O’Casey’s first three great plays set the tone for the rest of his work. In them, he portrays characters from society’s lower levels entangled in conflicts that they cannot control, understand, or accept. Such fundamental conflicts form the basis of his plays.
Two important features make the conflicts in O’Casey’s plays urgent and persuasive. One is his selection of character types. O’Casey’s characters are generally poorly educated, powerless, and vulnerable. Typically, they are the people whom society considers ignoble and lacking in value. Basing his imaginative concerns on such characters was, at the time O’Casey did it, both artistically daring and culturally provocative. Doing so is an aspect of his contribution both to world drama and to the literature of his own country, whose originality can easily be overlooked. Moreover, while O’Casey was not the first playwright to put such characters on the stage, and not the first Irish playwright to do so, his insightful and vivid delineation of their lives and times gives them a stature that they otherwise have difficulty in attaining.
The second factor that makes the basic, age-old conflicts in O’Casey’s work seem more immediate is its clear appeal to twentieth century audiences. The playwright’s first three plays were each greeted with varying though undeniable expressions of keen interest. As O’Casey’s subsequent career in the theater reveals, however, their appeal is by no means confined to their own time, or even to Irish audiences. The continuing international success of Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, in particular, not only confirms the wide appeal of their plots also reminds their audiences of their own historical experiences. The basic drama of these two works concerns what happens when history comes knocking at the door. Modern audiences are especially well qualified to identify with that concern.
The conflicts that O’Casey dramatizes are those between the individual and history, between private need and public duty, and between principles and compromises. These conflicts are always enacted in a specific social context. As his absence from Ireland grew longer, O’Casey was unable to provide the action of his works with much particularity. Yet even his late plays always carry a socially relevant message. O’Casey’s consistent social awareness derives partly from his political orientation. It also reveals a debt to his most important theatrical mentor, George Bernard Shaw.
O’Casey’s plays do not resolve the conflicts that they present. Rather than being resolved, problems are seen as forces that are impossible to tame. In these works, death often takes the place of peace. In general, the world of O’Casey’s plays is not a particularly rational place. Events are brought about by complicated offstage actions. Typically, the plays open at a moment of difficulty. As the play develops, this moment becomes a state of crisis. The plays end when the full severity of this state has been experienced. The endings of O’Casey’s plays usually represent conditions as being worse than they were when the action commenced.
Open and unresolved endings are a dramatically effective means of involving the audience in the fate of the characters. Solving the characters’ problems would perhaps give the audience an experience of detachment and coziness. O’Casey’s intention is to eliminate the artificial, formal barrier between observed and observer. By so doing, he reduces the gap between the audience’s privileged social and cultural position and the downtrodden, neglected, and helpless condition of his characters. O’Casey’s theater is democratic in spirit. One of the most powerful impacts that his plays make is through the spectacle of that spirit being frustrated or denied.
The social vision of O’Casey’s...
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plays is for the most part grim. The conclusion that Captain Boyle reaches at the end ofJuno and the Paycock is that “the whole world is in a state o’ chassis.” The futility of his own career fully supports this point of view. The chaos, or “chassis,” to which he refers pervades both the world of the play and the supposedly real, historical world outside the play.
As in many of O’Casey’s works, violence and the threat of violence are never far away, and in his most important works, the action revolves around a violent incident and its inescapable repercussions. In O’Casey’s view of the world, nobody gets away with anything, or gets away for long. While the depiction of shocking acts of violence is as old as the theater itself, O’Casey’s presentation of them is modern in a number of important ways. He reveals violence as an instrument of official policy. Its application is unexpected, irrational, and unreasonable. It is also reckless in its disregard for civilians. By asking his audience to accept the reality of what he represents, O’Casey is also challenging public awareness to examine the implications or consequences of that reality. The note of shock, struck by the violence of O’Casey’s work, is followed immediately by a note of interrogation and criticism, aimed, in effect, to stimulate the audience to reject much of what it has been shown.
