Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3255
In “O’Casey’s Credo,” an essay that appeared in The New York Times and was written in 1958 for the opening of an American production of Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, Sean O’Casey remarked that “the first thing I try to do is to make a play live: live as a part of life, and live in its own right as a work of drama.” This concern with the vitality of his plays marked O’Casey’s craftsmanship as a playwright throughout his career. “Every character, every life,” he continued, “[has] something to say, comic or serious, and to say it well [is] not an easy thing to do.” To express this vitality through his characters’ actions and dialogue was O’Casey’s goal as a dramatist. All of his plays share the blend of comic, serious, and poetic imagination that O’Casey believed should meld in any play worth staging.
O’Casey’s Three Periods
O’Casey’s plays fall into three periods: the early naturalistic tragicomedies, the expressionistic plays of the middle period, and the exuberant, satiric comedies that mark his later work. O’Casey was forty-three years old when his first play, The Shadow of a Gunman, was accepted by the Abbey Theatre. Behind him lay four apprentice plays and more than twenty years of hard experience in Dublin as a laborer, nationalist, and political organizer. He might easily have failed to develop his talent but for the encouragement of Lady Gregory, Yeats, and Lennox Robinson, who read his early scripts and urged him to continue writing. O’Casey was drawn to the theater as a social medium—as the best way for him to express the impact on Dublin’s poor of Ireland’s struggle for independence.
O’Casey’s first play, The Shadow of a Gunman, opened at the Abbey Theatre in April, 1923, and ran for only a few performances, but its modest success encouraged O’Casey to submit Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars within the next three years. O’Casey had lived through the bitter period when Ireland was torn first by insurrection and later by the bloody struggle between the Irish Republican Army and the notorious Black and Tans. In these plays, his Dublin trilogy, he expresses disillusionment and bitterness about the way in which the Irish struggle for independence degenerated into fratricidal bloodshed. Together, these plays present a chronicle history of the Irish conflict between 1916 and 1921. Naturalistic in style and approach, they are noted, as critics have remarked, for their tragicomic tone, their vivid depictions of Dublin tenement dwellers, and their lively and colorful speech.
The second period of O’Casey’s playwriting career began after he left Dublin for London in 1926. Up to this point, he had been an Irish playwright writing for a national theater, but the response to The Plough and the Stars, which provoked a riot at the Abbey Theatre when it opened, may have led him to recognize the limitations of conventional dramatic realism. Seeking ways to expand his artistic vision, O’Casey turned to the expressionistic mode in his next play, The Silver Tassie. Inspired by a London coal vendor’s song, this ambitious play about World War I incorporates songs, chants, ritualistic scenes, allegorized characters, and stylized sets. The play’s action alternates between Dublin and the front as O’Casey depicts the cost of war for all the young men who departed as heroes and returned as cripples and invalids.
Like Synge before him, O’Casey opened new possibilities for Irish theater, but unfortunately, the Abbey Theatre was unwilling to accept his stylistic innovations. When O’Casey submitted The Silver Tassie to the Abbey Theatre in 1928, Yeats rejected it with a sharply worded reply that initiated a bitter exchange; the two were finally reconciled in 1935. Yeats attacked the play for its alleged introduction of propaganda into the theater, for, despite his own experiments with Japanese N theater, he was curiously unreceptive to O’Casey’s attempts to move beyond dramatic realism. O’Casey did not aspire to a “pure” art of theater or cherish a dramatic theory, as did Yeats. Instead, he merely intended to expand the range of tragicomedy using the devices of expressionism. He hoped to use the exuberance of music-hall entertainment—its melodrama, boisterous comedy, burlesque, and farce—to animate serious drama, just as Shakespeare had woven comic interludes into even his most somber tragedies.
After the rejection of The Silver Tassie by the Abbey Theatre, O’Casey turned to a London producer to stage the play. Henceforth, he was to be a playwright without a permanent theater, often forced to publish his plays before they were staged and to depend on commercial productions of varying quality. Though The Silver Tassie enjoyed only a mixed success, O’Casey was committed to expressionism as an artistic direction, and his plays during the next decade show the gradual development of this style.
