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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...

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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The Shadow of a Gunman 1923

Cathleen Listens In 1923

Juno and the Paycock 1924

Nannie's Night Out 1924

The Plough and the Stars 1926

The Silver Tassie 1929

Within the Gates 1934

The End of the Beginning 1937

A Pound on Demand 1939

The Star Turns Red 1940

Purple Dust 1943

Red Roses for Me 1943

Oak Leaves and Lavender 1946

Cock-a-Doodle Dandy 1949

Bedtime Story 1952

Hall of Healing 1952

Time to Go 1952

The Bishop's Bonfire 1955

The Drums of Father Ned 1959

Figuro in the Night 1962

The Moon Shines on Kylenamoe 1962

Behind the Green Curtains 1962

* Feathers from a Green Crow 1962

The Harvest Festival 1980

The Story of the Irish Citizen Army (nonfiction) 1919

I Knock at the Door (autobiography) 1939

Pictures in the Hallway (autobiography) 1942

Drums under the Windows (autobiography) 1945

Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (autobiography) 1949

Rose and Crown (autobiography) 1952

Sunset and the Evening Star (autobiography) 1954

The Green Crow (essays and short stories) 1956

Blasts and Benedictions (essays) (1967)

*These dates indicate the first publication of Feathers from a Green Crow and The Harvest Festival, which was was originally written between 1918 and 1919. Neither has been performed to date.

John Jordan (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “The Passionate Autodidact: The Importance of Litera Scripta for O’Casey,” in Irish University Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 59-76.

[In the essay below, Jordan examines the importance of literary allusions in O’Casey’s dramaturgy.]

He took the Reading Lesson-book out of his pocket, opened it, and recited:

I chatther, chatther as I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.

Well, he’d learned poethry and kissed a girl. If he hadn’ gone to school, he’d met the scholars; if he hadn’ gone into the house, he had knocked at the door.1

I

Sean O’Casey is the most bookish of all Irish dramatists.2 From The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) to the last three plays, published together, Behind the Green Curtains, Figuro in the Night and The Moon Shines on Kylenamoe (1961), quotations from and references to the books he had read or at the least was aware of (and chiefly from his protracted incubatory period), play an important part in his dramaturgy. The importance of the Book, for that child who preened himself on being able to read Tennyson’s “The Brook”, is nowhere better attested than in certain passages from the third and fourth volumes of his autobiography, where something like moral judgment enters into his observations of the literary taste of others. Cultural snobbery is not uncommonly an acrid fruit of autodidacticism. Here is a magnificent passage from Drums Under the Windows (1946) which, while it has imaginative truth, is yet wrong-headed about individuals, certainly about Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett and John Francis (later “Sean”) MacEntee:

Pity, though, few of them cared a thraneen about art, literature, or science. In this respect, even, they weren’t International. A few of them, one of the Plunkets, MacDonagh, and McEntee, paddled in the summertime in the dull waters of poor verse; but gave hardly any sign that they had ever plunged into the waters that kept the world green. No mention of art, science, or music appeared in Sinn Fein or Irish Freedom. To them, no book existed save ones like The Resurrection of Hungary or the Sinn Fein Year Book. None of them ever seemed to go to a play, bar one that made them crow in pain and anger. A great many of them were ignorant of the finest things of the mind, as the onslaught on Synge showed. Even Mangan was beyond them. All of them knew his Dark Rosaleen by heart; sang it so often that one got tired of her sighing and weeping, longing to hear her roar out vulgar words with the vigour of a Pegeen Mike. But Mangan’s splendid Ode to The Maguire was known to hardly any of them, or, if known, never mentioned. In all the years of his sojourn in Irish Ireland, he never once heard it mentioned. Thomas Davis was their pattern and their pride. He sang for them every hour of the day, and, if he happened to tire, … William Rooney, Griffith’s great butty, sang instead. In a literary sense, they could have chosen a king in Mitchel; instead they put a heavy gilded crown on the pauper Davis. Almost all of them feared the singing of Yeats, and many were openly hostile to him, though few of them could quote a line from a poem of his. All they treasured of him was the dream which fashioned the little play about Cathleen Ni Houlihan, a tiny bubble, iridescent with a green tinge … Apart from Pearse, Seumas Deakin, and Tom Clarke, few of the others showed any liking for book, play, poem, or picture. (A, I, 616-17)

But if O’Casey makes an almost blanket indictment of Irish Ireland’s cultural poverty, he mades a comparable indictment of the impunity of Anglo-Irish Ireland’s literary taste. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Oliver St John Gogarty and James Stephens are rapped on the knuckles with varying degrees of severity in Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (1949). He tells of how, knowing from Lady Gregory that she had just given Yeats The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, the poet had had the effrontery to hail him, O’Casey, as “the Irish Dostoievsky”.

Another Dostoievsky! An Irish one, this time! And Yeats only after reading the man’s book for the first time the night before. … Yeats was trying to impress Sean with his knowledge of Dostoievsky. That was a weakness in the poet. But why hadn’t Sean the courage to tell Yeats that he knew damn all about the Russian writer? That was a weakness in Sean. (A, II, 163)

Clearly Yeats’s ignorance at sixty of Dostoievsky is as culpable for O’Casey as his attempt to conceal it. And he goes on to expose ‘weakness’ in other established figures in the Anglo-Irish Pantheon. At Coole, Lady Gregory read to him from Hardy's The Dynasts, Moby Dick and W.H. Hudson's The Purple Land (A, II, 115). But on the station at Athenry he came upon her “sitting on a bench, her head lovingly close to a book”. He approached her and “Catching in her dulling ear a sound of his movement, she snapped her book shut but not before he had seen that the book was called Peg o' My Heart”. Seeing “the look of bewilderment in his eye” she said ‘Ah, dat book? I fordet who dave it to me. I just wanted to see what tort it was’.3

At A.E.'s house he catches Stephens out “suddenly and hurriedly asking A.E., author of the Homeward Songs, for a Blood-and-Thunder novel, and A.E. had fished one out from his books, without a search; he had plunged a hand in among the books and out came the Blood-and-Thunder novel” (A, II, 163). A.E.'s literary taste is further castigated in a stylized conversation between O'Casey, and two companions, in a Dublin pub: says O'Casey, “But then he couldn't stand Shakespeare's Sonnets, didn't like his plays and no wonder for Alexandre Dumas, Zane Grey, and others like them, were the literary nectar his gods gave him” (A, II, 178). This manifest injustice concerns me here less than O'Casey's insistence on the importance of the top-drawer Book. But perhaps the most telling evidence of O'Casey's absolutism in literary taste deals with Gogarty and, again, Yeats.

Long afterwards, when Oliver Gogarty came on a visit to him in London, what he had known before was confirmed again. Gogarty had entered on a whirlwind of restlessness. He had flung down his suitcase, the impact had burst it open, and a book fell out on to the floor. Sean's wife and Oliver had made a dive together to get it, but Gogarty was a second too late; and Sean saw the title of one of Edgar Wallace's rich and rare inventions. (A, II, 166)

The spectacle of Gogarty and Eileen O'Casey ‘diving’ for the ‘rich and rare’ with its echoes from The Tempest (I.ii.399) and Thomas Moore, (“Rich and Rare Were the Gems She Wore”) is mildly comic: more disturbing is the surprisingly sharp-eyed Sherlock O'Casey. Sherlock O'Casey goes on to recount a visit to Yeats when the poet was “busy with his last anthology of modern poetry”. In the course of a wide-ranging conversation “Sean's eyes kept turning to glance at a disordered pile of books strewing the marble mantelshelf” Yeats noticed “and cocked one of his own eyes towards them—for the other was covered with a thick green shade—and remarked that they were Wild Western Tales and Detective Stories. Yeats made no bones about it” (A, II, 166). He turned “for shelter and rest to Zane Grey and Dorothy Sayers”. O'Casey's reaction is decidedly a moral one. “Dope, thought Sean. He uses them as dope to lull the mind to sleep, just as the one-two, one-two mind of a Roman Catholic keeps awake by reading the tuppenny booklets of the Catholic Truth Society”. He has referred to the ‘weakness’ of Yeats and also of Stephens (A, II, 163). The moral tone of his strictures on bad taste in literature is clinched in the following:

Aye indeed; even the greater gods of Dublin had their frailties and their faults. They could sometimes build their little cocks of antic hay, and try to tumble about in them. The lordly ones weren't always quite so lordly with literature as they generally posed to be. (A, II, 166)

I should add that Aldous Huxley's novel Antic Hay was published in 1923, but Oliver St John Gogarty's autobiography of his early days, Tumbling in the Hay did not appear until 1939, three years after Yeats's Oxford Book of Modern Verse, on which he was at work when O'Casey visited him at Lancaster Gate.

II

When his father, Michael Casey, was dying, “Johnny Casside”, the persona O'Casey created for himself as a child, records “There was one comfort, that if he died, he would die in the midst of his books” (A, I, 27). There were, it seems, alongside “a regiment of theological controversial books” including Merle D'Aubigne's History of the Reformation, the Enblish Bible, the Latin Vulgate, the Douai Testament and Cruden's Concordance (a book essential, by the way, for all or most O'Casey exegesis), the novels of Dickens, Scott, George Eliot, Meredith and Thackeray, the poetry of Burns, Keats, Milton, Gray and Pope, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding (A, I, 27-8). It may be noticed that O'Casey's listing has no pedantic regard for chronology: e.g. Dickens before Scott, Burns and Keats before Milton. And of course there was Shakespeare. From the remnants of “her father's fine store” Ella [Isabella], O'Casey's married elder sister, unearthed some “unsaleable books, from which to give her brother some elementary education” (A, I, 172). Thus O'Casey learned to read “Poethry” as indicated above. It is possible to chart from the volumes after I Knock at the Door (1939) a laborious self-education and the effect it had on his life and the effect, as I hope to show further, on his dramatic canon.

O'Casey was scarcely into his teens when he became involved in rehearsals for a charity concert at the Coffee Palace in Townshend Street. “Johnny Casside” was to play Henry VI to his brother Archie's Gloucester in Henry VI, V.iii. (A, I, 191). He “learned the part from one of three volumes of the Works of Shakespeare won as a prize by Ella when she was a student in Marlborough House Teachers' Training College” (A, I, 192). But, at this stage “Johnny Casside” is more for Dion Boucicault than Shakespeare. “What a pity they hadn't chosen a bit outa Conn the Shaughraun instead of pouncin' on Shakespeare's stiff stuff. If they only knew, Boucicault was the boy to choose” (A, I, 195). He fancies himself as Father Dolan in Boucicault's The Shaughraun (1874). A passage from Act I, Scene 1, is quoted, I would say from memory, since it diverges slightly from the printed text.4 Because of the death of the Duke of Clarence the Coffee House concert was cancelled, but at fifteen he did indeed play Father Dolan, at the Mechanics' Institute, later converted into the Abbey Theatre (A, I, 305-8). But before that he had acted for the Townshend Dramatic Society in scenes from 3 Henry VI, Julius Caesar and Henry VIII as well as from Boucicault, including The Octoroon (1859) and “lots of others in Dick's little orange-coloured books of Standard Plays” (A, I, 298).

At the Mechanics' Institute he had free passes for the shows of a former Boucicault star Charlie Sullivan in whose company his brother Archie had small parts (A, I, 299). But this familiarity with a decidedly non-literary theatre was not enjoyed in vacuo. He was reading Shakespeare outside the range of the snippets provided by the Townshend Dramatic Society. He was buying books and reading them, as well as poring over what remained of his father's old books, including Merle d'Aubigné. He torments his mates, senior and junior, in the emporium where he works, with his superior general knowledge and especially his catechumen's knowledge of Shakespeare. “Settin’ aside the Chronicle Plays, name ten of the others. No answer? Yous couldn't. What's th' name o' th' play containin' the quarrel between th' two celebrated families, an' what was the city where they lived called? No answer? Verona, Verona, th' city; Montague and Capulet, th' families.” He baits his superior, Dyke, with allusions to “fiery Tybalt” and Romeo and Juliet I.i., lines 4, 50-57 (the dialogue between the servants of Capulet and Montague). I cannot trace “dismantled messengers” to which he refers (A, I, 276).

The books he was buying included novels by Balzac, Scott, Dickens, Hugo, Fenimore Cooper and Dumas (presumably, his respect for Dumas had diminished by the time he met A.E.) and, in poetry, “the works of Byron, Shelley, Keats, Goldsmith, Tennyson, Eliza Cook—a terrible waste of sixpence—Gray and the Golden Treasury, with the glorious Globe edition of Shakespeare falling to bits.” (A, I, 289) In 1966, Jack Lindsay wrote: “I should like incidentally to stress the debt I feel he owed to Ruskin for helping him as a young man to gain a broad, subtle, and unsectarian sense of the issues.”5 Ruskin indeed bulked large in the young O'Casey's library. He had The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Sesame and Lilies, Ethics of the Dust, Unto This Last and The Crown of Wild Olive (A, I, 289). The last-named, being four lectures, on Work, War, Traffic and the Future of England, published in 1882, is of special importance. Literally, he burned the midnight oil over grammar, geography and history. “Whenever he got tired of these things, he read some bit from the Deserted Village or from Ruskin's Crown of Wild Olives” [sic]. His dwindling paraffin's “last few inches were giving a flickering salute to the glories of Goldsmith, Ruskin and Marlowe” (A, I, 348-9). When a zealous Nationalist friend, Ayamonn O'Farrel, calls on him, bringing Speeches from the Dock and the Life of Wolfe Tone (A, I, 354-7), Johnny Casside spouts The Crown of Wild Olive at him, and how far O'Casey was steeped in this book may be judged from the fact that in Pictures in the Hallway he appears to be writing from memory; the texts quoted (from “War” and “Traffic”) vary significantly from Ruskin's. One of the more important variations is O'Casey's anticipation of Ruskin's “Goddess of Getting-On” which in fact occurs a page later in the original.6

O'Casey also makes much, writing of Johnny Casside's teens, of his adventures in the acquirement of a Collected Milton. In the context he quotes Paradise Lost, VI, 207-19, “from a book on Elocution, left behind by his father.” (A, I, 286) In the event, he steals the Milton from Hanna's bookshop on Bachelor's Walk, thus giving ammunition to a self-righteous Dublin journalist who denounced him, as recently as 1975, as “a self-confessed thief and cheat.”7 But, clearly, “buyin' a book was a serious thing” for the young autodidact.

Untypically, Drums Under the Windows (1946) has a formal literary epigraph, but unacknowledged: “Study that house. / I think about its jokes and stories.” This of course is from Yeats's second-last play.8 There are many Yeats references in Drums, of which I cite the more important. At a Connolly meeting “Sean” (as “Johnny Casside” becomes as an adult) reflects in fantastic terms on Griffith who is present, and on varying attitudes to Yeats, specifically in relation to his receipt of a pension from the British Crown. (His name was put on the Civil List at the end of 19109)

We have too few, too few such men to spare a one like Yeats the poet, and the Gaelic Leaguers who heard him grew silent. Devil a much you fellows do to keep a few shillings jingling in the poet's pocket. What about the Israelites who took gold, silver, and jewels from the Egyptians before they left them? If England pays the man's rent, then let it be counted unto righteousness for her. None of you know a single poem by Yeats, not even The Ballad of Father Gilligan. And the poor oul' gaum, Cardinal Logue, condemning Countess Cathleen though he hadn't read a line of it. We were paying a deep price for that sort of thing since Parnell went away from us. He himself had read the ballad only. (A, I, 416)

That last is an extraordinary admission if, in fact, it refers to 1911, when Yeats's pension became public knowledge. Elsewhere, we learn that in 1907 he had never seen Cathleen Ni Houlihan, “a shilling was too much for him to spare for a play” and wished he could see “this play by Singe or Sinje” (A, I, 519). (The Playboy.) He will tell us in Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (1949) that when he began to submit plays to the Abbey in the ’twenties he had only twice been to the theatre: in December 1917 to see Blight by Gogarty (and, apparently, it was accompanied by Lady Gregory's The Jackdaw), and, most likely, in August 1920, to see Shaw's Androcles and the Lion accompanied by James Stephens's The Wooing of Julia Elizabeth (A, II, 96). Later, after his Abbey successes, when Lennox Robinson was entertaining him to dinner at the Thirteen Club, he discovered that he was ignorant of writers that “were common names in the mouths of those who sat beside him.” He had never seen or read Andreiev or Giacosa or Maeterlinck or Benavente or Pirandello:

… while Sean whispered the names of Shaw and Strindberg which they didn't seem to catch, though he instinctively kept firm silence about Dion Boucicault, whose work he knew as well as Shakespeare's; afterwards provoking an agonized My Gawd! from Mr. Robinson, when he stammered the names of Webster, Ford, and Massinger. (A, II, 105)

Here again, is the slightly priggish tone of the autodidact, who believes that he has acquired a gravamen of solid literary culture, as distinct from others with more formal education (neither Yeats nor Robinson had much of that) and a cosmopolitan background, but with a questionable enthusiasm for the exotic and modish. In fact before 1926 when O'Casey left Ireland, Robinson's Dublin Drama League had produced plays by Andreiev, Benavente and Pirandello, and indeed his beloved Shaw and Strindberg.10 O'Casey must or should have known this. But for better or worse, he sniffed a gilded rat in the Thirteen Club.

III

Almost from the beginning of his career as a published writer, O'Casey tended to air his hard-won learning. The title-page of The Story of Thomas Ashe (1917) bore lines from Browning. The following year a second edition re-titled The Sacrifice of Thomas Ashe had lines from Pope on the cover, and on the title-page Shakespeare and Pope again.11 Pope and Browning seem indecorous in the context of the hunger-striker Ashe and the great Glasnevin funeral in 1917. Antony's lines on the dead Brutus (Julius Caesar V.v. 73-5) are little more congruous.

In the first staged play The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) O'Casey left the hall-mark of his self-conscious literary culture on his hero (or anti-hero), the would-be poet and player gunman, Donal Davoren. In the stage directions we are told that he has “an inherited and self-developed devotion to ‘the might of design, the mystery of colour, and the belief in the redemption of all things by beauty everlasting’.12 Davoren echoes Dubedat, from whose dying speech in Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma O'Casey's quotation is taken, when in Act II he attacks the People: “To them the might of design is a three-roomed house or a capacious bed” (CP, I, 127). But Davoren's chief contact with the more ‘poetic’ aspects of literature is through Shelley's great unactable verse-play Prometheus Unbound, from which three times in Act I and again towards the curtain he quotes Prometheus's refrain “Ah me! pain, pain ever, forever!”13 As an index to character or type, the line is viable: Davoren's anguish, at least initially, is factitious and so requires for sustenance incommensurate statements. At the beginning of Act II he quotes ii. 281-84 from Epipsychidion:

The cold chaste Moon, the Queen of Heaven's bright isles,
Who makes all beautiful on which she smiles;
That wandering shrine of soft yet icy flame,
Which ever is transformed, but still the same.

(CP, I, 125)

The full-stop is O'Casey's, for the line runs on in a half-line, “And warms not, but illumines.” Should the Shelley quotations seem obtrusive, a case may be made for them as suggested above. I do not think that the same might be said for Davoren's reply to his room-mate Seumas Shield's query as to the time: “The village cock hath thrice done salutation to the morn”. The pedlar Shields's quick response need not seem odd in a man of the kind who as a boy may have frequented the Mechanics' Institute: “Shakespeare, Richard the III, Act Five, Scene III. It was Ratcliffe said that to Richard just before the battle of Bosworth” (CP, I, 131). What is odd is that while Shields's location of the line is exact Davoren's quotation is not. It should be “the early village cock”, though “twice” instead of “thrice” may be Davoren's essay at a feeble donnish joke. Elsewhere (CP, I, 93) Davoren laces his conversation with familiar quotations from The Rubai'yat of Omar Khayam and Milton's Sonnet XIX (“When I consider how my light is spent”). But none of his quotations has the effect of his incorporation into his last speech of Ecclesiastes 12.6 in part: “Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken” (CP, I, 156-7). In later plays O'Casey will be bolder in his use of the Old Testament.

In his first full-length play Juno and the Paycock (1924) O'Casey almost certainly used books as symbols. Mary Boyle is an enlightened Minnie Powell. She reads above her station. Her father “Jackie” Boyle, the Captain, has caught her reading a volume of Ibsen: “three stories, The Doll's House, Ghosts, an' The Wild Duck,—buks only fit for chiselurs”! To which, “Joxer” Daly rejoins “Didja ever rade Elizabeth, or Th' Exile o' Sibayria?14 This is not Joxer's only favourite book. He has also a stock of mediocre verse of which the following are two samples (I have de-Joxerised them.):

And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his Gods?

(CP, I, 27)

This is from Horatius, XXVIII, in Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome (1867). The provenance of the second on Joxer's lips is rather mysterious.

Tender-hearted stroke a nettle
And it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle
And it soft as silk remains.

(CP, I, 27)

The author of those sublimely trite lines was Aaron Hill (1685-1750), who wrote tragedies and farces, some for Drury Lane. Joxer has two other favourite books, whose titles are introduced at crucial moments. He observes of Father Farrell, “I wondher did he ever read the Story o' Irelan'.” And Boyle replies “Be J.L. Sullivan? Don't you know he didn't” (CP, I, 38). It seems unlikely that the audiences of 1924 (or since) got the joke. The Story of Ireland or a Narrative of Irish History written for Irish Youth was written and published by Alexander Martin Sullivan (Dublin 1886). ‘J.L. Sullivan’ is Boyle's conflation of this Sullivan and the Irish-American boxer. At the end of the play the drunken Joxer has the penultimate speech: “D'jever rade Willie … Reilly … an' his own … Colleen … Bawn? It's a darlin' story, a daarlin' story!” (CP, I, 89). William Carleton's novel Willy Reilly and His Dear Colleen Bawn was published in 1850-51, and a revised version in 1855. Just eleven years before the historical time of Juno James Duffy of Dublin brought out an edition (1909). The novel, by the way, has nothing to do with Gerald Griffin's The Collegians (1829), from which Dion Boucicault took material for his play The Colleen Bawn (1860).15

If Mary Boyle and Ibsen represent an attempt to escape from a washed-out popular culture then Joxer with his “darlin stories”, Elizabeth or the Exiles of Siberia, Sullivan's The Story of Ireland and Carleton's Willy Reilly, his snatches from Macaulay, Hill and others may be said to represent that culture at its nadir. And Boyle's reaction to the news of his daughter's pregnancy prefigures venonmous attacks on the Book in plays written many years later:

Her an' her readin'! That's more o' th' blasted nonsense that has the house fallin' down on top of us! What did th' likes of her, born in a tenement house, want with readin'? Her readin's afther bringin' her to a nice pass—oh, it's madnin', madnin', madnin'! (CP, I, 75)

But there is a reference in Juno which goes further back than Mary Boyle's explorations of continental drama, which may be taken as a reflection of O'Casey's own. Curiously it occurs in a speech from “Captain” Boyle. “An', as it blowed an' blowed, I ofen looked up at the sky an' assed meself the question—what is the stars, what is the stars? … An' then, I'd have another look, an' I'd ass meself—what is the moon?” (CP, I, 26) This may be compared with this from Pictures in the Hallway: “Johnny glanced up at a sickle moon hanging in the sky among a throng of stars. What was it and what were they? He had looked in the pages of Ball's Story of the Heavens and at the pictures, but it was all too hard for him yet.” (A, I, 256) Sir Robert Stawell Ball's The Story of the Heavens was published (London: Cassell) in 1885, and reissued in 1886 and 1891. The coincidence of the adolescent Johnny's and the middle-aged Boyle's reflections suggests, I submit, some investigation into how far O'Casey distributed his actual experience among his characters.

The Plough and the Stars (1926) is the first play in which O'Casey makes use of the Old Testament as a stroke in stageportraiture. This he can do without loss of verisimilitude, since Bessie Burgess is at least the remains of an Evangelical Protestant. O'Casey has her quote the Bible inexactly, as when she castigates Mrs. Gogan none too obliquely: “… a middle-aged married woman makin' herself th' centre of a circle of men is as a woman that is loud an' stubborn whose feet abideth not in her own house” (CP, I, 202). The verse, Proverbs 7.11., “She is loud and stubborn; her feet abide not in her house,” is more insulting than it might appear to the non-Bible reader, for it is preceded in Proverbs by “And, behold, there met him a woman with the attire of a harlot, and subtil of heart” and succeeded by “Now she is without, now in the streets, and lieth in wait at every corner.” O'Casey in 1926 may have enjoyed airing his knowledge of the Old Testament before a largely Roman Catholic audience. Few Catholics, I hazard, would have been able to place Bessie's prayer at the end of Act III: “Oh, God, be Thou my help in time o' throuble. An' shelter me safely in th' shadow of Thy wings!” (CP, I, 238) In fact, Bessie, characteristically, garbles Psalms 36.7., 46.1., 61.4., and 63.7., to make her sublime appeal.

If O'Casey appeals to us through his use of Biblical language, so also does he through the rhetoric of P.H. Pearse which also, of course, is an integral in the structure of Act II. Pearse's writings had appeared in collected book-form 1917-1922 and so were easily available to O'Casey when he was writing The Plough. The extracts from Pearse's speech at the graveside of O'Donovan O'Rossa are not all that is heard of him in Act II (CP, I, 213). We also hear him quoting from an article he published in Spark in December 1915, “Peace and the Gael”, an article which “went too far even for Connolly”.16 From it O'Casey culled the passage in which Pearse declares:

The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. … Such august homage was never [before] offered to God as this: the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country. (CP, I, 196)

This statement by Pearse, derived from print, is more crucial to the significance of Act II than the passages from the Rossa oration, since it attempts to glorify all war, “for love of country” as “homage” to God. Act II in effect is, on one level, O'Casey's first major pacifist statement (he will exhibit a rather different stance towards the Second World War). We may with hindsight see that, having made that statement, it was not unlikely that he would go on to write a play like The Silver Tassie (1928).

Davoren quoted Ecclesiastes, Bessie Burgess quoted Proverbs and Psalms, The Croucher, who opens Act II of Tassie, paraphrases and adapts verses from Ezekiel 37, which, I would say, would be unfamiliar to the vast majority of audiences. But the provenance of The Croucher's speeches is crucial. Thus Ezekiel 37.9, runs “Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they live”, but becomes from The Croucher “And he said, prophesy, and say unto the wind, come from the four winds a breath and breathe upon these living that they may die.” (CP, II, 36) The Croucher reverses the sense of the Lord's message to the preacher, just as the warlords have reversed the Gospels.

IV

The Silver Tassie, though rejected by the Abbey, had been intended for that theatre. Within The Gates (1933) was the first of eight full-length plays which were not (as well as two near full-length and four one-act17 plays). The explicitly bookish content of this play is not great. The Atheist, adoptive father of The Young Woman, established her (after a fashion), in the line of Mary Boyle. He boasts to The Dreamer, “D'ye know, one time, the lass near knew the whole of Pine's [Paine's] Age of Reason off by 'eart!” (CP, II, 124) That line is from the Stage Version which appeared in Collected Plays; it does not appear in the original printed text of 1933. But an amusing exchange, between the Bishop and the Bishop's Sister after he has made something of an ass of himself blessing babies in the park, is not carried over to the Stage Version from the text of 1933:

Bishop's Sister. Shall we go somewhere dear, and read a little of Tennyson?

Bishop (snappily). Oh, damn old Tennyson.18

The Star Turns Red (1940), O'Casey's apocalyptic version of Irish Labour's past and future, is remarkably pure from the bookishness one might expect from O'Casey's treatment of such a subject. There is perhaps an echo from the first lines of Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium” in Jack's speech in Act III which begins “The young in each other's arms shall go on confirming the vigour of life.” (CP, II, 319)

In Purple Dust (1940) O'Casey pillages well known English verse not to laud it, but to satirize the cultural pretentions of his two English refugees from the War: Basil Stoke and Cyril Poges. The fact that Stoke Poges is a village associated with the composition of Gray's “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” suggests that O'Casey, temporarily at least, has had his surfeit of official English culture. In the space of a few pages, Poges, romanticizing over his Irish mansion and the joys of country seclusion, hesitates over schoolbook lines from Wordsworth's “The Solitary Reaper”; attempts to paraphrase his Sonnet “The world is too much with us; late and soon”; misquotes Poe's “To Helen” (“the glory that was Rome and the grandeur that was Greece”), and maintains that “Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he said that”; hits on [Wordsworth's] “the primrose by the river's brim, a yellow primrose was to him, but it was nothing more,” as one of “the wild flowers that Shakespeare loved” (CP, III, 21-5). Clearly Poges is the product of a culture in which all other poets have been, as it were, strained through Wordsworth. Space considerations preclude full quotation of the stonemason O'Killigain's onslaught on “good old Wordsworth”. It is inordinately vicious (CP, III, 21-2). In line with O'Killigain's perfervid deflation of Wordsworth in his description of Oxford, as, parodying James Thomson, “The city of dissolute might!” (CP, III, 103) When O'Killigain bids Avril, Poges's lady, be ready to leave when the river rises, Poges surpasses himself in trite quotations: “Come with me and be my love! Come into the garden Maud” (CP, III, 109). Marlowe of course he gets wrong. He closes the play, however, with his first conscious misquotations: from Browning's “Home Thoughts, From Abroad” he distils: “Would to God I were in England, now that winter's here!” (CP, III, 119)

If Poges (and Stoke) represent the superficies of public school culture Ayamonn Breydon in Red Roses for Me (1942) represents the genuineness of enlightened working-class culture. When the play opens we find him rehearsing Gloucester in 3 Henry VI V.vi. for a concern in the local Temperance Hall. Ayamonn says of the audiences: “… they're afraid of Shakespeare out of all that's been said of him. They think he's beyond them, while all the time he's part of the kingdom of heaven in the nature of everyman.” (CP, III, 131) Later (p. 136) we hear that one Mullcanny will be bringing Ayamonn Haeckel's The Riddle of the Universe. Later again in Act I, Ayamonn offers to lend an Irish Irelander Ruskin's The Crown of Wild Olive and there follows a conversation that resembles Johnny Casside's with the tram conductor and includes the self same quotation from Ruskin.19 In Act II Ayamonn reads out Hamlet 11.ii, 613-4 and cries, “Oh, Will, you were a boyo; a brave boyo, though, and a beautiful one!” (p. 163). In Act IV (p. 208), Ayamonn's friend, the Rev Mr Clinton, defends the young man's cross of daffodils for Easter, to his verger, with Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale IV.iv. 118-20. The verger's reply typifies the response already indicated by Ayamonn: “Altogether too high up for poor me, sir.”

Ayamonn Breydon with his Shakespeare, his Ruskin, his Haeckel, his reproductions of Fra Angelico and Constable, is of course an idealized image of O'Casey himself. But he is something more: Everyman redeeming himself from the depths by the power of the Book, of litera scripta. The importance of litera scripta is seen even in his often jingoistic play about wartime England Oak Leaves and Lavender (1946). The ghostly Dancers who return to the blacked-out manorial house maintain that “Goldsmith, Berkeley, Boyle, Addison, Hone, Swift, and Sheridan still bear flaming torches through the streets of life” (CP, IV, 9). The Irish Leftist Drishogue bids his English friend Edgar fight and perhaps die for all the Englands: “For all of them in the greatness of England's mighty human soul set forth in what Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, and Milton sang …” (CP, IV, 29). The Land Girl Jennie larks about with tags from Gray and Fitzgerald (p. 33). Drishogue's father, the butler Feelim, shows off to the pacifist Pobjoy about his knowledge of both the birth-place and grave of Milton (p. 95). Even in bouts of farcical comedy, we are never allowed to forget the mighty dead of literature.

The Book has an important place also in the last five plays to be discussed here. In Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949) Father Domineer come to exorcize the house of Michael Marthraun hears that Michael's daughter Loreleen has “evil books”, gets into a frenzy not dissimilar from Jackie Boyle's in Juno: “Bring them out, bring them out! How often have I to warn you against books! Hell's bells tolling people away from th' truth!” (CP, IV, 200-1) Books are brought out for his inspection. They are “A book about Voltaire” which Father Domineer maintains has been banned20 and “Ullisississies, or something” (p. 201). The books are sent to the Presbytery to be burned, another apparent victory for the pressure groups of anti-intellectualism. Loreleen, of course, is another variation on Minnie Powell-Mary Boyle. Robert Hogan has noted that “Of the late plays The Drums of Father Ned and Behind the Green Curtains are probably the most allusive, and The Bishop's Bonfire is probably the least”.21 But possibly that gorgeous prop, the “buckineeno” later “bookneeno”, a horn or cornet blown at inauspicious moments by the statue of the Bishop's patron, St. Tremolo, has its origins in O'Casey's literary experience. “St. Tremolo” we are told was “the fella … who played a buck, a buckineeno, in the old Roman Army.”22 O'Casey would have perhaps encountered “the bucina, the Roman war-trumpet” in Act I of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra where it is described as making a “terrible bellowing note”.23 If we see “St. Tremolo” as a commander-in-chief of Ballyoonagh's Roman legions, there is an added comic dimension to the fatuous gesture of the Bishop's Bonfire in which “piles of bad books an' evil pictures … are to go away in flames.” (p. 29) A priest-writer who loved books is alluded to in the liberal young Father Boheroe's speech to Foorawn who has asked him if he is going to watch the Bishop's Bonfire: “my road goes in an opposite direction, where, though there be no cedars, at least, I shall walk under the stars.” (p. 113) The allusion to Canon Sheehan,24 I fear, is lost on most of those who read O'Casey.

The Drums of Father Ned (1960) gives us a development of Father Boheroe, but Father Ned does not appear. Under his influence Doonavale (“Shut his mouth”) is waking up, and the young people are preparing a Boucicault-type play for An Tóstal.25 In this springtime for Doonavale literary allusions are rife. Johnny Casside and Jackie Boyle creep into the mind when young Michael and Nora look at the stars (p. 82) and Nora completes Michael's quotation from Tennyson's “Locksley Hall” (ll. 9-10). The nouveaux riches Binningtons try to impress guests with a story about Yeats and Gogarty in Gogarty's As I was Going Down Sackville Street, but never get to tell it (p. 88). Michael scandalizes all by stating that God “may be but a shout in th' street” (p. 92) echoing Joyce.26 Nora quotes Eliot in reverse when she says that the question of Red timber in Doonavale will be answered “not with a whimper, but with a bang!”27 Binnington and McGilligan, in dishevelled mayoral robes, in feeble bravado quote (p. 101) from Blake's Milton inaccurately (“burnished gold” and “arras of desire”). The local allusions in Behind the Green Curtains (1961), a play set in Dublin and a town outside called Ballybeedhost (“Bally-Be-Quiet”: compare Doonavale), are numerous but the purely literary allusions are thin on the ground. The enlightened industrialist Chatastray has Renan's Life of Jesus in his library: the journalist McGeelish takes it for “some cod book o' devotions”.28 The progressive worker, Beoman quotes Burns (“Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie”) (p. 81), when Chatastray yields to ecclesiastical pressure (Le chat has become a mouse, perhaps).

Figuro in the Night (1961) bristles with an old man's literary jokes. It is an Old Woman who introduces Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes when she asks if Adam and Eve could sit forever “undher a breadfruit, undher a banyan, undher a bamboo tree, in a garden, eatin' grapes.”29 It is an Old Man who counters with Thomas Edward Brown's “A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot,” and precipitates lovely nonsense (p. 99). Another Old Man misquotes The Ancient Mariner (ll. 115-6) and is complemented by yet another greybeard (p. 106) misquoting ll. 117-8. The first of these two Old Men plays on Hamlet III.iv.103 (and possibly The Mikado) when he describes how his clothes have become “a thing o' shreds and patches” (p. 107). He also asks “Oh who'll call for th' robin an' th' wren” for protection against “all kinds of evil things” (p. 111), in the wake of the notorious Brussels “Figuro” set down overnight in Dublin, thus recalling Cornelia's lament for Marcello in Webster's The White Devil V.iv. This bookish joke is perhaps one of O'Casey's most bitter and effective: an echo from Renaissance tragedy in life and theatre introduced into the manic prurience of contemporary Ireland as he saw it.

I have by no means covered all the ground in this article which has attempted to establish not merely the weight of literary reference in O'Casey's plays, but also his life-long love and respect for books. He throve on them and often his imagination was fired by litera scripta. The autobiographies and the plays in a manner complement each other up to 1955 and provide one of many O'Casey portraits: the passionate autodidact.

Notes

  1. I Knock at the Door (1939), in Autobiographies (2 vols., London: Macmillan, 1963), I, 175. Autobiographies is hereafter cited as A.

  2. Denis Johnston runs him closely. See The Dramatic Works of Denis Johnston (3 vols., Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1977, 1979-).

  3. A, II, 165. See J. Hartley Manners, Peg o' My Heart (New York: Grosset, 1912). The play was first produced in 1913.

  4. A, I, 195-6. Cf. David Krause, ed., The Dolmen Boucicault (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1963), pp. 181-2.

  5. Jack Lindsay, “Sean O'Casey as a Socialist Artist”, in Ronald Ayling (ed.), Sean O'Casey: Modern Judgements (London: Macmillan, 1969), p. 202.

  6. A, I, 356. See John Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive (Orpington, Kent: G. Allen, 1882), pp. 90-1.

  7. A, I, 293. Cf. Anthony Butler, “Town Talk”, Evening Herald, 22 July 1975.

  8. Purgatory, in Collected Plays (London: Macmillan, second edition, 1963), p. 681.

  9. Joseph Hone, W.B. Yeats, 1865-1939 (London: Macmillan, second edition, 1962), p. 249.

  10. Brenna Katz Clarke and Harold Ferrar, The Dublin Drama League 1919-1941 (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1979), pp. 22-31. “Sean O'Casey attended, [Gabriel] Fallon estimates, about sixty per cent of the Drama League's plays” (p. 16).

  11. Ronald Ayling and Michael J. Durkan, Sean O'Casey: A Bibliography (London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press, 1978), p. 7.

  12. Collected Plays (4 vols., London: Macmillan, 1949-64), I, 93. Hereafter cited as CP.

  13. CP, I, 96, 101, 105, 156.

  14. CP, I, 23. Elizabeth; or, the Exiles of Siberia, a novel by Marie Cottin, was first published in Paris in 1806, the first Dublin edition (a translation) appearing in 1811. It went through many editions up to the 1890s. Maurice Harmon describes it as “that kind of sentimental novel in which heroines of extraordinary virtue undergo the most unlikely hazards and are then rewarded by marriage, money, happiness and position.” See Harmon's article, “Didja ever rade Elizabeth, or Th' Exile o' Sibayria?” in Era, 3 (n.d.), 34-38. The quotation is from p. 34.

  15. André Boné, William Carleton, romancier irlandais (1794-1869) (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1978), p. 129.

  16. Ruth Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure (London: Faber, 1979), p. 245.

  17. For space considerations I have omitted all the one-act plays, of which there are eight extant. See Ayling and Durkan, A Bibliography.

  18. Within the Gates (London: Macmillan, 1933), p. 55.

  19. CP, III, 157-8. Cf. A, I, 355-6.

  20. Probably an allusion to Alfred Noyes's Voltaire (London: Sheed and Ward, 1936). Noyes, a convert to the Catholic church, displeased the Holy Office.

  21. “The Haunted Inkbottle”, in The James Joyce Quarterly, VIII (No. 1, Fall 1970), p. 86. See also Christopher Murray, “Two More Allusions in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy”, in The Sean O'Casey Review, IV (No. 1, Fall 1977), 6-18.

  22. The Bishop's Bonfire (London: Macmillan, 1955), p. 53.

  23. Complete Plays with Prefaces (6 vols., New York: Dodd, Mead, 1963), III, p. 380.

  24. See P.A. Sheehan, Under the Cedars and the Stars (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1903).

  25. The Drums of Father Ned (London: Macmillan, 1960), p. 34.

  26. Ibid., p. 92. Cf. James Joyce, Ulysses (London: Bodley Head, 1962), p. 42.

  27. Ibid., p. 95. Cf. T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”, in The Complete Poems and Plays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962), p. 59.

  28. Behind the Green Curtains, Figuro in the Night, The Moon Shines on Kylenamoe (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 28.

  29. Figuro, p. 99. Cf. T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems and Plays, p. 81.

Heinz Kosok (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6621

SOURCE: “Juno and the Playwrights: The Influence of Sean O'Casey on Twentieth-Century Drama,” in Irish Writers and the Theatre,edited by Masaru Sekine, Colin Smythe, 1986, pp. 71-86.

[In the following essay, Kosok demonstrates that O'Casey's influence on contemporary dramatists was negligible beyond his work in the “Dublin trilogy.”]

I come from the same area as Sean O'Casey about whom I don't intend to say anything for the simple reason that it would be like praising the Lakes of Killarney—a piece of impertinence. As far as I'm concerned, all I can say is that O'Casey's like champagne, one's wedding night, or the Aurora Borealis or whatever you call them—all them lights.1

This is how an Irish fellow dramatist, Brendan Behan, reacted to the plays of Sean O'Casey, whom he considered ‘the greatest playwright living in my opinion’,2 and whom he defended vigorously against O'Casey's Irish critics:

In the United States, O'Casey is studied and praised in schools and universities all over the country. In the U.S.S.R. he is a highly respected artist. O'Casey is one of the few remaining unifying influences in a divided world. Why the hell should he care about a few crawthumpers in Ireland?3

Behan's praise, even if worded somewhat exuberantly, is fairly typical of the reaction of many twentieth-century dramatists to the plays of Sean O'Casey. John Arden (to cite a few highly diverse playwrights) confessed: ‘… I have been continuously inspired and excited by his plays—from all periods of his work …’ and he defended O'Casey as an experimental playwright and as a European rather than an Irishman.4 Equally, Arnold Wesker stated: ‘I can only say he was among my loves and influences’.5 Arthur Adamov insisted on his attachment to the plays of O'Casey whose ‘tenderness’ he singled out for special praise as O'Casey's most exceptional merit;6 and he even placed O'Casey on the same level as Brecht.7 Bertolt Brecht more than once referred approvingly to the plays of O'Casey.8 And Brian Friel stated quite simply: ‘We all came out from under his overcoat.’9

Eugene O'Neill and Denis Johnston also spoke very highly of O'Casey's early plays, even if they were not prepared to accept his later departure from the realities of the Dublin slums. O'Neill grumbled after he had read The Star Turns Red: ‘… O'Casey is an artist and the soap box is no place for his great talent. The hell of it seems to be, when an artist starts saving the world, he starts losing himself’.10 And Johnston fired a whole barrage of articles against O'Casey's later plays while conferring upon his earlier ones the greatest honour a writer has to give, that of parodying them. Not only did he insist ‘The consummate craftsman who could create the second Act of The Plough and the Stars clearly knows as much as need be known about the English language …’,11 he also called his own play about the Easter Rising The Scythe and the Sunset, and in The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ he even brought a worker playwright named O'Cooney on stage who is a replica of O'Casey at the time of his early fame.

