give to 'a dominating character.' God forgive me, but it does sound as if you peeked and pined for a hero in the play. Now, is a dominating character more important than a...
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