Sean O'Casey 1880-1964
Irish dramatist and essayist.
Widely recognized as one of the most original and accomplished dramatists of the twentieth century, O'Casey wrote formally innovative and aggressively iconoclastic plays which condemn war, satirize the follies of the Irish people, and celebrate the perseverance of the working class. A highly controversial figure in life as in the theatre, O'Casey openly expressed his Irish nationalist sympathies and defiantly embraced communism throughout his career. Hailed for his early set of naturalistic tragicomedies generally known as “the Dublin trilogy,” which have been regularly performed since their premieres, O'Casey gradually developed a dramaturgical style marked by expressionistic aesthetics and socialist doctrines, to which critics and audiences alike have responded less enthusiastically—sometimes in anger and even violence.
Christened John Casey, O'Casey was the son of Protestant, working-class parents in predominantly Catholic Dublin. His father died when O'Casey was six years old, which worsened the family's already precarious economic situation. Consequently, O'Casey received little formal education and no medical treatment for a congenital eye disease, which affected his vision for the rest of his life. Despite these disadvantages, O'Casey extensively read Shakespeare and other classics of English literature as a teenager, while he supported himself with a series of clerical and manual labor jobs. About 1906 he left the Protestant church, became an agnostic, and gradually cultivated zealous nationalist sympathies as a member of the Gaelic League, in which he taught himself the Gaelic language and studied its literature. O'Casey later joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a radical group responsible for plotting the 1916 Easter Rising. Although O'Casey did not participate in the actual rebellion, the event and its aftermath deeply influenced him, inspiring the action of his most famous plays. After publishing several lyrical ballads and poems under the Gaelic pseudonym Sean O'Cathasaigh, as well as The Story of the Irish Citizen Army (1919), he started writing plays and submitted them for production to the renowned Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Despite rejecting his first four submissions, the directors eventually accepted his next effort, The Shadow of a Gunman, which premiered early in 1923 to critical acclaim and reopened later that year, playing to SRO houses. The following spring the Abbey Theatre produced Juno & the Paycock, which also proved popular at the box office and with the critics. O'Casey's theatrical successes usually are credited with saving the Abbey from near bankruptcy. In 1926, during the fourth performance at the Abbey of his next play, The Plough and the Stars, a riot ensued, which temporarily stopped the show as police were called in to restore order. No further disturbances occurred during the rest of its run, but ticket sales boomed, as its controversial subject matter was debated in Irish newspapers. Meanwhile, O'Casey went to England to receive the Hawthornden Prize for Juno & the Paycock and to participate in the London productions of his plays. Despite the commercial and popular success of O'Casey's first three plays, the directors at the Abbey Theatre publicly rejected his experimental play, The Silver Tassie (1929), an action that effectively ended his affiliation with the theatre and forced him into self-imposed exile in England until his death. Soon after The Silver Tassie opened in London, the Great Depression began, which severely limited attendance at live theatrical events. Consequently, O'Casey completed only two plays during the 1930s—Within the Gates (1934) and the one-act The End of the Beginning (1937)—working instead on his six-volume autobiography, which he published intermittently between 1939 and 1954. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s O'Casey continued the dramatic experimentation that he had pursued since The Silver Tassie, abandoning realistic conventions in favor of a rhetorical formalism that emphasized his poetic and ideological sympathies. Notable productions of this period include a series of plays sometimes called his “colored” plays as well as Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), The Bishop's Bonfire (1955), and The Drums of Father Ned (1957). These plays, however, generally failed to attract as much widespread popular or critical acclaim as his early dramas had, especially among Irish audiences and critics who tended to disparage O'Casey's theatrical works. In the 1960s O'Casey's plays experienced a brief revival of scholarly interest, particularly in the United States, which prompted various American university productions of such late plays as Behind the Green Curtains (1962) and Figuro in the Night (1962). O'Casey died in 1964.
Collectively referred to as “the Dublin trilogy,” O'Casey's first three plays dramatize the plight of Irish slum-dwellers during the political and social upheaval that surrounded the Easter Rising as well as the subsequent Irish civil war of the early 1920s, though not in chronological order. Set in Dublin's tenements in the wake of the Easter Rising, The Shadow of a Gunman portrays the tragic consequences of the guerilla warfare—historically known as “the troubles”—waged by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British soldiers for several inhabitants who get caught up in the political violence. The action of Juno & the Paycock occurs during the hostilities of the civil war, when neighbor killed neighbor. The play chronicles the troubles of an impoverished Dublin family whose dissension and strife mirror the national situation and delineate the nobility and foibles that compose the character of the Irish people. The Plough and the Stars follows the intertwined destinies of Dublin Catholics and Protestants who live in the same tenement during the violence of the Easter Rising. Similarly, The Silver Tassie concerns the brutality and absurdity of war— specifically, the effects of World War I on Irish and British soldiers—but this play also marks a change in O'Casey's dramatic style. Here, the action relies on expressionistic techniques, particularly evident in the second act, which incorporates colloquial speech and plainsong chant with an apocalyptic staging of the front lines at Flanders. Subsequent plays reveal O'Casey's penchant for expressionistic devices and stylized dialogue, including Within the Gates, which symbolically dramatizes the situation of the modern world through the personal interactions in a crowded urban park, and the series of plays usually referred to as “the colored plays.” Comprising The Star Turns Red (1940), Purple Dust (1943), Red Roses for Me (1943), and Oak Leaves and Lavender (1946), these plays explicitly reinforce O'Casey's socialist ideals, and for this reason, many critics dismiss them as propaganda pieces and technically inferior dramas. His later plays, including Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (his personal favorite), The Bishop's Bonfire, Drums for Father Ned, and Behind the Green Curtains, represent a blend of fantasy, ritual, and farcical satire that challenge deeply ingrained Irish attitudes toward politics, religion, sex, and art, which O'Casey portrayed as intellectually repressed and cowed into submission by a hypocritical clergy.
A common critical response to O'Casey's body of dramatic works has asserted that his “Dublin trilogy” represents his highest achievement, and many critics have acknowledged that these tragicomedies almost single handedly reinvigorated the Irish-Anglo theater with their gritty portraits of industrial, urban life. At the same time, however, critics generally have maintained that O'Casey's plays after The Plough and the Stars fail to attain a similar level of artistic vision, claiming that they are marred by overt didacticism and ideological propaganda. Furthermore, most critics have perceived a noticeable break in his dramaturgical style, beginning with The Silver Tassie, denying any resemblance between the conventions of his early drama and that of his later plays. Despite the widespread acceptance of such views, some recent scholars have characterized O'Casey's dramatic art as a precursor of the “total theater” experience, citing the presence of such diverse elements as vaudeville, melodrama, sentimentality, literary and historical allusions, and alternately poetic and polemical language. While many scholars have hesitantly granted accord with this perspective, they also have been reluctant to deal with O'Casey's ideological commitments in similar fashion, frequently isolating them from his technical accomplishments in the theatre.