The 1930’s were a period of diversity for O’Casey. Besides writing several one-act plays and the full-length morality play Within the Gates, he published drama reviews and short stories and began his six-volume autobiography. In his drama reviews and criticism, O’Casey defended other contemporary, experimental playwrights and called for the use of a wider range of theatrical techniques and for a drama criticism receptive to these innovations. He attacked the British critics’ taste for the light drawing-room comedies of Noël Coward and the general lack of variety in the London theater. By this time he had also become a committed left-wing thinker who actively sympathized with Communist causes. His political ideology is evident in two plays of this period, The Star Turns Red and Oak Leaves and Lavender. Unfortunately, art and politics did not mix well for O’Casey, and these are largely inferior works.
Perhaps O’Casey came to realize the limits of ideological drama, or he may simply have grown tired of the war theme, for in the most successful plays of his middle period, he returned to an Irish setting, combining expressionistic techniques with traditional Irish characters, scenes, songs, and material. Also written during the war years, Purple Dust and Red Roses for Me show the refinement of expressionistic techniques that O’Casey had introduced in The Silver Tassie almost fifteen years earlier. These two plays demonstrate the range and quality of O’Casey’s mature lyric imagination as he animates his stage with the song, pageantry, and spectacle of the Elizabethan theater. As he later observed about his plays, “Like [James] Joyce, it is only through an Irish scene that my imagination can weave a way.”
The third period of O’Casey’s career reflects a further enhancement of his artistic vision through a series of exuberant comic fantasies dramatizing the conflict between the affirmative and repressive forces in Irish culture. Here, he sharpened his critique of the provincialism, clericalism, materialism, and restrictive religious morality that he perceived in modern Irish life. Starting with Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, which O’Casey regarded as his favorite, and continuing with The Bishop’s Bonfire, The Drums of Father Ned, and Behind the Green Curtains, the plays of this period mark the height of his mature achievement. In these late plays, O’Casey perfected his distinctive blend of broad comedy, farce, song, fantasy, dance, satire, and melodrama. As his favorite dramatists, Shakespeare and Boucicault, had done before him, O’Casey made his plays infinitely richer and more varied than conventional realistic drama. His expressionism became a medium for his lyricism and gaiety of spirit. This determination to broaden the range of contemporary theater perhaps marks O’Casey’s most distinctive contribution to the modern stage.
In his long and productive career, O’Casey reanimated the Anglo-Irish theater with a blend of tragicomedy, fantasy, and farce that drew from Elizabethan drama, the music hall, and expressionism to create a vibrant and innovative form of dramatic theater. Though his plays have been criticized for lacking a “pure” dramatic form, his vigorous mixture of theatrical elements has stood in marked contrast to other trends in contemporary theater through its sheer power of entertainment and affirmation. O’Casey had the creative power and vision to transcend the limitations of dramatic theory. His genius was for theatrical vitality rather than pure dramatic art.
The Shadow of a Gunman
O’Casey’s first play to be accepted by the Abbey Theatre, The Shadow of a Gunman, is a two-act tragicomedy set in a Dublin tenement during the May, 1920, struggle between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Black and Tans. Two hapless young Irishmen, Seumas Shields (a Catholic peddler) and Donal Davoren (a poet manqué) are drawn into the guerrilla warfare when other residents mistake them for IRA fighters and a friend accidentally leaves a bag of terrorist bombs in their rooms. Davoren, the would-be poet, enjoys the hero-worship of his neighbors and the affection of young Minnie Powell, while he writes poor imitations of Percy Bysshe Shelley and pretends to be an insurgent. O’Casey uses the contrast between the self-deceiving appearance and the reality of the two men to debunk romantic myths of Irish heroism and valor. Shields and Davoren are both antiheroes, ordinary men who instinctively shun violence and try to live the semblance of normal lives amid the conflict. This antiheroic theme is the source of both comedy and pathos, for while Shields and Davoren act as cowards, Minnie behaves heroically. In act 2, when British soldiers arrive to search the apartments for snipers or weapons, she volunteers to hide the bag of bombs in her room and is discovered and captured. Sacrificing herself for a sham ideal, she is shot while trying to escape from the British, as Shields and Davoren, who form “the shadow of a gunman,” cower in their rooms, terrified of the gunfire.
