Study Guide

Sean O'Casey

Sean O'Casey Essay - O'Casey, Sean (Vol. 88)

O'Casey, Sean (Vol. 88)

Introduction

Sean O'Casey 1880–1964

(Born John Casey; also wrote under pseudonym Sean O'Cathasaigh) Irish dramatist, autobiographer, poet, short story writer, and critic.

The following entry provides an overview of O'Casey's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 5, 9, 11, and 15.

Considered by many critics to be one of the most original and accomplished dramatists of the twentieth century, O'Casey is noted for formally innovative and aggressively iconoclastic plays in which he condemns war, satirizes the follies of the Irish people, and celebrates the perseverance of the working class. In addition to his standing as a major playwright, O'Casey is esteemed for his impassioned, combative criticism and for an acclaimed series of autobiographies. A highly controversial figure, O'Casey openly expressed his Irish nationalist sympathies and advocacy of communism throughout his life.

Biographical Information

O'Casey was born John Casey to working-class Protestant parents in predominantly Catholic Dublin. His father died when O'Casey was only six years old, and this event exacerbated the family's already precarious financial position. Due to his family's economic standing, O'Casey, who suffered from a disease which seriously affected his eyes throughout his life, consequently received little formal education. In spite of these disadvantages, O'Casey read Shakespeare and the English classics extensively during his teens, simultaneously supporting himself with a series of clerical and manual labor jobs. Sometime around 1906, he left the Protestant church, became an agnostic, and began to cultivate ardent nationalist feelings. O'Casey joined The Gaelic League, which spurred his self-education in the Gaelic language and its literature, and later joined the Irish Brotherhood, the radical organization responsible for planning the 1916 Easter Rebellion. After publishing several collections of lyrical ballads and poems under the Gaelic pseudonym Sean O'Cathasaigh in 1918, he turned to writing plays. Rejecting O'Casey's early submissions, the Abbey Theatre of Dublin eventually accepted The Shadow of a Gunman, staging its first performance in 1923. Despite the success of The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926), the Abbey's directors, including the famed Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, rejected The Silver Tassie (1929), which is noted for its deeply nihilistic depiction of war and disconcerting use of expressionistic technique. In subsequent plays O'Casey abandoned the conventions of dramatic realism and opted for a highly rhetorical and formalistic style which foregrounded his poetic and ideo-logical sensibilities. During the 1930s O'Casey published only one play but made significant progress on his autobiography. Ostracized by most theater critics as much on the basis of his political affiliations as for his highly formalized style of playwriting, O'Casey had relatively few plays staged during the remainder of his career. In spite of a revived interest in O'Casey's work beginning in the 1960s, he remained aloof from the public and declined several honorary doctorates. He died in 1964.

Major Works

The Shadow of a Gunman, O'Casey's first staged play, is a lyrical tragicomedy about the political violence in Dublin's tenements told from the perspective of its working-class victims. Transcending propaganda, the play articulates one of O'Casey's central themes: the impersonal brutality and absurdity of war. His following two plays, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, focus on the civil war in Ireland—the former from the perspective of a troubled family whose dissension and strife mirror the national situation and the latter from the standpoint of an entire tenement house. In both plays O'Casey dramatized the horrors of slum life, which, he stressed, parallel the destruction of war, but suggested that life in the tenements is redeemed by the humanity of its women. Though similar in theme to his earlier plays, The Silver Tassie, which examines the impact of World War I on Irish and British soldiers, represents a significant departure from his previous style. In particular, the second act, which features an expressionistic blend of colloquial speech, plainsong chants, and an apocalyptic setting representing the front lines in Flanders, proved disconcerting for audiences and critics. O'Casey's penchant for expressionistic devices and stylized dialogue is even more evident in subsequent plays, including Within the Gates (1934), an ambitious attempt to dramatize the multifarious interactions of people filtering through a crowded urban park, and Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), a farcical satire of rural Irish customs and folklore. O'Casey is also known for his multi-volume autobiography, which he began with I Knock at the Door (1939) and concluded with Sunset and Evening Star (1954).