Distinctly negative pronouncements are less easy to discover. The shrillest of them is that made by Brinsley MacNamara who, when he was a director of the Abbey Theatre, denounced his fellow directors and the Dublin audience in 1935 for their ‘wholly uncritical, and I might say, almost insane admiration for the vulgar and worthless plays of Mr. O'Casey’.12

If O'Casey found widespread acclaim among his fellow dramatists, the question remains whether their pronouncements are indicative of an influence that O'Casey may have exerted on their plays. Did he in any way shape the work of his contemporaries (as artists, if not in age) such as Brecht or O'Neill, or did a younger generation—Behan, Arden, Wesker and others—follow him as a model? And if such an influence is discovered, how does one measure it? It is of course highly dangerous to set down every superficial parallel as a possible influence; serious research into literary influences has often been discredited by source-hunting of this kind.

Literary critics have usually been just as vague on the subject of a possible O'Caseyan influence as O'Casey's fellow dramatists. If John Arden, for instance, is characterised as ‘a writer whose theatrical genius is strangely similar to that of O'Casey’,13 it hardly helps to pinpoint concrete influences. Usually, critics have not taken the question any further than the following statement which is quite useless as criticism:

… O'Casey extended his experiment by mixing realistic and non-realistic techniques in his plays—a mingled form which he was to use in all his later plays, and which has subsequently been used by most modern dramatists, to mention some representative examples, Obey's Noah (1931), Wilder's Our Town (1938), Giraudoux's Madwoman of Chaillot (1945), Williams's The Glass Menagerie (1944), Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949).14

What, if anything, one is inclined to ask, do these playwrights have in common with O'Casey; are they supposed to have consciously or subconsciously imitated him; and was there nobody given to ‘mixing realistic and non-realistic techniques’ (whatever these may be) before O'Casey? Even when his influence is seen as limited to one particular group of playwrights, it is still described in far from precise terms, as in the following statement:

… his working-class origin, and apprenticeship as a labourer rather than an intellectual, made him a culture hero of the new English dramatists of 1956. Worthy on his record of the highest official honours, here was a world-famous man of the theatre who, even in old age, made no concessions to established authority. … You can read his influence most obviously, of course, in The Quare Fellow and The Hostage by Brendan Behan. But O'Casey's influence goes much further than that. It extends to Arden, Wesker, Delaney, Rudkin, Alun Owen and a dozen others, wherever in fact urban dialect is shaped, selected and built up to the purposes of serious drama, wherever the rejects of society, the soldiers in Serjeant Musgrave's Dance or the rustics in Afore Night Come, are put in the centre of the stage and given a voice. They copied his faults, too, whenever they cultivated a folksy togetherness or let feeble stereotypes put the case for the ruling classes.15

The question of literary influence is certainly a difficult one. It is difficult not only where the technical problem of detecting and documenting such influence is concerned. It also encompasses the question of evaluation. Does a writer's importance depend on the amount of influence he has exerted on others? Would it be possible to argue, in other words, that a writer's literary qualities could be measured in terms of his influence? Or could one say, conversely, that the truly great artist is so special that he cannot be copied or imitated or even taken as a model by others? In the field of twentieth-century drama, Strindberg, Ibsen, Chekhov, Wilder and Brecht can be seen as examples of the first case, while Hauptmann, O'Neill, Shaw and Anouilh illustrate the second. The influence of Brecht, to take an example, upon a host of other writers was perhaps even greater than the literary quality of his works would have warranted; it is not too much to say that the whole course of twentieth-century drama would have been different if it had not been for the model of Brecht—a model that often was not even realised as such. On the other hand, O'Neill remained a lonely giant without followers, whose greatness seems to stand out even more because he did not initiate any tradition whatsoever.

Where O'Casey is concerned, both arguments could be used with equal conviction. O'Casey wrote highly diverse plays, which renders it practically impossible to make general statements about his work. If one sub-divides his career as a playwright into five phases,16 it is only the first one, with his great ‘Dublin’ plays like Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, that can be shown to have been influential for other dramatists. In his later plays, especially in masterpieces like The Silver Tassie, Red Roses for Me and Cock-a-doodle Dandy, O'Casey was moving in a direction where apparently nobody wanted to, or was able to, follow him. As far as his plays written after 1926 are concerned, the question of his influence on other writers could be answered in one brief sentence: it was largely non-existent.

A variety of reasons can be cited to account for this statement. First, O'Casey's exceptional life history made it difficult for him to come into close contact with other writers. He was forty-three when his first play reached the stage; consequently he was always at least half a generation older than his ‘contemporary’ fellow dramatists. This is partly why he never had access to a larger circle of writers. In addition, his social status and his fragmentary, largely autodidactic education prevented him from being accepted as a ‘man of letters’. When he settled down in Devon in 1938, he isolated himself in a geographic as well as a social sense from the literary scenes of London and Dublin. It was only during his sojourn of slightly more than ten years in or near London that he had a chance to make closer contact with other writers, but even then he seems not to have availed himself more than occasionally of this opportunity. Therefore younger playwrights had little chance of being closely acquainted with him; an influence on the immediate personal level was practically impossible.

Second, after 1926, when O'Casey had moved to England, he also lacked direct contact with a particular theatre that could have staged model productions of his plays, as did the Abbey Theatre with his early works. An influence like the one exerted by Brecht through the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm was impossible for him after 1926.

Third, again with the exception of his early plays, O'Casey's writings did not gain any great influence through the theatre, simply because they were not acted frequently enough. Most of his plays after The Plough and the Stars received only one or two productions during his life-time in the English-speaking world, and several of these took place in provincial or even amateur theatres, far removed from the beaten track of critics and the general public alike. Consequently, younger playwrights whom he might have induced to learn from him did not have a chance of seeing more than an accidental selection of his writings on stage.

Fourth, O'Casey did not develop any coherent dramatic theory. His various statements on the drama, the theatre, and on literary theory in general are highly relevant to an understanding of his own works; they are always interesting, often amusing and sometimes remarkably astute, but they do not add up to any organic system of critical insights.

And fifth, because he lacked any basic dramatic theory, his plays are markedly divergent, even more so perhaps than those of such fellow dramatists as Hauptmann or O'Neill. Few of them are based in any way on insights derived from the preceding work; in the second and third phases of his career especially, each play constitutes a new departure and tries to solve new problems. This variety makes O'Casey a truly experimental playwright, but it has certainly reduced his influence on others, and it makes it practically impossible to recognize any influence derived from the whole body of his work. Instead, one has to look for the influence of individual plays.

An example of such isolated influence by an individual play can perhaps be seen in T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion, the choric technique of which may well have been modelled on O'Casey's Within the Gates. Eliot had seen the London production of Within the Gates in 1934, and had shown himself impressed by O'Casey's use of chants in his play; he later thought that he might have been unconsciously influenced by O'Casey.17

Such individual influences of O'Casey's later plays dwindle into insignificance however in comparison with the unmistakable impact of the early plays, especially The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars. Not surprisingly, such influence makes itself felt most of all in Anglo-Irish drama. Here, his influence seems to have worked in two ways, not only in the form of direct imitation, which is, of course, predominant, but also as an impulse to be as different as possible from O'Casey, the desire not at any cost to be taken as a follower. O'Casey's importance as a model and also an anti-model for the whole of Anglo-Irish drama since the twenties can be appreciated when one observes that the only history of drama to cover this field, Robert Hogan's After the Irish Renaissance, cites O'Casey on almost every page as a standard of evaluation for all other playwrights.

For a while it had looked as if the O'Caseyan influence would produce a flood of melodramatic plays about the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War. This is underlined by an amusing review of a long-forgotten play, Gerald Brosnan's Before Midnight, of 1928, written at a time when O'Casey had already turned away from this material:

I do not suppose that the spiritual father of the Abbey gunmen, C.I.D. men and prostitutes who has recently forsaken his offspring will claim the literary paternity of Mr. Gerald Brosna, or that Mr. Brosnan will acknowledge any relationship with him. I do not suppose, either, that the Abbey audience will accept Before Midnight even as a drop of O'Casey war-substitute. But I do plead for a Kellog pact of dramatic disarmament and the blowing-up of dumps. In art there is no such thing as a successful school. O'Casey, as a man of genius, closed the door he opened. It makes a strong man blench to think of an O'Casey school, to think of the myriad of Mr. Brosnan's unproduced colleagues who are raiding Dublin tenement houses, stuffing their plays in vain with revolvers and prositutes and C.I.D. men.18

Fortunately the reviewer's misgivings did not come true. A few works only of this particular tradition have been preserved. The most remarkable among them is undoubtedly Brendan Behan's The Hostage which has been called 'a gaily subversive play in the O'Casey tradition’19 and had the greatest success of all Irish works in that mould.

Behan's indebtedness to O'Casey can fully be gauged only when one considers the original Gaelic version, An Giall, in addition to Joan Littlewood's English adaptation. Here the action has not yet been broken up into ‘alienating’ music-hall acts, and the parallels to O'Casey are much more obvious. It is not, however, sufficient to speak simply of an influence on the part of O'Casey, for Behan in many respects went beyond his model, developing and sometimes exaggerating O'Caseyan motifs. As in The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and parts of The Plough and the Stars, the scenery of The Hostage is a room in a tenement house; like O'Casey, Behan was thinking of a definite house in Dublin. Several of his characters are immediately reminiscent of O'Casey's figures; the humorous, sceptical, quarrelsome and nevertheless helpful Pat cannot be imagined without the model of Fluther Good, and Teresa, in her strange mixture of fairy-tale naiveté, shyness, healthy self-confidence, practical altruism, courage and affection is closely related to Minnie Powell. It is also tempting to see Monsewer, who in his ridiculous kilt haunts the play as a symbol of the dead past and is treated by everybody with mock respect, as a relation of the Man in the Kilts in Kathleen Listen In; yet it is unlikely that Behan knew O'Casey's early play, for it was not published until 1961. It is more certain, however, that he refers to Rosie Redmond from The Plough and the Stars, the first and most famous prostitute on the Irish stage, when, in characteristic exaggeration of his model, he depicts a whole brothel whose inmates, prostitutes, pimps, homosexuals, are treated with the same humour, understanding and compassion as was Rosie.

The stage events in The Hostage are projected onto a politicomilitary background action that repeatedly erupts on the stage, immediately affecting the stage characters. Behan, however, is much critical of the historical process than his predecessor. The I.R.A. activities of the nineteen-fifties, as an anachronistic continuation of the struggle for independence, are not only, as in O'Casey, criticised by some of the stage-figures, but are disparaged by the action itself: the senseless and accidental death of young Leslie condemns those who are responsible for his kidnapping. In addition, the guerilla fighters are, in contrast to O'Casey, shown here in a decidedly negative light. On the other hand, the real struggel for independence which is constantly present in the conversation of the stage figures, is treated with a similar objectivity to that found in O'Casey. In both cases, however, it is not the politico-military action but its effects on individual, well-defined characters that is at the centre of the play. In his juxtaposition of serious and comic elements, Behan goes beyond O'Casey, although at the time of Juno and the Paycock this must have appeared hardly possible. There is no doubt that Behan could achieve this extreme blending of styles only after the path had been prepared for him by O'Casey.

The Hostage, as a late reaction to O'Casey's plays of the Revolution and the Civil War, takes up an exceptional position. In the meantime, O'Casey's early plays had been much more influential in another field of Irish drama. O'Casey was the first to introduce the world of the Dublin slums to world literature, and the specific tradition he created is that of the family play set in the slums. Once the tradition had been established, dozens of plays were set in the tenements around Mountjoy Square. Only a few of them have appeared in print; Seamus de Burca's The Howards (1960), Robert Collis's Marrowbone Lane (1939) and Brendan Behan's short-play Moving Out (1952) may be cited as examples. All three deal with family histories from the Dublin slums and belong to the O'Casey tradition in a wider sense, although they do not show any specific indebtedness to O'Casey.

Several plays, however, written under the influence of O'Casey's works derive more directly from Juno and the Paycock. Louis D'Alton's The Mousetrap (1938), for instance, depicts a family strongly reminiscent of Juno and the Paycock, with a sneering and domineering but unsuccessful father, a long-suffering mother, a son who through one rash action mars his whole future and is finally arrested for murder, and a daughter who is left pregnant by the intruder from the outside world. Like O'Casey's play, The Mousetrap is realistic in intention, with roughly sketched characters and nicely observed dialogue, but the plot is far too contrived, the disasters succeeding each other with improbable rapidity because, unlike O'Casey, the author tries to confine his action within the classically acceptable 24 hours limit. At the time of its publication the author's obvious sympathy for the ‘fallen’ girl, and his understanding for the seducer, together with his contempt for the upholders of conventional morality, apparently made the play unacceptable for the Irish stage, while its model has become a staple of the Irish theatrical repertoire.

Walter Macken's Mungo's Mansion (1946) transfers O'Casey's characters from the Dublin tenements to the slums of Galway. The unemployed Mungo is another ‘Captain’ Boyle, seen slightly less critically, whose excitability is motivated at least in part by a previous accident. His love-hate relationship to the ragged Mowleogs is immediately reminiscent of Boyle and Joxer, a similarity underlined by the unexpected win in the sweep-stake. As in O'Casey, this play, under the rather repulsive surface of quarrels and egoism, hides a great deal of attachment, helpfulness and uncomplicated humanity. The chief differences are the absence of a character comparable to Juno and the absence of a politico-military background action.20

A Juno-like character is present, however, in a play that transfers the atmosphere of O'Casey's drama to yet another town, a poor area of Waterford: this is James Cheasty's Francey (1961). Again, as in Mungo's Mansion, the conflict between the care-worn, protective mother and her spendthrift husband is intensified by the presence of a parasitic character, a direct successor of Joxer, revealingly named Jock, who exploits the title character, a direct successor of ‘Captain’ Boyle, and turns against him when the source has fallen dry. There is also a hare-brained neighbour addicted to the lowest type of gossip, whose words could have come directly from O'Casey's Mrs. Madigan, without, however, taking on her thematic function in the play. Francey himself is another braggart who lives in a world of fantasy and cares nothing for his wife, senselessly spending the compensation money he has received after a road-accident, until his married life, as well as his children, are ruined. Unlike O'Casey's play the motif of unexpected, destructive wealth has become central, triggering off a melodramatic action that leads to an unmitigated catastrophe. The protective forces embodied in Juno are here not strong enough to counteract the destructive forces of ‘Captain’ Boyle. Obviously the author has taken over the individual ingredients of O'Casey's play without grasping their contextual, supra-individual meaning. It is, perhaps, the absence of a more general background action, more than anything else, that leads Cheasty into the double abyss of sentimentality and sensationalism.

Both the Juno-character and the general background action are present in a work that more than any other resembles the O'Casey play: Joseph Tomelty's The End House (1944). In this case it is sufficient to characterise Tomelty's work, without any explicit comparison, in order to draw attention to the obvious parallels with Juno and the Paycock. The End House is set in a poor, Catholic quarter of Belfast, the historical background being the Troubles of 1938. The central characters are the unemployed braggart and show-off MacAstocker, his wife Sar Alice, who throughout her life has been struggling for the survival of her family and does not expect any more from life than to provide enough to eat for her relations, her daughter Monica, who hopes to achieve a higher station in life and wants to leave the influence of the slums behind her, and her son Seamus, who has just been released from a prison sentence for his membership in the illegal I.R.A. The initial situation of the play concerns the death of a neighbour who has been shot by I.R.A. men because he had betrayed one of them to the police. The audience learns about his death when a newspaper article is read at the beginning of the play. This event is succeeded by a series of catastrophes: Sar Alice loses her insurance money, MacAstocker is injured in an accident, Monica falls in love with an English soldier who deserts with the money borrowed from her and leaves her helpless, possibly pregnant, Seamus is probably involved in the killing of the neighbour and is himself shot during a raid. Sar Alice and Monica remain as the victims, who are not even able to repay the money they borrowed from their neighbours and thus lose their good name.

In view of these parallels, which are supported by many minor details, it is necessary to emphasise the differences between the two plays in order to protect Tomelty from the accusation of straightforward plagiarism. The characters in The End House are seen less critically. MacAstocker is less depreciated by his actions than Boyle, and there is no character comparable to Joxer. In his place, Tomelty has introduced two ‘positive’ helpful neighbours, and the cornet player Stewartie is his most interesting innovation. Because of the absence of a Joxer-like character, The End House lacks a great deal of the humour of Juno and the Paycock; its emotional tone, therefore, is more homogeneous. It is stamped by the author's compassion for the victims of the political situation. Although there is no attempt to make the theme explicit, as O'Casey had in Juno's prayer, the author's purpose in the play is more obvious and more unified. Where all the stage characters are seen with sympathy, and are presented as innocent victims, the responsibility for such a situation must fall entirely on the existing political system, which is additionally criticised here in the brutality and despotism of the police.

A direct continuation of The End House may be seen in John Boyd's The Flats (1971), set in the Belfast of 1969. The ‘end house’ has here been replaced by the ‘end flat’, situated in a strategic position in a block of flats. It is commandeered both by the British Army and by the Civil Defence Committee, at a time when a Protestant mob threatens to attack the flats inhabited predominantly by Catholics. This situation gives rise to extended discussions of various political viewpoints: militant republicanism, moderate nationalism, pacifism, socialism, the self-styled neutrality of the British Army, and a wholly understandable individualism concerned only with personal survival. Whereas the political background events have thus been updated, the mechanism for projecting them onto the stage is still that provided by O'Casey in Juno and the Paycock. The list of dramatis personae again reads like a description of O'Casey's play. There is the same constellation of the unemployed father who neglects his family, the care-worn mother untiring in her efforts to keep the family together, the outsider son who engages in subversive activities, and the disillusioned daughter who hopes for an escape from the slums through her fiancé who comes over from England. It is true that Boyd has omitted the time-worn motifs of seduction and unexpected riches, but the whole atmosphere of slum life under the pressure of a military conflict is closely reminiscent of Juno and the Paycock, and so is Boyd's use of test situations to distinguish between various attitudes to life, even to the point where a British soldier is to be given a cup of tea, and the characters react in various ways to this challenge, just as Johnny's demand for a glass of water in O'Casey's play had helped to distinguish between Juno and Mary. Even if Joe Donellan is not such a despicable good-for-nothing as ‘Captain’ Boyle, numerous details (including Kathleen's concluding prayer) point to the immense influence of O'Casey's work. It is a measure of O'Casey's success that his play is so much more convincing, unified, life-like, moving and universal than its successors and will be remembered when all the others are forgotten.

The literary reactions to Juno and the Paycock, however, were not limited to Anglo-Irish drama. In fact, the influence of this play could hardly have been more widespread geographically as well as chronologically. It was O'Casey's only work to have initiated a new and still living literary tradition, that of the family play set in the slums. This type of play undoubtedly owed something to the tradition of bourgeois tragedy, but it is precisely those traits that O'Casey added to the tradition, especially the transfer of the events into the squalid world of big-city slums, that were widely imitated. If Juno and the Paycock was not the first play with such a setting, it was the first that was internationally successful. Moreover, O'Casey provided a specific combination of characters, plot elements and motifs which reappeared in a number of plays, rendering a concrete influence in each case more than probable. Four examples may be briefly described to illustrate this point.

One of the best-known English plays between the two world wars, justly appreciated by audiences throughout Britain, was Love on the Dole (1934) by Ronald Gow and Walter Greenwood, a play set in the world of the unemployed, a working-class quarter of Salford, Lancashire. Its constellation of dramatis personae, however, is that of Juno and the Paycock: the unemployed father, the indefatigable mother who alone keeps the family together, the daughter striving for ‘higher’ values. As in Juno and the Paycock the action is determined by the dual motifs of seduction and of unexpected wealth that disappears as soon as it has been won, and it is interspersed with comic elements. As in O'Casey's play, the necessity of strikes and demonstrations is discussed. Although none of these elements alone would suffice to constitute an influence, their combination points quite clearly to O'Casey.

Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing! (1935) belongs to the same period as Love on the Dole. Of this play it has been said: ‘Awake and Sing!, though not so great a play, is Juno and the Paycock transposed from the Dublin slums to the Jewish Bronx of New York. It has the same pattern of coarseness and sensibility, the quality that can send poetry, like a shaft of sunlight, through the squalor of a tenement’.21 The specific Dublin milieu, unique in language and characters, has here been replaced by another, equally specific milieu. It is true that in O'Casey's Dublin the Berger family's standard of living would hardly qualify them as the inhabitants of a slum, but the higher material demands of the American way of life classify them as members of the lowest social class whose existence is constantly threatened by unemployment. It is significant that the descriptions of the dramatis personae with which Odets prefaces his play, could be transferred, with very slight modifications, to the characters in Juno and the Paycock. The relationship of Bessie to Juno, for instance, can hardly be overlooked:

bessie berger, as she herself states, is not only the mother in this home but also the father. She is constantly arranging and taking care of her family. She loves life, likes to laugh, has great resourcefulness, and enjoys living from day to day. A high degree of energy accounts for her quick exasperation at ineptitude. She is a shrewd judge of realistic qualities in people in the sense of being able to gauge quickly their effectiveness. In her eyes all of the people in the house are equal. She is naive and quick in emotional response. She is afraid of utter poverty. She is proper according to her own standards, which are fairly close to those of most middle-class families. She knows that when one lives in the jungle one must look out for the wild life.22

She tyrannises her family because she is deeply concerned about their happiness. She asserts herself against her husband who has been defeated by life and lives in fruitless memories of the past, as well as against her son who rebels against a purely materialistic attitude, and she cares for her self-confident daughter who would like to dissociate herself from the family, when she expects an illegitimate child and finds that no other refuge is left to her. Like the motif of seduction, the motif of unexpected wealth (Jacob's insurance money when he kills himself), point to the model of O'Casey's play. Even more reminiscent of O'Casey is the fact that this family in the process of disintegration, shaken by various catastrophes, entirely cut off from the world outside and thrown upon itself, is nevertheless not presented as an image of hopelessness and despair. Small gestures of affection are still capable of fending off the apparently all-powerful fate of poverty, and the final victory of Juno's humanity is here paralleled in Ralph's defeat of resignation and material dependence, even though Odets's solution seems to be less organic than O'Casey's.

Arnold Wesker's early play Chicken Soup with Barley (1958) is set in a similar and equally well-defined social context as Awake and Sing!, the world of East European Jewish emigrants in London. Although it appeared more than twenty years later, it has its starting point in the same historical situation, the thirties, a period overshadowed by economic crises and mass unemployment that seemed to predict an imminent end to the capitalist bourgeois way of life. In Chicken Soup with Barley the familiar constellation of dramatis personae from Juno and the Paycock is again clearly recognizable (in the other two plays of the Chicken Soup Trilogy it is still present, though less obvious).23 The resolute and optimistic mother who fights for the material welfare of her family, the resigned, passive, egocentric father, the son who is engaged in political activities and his elder sister, initially equally active but later disillusioned, all owe their existence as much to the model of the Boyle family as to Wesker's personal experience. The relationship is sometimes underlined in conspicuous details. Ada, for instance, turns one of ‘Captain’ Boyle's favourite terms against her father, who is so closely related to Boyle: ‘Daddy—you are the world's biggest procrastinator’. And Sarah's indefatigable care for her family's welfare is symbolised in the same action as Juno's motherliness: her never-tiring readiness to make tea as a spontaneous cure-all for problems, sorrows and disease:

sarah: Sit down, both of you; I'll get the kettle on [Goes off to kitchen.]

mounty: [to Bessie] Always put the kettle on—that was the first thing Sarah always did. Am I right, Harry? I'm right, aren't I? [shouting to Sarah] Remember, Sarah? It was always a cup of tea first.24

Juno reacts in an identical way:

mrs. boyle: There, now; go back an' lie down again, an' Ill bring you in a nice cup o' tay.

johnny: Tay, tay, tay! You're always thinkin' o' tay. If a man was dyin' you'd thry to make him swally a cup o' tay!25

Even more important is the fact that Chicken Soup with Barley, like Juno and the Paycock, is projected onto a historical background action which intensifies the stage events and raises them to a universal plane. The changing role of socialism in the England of the thirties, forties and fifties that dominates the discussions of the stage characters and is occasionally projected on stage when they take part in demonstrations and, like Johnny, are wounded, is depicted with the same sceptical objectivity as the civil war in Juno and the Paycock, the author refraining from restricting his characters' individuality by imposing any opinion of his own. Chicken Soup with Barley is the most remarkable example of the far-reaching influence that O'Casey exerted, without, however, in any way constraining his successors' originality of creation.

Another, not quite so conspicuous example is Errol John's Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (1958), of which Doris Lessing has said with some exaggeration: ‘… it is nearer to O'Casey than anything else in our language’.26 O'Casey's Dublin tenement milieu has here undergone a more unusual transformation, and yet the ugly slums of Port of Spain, Trinidad, show surprising parallels to the world of ‘Captain’ Boyle, underlining the universality of O'Casey's play. The precise representation of a world of poverty characterised by its dialect, habits and types of persons is equally reminiscent of O'Casey, as is the unsentimental poetisation of this world. As in Juno and the Paycock, brutal egoism exists side by side with a most admirable altruism, and one finds the resigned adaptation to apparently unavoidable necessities as well as the attempt at revolt. The situation of Mary has been shared between two characters, Rosa who will be alone to care for her child, and Esther, who has not (yet?) given up the struggle against the repressive forces of her surroundings. The clearest O'Casey influence is, however, again to be found in the parents: Sophia has been made ruthless and angry by the responsibilities that have been forced upon her, but she takes her role as the protectress of the family as seriously as Juno, while Charlie in his resignation escapes from his duties into drunkenness and the reminiscences of his past as a cricket star.

The influence of Sean O'Casey on twentieth-century drama has, therefore, not been as extensive as that of some other playwrights, like Ibsen, Chekhov or Brecht. As a basically optimistic playwright he stood little chance of widespread imitation at a time when pessimism had become the vogue even in popular entertainment. As an experimental playwright he could not build up a tradition of O'Casey plays, because he tended to question the technique of each of his own plays in the following works. And as a playwright who combined highly diverse styles—the tragic and the farcical, the realistic and the fantastic, the poetic and the allegorical—he did not project a unified image that could be followed by less gifted writers.

He did, however, exert a strong influence in a few clearly circumscribed fields. He introduced the slums of Dublin to the stage and made them acceptable as a literary milieu. He encouraged Irish authors to write about the tenement dwellers, and to do so with the typical O'Caseyan mixture of humour, understanding and compassion. And most of all, he created in Juno and the Paycock a play that could be followed, in its over-all structure as well as in many details of characterisation, plot motifs, and theme, in many parts of the world, a play, moreover, that presents one of the most important links between traditional bourgeois tragedy and modern proletarian drama. In addition to his own plays, this basic pattern of Juno and the Paycock was O'Casey's most valuable gift to the world of literature.

Notes

  1. Brendan Behan's Island: An Irish Sketch-book. London: Transworld Publishers, 1965, pp. 12-14.

  2. Confessions of an Irish Rebel. London: Hutchinson, 1965, p.30.

  3. Letter to the Irish Times (29 August 1961), quoted by John O'Riordan, ‘O'Casey's Dublin Critics’, Library Review, 21, ii (1967), 63.

  4. Letter to the Observer (27 September 1964), quoted ibid.

  5. Quoted in Bernard Leroy, ‘Two Committed Playwrights: Wesker and O'Casey’, in: Patrick Rafroidi, Raymonde Popot and William Parker (eds), Aspects of the Irish Theatre. Lille: Editions Universitaires, 1972, p.116.

  6. ‘J'ai souvent dit et répe´té mon attachement à l'oeuvre de Sean O'Casey, où l'ambiguité des situations et des personnages n'entrainent presque jamais confusions et équivoques, et où la sévérité, non plus, ne devient pas hargneuse. La tendresse d'O'Casey pour ses personnages me frappe à chaque nouvelle représentation, et c'est peut-être là que se trouve son plus exceptionnel mérite.’ Arthur Adamov, ‘La femme avenir de l'homme’ dans l'oeuvre de Sean O'Casey’, Lettres Francaises, no. 1028 (1964).

  7. Sinn und Form, 13 (1961), 938-939.

  8. See Beate Lahrmann-Hartung, Sean O'Casey und das epische Theater Bertolt Brechts, Neue Studien zur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 28. Frankfurt: Lang, 1983, p.10.

  9. Sean O'Casey Review, 4 (1978), 87.

  10. Quoted in Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill. New York: Harper & Row, 2nd ed. 1973, p.830.

  11. ‘Joxer in Totnes: A Study in Sean O'Casey’, Irish Writing, no. 13 (Dec. 1950), 52.

  12. Quoted by Robert Hogan, After the Irish Renaissance: A Critical History of the Irish Drama since ‘The Plough and the Stars’. London: Macmillan, 1968, p.32.

  13. Kevin Casey, ‘The Excitements and the Disappointments’, in: Sean McCann (ed.) The World of Sean O'Casey. London: Four Square Books, 1966, p.218.

  14. David Krause, Sean O'Casey: The Man and His Work. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1960, p.99.

  15. Laurence Kitchin, Drama in the Sixties: Form and Interpretation. London: Faber, 1966, pp.105-106.

  16. For details of his career, see the present author's O'Casey the Dramatist. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1985.

  17. Ronald Ayling, ‘The Poetic Drama of T.S. Eliot’, English Studies in Africa, 2 (1959), 247-50.

  18. C.P.C., ‘Before Midnight’, Irish Statesman (July 21, 1928), 392.

  19. Kitchin, Drama in the Sixties, p. 98.

  20. On the personal relationship between Macken and O'Casey, see Heinz Kosok, ‘O'Casey and An Taibhdhearc’, O'Casey Annual, 3 (1984), 115-23.

  21. Audrey Williamson, Theatre of Two Decades. London: Rockliff, 1951, p.165.

  22. Clifford Odets, Golden Boy, Awake and Sing!, The Big Knife. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963, p.117.

  23. For comparisons between the two plays, see for instance, Margery M. Morgan, ‘Arnold Wesker: The Celebrated Instinct', in: Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim (eds.), Essays on Contemporary British Drama (München: Hueber, 1981), p.34; and Robert Fricker, Das moderne englische Drama (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2nd ed. 1964), pp.148-149, 153.

  24. The Wesker Trilogy. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, rev. ed. 1979, pp. 40, 58.

  25. Sean O'Casey, Collected Plays, vol. I. London: Macmillan, 1957, p.7.

  26. Quoted on the cover of Errol John, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. London: Faber, 2nd ed. 1963.

Christopher Innes (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Essential Continuity of Sean O'Casey,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, September, 1990, pp. 419-33.

[In the essay below, Innes argues that O'Casey's dramaturgical development exhibits a consistent pattern rather than a break in styles, as most critics maintain.]

There is a general assumption behind almost all critical approaches to Sean O'Casey's work, which deserves examination, if only because it is so common. Despite Denis Johnston's assertion in 1926, the year of The Plough and the Stars, that O'Casey's first three plays are increasingly poetic in dialogue and expressionistic in form, the Dublin trilogy is almost invariably held up as an example of naturalism. Equally, all his theatrical output from the 1934 production of Within the Gates, whether labelled expressionist or fantasy, is seen as the stylistic antithesis of the early plays. Biographic reference is used to support this: O'Casey's move from Ireland to England after the Plough riots is taken as the sign of a radical departure in subject matter. To some critics his 1928 break with the Abbey theatre gave him the liberty to explore new dramatic forms. To others it shows limitations that come from writing without the practical discipline of stage production, resulting in flawed language and abstract characterization. In both cases, The Silver Tassie, as the immediate cause of O'Casey's break with the Abbey, is considered an amalgam of opposing styles, signalling the transition from one to another.

One recent critic at least has tried to redress the balance by emphasizing the realistic basis of the symbolism in his two most expressionistic works. But this argument for the unity of O'Casey's vision still accepts the unquestioned naturalism of his Dublin plays, and its premise is that throughout his career O'Casey employed a “basically realistic technique.”1 By contrast, the continuity of O'Casey's work should be seen as far more radical, since his early trilogy can be shown to be no less non-naturalistic beneath its apparent surface than his later recognizably symbolic plays. Even the shift in characterization, from seemingly individualized and rounded figures towards the typical and two-dimensional, is demonstrably part of a consistent development, instead of being evidence of a break between two different styles. Indeed, the critical views that posit such division in O'Casey's career lead to inherently contradictory conclusions.

That O'Casey's post-war plays have had remarkably few performances is conventionally seen as being directly due to their poetic expressionism and overt political bias (the latter indeed being the reason for their adoption by the Berliner Ensemble). Conversely, the popularity of the early plays becomes evidence for the absence of specifically these qualities, leading to the type of judgement put most directly by Joseph Wood Krutch: “[O'Casey] offers no solution; he proposes no remedy; he suggests no hope.” “His plays lack form, lack movement, and in the final analysis lack any informing purpose.” More recently and more subtly this analysis has been used to align O'Casey with the existentialist vision of “life as farce with which tragic experience must come to terms” in depicting “a world whose structures will never live up to their promise.”2 Yet this line is highly problematic in the light of O'Casey's firmly held socialist principles, practically expressed in his association with the labour leader, Jim Larkin, and his involvement in founding the Irish Citizens' Army. Acknowledging that these form the background for the Dublin plays logically leads to the argument that they represent a repudiation of Marxism—a conclusion which can only be sustained by assuming there is no continuity with later works such as The Star Turns Red (1940) and Red Roses for Me (1943).

Another case in point is the influence of Bernard Shaw. Shaw, of course, intervened in defence of The Silver Tassie, and critics have generally followed Denis Johnston (who deplored the “damage done by the honeyed poison of G.B.S.”) in seeing his influence as mainly limited to O'Casey's subsequent didactic work. Certainly the model of Shaw is most noticeable in Purple Dust (1940, first produced 1945), where the situation of a rich Englishman's attempt to impose his ethos on an Irish village, the major characters and the satiric contrast between neo-colonialism and the supposedly backward natives directly echo John Bull's Other Island.3 In particular the major thematic motif of O'Casey's last trilogy of symbolic fantasies is a clear reworking of Shaw's Life Force—though simplified to liberating sexuality—the vital principle embodied in the emblematic title figure of Cock-a-doodle Dandy (1949, first professional performance 1958), “a gay bird. … A bit unruly at times” who both tricks the police into shooting holes in the top hat of bourgeois respectability and conjures up a storm that whirls the puritanical priest away through the air, “rousing up commotion among the young and the souls zealous for life” as well as affirming though his dancing “the right of the joy of life to live courageously in the hearts of men.” Following Shaw, the carriers of this Life Force are female: Loreleen, explicitly associated with the “Red Cock” by her dress and in the dialogue, who is victimized and banished by the life-denying representatives of the repressive society; the Every-woman figure of Jannice in Within the Gates, who obeys the call of the Dreamer-poet to “Sing them silent, dance them still, and laugh them into an open shame!”—thus overcoming Bishop, Atheist, dispossessed masses, all who “carry furl'd the fainting flag of a dead hope and a dead faith,” and affirming the joyfulness of existence even as she dies.4

However, key lines from The Doctor's Dilemma are also quoted in the opening stage directions to O'Casey's first play, The Shadow of a Gunman 1923), and again in the dialogue of Within the Gates, while the subtitles of plays throughout his career echo Shaw's use of subtitles: A Political Phantasy (Kathleen Listens In, 1923), A Wayward Comedy (Purple Dust), A Sincerious Comedy (Hall of Healing, 1951, unperformed). Indeed, O'Casey, who was still quoting Shaw in support of his own views up to the year of his death in 1964, stressed it was Shaw's example that weaned him from the Gaelic League and first inspired him to write for the stage: “I abandoned the romantic cult of Nationalism sixty years ago, and saw the real Ireland when I read the cheap edition of Shaw's John Bull's Other Island; hating only poverty, hunger, and disease.” The type of objectivity, particularly in the satiric perspective on his own revolutionary ideals, on which the definition of O'Casey's early drama as naturalistic is based, can be seen as deriving from Shaw. So too can his characteristic use of irony, as for instance in the juxtaposition of the red glare of the burning city under bombardment with the British soldier's chorus of “Keep the ‘owme fires burning” that closes The Plough and the Stars, which exactly repeats the ending of Heartbreak House in a different context.5

This ironic objectivity gives his Dublin trilogy much of its dramatic power, and its qualities can be most clearly seen in relation to autobiographical material. In The Shadow of a Gunman, for instance, several characters are identifiable real life portraits and the poet-protagonist is in many ways a self-projection. Yet Davoren is explicitly an anti-hero, “on the run” (O'Casey's first title for the play) from the overcrowded poverty of the slums, political violence, and the “common people” for whom “beauty is for sale in a butcher's shop.” A satiric representation of O'Casey's previous, pre-Shaw values, he stands for the sentimental idealism of the Gaelic League. His reference points are mythic heroes of Irish legend or the symbol of Kathleen ni Houlihan (which Yeats had made synonymous with the romantic image of Irish liberation, and which O'Casey tried to expropriate for his socialist vision in Kathleen Listens In—produced the same year). His poetry is used as an excuse for avoiding life; and a rhetorical line from Shelley substitutes for emotional involvement: “Ah me, alas! Pain, pain ever, for ever. Like thee, Prometheus, no change, no pause, no hope. Ah, life, life, life!”6

All the characters are equally subject to this kind of posturing, with the action turning on the gap between their illusions and reality. Just like the timid Grigson, recasting his encounter with the brutal Auxiliaries into the heroic mode after his wife has just given a graphic description of his humiliating self-abasement, so Davoren fosters the admiration of the tenement's inhabitants in mistaking his subjective escapism for the bravery of a gunman “on the run,” only to finally recognize his guilt and cowardice. Even then, the inflated language of his self-condemnation as “poet and poltroon, poltroon and poet,” together with his repeat of the Shelley theme-note from the beginning, imply that this is nothing more than an alternative form of escapism—the sorrowing outcast instead of the dangerous shadow of the man of action—and that this pasteboard Prometheus will never break his chains of illusion.

The only possible exception is the real gunman. But Maguire is no more than a deus ex machina, the actual shadow of the ironic title that Davoren applies to himself, and the disregard for the safety of the innocent whose freedom he is so ready to kill—and die—for, in leaving the bag of bombs behind, implies an equivalent romanticism in his Cause. As Davoren's peddler-companion, who frequently seems to voice O'Casey's views, describes it, “their Mass is a burnin' buildin'; their De Profundis is ‘The Soldiers' Song … —an' it's all for ‘the glory o' God an' the honour o' Ireland'.”7 Even Minnie, whose openness and self-sacrifice give her the status of a tragic heroine, is governed by illusion. When the Auxiliaries beat down the door to search the house, it is sentimental attraction to an imaginary gunman-poet that motivates her to take responsibility for the bombs. The bravado of her cry, “Up the Republic!,” is an attempt to live up to the expectations of this non-existent figure as she is dragged down the stairs outside his room. And she is not shot for her action in concealing weapons, nor for her revolutionary sentiments, but by mistake—and possibly by the gunmen she believes she is supporting—when the Auxiliaries' truck is ambushed.

The tragedy of her death is that it is not only pointless, but unnecessary. It underlines the real cost of the escapism illustrated in different degrees by other characters in rather over-literal terms, since she is killed while trying to escape from the violence that is not only the defining fact of their environment, but the touchstone for their illusions. The fighting off-stage not only undercuts pretensions to bravery:

grigson If a man keeps a stiff upper front—Merciful God, there's an ambush! [Explosions of two bursting bombs are heard on the street outside the house …]

It dismisses philosophic detachment, poetic fervour, nationalist ideals, religious faith:

seamus … No man need be afraid with a crowd of angels round him; thanks to God for His Holy religion!

davoren You're welcome to your angels; philosophy is mine; philosophy that makes the coward brave; the sufferer defiant; the weak strong; the …

[A volley of shots is heard in a lane that runs parallel with the wall of the backyard. Religion and philosophy are forgotten in the violent fear of a nervous equality.]

