Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643
O’Casey’s experiment in autobiography, Mirror in My House, consists of six separately published volumes. The project began in 1939 with the appearance of I Knock at the Door and continued through Pictures in the Hallway (1942), Drums Under the Windows (1945), Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (1949), and Rose and Crown (1952), before concluding with Sunset and Evening Star (1954). As though to confirm the significance of the author’s Irish experiences, volumes 1 through 4 cover the first forty-six years of his life, from his birth to his departure from Ireland. His life in England up to 1953, roughly, is the subject of the two concluding volumes.
Some readers may be critical of Mirror in My House because it unequally divides attention between the two basic phases of O’Casey’s life. It might be thought more appropriate to reverse the work’s emphasis by concentrating less on the formative Dublin years and more on the period when O’Casey achieved international renown as a playwright and political notoriety because of his communist associations. Yet while critical opinion on the value and significance of Mirror in My House was divided as the individual volumes appeared, it is generally agreed that the overall project constitutes one of the more important literary autobiographies of the twentieth century.
One of the main difficulties of Mirror in My House is its experimental character. O’Casey’s original approach to autobiography has two surprising aspects. The first and most important of these is that O’Casey refers to himself in the third person throughout. The effect is challenging and significant. It is one of the means by which O’Casey, who was generally skeptical of artistic innovation, associated himself with the works of some of his most illustrious literary contemporaries, such as William Butler Yeats and James Joyce. The works of those two writers reveal the fluctuations and variety of human personality. O’Casey acknowledges their relevance by the self-consciousness of his autobiographical presence. Over the course of six volumes, however, the justification for this approach is not sufficient to outweigh its tiresomeness.
The second important feature of Mirror in My House is its language. O’Casey adapts the verbal style of his characters to his narrative style. The effect is to give an extremely vivid picture of O’Casey’s life and times. The accounts of hardship, suffering, and neighborliness in the work’s opening volumes are particularly noteworthy. They also reveal the sources of the sympathy and revulsion that animate his plays. In addition, the exaggerations and poetic effects of the language in Mirror in My House are an interesting reproduction of how life seems in memory, rather than how life actually was. As is appropriate for a work of autobiography, the overall effect of O’Casey’s verbal vitality is to create the history of a personal consciousness rather than a reliable chronicle of the author’s life and times. He draws a sharp and culturally important distinction between biography and autobiography. Judged on its own terms, however, Mirror in My House remains one of the twentieth century’s most elaborate, sustained, and artistically ambitious works of literary autobiography.
Yet despite the depiction of the life of a sickly child in Dublin’s Victorian slums and other powerful scenes of poverty and pain, there remains a sense of striving too hard for effect. To some extent, this makes the work resemble those written by O’Casey in exile. Their thematic material is too heightened and lacking in a sense of authentic detail to be persuasive. It is not true to say that Mirror in My House lacks substance. Particularly in the later volumes, however, it lacks the texture and the sense of intimacy between author and material that is to be found in the Troubles Trilogy. Those three plays are the works upon which O’Casey’s lasting reputation is deservedly based.