Critical Reception

While critical praise is fairly unanimous for O'Casey's first three major plays, which are naturalistic in style and presentation, some critics have condemned the works following The Silver Tassie as overly didactic, ideological propaganda pieces rather than exemplars of expressionist theater. Richard Gilman, for example, suggests that O'Casey's work cannot bear the weight of his reputation as a major dramatist: "There are too many bad and even deeply embarrassing plays in his oeuvre … and too many esthetic sins of naiveté, rhetorical excess, sentimentality and tendentiousness in all but his very best work." At the opposite extreme, O'Casey's most sympathetic advocates assert that his achievements in playwriting and autobiography have been insufficiently recognized and that mainstream commentators have failed to appreciate the poetic richness of O'Casey's language and his virtuosic handling of expressionist technique. In the judgment of critic Carol Kleiman, O'Casey was a visionary who pioneered some of the major trends in contemporary theater: "[The] 'humanly absurd' aspect of O'Casey's theatre, embodied in … all those elements which O'Casey uses to create his own kind of stage poetry … allows us to view his plays as an unacknowledged seedbed from which grew many of the dramatic motifs and techniques of the Theatre of the Absurd."

Principal Works

Lament for Thomas Ashe [as Sean O'Cathasaigh] (prose) 1917
The Story of Thomas Ashe [as Sean O'Cathasaigh] (prose) 1917
Songs of the Wren No. 1 [as Sean O'Cathasaigh] (verse) 1918
Songs of the Wren No. 2 [as Sean O'Cathasaigh] (verse) 1918
More Wren Songs [as Sean O'Cathasaigh] (verse) 1918
The Story of the Irish Citizen Army [as Sean O'Cathasaigh] (essay) 1919
The Shadow of a Gunman (drama) 1923
Juno and the Paycock (drama) 1924
The Plough and the Stars (drama) 1926
The Silver Tassie (drama) 1929
Windfalls (short stories, poems, and dramas) 1934
Within the Gates (drama) 1934
The Flying Wasp (criticism) 1937
I Knock at the Door: Swift Glances Back at Things That Made Me (autobiography) 1939
The Star Turns Red (drama) 1940
Pictures in the Hallway (autobiography) 1942
Purple Dust (drama) 1943
Red Roses for Me (drama) 1943
Drums Under the Windows (autobiography) 1945
Oak Leaves and Lavender; or A World on Wallpaper (drama) 1946
Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (drama) 1949
Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (autobiography) 1949
Collected Plays. 4 vols. (dramas) 1949–1952
Rose and Crown (autobiography) 1952
Sunset and Evening Star (autobiography) 1954
The Bishop's Bonfire: A Sad Play within the Tune of a Polka (drama) 1955
The Green Crow (criticism) 1956
Mirror in My House: The Autobiographies of Sean O'Casey. 2 vols. (autobiography) 1956
The Drums of Father Ned (drama) 1960
Behind the Green Curtains (drama) 1962
Feathers from the Green Crow [edited by Robert Hogan] (criticism) 1962
Figuro in the Night (drama) 1962
The Moon Shines on Kylenamoe (drama) 1962
Under a Colored Cap: Articles Merry and Mournful with Comments and a Song (criticism) 1963
The Letters of Sean O'Casey. 4 vols. [edited by David Krause] (letters) 1975–1992
The Complete Plays of Sean O'Casey (dramas) 1984

∗These two works were collectively published as Two Plays.

Criticism

The New York Times Book Review (review date 8 March 1925)

SOURCE: A review of Two Plays: Juno and the Paycock [and] The Shadow of a Gunman, in The New York Times Book Review, March 8, 1925, p. 5.

[In the following review of Juno and the Paycock and The Shadow of a Gunman, the critic hails O'Casey as an impressive talent whose early work "deserves serious consideration."]

The chaotic Dublin of 1920 and 1922 furnishes Sean O'Casey the material for his two vivid dramas, Juno and the Paycock and The Shadow of a Gunman, in Two Plays. These efforts, ruthless enough in their depiction of a reality that was a matter of blood and murder, move with surprising speed and comprehension of dramatic...

