Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3557
O'Casey, Sean 1880–1964
O'Casey was an Irish dramatist who dealt in all his work with political and social change in Ireland and with the suffering of Irish townspeople during periods of strife—the Easter 1916 Uprising, the revolt against England in 1920–21, and the Irish Civil War of 1922–23. Although most critics believe O'Casey's dramatic talent and range were limited, his influence on his contemporaries is never questioned. To Americans, O'Casey is probably best known for his six-volume autobiography, Mirror in My House.
[O'Casey] changed the nature of Irish drama from peasant comedies to a presumably realistic urban drama of Dublin slum life, tragicomedies which O'Casey himself labeled "tragedies." (p. 12)
The reputation based on the first three full-length plays [The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars] has remained as an ultimate verdict on Sean O'Casey, even when critics have failed to agree on the bases for their judgment. O'Casey himself cautioned against viewing the plays as photographic realism. (The dramatist's detractors have often dismissed them as only that, while several of his defenders have admired the plays for just that quality.) He went on … to quadruple the body of his dramatic output, experimenting often in expressionistic and other nonrealistic techniques, and maintaining throughout that the spirit of such experimentation was already operative in the Dublin plays [just mentioned]. Many commentators have also assumed that these early plays were essentially formless, an almost accidental throwing together of a variety of characters who play out their individual slices of life on O'Casey's stage: O'Casey has therefore been credited with utilizing a fortuitously free-form drama, and has also been criticized for careless formlessness. Eventually a handful of critics appeared who praised the dramatist for the intuitive sense of stagecraft which made these same plays so eminently successful…. [His] subject matter remained almost exclusively Irish, with only one or two exceptions, and for over thirty years he kept in touch with political and social changes in Ireland, mirroring them in his new plays and remaining a persistent critic of essential elements of Irish life under the Republic. (pp. 14-15)
It is a 1940 comedy, Purple Dust, that serves as an introduction to the later O'Casey style, the plays of comic fantasy. This remained the essential vein of his dramatic work until his death almost 25 years later, interrupted occasionally by such propaganda pieces as Oak Leaves and by his most autobiographic statement in drama, Red Roses for Me (1942). The latter exists for many as a unique piece of O'Caseyana, a personal, poetic, and tender statement from the dramatist, recalling the power of his naturalistic efforts of the 20s, but blending these with touches of fantasy and expressionistic poetry in the third act, and incorporating some of O'Casey's finest comic elements. (p. 18)
The O'Casey of the Purple Dust vein cast a cold eye on the paralysis of rural Ireland (abandoning the Dublin urban scene in which he had lived for 46 years for the small town, the village, and the farm community in which social change was even slower in making itself felt than in the capital city). Here he uncovered the dead hand of the parish priest, the self-aggrandizing grasp of the new Irish landowners, and the occasional defiant fist of a socially aware rebel. The landlords are still British in the 1940 "wayward comedy," but thereafter in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), The Bishop's Bonfire (1955), and The Drums of Father Ned (1958) they are Irish parvenus, graduated to councillors and mayors and elected as papal counts. Hand in glove with the bigoted clergy, they keep a tight grip on the politics, economy, mores, and morality of their petty fiefdoms, attempting to stem the natural tide of freedom, love, rebellion, and life itself. O'Casey's young people often demand the right to shape their own futures, for romantic love and passion, for song and dance and an open investigation of all closed issues, and when denied these rights by parent and priest they opt for emigration to England rather than atrophy in Ireland. In the rare event of victory over the forces of the dead past, they jauntily take command of their world, leaving the rulers of the old society to atrophy. O'Casey's technique in these late comedies parallels that of the Dublin plays in their blend of the tragic and the pathetic with the wildly comic, but with strong elements of fantasy for leavening. Supernatural birds, superhuman heroes, mysterious priests who stir the youth to rebellion—all embodiments of the Life Force—take command in the more optimistic of the plays (Purple Dust, The Drums of Father Ned, and the shorter "Figuro in the Night") and usher in the O'Caseyan future. But in the more somber dramas, despite the many flashes of hilarity and song, the mood of bitterness predominates, and the fallen angels retreat, refusing to serve the fierce god and tyrannical master, often leaving behind those of their fellows who cannot muster the courage to take a stand: Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, The Bishop's Bonfire, and O'Casey's last full-length play, Behind the Green Curtains (1961). (pp. 19-20)
[Many] of O'Casey's dramas concern some of the most important political events in Irish and European history during O'Casey's lifetime. His individual attitudes dominate the action of these theatrical recreations, but every important facet of twentieth-century history is mirrored here, as well as in the six autobiographies collected in 1956 under the cumulative title of Mirror in My House. (pp. 20-1)