Yet for every Captain Boyle, O’Casey also presents a Juno. He reveals a dual perspective, each element of which is equally significant. Strength of individual character offsets the world’s difficulties and violence. This basic arrangement of forces may be seen in all the playwright’s work. The arrangement draws attention not only to the comprehensive nature of O’Casey’s vision. It also alerts the audience to the fact that, like many Irish playwrights of his generation, O’Casey’s theater is one of character.
All of his plays are well populated, which, in the case of Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars, and The Shadow of a Gunman, incidentally helps to give a vivid sense of the crowded conditions and absence of privacy typical of tenement life. Despite the fact that virtually all O’Casey’s characters come from the same social class, each of them is vividly distinguished from the others, an indication that social status in itself is not enough to stifle vitality. Even when the characters are not particularly admirable, their foibles and failings are treated unsentimentally and with the overall intention of depicting the variety of human nature. O’Casey does his characters the honor of taking them seriously, even when they appear to be caricatures. By doing so, he integrates his characters more plausibly with the serious concerns of his plots. As a result, the playwright also underlines his refusal to dismiss as unworthy of attention characters such as the ones whom he presents.
O’Casey paints his characters in broad strokes. In certain respects, they seem one-dimensional, distinguished by one obvious trait, such as laziness, cowardice, or deviousness. There again, however, he uses a dual approach. He escapes the risk of creating one-dimensional characters by the vivid language that he gives them. O’Casey’s characters are dramatically intriguing and appealing as much for what they say as for what they do. O’Casey drew on the speech of the ordinary people among whom he lived. Yet his sense of language is not a matter merely of vocabulary. The violent events that destroy the lives of O’Casey’s characters are often the product of something that has been said and cannot be unsaid. The essential artistic ingredient of O’Casey’s theater, its language, is the means by which his characters are ensnared in the drama of their existences, and in the elemental conflicts that those dramas represent.
The Shadow of a Gunman
First produced: 1923 (first published, 1925)
Type of work: Play
Illusion and reality clash violently and tragically in the Irish War of Independence.
Although it was not the first play that O’Casey wrote, The Shadow of a Gunman was the first play of his produced. It was premiered at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on April 12, 1923, and was an immediate success. The reason for its success is its setting, the Irish War of Independence. This war was fought, largely in guerrilla style, between volunteers of the Irish Republican Army and British forces. The nature of the war is very well reflected in the play’s use of abrupt and vicious turns of fortune. These are reflected in the play’s three central characters.
Donal Davoren, the poet, Seumas Shields, the opportunist, and Minnie Powell, the heroine, represent not only the twists of fate brought about by the action of the play. They may also be considered as an introduction to O’Casey’s people. Most of the men in The Shadow of a Gunman are all talk. This quality is evident in O’Casey’s decision to make Davoren a naïve, youthful, romantic versifier. Davoren’s self-pity and self-involvement make him blind to the realities around him. Poetry, which is often thought of as a diagnosis of life’s challenges, is Davoren’s means of escape from those challenges. It is not surprising that his poetry is weak and inadequate.
Yet in this portrait of the artistic temperament, O’Casey is not only presenting a character for whom the image and self-deception define his relationship to the world. He is speaking to an audience of contemporaries who knew that many of the leaders of the Easter, 1916, rebellion were poets and dreamers. The violent circumstances of the play draw on the historical reality that was a direct result of that rebellion. In that sense, also, the gunman’s shadow lies behind the activity of some of Irish nationalism’s purest idealists.
Shields, on the other hand, is a down-to-earth exploiter of the main chance. He is Davoren’s opposite, and the somewhat implausible fact of their sharing a room brings their differences into sharp focus. While Davoren does not fully appreciate the danger that his illusions can cause, Shields is fully alive to the perils that pass for normal life in a community at war. Seen in the larger context of the events that inspired the play, Shields may be seen as the unprincipled hanger-on, willing to do anything to survive. Shields never says that he knows there might be something amiss about the bag that Maguire leaves in his care. Although Shields is apparently Davoren’s opposite, the result of both men’s behavior is the same. Like Davoren, Shields talks about everything except what needs at all costs to be addressed. The magnitude of these costs is revealed when Minnie Powell pays with her life. She is the victim of Davoren’s speech and Shields’s silence. She is the one character in the play who attempts to take life as she finds it. As the play indicates, the challenge is to find something for which life is worth living, to emerge from the gunman’s shadow. O’Casey’s awareness of the severity of this challenge is one of the main reasons he subtitled The Shadow of a Gunman a tragedy.
