O'Casey, Sean (Vol. 11)
O'Casey, Sean 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 more 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.)
This is the interest of Windfalls—that by its juxtaposition of what is distinguished and what is not, the essential O'Casey and the incidental, it facilitates a definition of the former. (p. 167)
Mr. O'Casey is a master of knockabout in this very serious and honourable sense—that he discerns the principle of disintegration in even the most complacent solidities, and activates it to their explosion. This is the energy of his theatre, the triumph of the principle of knockabout in situation, in all its elements and on all its planes, from the furniture to the higher centres…. This impulse of material to escape and be consummate in its own knockabout is admirably expressed in the two "sketches" that conclude this volume, and especially in "The End of the Beginning," where the entire set comes to pieces and the chief character, in a final spasm of dislocation, leaves the scene by the chimney.
Beside this the poems are like the model palace of a dynamiter's lesiure moments. "Walk with Eros," through the seasons complete with accredited poetic phenomena and emotions to match, is the nec plus ultra of inertia, a Walt Disney inspected shot after shot on the celluloid. The influences of nature are great, but they do not enable the disruptive intelligence, exacting the tumult from unity, to invert its function. A man's mind is not a claw-hammer.
The short stories have more jizz, notably...
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G. Wilson Knight
In most of the plays written after Within the Gates we are aware of a certain weakening. The reiterated attacks on the Irish priesthood lack balance; attempts to build youthful sexuality into a saving force pall; and the author's proclaimed communism is never, not even in The Star Turns Red where the communist leader Red Jim is little more than a figure of accepted morality, loaded with human fire. O'Casey is a visionary; his various conflicts are always part of some patterned whole suffused with melody and colour; but technical patterning is not enough and it is far from easy to establish any more exact relation of contemporary energies and ideologies to the harmony. Neither communism nor sex-love can bridge the gap. But he fights on, always striving for solutions in human and dramatic terms; striving to relate man to his vision. (p. 133)
[In The Drums of Father Ned we] find the usual repudiation of spoil-sport old fogeys and a restrictive Irish priest, Father Fillifogue, set against young people standing for youth, love and freedom. (p. 134)
[There are] two dominating symbolic persons. One is "Father Ned," who does not appear but is continually referred to as their leader and authority by those who stand for advance…. Father Ned is conceived, on the analogy of an Irish parish priest, as an ultimate local authority. Dramatically he exists through oblique reference and the sound of his drums as...
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Though [O'Casey] is the only major British dramatist to have used Expressionism to any extent throughout his work, and though it is often mentioned that he was influenced by the German movement, he has been generally treated as an "experimenter." It is the thesis of this study that the techniques of Expressionist Drama established by Strindberg and the German writers who followed him are found throughout O'Casey's plays, and more importantly, that his early attempts at Expressionism became a kind of proving ground for his last plays. One finds the techniques of Expressionism in every full-length play from The Plough and the Stars in 1926 to The Drums of Father Ned in 1958, and they figure significantly in the success of the late comedies. (p. 47)
In contrast to Journey's End, which he considered a "piece of false effrontery" both in sentiment and in form, he would go "into the heart of war" [with The Silver Tassie]. It is the attempt to create the total effect of an experience, to dramatize the "essence" of a subject, which marks O'Casey's intent here as thoroughly Expressionist. (p. 48)
When O'Casey decided to fling a stone at patriotic militarism in The Silver Tassie, he turned directly to the methods of Ernst Toller and Strindberg, two playwrights he especially admired, and wrote a thoroughly Expressionist second act. It is this act which carries the weight of the play's theme,...
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It is in many ways rewarding to approach Juno and the Paycock together with The Plough and the Stars and The Shadow of a Gunman as a cycle of political and social plays conceived on an epic scale and deeply tinged by an overall tragic vision; a trilogy similar in some respects to Shakespeare's cycle comprising Richard II, Henry IV (two parts), and Richard III. In each series individual plays, though self-contained and complete in themselves, are more meaningful in conjunction with the other plays relating to their particular cycle, and, together with them, add up to a panoramic view of a country in a state of crisis. Of course Shakespeare's plays are more consciously shaped as chronicles of an age, a particular period of history, than are O'Casey's…. O'Casey wrote of the lives and struggles of ordinary men and women at a particular time of social upheaval, and in the process gave the drama something of an epic compass, realising a social and political content that is far wider and deeper than is apparent at first sight.
In chronological order of the subject-matter, The Plough and the Stars (1915–1916), The Shadow of a Gunman (1920), and Juno and the Paycock (1922) cover the most momentous events in recent Irish history, not from the point of view of the political or military leaders, but from that of the ordinary people unwillingly caught up in the indiscriminate savagery and...
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[The Plough and the Stars is] about a war fought at home, with shells exploding in the streets and women shot as they stand at the windows. The war in question, the Easter Rebellion, Dublin, 1916, was less squalid than most: a revolution, a struggle for freedom. Out of it, said Yeats, "a terrible beauty is born."
O'Casey had a somewhat different view. In the first two acts of The Plough he gives us plenty of revolutionary rhetoric and shows it to us as heady stuff, better than beer—and popular for the same reason. The other two acts are devoted to revolutionary reality, including some unexpected heroism and some (highly comic) behavior that is distinctly less than heroic. But for O'Casey the essential reality of war, revolutionary or otherwise, no matter how splendid the principle for which it is fought, is pain, and pain dominates the last half of The Plough and the Stars: fear, madness, miscarriage, and death. No wonder the Irish Nationalists rioted when the play was new; they did not want to see the seamy side of their glorious struggle. O'Casey had been the first secretary of the Irish Citizen Army, but The Plough and the Stars is nothing if not a pacifist play.
Julius Novick, "Take a Member of the IRA," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), November 29, 1976, p. 97....
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Recurring patterns of destructive disorder underlie and link all the elements of [The Shadow of a Gunman] from the sloppiness of Seumas's room to the political messiness of the Irish "troubles." In Shadow, O'Casey creates a universe in which God is dead, the religious professions of his characters are full of violence and cant, the ship of state is going down in a blood-dimmed tide, slum poverty is destroying the privacy and threatening the sanity of its inhabitants, and personal relationships are characterized by selfishness and exploitation.
Since the entire play takes place in Seumas's room, its description ought to help establish a pervasive sense of chaos. Predictably it does. O'Casey's stage directions are explicit and relevant…. The room is a mess and that messiness has far-reaching implications. O'Casey makes the connection between the room's confusion and Donal's and Seumas's psychological states directly. But the room is also a microcosm of the larger world. The confusion outside is mirrored in the jumble of props which litter the room—religious icons, pots and pans, a typewriter, books and flowers. From the start then, the setting creates an atmosphere of chaos congenial to the theme of breakdown which runs through the play.
The disordered setting is surely an appropriate backdrop for projecting a sense of cosmic chaos. O'Casey implies that the universe of Shadow is at best godless;...
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