O'Casey, Sean (Pseudonym of John Casey)
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,...
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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.
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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 play, or is a play more important than a dominating character?" Characterization in The Silver Tassie is clearly subordinate to the play's ritualistic structure and to its complex symbolic framework. Symbol and imagery throughout the four acts revolve around the trinity of war, religion, and sexuality—"the decorations of security." This imagery is placed within the dual context of a strong anti-war theme and the Sacrifice of the Mass. The thematic and structural function of the imagery is well expressed by the Croucher's lines in Act II: "Then the decorations of security/Become the symbols of self sacrifice." (p. 29)
The ritual structure is manifested first and most obviously in the religious chanting. Despite the...
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