(The entire section is 1239 words.)

Joseph Campbell (review date 29 August 1925)

SOURCE: A review of Two Plays, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. II, No. 5, August 29, 1925, p. 78.

[In the following excerpt, Campbell contends that Juno and the Paycock and Shadow of a Gunman authentically and sympathetically portray Dublin's working classes and that these dramas also espouse a feminist political agenda.]

The action of Two Plays is almost contemporary. Juno and the Paycock is dated 1922, The Shadow of a Gunman, 1920; but in each case the setting is a Dublin tenement—antique, once splendid, the town-house, perhaps, of some buck of the wig and silk stocking period, but now squalid and tottering. Things...

(The entire section is 1635 words.)

Horace Reynolds (review date 23 July 1939)

SOURCE: "Sean O'Casey, Up to 12," in The New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1939, pp. 4, 16.

[In the following review of I Knock at the Door, the first of O'Casey's autobiographies, Reynolds asserts that the book's dramatic portraits and dialogue prove "again what a greatly gifted dramatist O'Casey is."]

Here at last is a book [I Knock at the Door: Swift Glances Back at Things That Made Me] many of us have waited ten years to see. Here is O'Casey's autobiography from the day he was born in Dorset Street, Dublin, the son of Susan Arthur Casey of the County Wicklow and Michael Harding Casey, a Limerick man, until, at the age of 12, he learned to recite...

(The entire section is 817 words.)

Louis MacNeice (review date 19 February 1949)

SOURCE: "An Irish Proletarian," in The New Statesman & Nation, Vol. XXXVII, No. 937, February 19, 1949, pp. 184-85.

[MacNeice was an Irish-born English poet, playwright, critic and educator. In the following review of Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well, he faults O'Casey's writing as overly polemical and intemperate, yet concludes that its vitality and verbal invention redeem these shortcomings.]

The fourth and last volume in Mr. O'Casey's record of his Irish experiences [Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well], which this time include the Troubles and the Abbey Theatre, again throws much light both on Ireland and on O'Casey. There are many very good things in it and...

(The entire section is 1461 words.)

Brooks Atkinson (review date 14 November 1954)

SOURCE: "Himself, and Things That Happened," in The New York Times Book Review, November 14, 1954, pp. 1, 38.

[An American journalist and critic, Atkinson was perhaps the most influential and respected theater critic of his time. In the following mixed review of Sunset and Evening Star, he asserts that, in spite of its quarrelsome tirades and general irascibility, O'Casey's prose still evokes "grandeur" and a joyous affirmation of life.]

With Sunset and Evening Star Sean O'Casey completes his autobiography. The six-volume series began fifteen years ago with his valiant and lovely impressions of childhood, I Knock at the Door. In that book "Johnny...

(The entire section is 1283 words.)

Sean O'Casey with W. J. Weatherby (interview date 10 September 1959)

SOURCE: An extracted interview in The Sting and the Twinkle: Conversations with Sean O'Casey, edited by E. H. Mikhail and John O'Riordan, The MacMillan Press Ltd, 1974, pp. 103-06.

[Weatherby is an English journalist and novelist. In the following excerpt from an interview that was originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 10 September 1959, O'Casey reflects on his relationship to the Abbey Theatre and his decision to use a more extravagant dramatic style after Juno and the Paycock. O'Casey's wife also participates in the interview.]

[Weatherby]: You were once quoted as saying you were an exile from everything.

[O'Casey]:...

(The entire section is 1349 words.)

David Krause (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "The Anti-heroic Vision," in Sean O'Casey: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Kilroy, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 91-112.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in a different form in Krause's Sean O'Casey: The Man and His Work (1960), Krause argues that O'Casey's first four plays articulate an antiheroic condemnation of war.]

An anti-heroic vision of life provides the unity of theme and the diversity of character and action in O'Casey's first four plays, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1925), The Plough and the Stars (1926), and The Silver Tassie (1928).