Between Synge on one end of the chronological spectrum and a yawning void on the other, Sean O'Casey stands as Irish drama almost by himself—and one of the best dramatists writing in the English language in his time in any country. His imperfections were enormous. He insisted upon utilizing melodrama, and he dangerously juggled genres; he was heavyhanded in his diction, propagandistic with a vengeance, and even derivative. He had faults enough to demolish any other writer—yet he mastered his art, polished his techniques, took his chances, and survived his mistakes, rarely concentrating them to any great extent. He emerged with a voice of his own, a style of his own, and a body of artistic work that reflected his personality and thinking with flair and color. (pp. 24-5)
By the time he began to write plays O'Casey was already a dedicated socialist, but the early tenement plays are devoid of propagandistic evidence. He concentrated on real events, their complexities and their multiple effects on the people he knew, rarely showing his hand to his audience. (The same Dubliners who were being dissected and lampooned in these comic tragedies sat in the theatre and roared at themselves, until the full brunt of O'Casey's satire struck home in The Plough and the Stars.) Laughing at himself was as important to the dramatist as mocking others, and in both Juno and The Plough he was capable of a satiric caricature of rather unlovely socialists. (pp. 37-8)
O'Casey's characters are destined to be remembered—particularly his unique comic creations—and no one more than his Paycock. The development of "Captain" Jack Boyle and his butty Joxer Daly in Juno is probably O'Casey's finest achievement. He continued thereafter to vary the possibilities of the character type, the indolent, self-indulgent braggart whom he saw at the crux of the paralytic condition in Irish life, but whose boisterous wit and élan always brought him at least halfway back to redemption. In dozens of varying situations O'Casey proved that variations on the type could be endless, and few of his plays were without them. (pp. 53-4)
O'Casey throughout his career allowed himself a broad range of play in handling the paycock as a type, often stressing the individuality of the character at the expense of known characteristics, and finding some more redeemable than others. That they strut with a measure of self-importance, that they fabricate outrageously to preserve their self-esteem, and that they often see others around them as reflections of themselves serve to establish the type. How they react when the chips are down often distinguished the individual. (pp. 54-5)
O'Casey's young heroines share with the mother-figures of his plays a unique position: they far out-number the male heroes, most of his men being too weak and too conventional to rival the strong-minded and vibrant women. (p. 85)
A pretty face, an ample bosom, and tantalizing legs may seem more appropriate for Hollywood than for serious drama, but O'Casey sees them as hopeful signs of life worth living. (p. 118)
Sean O'Casey could capsulize into character description that handful of personality elements which encompass a person …, and in concise dramatic form he etched those few strokes to delineate a character as he saw it in his mind's eye, and then allowed that character to prove himself by acting out his own personality in response to the events that confronted him. Whenever he assumed the novelist's prerogative in editorializations about his fictional people, he was careful to justify that usurpation by embodying the underlined characteristics in speech and in action…. [He] was skilled in making political statements and revealing the strongest of his personal ideals through the simple expedients of setting a scene and introducing a human being onto his stage. Few committed artists in the theatre have been as successful in having reality and poetry carry the major responsibility for the writer's convictions as has Sean O'Casey. (pp. 118-19)
Bernard Benstock, in his Sean O'Casey (© 1970 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1970.
Distinguished drama historians praising [The Plough and the Stars] speak of it as a naturalistic, mass drama having little structural design…. [If] The Plough and the Stars truly has little structural design, the acknowledged greatness of this play would make unassailable the position of those critics who maintain that greatness can, no, should be achieved in rebellion against the "tyranny of the plot." But although the design of the play does not readily reveal itself, it is an intricate and firm design with at least three interdependent plot-structures. (pp. 203-04)
[At the end of the first act], we do not yet know who the character central to the plot is, but we already have a sense of firm structural design and we have aligned ourselves with Nora. (p. 205)
[The events and characters of the second act] are all essentially thematic and tonal elements. However important they are to the play's dimension and its comic and satiric power, however successfully O'Casey controls their textural harmony in the whole formal design of the play, they are not shaped into a plot-structure. The various actions of these characters have no logical unity and do not move the play forward. (pp. 205-06)
Nora absorbs our interest and sympathy more than any other character in the play, but she is not central to the plot; she does not advance the action of the play, she is not a doer of acts that cohere into a complete plot-structure. Clitheroe, on the other hand, does have a plot-structure, although not the main one. The logical unity of his action is worked out in relationship to Nora…. Because he has no part in the final action of the play, which takes place in the significant fourth act, he cannot be central to the plot.
