O'Casey, Sean (Vol. 88)
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.
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.
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).
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."
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...
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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 value, and yet, at the same time, they are lighted by a broad humor that is laughable enough on the surface but which, taken with the subject involved, reveals sardonic undercurrents. Mr. O'Casey is frankly melodramatic when its suits his purpose to be so, and his humor is often enough a stage matter, "fat stuff," as an actor would say, and calculated to arouse the laughter of a popular audience. And yet the reader will never lose the impression of a depth in these plays that is not always visible on the surface. There are tragic connotations that lose themselves in a befuddled sense of the obligations toward life that are part of a man's heritage.
Mr. O'Casey is no philosopher; he is a somewhat stark expositor, who is...
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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 are so bad, that it would appear difficult to make any improvement in such places, short of demolition. Both plays are labelled tragedies; rather are they ironic comedies. The fact that they mirror poverty, and poverty seen at its drabbest in war, does not prevent them from being funny to the point of caricature. Hogarth might have written them, had he been a dramatist. The word tragedy, in the Aristotelian sense, implies something that cleanses through pity and terror. Shock—a thorough shaking out of my equanimity—was the vibration I got from reading the plays; Abbey Theater audiences have, I understand, laughed at them as they would at a farce of Lady Gregory's.
The plots are so immaterial, as to make one wonder that...
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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 Tennyson's "Brook," kissed Jennie Clitheroe and knocked at the door of life.
It is, of course, a book every admirer of his plays will want to own. It's a queer kind of autobiography—O'Casey has his own way of doing everything—much of it cast into the form of dream and fairy tale, all of it written in a style which lapses often into song, tag, jingle and burlesque use of trite phrase. Everybody talks O'Casey, his ma, his da, his brothers and sister, cabmen and colonels, oldsters and kidgers; every one from the Viceroy on his white steed to the man in the tram with the wide watery mouth and the mustache drooping over it like a weeping willow. All of the long Joycean soliloquies which leave us breathless are out of...
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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 some pretty bad ones, but even the latter are illuminating; this man who brought something new and virile into the modern theatre remains for better or worse a creator. He may be unjust, but he is sincere; he may be naive, but he is alive; he may sow with the whole sack, but it is his own sack. He is the most powerful "proletarian" writer we have, one who, in his own words, "would ever preserve, ever wear—though he would never flaunt it—the tattered badge of his tribe." (I query merely the clause that I have italicised.) He tells us that his Irish critics in the Twenties accused him of "exploiting the poor," a judgment which illustrates not only the well-known malice of the Dublin intelligentsia, but also their cowardice when...
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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 Casside," as the chief character was then named, innocently entered the slum world of Dublin. In Sunset and Evening Star (another glorious title) the chief character is named "Sean." He reports some of the things he did and many of the things he thought between his return to England from America and the years following World War II. Since the autobiography is no chronicle of vital statistics, Mr. O'Casey is chary of dates. But the period covered in the new volume is from 1934 or 1935 to, apparently, 1949 or 1950.
Whatever else the autobiography may be, it is a masterpiece of writing. The writing has music, eloquence, passion, bitterness and force. It can recreate sense perceptions with concrete exactitude. As a...
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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]: I never accept anything that has not my name to it because many things have been said about me that are not true. I have never been exiled from life and that is the only thing that matters. I'll be exiled enough when I go off at the end from all the things I love and participate in. Most of the modern writers are so god-damn gloomy. They reject life in every concept, yet they cling to it if they get a cold or a fever and rush to the doctor and appeal to him to set them on the road again. You'd think they would welcome the way to the tomb, but they don't. I want to live as long as I'm active and can more or less look after myself and not be a burden or a nuisance to myself. I can't understand how the hell any young man is despairing in...
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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 first three plays are initially linked by the fact that they are all pacifist plays in which the main characters are not the National heroes actually engaged in the fighting but the noncombatants in a city under military siege, a tragic experience which has by mid-twentieth century become terrifyingly familiar to too many people in all parts of the world. O'Casey's "open city" is Dublin during the Irish War of Independence; the setting of The Gunman is 1920 during the guerrilla warfare between the insurgent Irish Republican Army and the British forces, mainly the ruthless Auxiliary troops known by their uniforms as the Black and Tans; the setting of Juno is 1922 during the Civil War between the Irishmen who supported the...
