Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

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Cock-a-Doodle Dandy combines comedy, satire, and Sean O’Casey’s personal romantic myth to attack bigotry and the life-denying puritanism encouraged by institutional religion in Ireland, the reactionary culture that had resented his critical realism and encouraged him to go into exile in Devonshire. The demon Cock, the central mythic figure of the play, is a lively symbol of the joy of life, which emanates from the unruly force of sexuality.

The characters of the play are easily divided into two groups on the basis of their attitudes toward the Cock and its enchantments. Those who would retreat into a narrow piety are frightened of the Cock and disturbed by his actions; those who accept their sexuality and seek to live life on terms of courage and generosity, while honoring joy and beauty, find the Cock amusing rather than disturbing. The latter characters are best represented by the messenger, who leads the Cock docilely out of the house in scene 1. Generally, the women characters also embody the spirit of affirming the Life Force (as George Bernard Shaw would have called it) represented by the Cock.

By contrast, few of the male characters, aside from the messenger, show the ability to act consistently in a generous and liberated spirit. Sailor Mahan is less puritanical than most of the frightened and superstitious men, and his best truck driver appears to be a courageous rebel before he is struck down by Father Domineer. But the truck drivers in general are not depicted as particularly sensitive, and their main concern is a determination to gain higher wages. The struggle of labor for social justice remains an issue in the background here, as it usually is in O’Casey’s work, but it is less deeply felt than in some other works.

Mahan, despite his genial outlook and worldly experience as a seaman, is not essentially different from Marthraun or the other followers of Father Domineer. Mahan is likable only by contrast to Marthraun, Shanaar, and Father Domineer. Marthraun’s courtship of Lorna was successful only because of his promise to give her sister money for a trip to Lourdes. He pretends to be in straitened circumstances; he tries to squeeze every drop of profit out of his peat bog. Eventually, however, Marthraun becomes pitiable, for he is abandoned by Loreleen, Lorna, and Marion.

If Marthraun and Mahan miss their chance to affirm the joy of living, Father Domineer and Shanaar are characters who never have questioned their superstitious bigotry. Father Domineer is a caricature of the reactionary force of Irish Catholicism at its worst, frightened and bitterly antagonistic toward social change, whether manifested in higher wages for working men or shorter skirts for women. Father Domineer is less a fully realized character than a satirical symbol; much the same can be said of Shanaar, who is nominally a Catholic, but, in his role as a sage and soothsayer, would seem to represent the debased state of Ireland’s once rich pagan culture, or even perhaps the state of Ireland’s poetic imagination.

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Characters