The boldness of the juxtapositions, the repetitions, and the presentation of all the characters as variations on the same theme, make O'Casey's use of irony crudely obvious in this early play. It is most effective when limited to the foreground situation, rather than based on contrasts between personal action and the historical background, as with the braces Seamus peddles:

They're great value; I only hope I'll be able to get enough o' them. I'm wearing a pair of them meself—they'd do Cuchullian, they're so strong. (Counting the spoons) … And still we're looking for freedom—ye gods, it's a glorious country! (He lets one fall, which he stoops to pick up.) Oh, my God, there's the braces after breakin'.

davoren That doesn't look as if they were strong enough for Cuchullian.

seamus I put a heavy strain on them too sudden.8

This broad farce is taken directly from the Music Hall—it is not coincidental that exactly the same comic turn provides the anti-climax of Waiting for Godot, since there is a clear kinship between Beckett's clown-like tramps and O'Casey's shabby self-deceivers—and carries over into the other parts of the Dublin trilogy, as does the same use of irony to control the audience's critical perception. However, both Music Hall elements and the opposition of character against context become progressively subtler, as well as better integrated with the action in the two following plays. Boyle and Joxer, as classic drunkards convinced the earth is reeling because they can't stand straight, illustrate the actual situation at the end of Juno and the Paycock: both their domestic circle and the society outside have indeed broken down “in a terr … ible state o' … chassis,” but it is the failure of moral perception, not the existential nature of the world, that is responsible for the chaos. In the central scene of The Plough and the Stars the stock skit is more naturalistic, two disreputable women tearing each other's hair out over insults to their respectability, and barely indicated (the barman breaks up the fight before Mrs. Grogan and Bessie get their hands on one another), while the thematic reverberations are even wider. Set against the Republican rally outside the pub, it undercuts the orator's death-bound mysticism with its rhetoric of patriotic sacrifice and redemptive bloodshedding, reducing the coming battle for independence to a farcical squabble. Beyond that it points to the First World War—also a heroic analogue for the orator—undermining idealistic justifications for the slaughter in the trenches through the association of “poor little Catholic Belgium” with “poor little Catholic Ireland,” which ironically puts the protestant loyalist in the position of her German enemies.9

It was this scene, of course, that sparked the riots at the Abbey's 1926 production of the play. Focussing on the flag of the title (degraded by its presence in a pub), the depiction of the men who fought in the Uprising as less than heroic (held back by their wives, fearful under fire, motivated by self preservation once the battle is lost), and the presence of a prostitute among the characters (“an abominable play. … There are no streetwalkers in Dublin!”), the public demonstration illustrated O'Casey's point exactly. As he pointed out in “A Reply to the Critics,” which emphasized the realistic basis of his portrayal, the romantic idealism “about ‘the Ireland that remembers with tear-dimmed eyes all that Easter Week stands for' makes me sick. Some of the men cannot even get a job.”10

The Plough and the Stars is always cited as O'Casey's most developed naturalistic play. The multiple focus and interweaving strands of action replace the simplification of a dominant protagonist by a social panorama, without losing the human scale, and this form itself incorporates the thematic statement. It embodies an image of community, which is mirrored in the way the inhabitants of the slum tenement develop a sense of group responsibility under the pressure of external events that threaten the group's existence and destroy the narrower social unit of the family. Tenuous and contingent, in plot terms the actual community is always on the point of disruption through the deaths of its individual members; whether all too literally inflamed by delusive ideals (Jack Clitheroe, trapped in a burning building), a victim of circumstance (Bessie Burgess, shot in error by the British soldiers she supports), or a statistic of poverty (the young girl, Mollser, dying of consumption). On the stylistic level, however, comic dissension—the sword-waving chase around a kitchen table in Act I, the baby thrust into the arms of an unwilling man, and dumped on the pub floor, when the women square off in Act II—gives way to tragic unity. The positive social vision suggested in the structure, but not affirmed by the dramatic action, thus implicitly endorses the young socialist's response to the Republican ideal of independence: “Dope, dope. There's only one war worth havin': th' war for th' economic emancipation of th' proletariat.”11

Typically for this stage in O'Casey's development, while his views may be presented, their spokesman is treated satirically. Derogatorally named “the Covey,” and incongruously trying to attract a prostitute's attentions or impress a British Corporal with the pretentious catchphrase of “Did y'ever read, comrade, Jenersky's Thesis on the Origin, Development, an' Consolidation of th' Evolutionary Idea of the Proletariat?,” his political theorizing is contemptuously dismissed by all the other characters. Similarly, the first sign of solidarity among the tenement inhabitants is the anti-social activity of looting, which may create an unlikely team out of the former female antagonists, but discredits the socialist's ideological understanding—though not, as is often assumed, the political principles themselves—and shows materialistic greed banishing an appeal to common humanity in the other noncombatant men.

O'Casey's approach is exemplified in the treatment of Bessie Burgess; not only, as a pro-British Protestant and vocal anti-Republican, the outsider in the tenement group, but the least sympathetic character for the predominantly Catholic and Nationalist Dublin audience of the time. The sentimentally attractive Nora Clitheroe, retreating into an Ophelia-like madness when her husband rejects her for Republican ideals, offers a conventional (and deliberately illusory) tragic image. But the real heroine of the tragedy is Bessie, who becomes the human centre of the community, nursing the woman she had despised at the beginning of the play and sacrificing her own life for her safety. Bringing the Dublin spectators to identify with her forms a practical demonstration of the socialist's contention that “there's no such thing as an Irishman, or an Englishman, or a German or a Turk; we're all only human bein's.” At the same time sympathy is not made easy. It is Bessie's insults that provoke Jack into returning to his death in the already hopeless battle, and her reaction when shot is to curse the helplessly terrified Nora as “you bitch.”12

Once the riots had subsided, the play was praised for “the astonishing accuracy of … photographic detail,” and indeed the basis for several scenes is documentary. For instance the orator's rhetoric is taken verbatim from Pearse's speeches, while O'Casey emphasized that “of these very words Jim Connolly himself said almost the same thing as the Covey.” Yet this factual background is set against a highly patterned thematic structure, which approaches melodrama at points such as the oath to the flags:

capt. brennan [catching up The Plough and the Stars].

Imprisonment for th' Independence of Ireland!

lieut. langon [catching up the Tri-colour]. Wounds for th' Independence of Ireland!

clitheroe Death for th' Independence of Ireland!

the three [together] So help us God!13

The melodramatic tone of the speeches might be simply a naturalistic response to the passion of the moment, if the fate of each character did not exactly correspond to his vow. As this indicates, even the characterization is less naturalistic than it appears. With their emblematic names and identifying catchphrases—the Covey's grandiose book-title, Fluther Good's reiterated “derogatory” and “vice versa”—these are the equivalent of the stock figures that Strindberg rejected in the classic definition of naturalism that prefaces Miss Julie, while one has a clearly literary genesis. Nora, like the Ibsen heroine from whom she takes her name, deceives her equally patronizing husband in order to save him, and has her doll's house destroyed by her inability to intercept a letter.

Thus even O'Casey's most naturalistic work contains the seeds of his later development, and the connections are clearest in Juno and the Paycock. The original centre of the play, “the tragedy of a crippled IRA man, one Johnny Boyle,” is typically melodramatic in concept and treatment. The guilty betrayer is hounded by conscience to the brink of self-betrayal, with his life linked to a flickering crimson votive light, which goes out as his executioners approach (even if the classic formula of Boucicault—or Irving's The Bells—is reversed by transforming villain into victim). At the same time, the surrounding action, which not only parallels and extends this core, but dominates it through the vivid vitality of the characters, is openly allegorical.

The reference to Mrs. Boyle and her husband in the title may be ironic, Juno only a nickname—but as the schoolmaster points out, it is still intended to remind “one of Homer's glorious story of ancient gods and heroes.” On the symbolic level of the play she can be seen as a counter-type to the Yeatsian Kathleen Ni Houlihan, Ireland as the archetypal mother mourning the loss of her sons in place of the virginal siren welcoming the death of her lovers, a contrast parodistically encapsulated in her husband's linguistic confusion:

boyle (solemnly) … Requiescat in pace … or, usin' our oul' tongue like St. Patrick or St. Bridget, Guh sayeree jeea ayera!

mary Oh, father, that's not Rest in Peace; that's God save Ireland.

boyle U-u-ugh, it's all the same—isn't it a prayer?

Even the most naturalistic aspects of Juno's characterization have representative significance. O'Casey's description—“twenty years ago [ie. at the first performance of Yeats's Kathleen Ni Houlihan, 1902] she must have been a pretty woman; but her face has now assumed … a look of listless monotony and harassed anxiety, blending with an expression of mechanical resistance14—measures the deterioration of Nationalist idealism in terms of its human cost and lack of material or political benefits for the working-classes.

This is the major motif of the play as a whole. Even more explicitly than in The Plough and the Stars, since here all the action takes place inside a single house, the tenement stands for the nation beneath its local specificity. Each of the women has a husband or son maimed or killed—with Johnny as a human calendar of revolutionary conflict: crippled by a bullet in the hip during Easter Week 1916 (a relatively minor wound analogous perhaps to the 15 rebels hanged by the British), losing an arm in the civil war period of Shadow of a Gunman, and finally his life (a progressive dismemberment mirroring the increasing bitterness of the fighting; in 1922 the Free State government executed 77 Republican leaders)—and the Boyle family fortunes are the vicissitudes of the Irish people in microcosm.

The legacy that provides an illusory windfall stands for the newly won national sovereignty. This is underlined for the audience by Boyle's assertion, significantly placed just after an unanswered knock of doom (in the shape of a trench-coated gunman) and immediately before the entry of Bentham to announce their unexpected good fortune, that “Today … there's goin' to be issued a proclamation be me, establishin' an independent Republic, an' Juno'll have to take an oath of allegiance.” The Captain's characteristic confusion of constitutional terms and ironic misinterpretation of liberty as the evasion of social responsibility is a clear criticism of the false expectations engendered by nationhood, tangibly illustrated in the cheap and garishly vulgar furnishing the family buys on credit, the pretentious gramophone and the bourgeois suit that replaces Boyle's labouring trousers. The pompous schoolmaster's incompetence in drawing up the will, which deprives them of the promised riches, can be seen as O'Casey's comment on the politicians' drafting of the constitution, while the resulting material destitution offers a graphic image of moral bankruptcy in the state. The stage set itself is dismantled by the two removal men who repossess almost all the family's possessions to pay their debts, paralleled by the forcible removal of Johnny by his two executioners. Juno has learnt from the loss of her own son the compassion she so signally lacked with her neighbour's exactly comparable bereavement. But she leaves to work elsewhere for the future in the form of Mary's unborn child, abandoned by the Bentham / politicians who seduced her and rejected by the other contender for her favour, the socialist / Labour Movement, whose narrow morality makes him incapable of living up to his humanitarian ideals. Juno's heavily-weighted prayer to “take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh” counter-balances the pair of comic drunkards, who incongruously point the moral that “The counthry'll have to steady itself … it's goin' … to hell. … No matther … what any one may … say … Irelan' sober … is Irelan' … free.”15 But the darkened and stripped stage is left to the inebriated forces of anarchy, O'Casey's most satiric version of the escape artists and “shadows” of sentimental patriotism, who form his major target from the title figure of the first play in the Dublin trilogy to the intoxicating silhouette of Pearse in The Plough and the Stars.

The discomforting irony of sharp juxtapositions at the end of Juno, may give an overwhelming impression of objectivity. However, as Samuel Beckett observed, reviewing Windfalls:

Mr. O'Casey is a master of knockabout in this very serious and honourable sense—that he discerns the principle of disintegration in even the most complacent solidities, and activates it to their explosion. This is the energy of his theatre, the triumph of the principle of knockabout in situation, in all its elements and on all its planes, from the furniture to the higher centres.

This could be applied equally to Juno: practically none of the elements that combine in the final image are naturalistic. Despite O'Casey's vehement assertion that “I have nothing to do with Beckett. … his philosophy isn't my philosophy, for within him there is no hazard of hope,” Beckett's approval of a specific play has sometimes been used to support a view of O'Casey in general as a proto-Absurdist, whose early plays express an existential nihilism.16 Yet, leaving aside the completely unBeckettian social reference, the sequence of impressions that define the ending is clearly intended as a protest and a warning, while the solution is suggested by the structure of the following play in the series. Rather than resigning an audience to the pointlessness of human effort in the face of a recalcitrant universe, the bleakness of the comic closing moment calls for a value judgement, conditioned by the preceding balance between the continuing cycle of violence and the call for a wider humanity.

The positive message becomes increasingly open and direct in O'Casey's subsequent plays; and as explicit statement replaces oblique suggestion, the realistic surface disappears. Settings symbolize philosophical oppositions or emotional states, while ideological manipulation replaces personal motive in the characters. At its extreme this results in the Morality play psychomachia of Within the Gates, where good and evil “angels” (The Dreamer/The Atheist) struggle for the protagonist's soul against a backdrop of war memorial and maypole. Similarly the conflict in The Star Turns Red is defined dialectically by the church spire and the foundry chimney seen through windows either side of the stage, the portraits of a Bishop and Lenin on the walls. The resolution is symbolized by the addition of “a white cross on which a red hammer and sickle are imposed,” and a single speech from Red Jim (an idealized projection of Jim Larkin) is sufficient to transform the grief of a weeping girl into triumphant affirmation:

Up, young woman, and join in the glowing hour your lover died to fashion. He fought for life, for life is all; and death is nothing!

[Julia stands up with her right fist clenched. The playing and singing of “The Internationale” grow louder. Soldiers and sailors appear at the windows, and all join in the singing.]

At the same time the language becomes poetic to reflect universal thematic intentions—all too often, as J.B. Priestley was the first to point out (reviewing Oak Leaves and Lavender, 1947), resulting in “windy rhetoric that obscures the characters and blunts the situations. … O'Casey in Dublin created literature, whereas O'Casey in Devon is merely being literary.”17

Another factor frequently pointed to in critical discussions of The Silver Tassie, apart from O'Casey's isolation from both the society that provided the material for his early plays and the requirements of a specific theatre that shaped them, is the influence of German expressionism: in particular Toller's Masse-Mensch, performed by the Dublin Drama League under the title of Masses and Man in 1925, and Transfiguration. Given O'Casey's personal links to Denis Johnston, and Johnston's interest in Toller (which led him to direct Hoppla! for the League in 1929), it is certainly reasonable to suggest that O'Casey became exposed to the expressionist approach then. But at this point in O'Casey's career, the effect of Toller's example, even on the war sequence of Act II, seems rather general. It is only with The Star Turns Red—written for Unity Theatre, which was largely responsible for introducing Toller and Kaiser to the English stage, and to which O'Casey may have turned for precisely that reason as well as their shared Marxism—that the model of Masses and Man can be specifically traced. The expressionist combination of religious humanitarianism and left-wing politics, which made their radical dramatic form seem the proclamation of a new social order, corresponded with the views already implicit in the Dublin trilogy. But now, what before had remained on a thematic level, became embodied in the style. The decisive new element is the utopianism inherent in the expressionist approach. This is reflected in O'Casey's generic switch from the “Tragedy” of his early plays to “Comedy” for his subsequent work; and the nature of the change can be seen in the intermediate “Tragi-Comedy” of The Silver Tassie.

On the surface the opening has the characteristics of the previous plays: set in a Dublin tenement, with a pair of cowardly boasters, and focussing on group interaction. By itself the wedding bowl smashed by the physically dominating Teddy Foran is on the same level of significance as the red votive light in Juno. However, the parallel between the bowl and the “silver cup joyously, rather than reverentially, elevated, as a priest would elevate a chalice”18 transforms both into obvious symbols, with the thematic connection being emphasized by the crushing of the silver cup that ends the play. In addition, the naturalistically depicted characters have a single line of thought that in conventional terms would seem obsessive. “Tambourine theology” is an accurate description of all the speeches of one, while both Mrs. Foran and Harry Heegan's mother have no other concern in sending their men off to the First World War trenches but the maintenance money from the government for dependents of soldiers of Active Service. In fact the characters have hardly more developed personalities than the openly expressionistic figures of Act II, being designed to serve a didactic pattern. The dominant males of the opening are defined purely in terms of physical vitality to provide the maximum contrast to the war-cripples they become, the soccer hero Harry being paralysed from the waist down, the blinded Teddy being subservient to the wife he had terrorized, while in place of being a hero-worshipper spurned by the girls, Barney throttles the helpless Harry and wins his former fiancée.

At first glance the war sequence seems a complete contrast, with its class-conscious caricatures, anonymous soldiers and chanted verse. The only named character, Barney, is pinioned to a gun-wheel in direct comparison and contrast to a life-size Christ-figure with one arm released from the crucifix, either side of a howitzer to which the soldiers pray when the enemy attack. The tone is set by antiphonal chanting: “Kyrie eleison” from within the ruined monastery and an inverted version of Ezekiel's prophecy of resurrection from a blood-covered death figure. Stage directions stress the distinction between these symbolic objects and reality, “Every feature of the scene seems a little distorted from its original appearance,” and when the guns fire “Only flashes are seen, no noise is heard.” Yet in the first production Harry doubled as 1st Soldier without any noticeable incongruity.19 Indeed, in the following hospital scene this surreal treatment coexists with the naturalistic surface—with the figures both interacting as individuals and reduced to numbers by the system, the same counterpoint between off-stage latin liturgy and human pain closing the episode—and the double image of reality is projected onto the final return to a Dublin setting. The bitter presence of the maimed makes the Football Club dance grotesque; conversational dialogue continually modulates into antiphonal patterns:

sylvester … give him breath to sing his song an' play the ukelele.

mrs. heegan Just as he used to do.

sylvester Behind the trenches.

simon In the Rest Camps.

mrs. foran Out in France.

harry I can see, but I cannot dance.

teddy I can dance but I cannot see. …

harry There's something wrong with life when men can walk.

teddy There's something wrong with life when men can see.

We are challenged to look behind naturalistic surfaces. In retrospect the apparent normality of the tenement is as illusory as the balloons and coloured streamers of the dance hall. As Shaw commented in his defence of The Silver Tassie, “The first act is not a bit realistic; it is deliberately fantastic … poetry.”20

In much the same way, the “dramatic dehiscence” noted by Beckett undermines the apparent naturalism of the Dublin trilogy. The combination of Music Hall turn with melodrama, as well as stock characterization and, above all, the strongly allegorical action, are precisely the qualities that form the dramaturgical basis for O'Casey's later works. The change of style is more a shift in emphasis than a new approach. The mythic dimension is already present in Juno, and even in Shadow of a Gunman, where Minnie is “A Helen of Troy come to live in a tenement!” Exactly the same allegory, on which the action of Juno is based, reappears in more didactic and openly symbolic plays. The O'Houlihan house of Kathleen Listens In, bought in exchange for the family cow of living standards and its door painted green, stands for national independence, with the subsequent political conflict represented by the demands of the Worker that the house be painted red versus the Republican extremist's “Yous'll grow shamrocks or yous'll grow nothin'!.”21 The decaying mansion of Purple Dust is Ireland again, with independence again embodied by the destruction of its interior. But there the terms are cultural rather than political, with the flood that drives out Stokes and Poges—the wealthy English neo-colonists, named after the village that inspired Gray's “Elegy,” whose intention of reviving the feudal past is sabotaged by the down-to-earth vitality of the locals—symbolizing the sweeping away of cultural imperialism and capitalism by the river of time. Conversely, the celebration of the Life Force that finds its fullest expression in O'Casey's last fantasies is also present in The Plough and the Stars, with Rosie Redmond's song of sexual pleasure and procreation (censored in the original Abbey production) in counterpoint to the men marching off to their deaths in the Easter Uprising.

O'Casey's work, then, has a consistent unity. His early plays signal a move beyond the limits of dramatic naturalism as much as the later, more obviously experimental works. Though in different ways, both correspond to his concept of “The new form in drama [which] will take qualities found in classical, romantic and expressionistic plays, will blend them together, breathe the breath of life into the new form and create a new drama.”22 As such his search is a prototype for the various attempts to develop new forms of social realism which can be found in the contemporary generation of politically oriented dramatists from Osborne to Hare or Edgar. Yet, with the exception of Denis Johnston's counter-play to The Plough and the Stars, The Scythe and the Sunset (1958) and a general influence on the later, marginalized Irish work of John Arden, O'Casey's work has had no specific effect on subsequent British or Irish theatre.

The critical misreading of O'Casey, interpreting his development in terms of a radical change in style, is arguably the major reason for O'Casey's lack of influence. Yeats's attack on The Silver Tassie for its apparent abandonment of the earlier plays' dramatic principles, based on a purely naturalistic reading of the Dublin trilogy, is typical. O'Casey's withdrawal to England and his increasingly overt political bias may have been contributing factors in banishing his later plays from the stage. But Yeats's criticism not only initiated the break with the Abbey. It established the terms for discussion of O'Casey's work by exaggerating the realism of his early plays as much as by singling out the expressionistic elements of The Silver Tassie. As a result, whether seeking to promote O'Casey's post-1930 stylistic experimentation, commenting on its problematic language and characterization, or choosing to focus exclusively on the Abbey plays, subsequent criticism has emphasized a division that is more apparent than actual.

Notes

  1. Carol Kleiman, Sean O'Casey's Bridge of Vision: Four Essays on Structure and Perspective (Toronto, 1982), cf. pp. 49, 51.

  2. Joseph W. Krutch, “Modernism” in Modern Drama: A Definition and an Estimate (Ithaca, NY, 1953), p. 99 and in The Nation, 21 December 1927; Desmond E.S. Maxwell, A Critical History of Modern Irish Drama 1891-1980 (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 112 and 98. A more extreme form of this interpretation is offered by Kleiman, who proposes O'Casey as not only a precursor of Beckett, but also of Ionesco, and as paralleling Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty (Kleiman, pp. 87ff).

  3. The Collected Plays of Sean O'Casey Vol. 1, 4 (London, 1949, 1951), pp. 93 and 231, quoting Dubedat's dying speech: “I believe in … the might of design, the mystery of colour, the belief in the redemption of all things by beauty everlasting” and “I have … never denied my faith. … I've fought the good fight” (G.B. Shaw, Doctor's Dilemma [London, 1932], p. 163). For parallels between Purple Dust and John Bull's Other Island, cf. Saros Cowasjee, Sean O'Casey: The Man Behind the Plays (London, 1963), pp. 156-7, while R.B. Parker, “Bernard Shaw and Sean O'Casey,” Queen's Quarterly, 73 (1966), 13-34 offers a detailed analysis of the relationship.

  4. Collected Plays, Vol. 4, p. 144; O'Casey, Blasts and Benedictions: Articles and Stories (London, 1967), p. 145; Collected Plays, Vol. 2, pp. 228, 196.

  5. See Denis Johnston, “Sean O'Casey: A Biography and an Appraisal,” Modern Drama, 4 (1961/62), 327; O'Casey, Under a Colored Cap (London, 1963), p. 263 (Cf. also Autobiographies I [London, 1963], p. 558); Collected Plays, Vol. 1, p. 261.

  6. See William Armstrong, “History, Autobiography, and The Shadow of a Gunman,Modern Drama, 2 (1959/60), 417ff; Collected Plays, Vol. 1, pp. 127, 105.

  7. Collected Plays, Vol. 1, pp. 153, 157.

  8. By contrast to Minnie, the woman arrested with her does not jump out of the truck and survives. Collected Plays, Vol. 1, pp. 153, 155, 133, 98.

  9. Collected Plays, Vol. 1, pp. 89, 201.

  10. Joseph Holloway, cit. Lady Gregory's Journals 1916-30, ed. Lennox Robinson (London, 1946), p. 99; Blasts and Benedictions, p. 91.

  11. Collected Plays, Vol. 1, p. 203. For a fuller treatment of the structure in The Plough and the Stars, cf. Heinz Kosok, O'Casey the Dramatist, (Irish Literary Studies 19), trans. Kosok and Joseph T. Swann (Totowa, NJ, 1985), pp. 71ff.

  12. Collected Plays, Vol. 1, pp. 249, 170, 258.

  13. Dublin Magazine, 1 (1926), 64; Blasts and Benedictions, p. 93; Collected Plays, Vol. 1, p. 214.

  14. Gabriel Fallon, Sean O'Casey: The Man I Knew (London, 1965), p. 17 (according to this memoir O'Casey “mentioned this play many times and always it was the tragedy of Johnny. I cannot recall that he once spoke about Juno or Joxer or the Captain”); Collected Plays, Vol. I, pp. 31, 33-4, 4.

  15. Collected Plays, Vol. 1, pp. 27, 88.

  16. Samuel Beckett, “The Essential and the Incidental,” The Bookman, 86 (1934) (in Sean O'Casey: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Thomas Kilroy, [Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1975], p. 167); Blasts and Benedictions, p. 51; Cf. Katharine J. Worth, “O'Casey's Dramatic Symbolism,” Modern Drama, 4 (1961/62), 260-67 as well as Kleiman, pp. 87ff.

  17. Collected Plays, Vol. 2, pp. 277 and 353-54; Our Time, 5 (1945/46), 238.

  18. Collected Plays, Vol. 2, pp. 23-25.

  19. Collected Plays, Vol. 2, pp. 36 and 56; for a detailed discussion of the way O'Casey unifies naturalistic and expressionistic elements in The Silver Tassie as well as Red Roses for Me, see Kleiman, pp. 49ff (though she argues that the doubling in Vincent Massey's production was inappropriate, and the correct parallel is between Heegan and the death-figure of The Croucher, p. 35).

  20. Collected Plays, Vol. 2, pp. 93-4; Shaw, a letter to Lady Gregory, June 1928, cit. Peter Kavanagh, The Story of the Abbey Theatre (New York, 1950), p. 141.

  21. Complete Plays, Vol. 5 (London, 1984), p. 475.

  22. O'Casey, New York Times, 21 October 1934, Section 9, p. 3.

Sean O'Casey (essay date 1953)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2020

SOURCE: “The Power of Laughter: Weapon Against Evil,” in The Green Crow, George Braziller, Inc., 1956, pp. 226-32.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1953, O'Casey addresses the role and significance of a sense of humor in both literature and life.]

Laughter is wine for the soul—laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness Comedy and tragedy step through life together, arm in arm, all along, out along, down along lea. A laugh is the loud echo of a sigh; a sigh the faint echo of a laugh. A laugh is a great natural stimulator, a pushful entry into life; and once we can laugh, we can live. It is the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living. Man is always hopeful of, always pushing towards, better things; and to bring this about, a change must be made in the actual way of life; so laughter is brought in to mock at things as they are so that they may topple down, and make room for better things to come.

People are somewhat afraid of laughing. Many times, when laughter abounded, I have heard the warning remark, “Oh, give it a rest, or it'll end in a cry.” It is odd how many seem to be curiously envious of laughter, never of grief. You can have more than your fill of grief, and nobody minds: they never grudge your grief to you. You are given the world to grieve in; laughter is more often confined to a corner. We are more afraid of laughter than we are of grief. The saying is all wrong—it should be “Grieve, and the world grieves with you; laugh, and you laugh alone.” Laughter may be a bad thing; grief is invariably a good or a harmless one.

Laughter tends to mock the pompous and the pretentious; all man's boastful gadding about, all his pretty pomps, his hoary customs, his wornout creeds, changing the glitter of them into the dullest hue of lead. The bigger the subject, the sharper the laugh. No one can escape it: not the grave judge in his robe and threatening wig; the parson and his saw; the general full of his sword and his medals; the palled prelate, tripping about, a blessing in one hand, a curse in the other; the politician carrying his magic wand of Wendy windy words; they all fear laughter, for the quiet laugh or the loud one upends them, strips them of pretense, and leaves them naked to enemy and friend.

Laughter is allowed when it laughs at the foibles of ordinary men, but frowned on and thought unseemly when it makes fun of superstitions, creeds, customs, and the blown-up importance of brief authority of those going in velvet and fine linen. The ban on laughter stretches back to the day when man wore skins and defended himself with the stone hammer. Many enemies have always surrounded laughter, have tried to banish it from life; and many have perished on the high gallows tree because they laughed at those who had been given power over them. Hell-fire tried to burn it, and the weeping for sins committed did all that was possible to drown it; but laughter came safely through the ordeals of fire and water; came smiling through. The people clung to laughter, and held it safe, holding both its sides, in their midst; out in the field, at home in the mud hovel, under the castle wall, at the very gateway of the Abbey.

Every chance of leisure the medieval peasant and worker snatched from his fearsome and fiery labor was spent in low revelry, banned by the church, deprecated by the grandees; the hodden gray put on gay and colorful ribbons, and the hours went in making love, listening to and singing ditties mocking spiritual pastor and master, and whirling rapturously and riotously round the beribboned maypole. The bawl of the ballad came into the Abbey or Priory Church, and poured through the open windows of the Castle Hall, irritating and distracting the lord and his lady poring over the pictured book of hours. In story whispered from ear to ear, in song sung at peasant gatherings, they saw themselves as they were seen by their people, and they didn't like it; they weren't amused, for these things ate into their dignity, made them nearer to the common stature of common men, who learned that the grand and the distant ones were but a hand's span away from themselves.

Nothing could kill or stay laughter, or hold it fast in one place. It spread itself out all over the world, for, though men show their thoughts in many different manners and modes, they all laugh the same way.

When Christianity became a power, and took the place of the Roman Empire, they closed the theaters, deeming them places of surly rioting and brazen infamy, destroying souls, displeasing God, and hindering holiness on its dismal way. Bang, bang went the doors, shutting poor Satan in with the shadows. The dispersed actors became wandering minstrels, and whereas before they had been thorns in the Church's fingers, now, in songs of laughter, satire, and ridicule, they shot arrows into her breast and into her two things. A lot of the minor clergy joined them, and added their songs, too, to the ballads of the minstrels, ridiculing and damaging the rulers of both Church and State. Footsore, tired, hungry, and ragged, they laughed their way along the highway of lord and bishop; they put a laughable ban on everything they knew, all they had heard of, laughing on, though the end of many was a drear death in a ditch, with the curse of the Church as a hard pillow for a stiffening head.

Nothing seems too high or low for the humorist; he is above honor, above faith, preserving sense in religion and sanity in life. The minstrels thought (as we should think, too) that “The most completely lost of all days is that on which one hasn't laughed.” So, if you get a chance in the hurry and complexity of life, laugh when the sun shines, when the rain falls, or even when the frost bites the skin or touches the heart with a chill.

Laughter has always been a puzzle to the thinker, a kind of a monkey-puzzle, a tree that doesn't look like a tree at all, but is as much a tree as any other one. Philosophers and sages have stopped up many and many a night, seeking an explanation, trying out a definition of comedy; but have gone to bed no wiser, and dead tired, while man kept on laughing, content to enjoy it, and never bothering his head as to what it was. Crowds of thinkers have set down big theories about laughter and comedy, among them the great Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Jamblichus, and Kant; but though all of them were often blue in the face thinking it out, none of them got to the bottom of its mystery.

One American writer has connected laughter with Salvation; and maybe he isn't far wrong. He says: “The Church will prosper not through diminishing its requirements upon its members, nor in punishing them too severely for their delinquencies, but in showing mercy and kindness. Mercy is a flexible connective between the ideal and the real; it is a proper manifestation of the comic spirit. God, too, has a sense of humor: is He not revealed unto us as full of compassion, long-suffering, and merciful?” That is Dudley Zuver's opinion, and a new and odd one it will be to many. Not to David Lyndsay, the Scottish poet of the sixteenth century, who saw God near breaking his sides laughing at a rogue of an old woman who got past the indignant St. Peter by the use of her ready and tricky tongue.

It is high time and low time that we made a sense of humor an attribute of whatever God there may be. Why, at times, the whole earth must present a comic picture to whatever deity may be watching its antics. There's the United Nations, for instance, never more divided than now in conference, sub-conference, committee, sub-committee, this council and that council, trying out one question, and making a thousand more questions out of their discussions. What fools these mortals be!

It is odd—significant, too—that in any litany whatsoever, Catholic or Protestant, Methodist or Baptist, there isn't a single petition for a sense of humor. There are petitions for everything, ideal conditions and real conditions; for everything except a sense of humor. If they petitioned for this, and got it, then the other petitions wouldn't be so many, for they would understand themselves more clearly, and cease to pester God to do things for them that they could do in an easier and better way for themselves. They would become more tolerant, would priest and parson, more understanding, more sociable, and, in many ways, more worthy of heaven and of earth. So let all who pray ask for what most of them need badly, a sense of humor to lighten their way through life, making it merrier for themselves and easier for others. Then there will be something in the carol's greeting—God rest you merry, gentlemen!

Even Shakespeare seems to be somewhat shy of laughter; even he. He rarely—save in the play, Troilus and Cressida—goes all out for the mockery of the heroic and the nobility. He often dismisses his clowns with a scornful gesture, as if half apologizing for their existence. He gives a semi-comic and partly-pathetic touch to the death of Falstaff, his supreme comic character, and makes poor Bardolph swing by the neck from the end of a rope for stealing a silver pyx out of a church during the campaign in France. Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet suddenly become shadows; so does Poins. Only the ranting Pistol is left to eat the leek, and then creep away from life forever. Shakespeare kept ridicule warm for the lower class, recognizing in his middle-class way that to criticize the nobility by comic characterization might be dangerous, by letting the peasant and poor worker know what they really looked like. Yet, by and large, we can warmly feel how Shakespeare loved his rascals, a love so deep that, in their drawing, he made them live forever.

Where was laughter born, and when was it first heard? No one seems to know. We don't even know what it is. A baby knows how to cry before it learns to laugh. Its first smile is regarded as a miracle. So it is—the greatest and most valuable miracle born amongst men, though one thinker, Vico, says that “laughter is an attribute of second-rate minds.” Let it be, then, for it is a lovely humor. It is so intensely human: however we may differ in color, in thought, in manners, in ideologies, we all laugh the same way; it is a golden chain binding us all together. The human mind will always be second-rate in the sense of still having to learn. To rise above humor is to rise above partiality, and no human being can do this; we are all partial, one way or another. We do not seek to be gods; we are content to be good men and good women; useful, neighborly, and fond of life, rounding it off with a big laugh and a little sleep.

The conscious humorist, said Vico, is a very low fellow. We're all very low fellows, for all of us, some time or another, are conscious humorists. And well we are, for our souls' sake, and for the sake of man's sanity. We couldn't live without comedy. Let us pray: Oh, Lord, give us a sense of humor with courage to manifest it forth, so that we may laugh to shame the pomps, the vanities, the sense of self-importance of the Big Fellows that the world sometimes sends among us, and who try to take our peace away. Amen.

Sean O'Casey (essay date 1956)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4456

SOURCE: “Tender Tears for Poor O'Casey,” in The Green Crow, George Braziller, Inc., 1956, pp. 177-90.

[In the following essay, O'Casey responds to the animosity expressed by Dublin critics towards his plays, particularly their relentless berating of The Bishop's Bonfire.]

It touches the heart to think of the deep and lasting affection in which the critics of Dublin hold O'Casey tight, and the big, round tears they shed so sadly over his present irresponsible playwrighting. He is lost! they cry, and will be utterly so, if he doesn't amend his ways, and turn back to first principles. He refuses; he won't: weep on, weep on, his hour is past! Tinkling their one-stringed harps, they sit them down by the waters of Anna Livia Plurabelle, and weep for the lone, lost bard. They want him to go back to the writing of another Juno and the Paycock; to the period of the first three “great” or “fine” or “grand”—they always give an uplifting adjective to the noun when they mention them—plays; and, because, so far, he has declined, they are about to build a wailing wall in Dublin to commemorate the poor playwright who took the wrong turning. Am I exaggerating now, or what? I don't think so. Listen; and let us take these critics in the order of their disappearance.

In an issue of the Irish Times in 1940, a critic, whose name doesn't appear on his comments, moans dolefully (though I imagine I feel a thrill-thread of joy through the moaning) in a review of The Star Turns Red, saying: “This play drives us to the thought that in The Plough and the Stars O'Casey's star saw the last moment of its proper brightness. These early plays were loved for the fresh fun they made in the theater [evidently a fellow fond of a loud guffaw at anything], and for their vivid version of already ‘familiar characters.’ We liked these plays because they said things about our serio-comic warfare, which, all the time we had been enduring them, we wanted so fiercely to say ourselves, but just couldn't, because we were afraid. [See? This critic liked these plays, not because they were fine plays, but because they said things he was afraid to say—and that, in his opinion, goes for drama criticism.] Then Mr. O'Casey, blown sky-high above his audiences, began to write ‘great’ plays. The first was The Silver Tassie, which the Abbey Theater at first refused—in Mr. O'Casey's artistic interest only. The latter history of that play is linked closely with the decline of his star.” That's Duine gan ainm for you.

A critic signing himself “K” quotes a critic named A. E. Malone as writing in 1929 in The Irish Drama: “For the moment the future of O'Casey is artistically a problem upon which no decided opinion can be given [and he giving a decided opinion all the time!]. It may be suggested that his basis [his basis!] is definitely localized and except his talent be greater than it at present appears to be, his future will be as much a part of Dublin as was his past.” And “K” adds for himself, “How triumphantly true!” There is nothing true in it, for there is nothing decided in it. The man was afraid to decide anything. Every man is localized insofar as he can only be himself. I can tell “K” definitely, without the slightest reservation, that however “great” O'Casey's talent may be or may become, his “future” will be as much a part of Dublin as was his past; just as Joyce carried the city to the end of his life in his heart and in his soul. In the last play written the identity is as clear and unmistakable as it is in the first one.

T. C. Murray, the dramatist de facto, and critic de jure, is also very hot and bothered about O'Casey's way of play-wrighting. Says he, “O'Casey took a strange twist after he had written his earlier plays, a lamentable thing to most of us. To discern the lamentable thing that has happened, we have only to recall those earlier masterpieces of his. One hears again and again, What's wrong with O'Casey? This is the question his best friends have long been asking.” That's the question, Joxer; that's the question. His best friends! And doesn't he know them well!

One early mornin' as I roved out,
I heard a man singin' with grreat llaamentaation!

Valentin Iremonger, a writer himself, commenting in the Irish Times, says, with hand on his troubled heart and a tear in his poetic eye, “I am still young enough to feel sorry—and a little angry—watching genius being squandered away and frittered away upon ephemeral concepts such as Mr. O'Casey has elected to promulgate.” Imagine “electing to promulgate ephemeral concepts”! Still there's dignity and sorrow in the sentence. But comicality too. As if Father O'Flynn, putting his blackthorn in his pocket, said, suddenly, “Th' time for jokin's past—we must be sarious now.” Mr. Iremonger is, presumably, a young fellow, so here's a bit of advice from an old one: Let him think a little longer before he writes some of his sentences. He is young enough to learn to write more clearly. I will give one instance of his thoughtless commenting as a critic of the drama: He is nearly distraught because of the difference between the way in which Feelim in one play receives news of the death of his son and that in which Juno, in another play, receives news of the death of hers. Treating the play with the mind of a pacifist, rather than with that of a critic, he fails to see the different circumstances, the different environment, the different psychological influences of friends and neighbors in the two plays, or the enormous effect they have on those who live among them. Mr. Iremonger—to give another instance of sleepy drama criticism—resents the fact that Oakleaves and Lavender doesn't follow the pattern of realism woven into “the early plays, that made O'Casey so secure”; yet when Feelim, the character in the play mentioned, reacts realistically to the killing of his son, and vows vengeance on the heads of those who did it, and their comrades who helped them to do it, Iremonger goes all white, and moans out a pacifistic sermon, reminding O'Casey that “two can play at that game,” which O'Casey knows quite well—and more than two for that matter; but all this is beside the point, for here Iremonger is judging a play, not as a drama critic, but as a pacifist. This critic heads his commentary with the title of “Rude Mechanicals.” What are “mechanicals,” and when do they become “rude”? Conversely, what are gentle and good-natured mechanicals? No mechanicals are ruder than those of Shakespeare, but they are delightful, lasting, incensing the woes of life with immortal laughter. “Ghost Dancers,” he says again, “are devices long since popular with amateur dramatists everywhere.” Everywhere? What is an amateur dramatist? And where's the “everywhere” where these and their ghostly dancers are to be found? When a statement like this is made, the critic should give instances of the numerous plays by amateur dramatists in which these ghostly dancers have appeared.

A Mr. Gabriel Fallon, drama critic of the Standard (a weekly journal whose editorial office is in the porchway of heaven's doorway), listens to this tale of woe, and adds the tears of middle age to the virgin ones of Mr. Iremonger. Ay, indeed: “Even middle age may drown an eye [why only one; why not the two?] unused to flow on being compelled to witness the incandescence of genius doused in an overflow of its own willfulness.” Another dignified sentence. He isn't done yet: “Unless there is a return to first principles, we shall all be forced to join our young poet in his anger and tears.” Tears, tidal tears! What, all of you to be forced to anger and tears? Unless O'Casey goes back to first principles. Really? All Eire in tears! Over O'Casey. That's too bad to be true. “How is it,” Mr. Fallon asks, “that a number of English critics described Red Roses For Me as a magnificent piece of dramatic poetry?” O'Casey doesn't know, and isn't concerned very much about it. While reminding Mr. Fallon that all the English critics aren't English (Ivor Brown is a Scotsman; Mr. Trewin is a Cornishman; and Desmond MacCarthy must have come from somewhere out of Spain), it isn't the question of the goodness or badness of a play that is the more important thing; it is the going back on the idea that the drama must change and develop a new outlook, a broader scope, and a fresh style, if it is to live as an art alongside the art of architecture, of painting, and of music. In my opinion, the time has passed for a drama to devote its expression to one aspect of life alone, and to consider that aspect of life as dominant for the time the play takes to unfold itself; that in one play one aspect of life must be the beginning, the middle, and the end of it. Consistency of mood and of manner isn't always, indeed, not even often, found in life, and why should it then be demanded in a play? This new aspect of playwrighting which puzzled audiences here in 1929—and some of the critics too—is now puzzling the Dublin critics in 1947, and provoking them to anger and tears. What angers most of them, however, is that it hasn't been altogether a failure. A jewel moved about in the hand shows many flashes of light and color; and the human life, moved about by circumstances of tragedy and comedy, shows more than many flashes of diversity in the unity of its many-sided human nature. Of course, a great play may be written around one aspect of life, but it doesn't follow that this must be the one way forever in which dramatists are to show life on the stage to those interested in the theater. Not of course that a fine play, or even a great play, may not again be written by a newer dramatist in the “realistic” manner; but it will need to be a fine one to lift itself from the sameness of the tens of thousands of realistic or naturalistic plays that have gone before it. They are as numerous as the shadowy, silvery pictures painted by Corot—hundreds of them, with additional hundreds of perfect imitations, so beloved of so many, especially by Æ; though few words of praise were given to the portraits he painted, the loveliest things Corot did. Why? Because the portraits were what only Corot could do, while the silvery landscapes could be done by a hand holding a brush with a little craft and trickery to aid it. Dramatists cannot go on imitating themselves, and, when they get tired of that, imitating others. They must change, must experiment, must develop their power, or try to, if the drama is to live.

But are those earlier plays of O'Casey the “great works” they are said to be by O'Casey's “best friends”? And is the tear at this moment shed the genuine tear it is said to be? When these “early masterpieces” appeared first on the stage, did they get the applause they deserved from the eminent Irish critics of the day? Were these plays, when they appeared, “loved for the fresh fun they made in the theater”? Did the then lower lights and the higher lights of Dublin think that these plays made O'Casey “secure” in the high-light of the drama? Let us see.

