Paul Vincent Carroll

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John D. Conway

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It is often remarked that there exists among Irish dramatists a natural impulse toward social satire. Playwrights such as Sheridan, Goldsmith, Wilde, and Shaw often outraged the English theatre with their satiric wit. During the Dramatic Revival in Ireland the satiric impulse found convincing expression in Synge, the early O'Casey, and Lennox Robinson. Hence it comes as nothing of a surprise that Paul Vincent Carroll, a man who deeply admired Swift, should have found a natural Celtic impulse irresistible.

Although there is bitter religious and social satire in Carroll's earliest published plays, Things That Are Caesar's (1934), Shadow and Substance (1937), and The White Steed (1939), it was not until the appearance of The Wayward Saint (1955) and The Devil Came from Dublin (1958) that he published plays actually designated as satires. (p. 13)

[The Devil Came from Dublin] crackles with witty dialogue, bizarre happenings, and a joyous atmosphere. It is at once the happiest and maddest play Carroll ever wrote; and although the major characters do espouse differing positions, the play does not wind down into a verbal dialectic better suited to a debating society than a theatre. If Carroll does not have the reach and the wit of a George Bernard Shaw, neither does he have the excesses. The Devil Came from Dublin is an engaging satire of Irish mores charged with a frivolous spirit, and it is primarily a play, not moral propaganda. However, it does contain some of the latter. Furthermore it has that intangible quality seemingly essential for successful drama: a playwright's natural sympathy for his subject matter….

The work, which the author describes as "a totally irresponsible satirical extravaganza in which everyone is quite mad," is charged with an atmosphere of uproarious hilarity present in no other Carroll play….

Carroll's approach to his material in The Devil Came from Dublin is not bitter; it is more Horatian than Juvenalian. He holds up a number of characteristically Irish foibles before his audience and invites a hearty and sympathetic laughter. In spite of his intense admiration for Jonathan Swift—an admiration especially evident in his play about Swift's private life, Farewell to Greatness! (1970)—his two dramas published as satires are good-humored and engaging, totally lacking in the invective and moral indignation suggestive of Swift.

However, it should not be assumed, even from Carroll's lighthearted manner, that he is simply concerned with the ephemeral in The Devil Came from Dublin. The play elicits something more than chuckles and grins about "the indomitable Irishry." Partially concealed amidst the laughter are glimpses of a country and a people delightfully out of step with a regimented, documented, bound, stapled, and mutilated 20th-century. (p. 14)

There is an insistence running throughout Carroll's plays from Things That Are Caesar's (1934) to Goodbye to the Summer (1971) that what really counts in the human experience is love. Whether it be through a peasant visionary, an elderly priest, or an indomitable redhead. Carroll's dramaturgy, even in the best of the children's plays, makes explicit the necessity to love. (p. 17)

Unquestionably, The Devil Came from Dublin is Carroll's best satirical work. It puts into motion a representative and credible group of Irishmen and little by little reveals the elemental condition of their lives: they are a romance-starved people similar in temperament to those peasants who listened with such rapture to the boasting of Christy Mahon in Michael Flaherty's public house. Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that perhaps more so than in any other Carroll drama The Devil Came from Dublin comes closest to what Synge believed essential for the stage—a...

(This entire section contains 1509 words.)

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reality rooted in joy. Carroll demonstrates that the popular imagination that Synge termed "fiery and magnificent and tender" is still capable of giving an audience what is superb and wild in reality.

Carroll is not the poetic dramatist Synge is, but that can be said for the vast majority of Irish playwrights. Nevertheless joy abounds in The Devil Came from Dublin, and the residents of Chuckeyhead, especially Rita Ronan, bear striking resemblance to the peasants in The Playboy of the Western World. In both plays the poetic imagination of the local people flourishes and flavors much of the dialogue. In both plays the love theme is based upon what Ignatius Farrell calls "the breathless combination of the romantic and the heroic."… Finally, in both plays there is a spirit of abandonment amongst a people starved for activities commensurate with their dreams. (pp. 18-19)

In structure The Wayward Saint is similar to Shadow and Substance and The White Steed. The entire action takes place in the sitting-dining room of Canon Daniel McCooey's rectory in the small village of Kilkevin, near the Northern Irish border; and Canon McCooey, the wayward saint, is the central figure in the play. The other characters, including his lordship the Bishop of Oriel, are defined by their relationship to the Canon. In mood, however, The Wayward Saint shares a joy more characteristic of The Devil Came from Dublin than of Shadow and Substance or of The White Steed.

