Although it was not the first play that O’Casey wrote, The Shadow of a Gunman was the first play of his produced. It was premiered at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on April 12, 1923, and was an immediate success. The reason for its success is its setting, the Irish War of Independence. This war was fought, largely in guerrilla style, between volunteers of the Irish Republican Army and British forces. The nature of the war is very well reflected in the play’s use of abrupt and vicious turns of fortune. These are reflected in the play’s three central characters.
Donal Davoren, the poet, Seumas Shields, the opportunist, and Minnie Powell, the heroine, represent not only the twists of fate brought about by the action of the play. They may also be considered as an introduction to O’Casey’s people. Most of the men in The Shadow of a Gunman are all talk. This quality is evident in O’Casey’s decision to make Davoren a naïve, youthful, romantic versifier. Davoren’s self-pity and self-involvement make him blind to the realities around him. Poetry, which is often thought of as a diagnosis of life’s challenges, is Davoren’s means of escape from those challenges. It is not surprising that his poetry is weak and inadequate.
Yet in this portrait of the artistic temperament, O’Casey is not only presenting a character for whom the image and self-deception define his relationship to the world. He is speaking to an audience of contemporaries who knew that many of the leaders of the Easter, 1916, rebellion were poets and dreamers. The violent circumstances of the play draw on the historical reality that was a direct result of that rebellion. In that...
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