Here's what A. E. Malone (then considered an authority on the drama), Malone with his pert mustache on his little, frightened face, here's what he said: “The Plough and the Stars isn't as good a play as Juno. It is a series of tableaux vivants. O'Casey is a photographic artist. In the Plough O'Casey strives after a literary quality of speech which is alien to Dublin slum dwellers. The play has the structure of the cinema and the revenue. The Prostitute, Rosie Redmond, has no significance whatever [a touch of humor here]. The career of O'Casey induces fear for his future.” As if afraid his readers might forget what he had said, he comes out again, a little stronger: “Is O'Casey a dramatist? Is he but a combination of the cinema and the dictaphone? His plays are phases of Dublin life under conditions as abnormal as they are transient. His humor is the humor of the music-hall without its skill, or the sharpened point of its wit.” Well, O'Casey is in no way ashamed for anything of a music-hall nature appearing in his plays. Well, here's a lad who wrote a big, big book, a “book of great authority,” on the Irish Theater, who couldn't, wouldn't make up his mind about poor O'Casey, and gave most of his criticisms in a series of questions because the thought was father to the wish.

Most people will remember the tremendous opposition the plays met from the Plain People; but was this worse than that of Liam O'Flaherty, who, in a letter denouncing Yeats's defense of the play, tersely informed Yeats and the world that “in my opinion, The Plough and the Stars is a bad play.” At the same time, in the Irish Statesman, F. R. Higgins, the poet, came out with the revelation that “A new political quality, approved by the arrogance of the Gall, is the only quality for which O'Casey is offered applause. His is a technique based on the revue structure, in the quintessence of an all-Abbey burlesque, intensified by ‘divarsions’ and Handy Andy incidents, with somewhat more original settings. His plays are but a laborious bowing on a one-string fiddle, and ‘Fluther’ is but the successor of Boyle's more lively ragtime. O'Casey in his new play entirely lacks the sincerity of an artist.”

Well, there's the stern, quiet testimony of a poet, doing away with all the praise and good report of the Iremongers, the Fallons, and the Murrays. But there's another—Austin Clarke, a poet, too. He said, with the same poise and quietness, that “Several writers of the new Irish school [himself included of course] believe that Mr. O'Casey's work is a crude exploitation of our poorer people in the Anglo-Irish tradition that is now moribund.”

O'Casey exploiting the poor! And now they want him to go on with this nefarious practice. Pilfer the lot of them; take the last penny from them, then leave them to God! I wonder is it really O'Casey who does this bad thing? I shouldn't put anything past him, for he carries the Red Star in the lapel of his coat, emblazoned with those dangerous weapons—the hammer and the sickle.

But we haven't come to the end of the list yet. There are a few left still. There's Professor Daniel Corkery, the man who found the hidden Ireland. In an article praising Clifford Odets' Golden Boy he shows how this play far surpasses the “realistic” plays of O'Casey. And since Golden Boy is but a third-rate play, then O'Casey's realistic plays must be low down, deep, among the dead men. One more from others: R. M. Fox of Dublin, a writer, in the New Statesman in an issue of August, 1928, calls these plays “The Drama of the Dregs.” He says, “Peasant drama in Ireland has been succeeded by slum drama, though such an authority as W. B. Yeats tells us that the peasant drama is done, and slum drama will have a very short reign. As entertainment, this kind of drama is permissible. Neither the peasant nor the slum play deals in any direct fashion with typical problems of a group of people. But group problems may not lend themselves to drama, certainly not to melodrama, and so on the stage they are neglected. Besides entertainment we need truth.” Well, there's R. M. Fox for you, telling you and me about the drama; all about the drama. He seems to think truth should be entertaining, though I know an Irish proverb that says truth is always bitter.

It wouldn't be fair to forget the recent roar of Brinsley Macnamara about “the vulgarity of O'Casey's worthless plays that have always been given far too much honor and attention by the Abbey Theater.” So there is heard a pretty fine chorus against these “masterpieces” that have made “O'Casey so secure in the theater,” from the sparrow-like chirrup of Mr. Austin Clarke to the ready and heady roar of Brinsley Macnamara.

Now these who said these things are just as intelligent, just as important, as those who have come after them. Their criticism is as likely to be right as the criticism of the present-day complainers; so what is the playwright to do? Here we have a vociferous assembly, men of gifts, some of them intellectuals, declaiming against these early “masterpieces” as bad plays, bad art, exploitation of Eire's poorer people, and decisively declaring that O'Casey was equipped only with the technique of the revue, the quick eye of the camera, and the ready pickup mind of the dictaphone; having nothing at all of the dramatist in either heart or head. And yet the critics of today implore O'Casey, with tears in their eyes, to go back to “first principles.” All this shows how stupid these Irish critics are; that they fear O'Casey only a little less than they fear themselves; it tells O'Casey that he mustn't pay any attention to these chiming bells of St. Mary's ordering him back to the land of beginning again.

It shows, too, that Eire needs critics more than she needs playwrights. She has had good plays, good actors, good producers, but always weak, timid, frustrated, and damned bad critics. We have had no drama critic since Yeats, who, with his hazel wand and the red berry tied to an end, tried to exorcise inanity and commercialism out of the Theater of his day. But Yeats was a critic only in his spare time, and then only of the theater insubstantial. He tried to change the Theater of the world through the few things done on the Abbey stage, and, though he failed, he gave Ireland a great beginning.

The Irish Theater needs a critic who will set down the comments of the chronicles of the stage with precision, knowledge, and above all, with courage; refusing to condemn the new because he does not understand it (like the later pictures of Picasso), or dislikes it; a critic able to enter all her halls with confidence, from the highest thing the Theater has ever done to the dialogue and diversions of a Jimmy O'Dea on the Olympia stage. A critic who will never be influenced by his paper's policy or profit; who will be unafraid of clique or cleric; who, in his criticism, will separate himself from the seduction of a friend, or from animosity towards an enemy; who will know the theater of the Continent as well as he knows his own, far back, and present achievement; a critic who will look upon a play as a play, indifferent to whether it hurts or heals. Where is there a critic like that in Eire? Is there one of them who isn't afraid of his paper boss; afraid of his clique of friends; afraid of his clerical consorts; half afraid of his own thoughts? Nowhere; not yet, anyhow.

Now look, young dramatists, you have a theater to develop and to defend, and it is for this reason that I appeal to the younger (and so braver) writers in Ireland today who still go in half fear of clerical and clique; a theater of which we can be proud and of which others who know speak in high praise. Now, this isn't mere rhetorical bounce on the part of O'Casey. Listen to what George Jean Nathan, the famous American drama critic, says of the Irish Theater: “I take it there is small critical question, save alone in the lands of dictated appraisal, that the modern Irish drama leads what is left of the European theater. Our own theater is quick and alive and in many ways admirable, but its plays come mainly out of galvanic impulse rather than deep meditation. And only out of deep meditation is true drama born. Surely in searching the stage of the world theater of the later years it is difficult to find a body possessed of the Celtic poetic pulse. Surely, except in sporadic instances, that quality which insinuates into the mind and emotion its peculiarly lingering after-image is rare in the plays of men nurtured in other soils. It isn't, certainly, that all the plays that are coming out of Eire soil are masterpieces. Very, very far from that. But, as I have written in the past, in even the poorest of them, one finds a probity, a passionate undertone, a brave resolve, and a hint of spiritual music that one all too infrequently encounters in the present dramaturgy of other peoples. And in the finer plays there is a poetic sweep, a surge of human emotions, and a warm, golden glow that even the best drama of other countries most often lacks.” This quotation forms part of a preface to a book published by Random House, New York; it is titled Five Great Modern Irish Plays and costs ninety-five cents. The sale of this book may run into many thousands of copies; so one can see how many will come to regard the Irish Theater as something to be held in honor, and spoken of with respect. Readers will accept the statement on the flap of the jacket which tells the buyer that “No nation has made a richer contribution to the recent literature of the Theater than Ireland.” Than Ireland.

This is a big heraldry of Ireland's theatrical fame. It would be a shame to let the colors fade or the gold tarnish. We should try to keep the colors bright, or even make them brighter. It is an expansive shield, with room for many new designs and waxing symbols; and we can't afford to let any slinking, shrinking critic push a hand aside, eager to put a new one there.

In everything but politics, perhaps even in politics, Ireland is lagging behind—dragging her feet after her like a half-nourished child. In the novel and short story, Ireland holds her own; but in music, in painting (imagine a Dublin art critic having to rush to the National Library to search out a thing or two about Picasso!), we are still in the age of infancy. Let us, at least, hold on to our place in Drama. Ireland won't hold it long if the present-day drama critics have their way; if destructive criticism takes the form of condemning any new thought, every new style used to try to widen the achievement of the living theater; or if constructive criticism takes the form of Brinsley Macnamara's purification, when he advises that audiences should “receive a play that had no appeal, or was simply boring, in stony silence—just no applause at the end, no calls [not even catcalls?], the merciful fall of the curtain putting a finish to the matter.” Finis, the end. No applause, no calls—just the fall of the curtain, and stony silence. Was there ever before such an example of telepathic regimentation suggested to save the Irish Theater? Never, and, let us hope, there never will be again; for the thing is impossible.

To O'Casey, these are but saecula saeculorum critics. What they said thirty years ago about Juno and the Plough, they say today about whatever play he may chance to write. Not a single good berry from the bunches on the tree. Of the horde of Irish critics, one only stood out to say a word for the playwright as he murmured, “One longed in recent weeks for an angry Yeats to castigate the Irish critics for their behavior over Cyril Cusack's production of O'Casey's latest play”; one erudite critic, Donat O'Donnell, mixing a murmur with a heart-breaking sigh, called it “this sorry business”; all of them running, not for pens, but for pokers. One of the tearful lads, mentioned earlier on, not content with a first-night review, ran into a corner to write an “Open Letter to Sean O'Casey,” starting with a doleful roar of “What in the name of fortune is the matter with you?” Oh, dear, what can the matter be; oh, dear, what can the matter be—Seaneen has gone to the fair! “I'll tell you,” he goes on. “In the first place it is because your overweening vanity is severely hurt. You don't like criticism, Sean O'Casey; you only like praise.” Musta been vanity fair O'Casey went to. Vanity of vanities, saith this preacher, all is vanity, and O'Casey is gorgeous with it.

So, young Irish dramatists, go ahead, and don't bother about the critics. They are no use to you. They don't know their own minds. The most of them are influenced by their jobs. Wait till a good critic appears, and then stop awhile to listen. You'll soon get to know him when he (or she) comes, though with Ireland as she is, there'll be but a poor chance for the poor man to live or write. While the dramatists wait for the coming of a pure and proper critic, there is nothing to be done but to go on doing their best to keep Eire in the forefront of the world's drama. Should the shadow of Censorship steal over that deep meditation, mentioned by George Jean Nathan, let the dramatists turn their faces to London and New York; for, if there be fullness of merit in what they create, their work will find there, sooner or later, the fulfillment of production. Take ye no thought for the contempt these places are held in by some of the critics.

So go ahead, my hearties of Irish dramatists, for Eire, and for New York and London. Remember that every Irish dramatist, the oul' ones as well as the young, longs in his heart—and not in a corner either, but in the core—to have his play's name shine in the red, yellow, and blue lights of Broadway and the streets of London's West End. And to quote Nathan again, let every dramatist be modest enough to be “a pilgrim on the road to a Mecca that is ever just over the skyline.”

Punch (review date 8 June 1927)

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SOURCE: A review of The Shadow of a Gunman, in Punch, Vol. 172, June 8, 1927, p. 637.

[In the following review of the London premiere of The Shadow of a Gunman, the critic focuses on O'Casey's dramatic technique, observing that the play's comedic overtones undermines its tragic dénouement.]

One assumes that Mr. Sean O'Casey's method of setting his tragedy against a pattern of jokes is not due to ignorance of the difficulties involved but is a deliberate device to heighten the effect of the catastrophe. In The Shadow of a Gunman the tragic ending is effective enough when it arrives, but it is not sufficiently prepared, or perhaps too subtly, so that the audience has got itself into a thoroughly rollicking mood (sustained by Mr. Arthur Sinclair's broad diverting humour) and refuses to smile but must needs laugh aloud at everything. The discerning, who in the Second Act begin to see the drift of the playwright's plan, are necessarily grieved. However, I think Mr. O'Casey must share some of the blame for that.

Donal Davoren, a young poet—whether good or bad it was not easy to determine, as Mr. Harry Hutchinson persistently read his verses to the backcloth—is sharing a room in the distraught Dublin of 1920 with a vulgar feckless pedlar, Seumas Shields. The other denizens of the tenement have decided that Donal is a gunman on the run, which flatters the boy's vanity and helps him to retain the admiration of that sturdy patriot, pretty little Minnie Powell. When the house is raided by the “auxiliaries,” Minnie takes the bag of bombs which some casual member of the I.R.A. has left under Seumas' bed to her own room, thinking they will be less likely to be looked for there, and, when they are found and the young girl is haled to the lorry by her brutal captors, the two room-fellows, whose brave pretences have given place to abject terror, let her go to her death, the poet cursing his cowardice, the huckster bawling that it was no affair of his annyway.

Irish dramatists of the candid school are not kind to their countrymen. Mr. O'Casey has indeed an almost in human detachment. The black-and-tanner who makes the search of Seumas's room is a bully and a ruffian, but he is a less contemptible figure than Seumas or Donal or Tommy Owens, the little boasting slum-rat, or the drink-sodden Adolphus Grigson, with his Bible and his law-abiding pose.

This play is a reminder of unhappy things that both Irishmen and Englishmen of sensibility would be glad to forget. Perhaps, then, there is something to be said for the laughter which is the standard English way of relief from disquieting reflection. I hope that was partly the explanation of it.

Mr. Arthur Sinclair, who plays most of the two Acts in his untidy bed, has a wonderful Sinclair part. A gross, lazy, peppery humbug of a man is Seumas Shields. Mr. Harry Hutchinson's Donal was skilfully and carefully played—a little too quietly for comfortable hearing. Mr. Sydney Morgan's Adolphus couldn't have been bettered, and Mr. Brian O'Dare's Tommy Owens was horribly effective. Miss Maire O'Neill and Miss Sara Allgood gave us two competent short studies of Irish women, and Miss Eileen Carey's charming little portrait of Minnie owed more perhaps to her natural gifts than to her technical accomplishment. I say “perhaps,” because it isn't easy to be sure that her reticent method wasn't a deliberate choice and the best choice for the part. This company of players deserves the benefit of all doubts.

J. M. Synge's Riders to the Sea, with Miss Sara Allgood in her old part of the bereaved Maurya, did not move us as it was wont to do. Is this really no more than a too self-conscious literary drama which fails to wear?

Three ladies of the audience performed deeds of grace which deserve a chronicler. One (poordarling!) afflicted with a cough twice fled from the theatre to avoid spoiling her neighbours' pleasure; two others, coming late, stood through the first play. A tablet should be put up to them at the Court in perpetuam rei memoriam.

Richard Jennings (review date 18 June 1927)

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SOURCE: A review of The Shadow of a Gunman, in The Spectator, Vol. 138, No. 5164, June 18, 1927, p. 1062.

[In the following review of the Court Theatre production of The Shadow of a Gunman, Jennings perceives a problem with O'Casey's comedic timing and the play's tragic intent.]

Mr. Sean O'Casey's Shadow of a Gunman, now running at the Court Theatre, has renewed the old controversy about ill-timed laughter in the theatre. Playgoers will not accept rebuke from dramatic crities, and, in spite of a strong denunciation in the Times, I found an audience, a few nights later, still laughing loudly at scenes that entangled everyday Dublin humours with tragic emergencies—the compound being characteristic of Mr. O'Casey's method. Have we, then, forgotten all about the horrors in Ireland? Do they mean nothing to us? Or was it, rather, that Mr. Arthur Sinclair, as the pedlar, having compelled mirth, from the depths of his bed, in the first act, could not repress it in the second, where, still in bed, he is beset by the Black-and Tans? For, obviously, Mr. Sinclair is too fine an artist to sentimentalize. He plays his part as it should be played; consistently he is the loud-tongued loafer. What happens to him, in his recumbent posture, or to those about him, isn't, so to speak, his affair: events do not remould middle-aged characters. But the audience, surely, should have discriminated. However, they had an excuse—Mr. O'Casey so closely mingles the tragic-satirical moods that some must laugh, while, perhaps, others weep. Only, tears don't make such a noise as merriment.

William A. Armstrong (essay date 1960)

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SOURCE: “History, Autobiography, and The Shadow of a Gunman,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 2, No. 4, February, 1960, pp. 417-24.

[In the following essay, Armstrong compares The Shadow of Gunman with certain parts of the fourth volume of O'Casey's autobiography, revealing the significance of the personal element that determines the play's formal features.]

Sean O'Casey is said to prefer his first major work, The Shadow of a Gunman, to his next play, Juno and the Paycock. To many of his readers, however, The Shadow of a Gunman has seemed much more limited, local, and topical in appeal. Passing judgement on O'Casey's achievement in this play in The Nineteenth Century and After (April, 1925), Andrew E. Malone has declared that “his characters are taken from the slums of Dublin, and his theme is little more than a commentary upon the warlike conditions of the city during the year 1920.” One purpose of this article is to suggest that this verdict is a deceptive half-truth. O'Casey certainly does provide a realistic cross-section of life in a Dublin slum in 1920, and, as will be shown, the play certainly acquires greater significance when it is related to the social and political history of that year. But even where O'Casey's representation is closest to social or historical fact it exhibits a distinctive tone and colouring imparted by his imagination in obedience to a dramatic design. Moreover, a comparison between the play and certain parts of his autobiography, Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (1949) reveals that the personal element in the play is more important that the historical one because it helped to determine its form and the interpretation of life which that form was designed to emphasize.

O'Casey dates the period of his play as May, 1920. During this month the bitter struggle between the Crown and the Irish separatist movement known as Sinn Féin (“We Ourselves”) reached a critical stage. Before the end of 1919, Sinn Féin and its legislative assembly, Dáil Éireann, had been declared illegal, and Lloyd George had devised his “Bill for the Better Government of Ireland,” which recommended separate parliaments for the six northeastern counties and for the other twenty-six counties of Ireland. This scheme for partition at once intensified the struggle between Sinn Féin and the British Executive in Ireland. After the shooting of a policeman in Dublin on February 20th, 1920, a curfew was imposed on the city, making it illegal for any persons other than members of the Crown forces to be in the streets between midnight and 5 a.m. Soon afterwards the curfew period was extended and began at 8 p.m. On March 24th, four days before the Second Reading of Lloyd George's Bill at Westminster, the power of the British Executive was reinforced by the first detachments of a special police force recruited from the toughest ex-servicemen of the First World War. These detachments wore khaki coats with black trousers and black caps and were promptly christened “the Black and Tans” after a well-known Tipperary pack of foxhounds. To combat these forces, the Irish Republican Army split into small groups of fifteen to thirty men who used guerilla tactics to keep their foes under constant strain. Many of its fighters lived on the run, moving continuously from place to place and seldom sleeping at home. By May, 1920, the forces of the Crown were being gradually forced back to their headquarters in Dublin and many Irish Protestants who had previously been strong supporters of the Union with England had become passive spectators of the struggle.

Most of these facts are vividly reflected in The Shadow of a Gunman which had an immense local appeal when it was first acted at the Abbey Theatre on April 12th, 1923. Its action hinges on the fact that a poet, Donal Davoren, who has recently come to share a Dublin tenement with Seumas Shields, allows himself to be regarded as a gunman “on the run.” On the Run, indeed, was O'Casey's original title for the play and he abandoned it only because a drama of that name already existed. Another character, Maguire, is a real gunman on the run and is killed in a guerilla action not far from Dublin. A third character, Grigson, is an Orangeman and professes loyalty to the Crown, but he is politically passive and assures Davoren that “there never was a drop av informer's blood in the whole family av Grigson.” While Grigson is out drinking during the curfew period, his wife is worried in case he may be shot by the Black and Tans. Soon after Grigson's safe return, shots are heard in the lane outside and Davoren and Shields are terrified at the prospect of a raid because Maguire has left a bag of bombs in their room. Shields prays that the raiders may be Tommies and not the dreaded Tans.

Discussing the behaviour of the Black and Tans in The Revolution in Ireland (1923), W. Alison Phillips primly remarks that “there is evidence that some of these men—by no means all—brought to Ireland the loose views as to the rights of property which had been current during the war at the front, and helped themselves to what they needed without in these requisitions always discriminating between the loyal and the disloyal.” In the play, Mrs. Grigson's description of how the Black and Tans treat her husband puts flesh on the dry bones of this generalization. To prove his loyalty, Grigson puts a big Bible on his table, open at the First Epistle of St. Peter, with a pious text on obedience to the King marked in red ink. The representatives of the Crown are unimpressed, however; the Black and Tans fling Grigson's Bible on the floor, interpret his picture of King William crossing the Boyne as seditious propaganda, and force him to sing, “We shall meet in the Sweet Bye an' Bye” as they drink his whisky. After arresting Minnie Powell, who had bravely concealed Maguire's bombs in her room, the Black and Tans raid another house and immediately afterwards are caught in the ambush in which Minnie is killed.

The setting of the play reinforces the strong local interest of these events. The scene represents “A room in a tenement in Hilljoy Square, Dublin.” There is no such place as “Hilljoy Square” in Dublin, but the significant combination of “hill,” “joy,” and “square” and some other details in the play made it pretty certain that O'Casey was representing a tenement in Mountjoy Square, which is situated in the northeastern part of the city and was built between 1792 and 1818 at a time when it was fashionable to live on the north side of the Liffey. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the south side had again become the fashionable residential area, and many of the fine Georgian houses in Mountjoy Square and the surrounding district had been converted into tenements which were occupied by the poorest citizens. The Georgian architecture of Mountjoy Square and its surroundings no doubt explains why the scene of the play is described as a Return Room, in which two large windows occupy practically the whole of the back wall space, and why Mr. Gallogher and his family are described as the tenants of a “front drawing-room” and their obnoxious neighbours, the Dwyers, as the tenants of a “back drawing-room” in a house nearby.

In May, 1920, the tenements of Dublin were appallingly overcrowded. In 1913, a Local Government Board Commission recorded that 21,000 families were living in one-room tenements, of which 9,000 were occupied by four or more persons. In O'Casey's play, Mr. Gallogher's tenement falls into the latter category for it is occupied by his two children as well as his wife and himself. The complaint which Gallogher makes to Davoren, whom he regards as an important member of the Irish Republican Army, is due to over-crowded conditions of life. Despite his protests, Mrs. Dwyer has persisted in allowing her children to keep the hall door open and to use the hall as a playground. “The name calling and the language” of the Dwyers is “something abominable” and Mrs. Gallogher often has to lock her door to keep them from assaulting her. Gallogher fears that things will get worse when Mr. Dwyer, a seaman, comes home, and anxiously petitions the Irish Republican Army for protection.

The quaintly-worded petition which Gallogher brings to Davoren establishes yet another connection between the play and the revolutionary situation in Ireland in May, 1920. Early in 1920, the Dáil Éireann began to organize its own police and its own law courts in opposition to those of the Crown. By June, Republican courts had been established in no less than twenty-one counties and the royal judges who went on circuit found no litigants awaiting them. In May and June the pressure of business in the Republican courts became so great that the Dáil was obliged to limit the cases to be heard to those licensed by its Minister for Home Affairs. Against this background, Gallogher's letter of May 21st to the “Gentlemen of the Irish Republican Army” acquires additional significance. The anomalous legal conditions of the time explain why he carefully excuses himself for having taken out a summons against the Dwyers because “there was no Republican Courts” at the time when he did so, and why he adds that he did not proceed with it because he has “a strong objection to foreign courts as such.” He goes on to urge the Republicans to send “some of your army or police,” preferably with guns, to his tenement, for he believes that he has “a Primmy Fashy Case against Mrs. Dwyer and all her heirs.”

O'Casey certainly made abundant use of local geography and history when he wrote The Shadow of a Gunman. But his choice of material is selective and his treatment is consistently ironical. There is a visual irony in the very setting in which Shield's meagre, slovenly furnishings clutter a room in a Georgian mansion in a once-fashionable square. The dangers of the curfew period set Mrs. Grigson worrying about her absent husband, but they also produce the irony of her canny speculation: “Do the insurance companies pay if a man is shot after curfew?” In their treatment of Grigson, the Black and Tans are the unconscious agents of the irony of poetic justice because Grigson is a boastful tippler who treats his wife like a skivvy. The Republican Courts were established with the high purpose of saving Ireland from anarchy during a time of great emergency; Gallogher expects them to sort out a tenement squabble. If O'Casey had preserved his original title, On the Run, it would have combined irony with topicality since Davoren is an artist “on the run” in search of peaceful conditions of work, not the dedicated gunman he is taken for. In The Playboy of the Western World, the pose so artfully assumed by Christie Mahon stimulates both his imagination and that of his admirers; in The Shadow of a Gunman, Davoren's half-hearted pose illustrates only his vanity and evokes only vainglory or self-interest in such characters as Tommy Owens, Grigson, and Gallogher. The saddest of the many ironies in the play is that Minnie Powell sacrifices herself for a versifier whom she regards as a patriot as well as a poet.

II

Minnie Powell represents the most positive set of values in The Shadow of a Gunman. These values emerge chiefly from the interaction between Minnie, Davoren, and Shields. A comparison between the play and the third and fourth sections of Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (1949) provides good reasons for believing that these three characters had their origins in certain experiences described by O'Casey in this autobiography and that he modified and intensified these experiences to create the contrast between Minnie, Davoren, and Shields which is the main theme of the play.

In his autobiography, O'Casey describes how the behavior of his brother made it impossible for him to carry on with his creative writing in their Dublin tenement and how he moved to another tenement in a different house. This parallels Davoren's move from one tenement to another so as to be able to work in peace. One night when O'Casey lay in bed in his new abode the house was raided by Black and Tans; in the play, Davoren finds himself in the same predicament. In his autobiography, O'Casey describes “a volley of battering blows on the obstinate wooden door, mingled with the crash of falling glass” which indicated that “the panels on each side of it had been shattered by hammer or rifle-butt.” These details are closely paralleled by the stage-direction in the play: There is heard at the street door a violent and continuous knocking, followed by the crash of glass and the beating of the door with rifle butts. As O'Casey awaited the entry of the raiders, he thought of Whitman's lines, “Come lovely and soothing death, Undulate round the world, serenely arriving,” and pondered the fact that “Death doesn't arrive serenely here. …” Correspondingly, Davoren recalls Shelley's description of “the cold chaste moon … Who makes all beautiful on which she smiles,” and bitterly reflects that the moon “couldn't make this thrice accursed room beautiful.”

At the back of the house described in the autobiography is a “large shed that was said to be used as a carpenter's shop” by O'Casey's neighbor, Mr. Ballynoy, a thin, delicate man who was reputed to care “for no manner of politics.” A similar building appears in the play when Shields mentions that “There's a stable at the back of the house with an entrance from the yard; it's used as a carpenter's shop.” Shields goes on to suggest that this shop is used for the manufacture of bombs, but whether this is so is never revealed, and in the play the passage about it is rather redundant. The carpenter's shop probably found its way into the play because the Black and Tans discovered that the shed described in the autobiography contained a large quantity of explosives. These had evidently been manufactured by Mr. Ballynoy, who was wounded when he tried to prevent the raiders from entering the shed. As he stands in the lorry after his arrest, Ballynoy's final gesture is one of patriotic defiance: “‘Up th' Republic!’ he shouted with the full force of his voice.” This gesture is strikingly paralleled in the play; when Minnie Powell is thrust into a lorry after her arrest, she shouts “‘Up the Republic!’” at the top of her voice.

Though O'Casey's sympathies were with the Republicans, there were moments when he grew weary of the fighting and contemplated both sides with a jaundiced eye: “Gun peals and slogan cries were things happy enough in a song, but they made misery in a busy street. … The sovereign people were having a tough time of it from enemies on the left and friends on the right. Going out for a stroll, or to purchase a necessary, no one knew when he'd have to fall flat on his belly, to wait for death to go by, in the midst of smoke and fire and horrifying noises. … Christian Protestant England and Christian Catholic Ireland were banging away at each other for God, for King, and Country.” In the play Shields re-echoes these bitter sentiments when he exclaims, “It's the civilians that suffer; when there's an ambush, they don't know where to run. Shot in the back to save the British Empire, an' shot in the breast to save the soul of Ireland. I'm a Nationalist meself, right enough … but I draw the line when I hear the gunmen blowin' about dyin' for the people, when it's the people that are dyin' for the gunmen!”

III

In its modification of the personal experiences and feelings just described, O'Casey's imagination makes Davoren an embodiment of frustrated life, Shields an embodiment of life turned sour and superstitious, and Minnie Powell an embodiment of an ideal fullness of life, in order to create that intense contrast between masculine and feminine nature which is fundamental to his interpretation of human existence. The particular form of Davoren's frustration is that of an artist at odds with society; Shields is a nationalist who has degenerated into abysmal selfishness. The two characters are aptly symbolized by certain properties among the untidy furnishings of their tenement: the self-protective superstition of Shields by the crucifix and the statues of the Virgin and the Sacred Heart on the mantelpiece; the aesthetic aspirations of Davoren by the flowers, the books and the typewriter1 on the table. Both have catch-phrases expressive of their exaggerated discontents. Shields makes any annoyance, however trivial, an excuse for invective against the “Irish People” as a whole, and his misanthropy persistently finds vent in the refrain, “Oh, Kathleen ni Houlihan, your way's a thorny way.” Whenever Davoren's attempts to write are interrupted, he echoes the words of Shelley's tormented Prometheus, “Ah me! alas, pain, pain, pain ever, for ever.” Each of them proudly claims that his creed sets him above fear. According to Shields, “No man need be afraid with a crowd of angels round him; thanks to God for His Holy religion!” and Davoren retorts, “You're welcome to your angels; philosophy is mine; philosophy that makes the coward brave; the sufferer defiant; the weak strong. …” A second later a volley of shots outside reduces both of them to the same state of abject fear.

For all the mock-heroic effect of his Promethean pose, Davoren is not an unsympathetic character. Unlike Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, he is a portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man subject to the withering effects of poverty, the noise and interruptions of slum life, and the danger of sudden death in a time of revolution and war. Yet his aesthetic creed has much in common with that of Dedalus. It is described at the outset of the play as a devotion to “the might of design, the mystery of colour, and the belief in the redemption of all things by beauty everlasting.” These phrases are borrowed from Dubedat's climactic speech in the fourth act of Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma. They are repeated when Shields maliciously remarks that “a poet's claim to greatness depends upon his power to put passion in the common people,” and Davoren bitterly replies, “… to the people there is no mystery of colour. … To them the might of design is a three-roomed house or a capacious bed. To them beauty is for sale in a butcher's shop. … The poet ever strives to save the people; the people ever strive to destroy the poet.” This is a central issue in the play. It is put to the test by Davoren's reactions to Minnie Powell.

Characteristically, Davoren is reluctant to admit Minnie when she knocks gently on his door. But their conversation reveals that this daughter of the people is an unconscious devotee of all that Davoren values most; she loves beauty, design, and colour in the forms available to her—the poetry of Burns, the music of Tommy Owens's melodeon, and the flowers on Davoren's table. What is more, she has the courage and the feeling of community that Davoren lacks; “I don't know how you like to be by yourself,” she tells him, “I couldn't stick it long.” Davoren forgets his timidity as he joyfully realizes that Minnie embodies his ideals; “My soul within art thou, Minnie!” he exclaims, but after she has gone his exaltation gives way to uneasiness as he ponders the dangers of being “the shadow of a gunman” to please her.

Shield's reaction to Minnie exhibits his misanthropy at its worst. She is “an ignorant little bitch that thinks of nothing but jazz dances, foxtrots, picture theatres an' dress” and would “give the world an' all to be gaddin' about with a gunman” but would not grieve long if he were shot or hung. As for her courage, “She wouldn't sacrifice a jazz dance to save a man's life.” Minnie gives the lie to this and to Davoren's assertion that “the people ever strive to destroy the poet” when she takes the bombs from their room and is killed after being arrested. Shields is unmoved by this sacrifice; he sees in it nothing more than a gratifying confirmation of his superstitious belief that the tapping on the wall was an ill omen. But for Davoren it is a tragic experience which leads him to know his own nature better; he recognizes that he is “poltroon and poet,” and it is a measure of his development that in his final lament Shelley's words, “Ah me, alas! Pain, pain, pain ever, for ever!” no longer sound mock-heroic on his lips. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dedalus's aesthetic adventure ends with an inspiring epiphany of beauty; Davoren's ends with a revelation of the moral inadequacy of his creed.

The contrast between Davoren and Shields and Minnie Powell raises The Shadow of a Gunman to a tragic level. This major design is reinforced by several lesser but parallel contrasts. Like Davoren and Shields, most of the other men in the play are intent on vanity or self-preservation; only the women show themselves capable of courage and charity like Minnie Powell's. The pathetic Mr. Gallogher is under the wing of the immensely maternal Mrs. Henderson, who teases him out of his timidity and admires his fantastic prose. Grigson's drinking and boasting flourish at the expense of Mrs. Grigson, who lets him have most of their food, getting just enough to give her strength to do the necessary work of the household. In the face of danger and death, a moral paralysis afflicts the men, whereas the sympathies of the women expand; Mrs. Grigson mourns the death of Minnie and Mrs. Henderson is arrested for fighting the Black and Tans. The Shadow of a Gunman is skillfully constructed to create a contrast between the masculine and the feminine character as stern as that elaborated in Juno and the Paycock. The most significant difference between The Shadow of a Gunman and O'Casey's autobiography lies in the substitution of Minnie Powell for Mr. Ballynoy. No less than Yeats' Countess Cathleen and Synge's Deirdre, Minnie Powell treads the thorny way of Cathleen ni Houlihan; Shields' catch-phrase is more revelant than he will ever realize. It is this mythopoeic level of meaning which makes The Shadow of a Gunman much more than “a commentary upon the warlike conditions of the city during the year 1920” and brings it into contact with what Yeats called the anima mundi, the world of ideal passion, to which the tragic heroine aspires even at the cost of her physical destruction.

Notes

  1. One is rather surprised to find that the impecunious Davoren owns a typewriter. Like the carpenter's shop, it may have found its way into the play via the experiences recounted in Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well. In the sixth section of this autobiography, O'Casey records how he managed to acquire a secondhand typewriter by hire-purchase just after the events already described.

The Living Age (review date 3 May 1924)

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SOURCE: A review of Juno & the Paycock, in The Living Age, Vol. 321, No. 4165, May 3, 1924, pp. 869-70.

[In the following review of the world première of Juno & the Paycock, the critic praises the play's deft blend of comedy and tragedy, particularly the light touch at its end.]

The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which was the scene of the early triumphs of Lady Gregory, Yeats, and Synge, has come into its own again with a new play by Mr. Sean O'Casey, Juno and the Paycock. The play is an extraordinary mingling of light comedy which, from criticisms, appears to verge almost upon farce, with an undercurrent of the bitterest tragedy emerging emphatically at the end of the play, but yielding in the last few minutes of the action to the comic interest, so that the play ends—most unconventionally for a modern drama—in laughter.

Mr. O'Casey, like that other Irish dramatist, Mr. Shaw, is superior to the demands of the ‘well-made play.’ Analyzed—though nobody has any business to analyze a play—Juno and the Paycock seems to deal with a little bit of everything and to have no construction at all; but, having once safely broken all the rules, Mr. O'Casey contrives to produce a work which is universally praised, a few critics even venturing the adjective ‘great.’

In Act I the audience sees the Doyle family living in a humble tenement and about to become public charges. Juno is the mother, the Paycock is her husband, who is out of work and given to the indigent habit of ‘paycocking’ around Dublin bars. There is a crippled son and a ne'er-do-well daughter. In the second act this dismal company suddenly learn, or at any rate believe they have learned, that the family is to receive a legacy. Their way of living changes instantly. The shabby room is filled with paper flowers, they buy a new phonograph, beer flows, the daughter becomes engaged to marry a young solicitor.

Then suddenly they find out that the legacy never existed. Their furniture is seized, the son is led out for execution at an oddly unprepared moment in the action, more like real life than the stage—real life, that is, as it was until recently in Ireland. Juno, the mother, after putting up with her worthless husband for thirty years, decides to leave him and devote herself to her daughter. The roaring comedy has become tragedy. Then, just at the end, the ‘Captain’ and his boon companion, Joxer, return to the room, both drunk, both quite unable to understand why it is deserted and why the furniture is gone.

It is a situation that requires careful handling and skillful writing on the part of the author. Mr. O'Casey's lines call up in the audience's mind what has gone before—not the tragedy but all the recent merrymaking. The two last characters on the stage are quite oblivious of tragedy, shrewd, beery, rather sodden. They settle down to talk a humorous, futile philosophy. The audience laughs.

The author of the play is a workingman who has written five other plays, only one of which has been produced. Yet of Juno and the Paycock a London critic says that ‘the sooner it comes to London the better.’ Mr. O'Casey earns his living by cleaning up a workingmen's club, and Liam O'Flaherty, writing in the London Daily Herald, describes him as ‘so unused to congratulations that he nearly wrung my hand off.’

‘As he dodged around the floor with his broom,’ writes Mr. O'Flaherty, ‘sweeping a piece of orange peel from under this form, knocking an empty packet of cigarettes off that form, he kept talking about Chekhov, the misery of the Irish workers, the origin of “Captain” Doyle, the greatest character in his play.

‘His emaciated face, with the small eyes that seem to pierce one through and through and then wander off in another direction as if they were saying, “I've seen through him,” makes one feel that after all it is worth one's while to suffer in order to feel that spirit of divine rebellion that makes great art possible.’

Edward Alden Jewell (review date 28 May 1924)

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SOURCE: A review of Juno & the Paycock, in The Nation, Vol. 118, No. 3073, May 28, 1924, pp. 617-19.

[In the following review of the debut of Juno & the Paycock at the Abbey Theatre, Jewell lauds O'Casey's “unique” interpretation of life in the Dublin slums, especially the authenticity of his characters that surpass cliches of the Irish peasantry.]

The Abbey Theater, Dublin, is a somber little playhouse, rather bleak, and crude in equipment; yet it has brought to light some of the most notable works of modern dramatic art. The late John M. Synge, W. B. Yeats, Padraic Colum, Lady Gregory, Seumas O'Kelly, Lord Dunsany have sat in the stalls to watch their own premiers; while from it, a few seasons ago, issued the company which toured America with Lennox Robinson's “The Whiteheaded Boy.” I doubt, however, whether any piece has been seen at the Abbey finer than “June[sic] and the Paycock.” The week of its production literary Dublin talked of little else. Mr. Yeats, Lennox Robinson, Æ were in agreement as to its high and impartial fidelity; and Lady Gregory (who, being one of the directors of the theater, had read [Juno and the Paycock] in manuscript) journeyed all the way from her home in the west of Ireland to see it performed. James Stephens said of the play that “it is plumped like an orange, full of sap.” One of the local dramatic critics gave as his opinion: “Mr. O'Casey is the nearest approach to a genius we have had in Irish literature for the stage in a very considerable time.”

And this “genius” is a bricklayer's assistant, plying his trade from day to day. He could not attend a tea in the greenroom of the Abbey to which I was asked, because there wouldn't be time to wash the mortar off his hands and get into respectable garb. Sean O'Casey lives in a single room, furnished with a bed, a chair, a table, and a lamp. His passion is books. I learned what he did with his royalty receipts for the opening two weeks: got the cheque cashed immediately and went down to the second-hand bookshops along the quai, where he indulged in an orgy. As a child he begged in the streets for his food. Today he is able to eat only the plainest and most frugal fare, because his digestive organs have been ruined by starvation. Now that he is in the way of becoming famous, the attitude of his fellows in the bricklaying world has changed: they think him a snob. They do not know Sean O'Casey.

June [sic], far from being a Grecian goddess, is a woman of the Dublin slums, so nicknamed because she chanced to have been born in June; “paycock” is simply dialect for the bird of gorgeous tail plumage. The fact that this is a play about Dublin life makes it in a sense unique. With depictions of peasant character and manners, patrons of the Abbey have grown very familiar. It was left to a hod-carrier to give them the capital—not Dublin's gay and intellectual side, to be sure, but a cross-section, marvelously real, of its slums. Mr. O'Casey, who understands the people about whom he writes, knocks out a wall, and we behold the living apartment of a two-room tenement flat inhabited by the Boyle family.

It is a barren domicile—not so very different from his own, I fancy; just a few wooden chairs, a rough table, crazy curtains at the windows, and the walls presenting various strata of paper, tattered in spots, patched in others. A poor fire smolders on the hearth, where we see a kettle for tea and a pan containing a solitary sausage. On the mantelpiece an alarm clock reposes face downward, that being the only position in which it will function as a clock. Before a picture of the Virgin a small light burns.

The plot is simple. At times one feels it to be non-existent, and yet there is a plot. The play is expertly, if not in all respects flawlessly, put together. Its story is woven about the tragic figure of Johnny Boyle, the young son of the house, who in 1916 was a Republican, taking part in the Easter Week uprising where he lost an arm. Now he has become a Free Stater, and, shortly before the time in which the action begins (1922), has given some evidence against a former Republican comrade who, having failed to change his politics, is shot by soldiers of the Free State. Johnny cowers under an abject, disorganizing dread of the retribution he feels relentlessly closing in. The Republicans are on his track; he is a marked man. So long, he believes, as the little red flame is there before the Virgin's picture, harm cannot reach him. And in this superstition seems to reside a kind of terrible authenticity. The light burns on; but in the last act it flickers—it goes out. Two gunmen are at the door, their pistols leveled. Johnny Boyle is to go with them, no matter where or for what purpose. It is the end: another victim to the insatiate lust of civil warfare.