Juno and the Paycock
Juno and the Paycock is set in 1922 during the period of continued civil war after the Irish Free State had been established. The scene is once again a Dublin tenement, and the play depicts the misfortunes of the Boyle family, impoverished Dubliners temporarily lifted out of their squalor by a spurious legacy, which they quickly squander. This three-act tragicomedy parallels domestic and civil chaos; the Boyles struggle against the disintegration of their family, while outside the provisional Irish Republican Army continues its resistance against the Dublin government. “Captain” Jack Boyle and “Joxer” Daley are among O’Casey’s most memorable characters. The Captain struts from apartment to pub, accompanied by the ingratiating Joxer, embellishing on his past adventures, complaining about his hard luck, and deftly avoiding responsibility, while his wife, Juno, struggles both to work and to keep house. As the play progresses, their crippled son, Johnny, becomes an IRA informer, and their daughter, Mary, falls in love with the young lawyer who brings the family news of their supposed inheritance. Despite these misfortunes, the play generates rich humor from the garrulous, irresponsible behavior of the Captain and Joxer, who belong to a long tradition of the stage Irishman and the braggart soldier. Once their inheritance is discovered to be a sham, the family’s fortunes swiftly disintegrate, as their furniture is repossessed, Johnny is shot by the IRA, and Mary is left pregnant and deserted by her lover. By the end of the play, bitter and defeated, Juno and Mary mourn Johnny’s death, while the Captain and Joxer stagger in, drunk and lugubrious, to lament “the terrible state o’ chassis” of the world.
The Plough and the Stars
The title for O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars is taken from the original flag of the Irish Citizen Army, with its working-class symbols, but the focus is once again the folly and futility of war. This four-act tragicomedy is set before and during the Easter, 1916, uprising in Dublin and dramatizes the mixed motives of idealism, vanity, and folly that inspired Irish nationalism. The action in the play alternates between a Dublin boardinghouse and the streets and pubs of the city. It dramatizes the trauma of war in separating a young couple, Jack and Nora Clitheroe, recently married. When the call for the uprising takes place, Jack hurries to join his compatriots, while Nora desperately tries to prevent him from leaving and then wanders through the strife-torn city in search of him. After the battle, the city is filled with looters, and O’Casey creates some memorable scenes of rioters fighting over their plunder. The various boarders at the Clitheroes’s boardinghouse represent differing attitudes toward the insurrection, from patriotism to scorn. By the end of the play, Dublin is in flames and Jack has died heroically, although Nora, who has lost her baby, cannot be told. Her neighbor, the Unionist Bessie Burgess, is fatally shot by the British while nursing Nora, and the play ends with British soldiers drinking tea in the rooms they have just ransacked.
The Silver Tassie
In style and technique, The Silver Tassie marks a clear departure from O’Casey’s earlier plays. Though he retains the tragicomic mode, he turns from a realistic to an expressionistic mode to convey the horrors of modern warfare. Symbols and abstractions of war bode large in this play, particularly in act 2, as O’Casey attempts to move his art beyond dramatic realism to a more poetic theater. The protagonist, Harry Heegan, leaves for the front in act 1 after he has won the Silver Tassie, or victory cup, for his Avondale Football Club. He departs as a hero, victorious and in love with Jessie Taite, and returns a crippled, embittered veteran, having lost his youth, vitality, and love. Act 2 invokes the carnage of the front through chant and ritual; an allegorical figure, the Croucher, dominates the action, while Harry is wounded in battle. Act 3 shifts to the army hospital during Harry’s recuperation from his injuries, and act 4 brings him back to a dance at the Avondale Football Club. Now a wheelchair invalid, and having lost Jessie to his friend Barney, he drinks the bitter cup of loss and smashes the Silver Tassie on the floor. The dramatic action is quite simple, but O’Casey’s expressionistic treatment makes this a powerful and compelling play.