Who, then, is central? There is no question that Nora and Clitheroe are our main focus of interest—but the advance of the play's action and its culmination belong mainly to Bessie. She, indeed, has two plot-structures, the main one in relationship to Nora, another in relationship to Mrs. Gogan. The first of these is the main plot-structure of the play…. (p. 206)
We may note in O'Casey's structural design, as fundamental to the play's sense of wholeness, that Bessie's plot-structure has Clitheroe's involved in it…. It is [the] interdependence of plot-structures … that makes each integral to the whole. (p. 207)
The contemporary welcome accorded the so-called "plotless" play may well issue from a misunderstanding of the modern structural mode…. [Being] the primary formal principle the plot-structure must be perceived if there is to be accurate and full artistic apprehension.
There are critics who also fail to see syllogistic plot-structures in the theater of the absurd…. As in such expressionistic plays as Strindberg's and as in plays written in the mode that Chekhov invented, the plot-structure of absurd plays is submerged—but it is there and is formally essential. Without it the plays would collapse like a body without a skeleton…. Common to the new modes of theater in the twentieth century is the submerged plot-structure, which is not the main focus of interest. (pp. 208-09)
Seymour Reiter, in his World Theatre: The Structure and Meaning of Drama (© 1973; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1973.
Grief is the wood-note wild of the Irish soul. Rarely has a people's sorrow been sounded with such resonant purity as it is in Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. Despite moments of bathos and some soap operatics in the construction of the plot, this play is one of the granitic masterworks of modern dramatic art….
Tragedy or not, what is O'Casey celebrating? A trinity of profound, if currently unfashionable values—God, country and family. Not for a single moment during Juno and the Paycock is one unaware that Roman Catholicism, Ireland and the Boyles' intense awareness of themselves as an embattled entity have shaped the people that we see before us. Not for the good, necessarily. O'Casey had as sharp an eye as James Joyce for the foibles of his race, though it sometimes brimmed with an un-Joycean compassion. He knew the perils of being priest-ridden, the curse of drink, the terrible gift of hurting one another that has remained constant from the 1916 "Troubles" to the present sad day. Yet he set it all down to the ineffable music of English that rarely sounds sweeter than it does on the Irish tongue. And he relished the Irish fondness for gossipmongering, playacting, and scene-making that has made them, after the greeks and the Elizabethans, the greatest dramatists of the Western world.
T. E. Kalem, "Irish Trinity," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), November 18, 1974, p. 95.
O'Casey pretended to—and sometimes possessed—the homely uncorrupted sagacity of the crow of our animal tales, and regarded himself as called on to administer stinging wasp-like rebukes to social and artistic complacency. Yet … he was often simple-minded rather than innocently wise, and querulous, even mean-spirited, instead of intellectually valorous….
Anomalies and contradictions abound in his writings and in the zone of estimation that surrounds it. What is his place, this troublesome, erratic, autodidactic Irishman? Was he really one of the great modern playwrights, as so many textbooks and so much popular consideration would have it? I remember the litany from my student days: Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, O'Casey, O'Neill—the recent masters….
But it's not true. O'Casey can't bear the weight of such an apotheosis, which threatens by reaction to diminish his limited achievement. There are too many bad and even deeply embarrassing plays in his oeuvre ("Within the Gates," "The Star Turns Red," "The Bishop's Bonfire," et al.) and too many esthetic sins of naiveté, rhetorical excess, sentimentality and tendentiousness in all but his very best work: "Juno and the Paycock," "The Plough and the Stars," the late and only half-successful "Cock-a-doodle Dandy." I suspect that O'Casey's inflated reputation in the textbooks and in certain theatrical circles is largely a set of extra-artistic circumstances: the sterility of the English-speaking theater in the twenties when he came to prominence with his "Dublin" plays at the Abbey Theater; his ferocious battle with censorship; his own "dramatic" story—slum childhood, self-education, lifelong nearblindness, self-exile….