The author takes advantage, dramatically, of the death of the young Republican, for which Johnny is indirectly responsible, bringing the bereaved mother, in the second act, to the door of the Boyle flat, where she pauses on her way to the grave. “It's a sad journey we're goin' on,” sobs a woman who is with her, “but God is good, an' the Republic won't be always down.” Scant consolation this, however, proves.

mrs. tancred. Ah, what good is that to me now? Whether they're up or down won't bring me darlin' son back from the grave.

neighbor. Still an' all, he died a noble death, an' we'll bury him like a king.

mrs. tancred. Ah, what's the pains I suffered bringin' him into the world to carry him to his cradle, to the pains I'm sufferin' now, carryin' him out o' the world to bring him to his grave? … Mother o' God, Mother o' God, have pity! O blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets? … Sacred heart of the Crucified Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone … an' give us hearts o' flesh. … Take away this murtherin' hate … an' give us Thine own eternal love!

It is a note of anguish destined to repetition, even in phrase; for although June Boyle, watching the funeral procession from a window, can mutter: “Maybe it's nearly time we had a little less respect for the dead, an' a little more respect for the livin',” yet, when her son's turn arrives, in a frenzy she lifts her hands to heaven and voices the same prayer: “Take away this murtherin' hate … an' give us Thine own eternal love!” The words drop like burning tears of agony—an agony so awful that, sitting there in the desolate dark of the theater, the wind coldly shaking the exit doors, the witnesses' heart is torn with pain and compassion. The debacle, in its poignancy unbearable almost is yet keyed to the noble elevation of Greek tragedy which, throughout, visits Sean O'Casey's play with the distinguishing mark of greatness.

June[sic] is described, in the author's manuscript, as a woman of forty-five. “Her face has assumed that look which ultimately settles down upon the faces of the working class: a look of listless monotony and harassed anxiety, blending with an expression of mechanical resistance.” It is she whose shoulders endure the weight of the household. Her son is shattered. Her husband will not work when he can possibly avoid it (though his mouth is full of brave talk). To Mary, the daughter, who has turned Socialist, June wearily replies:

Ah, wear whatever ribbon you like, girl, only don't be botherin' me. I don't know what a girl on strike wants to be wearin' a ribbon round her head for or silk stockin's on her legs either. It's wearin' them things that make the employers think they're givin' yous too much money.

Yes, life for June is neither smooth nor sweet. Yet there is a snatch of pseudo good-fortune ahead; for a “will,” purporting to leave to her husband, “Captain” Boyle, a snug sum of money, suddenly drops into the family lap. The facts behind that document are these: A certain school-teacher and amateur theosophist named Charlie Bentham (a man much higher in the social scale than the Boyles), has looked upon Mary and found her worthy his desire. By way of wooing—for in the Dublin slums it is not considered good form for a girl sunk in poverty to be courted by a man of affluence or position—Bentham represents himself as a legal ambassador authorized to handle the will (which he has fabricated). The Boyles are to be well off as soon as it becomes operative. Many succumbs at once, throwing over a lover of her stratum, Jerry Devine.

Old Man Boyle, flushed with the wine of this unexpected windfall, borrows right and left from his neighbors, so that no time may be lost in beginning to enjoy the legacy. He orders clothes from a tailor. New furnishings turn the flat into a gaudy abode: one with difficulty recognizes the tenement livingroom of former times when the curtain rises on the second act. Of course this eldorado lasts only long enough for Bentham to have his way with Mary and then, in the traditional fashion, to depart on other adventures, leaving her with child. Nemesis is fiendishly thorough. Creditors descend. The tailor confiscates “Captain” Boyle's prized new suit (not paid for). Movers denude the flat of its grandeur. Johnny is snatched by Republicans to his death—this once more emphasizing the background of political chaos: of murder, destruction, the violence of an age drunk and mad.

And yet, curiously enough, plentifully equipped, too, is this grim play with comedy, which in essence seems more heart-breaking than the outcome itself. “Captain” Boyle is at all times a tragi-comic figure, portrayed as

a man of about sixty-five, stout, gray-haired. His neck is short, and his head looks like a stone ball such as one sometimes sees on top of a gate-post. His cheeks, reddish-purple, are puffed out, as if he were always repressing an almost irrepressible ejaculation. He carries himself with the upper part of his body slightly thrust forward. His walk is a slow inconsequential strut. His clothes are dingy, and he wears a faded seaman's cap with a glazed peak.

Boyle's title, “Captain,” derives from his having once taken a trip in a collier from Dublin to Liverpool; but he likes to pose as a mighty man of the sea. We savor this legend in one of the dialogues between Boyle and his boon companion, “Joxer” Daly, whose face is “like a bundle of crinkled paper,” whose eyes hold a cunning twinkle, and who has “a habit of constantly shrugging.”

They sit together over the “Captain's” breakfast of sausage, while the voice of a coal vender is heard chanting outside in the street: “Blocks … coal blocks! Blocks … coal blocks!” This apparently starts a train of thought.

boyle. Them was days, Joxer, them was days! Nothin' was too hot or too heavy for me then. Sailin' from the Gulf o' Mexico to the Antartic Ocean. I seen things—I seen things, Joxer—that no mortal man should speak about that knows his Cathecism. Often an' often, when I was fixed to th' wheel with a marlinspike, an' the win's blowin' fierce, an' the waves lashin' till you'd think every minute was goin' to be your last, an' it blowed an' blowed—blow is the right word, Joxer, but blowed is what the sailors use—

joxer. Oh, it's a darlin' word, a daarlin' word!

boyle. An' as it blowed an' blowed, I often looked up at the sky an' assed meself the question: What is the stars? What is the stars?

voice of coal vender. Any blocks, coal blocks! Blocks, coal blocks!

joxer. Ah, that's the question, that's the question: What is the stars?

boyle. An' then, I'd have another look, an' I'd ass meself: What is the moon?

A wonderful scene, annihilating in its futility, its maudlin talk of stars and moon, with a coal vender crying his wares. It even held a sort of eerie beauty.

Then there is the joust in the second act, to celebrate the Boyles's turn of fortune. Impromptu songs are sung. Never to be forgotten is the duet from “Il Trovatore,” between mother and daughter: full of tremolos and uncertainties; full of a pride on June's part and of a shy girlish confusion on Mary's—for Bentham is present, and she must do herself justice. Finally, the gramophone is turned on. And it is this hilarious scene which is broken by Mrs. Tancred, with her prayer to the heart of the Crucified Jesus.

Light and shade are extraordinarily crocheted. The play is veritable growth of the soil: complete, unsparing, and true—like the performance. Sara Allgood as June, Barry Fitzgerald as the “Captain,” and F. J. McCormick as “Joxer,” lifted their roles to a plain of creation, with art that never once showed threadbare. The Johnny of Arthur Shields was a finely studied characterization; and I have never seen a more exquisite bit of work in the theater than Eileen Crowe's picture of Mary singing before her lover.

After the smash-up, “Captain” Boyle goes out with “Joxer” to drown his sorrows. It is these two unspeakable old cronies, returned at night to a room bereft of all save a smoky lamp, who conclude the piece:

boyle. If th' worst comes to th' worst, I'll join … a flyin' column! I did me bit in Easther Week—had no business to be there … but Captain Boyle's Captain Boyle!

joxer. Breathes there a man with soul so de—ad … this me—ow—n … me native … land!

boyle. Commandant Kelly … died in them arms, Joxer. “Tell me Volunteer butties,” says he, “that I … died for … Ireland!”

joxer. D'jever read Willy Reilly an' his Own Colleen Bawn?

boyle. I'm tellin' you, Joxer, th' whole worl's in a terrible state o' chassis!

joxer. Ah … it's a darlin' book! A daaarlin' … book!

The curtain mercifully intervenes; one could endure no more.

The Spectator (review date 21 November 1925)

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SOURCE: A review of Juno & the Paycock, in The Spectator, Vol. 135, No. 5082, November 21, 1925, pp. 923-24.

[In the following review of the London debut of Juno & the Paycock, the critic focuses on the dramatic atmosphere, local color, and Irish idiom of the play.]

What would an Irish play be if it were stripped of its atmosphere and “local colour” and native idiom?

An unfair, an impossible question; a test we need not impose upon a work of art in which form and matter (see Flaubert and Pater) emerge inseparable. We must not complain of Mr. Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, which deserves and has won such high praise in Dublin, and now in London at the Royalty Theatre, that its donée, its theme, its formula, are of the most familiar known to the modern stage. It is enough that the new dramatist's version of the thriftless work-shy Micawber is, in his dialogue and soliloquy, noc Micawber, but a very real re-creation of a very familiar type—the drunken drifting Jack Boyle, dryland sailor, who lives on a false nautical prestige and upon the devotion of a wife of the sharp-tongued yet endlessly enduring type, whom, as a type, we have seen so often; yet, now, as she is played by Miss Sara Allgood, seem never to have seen before. The daughter of these two, seduced, “betrayed,” is also the daughter of a thousand unfortunates in like predicament. Yet, though Mr. O'Casey has not done so well with her as he has with her father and mother, he has set her, for a heightening of her plight, amongst the rigid unforgivingness of Catholics, in a tenement house where lights burn before the image of the Mother of God, upon whom the fear-crazed son, darkly involved in fierce Irish politics, relies for the protection that fails him when a couple of young gunmen come to hale him to death.

These children, these parents, are what they are because we are in Dublin in 1922, under the stress, between Free Stater and Republican Die-Hards, of that charming virtue, patriotism. You cannot de-localize them, and in this case the atmosphere is the play. “From the form the idea is born.”

Thus you forget, under Mr. O'Casey's magic, how often before you have been invited to watch the effects of a suddenly promised legacy from a half-forgotten relative, not only upon a nearly penniless family, but also upon the neighbours and cronies who “come about” and drink and talk and sing—at rather unnecessary length, for there is a longueur in the middle of the second act—and then the counter-effects upon them of removal of this luck and of the coming of ruin in the daughter's disgrace and the son's death. Splendeurs et Misères! But here the splendours have a particular savour, as represented by plush sofas and chairs, rashly purchased on account; while the accent of prosperity is given in the incomparable lounging importance that Mr. Arthur Sinclair knows how to convey into every look and gesture of “Captain” Jack Boyle, the “peacock.” The miseries and recovered poverty are gathered up and dignified by Miss Sara Allgood's beautiful picture of the mother upon whom alone, at the end, the weight of this burden falls. For the “Captain”—drunk again—returns to the denuded living-room only to maunder uselessly about the chaos of the world.

This play, indeed, owes an immense amount to the acting, which diminishes still recognisable awkwardnesses here and there: the delay already mentioned in the second act; the moralizing introduction of another afflicted mother, in one scene, in order that the mother-heroine may get a foretaste of her own coming disaster; the rather tedious humours and quotations-mania of drunkard No. 2, Captain Boyle's companion, one “Joxer” Daly (Mr. Sydney Morgan). The admirable simplicity and reticence of the players helps to conceal a very promising beginner's lack of discrimination and selection in the wit of dialogue. Mr. O'Casey gives his characters some delightful things to say; others less delightful. The bogus “Captain” will object to being followed to one of his drinking haunts, as a man may object to “having the motions of his body watched, as an astronomer watches the stars.” He will assert, when his wife finds theosophy a “curious” belief: “All religions are curious, for who would believe in them if they were not?” And also—less happily—he will, in the course of a reminiscence, revive the old joke about “each moment being his next.” The audience, which laughs at all these things, will laugh louder than ever at the sound of a cork popping in the “Captain's” adjacent bedroom. Mr. O'Casey, in fact, has not—could not yet be expected to have—the exquisite unity of tone and style that enchanted us when we first listened to The Well of the Saints or to The Playboy of the Western World. But to discover one Synge is enough for one theatre. The Abbey Theatre did that; and now, in Mr. O'Casey, it has shown us how fruitful and lasting its influence is likely to be.

Leslie Thomson (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Opening the Eyes of the Audience: Visual and Verbal Imagery in Juno & the Paycock,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, December, 1986, pp. 556-66.

[In the following essay, Thomson outlines the delusions about Irish reality and the underlying causes that animate Juno & the Paycock, showing how visual and verbal imagery reinforces a pessimistic interpretation of the play's meaning.]

Near the end of Juno and the Paycock, Mary says, “My poor little child that'll have no father!” Juno comforts her, saying, “It'll have what's far betther—It'll have two mothers.”1 Given what we have seen of the men in the play, our initial inclination might be to agree with Juno; however, to do so would be to join the characters in their delusions and to ignore the realities with which O'Casey confronts us. To encourage his audience to see Ireland, and the world, realistically and dispassionately, O'Casey creates a complex pattern of verbal and visual imagery which should prompt our awareness of the sad truths his characters, even Juno, do not see. Through the play this imagery reinforces the message conveyed in the final tableau: that in a world where Boyles and Joxers prevail, two mothers may be relatively “better” but nothing has changed, nor will it, because the delusions and their causes remain.

This view goes against the more optimistic interpretations most critics put on the play. While the irony of Boyle's final appearance is usually acknowledged, it is often seen as being countered by, rather than countering, Juno's last words and departure. In general, the view is that, if the controlling mood of the play is bleak, Juno's “heroism” overcomes it and gives us cause to hope. William Armstrong sees a sharp contrast between the male and female characters, “from which the women emerge as far superior to the men because of their capacity for love, altruism, and wisdom. The men in the play are all deluded, self-centred, and hypocritical.” Armstrong believes that “Unlike Boyle, Juno becomes a stronger and wiser character under the stress of tragic circumstances.” For Errol Durbach, Juno is the “indomitable mother … Opposing the peacocks of the play, almost singlehandedly.” In a somewhat ambiguous description, John O'Riordan asserts that “The dominance of Juno, in her moments of suffering and fixation of mothering tyranny, in her day-to-day existence of resisting and doing, instead of yielding and dreaming, is the play's fortitude and triumph.” But while O'Riordan believes that Juno “leaves in tragic dignity,” he acknowledges that she is “unable to offer any salvation.” This less optimistic—and less sentimental—view of Juno is the one held by James Simmons, who says that Juno's need to care for her family “has placed blinkers of family interest over her vision of life.” Of Juno's assertion that two mothers are better, Simmons observes: “This is very homely, and Juno is never more than a very limited woman … Mrs. Boyle still understands nothing about political freedom or social justice.”2 That Juno cannot and should not be seen as a heroic figure because of both her character and circumstances are conveyed to us by O'Casey through his use of visual and verbal imagery.

The juxtaposition of the departure of Juno and Mary with the arrival of Boyle and Joxer at the end of the play is the final instance of the method of ironic implication which is O'Casey's organizing principle. On the one hand, we see a mother and her daughter, who is soon to be a mother herself, facing a present necessity dictated by cruel reality; on the other, we have Boyle and his “son,” Joxer, spouting drunken fantasies of heroic deeds in a dead past. Just when the audience believes the play to be ending on a hopeful note with the departure of Juno and Mary, it is brought up short by the unexpected re-entrance of Joxer and Boyle. Their drunken “epilogue” should prompt the audience to see that at the end of Juno and the Paycock the “world” is in the same “state o' chassis” it has been in since the play began, because nothing has happened to eliminate the causes of that chaos. Not even Juno has been able to change things, and it is important to be conscious of this and to ask why it is so. To convey the answer, O'Casey juxtaposes a series of ideas, actions, and symbols which form an ironic commentary that speaks for itself, as it were, making overt authorial intrusion unnecessary.3 What it says is that Ireland's twin obsessions of politics and religion are at the heart of the chaos; more specifically, that Nationalism and Roman Catholicism are romantic illusions which permit, even encourage, an escape from reality very much the way alcohol—that symbol of Irish escapism—does.

O'Casey's actor friend, Gabriel Fallon, who played Bentham in the first production of Juno and the Paycock, tells us that “[O'Casey] had been telling me for some time about a play he had mapped out, a play which would deal with the tragedy of a crippled I.R.A. man, one Johnny Boyle. He mentioned this play many times and always it was the tragedy of Johnny. I cannot recall that he spoke about Juno or Joxer or the Captain, always Johnny.”4 This suggests a focus which bears study. Johnny, the son of Boyle and of Juno, is at once a product, a victim, and a perpetuator of the play's chaotic world. All the men in Juno and the Paycock are self-deluded escapists; none is able or willing to assume his responsibilities as a member of society. To dramatize this problem, its causes and consequences, O'Casey uses Johnny Boyle. Johnny Boyle is the son of Ireland who has betrayed his motherland and prays to the Mother of God for protection while actually being protected from harsh reality by his real mother, Juno. The ironic implications of these three conflicting mother-son relationships—Ireland, Virgin, Juno: Johnny—establish the foundation upon which O'Casey builds.5 As the spectator becomes increasingly aware of the symbolism operative here, he is likely to become attuned to other related images—both verbal and visual—manifesting the same dichotomies.

The initial stage directions describe a physical, visual opposition, the symbolism of which will be worked through the action. On the back wall is the picture of the Virgin with the votive light burning beneath it. On the right side of the room is the fireplace. “Johnny Boyle is sitting crouched by the fire.” The burning votive candle is the Virgin Mary's and the burning fire is Juno's. Juno's fire, which burns throughout the play, is both the source of warmth and the means of cooking the food that keeps the Boyles alive. O'Casey makes a point of having not only Johnny but also Boyle, Mary, and Juno herself call our attention to the significance of her fire as a symbol of safety and comfort. Just after Boyle enters for the first time, thinking Juno has left, he invites Joxer to “pull over to the fire, Joxer, an' we'll have a cup o' tay in a minute.” Juno appears unexpectedly from behind the curtain and says, “(with sweet irony—poking the fire, and turning her head to glare at Joxer), Pull over to the fire, Joxer Daley, an' we'll have a cup o' tay in a minute!” When Joxer refuses, eager to escape, Juno repeats the invitation, giving it added emphasis: “Pull over to the fire, Joxer Daly; people is always far more comfortabler here than they are in their own place” (I, p. II). A few minutes later, during the argument between Jerry Devine and Mary, Boyle's ineffectuality is dramatized as his speech and actions develop the Juno-fire-food connection:

Chiselurs don't care a damn now about their parents, they're bringin' their fathers' grey hairs down with sorra to the grave, an' laughin' at it, laughin' at it. Ah, I suppose it's just the same everywhere—the whole worl's in a state o' chassis! (He sits by the fire) Breakfast! Well, they can keep their breakfast for me. Not if they went down on their bended knees would I take it—I'll show them I've a little spirit left in me still! (He goes over to the press, takes out a plate and looks at it) Sassige! Well, let her keep her sassige. (He returns to the fire, takes up the teapot and gives it a gentle shake) The tea's wet right enough. (I, pp. 18-19)

The significance of the fire is further developed in the second Act. When Johnny enters he “sits down moodily at the fire.” And shortly after when Bentham enters, Juno, “in a flutter,” invites him to “sit down Mr. Bentham … no, not there … in th' easy chair be the fire … there, that's betther.” At the end of Act II everyone leaves except Johnny, who still “sits moodily by the fire” when the Mobilizer enters to tell him of the meeting he must attend to answer questions about the death of Robbie Tancred (pp. 34, 35, 50).

When they are troubled, the characters seek out the comforting fire. At the top of Act III we are told that “a bright fire burns in the grate; Mary … is sitting on a chair by the fire, leaning forward, her hands under her chin, her elbows on her knees. A look of dejection, mingled with uncertain anxiety, is on her face … The votive light under the picture of the Virgin gleams more redly than ever” (III, p. 51). Mary and Juno leave to go to the doctor's. When they return O'Casey tells us that “it is apparent from the serious look on [Juno's] face that something has happened.” After silently removing her hat and coat she “sits down by the fire.” Later, Mary comes in and again sits “by the fire,” only to be confronted by Johnny about her pregnancy. Finally, when the curtain rises following Johnny's departure with the two Irregulars, Mary and Juno, “one on each side are sitting in a darkened room, by the fire” (III, pp. 60, 65, 69).

Set against the association of Juno with the fire, and the implication that both are an ever-present source of stability and comfort taken for granted by the others, is the association of the votive light with the Virgin Mary. Early in Act I Johnny is afraid of being left alone and asks his mother to check the Virgin's “fire”:

juno Amn't I nicely handicapped with the whole o' yous! I don't known what any o' yous ud do without your ma. (To johnny) Your father'll be here in a minute, an' if you want anythin,' he'll get it for you.

johnny I hate assin' him for anythin' … He hates to be assed to stir … Is the light lightin' before the picture o' the virgin?

juno Yis, Yis! The wan inside to St. Anthony isn't enough, but he must have another wan to the Virgin here! (I, p. 9)6

This conflict between Virgin and Juno, illusion and reality, is the source of another of the juxtapositions controlling the action and the language of the play. As Durbach has observed, O'Casey creates stage business to prompt our awareness that whenever Johnny calls on the Mother of God it is Juno who responds.7 When in Act II Johnny rushes out of the bedroom believing he has seen the ghost of Robbie Tancred, he cries: “Blessed Mother o' God, shelter me, shelther your son!” But it is Juno, “catching him in her arms,” who shelters him. “What's wrong with you? What ails you? Sit down, sit down, here, on the bed … there now … there now.” When Johnny describes what has frightened him, Juno tells Boyle to “get him a glass o' whisky.” As elsewhere, O'Casey prolongs the moment in order to prompt the spectator to perceive the symbolic content of an outwardly realistic episode. Johnny begs Juno, “Sit here, sit here, mother … between me an' the door.” Juno, the quintessential mother, shelters her grown child: “I'll sit beside you as long as you like.” Johnny explains what he has seen, ending with a plea: “Mother o' God, keep him away from me!” But, once more, it is Juno who comforts him: “There, there, child, you've imagined it all … Here, drink more o' this—it'll do you good” (pp. 38-9). It is a small but significant point that even for Juno alcohol is the antidote to offer when prayer does not provide an escape from political realities.

Johnny's dependence on the Virgin Mother is emphasized in three related scenes. When the Irregulars pull Johnny offstage in Act III, as he prays to the Mother of God for protection against punishment for his betrayal of Mother Ireland, the two “religions” and the two symbolic “Mothers” of the play are brought together for the final time. Near the end of Act I, Johnny says to Juno, “Ireland only half free'll never be at peace while she has a son left to pull a trigger” (p. 27).8 Act II concludes with the juxtaposition of Robbie Tancred's funeral and the visit of the Mobilizer. He warns Johnny: “remember your oath,” to which Johnny replies: “Good God, haven't I done enough for Ireland?” The Mobilizer's response: “Boyle, no man can do enough for Ireland!” is spoken over the prayer of the mourners: “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee; Blessed art Thou amongst women, and blessed, etc.” (p. 50).

When the Irregulars are dragging Johnny out in the final Act, they ask if he has his prayer beads. Johnny replies, “are yous goin' to do in a comrade?—look at me arm, I lost it for Ireland.” The second Irregular replies; “Commandant Tancred lost his life for Ireland.” Johnny, who has looked to the Virgin Mother for protection, is murdered because his real mother, who has always sheltered and defended him before, is not there to do so again as she is busy mothering her other child. Thus, while Juno's actions prompt our admiration, and her loss of Johnny elicits our sympathy, we should be wary of seeing as wholly positive her qualities as “goddess of the hearth.” It is necessary to realize that Johnny's retreat into one room, where Juno protects him from the consequences of his betrayal, is of a piece with the avoidance of responsibility, the escape from reality, offered by prayer—or by alcohol

The uneasy co-existence of Ireland's twin “religions,” Nationalism and Catholicism, is a central theme of Juno and the Paycock. O'Casey's treatment of this issue is consistently ironic; he provides the evidence but leaves it to us to make our own evaluations and come to our own conclusions. To achieve this end he capitalizes on the verbal element of his medium; for to say that each of the characters—including Juno—pays “lip-service” to the causes of both Nationalism and Catholicism is to go to the heart of the sad truth. Boyle is merely the most voluble practitioner of the art of mouthing platitudes and clichés as one would mouth prayers learned by rote. Through the play, whether the subject is politics or religion, the formula for observance is one of “bead-telling”: the unthinking repetition of hypnotic phrases which, rather than acknowledging responsibility, permit the avoidance of it. Six times Boyle declares that the world or the country is in “a state o' chassis,” but when confronted with the reality of Robbie Tancred's funeral he says: “We've nothin to do with these things, one way or t'other. That's the Government's business, an' let them do what we're payin' them for doin’” (II, p. 47).

During a performance the spectator should become conscious of a pattern of repetitions, both verbal and visual, conveying the combination of empty habit and self-preservation which governs the behaviour of all the characters. To encourage our awareness of this element and to control our responses to it, O'Casey gives us Joxer, the character who is virtually a caricature of those who mean nothing they say and say nothing they mean. In Joxer's verbal scrambling to keep pace with Boyle's changing opinions, O'Casey captures the art of avoiding commitment while seeming committed. Joxer's constant echoing of Boyle and his mouthing of empty platitudes form a comic undercurrent that runs through the play. But the Joxer-centred commentary is often more overt, and then the conflation of politics, religion, and alcohol becomes clear and telling. O'Casey uses Joxer, the parrot-parasite, to detach the audience and to make it aware of the dangerous reality below the amusing caricature.9 In the first Act, when Joxer encourages Boyle to assert his rights with Juno, he recites an easy-to-memorize rhymed couplet expressing a platitude linking the two ideals romanticized by the Irish: “How can a man die betther than facin' fearful odds, For th' ashes of his fathers an' the temples of his gods?” (p. 24).

But it is in Act II that Joxer's thematic function is most subtly and deftly developed. During the celebration Boyle calls on Joxer to sing “wan of [his] shut-eyed wans,” whereupon Joxer “takes a drink … solemnly closes his eyes,” and fails miserably to perform, not once but twice, because he cannot remember the words of two love songs. In one colloquial phrase O'Casey encapsulates a central idea of the play: “shut-eyed ones,” whether they be songs, prayers, or nationalistic slogans, are either remembered as a reflex action born of repetition, or not at all. And, like alcohol, they are effective “pain-killers,” masking, however temporarily, the realities of factional hatred. “Shut-eyed” ones are implicitly contrasted with what might be called “open-eyed ones”—accurate perceptions of reality born of harsh experience—made apparent only by their virtual absence in the play.

The characters' inability to perceive both the relationship between words and their meanings, and the significance of oft-repeated slogans or prayers are important elements of the plot of Juno and the Paycock. Indeed, it is not by accident that Boyle's inheritance is lost because Bentham's wording of the will is imprecise. Upon learning that his dead cousin has left him some money Boyle mouths pieties about going into mourning. In Boyle's insincere prayer for his cousin O'Casey also brings the ironic conflation of Catholicism and Nationalism to the surface once more. After calling for “a wet—a jar—a boul” to celebrate, Boyle pompously intones:

… Requiescat in pace … or, usin' our oul' tongue like St. Patrick or St. Bridget, Guh sayeree jeea ayera!

mary Oh, father, that's not Rest in Peace; that's God save Ireland.

boyle U-u-ugh, it's all the same—isn't it a prayer? … (I, p. 29)

But it is especially Joxer whose clichés betray him and call our attention to the gap between what is and what should be in the spiritual, religious, and social worlds of the play. For example, in Act III Joxer steals Boyle's stout and feigns innocence, commiserating: “Oh, that's shocking; ah, man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn!” (p. 57). And in the final moments of the play, as Boyle and Joxer stumble drunkenly around the empty stage, Joxer inadvertently chooses a particularly apposite line of verse, becoming, in effect, O'Casey's spokesman:

Breathes there a man with soul … so … de … ad … this … me … o … wn, me nat … ive l … an'! (p. 72)

While Joxer and Boyle are used by O'Casey to highlight the self-centred escapism expressed in the idea of “shut-eyed ones,” each of the characters is blinded like Johnny by misplaced faith in illusions—even Juno. Certainly O'Casey's treatment of Juno is the most complex and troublesome, but if we follow the signals sent via Joxer, Boyle, and Johnny we will see that Juno too depends on slogans—those of prayer in her case—when reality overwhelms her. If we add to this the consequences of Juno's partisan mothering—itself an example of “shut-eyed” behaviour—the need to reconsider her “heroism” becomes apparent. Instances of O'Casey's questioning of what Juno represents occur throughout the play. For example, while Juno can acknowledge that “With all our churches an' religions, the worl's not a bit betther,” she also believes that, “if the people ud folley up their religion better there'd be a betther chance for us—” (II, p. 36). In ironic commentary, O'Casey follows this simple hope with Bentham's exposition of his “religion” of Life-Breath and Prawna, rightly ridiculed by Boyle, whose only religion is the bottle.

However, it is Juno's repetition of Mrs. Tancred's prayer that should trouble the attentive spectator most, coming when it does at the main climax of the play after so many “shut-eyed ones,” and being followed as it is by the unexpected entrance of the drunken Boyle and Joxer. Not surprisingly, many of those critics who see Juno as heroic also tend to put a positive interpretation on her echoing of Mrs. Tancred, even when they perceive the ironies. Armstrong says that “Juno speaks for all mothers of her generation in Ireland” when she repeats the prayer, and for Heinz Kosok, she “takes on symbolic traits” thereby. O'Riordan believes that in her repetition of Mrs. Tancred's lament Juno “reiterates the final message of the play.”10 It is also usual to point to Juno's acknowledgement of her kinship with Mrs. Tancred as proof that Juno has learned something in the course of the play. This may be true, but what she has learned is to be more of a mother than ever, and to place even greater faith in the power of motherhood—real and symbolic—to counter the social and political realities of her world. The irony is that the very qualities which make Juno's nickname so apposite themselves permit the romantic delusions to exist and flourish. Thus, there is a danger of sentimentalizing Juno, of “shutting our eyes” to the reality that her repetition of the prayer is prompting us to see.

In Act II the pathos surrounding Mrs. Tancred will be felt by the audience; but it has little effect on the Boyles and their guests, who continue to celebrate after she has cried out her prayer to Mary and her Son:

Mother o' God, Mother o' God, have pity on the pair of us … O Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets, when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets! … Sacred Heart of the Crucified Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone … an' give us hearts o' flesh! … Take away this murdherin' hate … an' give us Thine own eternal love! (II, p. 46)

To make the ineffectuality of this prayer even more poignant and telling, O'Casey has Juno herself personify the “hearts o' stone” when she says, in the complacency of an ignorance we do not share: “In wan way, she deserves all she got; for lately she let th' Die-hards make an open house of th' place” (p. 47). Had Juno known what we suspect of Johnny's involvment in Tancred's death she would not have spoken thus. And Juno's later acknowledgement of her hard-heartedness towards Mrs. Tancred is prompted by the realization that in death Robbie Tancred, like Johnny, is not “a Diehard or a Stater, but only a poor dead son!” (p. 71). It is certainly true that in repeating Mrs. Tancred's prayer to the paradigmatic Mother and Son, Juno joins all those mothers whose sons have died serving a romantic cause, whether religious, or political, or both. There is also the sad irony that both Mrs. Tancred and Juno pray for a solution to a conflict born of religious differences in a country which has itself become a religion with opposing factions. Equally, the play's conflation of three mothers—Ireland, Virgin, and Juno—suggests how each fosters the worship of the other, thus perpetuating the chaos we see.

The end of Juno and the Paycock is made up of three separate but related climaxes, the effects of which combine to impress us. First the audience watches as Johnny Boyle—the embodiment of the destructive coexistence of Catholicism and Nationalism in the Irish psyche—goes to his death at the hands of the Die-hards, praying to the Virgin Mary to save him. What follows should prompt the attentive spectator to perceive the reasons why the situation will not change. In Johnny's parents, Juno and her Paycock, O'Casey personifies and dramatizes the inextricable, conflicting obsessions at the heart of Ireland's “troubles.” Defeated by reality, Juno falls back on the ineffectual prayers of Catholicism, while the drunken Boyle retreats into his alcoholic delusions of Nationalist heroism. The concluding sequence—Johnny, Juno, Boyle—speaks for itself: when the Boyles of the world prevail, chaos is inevitable.

If, as the son of Juno and Boyle, Johnny combines and is destroyed by the two perverted ideals they represent, this is also true of their daughter Mary. Some of O'Casey's most subtle imagery is used in his development of Mary's role. Repeatedly he focuses on Mary to illuminate a point made elsewhere, creating moments which form nuggets of meaning through effective juxtaposition. Early in the play Juno is waiting impatiently for Boyle to return and lamenting his lack of a job, while Mary is preoccupied with her appearance. Juno's speech concludes:

An' constantly singin', no less, when he ought always to be on his knees offerin' up a Novena for a job!

mary (trying a ribbon fillet-wise around her head) I don't like this ribbon, ma; I think I'll wear the green—it looks betther than the blue.

juno Ah, wear whatever ribbon you like, girl, only don't be botherin' me. (p. 7)

It is as difficult to believe that Mary's name is without ironic implications as it is to ignore the suggestiveness of the green and blue ribbons. Juno suggests a Novena—a prayer to the Virgin Mary—as a solution for unemployment. In choosing between two ribbons, Mary rejects the blue—the Virgin's colour—in favour of the green—the colour of Ireland. Juno's reaction is one of indifference; in her single-minded battle to protect her home and family the reasons for conflict represented by this ironic symbolism are unimportant, but she ignores them at her peril.

If colour imagery seems intentional in this early scene, a second instance confirms O'Casey's purpose. In the second Act, Bentham enters, is invited to sit by the fire by a fawning Juno, and is listening to Boyle reflect pompously on the “chassis” of the country.11 A flirtatious Mary enters and is greeted by Bentham.12 The episode continues:

boyle We were just talkin' when you kem in, Mary; I was tellin' Mr. Bentham that the whole counthry's in a state o' chassis.

mary (to bentham) Would you prefer the green or the blue ribbon around me hair, Charlie?

juno Mary, your father's speakin'.

boyle (rapidly) I was jus' tellin' Mr. Bentham that the whole counthry's in a state o' chassis.

mary I'm sure you're frettin', da, whether it is or no.

juno With all our churches an' religions, the worl's not a bit the betther.

boyle (with a commanding gesture) Tay! (p. 36)

The possibility of Mary's escaping from the world of her parents, suggested in the initial stage directions, is eliminated when this “Child o' Mary” (p. 62) discovers she will become another of the play's “mothers.” The conflation of the two Marys is called to our attention when Johnny in his self-centredness turns on his pregnant sister, Mary flees, and “the votive light flickers for a moment, and goes out.”13 Johnny spurns the real Mary who might have helped him and cries to the illusory one: “Mother o' God, there's a shot I'm afther gettin'!” as the Irregulars come to take him away (p. 68).

By such juxtaposing of events and imagery O'Casey prompts the spectator to formulate a response to Juno's assertion that two mothers are better than a mother and a father. Armstrong calls this a “glowing declaration” and O'Riordan terms it “comforting.”14 But with Johnny Boyle's other two Mothers, Ireland and the Virgin Mary, still very much in control of the world he leaves behind, does the coming child have any better chance of survival than Johnny did? Will two “real” mothers make a difference? When last we see Johnny and Juno together she complains that she has “kep' th' home together for the past few years” and that she will “have to bear th' biggest part o' this throuble.” Johnny replies: “You're to blame yourself for a gradle of it—givin' him his own way in everything, an' never assin' to check him, no matther what he done. Why didn't you look afther th' money? why …” (III, p. 64).15 No direct answer is given here or elsewhere in the play. But the answer is there for the spectator to hear and see, especially in the play's triple climax and final tableau: Boyle and his like will prevail and the world remain in a state of chaos so long as boys refuse to become men, and mothers, whether real or symbolic, encourage by their very existence the worship of fantasies and the avoidance of reality.

Notes

  1. Sean O'Casey, Juno and the Paycock, in Three Plays (London, 1969): III, p. 71. All quotations are from this edition.

  2. William A. Armstrong, “The Integrity of Juno and the Paycock,Modern Drama 17 (1974), 6, 8; Errol Durbach, “Peacocks and Mothers: Theme and Dramatic Metaphor in O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock,Modern Drama, 15 (1972-73), 18; John O'Riordan, A Guide to O'Casey's Plays: From the Plough to the Stars (London, 1984), pp. 46, 59; James Simmons, Sean O'Casey (London, 1983), pp. 64, 73.

  3. See Katharine Worth, “O'Casey's Dramatic Symbolism,” Modern Drama, 4 (1961-62), 267: “Symbolism is, in fact, an intrinsic part of the dramatic process in O'Casey's plays, whether it functions in a fantastic or realistic context.”

  4. Gabriel Fallon, Sean O'Casey: The Man I Knew (London, 1965), p. 17.

  5. In Durbach's perceptive discussion of the play he makes many of the points developed here.

  6. There are two St. Anthonys: St. Anthony of Padua is the patron saint of protection against fire; St. Anthony Abbot or, “the great,” is the father of monasticism whose fervor is signified by the flame. Whichever saint Johnny worships, O'Casey's implication is ironic.

  7. See Durbach, 20.

  8. See Durbach, 19: “Ireland as Mother, an over-idealised abstract Nationalism, is another of the play's informing metaphors.”

  9. See Durbach, 22.

  10. Armstrong, 8; Heinz Kosok, Sean O'Casey, The Dramatist, trans., Kosok and Joseph T. Swann (Gerrards Cross, Bucks, 1985), p. 50; O'Riordan, p. 58.

  11. Surely Juno's gushing over Bentham is meant to arouse our critical faculties. Simmons makes a related point: “As soon as the promise of money comes, Boyle confidently assumes the role of pater familias and Mrs. Boyle is his proud and subservient wife” (p. 56).

  12. O'Casey tells us that Bentham is wearing a brown coat, brown knee breeches, and brown sweater, with a deep blue tie (I, p. 25). Again, several ironic allusions suggest themselves. A blue tie for the Theosophist hints obliquely at St. Anthony, whose flame Bentham checks on for Johnny. The pervasive brown attire is a reminder of Joyce's use of brown to signify the moral paralysis of Dubliners (published in 1914).

  13. See Durbach, 20.

  14. Armstrong, 8, O'Riordan, p. 48.

  15. Simmons remarks that Johnny's assertion “seems true” (p. 56).

J. J. Hayes (review date 21 March 1926)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2118

SOURCE: “Another by O'Casey,” in The New York Times, Vol. LXXV, No. 24893, March 21, 1926, p. 2, section 8.

[In the following review of the world premiere of The Plough and the Stars, Hayes assesses the play's mixed approach to comic and tragic themes, preferring its emotional motivation to its realistic presentation.]

By comparison with what it was a decade ago, playwrighting has become almost a lost art in Ireland. First productions at the Abbey Theatre have become the exception rather than the rule and new plays are rarities. For this and other reasons, therefore, when it was announced that a play from the pen of Sean O'Casey would have its première on a Monday evening early in February there was a run on the box office and every seat in the house for that night, as well as for several following, was sold out almost before the ink on the advertisement was dry on the press.

The sensation caused by the same author's The Shadow of a Gunman, eclipsed as it was by that which obtained when his Juno and the Paycock was staged, together with the extraordinary reception given to the latter play in London, aroused considerable speculation as to what Sean O'Casey's next play would be like. It had been known for a long time that he was at work on a new play and rumor was very busy with regard to it.

When the curtain went up on Monday night on The Plough and the Stars, the Abbey Theatre was packed to the point of discomfort. Every seat was occupied and the aisles had their full quota of standees. The atmosphere was tense, and, in part, this was due to a report which had persisted for several days to the effect that the new play would evoke scenes of protest if not of violence. Dame Rumor was, however, not an honest woman of her word and nothing happened to mar the first performance of another remarkable O'Casey work. On the second night organized interruption was attempted by—as usual—a small group of overzealous women who claimed to be offended by the appearance of the Irish tricolor in a public house scene. The audience, however, did not rise to music and the interruptions soon subsided.

The first night audience waxed enthusiastic as scene after scene took place, and the fall of the curtain on each of the first three acts was the signal for outbursts of very emphatic approval. Feelings finally ran riot with the ending of the fourth and last act, and the ovation given to players and author surpassed anything of its kind that had ever previously taken place in the Abbey. Sean O'Casey has registered another high mark in the annals of Irish drama. In The Plough and the Stars he has gone back to 1915-16 for his story and his play obtains its name from the device on the flag of the Irish Citizen Army organized by the late James Connolly, the labor leader, who was executed for his part in the rising of Easter week, 1916.

Jack Clitheroe, a bricklayer, has resigned from the Citizens' Army, ostensibly to please his young wife, Nora, but it is suggested that the real cause of his withdrawal was disappointment at not having been made an officer. It is an evening in November, 1915, and a monster labor meeting is to take place that night in Dublin for the purpose of rallying the patriotic spirit of labor to militant activity. Everybody in the tenement house in which the Clitheroes dwell is going to the meeting with the exception of the Clitheroes themselves and Bessie Burgess, another tenant, who has a son at the front in the Dublin Fusiliers and who has no sympathy with Sinn Fein or its aims. To Jack Clitheroe suddenly comes a dispatch from General Connolly. It is addressed to Commandant Clitheroe and it informs him that he is to command a force which will later in the night make a practice attack on Dublin Castle. Clitheroe questions the validity of the order as addressed to him, only to be informed that he was appointed to the rank two weeks previously and that a letter to that effect had been given to his wife for delivery to him. It transpires that Nora had burnt the letter and had concealed from her husband the fact of its receipt in the hope of keeping him out of the movement. Husband and wife have their first serious quarrel and the latter departs to assume his command.

Crushed and disappointed, Nora is left alone and a little girl in an advanced state of consumption comes in to keep her company, as a detachment of Dublin Fusiliers,en route to France, headed by a band playing “It's a Long Way to Tipperary,” marches past on the street below. As the music dies away the consumptive turns to Nora and asks, “Is there nobody alive with a titther of sense,” and the curtain falls on a magnificent and promising first act.

The author, however, reverts to the formless development which characterizes his previous plays and the acts that follow are a series of scenes reflecting the lives of the slum dwellers as they are severally and individually affected by the progress of events leading up to Easter Week, 1916. In the depicting of these scenes the author again reveals his extraordinary knowledge of the people among whom he lived until more or less recently, as well as his remarkable faculty for reproducing incidents which, obviously, he must have witnessed. One sees these tenement dwellers, their jealousies, their quarrels and enmities, their brawls, their weaknesses and their strong qualities. Everything is shown faithfully and pitilessly and back of it all one feels rather than sees the slow but sure development and growth of the movement which culminated in the outbreak that took Dublin by surprise on Easter Monday, 1916.