After a period of unsuccessful propaganda plays, O’Casey’s next significant play was Purple Dust. He called the play a “wayward comedy,” though perhaps it is closer in form to a rollicking farce—a humorous confrontation between the English and the Irish national characters reminiscent of Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island (pr. 1904, pb. 1907). The play is set in the Irish countryside, where two wealthy English dupes, Cyril Poges and Basil Stokes, try to restore a dilapidated Tudor mansion in Clune na Geera. O’Casey’s “stage Englishmen” are thwarted by their bungling mismanagement and by the unpredictable Irish weather. By the end of the play, their young Irish mistresses have run off with two Irish workmen and the mansion is about to be destroyed by a flood. Once again, the English are defeated in their attempt to dominate Ireland economically, and, as the title suggests, the pair are left in the ruins of their romantic and extravagant obsession with the “purple dust” of Tudor Ireland.
Red Roses for Me
The most autobiographical of O’Casey’s plays, Red Roses for Me, presents a romantic, nostalgic evocation of his early manhood in Dublin. The protagonist, Ayamonn Breydon, is a young Protestant railway worker who helps organize a strike in the Dublin yards to win a small wage increase. Ayamonn is in love with a timid Catholic girl, Sheila Moorneen, who, along with Ayamonn’s mother, begs him to give up the strike, but Ayamonn is determined that the strike will occur, and he is killed in the labor violence that follows. Before his death, however, he enjoys a moment of ecstatic vision, as, from a bridge across the Liffey, he envisions Dublin transfigured from its drab dullness to a golden radiance. This magnificent scene and the rich language of the play save it from becoming a mere propaganda piece for the cause of Labour.
O’Casey often remarked that he considered Cock-a-Doodle Dandy his best play, although it is by no means the easiest to produce. Reminiscent of the fantastic comedies of Aristophanes, this play features a life-size apocalyptic Cock who comes to banish religious bigotry and puritanism from the small Irish village of Nyadnanave, inciting a series of magical and mysterious events. The village priest and older men are sure the Cock represents some malign spirit, though the young women, especially, are attracted to it. O’Casey himself commented that “the Cock, of course, is the joyful, active spirit of life as it weaves a way through the Irish scene.” In three long scenes, the play presents a parable of the Irish spirit in conflict, torn between the powers of affirmation and negation, as the puritanical Father Domineer musters the village forces of superstition, ignorance, and fear to suppress dance and merriment and, ultimately, to banish the most attractive young women from the region. Unfortunately, the enchantment of the Cock does not prevail in this play, although O’Casey implies that the spirit of human joy is irrepressible.
The Bishop’s Bonfire
O’Casey continues his anticlerical theme in The Bishop’s Bonfire, a satirical farce in which Bishop Bill Mullarky’s visit to his hometown is marked by a ritual book-burning of objectionable literature. The forces of piety and respectability are once more in control, as Councillor Reiligan, the richest man in the village, prepares his house to welcome the bishop, while both the upper and lower classes celebrate the homecoming in their own ways. The pompous Reiligan also interferes with his daughters’ happiness by preventing them from marrying the men they love because he thinks these men are not respectable enough. Much of the play is farcical or melodramatic, particularly the death scene at the end of the play, in which Fooraun Reiligan is shot by her suitor, Manus Moanroe, when she discovers that he is stealing church funds from her house. Her suicide note absolves him, however, as the sight of burning books welcomes the bishop home.
The Drums of Father Ned
O’Casey’s continuing satire of Irish morality irritated many of his compatriots, and the controversy surrounding his next play, The Drums of Father Ned, seems like a parody of the play itself in a strange instance of life imitating art. Set in the village of Doonavale during the Tostal, or national arts festival, the play depicts the healing of an old feud between two prosperous families, the Binningtons and the McGilligans, when their son and daughter fall in love during play rehearsals. A short “Prerumble,” or one-act prelude, reenacts the feud between Alderman Binnington and Councillor McGilligan, enemies since the Irish Civil War, who will talk with each other only about business matters. Through the evocative power of the “drums” of Father Ned, a life-affirming country priest, the families are reconciled, and joy and love of life are restored to the village of Doonavale during the Tostal celebration. Ironically, this seemingly innocuous comedy was scheduled to be performed at the 1958 Dublin Tostal until it was withdrawn at the behest of the archbishop of Dublin, who refused to celebrate Mass at the festival if works by O’Casey, Joyce, or Samuel Beckett were performed. The spirit of negation prevailed, unfortunately, and the festival continued without the works of three principal Irish artists.