Sean O’Casey’s plays mark the culmination, in drama, of the Irish Renaissance. Drama of the Irish Renaissance began as a part of the European movement toward realistic theater in opposition to the French romantic drama but diverged from the dramaturgic techniques of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. Believing that continental and English dramas were too intellectualized, O’Casey, along with his compatriots William Butler Yeats and John Millington Synge, tried to make Irish drama individualistic and realistic by adding heavy doses of Irish local color. Formlessness—ignoring formal dramatic technique to reflect the vigor and vitality of life—was O’Casey’s unique contribution to the Irish movement. In Juno and the Paycock he reached a new peak of realism. He dispensed with an elaborate plot, ideas, and consistency of character, content merely to show Irish characters in action.
Captain Jack Boyle is such a character. “The whole worl’s in a state of chassis (chaos)!” he declares; he is the “paycock” (peacock) of the play. The background of “chassis”—in particular the turbulence of the civil wars that wracked Ireland during the first quarter of the twentieth century—is in O’Casey’s great trilogy of realistic plays about violence and strife in Dublin. The plays are The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars (1926).
Civic disorder provides the atmosphere of general bitterness and tension as well as determines the fate of the son, Johnny, in Juno and the Paycock, the most domestic of the three plays. What happens to the Boyle family is largely the product of their own actions, but, because they embody personal qualities that are common to the Irish, the Boyles are representative. Their actions illuminate the follies, evils, and strengths of the national character in a time of turmoil.
Twice, in the early moments of the play, Mary tells her mother that “a principle’s a principle,” once in reference to her own support of a fellow striker and once in regard to her crippled brother’s nationalistic activities. A short time later Johnny repeats the same slogan to Juno, but this time she answers it emphatically: “Ah, you lost your best principle, me boy, when you lost your arm; them’s the only sort o’ principles that’s any good to a workin’ man.” That exchange sets up the thematic dichotomy of the play: abstract moral principles, based on generalized causes such as nationalism, Marxism, or religion, versus a practical morality based on human loyalties, needs, and sympathies. The abstractions are used either as justifications for violence or as rationalizations for no action at all.
Captain Boyle is a veritable catalog of Irish weaknesses. His capacity for strong drink is exceeded only by his capacity for self-deception and pompous moralizing. Most of his time is spent in idle chatter and drinking with his equally irresponsible crony, Joxer Daly. If offered honest work, Boyle has a sudden attack of leg pains. He continually complains about the moral state of the world (“is there any morality left anywhere?” he asks Joxer), but he refuses any involvement with the problems of others (“We’ve nothing to do with these things, one way or t’other”). Boyle is nevertheless charming; he sings, he recites poetry, and, when not in a drunken stupor, he speaks with style and vigor. He has opinions on every current political, social, and religious subject and, although they are trite, they are not stupid. If he is never exactly lovable, he is at least likable at the beginning of the play; these defects do not seem too harmful and, most important, he is very funny. His early...
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scenes with Joxer are masterpieces of comic repartee.
The audience’s attitude toward Boyle changes during the course of the play. As the action progresses it becomes clear that his buffoonery has serious implications. When his daughter’s unwed pregnancy is revealed, he rises to heights of moral indignation as though she did it as a personal insult to him (“when I’m done with her she’ll be a sorry girl!”). He continues to squander money on credit, in spite of the serious damage it does to the household. At the end of the play, he and Joxer come in very drunk and do a repeat of their earlier routine; what was previously funny becomes grotesque. The consequences of his braggadocio are too real and serious to laugh at a second time. Dramatically this mixture of tragedy and farce is powerful. Thematically O’Casey suggests that many of those “lovable” Irish failings, so celebrated in popular myth and song, may, on closer inspection, prove to be dangerous and destructive.
Although Boyle’s faults may be the most blatant, the kind of self-righteousness he exhibits infects others in the play. Jerry Devine’s abstract pieties prevent him from marrying Mary because she is a “fallen woman.” It is strongly hinted that the death of Robbie Tancred is the inevitable result of his politics. The men who take Johnny make sure that he “has his beads” so that the proper religious proprieties will not be missing from his murder. All of the men in the play cling to their narrow patterns of thought and rigid moral postures, and they fail in every situation that requires practical, humane responses. Thus, instead of “freedom,” their ideas produce confusion, violence, and pain.
The men are a damning influence, and the women in Juno and the Paycock are a redeeming one—although, even for them, there are important lessons to be learned. The difference is that they are capable of learning and growing because they react to personal needs and sorrows, not abstractions. At the play’s beginning, Mary chides her mother about the need for “principles,” but by the end of it, having been impregnated and deserted by Charlie Bentham and rejected by Jerry, she comes to understand and accept human weakness without bitterness. As she says to Jerry: “I don’t blame you . . . your humanity is as narrow as the humanity of the others.”
Juno Boyle is the supreme embodiment of compassionate action. Throughout the play it is evident that her strength has kept the Boyle household intact. Juno has nevertheless been tainted by the atmosphere of the times and the prospect of easy money. She is casual about Boyle’s defects, intolerant of her children’s feelings and opinions, and somewhat callous toward those outside the family. She feels no special sympathy for her bereaved neighbor, Mrs. Tancred, and even plays her new phonograph while the rituals of mourning are going on nearby. After Juno faces the loss of the money, her husband’s betrayal, Mary’s pregnancy, and Johnny’s execution, she gains a new insight into her fellow man and a deeper, more sympathetic humanity. She overcomes her grief for Johnny, casts aside her political and moral prejudices (“Why didn’t I remember that when he wasn’t a Diehard or a Stater, but only a poor dead son!”), leaves Boyle, accepts the burden of Mary and her unborn child, and hopefully assumes the “biggest part o’ the trouble.”
Whether or not the strength evidenced by Juno is enough to overcome the weaknesses, follies, and evils the men exhibit is not answered in the play. In the end it depends upon whether or not it is possible to give a positive response to Juno’s final, plaintive prayer: “Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdherin’ hate, and give us Thine own eternal love!”