This movement is the background on which O'Casey has hung his play, and bit by bit the people of this little corner of Dublin slums are caught up by its tentacles until they are finally united in the common lot which is inevitably born of calamity or unusual crisis. Quarrels are forgotten, enmities are put aside as all combine, first, to share in the looting which grows out of the disorder prevailing in the city when established authority is challenged and put to rout, and, later, when Nora, prematurely confined as a result of her husband's participation in the rebellion and his refusal to yield to her pleadings, needs medical assistance and nursing. The death of the consumptive girl, occurring at the same time, also brings out the best that is in these slum dwellers.

The first three acts of the play are brimful of rapid changes from the humorous to the tragic, but the last act is the very quintessence of tragedy. The play ends with two Tommies calmly drinking tea at one side of the room, while on the other lies the dead body of the hated loyalist, Bessie Burgess, who had forgotten her contempt for Nora in order to nurse her in her illness and who, in attempting to draw her away from a window to which she had gone in her delirium, had been shot. Jack Clitheroe is dead, killed in the attack on O'Connell Street. His child is born dead and Nora is found, after the death of Bessie, cowering in a corner of the room and she is led away a hopeless lunatic. All the men found in the building, even though they are non-combatants, are rounded up and led away to internment. All is misery and tragedy and out of it comes clarion-like, the author's message of protest against a violence which is the child of patriotism as far as the men taking part are concerned but which, in the final analysis, is the scourge and torture of women. The little consumptive girl sums it all up at the end of the first act when she asks, “Is there nobody alive with a titther of sense?”

And yet one feels that in a month it will be all forgotten. New people will occupy the Clitheroe rooms and a new tenant will take Bessie Burgess's floor. In time they will become part of the tenement house life. New quarrels and enmities will develop, and brawis will have their natural place in the routine of slum life. The Communist, who talks incessantly of the rights of the proletariat, will continue to preach. Fluther Good will go on in his peculiar philosophic way, championing God and the Catholic Church by day against the Communist and consorting nightly with prostitutes Peter Flynn will boil with rage over the wrongs of Ireland and be ever ready to shoulder a gun as long as there is no prospect of his being called upon to do so, while Mrs. Gogan will, by the death of her child, add the details of that event and of the Funeral at night under military escort to her already voluminous store of morbid and gloomy chatter. It will all go on again until the Black and Tan tyranny unites them once more in common trouble. Tragedy and death will once, more visit the tenement house and the Minnie Powells will give up their lives for The Shadow of a Gunman.

The Plough and the Stars is strong stuff, and the author has not hesitated to make his characters use the language of their environment. Nothing is left to the imagination. One may not agree with all his theories, but many of them contain an element of truth. When Nora, after her wild rush through the streets of Dublin and among the barricades of Easter Monday, declares that it is not courage or patriotism that is behind the stand being made against machine guns and artillery but fear, the fear of showing fear, one feels that it is in part a terrible truth which at least applies to many of the rank and file of those who fought in the 1916 uprising. The author makes it clear that this theory did not hold good in the case of men like Jack Clitheroe, who was not only willing to but did actually throw wife, child and home aside for the privilege of leading men into battle against overwhelming odds and who gave his life for the cause he championed. Fear or the fear of showing fear does not prompt men to do these things.

The Plough and the Stars is not an artistic improvement on Juno and the Paycock, as far as technique and construction are concerned. It lacks even the thin thread of plot that holds the latter play together, but nevertheless it rivets attention from beginning to end. It is not a political play, and the politics of its period do not obtrude themselves into the action except in so far as they influence the lives of those concerned. Controversy does not appear and no speeches, political or otherwise, are made. At one period one hears the voice of a labor leader haranguing the crowd, but the sentiments expressed do not grate on anybody's susceptibilities. Again, as in his previous plays, the author blends tragedy and comedy almost in the same breath, but in the last act he abandons that method and paints stark tragic realism. The death scene of Bessie Burgess, in which she blasphemes, curses and prays indiscriminately, is terribly effective, and, while it might, in the hands of an indifferent actress, be made ridiculous the Abbey artist, Maureen Delaney, made it sink deep and terrible into the minds of the spectators. The presence of a coffin on the stage during the greater part of the final act had no part in the creating of the tragic atmosphere. It belonged. To many its presence was not noticeable, although it occupied a prominent place on the stage. The atmosphers was there, and it was the work of the author, superbly aided by the Abbey players. It was felt at once, and it deepened as the act progressed, even though nobody could faintly guess what was going to happen.

The plays of Sean O'Casey must be taken on their own merits. Three times he has now presented—and presented with telling effect—a more or less disconnected series of pictures. It is useless to take him to task for violating all the canons of dramatic law. He has succeeded by his sincerity and by the faithfulness of his characters of life. Sean O'Casey attempting to write according to the rules would be unconvincing and his efforts would be hopeless failures. He stands alone among dramatists because he is himself alone.

The Times (London) (review date 14 May 1926)

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SOURCE: A review of The Plough and the Stars, in The Times (London), No. 44271, May 14, 1926, p. 4.

[In the following review of the London debut of The Plough and the Stars, the critic describes the audience's differing responses to the comic and tragic aspects of the play.]

There is a familiar kind of battle-picture which shows groups of civilians moving confusedly across a smoky background of war. This is the general design of Mr. O'Casey's new play. His background is the rebellion of Easter Week in Ireland; his detached study is of the dwellers in a Dublin tenement, caught up in a movement to which none of them gives purposeful support but which they share with the same swift alternation of violence and indifference that they bring to their personal quarrels. And how they quarrel! And how much they enjoy it! In this company a death or an insult is an opportunity for rhetoric, and what more can the heart of Celtic charwoman desire?

An English audience, which was not anxious to be critical on Wednesday night, had at the outset a welcome for every piece of grotesque extravagance, for Mr. O'Rourke's green uniform and Mr. Sydney Morgan's red tie, for Mr. Arthur Sinclair's carrot hair and slippery humour, and for each torrent of abuse that flowed from the lips of Miss Sara Allgood or Miss Maire O'Neill; but, when the play began to move towards tragedy, it became clear that into the foreground of Mr. O'Casey's battle-picture, from which he was now demanding pathos, there had drifted a stubborn group of comic figures, which not even flame-lit window-panes could fit for tragedy in the twinkling of an eye. A mad lady in her nightdress, who wandered about the room preparing tea for a Jack never to return, was unimpressive to the point of embarrassment. Still, recognizing that most of the acting was full of spirit and in gratitude for laughter when good humour was in the air, the audience was in no mood to be sparing of applause.

Oliver M. Sayler (review date 10 December 1927)

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SOURCE: A review of The Plough and the Stars, in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. IV, No. 20, December 10, 1927, p. 427.

[In the following review of the American premiere of The Plough and the Stars, Sayler addresses the emotional appeal of the play, noting that the production's general disregard for verisimilitude accented its humanistic concerns.]

One of the most difficult tasks the theatre confronts in making dramatic literature oral and visual, in completing and fulfilling its latent promise as drama, is to bring to plausible life on the stage scenes of confusion and combat. Ever since Schiller marshalled the hosts of Wallenstein in his great trilogy, ever since Shakespeare set the legions of Roman civil strife chasing each other over the battlefield of Philippi in Julius Caesar, ever since Aristophanes sent the old men of Athens to a scalding bath at the hands of Lysistrata's conspirators on the Acropolis, the theatre's resources for giving plausibility and illusion to mass action in cross-section and microcosm have been strained to the breaking point. To this illusive and elusive end, the Greek stage invented and the Greek populace accepted conventions of which we have scant record. The Elizabethans, likewise, were content with symbolic stimuli to the imagination—a handful of soldiers with property swords serving as proxy for untold armies locked in mortal strife. In our own day, the two distinct and characteristic species of dramatic utterance—realism and expressionism—have shared the common trait of utilizing to the utmost the physical and mechanical as well as the human instruments of the theatre: the former, as in the Moscow Art Theatre's production of The Family of Tiurbin, for the sake of the representative illusion of life; the latter, as in Capek 's R. U. R., Toller's Man and the Masses, and Kaiser's Gas, for the sake of the suggestive illusion of significant unreality.

Overstimulated by this craze for meticulous detail and yet never satisfied with what is at best an approximation, it is with relief akin to that of escape from the pompous rigmarole of city traffic into open country that we encounter the bland indifference to the demands of external illusion displayed by the Irish Players in their production of Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. Paradoxically enough, the Irish gain this tranquil effect of wide spaces in the process of interpreting a series of high-strung scenes set not only in the streets and tenements of Dublin but in those streets and tenements as transformed into a shambles during the Easter Rebellion in 1916. This paradox resolves itself, however, the moment we stop to realize that in effectually reverting to the physical simplicity of the Elizabethans, these actors free themselves for the undisturbed pursuit of their true and natural task—acting.

In citing this paradox and its effect, I am not making excuses for a shabby, resourceless, and indigent scenic investitude for O'Casey's play. I realize full well that a masterly and prodigal regisseur could provide it with a nervous atmosphere of reality, drumming incessantly on all the senses. But I beg to doubt whether such an elaborate and provocative production could appeal so directly, so poignantly, to the emotions, especially if it sought to replace and conceal indifferent acting. I even suspect that superlative acting might be blurred and swamped by such a production. In other words, we have here an eloquent exhibit for the plaintiff in the immemorial case of the actor vs. stage settings.

In any event, the production of The Plough and the Stars by Arthur Sinclair and his associates is quite in keeping with the best traditions of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, from which they emerged to independent life some years ago. This group, fully entitled to the term, “Irish Players,” since six of the leading members of the present company came to us direct from the Abbey on one or two previous visits, and two of them on both occasions, clings to both of the major tenets of the parent stage: the production of plays of sound literary merit dealing with Irish life and character, and their interpretation by means of naively simple, earnest, sincere acting. The Abbey never rocked the boat of its budget for the sake of stage settings.

In reading The Plough and the Stars, it is evident that O'Casey, too, honors these traditions. In this wise, dauntless, and human play that is both

Nor is the author pleading here for the rights of the subject peoples. He readily concedes that left to themselves they will make a mess of things. The comedy and tragedy, sometimes alternately, sometimes simultaneously, he has written, not for stage directors, scenic designers, electricians, or property men, but for actors. Beginning with that casual but ominous scene in the Clitheroes's parlor, on through the eccentric but increasingly intense dissensions in the public house adjoining the rostrum on the eve of revolution, through the snatches of fear, despair, and elation over plunder from stove-in shop windows after the storm breaks, to the bitter and tragic ironies of rebellion's ebb-tide, he has written winged words that live trebly when spoken, words that sublimate the mood of turmoil without the need of its physical counterpart. If it were not a matter of record that younger novices created these rôles at the première in Dublin, one might almost feel that, as Chekov did in Moscow, he had written for these particular players: for the comic genius of Arthur Sinclair, who knows as well as any man living how to bring a thought to birth on his face; for the volatile passions of Maire O'Neill; for the legendary dignity of Sara Allgood; for the suspicious irascibility of J. A. O'Rourke; and for the blunt geniality of Sydney Morgan—to name only those most familiar to us.

For those who would amplify a visit to the Irish Players by more than a reading of The Plough and the Stars, recent books contain no more illuminating glimpses of Dublin's Abbey and her dramatists than Padraic Colum's The Road Round Ireland. All that Colum says about O'Casey as author of Juno and the Paycock applies with even greater point and force to him as author of The Plough and the Stars. This episodic but cumulatively powerful drama of the metropolis does for the city worker and his tenements what Synge did for the peasant, his fields, his glens, and his roadsides. Both Synge and O'Casey have an instinctive ear for transcribing and crystallizing human speech, though the imagery of O'Casey's proletarians is necessarily cruder and less poetic than that of Synge's farmers and beggars. At one point, however, O'Casey all but merges with his great progenitor, for the reverberating periods of his drunken, voluble, but whole-souled fruit-vendor, Bessie Burgess, might have been written by Synge himself—a fact which is not so strange when we pause to realize that the fountain source of her speech is the same as that of the denizes of Synge's thatched cottages, the ritual of the church.

W. A. Armstrong (essay date 1961)

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SOURCE: “The Sources and Themes of The Plough and the Stars,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 4, No. 3, December, 1961, pp 234-42.

[In the following essay, Armstrong identifies specific sources for the main themes of The Plough and the Stars, drawing upon O'Casey's prose works to illuminate their significance.]

Though Sean O'Casey did not fight in the Easter Rising of 1916, he helped to organise the Irish Citizen Army and was a shrewd and passionate observer of life in Dublin before, during, and after the most fateful week in the history of his native city. His autobiographical record of this period, Drums Under the Windows (1945), and his The Story of the Irish Citizen Army (1919) are important historical documents. They are also of much literary interest because they reveal some of the sources of his tragedy, The Plough and the Stars, and elucidate some of its main themes.

In The Story of the Irish Citizen Army, O'Casey describes the origins of the Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers, the two patriotic organisations which combined and fought the forces of the Crown during the Easter Rising. In 1912, the political leaders of Ulster organised the army known as the Ulster Volunteers as part of their opposition to the Bill for the institution of an Irish Parliament sponsored by the Liberal Party under H. H. Asquith and supported by John Redmond, leader of the Irish members of the Westminster parliament. In October, 1913, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union formed the Irish Citizen Army. Not long afterwards, O'Casey became secretary of the Council in charge of this army. In November, 1913, another army, the National Volunteers, was inaugurated at a meeting in Dublin attended by representatives of such patriotic organisations as Sinn Féin, the Gaelic League, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish National Foresters, and the Gaelic Atheletic Association. In 1914, John Redmond's political party was allowed to have twenty-five representatives on the committee in control of the National Volunteers, but when Redmond spoke in favour of Irish participation in the First World War, the leaders of Sinn Féin denounced him and formed an army of their own, the Irish Volunteers. The Irish Volunteers marched under the green, white, and orange flag of the Sinn Féin organisation. The flag of the Citizen Army, as described in Drums Under the Windows (pp. 270-71), had a blue base on which was represented the formalised shape of a golden-brown Plough and the constellation of Stars which bears the same name. It thus symbolised the reality and the ideals of labour. The play for which it provided a title also portrays a relationship between the ideal and the real, but it is a tragic relationship. O'Casey's treatment of the militant patriotism of the Easter Rising is critical and ironical.

The patriotic ideal represented in The Plough and the Stars is that of a sacred war of national liberation. It is expounded in Act II1 by the anonymous orator whose silhouette is seen through the windows of a public-house. The four passages declaimed by this orator are adapted from speeches by Padraic H. Pearse, who was a leader of Sinn Féin and the commander of the Irish Volunteers in the Easter Rising. The nature of O'Casey's borrowings and omissions is worth examining in some detail. The first speech by O'Casey's orator runs as follows:

It is a glorious thing to see arms in the hands of Irishmen. We must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms, we must accustom ourselves to the use of arms. … Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. … There are many things more horrible than bloodshed, and slavery is one of them!

The italicised sentences in this passage are all borrowed from a speech on “The Coming Revolution” which Pearse delivered in 1914.2 Pearse, however, prefaced his description of bloodshed as “a cleansing and sanctifying thing” with the confession, “We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people. …” By omitting this admission of the possibility of errors and unnecessary killings, O'Casey makes his orator even more dogmatic in tone and oracular in attitude than Pearse. In his next speech, O'Casey's orator draws a lesson for patriots from the bloodshed of the World War then raging:

Comrade soldiers of the Irish Volunteers and of the Citizen Army, we rejoice in this terrible war. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield. … Such august homage was never offered to God as this: the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country. And we must be ready to pour out the same red wine in the same glorious sacrifice, for without shedding of blood there is no redemption!

The italicised part of this passage is taken from a speech on “Peace and the Gael” delivered by Pearse in 1915.3 In the sentence appended to his borrowing, O'Casey's orator far exceeds the fervours of Pearse when he introduces the idea that the blood given by patriots is comparable to the blood of Christ the Redeemer. In “Peace and the Gael,” Pearse justified war in the following terms:

The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. On whichever side the men who rule the peoples have marshalled them, whether with England to uphold her tyranny of the seas, or with Germany to break that tyranny, the peoples themselves have gone into battle because to each the old voice that speaks out of the soil of a nation has spoken anew. … Belgium defending her soil is heroic, and so is Turkey with her back to Constantinople. … War is a terrible thing, but war is not an evil thing. It is the things that make war necessary that are evil. The tyrannies that wars break, the lying formulae that wars overthrow, the hypocrisies that wars strip naked, are evil. Many people in Ireland dread war because they do not know it. Ireland has not known the exhilaration of war for over a hundred years. Yet who will say that she has known the blessings of peace? When war comes to Ireland, she must welcome it as she would welcome the Angel of God.4

The italicised passages constitute the whole of the third speech of O'Casey's orator. By excluding Pearse's historical references, his explanatory remarks, and his rhetorical question, O'Casey again makes his speaker more dogmatic, aphoristic, and oracular. Similar conclusions can be drawn from O'Casey's adaptation of the following speech which Pearse delivered by the grave of the Irish patriot, J. O'Donovan Rossa, in July, 1915.

Our foes are strong and wise and wary; but, strong and wise and wary as they are, they cannot undo the miracles of God who ripens in the hearts of young men the seeds sown by the young men of a former generation. … Rulers and Defenders of Realms had need to be wary if they would guard against such processes. … The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools!—they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.5

The italicised passages constitute the whole of the final speech of O'Casey's orator. By omitting the references to the wariness of the rulers of Ireland and to the purchase of “half of us,” O'Casey makes his orator so much the more confident about the outcome of the insurrection that he is advocating.

2

The religion of patriotism and the holiness of its wars expounded by O'Casey's orator have an intoxicating effect upon the four representatives of national organisations who appear in the second act of The Plough and the Stars: Peter Flynn, an Irish National Forester, Langon, a lieutenant in the Irish Volunteers, and Clitheroe and Brennan, who are officers in the Citizen Army. In the words of the stage direction, Clitheroe, Brennan, and Langon enter in a state of emotional excitement. Their faces are flushed and their eyes sparkle. … They have been mesmerised by the fervency of the speeches. Flynn, too, is deeply stirred by the orator, burning “to dhraw me sword, an' wave an' wave it over me—.” But the patriotism of these characters is not the pure and selfless emotion so glowingly praised by the orator; their love for their native land is adulterated by vanity and fear. These flaws in O'Casey's patriots were the cause of the riot which marred the fourth performance of the play at the Abbey Theatre on February 11, 1926.

The vanity of the patriots is especially apparent in their excessive love of picturesque regalia and military rank. In the first act, Flynn, an old labourer, is busy dressing himself to take part in a torchlight procession around places with patriotic associations, and the strenuous process of donning the accoutrements of an Irish National Forester is subjected to mock-heroic treatment. The ceremonial garb of a Forester consists of a frilled shirt, white breeches, top boots, a green coat with gold braid, a slouch hat with an ostrich plume, and a sword. These items of attire are exquisitely ridiculed by Fluther, Covey, and Mrs. Gogan. Flynn's frilled shirt is compared first to a woman's petticoat, then to a “Lord Mayor's nightdress”; his sword is “twiced too big for him”; and when he is fully dressed he is compared to “th' illegitimate son of an illegitimate child of a corporal in th' Mexican army.” Nora Clitheroe makes his vanity seem like that of a small boy when she buckles his sword for him, puts his hat on his head, and hurries him out of the house.

Clitheroe, a bricklayer, and Brennan, a chicken butcher, are just as proud of their regalia as Flynn is of his. In his The Story of the Irish Citizen Army, O'Casey records how some of its members were equipped with “dark green uniforms and broad slouched hats of the same hue, most of which were jauntily turned up at one side, the leaf being fastened to the side with the ever-popular badge of the Red Hand.”6 Describing Clitheroe in the first act of the play, Fluther recalls how “you'd hardly ever see him without his gun, an' the Red Hand o' Liberty Hall in his hat,” and how he was so cocksure of being made a captain that “he bought a Sam Browne belt, an' was always puttin' it on an' standin' at th' door showing it off, till th' man came an' put out th' street lamps on him.” Clitheroe is jealous of Brennan's rank and uniform. In the same act, he sourly remarks that “tonight is the first chance that Brennan has got of showing himself off since they made a Captain of him—why, God only knows. It'll be a treat to see him swankin' it at th' head of the Citizen Army carryin' th' flag of the Plough and the Stars.” In The Story of the Irish Citizen Army, O'Casey mentions that “the tallest man in the army was selected as banner bearer, and was always proud of his work,”7 a remark which provides a commentary on Brennan's stature as well as his vanity.

As secretary of the Council of the Irish Citizen Army, O'Casey argued in vain against the use of uniforms. His colleagues, he remarks in Drums Under the Windows, “were immersed in the sweet illusion of fluttering banners, of natty uniforms, bugle-blow marches, with row on row of dead and dying foemen strewn over the Macgillicuddy's Reeks.”8 Favouring guerilla warfare, he poured scorn on the idea that if the citizen fighters wore uniforms they would be accorded the protection of International Law. “If we flaunt signs about of what we are, and what we do, we'll get it on the head and round the neck,” he argued: “As for a uniform—that would be worst of all. We couldn't hope to hide ourselves anywhere clad in green and gold. Caught in a dangerous corner there would be a chance in your workaday clothes. You could slip among the throng, carelessly, with few the wiser.”9 The last act of the play illustrates the wisdom of this argument when Brennan is able to take refuge in the tenement after he has changed his uniform for civvies. “I'd never have got here,” he admits, “only I managed to change me uniform for what I'm wearin'.” He has also abandoned the flag that he once bore so proudly: “I seen the Plough and the Stars fallin' like a shot as th' roof crashed in.”

In 1914, O'Casey withdrew from the Citizen Army and its Council. He was critical of the increasing collaboration between the Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers, whose nationalistic principles were contrary, in some respects, to the Socialism in which he believed. At this time, O'Casey was an eager student of Darwin, Shaw, Marx, and Engels. In Drums Under the Windows he has described how he abandoned belief in the divine authorship of the Bible, the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve after reading Darwin's Descent of Man10 and how he turned to “the new catechism of the Communist Manifesto with its great commandment of Workers of all lands, unite!”11 Some of this reading went to the making of Covey, the Communist fitter in The Plough and the Stars, whose comments at times provide a Shavian counterpoint to the religious superstitions and nationalistic shibboleths of other characters in the play. In the first act, when Fluther suggests that Adam and Eve were the progenitors of mankind, Covey confronts him with “th' skeleton of th' man o' Java.” In the following act, when the orator sets other characters talking about freedom, Covey caustically rejoins, “Freedom! What's th' use o' freedom, if it's not economic freedom?” When the orator glorifies patriotic wars, he retorts, “There's only one war worth havin': th' war for th' economic emancipation of th' proletariat.” For all the pointedness of some of his remarks, however, Covey is not designed as an embodiment of O'Casey's own ideals. He is as proud of his “big brain” as the patriots are of their uniforms, and Jenersky's Thesis on the Origin, Development, and Consolidation of the Evolutionary Idea of the Proletariat is as much a shibboleth with him as Holy Writ is with the religious or the speeches of Pearse with the nationalistic characters.

3

The positive values in The Plough and the Stars spring from human instincts and simple Christianity, not from patriotic or communistic doctrines. O'Casey began to apprehend these values when he was still a member of the Citizen Army. In The Story of the Irish Citizen Army, he reveals that even when he was being trained as a soldier at a camp set up in Croydon Park by the Citizen Army, there were times when the peace and harmony of the natural surroundings awoke within him feelings quite contrary to the military and patriotic ideals which he was voluntarily serving:

The surrounding trees were swaying clumps of melody which sprang from the swelling throats of numerous finches and linnets, and, sometimes, one was forced to ask the question, was all the strife with which man's life was coloured a shining light or a gloomy shade?

At times the stillness would be so strange that one would wonder if it were not death to again [sic] associate with man's noisy, selfish effort to explain and manifest human existence.

Ah, this book of Nature is the best Bible from which to learn Charity towards all men and love towards all things. …

Here, with one's head in the bosom of Nature, to what a small compass shrinks even the Constitution of the Irish Citizen Army. How horrible is a glistening, oily rifle to one of the tiny daisies, that cowers in a rosy sleep at my very feet, happy in itself, and giving to the world to which it has been born the fullest beauty and fragrance that its simple nature has to give.12

The ideal of outflowing “charity towards all men” finds expression in the play; so, too, does the feeling that militarism is at odds with the workings of nature. In the play, as in this autobiographical passage, trees, birds, and flowers are set in contrast to the callousness of the soldier's life, particularly in the episode in which Clitheroe sings his honeymoon song once again—

Th' chestnut blooms gleam'd through th' glade, Nora,
                    A robin sang loud from a tree,
When I first said I lov'd only you, Nora,
                    An' you said you lov'd only me!

—and immediately afterwards abandons his wife when he hears that he has been made a Commandant and is wanted for manoeuvres.

This episode also illustrates a basic and recurrent theme in the play: the way in which the vanity and excitements created by patriotism and war disrupt and destroy fundamental human relationships, particularly those between husband and wife, and those between mother and child. Just after Clitheroe leaves Nora, Mrs. Gogan goes out to enjoy the political meeting, leaving her consumptive daughter Mollser to her loneliness. In the second act, the excitements evoked by the meeting produce the episode in which Mrs. Gogan's baby is abandoned for a time on the floor of the public-house. In the following act, Mrs. Gogan deserts her baby and the enfeebled Mollser to loot shops, and Clitheroe ends his last meeting with his wife by thrusting her to the ground and departing with Brennan and Langon. These acts of desertion make manifest the moral inadequacy of the intoxicated patriotism which makes Clitheroe, Brennan, and Langon renounce filial and marital bonds so grandiloquently:

clitheroe: You have a mother, Langon.

lieut. langon: Ireland is greater than a mother.

capt. brennan: You have a wife, Clitheroe.

clitheroe: Ireland is greater than a wife.

O'Casey questions the courage as well as the ethical principles of the patriots. When Nora risks her life to search for her husband during the insurrection, she discovers that it is fear, not bravery, that makes them fight: “I tell you they're afraid to say they're afraid!” Nora, Fluther, and Bessie Burgess exhibit a courage and charity which make them morally superior to any of the patriots in the play. Modelled on an unknown Dubliner whose chief characteristics were a fondness for drink and children,13 Fluther is l'homme moyen sensuel of the play; he has no head for ideas and succumbs all too easily to the pleasures of liquor, boasting, whoring, and looting. But his instincts have not been perverted by doctrines; he defends the prostitute against Covey's puritanical insults, laughs at Flynn's regalia, rescues Nora from the barricades, and risks death again to make arrangements for the decent burial of Mollser and Nora's stillborn child.

One of the most remarkable passages in The Story of the Irish Citizen Army is highly relevant to the portrayal of Bessie Burgess in The Plough and the Stars. The finest person to die in the Rising, according to O'Casey, was Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. (Sheehy-Skeffington was a pacifist who had tried to dissuade the leaders of Sinn Féin from the use of force. During the Rising, he tried to organise his fellow-citizens to prevent the wanton looting of houses and shops. He was wrongfully arrested and was shot at Portobello Barracks.14) O'Casey describes him as a man “untarnished by worldly ambition,” who was both “the living antithesis of the Easter Insurrection” and “the soul of revolt against man's inhumanity to man,” thus linking Ireland with “the world's Humanity struggling for a higher life” and exemplifying “the perfect love that casteth out fear.”15 Correspondingly, in the world of the play the most heroic character is likewise an obscure non-combatant, Bessie Burgess, who dies in the service of others, and, like Sheehy-Skeffington, has a charity which casts out fear. With her sharp temper and her face hardened by toil, and a little coarsened by drink, Bessie is no more idealised than Fluther, but the stress of events reveals the altruism and maternal strength of her nature. The first revelations of these characteristics occur in Act III and are the more impressive because they are silent and because they show her remedying some of those significant acts of desertion already described; she hands a mug of milk to Mollser and later comes down from the topmost tenement to carry Nora into the house after Clitheroe has abandoned her for the last time. Soon afterwards she braves the dangers of the battle in the streets to find a doctor for Nora, and watches over her for three nights after the birth of her child is followed by a condition close to madness. Bessie is mortally wounded by British bullets when she saves Nora's life by pushing her away from the window. The latter episode may derive from the occasion on which O'Casey's mother narrowly escaped death by a bullet when she stood near a window during the street fighting of Easter week.16

During the Easter Rising, O'Casey was imprisoned for a time in a granary. The molten glow of burning buildings shone through the shutters, but a group of his fellow-prisoners sat playing cards.17 This experience helped to create a tragic image of the gamble of war and its waste of human potentialities in the last act of The Plough and the Stars, where Flynn, Covey, Fluther, and Brennan play cards beside the coffin which contains the bodies of Mollser and Nora's child. It is part of the dialectics of tragedy to show how the destruction of one set of human potentialities stimulates the development of another set. In The Plough and the Stars this development occurs when the bickerings between Nora, Mrs. Gogan, and Bessie Burgess give way to the reconciliation of these three characters in the last act, and when the intolerant Protestantism of some of Bessie's early diatribes gives way to her dying hymn of redemption:

I do believe, I will believe
That Jesus died for me
That on th' cross He shed His blood
From sin to set me free. …

This simple credo and the circumstances of Bessie Burgess's death expose the pretentiousness of the patriotic orator's declaration that “without shedding of blood there is no redemption.” They also make us aware that she symbolises “the world's Humanity, struggling for a higher life” and is the agent of a greater redemption than the national liberation exalted by the orator.

Notes

  1. Act II of The Plough and the Stars was probably drafted before any other part of the play. In Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (London, 1949), O'Casey mentions (p. 128) that after The Shadow of a Gunman was produced at the Abbey Theatre, he submitted to its management “two one-act plays, Cathleen Listens In and The Cooing of Doves.” The latter was “full of wild discussions and rows in a public-house.” It was rejected “and later was used to form the second act of a later play.” I infer that this “later play” was The Plough and the Stars.

  2. Collected Works of Padraic H. Pearse: Political Writings and Speeches (Dublin, 1922), pp. 98-99.

  3. Ibid., p. 216.

  4. Ibid., pp. 216-17.

  5. Ibid., pp. 136-37.

  6. The Story of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin and London, 1919), p. 18.

  7. Ibid., p. 42.

  8. Drums Under the Windows (London, 1945), p. 190.

  9. Ibid., p. 268.

  10. Ibid., pp. 94-95.

  11. Ibid., p. 289.

  12. The Story of the Irish Citizen Army, p. 39.

  13. Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well, p. 291.

  14. See Dorothy Macardle, The Irish Republic (London, 1937), p. 189.

  15. The Story of the Irish Citizen Army, p. 64.

  16. Drums Under the Windows, p. 328.

  17. Ibid., p. 332.

Bernice Schrank (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7439

SOURCE: “‘There's Nothin' Derogatory in th' Use o' th' Word’: A Study in the Use of Language in The Plough and the Stars,” in Irish University Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Autumn, 1985, pp. 169-88.

[In the following essay, Schrank analyzes the dramatic functions of language in The Plough and the Stars, describing the effects of a developing political consciousness on the characters' discourse.]

O'Casey's dramatic language is at once one of the most impressive aspects of his stagecraft and one of the least analysed. Impressionistic responses to O'Casey's language tend to alternate between nebulous enthusiasm for its Elizabethan lushness1 and vague assertions about its ‘ideological bloat and embarrassing bombast.’2 Attempting a more precise description, David Krause emphasises the comic elements of dialogue3 while Robert Hogan looks at such rhetorical devices as ‘the personified adjective’ and ‘the derogatory epithet’.4 Other critics focus on its dynamic qualities. For Raymond Williams, O'Casey's verbal flamboyance is ‘the sound, really, of a long confusion and disintegration’.5 For Ronald Ayling (using words borrowed from Williams), O'Casey's language is a “movement from dialogue to ritual incantation”.6 In a manner consistent with William's and Ayling's approach, I have previously examined the dramatic functions of language in The Shadow of a Gunman7 and Juno and the Paycock.8 In this paper, I analyse the role of language in The Plough and the Stars.9

I argue that in this play circumstances press and shape the language the tenement dwellers use. While the lush verbal excesses of the characters in the first half of The Plough may be understood as partial compensation for the multiple impoverishments of the slum, their truncated language in the second half is a direct response to the accelerating political collapse. As the failure of the Rising impinges on the characters, Bessie cries after the retreating rebels, ‘choke the chicken’, Fluther drunkenly rages at an intimidating but invisible and unassailable enemy, and Nora, at the border of sanity, recalls happier times in wayward words. Anguished cries that provide a human accompaniment for the mechanical noise of guns and sirens, these speeches are startlingly surrealistic, effectively communicating to the audience the profound impact on the individual psyche of social disorder. But they also painfully record the deterioration of slum dwellers' usual methods of discourse.

For all that, the language of the slum dweller is protean, containing the possibilities for positive as well as negative development, dissolving and reforming in light of the unfolding events. As chaos overtakes these characters and their speeches shorten, some of their remarks assume a relevance, a concern for others and a dignity that was previously absent. This new wrinkle in their usage suggests that, having been shunted to the periphery of history before and during the Rising, they are beginning to fashion out of their recent experience and their verbal eccentricities a language of resistance to foreign occupation. Moderating the impression of total defeat with which the play ends, this new approach to language indicates that the slum dwellers may be starting to come of political age.

I

While critics commenting on O'Casey's manipulation of language in The Plough call attention to the verbal aggression of the Speaker, they usually emphasise the positive aspects of the other characters's speech. For instance, in his recent book Sean O'Casey, James Scrimgeour summarises this critical line by identifying the pronouncements of the Speaker as ‘propaganda’ and ‘pseudo-poetry’, and the speeches of many of the characters as ‘authentic proletarian poetry’.10 Although there is much to admire in the language of the slum dwellers, such a tidy dichotomy ignores how hostile the remarks of the characters are and how critical they are of each other's words. It disregards the fact that many of the rhetorical strategies of the Speaker, his use of repetition, alliteration, emotive words and phrases, and the imagery of blood sacrifice, do not distinguish him from the other characters, many of whom exploit the same devices in their speech. The dichotomy also fails to recognise that the contrast between the Speaker's rhetoric and that of the other characters is not always to the advantage of those characters. Whereas his speech demonstrates the discipline of purpose, theirs is often lazy and show-offy. Some of their funniest and fanciest verbal creations—‘upperosity’, ‘conspishous’, ‘mollycewels’, ‘dodgeries’, ‘compromization’, ‘malignified’—are used for display rather than for any precise meaning. Where the Speaker successfully recruits others to his point of view, the Covey, whose superficial socialism provides some insight into the deepest troubles of the slum, remains an isolated, inconsequential figure. As the only other ideologue in the play, he has the potential for offering a systematic critique of the Speaker's frenzied nationalism. Yet his attempts at argumentation always fail, his verbal repertoire is quickly exhausted and he retreats hastily from the give-and-take of the spoken word to the conversation-stopping references to the Jenersky text. While the Speaker illustrates the power of language in aid of what O'Casey presents as a destructive political cause, the Covey demonstrates the impotence of a positive social vision allied to a flawed and flabby rhetoric.

Examining various stylistic devices—exaggeration, alliteration, repetition, allusion—clarifies the strengths of the Speaker's rhetoric and the weaknesses of the other characters' speech. For example, the Speaker in the second act and the slum dwellers through most of the play exaggerate. But whereas the politically motivated Speaker purposefully tries to make war attractive by asserting, among other things, that the ‘last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe’ and that the fighting in Europe has brought heroism ‘back to the earth’,11 the other characters use exaggeration to undermine each other and to gratify their own egos. Some of the most memorable lines in the first three acts exploit an insulting and dismissive sarcasm that depends on exaggeration for its humour and bite. The Covey for instance cuts Fluther down to size with a lengthy verbal sneer: ‘When I hear some men talkin' I'm inclined to disbelieve that th' world's eight hundhred million years old, for its not long since th' fathers o' some o' them crawled out o' th' sheltherin' slime o' th' sea' (171). Later, Fluther denounces Peter for ‘thryin' to out do th' haloes o' th' saints be lookin' as if he was wearin' around his head a flittherin' aroree boree allis’ (200). Exaggeration for the purposes of deflating others is one of the tenement dwellers' favourite forms of verbal flamboyance. However, since these comments find fault without calling for any corrective action, they are esentially throwaway lines. To further the cause of rebellion, the Speaker's exaggeration excites admiration for and encourages emulation of war.

In addition, the characters favour alliteration and repetition. Because these devices, like exaggeration, are elastic, allowing for seemingly infinite expansion, and because they frequently turn in on themselves, revealing less about the external world or personal experience than about their own possible permutations, these devices make it easy for characters like Peter and Mrs Gogan to abandon the demands of sense to the needs of rhythm and sound. While characters like Fluther and the Covey alliterate spectacularly, they do so only occasionally. Invariably, their alliteration marks a surrender to emotional frenzy in the form of verbal excess. In Act I, after a vitriolic exchange, Peter lunges at the Covey with his sword and the Covey, approaching hysteria, explodes into denunciatory alliteration: ‘It's a nice thing to have a lunatic like this lashin' around with a lethal weapon' (174). In Act II, although Fluther assures the other patrons of the pub that ‘a thing like’ the Covey cannot ‘flutter a feather of Fluther’, (209) his alliterative rage undercuts his ostensible indifference. Unlike Fluther and the Covey, Peter is a habitual alliterator. When he is angry, a state that he is often in, he bursts into an alliterative torrent that flows on until he is distracted or interrupted. He threatens the Covey with visions of God ‘rievin’ an' roastin' [him], tearin' an' tormentin' [him], burnin' an' blastin” him (174); he attacks the Covey for making him say ‘things that sicken his soul with sin’ (182); and he lambasts both the Covey and Fluther for being ‘a pair o' picaroons, whisperin', concurrin', concoctin' and conspirin' together to rendher' him ‘unconscious’ of life (253). Peter's manic language exploits alliterative rhyme without the influence of reason.

The only voice in the play to use alliteration consistently for calculated effect is the Speaker's. In his penultimate speech, for example, he comments that ‘[w]hen war comes to Ireland she must welcome it as she would welcome the Angel of God’ (203). The Speaker's manipulation of the ‘w’ sound reinforces the link between ‘war’ and the repeated ‘welcome’, demonstrating that careful alliteration is a useful aid in the art of emotional persuasion. While the other characters fling their alliterating words around, the speaker produces his inflammatory impact by exercising strict rhetorical control.

Along with alliteration, characters like Mrs Gogan and Fluther sprinkle their conversation with favoured words and phrases. While Mrs Gogan's variations on ‘it is and it isn't’ cluster at the beginning and Fluther's reliance on ‘derogatory’ and ‘vice versa’ are scattered through the play, both sorts of repetition excite laughter without conveying precise information. Their repetitions, in fact, imply an unwillingness to make distinctions, they indicate a mental fatigue and they create a semantic mush. They are amusing because they are imprecise yet familiar. However, the cumulative effect of these repetitions is not funny. O'Casey sugests that their language, having lost some of its creative unpredictability, may be in danger of surrendering to pure sound.

Five times in her exchange with Fluther at the start of the play, Mrs Gogan asserts and contradicts in the same breath and with the same rhetorical construction. When she describes Nora's looks to Fluther by saying ‘there's prettiness an' prettiness in it’ and when she comments on Nora's greetings by noting ‘there's politeness an' politeness in it’ (164), Mrs Gogan uses a syntax of amorphous suggestion to express a wishy-washy censoriousness. When Fluther expresses concern about his state of health, Mrs Gogan hedges provocatively. All she is willing to venture is that thinking about death ‘is, an' … isn't’, in Fluther's word, ‘creepy’ (168).

Without further clarification, she goes on to generate even more anxiety by remarking obscurely, ‘it's both bad an' good’ (168). This cryptic yea- and nay-saying captures rhetorically Mrs Gogans unwillingness to morally and intellectually commit herself.

Like Mrs Gogan, Fluther depends on repetition to skirt intellectual or moral difficulties. When he tells Mrs Gogan that, although Peter appears ‘dumb’, ‘when you get his goat, or he has a few jars up, he's vice versa’ (167), or when he asserts that ‘if we were without a titther o' courage for centuries, we're vice versa now’ (195), Fluther sums up in ‘vice versa’ (and thus oversimplifies) all the complexities and contradictions of human nature. But when he assures Nora that no harm will come to Jack because ‘in th' finish up it'll be vice versa’, (221) he knowingly denies an unpalatable reality.

Fluther uses ‘derogatory’ for similar evasions. Thus Fluther details the discussion with the Covey about evolution and socialism in Act I by dismissing the speaker rather than addressing the ideas. ‘It'd be a nice derogatory thing on me conscience, an' me dyin', to look back in rememberin' shame of talkin' to a word-weavin' … Socialist’ (172). Like Mrs Gogan's ‘it is an' it isn't’, Fluther also uses ‘derogatory’ for the kind of assurances that reflect and create anxiety. Less overtly hostile than other contexts of this word, these usages are more insidiously debilitating. Choking with a cold in a slum environment congenial to tuberculosis, he insists that there is ‘[n]othing derogatory wrong with’ him (168). ‘Not wishin’ to say anything derogatory’ (164), he nevertheless informs Mrs Gogan that Jack has transferred his interest from his wife and home to the agitation in the streets outside. In spite of the danger inherent in Jack's participation in the Rising, Fluther offers Nora the same bland and false consolation using ‘derogatory’ (‘nothin' derogatory'll happen to Mr. Clitheroe’) (211) that he held out with ‘vice versa’. As Peter and the Covey exchange murderous taunts and the Speaker incites the crowd to violence, Fluther comments with a smugness bordering on moral stupidity that ‘[t]here's nothin' derogatory in th' use o' th' word’ (119). While Fluther repeatedly uses ‘derogatory’ to obscure problems, the circumstances of poverty and insurrection invariably suggest that these problems are real. Moreover, his reliance on ‘derogatory’ along with ‘vice versa’ to meet so many contingencies implies a sluggish habit of mind that prefers the superficial and the conventional to the analytic and the critical.