Yet, the joy in The Wayward Saint is quieter and more subdued than it is in The Devil Came from Dublin. At any rate, after an absence of almost twenty years from Broadway, Carroll had returned again to working with that material which had given him his greatest moments in the theatre. Portraits of the Irish clergy are plentiful in Irish fiction, as every student of Moore, Joyce, O'Connor, and O'Faoláin knows. Portraits of the same clergy in Irish drama, however, are something of a rarity. Certainly there is no other Irish playwright who has worked so well or so often with the Irish clergy as Paul Vincent Carroll, and his portrayals are as diverse as his subjects: the Skerritts are contrasted with the Kirwans and Corrs, and the Shaughnessys with the Lavelles. Hence when Carroll built The Wayward Saint around Canon Daniel McCooey, a latter-day Francis of Assisi, there must have been a modest hope among theatre people of another triumph by the Irish playwright most remembered for his portraits of the clergy.

But, a happy and frivolous comical satire, The Wayward Saint never rises above the level of mere entertainment. Canon Daniel McCooey, an aging and white-haired priest who seems to be on a first-name basis with most of the animals in his parish, is the principal issue in the play: his bishop wants to be rid of him, and Satan has sent a special envoy to capture his immortal soul. (pp. 19-20)

The difficulty with The Wayward Saint is not in Carroll's delineation of Canon McCooey. After all the Canon does have irresistible charm, infectious manner, and natural innocence, even though life in a rectory with him would be something of a hazard, what with two donkeys, several birds, and an escaped lion not only enjoying free access to the premises but also friendly camaraderie with a saint. No, the difficulty with The Wayward Saint is not Canon McCooey; it is in making the Canon the principal issue….

[Opposition] between a Canon such as McCooey and his bishop scarcely provides substance for three acts, even with the assistance of a witless housekeeper, Miss Killicat; a vagabond friend, Pedar the Puck; a troubled Irish girl, Maura; and an ubiquitous menagerie. (p. 20)

Another less damaging but nonetheless real criticism of The Wayward Saint concerns a disturbingly large portion of its dialogue, which is often as lifeless as the struggle for the Canon's soul; when contrasted with the robust language of The Devil Came from Dublin, it seems tame indeed. (p. 21)

If there is anywhere in The Wayward Saint a brief hint of the playwright who wrote Shadow and Substance and The White Steed, it comes in the final act. Even in his less successful dramas Carroll demonstrates his skill in crescendo writing. (pp. 21-2)

In spite of the flourish in Act III and an occasional well-placed barb or two, the chief impression one receives from reading and rereading The Wayward Saint is that Carroll went to the same well once too often. The material that worked so effectively in Shadow and Substance and The White Steed sputters in a comical satire of limited reach and even more limited appeal. Even in the United States a "Going My Way" mentality does not last indefinitely. There are, after all, limitations as to how much dramatic mileage a playwright can get out of canons, housekeepers, peasant girls, bishops, and an occasional jackass or two….

As a satirist Carroll is most impressive in three plays: Shadow and Substance, The White Steed, and The Devil Came from Dublin; and of these plays only the last was designated a "satire." Although The Devil Came from Dublin is an engaging work and far superior to The Wayward Saint, those parts of The White Steed revealing the bitter and bigoted nature of Father Shaughnessy represent Carroll at his satiric best. Nowhere else in his dramas is the perspective so unflinching or the sting so acute. (p. 23)

John D. Conway, "The Satires of Paul Vincent Carroll," in Éire-Ireland (copyright Irish American Cultural Institute), Autumn, 1972, pp. 13-23.

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