In some respects, The Shadow of a Gunman reveals O’Casey as still something of an apprentice playwright. The plot is thin, and the minor characters sometimes seem to be too great a distraction from the main action. At the same time, however, these characters are necessary to enrich a sense of the play’s theme. O’Casey compensates for such deficiencies by the richness of his characterizations and by his use of language. He not only equips his characters with colorful vocabularies but also bases much of the play’s costly conflict on what people say and what they do not say and on the moral consequences of the appropriate use of language. O’Casey’s relentless exposure of self-deception, hypocrisy, and cowardice, however, enables the play to transcend its immediate context to become a potent reflection on the distorting and destructive effect of historical events on ordinary people.
Juno and the Paycock
First produced: 1924 (first published, 1925)
Type of work: Play
The tragedy of the Boyle family unfolds against the background of the Irish Civil War.
The Abbey Theatre production of Juno and the Paycock had its premiere less than a year after the successful staging of The Shadow of a Gunman, on March 3, 1924. The production consolidated O’Casey’s reputation as the leading dramatist to emerge in the immediate aftermath of Irish independence. Juno and the Paycock, however, is far superior to the earlier work in terms of its scope, its ambition, and its tragic impact. Yet the play’s opening sequence may strike the reader as a continuation of The Shadow of a Gunman.
The time is two years later, and the historical context is the Irish Civil War, which followed the attainment of Irish independence in 1921. Johnny Boyle initially opposed Irish independence on the terms agreed to with England. He was unable to maintain this position, however, and this led to his betrayal of Robbie Tancred, his former comrade. The fact that Tancred was also a close neighbor brings home graphically the murderous intimacy of the Civil War. Yet it also sets the stage for the bitter domestic strife that consumes the Boyle family. Public and private experience are reflected in each other, as they are in The Shadow of a Gunman, though in a much more elaborate and assured manner.
Not only is Johnny’s situation a public version of his family’s inner conflicts; it is also reflected in what happens to his sister, Mary. At the beginning of the play, she also is presented as a person of principle. Yet she is unable to uphold her beliefs. The consequences of this failure are not as severe as they are in Johnny’s case. At the same time, it is her affair with Bentham that brings about the final rift in the family, a rift that the end of the play does not suggest can be healed. When, at the end, Captain Boyle drunkenly intones that the blinds are down, he is referring to the custom in Ireland of lowering the window shades when there is a death in a household. The death in question is that of the Boyle family.
In The Shadow of a Gunman, O’Casey’s emphasis is on the destructive force of political circumstances. In contrast, Juno and the Paycock concentrates on the economic facts of life. Johnny’s contribution to the family’s crisis is by no means insignificant, but it does not occupy the center of the work. Instead, the force that destroys the Boyles is money—or rather, money is the means by which the Boyles’s vanity and vulnerability are exposed and exploited. The exchanges early in the play between the Captain, Joxer Daly, and Juno are often played as comedy, yet what is being presented is a picture of a grim and hopeless state of economic affairs. Moreover, though Juno regards this economic reality in a light that is directly in contrast with the view of Joxer and the Captain, she also suffers economic oppression. That makes her, as a working woman, socially, as well as biologically, related to Mary. Thus, it is fitting that they should be the ones to continue working on their lives at the end of the play.
Such a perspective is necessary in order to understand why the family falls for Bentham. Everything about this character is fraudulent, from his appearance to his so-called education. That a spirited character such as Mary should fall for such a specimen suggests how desperate she is to improve her lot. She does not believe that this improvement can be made by the man from her own class and background, Jerry Devine. It is also because of its persistent experience of poverty that the family spends the money in a hasty and irresponsible way. The tragedy of Juno and the Paycock is based largely on the social and cultural poverty that prevents the Boyles from knowing how to handle the revolution in their private lives.