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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 literatures; and quixotic if we weigh up particular writings about Ireland, either crowded accounts of wars, evictions, famines, workhouses and immigration, or whimsy about untidy servants, "Irish bulls," quaint amusing remarks, leprechauns and "Little People"—these last appreciated most by landlords and visitors. For neither the misfortunes of multitudes nor the fancies of a few are likely to convey an idea of human value.
But a striking element in Irish literature is that the worth of man is bound up with, even arises from, his enjoyment of words: language becomes the tool by which he shows his worth.
Both the tradition of Gaelic Ireland and the great Anglo-Irish writers agree on this rather distinctive point;...
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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 residents.]
Irish history had broken into revolution, a war of liberation and civil war by the time O'Casey began to write for the Abbey Theatre. His first acted play, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) is at once a response to this experience of violence and, in its way, a bitter postscript to Synge's Playboy of the Western World. It is set in the crowded overflowing life of a Dublin tenement house, which is O'Casey's major early setting. The Irish drama, in this sense, has come to town. The turbulent history through which Ireland had been living breaks into these tenements. As a direct action it is on the streets, and the people crowded in the houses react to it, in essential ways, as if it were an action beyond...
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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 sort of winged creature: a crane or stork, a great flapping, squawking, long-necked, near-sighted bird with Adam's apple bobbing in rage or indignation. O'Casey pretended to—and sometimes possessed—the homely uncorrupted sagacity of the crow of our animal tales, and regarded himself as called on to administer stinging wasp-like rebukes to social and artistic complacency. Yet as this ponderous volume of his correspondence [The Letters of Sean O'Casey, Volume I, 1910–1941] demonstrates, he was often simple-minded rather than innocently wise, and querulous, even mean-spirited, instead of intellectually valorous.
There's nothing to be surprised at in this: we expect a man's letters—a fortiori a...
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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 humanly absurd in any of them.'
Earlier, in an article ['Not Waiting for Godot (1956)' in Blasts and Benedictions, 1967] written especially for students of the theatre, he wrote indignantly:
Beckett? I have nothing to do with Beckett. He isn't in me; nor am I in him. I am not waiting for Godot to bring me life; I am out after life myself, even at the age I've reached. What have any of you to do with Godot? There is more life than Godot can give in the life of the least of us. That Beckett is a clever writer, and that he has written a rotting and remarkable play, there is no doubt; but his philosophy isn't my philosophy, for within him there is no hazard of hope; no desire for it;...
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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 occasion, O'Casey introduces speeches in a prose more elaborate and mannered than that which serves for most of the dialogue in the play, and the effect is almost invariably one of sentimental effusiveness which seems to encourage the poetic cliché.' On the other hand, critics such as John Gassner, George Jean Nathan, Brooks Atkinson and Maxwell Anderson, who are more aware of the drama as theatre, admire O'Casey's style rather extravagantly. For instance, 'He has used language as though he were writing not for our modern pictureframe stage, but for the Elizabethan platform on which most of our great English drama was created'—to quote Gassner [in 'Genius Without Fetters,' in Selected Plays of Sean O'Casey, 1954].
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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 direction of liturgy. [T. S. Eliot, 'A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry,' in Selected Essays, 1932]
In emphasizing the relationship between liturgy and drama, T. S. Eliot implies that both forms express the need to affirm a purpose in the scheme of creation and of man's place in it.
In two powerful dramatizations of social change, The Silver Tassie and Red Roses for Me, O'Casey adapted certain of the expressionist techniques used by German dramatists to embody formal traditions in religious experience.
In Act II of The Silver Tassie, he used the liturgy as a dramatic mode through which to explore the negation, by war, of Christianity's most...
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Krause, David. Sean O'Casey: The Man and His Work. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1960, 390 p.
Biocritical study of O'Casey's life and career.
O'Connor, Garry. Sean O'Casey: A Life. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, 448 p.
Detailed biography in which O'Connor focuses on showing "how Sean O'Casey … painstakingly created himself out of the real-life John Casey."
Atkinson, Brooks. Sean O'Casey: From Times Past. Edited by Robert G. Lowery. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1982, 175 p.
Collection of reviews and essays on O'Casey by the renowned drama critic Brooks Atkinson, who was also a personal friend of O'Casey.
Coston, Herbert. "Sean O'Casey: Prelude to Playwriting." Tulane Drama Review 5, No. 1 (September 1960): 102-12.
Describes O'Casey's formative experiences as a writer, emphasizing his sympathies for labor unions and the propagandistic tone of his early plays and poems.
daRin, Doris. Sean O'Casey. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1976, 216 p.
Analyzes twelve of O'Casey's plays. daRin also provides an...
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