The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Shadow of a Gunman takes place amid the disruptions of the Troubles caused by the Irish Rebellion of 1916 and the subsequent war between the Irish and British in the country. Its focus is not the battlefield, however, but the tenement, and the characters are not conventionally heroic but very human and flawed. The most important character is Donal Davoren, a poet who has no interest in the social or political life of his country. He exists, instead, in a world of words and dreams, as he struggles to create beauty in a Dublin tenement. He shares an apartment with Seumas Shields, a former Republican who still has a few friends in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and now makes a precarious living selling suspenders and buttons. He is no poet, although he knows a substantial amount of poetry; he believes, instead, in the Roman Catholic Church as a means of finding security and peace in a troubled time. He is also superstitious and constantly reading meaning into signs.

The last major character, Minnie Powell, is perhaps less well developed than the others. She is an enthusiastic Republican and a romantic. She seems to have an independence that the others lack, but her romantic dreams are fed by the same patriotic illusions that animate most of the minor characters in the play. She is attracted to Davoren because she thinks that he is a gunman on the run. When she reveals this perception to Davoren, he allows her to continue thinking of him in this heroic manner because it enables him to have a relationship with an attractive young woman, but this irresponsible furthering of an illusion ends up producing the tragedy at the end of the play.

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The Shadow of a Gunman Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

One of Sean O’Casey’s most important devices is the special and noticeable styles he gives to the characters. For example, Seumas always repeats phrases, a speech pattern that indicates his obsessed and nervous character. Davoren’s language is full of high-flown romantic imagery and expressions: “Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!” This language makes it clear that he is distanced from the real world of the tenements. Seumas says that the job of a poet is “to put passion in the common people,” but Davoren replies that the poet “lives on the mountain-top.” The florid Republican style of Tommy Owens (“It’s ‘Up the Republic’ all the time—eh, Mr. Davoren?”) is also amusing and helps define his character by showing the distance between his rhetoric and his actions. In contrast, Minnie’s language is straightforward, without the verbal quirks that abound in the style of everyone else in the play.

Another device is the mixture of the comic and the tragic. The play would be a comic farce without the historical context and the sudden intrusion of death. The characters tend to be absurd and dominated by mannerisms; but one, Minnie, rises to the occasion and acts heroically in the changed circumstances. She may not be a tragic heroine, since she lacks full awareness of herself and her world, but by her actions she defines herself as a caring and serious human being. The others, especially Davoren and Seumas, show, in the end, that they are simply ridiculous posturers, incapable of change.

The Shadow of a Gunman Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Brustein, Robert. Review in The New Republic 206 (January 27, 1992): 28-30.

Donoghue, Denis. We Irish: Essays on Irish Literature and Society. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Hogan, Robert. “Since O’Casey” and Other Essays on Irish Drama. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1983.

Hunt, Hugh. Sean O’Casey. 2d ed. Minneapolis: Irish Books Media, 1998.

Krause, David. Sean O’Casey: The Man and His Work. New York: Macmillan, 1960.

Malone, Maureen. The Plays of Sean O’Casey. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

O’Riordan, John. A Guide to O’Casey’s Plays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.

Schrank, Bernice W. Sean O’Casey: A Research and Production Handbook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.