...

(The entire section is 10143 words.)

Anne O'Neill-Barna (review date 15 December 1968)

SOURCE: A review of The Sean O'Casey Reader: Plays, Autobiographies, Opinions, in The New York Times Book Review, December 15, 1968, pp. 1, 23-5.

[O'Neill-Barna is an American writer. In the following review, she asserts that O'Casey's status as a major playwright and a social and theatrical visionary, long obscured by the opposition of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats and other influential critics, is firmly established in The Sean O'Casey Reader.]

Doubtless it sounds ponderous to some and quixotic to others to say that Irish literature affirms the worth of ordinary man. Ponderous if we feel this is merely the neutral conclusion arrived at by all...

(The entire section is 2160 words.)

Raymond Williams (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Sean O'Casey," in Sean O'Casey: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Kilroy, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 53-60.

[An English critic and novelist, Williams was highly acclaimed for his neo-Marxist studies of literature, culture, and society. Some of his best-known works include The Long Revolution (1961), The Country and the City (1973), and Marxism and Literature (1977). In the following excerpt, originally published in his Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (1968), Williams contends that O'Casey's dramas primarily exploit the ironic contrast between the violence and desolation of life in Dublin and the carefree language of its working-class...

(The entire section is 2992 words.)

Richard Gilman (review date 16 March 1975)

SOURCE: A review of The Letters of Sean O'Casey, Vol. I, 1910–1941, in The New York Times Book Review, March 16, 1975, pp. 1, 16, 18.

[Gilman is an American critic, editor, and educator. In the following review, a small portion of which appeared in CLC-5, he contends that O'Casey's literary reputation has been unduly inflated by critics, and that the value of his correspondence is not in "revelation about what-lies-behind-greatness … [but] that of insight into a flawed career."]

He described himself in the titles of several of his books as a "green crow" and a "flying wasp," but the image of Sean O'Casey that's fixed in my mind is of a more ungainly...

(The entire section is 1850 words.)

Carol Kleiman (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "A Revaluation in the Light of the Absurd," in Sean O'Casey's Bridge of Vision: Four Essays on Structure and Perspective, University of Toronto Press, 1982, pp. 84-106.

[In the following essay, Kleiman argues that O'Casey's plays express an absurdist view of life, but in a more humanistic tone than is registered in the works of Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and other playwrights associated with the "Theater of the Absurd."]

Sean O'Casey's response to the dark world of the absurdists was, quite simply, one of outrage. 'For the life of me,' he complained bitterly in 'The Bald Primaqueera,' the last article he wrote before his death, 'I can't find anything...

(The entire section is 10089 words.)

Robert Hogan (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "O'Casey, the Style and the Artist," in "Since O'Casey" and Other Essays on Irish Drama, Colin Smythe, 1983, pp. 62-77.

[Hogan is an American playwright, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt, he discusses O'Casey's "expressionistic" use of rhetorical, dramatic, and stylistic artifice, which sharply contrasts with the more familiar methods of realism.]

The style of O'Casey's plays has evoked two quite disparate reactions. Critics such as T. R. Henn, Raymond Williams, Ronald Peacock and Moody Prior, who are more concerned with drama as literature than as theatre, disparage it. As, for instance, Prior says [in The Language of Tragedy, 1964], 'On...

(The entire section is 5660 words.)

Cecelia Zeiss (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Liturgy and Epiphany: Religious Experience as Dramatic Form in Two of Seán O'Casey's Symbolic Plays," in O'Casey Annual No. 3, edited by Robert G. Lowery, MacMillan Press, 1984, pp. 169-85.

[In the following essay, Zeiss analyzes O'Casey's use of formalized dialogue and epiphanies in The Silver Tassie and Red Roses for Me, contending that O'Casey's usage suggests a religious view of experience.]

Can we not take it that the form of the drama must vary from age to age in accordance with the religious assumptions of the age?… The more fluid, the more chaotic the religious and ethical beliefs, the more the drama must tend in the...

(The entire section is 5595 words.)