Boyle apartment. Tenement in Dublin, Ireland, in which are crammed the four members of the Boyle family. The atmosphere is one of claustrophobia—all actions occur in the front room of this two-room flat—while beyond its confines Ireland is struggling to gain independence from England and, in a larger sense, its colonial past.
Stage directions indicate a place that is sparse and dilapidated, though a few possessions are significant—a laborer’s shovel, which sees no work given the captain’s assiduous avoidance of employment. A clock rests face down on the mantel, and time seems to stand still for the Boyles; their concerns have less to do with the unfolding future than with a repetition of predictable patterns from the past. Historical changes are overtaking them and will belie their predictable lifestyle. Another symbolic ornament is a picture of the Virgin Mary, under which a votive candle remains perpetually lit until it burns out in act 3, signaling the end of son Johnny’s life.
Beginning with act 2, the furnishings change dramatically when it appears that the captain has been blessed with a generous inheritance. Gone are the meager furnishings, replaced by “glaringly upholstered” chairs, cheap pictures, and artificial flowers. By act 3 all this has been repossessed, and the family’s fortunes fall precipitously.
In many ways this apartment is a mirror of Sean O’Casey’s own humble origins in the tenements of Dublin’s poorest neighborhoods and a symbol of the lack of opportunity in Ireland.