In contrast to Mrs Gogan's and Fluther's random repetitions, the Speaker repeats as he alliterates: to reinforce his ideas and to heighten their impact. While Mrs Gogan's and Fluther's repetitions are arbitrarily distributed throughout their speech, the Speaker's repetitions are part of a tight rhetorical structure that includes balanced phrasing arranged in order of increasing intensity. When the Speaker repeats ‘accustom’ and ‘arms’ in his first statement, ‘[w]e must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms, we must accustom ourselves to the sight of arms, we must accustom ourselves to the use of arms’ (193), and when he repeats ‘think’ in his last, ‘[t]hey think they have pacified Ireland; think they have foreseen everything; think they have provided against everything’ (213), his words have a momentum and a persuasive force that Mrs Gogan's and Fluther's lack. While Fluther does not convince either the audience or himself that Jack's participation in the Rising is of no consequence, the Speaker not only reinforces Clitheroe's, Langon's and Brennan's political commitment, he converts them to his rhetorical practices. Coming into the pub at the end of the second act, they alliterate and repeat in the same way as the Speaker does:

Lieut. Langon. Th' time is rotten ripe for revolution.

Clitheroe. Your have a mother, Langon.

Lieut. Langon. Ireland is greater than a mother.

Capt. Brennan. You have a wife, Clitheroe.

Clitheroe. Ireland is greater than a wife.

Lieut. Langon. The time for Ireland's battle is here.

(213)

The resonating ‘r' sound in Langon's first line echoes throughout the passage in ‘mother’, ‘greater’ and ‘here’, making his and Clitheroe's solemn incantation of ‘Ireland’ more emphatic. Langon, Brennan and Clitheroe not only accept the Sepaker's mesmerising nationalism, they incorporate into their speech his methods of structuring and articulating political views.

Besides exaggeration, alliteration and repetition, characters like Bessie and the Speaker cultivate a highly allusive style. From the first act to the third, Bessie enthusiastically appropriates the rhythms and language of the Old Testament to lend authority to her anger and her frustration. Taking Proverbs 19.29 as her text, she warns the retreating rebels that ‘judgments are prepared for scorners an' sthripes for th' backs of fools’ (220). Quoting Proverbs 7.11, she accuses Mrs Gogan of sexual licence, of being one ‘whose feet abideth not in her own house’ (202). Bessie's relatively long speech at the end of the first act is the best example of her oracular mode. Adapting biblical words, phrases and cadences (‘arrow that flieth’, ‘sickness that wasteth’), Bessie denounces Nora for her superior airs. Bessie also denounces the Irish, ‘th' lice’ who are ‘crawlin' about feedin' on th' fatness o' the land’ (191), using the Great War as a cover for insurrectionary activities. She makes no distinction between Nora's social climbing, and Jack's and the others' paramilitary exercises, promising them all that ‘they'll be scattered abroad, like th' dust in th' darkness’ (191). Bessie takes malicious delight in the thesis that God is going to ‘get them’ because, instead of sacrificing their lives fighting for King and country in the European conflagration, they use polite verbal formulas (Nora) or plot rebellion (Jack).

Bessie's speech in Act I reworks Psalm 91.5-6. The Psalmist declares to the hearer that the believer ‘shall not be afraid for the terror by night; nor the arrow that flieth by day’. Bessie not only reverses the timing of the arrow, which in her speech ‘flieth be night’, but the mood of the Psalm. Instead of comfort, Bessie's words are an undisguised threat. The Psalmist goes on to assure his listener that he or she has nothing to fear from ‘the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor the destruction that wasteth at noonday’. Bessie, in paraphrase, twists the Psalmist's meaning so that these words of support become promises of annihilation: ‘But you'll not escape from … th' sickness that wasteth be day’. Bessie's perverse adaptation expresses an unfocused rage that can find no release save verbal aggression.

Whereas Bessie's words and phrases for the most part show the influence of the Old Testament, according to Vincent De Baun, the Speaker's linked references to ‘red wine of the battlefields's, ‘glorious sacrifice’ ‘shedding of blood’ and ‘redemption’ (196), allude to ‘the Catholic doctrines of Transubstantiation (changing of the wine in the Mass to the Blood of Christ); sacrifice (the essence of action in the Mass, as Christ's Body is offered to feed His people); and redemption through blood (the drama of the Crucifixion)’.12 The Speaker, intent on persuasion, makes common cause with his audience, manipulating references to the dominant religion of Ireland to glorify and justify violence. Bessie uses biblical rhetoric to separate and elevate herself from her neighbours. Like Nora's affectation of a middle-class accent that Bessie bitterly resents, Bessie's own prophetic posturing is an equally futile attempt to establish superiority and distsance through language. Although Bessie and the Speaker both exploit religious allusions, their different intentions far more than their different religions determine their selection of material and their method of presentation.

Unlike the undisciplined effusions of the other characters, the rhetorical techniques the Speaker uses, whether he is exaggerating, repeating or alluding, are always subordinated to his political purposes. He is no more rational than the slum dwellers, but because his aims are clearly defined and his devices better controlled, he can recruit others to his point of view. Until late in the play, the language of the slum dwellers succeeds only in provocation and alienation.

II

The language of the slum dwellers, free of the confinements of exactitude, logic, social responsibility, and the Speaker's sense of political purpose, takes off in the directions of circumlocution, elaboration, digression, euphemism and free association. The politically motivated Speaker, however, heightens his persuasive power by relying on a verbal shorthand. Although these modes of discourse appear antithetical, they are in fact intimately related.

Mrs Gogan and Bessie Burgess best exemplify the tendency of the slum characters to use language surrealistically. Take, for example, the mad scene in Act III in which Ginny and Bessie vie for possession of the pram. They exchange lush and lofty phrases to defend their own right to remove another neighbour's property. Neither will admit that she wants to loot and therefore needs a means of transporting stolen goods. Instead, Mrs Gogan sneeringly wonders how ‘a lady-like singer o' hymns like [Bessie] would lower her thoughts from sky-thinkin' to sthretch out her arm in a sly-seekin' way to pinch anything dhriven asthray in th' confusion of th' battle’ (228). Bessie assures Mrs Gogan ‘that a passion for thievin' an' pinchin' would find her soul a foreign place to live in, an' that her present intention is quite th' lofty-hearted one of pickin' up anything shaken up an' scatthered about in th' loose confusion of a general plundher’ (229). And with these elaborate verbal pirouettes, Mrs Gogan and Bessie Burgess take off with the pram to loot with the rest. Their words are clearly nothing more than a cover-up for what they think is a somewhat disreputable undertaking.

Mrs Gogan reserves her most bizarre elaborations for the subject of death. Her anxieties about her daughter Mollser's deteriorating health lead her not to any perception that social conditions ought to be changed so that tuberculosis might be eradicated from the slums, but to three long, convoluted, pointless and ghoulish digressions on the imagined deaths of Fluther and Nora. At first she worries excessively that Fluther might appear ‘covered with bandages, splashed all over with th' red of his own blood’ (216) so badly wounded that she would not have time to ‘bring th' priest to hear th' last whisper of his final confession’ (216). Next she claims to have envisioned Nora ‘sthretched on her back in some hospital, moanin' with th' pain of a bullet in her vitals, an' nuns thryin' to get her to take a last look at th' crucifix' (217). Finally, she insists she has seen Fluther's corpse in a dream, his face so white it was ‘gleamin' like a white wather-lily floatin' on th' top of a dark lake. Then a tiny whisper thrickled into me ear, sayin'’ Isn't th' face very like the face o' Fluther?” (219). Thus, Mrs Gogan's verbal excesses dissipate potentially devastating social criticism in a stream of freely associated, obliquely relevant detail. By dwelling on the deaths of others, she tries to disguise her own deep fear of death. In refusing to acknowledge that deaths like Mollser's are preventable, she attenuates her social awareness. In using the verbal techniques of indirection and elaboration, she allows the conditions that cause Mollser's sickness and death to perpetuate themselves without adding the experience of her own suffering and loss to the verbal store of witness and opposition.

While the other characters are expansive in their use of language, the Speaker is terse and focussed. Using snippets from Padraic Pearse, his four oracular pronouncements in Act II are lean to the point of undernourishment. As William Amstrong demonstrates, O'Casey has edited and abbreviated Padraic Pearse's speeches to maximise their emotional effect.13 The Speaker's persuasiveness rests in part on his hypnotic intensity and on his pruning away of irrelevancies.

But he is also able to maintain his narrow focus and dispense with intellectual difficulties because he tells his audience what they already know and say. The language of the Speaker and the language of the characters are more than interrelated by their exploitation of similar stylistic devices; they are interdependent. While the Speaker's overheated language in the second act stimulates the verbal barrage of the other characters in the pub, the intellectual and verbal preoccupations of slum dwellers render them susceptible to the Speaker's rhetorical manipulation. Fluther's image of th' speeches ‘pattherin' on th' people's heads, like rain fallin' on th' corn’ (195) accurately captures the reciprocity between uncritical audience and charismatic Speaker. In the immediate afterglow of the Speaker's words, Fluther, in his own inimitable style, is ready to do battle with Ireland's enemies past, present and future. When the Covey challenges Fluther's visceral nationalism, Fluther justifies himself not on the grounds of principle, but on the basis that what the Speaker says is consistent with what Fluther's mother preached. ‘Fluther can remember th' time, an' him only a dawny chiselur, bein' taught at his mother's knee to be faithful to th' Shan Van Vok’ (208). By trimming the diffuse and aggressive alliterations, exaggerations, repetitions and allusions preferred by many of the characters, and by bringing his rhetorical refinements to bear on matters over which a wide consensus exists, the Speaker is easily able to arouse his audience. The Speaker's verbal deftness is clearly menacing; the other characters' fatuous and funny discourse, because it encourages confusion, distorts reality, and leaves them vulnerable to the Speaker's appeal, is equally menacing.

III

Using the Covey's ‘cuckoo’ cry, O'Casey creates a verbal motif that overleaps the boundaries of realistic dramatic speech and speaks symbolically to the audience of the inherent madness in the verbal carry-on of both the slum dwellers and the Speaker. The Covey's use of ‘cuckoo’ in each of the first three acts is a particularly good example of the ways the slum dwellers exploit language and sound for emotive effect. In the second act, as the Covey exits from the pub he encounters Peter entering with Fluther and Mrs Gogan. From outside, the Covey thrusts a ‘cuckoo-oo’ at Peter, a word-noise that sends Peter into instantaneous and ‘plaintive anger’ (199). In an effort to calm Peter down, Fluther suggests that there is ‘nothin' derogatory in th' use o' th' word “cuckoo”(199). But Peter argues correctly that it is ‘not th' word; it's th' way he says it: he never says it straight out, but murmurs it with curious quiverin' ripples, like variations on a flute’(199). The audience already knows that Peter has accurately assessed the emotive, connotative and provocative force of words and even sounds, because they have already witnessed the Covey's manipulation of Peter's susceptibility to this particular word.

In the first act, as the verbal combat between the Covey and Peter degenerates into outright assault, the Covey dashes out of the room, ‘slamming the door in the face of Peter’ (174), who stands outside battering it and denouncing the Covey. The Covey responds first with what Peter calls a ‘divil-souled song o' provocation’ (175), words that Peter rightly interprets as parodying his patriotic obsession. Next the Covey sends forth the highly inflammatory ‘[c]uckoo-oo’ call (175), thereby undoing all of Peter's resolve to ignore his taunts. That an out-of-sight Covey, physically separated by a tangible barrier from Peter, can nevertheless make him frantic by a judicious selection of words and sounds dramatically illustrates the penetrating power of even apparently meaningless language. While the Covey's ‘cuckoo-oo’ in the first act anticipates the hostile encounter with Peter in the second, his repetition of this word in the third act allows for a retrospective reconsideration. When the Covey returns from a looting spree balancing a sack of flour and a ham on his head, Peter, seated outside the tenement, refuses to open the door for him. In a short while, someone else admits the Covey, and then, for the third time, the Covey, from behind a door, sends forth to Peter who is on the other side of the barrier, the taunting and irritating call, ‘cuckoo-oo’ (230). True to form, Peter rushes at the door, bellowing insults. The repetition of this basic situation reinforces Peter's point in the second act about the emotive power of words. It also demonstrates to the audience at a level beyond that of realistic speech how infantile this kind of verbal manipulation essentially is.

As a verbal motif the Covey's ‘cuckoo’ has further suggestive resonance. In Act II where the sophisticated rhetoric of the Speaker indicates a more dangerous talent for verbal manipulation, the emotive effect of the Speaker's words on the listeners is not far different from what the Covey more crudely accomplishes with Peter. Fluther and Peter rush in uncritically singing the praises of the Speaker. Although the Speaker engages their support while the Covey arouses Peter's opposition, the verbal efforts of both are pitched at the subliminal and irrational. Along with its first meaning of ‘bird’ and its second of a ‘bird sound’, ‘cuckoo-oo’ has a third, slang meaning of ‘foolish’ or ‘crazy’. The word ‘cuckoo-oo’, used three times, the second time from the street outside the pub, breaching its walls and door as the Speaker’s words do, provides its own telling commentary and judgement not only of Peter and the Covey, but of the verbal proceedings of all the tenement characters and of the Speaker. It emphasises the dangerous power and the incipient madness in the language used both within and without the pub, a language in both cases hostile to and destructive of reason.

IV

As the action in the second half of The Plough becomes more chaotic and threatening, the language of the slum dwellers reflects these changes. The enormity of events moderates the characters' normal verbal extravagance. Even when their more abbreviated later remarks resemble their earlier bombast, however, the Rising clarifies and emphasises the irresponsibility and insensitivity inherent in their previous utterance. The implications and permutations of Rosie's bawdy song that the aftermath of the Rising allows, show how changed conditions alter the verbal texture of the play. There is also an obvious relationship between the accelerating political collapse and the increasing coarseness of the characters' speech. The brutal reality of war transforms the superficially humorous verbal hostilities of the characters into the offensive crudities of the retreating rebels and the conquering British soldiers.

An examination of the resonances of Rosie's song illustrates how shifting circumstances expose unexpected nuances in seemingly straightforward statement. At the end of the second act, in a burst of playful anticipation, Rosie sings Fluther a lusty song of sexual gratification that comes as a welcome relief from the previous rounds of verbal jousting in the pub. Then, in a state of expectation and contentment, Rosie and Fluther experience the only affectionate moment in the entire act, going ‘out with their arms around each other’ (214). The patriotic remarks of Brennan, Langon and Clitheroe, moreover, spoken in a trance-like state immediately before Rosie's song, and the reductive language of Jack's military command that immediately follows Rosie's song, ‘Dublin Battalion of the Irish Citizen Army, by th' right, quick march’ (214), reinforce the positive aspect of Rosie's appeal. Rosie's recruitment of Fluther for a night of love seems, in this context, to be an attractive alternative to the Speaker's recruitment of Clitheroe, Brennan and Langon for military action.

But like so much else in The Plough, Rosie's song is not without ironic implication. The confirmation of its positive and procreative impulses is the arrival in the fourth line of ‘a bright bouncing boy’ (214). But such a blessing forces the hearer to consider that in a slum world in which milk for the dying Mollser is a luxury, a child ‘bawlin’ for butther an' bread’ (214) would be a financial disaster for a streetwalker who cannot buy herself proper clothing, who has trouble attracting customers and who owes the Barman ‘for three already’ (207). Further, although bawdy and colloquial, Rosie's song nevertheless recalls an earlier, more conventional love song, Jack's sentimental serenade to Nora in Act I. Despite its promise of love, however, boredom has already begun to undermine the Clitheroe marriage and Jack leaps at the chance to renew his relationship with the Irish Citizen Army when Brennan arrives at the completion of the song. Far from an alternative to the political turmoil, Jack's relationship with Nora encourages him to seek his excitement in paramilitary exercises. Seen from the context of the Clitheroe marriage, Rosie and Fluther's departure to bed at the end of her song, for all its high spirits and harmony, is merely a temporary withdrawal from the political unrest, not an answer to it. Making love in The Plough is a compromised private option, not a realistic public policy. As Rosie and Fluther exit from the pub, they leave the Speaker, Brennan, Langon and Clitheroe in full possession of the stage of history.

In the aftermath of the Rising, the ironic reverberations of Rosie's song are even less happy. Rosie appears only in the second act; in the rest of the play, Nora, the only other sexually active female character, functions as Rosie's surrogate. Although Nora is less sexually assertive than Rosie, she conceives and eventually loses the child that Rosie celebrates in her song, she uses words, clothing and body language for sexual purposes, she advocates the virtues of personal satisfaction and she attempts to lock out politics. Yet the hope and fulfillment in Rosie's song take the form of Nora's obsessive egocentricity in Act III and her madness in Act IV. Before the Rising, Rosie can retreat from political involvement and appear sane. But after the Rising, Nora's refusal to acknowledge a radically altered reality is the first indication of her mental collapse. When Nora encounters Jack accompanied by Brennan and a wounded and dying Langon, she ignores Langon and insists that Jack asbandon his comrades to remain with her. While a desperate Langon begs Brennan and Clitheroe to bring him ‘some place where [his] wound’ll be looked afther’ (233), Nora intones, ‘come up to our home, Jack, my sweetheart, my lover, my husband’ (233). Reminiscent of her plea in Act I, ‘Jack, please, Jack, don't go out to-night’ (189), when she tried to dissuade Jack from joining Brennan for paramilitary practice, Nora again appeals to Jack in her and Rosie's language of private fulfillment. Counterpointed by Langon's cries of pain, Nora's second appeal to Jack has none of the force of her first and none of the charm of Rosie's song. Furthermore, as Nora recedes into madness, she sings snatches of Jack's courting song, the same song he sang to her in Act I. Inasmuch as these snatches are from a love song, they relate to Rosie's song in Act II and, from this retrospective vantage point, introduce the possibility of latent madness in Rosie's refusal (so similar to Nora's in everything but context) to take political reality into account.

In much the same way, O'Casey plays Rosie's song off against Fluther's drunken rendition of ‘for he's a jolly good fellow' (237)14. While Fluther sings wildly, shouts that ‘[t]h' whole city can topple home to hell’ (237), and bangs on the door, Nora's moans are heard from within. Disregarding the immediate reality of Nora's suffering and the larger social collapse, Fluther continues to sing. Because Rosie's song is sung before the Rising, it is possible to locate its affirmation of life in its obliviousness to politics. Coming in the midst of the Rising, Fluther's song of self-congratulation, like Nora's preoccupation with her personal life, is wilful, irresponsible and morally unacceptable. By repeating similar songs and comments in different situations, O'Casey creates a density of implication that echoes backwards and forwards through the play. Fluther's song may be a degenerate form of Rosie's, but Rosie's joyful outburst, in its exclusion of social concerns, has the potential to become Fluther's much less admirable variation of the tune.

While changing circumstances impose new meanings on words, the characters' usage become cruder as the effects of the Rising are felt in the slum. The terse, callous language of the British soldiers in their encounters with the slum dwellers in the final act dehumanises the conquered and debases the conquerers. Referring to the coffin containing Mollser and the dead Clitheroe baby, Corporal Stoddart wants to know if it contains ‘the stiff’ (248). Irritated by the Covey's comments on socialism, he orders him to ‘cheese it, Paddy, cheese it’ (250). And Sergeant Tinley, outraged that a sniper has killed a British soldier, ‘vindictively’ orders the male occupants out into the street in words that effortlessly accommodate the killing of non-combatants: ‘Aht into the streets with you, and if a snoiper sends another of our men west, you gow with 'im’ (255). Like Sergeant Tinley, some of the retreating rebels express hostility toward the civilian population. Thus, Captain Brennan ‘savagely’ (231) questions Clitheroe: ‘Why did you fire over their heads? Why didn't you fire to kill? (231). When Clitheroe tries to moderate Brennan's anger by pointing out that the looters are Irish men and women, Brennan again responds ‘savagely’: ‘If these slum lice gather at our heels again, plug one o’ them, or I'll soon shock them with a shot or two meself‘ (232). Brennan's remark is staggering even to Clitheroe, his comrade in arms. His use of the phrase ‘slum lice’ is, moreover, the most brutal variation in the play of this particular animal image. In Act I, Bessie talks in a general way of her neighbours as ‘lice … crawlin' about feedin' on th' fatness o' the land' (191) but her point lacks specific applicability. In Act II, Rosie, humiliated because the Covey calls her ‘a prostitute’ (210), lashes out at him with the abusive, ‘[y]ou louse, you louse, you’ (210). Rosie's use of the animal image has a context that makes her choice of words understandable. In both Bessie's and Rosie's cases, the use of the image is an end in itself. With Brennan, the depersonalisation of the looters is a preliminary to shooting them. Although warfare has blunted his sensibilities and his language, his naked utterance encourages further verbal and physical brutality.

V

Despite the progresive deterioration of the characters' usage, the end of the play marks a recovery. The Rising does not immediately liberate Ireland, but it liberates or at least redirects the verbal energy of the slum dwellers. Bessie's exit lines in Act III announce the change. Remembering the Psalmist's promise that God ‘shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust; his truth shall be thy shield and buckler’, Bessie goes off into the fighting to find a doctor for the ailing Nora, ‘tightening her shawl around her, as if it were a shield’ (238). As she exits, she prays, ‘Oh, God, be Thou my help in time o' throuble. An' shelter me safely in th' shadow of thy wings’. Her restrained rhetoric here is in stark contrast to her ravings at the end of Act I, although the source is still Psalm 91. The allusive habit that previously enlivened her conversation with bloody images of destruction now provides her with the necessary courage to speak and thereby to act positively. Throughout the fourth act, although exhausted, Bessie looks after Nora, sings songs to her and quietens the noise of Fluther, Peter and the Covey. Even in the curses of her death agony, she retains a dignity and stature, purchased with blood, that her early verbosity lacked.

Bessie's transformation is typical of the verbal metamorphosis that most of the other surviving characters undergo. Quieter in the fourth than in any previous act, what they say has greater clarity and cogency than before. The presence of the English soldiers, moreover, allows them to direct their anger and their verbal cuts at a tangible external enemy. The indefinite Mrs Gogan discovers in the last act a more straight forward mode of conversing, thanking Bessie for her attentions to Mollser, arranging for Bessie's burial, and accepting the burden of caring for Nora without her usual circumlocations:

Nora (whimperingly). Take me away, take me away; don't leave me here to be lookin' an' lookin' at it!

Mrs Gogan (going over to Nora and putting her arm around her). Come on with me, dear, an' you can doss in poor Mollser's bed, till we gather some neighbours to come an' give th' last friendly touches to Bessie in th' lonely layin' out of her.

(260)

With the exception of ‘poor’, ‘friendly’ and ‘lonely’, every word in Mrs Gogan's speech is strictly functional. Part of Mrs Gogan's growing verbal strength depends on the contrast between her clear plans and Nora's incoherence. But an equally significant part of her strength depends on the contrast between her previous verbal embroidery and her present directness and simplicity.

In the fourth act, the Covey and Fluther also display unexpected verbal strength using verbal strategies that previously demonstrated their intellectual slackness. Anxious to distance himself from the other slum dwellers, the Covey refers to the Jenersky text in the first two acts as evidence of his superior intelligence. In each of these acts, he cites the author and full title, ‘Jenersky's Thesis on Th' Origin, Development, an' Consolidation of th' Evolutionary Idea of th' Proletariat’. The foreign name of the author and the finesounding nouns of the title contribute to the Covey's pleasure of utterance. In the first act, he denounces Peter for reading bits of the book and “hee-hee'in”’ (177). In the second act, frightened by Rosie's sexual advances, he offers to leave a copy of the Thesis for her at the pub (197). In the last act, the Covey for the third time cites Jenersky, but because the discussion is political, the effect is less ridiculous than before. When Corporal Stoddart questions him about Mollser's death, the Covey assures him that she died of consumption, not sniper fire. The Covey goes on to lucidly explain ‘that more die o' consumption that are killed in th' wars’, and that ‘it's all because of th' system we're livin' undher’ (249). Then Corporal Stoddart admits that he, like the Covey, is a ‘Sowcialist’ (249), but that he has to do his ‘dooty’. The Covey responds with ironic point that the ‘only dooty of a Socialist is th' emancipation of th' workers' a paraphrase of a comment he has less appropriately put to the apolitical Rosie in the pub. The Covey's clear exposition of the economic causes of Mollser's death is his most powerful statement in the play. When the Covey recommends Jenersky's Thesis to Corporal Stoddart, it has a relevance to the conversation and an authority that his previous two references have lacked. Although the Covey's last citation admits the humorous implications of his previous references to the Thesis and provokes laughter, the Covey has the better of the exchange with Corporal Stoddart whose impatient dismissal of the Covey reflects his own comprehensive shallowness.

Like the Covey, Fluther in the last act reshapes his delinquent words into more meaningful speech. He responds to the defeat of the rebellion with quiet courage, sheltering Brennan against the advice of the others without resorting to histrionics. He simply deals him into the card game and briefly directs his performance: ‘Thry to keep your hands from shakin', man’ (248). Although the men are rounded up and interned by the English soldiers, Corporal Stoddart and Sergeant Tinley are completely deceived by Fluther's charade and take Brennan for a card player rather than for a rebel on the run. Stoddart goes so far as to suggest that Fluther take ‘the cawds’ (254) to the church. Fluther responds with a characteristic turn of phrase: ‘Ah, I don't think we'd be doin' anything derogatory be playin' cards in a Protestan' Church’ (254). In the context of Fluther's successful deception, his use of ‘derogatory’ does not convey his usual lazy amiability. Rather, his usage is complex and ambiguous. To the English soldiers, it is further evidence authenticating that all the men are merely card players. But to the slum dwellers, it continues the passive resistance to foreign occupation begun when Fluther first dealt cards to Brennan. ‘To play cards’ in the final act means to deceive the English. To find nothing ‘derogatory’ in playing cards suggests that Fluther and the others will continue their game, a very different game from the one that the English soldiers think they are playing. Fluther's final use of ‘derogatory’ is thus more circumscribed, more complex and more political than his previous usage.

VI

The characters in The Plough have a pliant language, elastic enough to be moulded into rhetorical forms antagonistic to their social and personal needs and yet capable of being reshaped into a discourse expressive of their discontents. At first their use of language is so undisciplined that it contributes to the unfolding chaos. But as events overtake them, the characters quieten down and eventually gain a more suitable eloquence.

Having witnessed the painful process by which the worst excesses of the slum dwellers' speech—its insensitivity and its escapism—are eliminated, it is surely ironic for the audience to discover these weaknesses in the speech and song of the English soldiers. While the Irish tenement dwellers take the first halting steps towards opposing the English occupation, the English soldiers, through their appallingly sentimental concluding words and song, express the kind of disregard for reality that Fluther and the other slum dwellers have abandoned.

Notes

  1. J. D. Trewin, ‘O'Casey the Elizabethan’, New Theatre (London), III (1946), pp. 2-3.

  2. Robert Brustein, The Theatre of Revolt (Boston and Toronto: Little Brown, 1964), p. viii.

  3. David Krause, Sean O'Casey: The Man and His Work. An Enlarged Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1975), pp. 225-54.

  4. Robert Hogan, ‘The Haunted Inkbottle: A Preliminary Study of Rhetorical Devices in the Late Plays of Seán O'Casey’, James Joyce Quarterly, VIII (1970), pp. 83-4.

  5. Raymond Williams, Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 151.

  6. Ronald Ayling, ‘Patterns of Language and Ritual in Sean O'Casey Plays’ in A. Feder and B. Schrank (editors), Literature and Folk Culture: Ireland and Newfoundland (St. John's, Newfoundland: Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1977), p. 56.

  7. Bernice Schrank, ‘You needn't say no more’: Language and the Problems of Communication in Seán O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman', Irish University Review VIII (1978), pp. 23-37.

  8. Bernice Schrank, ‘Dialectical Configurations in Juno and the Paycock’, Twentieth Century Literature XXI (1975), pp. 438-456.

  9. For a discussion of the imagery of The Plough, consult Bernice Schrank, ‘Little Ignorant Yahoo’: The Theme of Human Limitation in O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars', Etudes Irlandaises VI (Nouvelle Serie) (1981), pp. 37-40.

  10. James R. Scrimgeour, Sean O'Casey (Boston: Twayne, 1978), p. 106.

  11. Sean O'Casey, ‘The Plough and the Stars’, Collected Plays I (London: Macmillan, 1963), p. 202. Further references appear in the text.

  12. Vincent De Baun, ‘Sean O'Casey and the Road to Expressionism’, Modern Drama IV (1961), p. 256.

  13. William A. Armstrong, ‘Sources and Themes in The Plough and The Stars’, Modern Drama IV (1961), pp. 234-42.

  14. O'Casey emphasises Fluther's drunken insensitivity by the pun on ‘good’. Fluther's last name is ‘Good’; in this sense he is literally ‘a jolly good [Good] fellow’.

The Times (London) (review date 12 October 1929)

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SOURCE: A review of The Silver Tassie, in The Times (London), October 12, 1929, p. 8.

[In the following review of the world premiere of The Silver Tassie, the critic comments on the success of O'Casey's experimental dramatic practices.]

Many years may pass before Mr. O'Casey's art [in The Silver Tassie] ceases to produce confusion in the mind of an audience accustomed by long theatrical usage to consistency of mood. Hitherto it has commonly been demanded of a play that it be tragic, or that it be comic, or, if by profession a tragi-comedy, that the contrasted elements should remain distinct, the one appearing as a “relief” to the other. This theory Mr. O'Casey has definitely abandoned, and has substituted for it another, still very unfamiliar in the theatre, though having its now recognized counterpart in the novels of Mr. Aldous Huxley. We are no longer invited to give attention to one aspect of life and to consider it dominant for the time being. The unity of the work of art is no longer to depend upon the consistency of its material. Instead, as if some diamond were being rolled over and tossed in air before our eyes, we are so to observe its facets of tragedy, comedy, and open farce that their flashing becomes at last one flash and perhaps, by imaginative and symbolic transition, one spiritual light. Unity is to spring from diversity. The elements of drama are to be compounded—not separated, not mixed.

Mr. O'Casey's experimental practice of this theory is of absorbing interest, and it is no less interesting because he has not perfected it. And of even greater value is his attempt to break free from the bonds of naturalism by the bold use of verse. Anyone in this hsitory of a footballer who was maimed in the War may break into verse at any moment. A group of soldiers, resting at night from their labours, fall into a rhythmical chanting which has no relation with the matter or manner of naturalistic speech. Another group joins them, and all, falling upon their knees, send up a bitter prayer to a gun raised against the skyline. Above them, like a figure of Death itself, crouches the solitary figure of a man, chanting—and Mr. Leonard Shepherd does it magnificently—a terrible parody of the Valley of Dry Bones. The whole scene is almost a masterpiece. Mr. Augustus John's setting is its background. Mr. Raymond Massey's direction of the stage—his assembling of the soldiers in closely packed groups and his disposition of them so that they have continuously the quality of great sculpture—marks him as a producer who is also a poet.

Mr. O'Casey's attempt to make his play take wings from naturalistic earth succeeds; we move in a new plane of imagination. Yet the scene is not a masterpiece. The elements are not truly compounded. There appear two farcical figures of a Staff Wallah and a Visitor whose coming shatters the illusion and momentarily reduces Mr. O'Casey's irony to the level of a mean, silly, and irrelevant sneer. And more important and more disastrous is the discovery, which we begin to make as the scene advances, that the greater part of its effect springs from the setting, the leaning crucifix, the shadowy gun, the grouping of men, and the rhythm of language—the rhythm of language, not the substance of it. Though the use of poetry has lifted the play from earth to dream, the poetry itself has not force enough to sustain so great a suspense. The scene is filled with a kind of wonder. It is, in the theatre, a new wonder; it is exciting and, at intervals, moving; but little proceeds from it. Mr. O'Casey has not been able to give a full answer to his own challenge.

The other acts are more limited in their range. They are not, as the second act is, a brilliant failure that might have been the core of a masterpiece. But in them also Mr. O'Casey is working at his proper experiment, twirling his diamond, leaping suddenly from a music-hall turn at a telephone to a transcendental dialogue between a blind man and a cripple, giving to a dance at a football club an extraordinary tragic significance, matching a poem with a waltz, wringing a new intensity from a scene in a hospital ward which does not hesitate to continue the broad and delightful fooling of Mr. Barry Fitzgerald and Mr. Sidney Morgan. This method of compression does not and cannot yield the full, naturalistic portraits that arise from drama of a different kind. Miss Beatrix Lehmann plays with a fierce concentration admirably directed; Miss Una O'Connor gives life to a shrewd, hard sketch; Mr. Charles Laughton passes with remarkable skill from footballer to poet, becoming at last a pursuing conscience in a wheeled chair; and there is a beautifully controlled study by Mr. Ian Hunter. But the method and not the drawing of character is the central interest of this play. It is rash; it is extravagant; it fails sometimes with a great stumbling failure. But it is a method with a future.

The Illustrated London News (review date 19 October 1929)

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SOURCE: A review of The Silver Tassie, in The Illustrated London News, October 19, 1929, p. 696.

[In the following review of the London production of The Silver Tassie, the critic admires the “deeply felt and so remorselessly expressed” sentiments of the play.]

The “Tassie” which furnished the title of Mr. Sean O'Casey's new play [The Silver Tassie] is a silver challenge cup which Harry Heegan, in the full flush of his youth and strength, wins for the third time for his football team in the first act, and which, robbed of the use of his limbs by the war and of his sweet-heart by the comrade who has saved his life, he smashes in a jealous fury at curtain-fall. Bitterness and defeat, indeed, are the emotions which the young Irish playwright depicts with such remarkable power and insight in the successor to Juno and the Paycock. The more the pity, then, that his depiction of these emotions should so often take the form of a rather flamboyant expressionism. The whole of the second act, for instance, is devoted to an interlude in which soldiers on fatigue duty, crouched round a fire, chant in unison curses on their officers and on their own exposure to mud, cold, and rain. And, though it may be granted that this interlude represents very vividly some of the occasional moods of some of the men, it is obviously satire and burlesque rather than drama. Moreover, it holds up the simple and affecting story of Harry Heegan's tragedy, which is played out first in a hospital ward, where his sweetheart refuses to visit him, and then at a dance given by the football team, where she meets the poor cripple in his invalid chair and rejects him for his strong and healthy rival. The poignancy of both the humour and the pathos of the last two acts of The Silver Tassie is indeed very searching, and fully justifies Mr. O'Casey in calling his play a “tragi-comedy.” Nothing quite so deeply felt and so remorselessly expressed has been seen on our stage for many a long day; and it is only fair to say that Mr. Charles Laughton, the actor who takes the part of Heegan, shares in the triumph of the author.

Charles Morgan (review date 3 November 1929)

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SOURCE: “As London Sees O'Casey,” in The New York Times, November 3, 1929, p. 4, section 9.

[In the following review of The Silver Tassie, Morgan assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the dramatic techniques found in the London production, claiming that O'Casey's political prejudices hurt the aesthetic dimension of the play.]

There is a defiant boldness in Mr. O'Casey's writing that compels attention. Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars made a deep impression even upon those who found them wanting as works of art. It was evident that here was one who possessed many of the qualities of a great dramatist—a view of life proper to himself; courage enough to depart from fashionable dramatic technique when his work required such a departure; a fiercely critical humor and an extraordinary power to perceive, and to reproduce in the theatre, the entanglement—even the coincidence—of tragedy, comedy and farce on the lives of men. For these reasons, the performance of his new play was a theatrical happening of some importance and was awaited with the more curiosity because The Silver Tassie [recently produced here by the Irish Theatre—Ed.], having been already published and widely discussed, was known to be technically experimental and to contain at least one act—the second—of which no one could certainly foretell the effect on the stage.

Before entering into any discussion of them, let me briefly summarize the four acts. In the first, we are introduced to Sylvester Heegan and Simon Norton, two conventionally comic Irishmen; to Susie Monican who, being thwarted in her love for Harry Heegan, has turned violently to religion and shouts continually of the wrath of God at moments as inappropriate as farcical contrivance can make them; to Teddy Foran, a soldier, who bullies his wife and breaks up the furniture and crockery on the floor above; to Jessie Taite, a pretty girl who has captured Harry; and finally to Harry Heegan, a famous local athelete, who has won the football cup (the Silver Tassie) for his club and is now riotously returning from leave to the trenches. The second act is a symbol of war. The third has its scene, after the war, in a hospital; Teddy Foran is blind, Harry Heegan is a cripple in a wheeled chair; Jessie is evidently deserting him in favor of another soldier, Barney Bagnal, who saved Heegan's life; the religious Susie has become Nurse Monican, very severe on duty, very amorous in her asides with the hospital staff; and the two comic Irishmen, in adjacent beds, are still two comic Irishmen disputing in extremely entertaining music-hall back-chat about baths and other subjects beloved in the music halls.

The last act shows us the football club dance with Jessie in Barney's arms; with Harry Heegan, a fierce, embittered cripple, pursuing her in his wheeled chair; and with the comic Irishmen providing another music-hall turn at a telephone.

The first act is fairly plain sailing until, at the end, the soldiers going off to the war and the crowd bidding them farewell break away from the naturalism in which the play began and take up a wild, defiant chanting. Nor is the third act difficult, though the deliberate violence of its emotional contrasts produces in the hospital ward a kind of insane tension that is the mark of Mr. O'Casey's style. The fourth act, containing the football club dance, is in many ways the most successful of all. The interlude of the comic Irishmen, which is intended to produce an impression of intense realism by its extravagant irrelevance, is, I think, a failure. It is amusing, but it is too long and breaks up the act. But the rest of the scene, in which poetry and naturalistic prose are inextricably mingled and the chanted laments of the blind man and the cripple are heard against the chatter, the frivolous indifference and the would-be sensuous music of the dance, has an astonishing and bitter power. It has something of the quality of certain dream-scenes by Strindberg in which reality and symbol become one.

And the highly controversial second act is unforgettable. Here, in a night scene designed by Augustus John and on a stage grouped and arranged with an artist's eye by Raymond Massey, a group of soldiers, using a kind of free verse, grumble and lament and pray. The effect of the scene and of their chanted rhythm is to lift illusion clear of the naturalistic plane, and the act has power to produce a spiritual influence beyond its own boundaries. With so much to recommend it, it might have been a beautiful work of art. But three things stand in its way: First, that the poetry is not good enough to answer the challenge which the use of poetry implies; secondly, that the introduction of two characters—a visitor and a staff officer—are used for the purpose of caricature that breaks the illusion and reduce tragic irony to the level of ignorant spite; thirdly, that you are left at the end with an impression that, though his dramatic method is a brilliant experiment, Mr. O'Casey lacks the experience or the greatness and generosity of mind to write of war on a spiritual plane. The pamphleteer interferes with the artist; the anger of an enraged child makes impossible the tranquillity of passion. Mr. O'Casey is too often an agile rhetorician who has jumped on a tub to teach the great gods their business, and is inclined to foam and scream when they disregard him; he is too seldom an artist on his knees.

These are the flaws in his present work. They are present, not because he is not an artist, but because the violence of his prejudices on the particular subject of war has, in this instance, distorted his esthetic vision.

Ronald G. Rollins and Llewellyn Rabby (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: “The Silver Tassie: The Post-World-War-I Legacy,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXII, No. 1, June, 1979, pp. 125-36.

[In the following essay, Rollins and Rabby situate the dramatic patterns and techniques of The Silver Tassie within the context of other contemporary plays that deal with the horror of war, showing how O'Casey's adaptations of the theme contribute to the originality of the work]

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, …

In the final months and in the years following World War I, that extended nightmare that shattered an established hierarchical social order that had provided stability and spiritual serenity for centuries of European men, a new mood of bewilderment, despair, and cynical alienation tormented millions of disenchanted people in the western world. And as is so often the case, it was the artists, especially the playwrights, who first gave voice to this new cry of hopelessness, frustration, and fear. Beginning with the plays of the German Expressionists, 1912-1916, a new generation of post-war playwrights exerted themselves to assess the full impact of the old order upon those who were left behind to contemplate the ruins and to lament the loss of friends and cherished values. Repeatedly these playwrights recoiled in anger and anguish from the new lines of force in an historical process that was separating man from ancient patterns of life that had been passed on from father to son, that was regimenting man almost out of existence, and that was driving God from His heaven.

Although geographically removed from this post-World-War-I vortex of shrill polemics and relentless technical experimentation, Sean O'Casey was very much a marching member of this new cadre of avant-garde playwrights. His isolated country, with its established Abbey Theatre and the Dublin Drama League, set up in 1918 to stage foreign plays, had been alerted to the manifold possibilities of this new, non-naturalistic drama with the production in Dublin in the 1920's of the plays of Pirandello, Strindberg, Benavente, Andreyev, Lenormand, Toller, Kaiser, and O'Neill.1 Here were exciting examples of the new drama that fused angular and grotesque scenic tableaux, chant and ritualized movement, song, mask, dance, intensified symbolic gesture, and emblematic figures into an often musical and vivid dramatic form that would externalize man's hidden world of thought and impulse that had been activated by powerful forces that threatened to cripple or erase him.

Recording the fanatical polemics and the hedonistic frivolity of those in different states of shock after World War I, these non-representational plays frequently fused or juxtaposed remnants of classical and Christian myths, myths that enabled the dramatist to measure the fragmenting present against an apparently stable past and to impose a ritualistic sequence upon the situation being exploited. Hence, these dramas of distortion, emerging out of the playwrights' despairing reservations about individual man's ability to alter Collective History, often manifested both a linear, cause-and-effect relationship, and an epiphanic dimension, a dimension accented by recurring symbols and by ritualistic, ballet-like movements specifically intended to objectify these crucial, intense moments of psychic turbulence which threatened modern man repeatedly experienced.2

O'Casey’s The Silver Tassie (1929) is transparently a play belonging to this large category of post-World-War-I-Expressionistic plays, a ritualistic parable of calculated ironic contrasts in setting, dress, dialogue, and lighting, and a protest play designed to bring the horrible realities of war-the pandemonium and pain of the battlefield—back from the trenches to the hospitals, homes, and athletic clubs of a complacent and often mercenary society. A drama with geometrical configurations, The Silver Tassie is, in part, then, a work that turns inward upon itself, a self-conscious, subtle masterpiece that invites the reader-observer to discover the complex network of interlocking and overlapping patterns that constitute its design.