The peculiar violence of O'Casey's circumstances, his beleaguered physical and economic condition, his struggle with Irish prudery and provincialism, make him something other than a fully representative literary figure, but he is representative in having been frequently unconscious of the true nature of his work, in having felt simultaneously mis-understood and touched with glory, and in having doggedly insisted on his inspiration even when it was leading him to imaginative disaster. (p. 1)
He wanted to experiment, to mix structures and styles, to be more "poetic." Yet his sensibility and theory of drama, grounded in what he acknowledges in a letter to be a strange equality of admiration for Shakespeare and Dion Boucicault, were scarcely up to the job. With "The Silver Tassie" in 1928 he fell into some of the most flagrant delinquences—bathos, ideological cant, pseudo-poetic rhetoric—of the then dying Expressionist movement, and most of his plays from then on exhibit the same malfeasances.
The controversy over the Abbey's rejection of "The Silver Tassie" is fascinating and instructive…. Speaking for the Abbey's directors, W. B. Yeats told O'Casey that the play suffered from both inadequate technical prowess and imaginative unconvincingness…. Yeats was right …; there was no failure to discern his genius.
Convinced, though, that the play had been rejected because of its disturbing originality, O'Casey seized on and built up a role as prophet unhonored. He was given ample material: the bannings of his plays in Ireland and Boston, the abuse of outraged jingoists and bluenoses. But political irreverence, anti-clericalism and sexual honesty aren't enough to constitute literary genius. Good as his best work is, emotionally accurate as it occasionally can be, O'Casey's theater mostly lacks that mysterious agency by which experience is shaped by form into new consciousness. (pp. 16, 18)
He was not ahead of his time: to see this one has only to compare his "experiments" with those of Brecht and Pirandello, who wrote during much of the same period. (p. 18)
Richard Gilman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 16, 1975.
[Sean O'Casey's] reputation for genius begins, and I think ends, with the early plays, the Dublin cycle which comprises The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. That in any event is the commonly accepted critical judgment on O'Casey which only his most fervent admirers, on the one hand, or a handful of disenchanted begrudgers, on the other, would care to dispute. The reputation is sustained, but not powerfully supported, by Purple Dust and Cock-a-Doodle-Dandy, barnyard farces which are probably to be ranked next after the earlier tragicomedies. The experimental plays such as the controversial Silver Tassie, an experiment in expressionism, or The Star Turns Red, an experiment in ideological symbolism, are interesting as experiments but hardly memorable as works of art. Even the dramatic readings given to the early installments of O'Casey's six-volume autobiography—I Knock at the Door and Pictures in the Hallway—are more effective as drama than are his formal experiments with drama itself. So effective indeed that Brooks Atkinson saw in these readings—a bare stage, a handful of actors with scripts open before them, all plot, props, personae totally subordinate to the power and grace of language—that drama, stripped to its essentials, is and can be no more and no less than "a plank and a passion."
Sean O'Casey was above all a passionate man and his genius, if granted, is concentrated in this quality of his life which only occasionally carried over into the work. It was, and when we encounter it in the theatre can still be, a disarming passion; it disarms criticism by its directness and simplicity, by the purity of its intent and intensity, by the unashamed fact of itself. "Sean had no learning," O'Casey wrote in the last book of his autobiography, "no knowledge—what he set down were but his feelings moulded with words; there they were and there they'd stay." O'Casey's personal staying power was impressive—he lived on into his 80s—and the staying power of his language, despite the moldy edges of much of it, is in direct proportion to the passionate quality that informed the whole of his life. (p. 55)
[Perhaps] more than any other writer of his stature O'Casey is innocent of ideas; his mind, unencumbered by education and uninhibited by discipline, was that of a poet, albeit a poet manqué, and he had, though he did not know it, an instinctive abhorrence of the abstract in any form. But forms of the abstract, though naturally abhorrent, were also insidiously attractive, and he was drawn to them like some old desert saint tempted beyond endurance to the embrace of an illusion he cannot dispel. O'Casey's embrace of communism was of this order—he thought and spoke and wrote of himself as a Communist, and like any old saint not knowing what he's about he made a bit of a fool of himself in the clinches…. The old saint's instincts, however pure, are corrupted by ideas, the spirit rigidifies in the embrace of ideology, the humanity of the man—his most endearing characteristic—all but disappears in a fog of abstractions. (pp. 55-6)
O'Casey is not after all a writer of the first rank if that rank is determined by the presence of fellow Irishmen like Yeats, Joyce, Shaw, Synge and Beckett. O'Casey himself, I think, would be the first to admit this. But if he is not profound he is important and plays a significant role in the history of 20th-century drama and the story of modern Irish literature. (p. 56)
Kevin Sullivan, "O'Casey's Plank and Passion," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), July 19, 1975, pp. 55-6.