The only character unaffected by the actions of the play is Joxer. Like Seumas Shields in The Shadow of a Gunman, Joxer is interested merely in his own survival. Such an outlook cannot be maintained by the Boyles. To that extent, they show how human they are. To the extent that they are human, however, they are vulnerable to vanity, gullibility, idealism, and a desire for improvement. The bleakness that results from their vulnerability is what the Captain acknowledges as “chassis,” a world without order or coherence, a world in which hope for tomorrow turns out to be a cruel joke.
The Plough and the Stars
First produced: 1926 (first published, 1926)
Type of work: Play
The human consequences of historical events are depicted in the context of the Irish rebellion of Easter, 1916.
Set in the turbulence of the rebellion of Easter, 1916, The Plough and the Stars is a landmark in O’Casey’s career for a number of reasons. First, it is the powerful conclusion of his Troubles Trilogy (the struggle for Irish independence is familiarly known as “the troubles”). It is also a more complex and far-reaching play, both formally and intellectually, than its predecessors. Unlike O’Casey’s earlier plays, The Plough and the Stars draws on O’Casey’s own personal experience as a member and subsequent critic of the Irish Citizen Army. The Plough and the Stars also gave the playwright his first taste of theatrical controversy in the hostile reaction of the audience to the first production, which was staged at the Abbey Theatre on February 8, 1926.
The play’s title refers to the flag of the Irish Citizen Army. In this way, O’Casey identifies his principal characters in terms of their class and their organization. As a result, the social and economic vulnerability that has typically affected the characters of O’Casey’s earlier works is less evident here. Nora Clitheroe not only aspires to respectability, which is what Mary Boyle expected Charles Bentham to provide in Juno and the Paycock; she can also afford some of respectability’s trappings. This line of thought makes Uncle Peter, who is Nora’s uncle, not entirely a figure of fun. Through him, O’Casey introduces the audience to working-class ritual and grandeur, though, in contrast to Jack Clitheroe’s uniform, what Uncle Peter’s regalia represents is laughably out of date.
These details establish a basis for introducing more important distinctions within the play’s community of characters. O’Casey’s view of the proletariat is striking in its range. Thus, Bessie Burgess is militantly opposed to the cause of Irish freedom. While Nora can entertain romantic dreams of nest-building, Mollser is dying of consumption virtually alongside her. For all of his ideological speech making about the working man, The Covey lacks the courage of drunken Fluther. The Irish nationalist known as The Figure in the Window has to share his scene with Rosie Redmond, a prostitute. It was this last contrast that caused audiences to riot in protest during the play’s first production.
The strong sense of contrast that is provided simply by noting the range of characters in the play leads, in turn, to an appreciation of the play’s central conflict. It takes place between the two characters who are least equipped to handle it, Nora and Jack Clitheroe. When the challenge to their marriage comes, each responds in the way that the other is least able to accept. With this human conflict as a focus, The Plough and the Stars both retains the immediacy of its historical context and rises above that context to appeal to audiences regardless of their background. The significance of the rift between Jack and Nora is emphasized, as in other O’Casey plays, by suffering. Nora and Jack are the play’s only couple. Their being together offers a model of possibility, romance, and, above all, love, which is the opposite of war. The promise that they represent, however, is not realized. On the contrary, those with the most to live for lose the most as the play proceeds.
O’Casey dramatizes this emphasis on loss through the fate of Bessie Burgess. The character who seems least likely to behave in a neighborly way turns out to be the play’s clearest example of Christian charity in action. Like Jack and Nora, she also suffers disproportionately for her attempt to make good what has been destroyed. Bessie’s fate leaves only the remnants of the community at the mercy of the occupying forces. The contrast between the optimism and vitality of the play’s opening and the scene of death and destruction with which it closes could hardly be more graphic. This contrast is brought out with devastating irony in the soldier’s closing chorus, particularly as the stage directions indicate that, offstage, the city is burning. In The Plough and the Stars, O’Casey meshes the private chaos that befell Captain Boyle and the destructive forces that struck down Minnie Powell to produce his most powerful play.
Mirror in My House
First published: 1956
Type of work: Autobiography
This six-volume experiment in autobiography is as noteworthy for its style as for its content.
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.