O’Casey explains the objective of his play with ceremonial patterns in a letter to this writer:

I wished to show the face & unveil the soul of war. I wanted a war play without noise; without the interruptions of gunfire, content to show its results, as in the chant of the wounded and the maiming of Harry; to show it in its main spiritual phases; its minor impulses and its actual horror of destroying the golden bodies of the young; & of the Church’s damned approval in the sardonic hymn to the gun; as true today as it was then. I never consciously adopted “expressionism,” which I don’t understand & never did. To me there are no “impressionistic,” “expressionistic,” “realistic” (social or otherwise) plays: there are very good plays and bad ones. Like your students, I think this play my best one; but the thought isn’t important, for it may well be wrong.3

O’Casey is behaving in his characteristically candid and truthful manner when he vigorously asserts that he did not “consciously adopt” Expressionism in arranging The Silver Tassie. Indeed, O’Casey did not “consciously adopt” any particular dramatic method (nor slavishly mimic any particular playwright) during his long and productive career, and so his drama is finally more eclectic than imitative-a drama distinguished always by a skillful diversity of dramatic methods. Yet O’Casey, as a serious and systematic student of world theatre, was profoundly influenced by the plays which he read and saw in his native city in the 1920’s, especially those of the German Expressionists Toller and Kaiser and the American O’Neill. Hence, he incorporates—perhaps more subconsciously than consciously—the vivid mélange of materials and methods of Expressionistic drama into The Silver Tassie, again demonstrating the truth of T. S. Eliot’s contention that all art is collaboration. As David Krause explains: “Instead of telling the audience through exposition that war is hell, he [O’Casey] had found in the techniques of Expressionism a way of showing them a symbolic nightmare of that hell—a new method of developing the tortured figure that once herculean Harry has become in the last two acts.”4

Harry Heegan is the twenty-three-year-old athlete whose youthful “golden body” is seriously injured by the mechanized madness of a European war gradually discovering the destructive potential of armored tanks, and his tragic life seems intentionally arranged to duplicate the familiar phases of a scapegoat’s career.5 Like other hero-victims before him, Heegan is first introduced as a man superior to other men, a lover of adventure, a gifted athlete who could perhaps win the decathlon, and a successful lover of attractive young women. Appropriately, he is honored for a time by his devoted followers. Act I of The Silver Tassie ends with a ceremonial procession of Heegan’s friends and admirers singing his praises and enumerating his singular achievements in the just completed championship games, an ending which suggests a reduced replica of the ancient Olympic games.

Yet when he enters the larger “game” of trench and mechanized warfare in Europe in Act II, he does not win; he is wounded in battle and saved from death by his companion Barney Bagnal, who carries him to safety. Thus, when he returns in Act III and IV as a crippled remnant of a man—a painful reminder of the “horror” of war—he is shunned and quickly rejected by those in the mood for hedonistic frivolity. As scapegoat, Heegan, confined to his wheelchair with leg paralysis, is thus wheeled off into exile—into the limbo land of neglect—by the blinded Teddy Foran, another victim of the ugly game of war.

To trace the trajectory of Heegan’s rise and fall, O’Casey creates a geometric drama, a self-conscious parable inviting us to detect the direct intersections, the different triangles, and the gradual modulations in four different settings made fascinating by their scenic stylization. Amazingly, all four scenes, with slight modifications, can be located in the Heegan household, the similar eating-sitting-sleeping room used so often in the Dublin trilogy. Manipulating his scenic properties with consummate skill, O’Casey seems to be deliberately working to bring war into a typical home, using the same cluster of major symbols (the bright star, the cross, the altar), the same patterns of movement, and the same colors (especially red, orange, and black) in clothing and room fixtures to suggest that history is a predictable nightmare of recurring cycles: life flows, then ebbs, only to flow again with different participants. Thus, each act can almost be superimposed upon the other in this vivid parable drama.

Acts I and II—the former situated in the eating-sitting-sleeping room of the Heegan household, and the latter near a ruined monastery in the war zone somewhere in France—are, with some exceptions, strikingly similar, both assuming the dimensions of a church or cathedral where a sacrifice is imminent. Both utilize large windows at the back, with the window in the first act looking out on a quay, and the window in the second looking out on a long expanse of desolate denuded terrain disfigured by trenches, barbed wire, and stumps of trees. Visible through the first window is the center mast of a steamer with a gleaming white light at the top; visible through the second window is another cross formed by two broken pieces of masonry, one jutting from the left and another from the right. A white star glows above this wartime wasteland. Beneath and directly in front of the window in Act I is a stand with silver gilded legs and a gold gilded top; the stand is flanked by a dresser to the left and a bed to the right, an arrangement suggesting an altar and two pulpits. A purple velvet shield, to which are pinned a number of silver and gold medals, is draped across the stand; two small vases containing artificial flowers stand on the two sides of the shield, a balanced grouping that again evokes an altar tableau. Directly in front of the window in Act II is a massive, black howitzer gun, emblematic of the weapons responsible for the maiming—the “crucifixion”—of Heegan, an action adumbrated by the symbolic mast-cross, altar-stand, and purple color of Act I.6 Significantly, the colors silver and gold are absent in this act because war, especially large-scale war fought by naive young men who have been caught in the diplomatic machinations of diplomats, is, in O’Casey’s view, decidedly devoid of spiritual splendor.

Other particulars reinforce the complementary natures of the two acts, and remind us of the parallel patterns and intersecting lines and angles in both. In Act I, Mrs. Heegan stands viewing the street through the right rear window; a right front door also provides access to the street. Later, both the window and the door provide Mrs. Heegan and others with means of distraction and escape from a house agitated at times by tension and tumult. In Act II, a stained-glass window made eye-arresting by a figure of the Virgin replaces Mrs. Heegan and her window, while a life-sized crucifix is situated near the area of the front side-street exit. A shell has blasted one arm from the figure on the cross, and so the shattered Christ leans forward with the released arm outstretched towards the Virgin. In similar fashion, Harry Heegan, after having his legs immobilized, will later assume the attitude and posture of a suppliant before a crucifix-wearing Sister, a nun and mortal virgin. So do tormented and suffering men repeatedly seek solace from compassionate, maternal figures in their hours of greatest distress. Moreover, as the people in Act I “escaped” from domestic uproar through windows and doors, so too the soldiers seek escape from the red menace of war through different but similarly placed outlets in Act II. By linking Mrs. Heegan and her window with the Virgin and her window, O’Casey achieves a stunning ironic effect. In Act I, Mrs. Heegan and Mrs. Foran, two mothers and mother figures, do not show great concern or weep at the departure of their sons for the trenches of Europe; however, in Act II, the Virgin Mother stares aghast and “white-faced” at the murder of so many of her sons. Finally, the other passageway, the left bedroom door of Act I, becomes the Red Cross archway entrance in Act II, both entrances hinting at the peace and restoration that comes from security and restful sleep. Hence, the doors and the windows in these two related acts are deliberately placed in similar areas, a device that causes us to view the two settings as related and interlinked.

Still other similarities integrate the two acts. Sylvester Heegan and Simon Norton, two dockworkers, sit before a fire at middle left in Act I, reminiscing about Harry Heegan’s past exploits with fists and feet, thereby identifying Heegan as a modern Ossian among the Avondales. In Act II, a group of soldiers, wet, cold, and sullen-faced, form a circle at near center around a brazier in which a fire is burning. Since war is an ugly, deadly, larger game devoid of glory, they sing no songs to honor an Achilles in their midst; rather, they give us litanies of their profound fear and despair. Moreover, in Act I, Sylvester and Simon must endure the doleful chanting—the “tambourine theology”—of Susie Monican, a religious fanatic who is momentarily obsessed with visions of man’s innate depravity and the coming of the Last Judgment:

Man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain:
He heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.(7)

Later, in Act II, the soldiers must listen to the Croucher, a blood-and mud-spattered soldier situated on a ramp above the brazier, and he sounds much like Susie:

And the hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of a valley.(8)

Whereas Susie chanted of last things, the Croucher intones dreamily of a valley of dry bones, a collection of bones which will not be knit and animated by divine intervention. With their gloomy utterances about the frailty of human life and their apocalyptic visions of last things, these two chanting figures are almost interchangeable.

As she bombards the two men with the name of her deity, Susie, polishing a Lee-Enfield rifle, stands near a table at corner left on which are placed a bottle of whiskey, a large parcel of bread-and-meat sandwiches, and some copies of English illustrated magazines. Near the table is a red colored stand resembling an easel which holds a silver gilt-framed picture of Harry Heegan in a crimson, yellow and black football uniform. Susie’s excessive concern with “everlastin” fire and the rifle, the hero’s icon-like portrait, the colors of violence (red and yellow), and the whiskey and sandwiches—strong connotations of the Eucharist here—again convey sacrificial overtones; so with her utterances and her conduct, Susie reveals herself as an altar celebrant or acolyte, as a soothsayer who knows of the future time when the young hero will, indeed, be enclosed by the red fires of war.9

The interaction between Harry Heegan and Barney Bagnal also links the first two acts, the zigzagging relationship reminding one of a game of musical chairs. For example, in Act II, Barney, lashed to a gunwheel, replaces the picture and the sandwich table at left front. A soldier companion of Heegan, Barney is being punished for stealing a cock, hardly the kind of action one associates with a hero-to-be. Since Barney was an insignificant subordinate—one who swells a progress—in Heegan’s drink-dance, processional celebration (an orgiastic ballet pregnant with hints of disaster), it is appropriate that he be tied to but one of the several wheels of a large gun, the destructive weapon that will cripple Heegan for the rest of his life.

Yet it is quite significant that Heegan disappears in Act II while Barney is given a prominent role in the action, for the process of transition from one hero to another is underway in this act. In Act I, Barney was a doer, a coat-carrier, for the dynamic Harry; it was Heegan who won the gleaming tassie (the Grail), the girl (Jessie Taite), and the glory (leading performer on the Avondale team). In Act II, however, Heegan is crippled but Barney emerges unhurt; Barney is ready to assume Heegan’s former heroic role and the alliteration in the two names suggests that O’Casey may have had this transference in mind. By Act IV, Barney gains the Grail (twisted and bent), the girl (soiled and opportunistic), and the glory (medals to attest to his bravery in battle), thereby completing the character reversal pattern and strengthening the relationship among the four acts.

Fewer scenic similarities are present in Acts III and IV, yet some scenic continuity—scene linkage—is maintained. At the center rear in Act III, set in a hospital ward, is a large double door which opens onto a garden warmed by the rays of a setting September sun; at the center rear in Act IV, set in a room of the Avondale Football Club, is a wide, tall window which also opens onto a garden. Three wooden cross-pieces enabling weak patients to pull themselves into a sitting posture are attached to the beds at right rear in Act III; three black and red lanterns, with the center one four times the length of its width, form a corresponding illuminated cross at center front in Act IV. Situated before the large glass door in Act III is a white, glass-topped table on which rest medicines, drugs, and surgical instruments. Thus, the healing instruments of the surgeon have replaced the ugly, destructive howitzer of Act II. Also, one vase of flowers, placed at the corner of the table, survives from the two that were on the altar-stand in Act I. No table is placed before the rear, wide window in Act IV. Instead, a long table, covered with a green cloth and laden with bottles of wine and a dozen glasses, is situated at stage right. The concern for drinking and dancing has replaced the concern for healing, as music and vivid colors—vivid hats and colored streamers—have replaced the subdued mood and bleak austerity—the pervasive whiteness—of Act III. Significantly, the crucifix and the Virgin have disappeared because the dancing couples prefer passionate self-indulgence to prayerful self-denial.

The characters also assume positions and re-enact behavioral routines roughly analogous to those established in the first two acts. In Act III, Sylvester and Simon, in or near beds in the ward, again perform a choral function as they comment on hero Heegan-his crippled body and shattered dreams. In Act IV, they first stand outside in the garden near the large, rear window, smoking and observing the activity at the dance; later, they enter to sit before a fire to lament the reversal in fortunes of Heegan, whose anguish is increased with the arrival of Barney, who leads Jessie Taite to the wine table as the act begins. As Harry’s gold and silver medals adorned the purple shield in Act I, so now war medals—one is ironically the Victoria Cross—are attached to Bagnal’s waistcoat. Barney had carried Heegan to safety in battle, but he now assists in his psychic disintegration. Likewise, as Harry and Jessie drank from the silver tassie in Act I, so now Barney and Jessie drink from the wine glasses in this act.10 Also, Susie Monican, clad now in attractive, provocative attire, enters in Act III again to lecture Simon and Sylvester; however, she now speaks no longer of sin and gloom but of sunshine, yellowing trees, and the active, joyful life. In Act IV, she translates her doctrine into reality by dancing with Surgeon Forby Maxwell; she has reversed completely her previous mode of thinking and acting. Finally, Mrs. Heegan no longer looks out of the window in Act IV; rather, she studies her embittered, crippled son through the doorway which is adorned with crimson and black curtains.

One new stage property—a Roll of Honor listing the names of the five members of the Avondale Club killed in battle—appears in Act IV at left back. A wreath of laurel tied with red and black ribbons rests underneath this Roll. As a symbolic tombstone and epitaph, the Roll should also include Harry Heegan’s name, as he is “dead” in body and weakened in spirit. So the mobile others ignore the list of the dead to respond rhythmically to a gay fox trot; these lively dancers represent the “full life on the flow”; abandoned Heegan, attended now by a new companion and follower, the blind Teddy Foran, who has assumed Barney’s former role, must be wheeled into the garden, a shattered hulk of a man whose life will ebb agonizingly away.

Thus, The Silver Tassie stands finally as a modern Passion-play, a geometric drama that juggles and joins numerous ancient ceremonial patterns with Joycean exactness and evocativeness to deplore human sacrifice on a massive scale. Expressing the post-World-War-I traumatic recoil from the ghastly mangling of men by machines, O’Casey repeats the same major concerns first introduced in the Expressionistic plays of Ernst Toller and Georg Kaiser, especially in Man and the Masses and From Morn to Midnight.11 While joining with others in the emerging tradition of post-World-War-I non-naturalistic protest plays, O’Casey also manifested his very real individual talent, carefully devising a ritualistic parable, a drama of ironic reversals, chanted poetry, mythical constructs, and jagged but forceful illuminations designed, as he confessed, to “capture the spirit of war, and to show the Christian fighters as they maimed and slew each other before the face of the son of God.”12

Notes

  1. Harold Ferrar, Denis Johnston's Irish Theatre (Dublin, 1973), p. 10.

  2. Masters of Modern Drama, edd. with intro. and notes by Haskell M. Block and Robert C. Shedd (New York, 1962), pp. 6-7.

  3. Letter to this writer from O’Casey, March 24, 1960 (reproduced with this article).

  4. David Krause, Sean O’Casey: The Man and His Work (New York, 1962), p. 15. Robert Hogan adds: “The play exists to condemn war by showing its effects on an individual, Heegan. The Expressionistic art is included to represent a condemnation of war indirectly and on an abstract moral basis. … And also, stylization, by stripping away the cluttering detail, presents the essence, the emotional-intellectual core of war.” (The Experiments of Sean O’Casey [New York, 1960], pp. 65-66.)

  5. For a discussion of rites of human sacrifice in various agrarian religions, rites that later focus on a scapegoat figure, see: Mircea Eliade, Myth, Dreams and Mysteries (New York, 1960), p. 187; and G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Function in Ancient and Other Cultures (Berkeley, 1970), p. 16 and p. 19.

  6. Jack Lindsay, discussing O’Casey’s use of the canonical hours of the breviary in Within the Gates, reminds us that purple is the traditional liturgical color for penitence and death. See Sean O’Casey: Modern Judgements, ed. Ronald Ayling (Nashville, 1970), p. 199. See also Jacqueline Doyle’s “Liturgical Imagery in Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie,Modern Drama, 21 (March 1978), 29-38.

  7. O’Casey, Collected Plays, II (New York, 1956), p. 7.

  8. Ibid., p. 36.

  9. Winifred Smith views Susie Monican as a “priestess” who attends the altar in this “ironic Graeco-Christian passion play.” See “The Dying God in Modern Theatre,” The Review of Religion, 5 (March 1941), 267-75.

  10. See Krause, pp. 157-58.

  11. Maureen Malone argues that the play is a condemnation of an hypocritical society that slaughters masses of men in war for selfish ends. See The Plays of Sean O’Casey (Carbondale, Ill., 1969), pp. 52-3.

  12. Letter to this writer from O’Casey, July 25, 1959.

Alan Brien (review date 11 September 1959)

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SOURCE: “Weill Away,” in The Spectator, Vol. 203, No. 6846, September 11, 1959, pp. 331-32.

[In the following review of the London debut of Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, Brien faults the eloquence of O'Casey's dramatic language, which, in his opinion, detracts from the action and motivation of the play.]

In Cock-a-Doodle Dandy O'Casey, too, is out to scare the cassock off the priesthood. But he seems oddly unsure what he will find underneath the fancy dress—less than a man or more than a demon? His bog village of Nyadnanave is a haunted battlefield where strange, supernatural powers wrestle for the souls of men. All the farcical byplay of old-fashioned pantomime—geysers of smoke, glowing whiskey bottles, acrobatic scenery, dancing animals, trick furniture—are weapons in an unholy comic war. Father Domineer (Patrick Magee) is God's angry, implacable, English-vowelled drill-sergeant. A monstrous, life-sized Cock (danced by Berto Pasuka) is the mascot of the poor and the passionate, the proud and pitiful. The troops are enrolled by sex rather than by class, rather as though O'Casey had transferred his propaganda allegiance from the Red Prussian to the White Goddess. All the women are good by light of nature. All the men are evil by darkness of doctrine. In the end, the Church wins and drives out of sacred Ireland the priestesses of love and passion and charity.

Staged by George Devine with tireless roust-about zest, the battle is almost always picturesque and comical. O'Casey, like a drunken wordsmith, has forced his gaudy rhetoric on everyone indiscriminately. The red-hot phrases pour endlessly out of his forge, pile up on the stage, and overflow into the auditorium, burning and branding wherever they touch. In the second act, when the women in cheap fancy dress with beckoning eyes and gurgling laughter, flaunting legs and swirling hair, encircle and ensnare the dull, frightened old men, the play blossoms beyond eloquent farce. Joan O'Hara, Etain O'Dell and Pauline Flanagan, with their vivid physical presence and their strange giggling cameraderie, suggest that O'Casey is going to reveal his alternative to the Church. But the moment passes. The smoke blows away. The houses cease their rock and roll. And O'Casey returns to his old-fashioned priest-teasing and kulak-baiting as though he had not noticed the flames of genius which sprouted from his silver old head.

The men are not nearly so well played as the women. Patrick Magee's priest has the right hysterical undertone to his aggressive fanaticism. J. G. Devlin creeps craftily inside the role of the shrivelled Tartuffe of the backwoods. But the rest are little more than competent—perhaps reflecting the indecision of the author about their roles rather than any lack of technique in the actors. There is one more important part played on one note of creaking incoherence by Wilfrid Lawson. This old sea captain may be meant to be an average sensual man caught between fear of the Church and love of Life. It is hard to be sure, so persistently does Mr. Lawson swallow O'Casey's words like a series of suppressed belches.

Most reviews of O'Casey contain the phrase ‘… but, of course, despite these weaknesses, his incomparable language,' etc. I feel that too often the language is the weakness. O'Casey is too eloquent. What his play needs is a few ideas plainly expressed and dramatically worked through. Words are the alcohol of the Irish—though, of course, so is alcohol. If only O'Casey would swear off the thesaurus for a few months he might be able to give birth to that masterpiece which has continually been threatened, but never delivered, since Juno and the Paycock. He might do worse than drop in on The Thrie Estaites to see how anti-clericalism could be turned into poetry in the days when it was dangerous to attempt it.

David Krause (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: An introduction in Cock-A-Doodle Dandy by Sean O'Casey, The Catholic University of America Press, 1991, pp. 1-32.

[In the following excerpt, Krause describes the historical and religious contexts of Cock-a-Doodle Dandy in relation to the comedic themes expressed in the play.]

The ban on laughter stretches back to the day when man wore skins and defended himself with the stone hammer. Many enemies have always surrounded laughter, have tried to banish it from life; and many have perished on the high gallows tree because they laughted at those who had been given power over them. Hell-fire tried to burn it, and the weeping for sins committed did all that was possible to drown it; but laughter came safely through the ordeals of fire and water; came smiling through.1

Comedy is Sean O'Casey's primary dramatic strategy. Looking back over his career, he felt he had used laughter as a weapon against evil or folly. There are often dark or repressive forces at work in his plays, and, although he relies upon his comic vision to expose and deflate them, the destructive forces tend to prevail. It is the hard way of the world. Nevertheless, even in defeat, his comic characters linger on as a positive value, a symbol of the human determination to endure. “A laugh is a great natural stimulator,” he wrote, “a pushful entry into life; and once we can laugh, we can live. It is a hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living.”2

Satiric and ironic laughter, touched off by knockabout comedy and wild fantasy, are his most potent weapons against the pompous and pretentious, against any repressive attitudes that have become too rigid or too sacred. And since sacred notions tend to be inviolable in devout Ireland, even when they have deviated or departed from religious or political ideals, the stage was well set for O'Casey's comic catharsis in 1949 when he wrote yet another controversial play, Cock-a-doodle Dandy. He thought it was his best work. Unfortunately, however, this dark comedy about Irish life at mid-century would not be performed professionally in the Republic of Ireland until 1977 at the Abbey Theatre, where he had achieved his early controversial triumphs. Although his native theatre depended upon regular revivals of his Dublin trilogy—The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), The Plough and the Stars (1926)—for much of its audience and income, the manager and directors of the theatre were pointedly not interested in his later plays.

That Ireland was not ready for O'Casey in 1949, when he was in his seventieth year, only served to illustrate his critical theme, that the country had become a repressed theocracy where, in maid Marion's lament to Robin Adair at the conclusion of the play, “a whisper of love in this place bites away some of th' soul!”3 Perhaps uncasy Ireland had never been fully ready for O'Casey. Even before he decided upon self-exile after 1926, he was, like so many Irish writers, an exile in his own land. With his irreverent comic thrusts he was from the beginning a marked man, full of Swiftian rage or what his friend Jim Larkin (the fiery labor leader of the 1913 General Strike, in which O'Casey took part) had called “divine discontent” over the repressed conditions of life in Ireland. Ironically, that very discontent often became the catalyst for many significant works of Irish literature.

In this respect O'Casey was no different from the alienated Yeats and Joyce; Yeats, the isolated poet who had written about malicious Dublin in “The People” in 1919:

The daily spite of this unmannerly town
Where who has served the most is most defamed.(4)

And the impious Joyce, who, in his “Gas from a Burner” in 1902, had struck the same note of scorn for Ireland's shameful treatment of her artists and leaders:

This lovely land that always sent
Her writers and artists into banishment
And in a spirit of Irish fun
Betrayed her own leaders, one by one.(5)

In an ironic reversal, the people who rioted in the Abbey Theatre in 1926 against The Plough and the Stars were convinced that O'Casey had betrayed Ireland. The open and hidden protests against most of his plays arose because he was thought to be disrespectful, even blasphemous, toward Kathleen ni Houlihan's two most sacred cows (or sows, as Joyce preferred to call them): Irish Catholicism and Nationalism. The cleverly irreverent Joyce had also aimed at these vulnerable targets in his 1902 blast:

O Ireland my first and only love
Where Christ and Caesar are hand in glove!
O lovely land where the shamrock grows
(Allow me, ladies, to blow my nose)

O'Casey obviously shared this comic irreverence, but contrary to what the outraged defenders of Kathleen ni Houlihan believed, his own nose-blow or lack of respect did not mean he was opposed to the religious and political faith of the majority of his countrymen and women. It was usually the reprehensible means, not the idealistic ends, that troubled him, and his characters. They were suspicious of abstract slogans of martyrdom. In Juno, for example, when Johnny Boyle, who lost an arm fighting for the I.R.A. in the Civil War, insists that he would sacrifice himself again for his country because “a principle's principle,” his mother Juno replies quietly:

Ah, you lost your best principle, me boy, when you lost your arm; them's the only sort o' principles that's any good to a workin' man.6

Therefore O'Casey stood for a democratic workers' republic for Ireland, not a nationalist theocracy. And he openly rejected, mocked in his plays, the intolerance of sectarian Protestants as well as Catholics. It was the fanatical or unthinking devotion to religious or political causes that provoked his comic profanations. He deflated what he felt were blatant departures from essential dogma and idealism, the blind acceptance of holy patriotism and puritanism, which so often obsessed many of the die-hard nationalists and Jansenist clergy.

O'Casey frequently and consistently disavowed any imputation of anti-Catholicism, claiming instead that he was anti-clerical. The distinction is commonly accepted in continental Europe, where many Catholics themselves oppose the influence of the clergy in political or secular affairs. In Ireland, however, that distinction was often regarded as spurious, and those who dared to criticize the clergy were typically accused of hostility to the Catholic faith. …

It was partly the injustice and savagery of his Dublin critics that contributed to his decision to leave Ireland in 1926; this theme of alienation and exile became the crucial issue in his two 1949 works, Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well and Cock-a-doodle Dandy. The begrudging and sneering malice of Dublin would have destroyed him if he had remained in that city where there were, from a literary point of view, too many dogs and too few bones; where, as Yeats believed and Goethe had said earlier, the pack of hounds would always bring down the noble stag.

At the end of A Portrait, Joyce's autobiographical Stephen Dedalus declares a manifesto justifying his alienation and exile from Ireland:

I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church; and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.7

At the beginning of the final chapter of Inishfallen, O'Casey's autobiographical Sean O'Casside declares his parallel manifesto of alienation and exile from Ireland:

It was time for Sean to go. He had had enough of it. He would be no more of an exile in another land than he was in his own. He was a voluntary and settled exile from every creed, from every party, and from every literary clique, fanning themselves into silence with unmitigated praise of each other in the most select corners of the city's highways and byebye-ways. He would stay no longer to view life through a stained-glass window, a Sinn Fein spy-glass, from a prie-dieu, or through the thigh bone of a hare.8

Nevertheless, Joyce and O'Casey, in spite of their shared declaration of non serviam, left Ireland only in order to be more Irish; in order to be able to write more freely, more critically and more comically, about life in that country which inspired their constant love and frustration. Yeats, who never went into exile but wisely left the country often for periodic and necessary escapes, made it an artistic triumvirate of loving and hating Irishmen when he said in his poem “Meditations in Time of Civil War” (1923) about Irishmen who were killing Irishmen in the name of freedom:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love.(9)

In spite of this bitter tone, anyone who reads the poetry of Yeats, the fiction of Joyce, or the drama of O'Casey will find as much substance in the love for as well as the enmities toward Ireland. And if in their symbolic as well as literal exile they all resorted to Celtic cunning, they never took refuge in silence, despite Joyce's claim. They never abandoned their best weapons: powerful and poetic words. Yeats as the grand myth-maker wrote many of the finest poems of the twentieth century; but Yeats the “founder” and protector of literary and theatrical organizations could be olympian in his wrath, and he defended his role as leader by proclaiming: “I was the spokesman because I was born arrogant and had learnt an artist's arrogance—‘Not what you want but what we want.’”10

Joyce as the aloof artificer transformed his enmities into comedies, lyric and Homeric, in his epiphanizations of Dublin; but Joyce the exiled Irishman, who had assumed the persona of an isolated and betrayed artist in Trieste, once offered up this comic malediction in the form of a black prayer he sent to his brother Stanislaus in 1905:

O. Vague Something behind everything.

For the love of the Lord Christ change my curse-o'-God state of affairs.

Give me for Christ's sake a pen and an ink-bottle and some peace of mind, and then, by the crucified Jaysus, if I don't sharpen that little pen and dip it into fermented ink and write tiny little sentences about the people who betrayed me, send me to hell. After all, there are many ways of betraying people. It wasn't only the Galilean suffered that. Whoever the hell you are, I inform you that this is a poor comedy you expect me to play and I'm damned to hell if I'll play it for you.11

In a similar dark mood, O'Casey assumed the persona of an isolated and betrayed Irishman in the wilderness of Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire, where he was living in 1931, before he later moved to Devon. In an attempt to be a peacemaker, Bernard Shaw's wife Charlotte had written urging him not to become involved in literary conflicts: “And oh! dear Sean, don't be too belligerent!” He replied with a flourish of controlled rage, calling upon God to damn him if ever he put aside his avenging sword and retreated from battle:

God be my judge that I hate fighting. If I be damned for anything, I shall be damned for keeping the two-edged sword of thought tight in its scabbard when it should be searching the bowels of knaves and fools. I assure you, I shrink from battle, and never advance into a fight unless I am driven into it.12

Throughout a stormy career his fierce integrity often drove him into verbal battle and he never shrank from a challenge. So God never had cause to damn him on this account. Anyone who would understand O'Casey's controversial love-hate relationship with Ireland might consider how he used his two-edged sword of tragicomedy to search the bowels of knaves and fools in Cock-a-doodle Dandy; how he dramatized a Manichean struggle between the forces of repression and the forces of liberation.

The knaves and fools and their joyful opponents in Cock-a-doodle Dandy live in the Irish village of Nyadnanave, which means, in Gaelic, Nest of Saints and also includes the ironic pun, Nest of Knaves. The apocalyptic Cock and his rebellious young cohorts are the true saints, while the mean-spirited Father Domineer and his crawthumping crew are the pseudosaints. Since the priestly and political figures repress and exploit the young people in the town, these rigid authority figures become the objects of O'Casey's broad range of farcical satire. In his essay on the therapeutic nature of laughter, he described his comic purpose:

Laughter tends to mock the pompous and the pretentious; all man's boastful gadding about, all his petty pomps, his hoary customs, his wornout creeds, changing the glitter of them into the dullest hue of lead. The bigger the subject, the sharper the laugh. No one can escape it; not the grave judge in his robe and threatening wig; the parson and his saw; the general full of his sword and his medals; the palled prelate, tripping about, a blessing in one hand, a curse in the other; the politician carrying his magic wand of Wendy windy words; they all fear laughter, for the quiet laugh or the loud one upends them, strips them of pretense, and leaves them naked to enemy and friend.13

O'Casey here is moving in the recognizable tradition of comic exposure that goes back to Aristophanes and Plautus, Shakespeare and Jonson, Molière and Dickens. In the liberating comedy of all these writers, pompous and pretentious authorities who torment their people, in minor as well as major hypocrisies and deceits, are prime targets for scornful or subversive laughter. Sometimes the repressive figures are self-appointed guardians of morality, like the puritanical Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who is mocked and punished for his folly; his sanctimonious manner is exposed by Sir Toby's classic speech that anticipates the free spirit of O'Casey's play and rings the rallying cry for all comic Dionysians: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?”

Even in lesser-known examples of impious comedy there are significant precursors of O'Casey's farcical laughter. For example, writing about the medieval dramatist, the Wakefield Master, E. K. Chambers calls his most extravagant work, The Second Shepherds' Play (c. 1475), “an astonishing parody of the Nativity itself,” where a stolen sheep is hidden under a peasant woman's skirt for a pretended pregnancy to fool the authorities with a spoof of the sacred birth. And Chambers adds: “There is no tenderness about him, and no impulse to devotion. He is a realist, even more than his contemporary York, a satirist with a hard outlook upon a hard age, in which wrong triumphs over right, but he is saved by an abundant sense of humour.”14 Chambers could well have been describing O'Casey (and his impious Cock) as the satirist with a hard and realistic outlook on a hard time when wrong was triumphing over right, but with the saving grace of an abundant humor.

Another striking parallel can be found in the modern revival of Sir David Lyndsay's Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estates (1540), which was directed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1948 by Tyrone Guthrie, who was later to direct the world premiere of O'Casey's next dark comedy, The Bishop's Bonfire, in Dublin in 1955. The following comment from a review of Guthrie's production of the Lyndsay play might easily have referred to O'Casey's Cock, which was a work-in-progress in 1948: “The Three Estates is half morality and half political satire and wholly a piece of angry, inspired knockabout. It preceded the Scottish Reformation by some twenty years and so angered the clergy that they ordered the manuscript to be burned by the public executioner.”15 O'Casey apparently knew the Lyndsay play and praised its irreverent comedy in his essay “The Power of Laughter” when he insisted that God must have a fine sense of humor, referring to “David Lyndsay, the Scottish poet of the sixteenth century, who saw God near breaking his sides laughing at a rogue of an old woman who got past the indignant St. Peter by the use of her ready and tricky tongue.”16

Since there was no likelihood of a Reformation in Catholic Ireland, Cock-a-doodle Dandy was simply ignored by the Irish for twenty-eight years. Nineteen years earlier, however, in 1930, an irate mob of nationalists performed the public executioner's function by burning reels of the film version of Juno and the Paycock in a Limerick street. A riot in the Abbey Theatre in 1926 against The Plough and the Stars had been provoked by Irish nationalists, some of whom still condemn it today, for presenting an ironic and tragicomic view of the 1916 Easter Rising. O'Casey was not against the Rising; he was for the innocent victims of military warfare. And by the 1940s he believed there were still many innocent victims—of psychological warfare and of religious and cultural repression. He felt that modern Ireland needed a reformation and liberalization, and he was almost alone in taking this heretical stand. Although he was roundly castigated for his “anti-Irish” attitude over the years and was warned by the Irish drama reviewers that his later plays were gross exaggerations, that he was “out of touch” with life in Ireland, at least two courageous writers, Sean O'Faolain and Frank O'Connor, agreed with him. They probably disagreed with him, and with each other, on all other matters, but they did agree about the dangerous conditions of religious repression and cultural deprivation. If they didn't incur the violent abuse that was hurled at O'Casey—they did receive some of it—probably it was because they protested but remained in Ireland, whereas he was living in England and writing, in the popular view, as an outsider, an exiled renegade who couldn't be believed or trusted.

In 1940 O'Faolain exposed the cultural wasteland of literary Dublin in terms that were much more invidious than anything O'Casey had said or would say in the future. After quoting Shaw's view of Dublin life in his Preface to Immaturity—“A certain flippant, futile derision and belittlement that confuses the noble and serious with the base and ludicrous seems to me peculiar to Dublin”—O'Faolain objected that “Shaw is too kind”; he went on to condemn the backbiting “rats” of Dublin in these merciless terms: “No sooner does any man attempt, or achieve, here, anything fine than the rats begin to emerge from the sewers, bringing with them a skunk-like stench of envy and hatred, worse than the drip of a broken drain.”17 These were the same destructive rats, he added, who opposed Yeats: “Yeats had to fight or ignore just the same kind of thing, and a great part of his hauteur, and aloofness, and self-imposed remoteness, was a defence against it and the mark of his contempt for it. The tragedy of Yeats was that he was too arrogant—he was driven into arrogance—ever to be accepted as a national poet. It was Dublin that drove him into that aloofness.”18 It could also be said that the envy and hatred of malicious Dublin had driven Joyce and O'Casey into arrogance, exile, and cunning. Joyce was not the national novelist, O'Casey was not the national dramatist.

Some years later in 1951 O'Faolain became involved in a bitter controversy with the bishop of Galway, who, sounding something like O'Casey's Father Domineer, had launched an attack against such “venomous and rancorous” periodicals as the Irish Times and The Bell for criticizing the clergy. The devout O'Faolain replied that he was neither venomous nor anti-Catholic if he sometimes felt duty bound to criticize repressive clerical behavior; that, according to His Lordship, clerical Ireland was not a country for writers, not even Catholic writers:

Could a Graham Greene live here? A Mauriac, a Bernanos, a Peguy, a Mounier, a Pierre Emmanuel? Think of the things that Bernanos said about the Church in his Brazilian Diary! Which, by the way, was partially published in the Jesuit periodical The Month—in England. Can one imagine it appearing in The Irish Monthly? Or think of Les Grandes Cimitières sous la lune! The thing is patent. Writers need a generous atmosphere to grow in. His Lordship is certainly helping to create it! I'm afraid all His Lordship wants is abject compliance.19

Could an O'Casey live there? Clerical Ireland at mid-century was not ready for writers. In 1942 Frank O'Connor exposed the political and religious wasteland, the conditions of vulgarity, greed, and censorship that characterized Ireland in the 1930s and 40s when he wrote: “Every year that has passed, particularly since de Valera's rise to power, has strengthened the grip of the gombeen man, of the religious secret societies like the Knights of Columbanus, of the illiterate censorship. … The significant fact about it is that there is no idealistic opposition which would enable us to measure the extent of the damage.”20 O'Casey was there in 1949 measuring the damage with idealism and comedy in his new play, which clerical Ireland conveniently ignored. And it was precisely those three factors that O'Connor identified which stood out as the main enemies of the people in the Cock: the materialistic and exploiting local gombeen men, like Michael Marthraun and Sailor Mahan; these two also as members of the secret Knights of Columbanus and their terrorizing vigilantism, whipped up by Jansenist priests like Father Domineer and superstitious old frauds like Shanaar; and the Censorship of Publications Act, which not only banned important works of literature, many by Irish writers, but created a sterile atmosphere of cultural isolation throughout the country. And apart from the official censorship, every devout librarian and cautious bookseller in the land became an unofficial censor.

Why had O'Connor and O'Casey associated those three factors of economic, religious, and political pressure with de Valera's Ireland? Dev was a highly principled and honorable leader, but with his old-fashioned and myopic view of Ireland as an agricultural and Gaelic little island protected from the corrupt world outside, he did little to prevent those pressure groups from dominating and tyrannizing the country. He actually aided and encouraged them. As if to confirm O'Connor's accusation, in 1943 de Valera as Taoiseach (prime minister) made his famous speech to the Irish people on St. Patrick's Day, defining his pipe dream of an idyllic land of frugal and happy peasants:

That Ireland which we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit; a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age.21

This well-meaning but unrealistic call for a retreat into an innocent and nonexistent past was unrelated to the practical problems of survival in modern Ireland, particularly peasant survival at a time when people were leaving the unproductive life on the land, when emigration to England and elsewhere was rising at an alarming rate. Ironically, only a year before Dev's speech, Patrick Kavanagh had published The Great Hunger, his great anti-pastoral poem which presents a withering portrait of the hardship and sterility of Irish peasant life, a tragic vision that makes a mockery of Dev's sentimental dream. Kavanagh's anti-heroic Maguire finds life too painfully frugal and without a single redeeming comfort. In a recent study of modern Ireland, Terence Brown makes this pointed observation: “Kavanagh's poem is an outraged cry of anger, an eloquently bleak riposte from the heart of the rural world to all those polemicists, writers and demagogues who in de Valera's Ireland sought to venerate the countryman's life from the study or political platform.”22 Throughout his career Kavanagh tried to balance his anger with a positive faith in an unrepressed Ireland, and more recently the poet Brendan Kennelly, in assessing Kavanagh's life, might have been describing the O'Casey of the Cock when he wrote: “Kavanagh is a believer. He believed in Kavanagh's God—not the Irish God of fear, mindless religiosity, money and respectability, but a gay, creative God who appreciates man's laughter and listens to the infinite echoes of ‘love's terrible need.’”23

Again one hears O'Casey's warning about that Irish “fear,” that “mindless religiosity,” that worship of “money and respectability,” all of them opposed by the Cock's spirit of gaiety, laughter, and love. Terence Brown attributes that overriding fear to constant pressure by Irish Vigilance Societies—the Dominican Order's Irish Vigilance Association and the Catholic Truth Society—which led to the passing of the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929: “It might reasonably have been feared that such bodies, in a country where the mass of the population was encouraged by the Church to observe a peculiarly repressive sexual code, would press for a censorship policy expressing not literary and aesthetic but strict Catholic moral values.” It was this anti-literary and rigidly moralistic censorship that largely inspired O'Casey's play and that led to Sean O'Faolain's lament about “the difficulties of writing in a country where the policeman and the priest are in a perpetual glow of satisfaction.”

In his own unique and comically fantastic beast fable, O'Casey tried to wipe that intimidating glow of satisfaction away from the policeman and priest in the symbolic village of Nyadnanave. It was appropriate that he dedicated his mythic extravaganza to that master of comic fantasy, James Stephens, “the jesting poet with a radiant star in's coxcomb.” Unfortunately, the ailing Stephens, who was the same age as O'Casey, was to die in 1950, and O'Casey had to carry on without that radiant star for fourteen more years. …

Red bird of March, begin to crow!
Up with the neck and clap the wing,
Red cock, and crow!(24)

In the special introduction he wrote for a production of his play, O'Casey invoked the red cock from Yeats's play The Dreaming of the Bones, a cock that symbolizes the dawn of a dark day in Irish history. The day will eventually darken at the end of O'Casey's comedy, but first his own enchanted cock emerges as “the joyful, active spirit of life as it weaves a way through the Irish scene.”25 The merry and mischievous cock, who also has “the look of a cynical jester,” is a dancing emblem of the liberated imagination, “the comic imagination as in The Frogs; the sad imagination as in The Dream Play.26 Then O'Casey expands the vital imagination beyond the plays of Aristophanes and Strindberg: “Blake thought imagination to be the soul; Shaw thought it to be the Holy Ghost, and, perhaps, they weren't far out; for it is the most beautiful part of life whether it be on its knees in prayer or gallivanting about with a girl.”27

It is typical of O'Casey to relate the imagination finally to ordinary human activities—like those Joycean epiphanies—but since common needs like prayer and love have lost their vitality in the repressed atmosphere of Nyadnanave, the Dandy Cock must seize the day and lead the merry dance toward liberation. O'Casey had often shown an affinity for the common creatures of the beast-fable tradition, and he turned to them as his instinctive emblems of commitment, perhaps because they lacked the calculated deceit of human beings. In his first book of essays he had adopted the persona of a “flying wasp,”28 who acts as an alert gadfly to sting the slumbering conscience of the theatrical world; and in his second collection, he became the “green crow,”29 whose sharp caw-caw helps to keep the family of man and woman awake to the infinite possibilities of a better and richer life.

Now his human-sized comic Cock will dance and show the way, and its awakening “cock-a-doodle-doo” will rever-berate with uninhibited exuberance and launch the celebration of what might have been another brave new dawn; but that will change utterly at the end of the play. In his fantastic appearances the Cock suggests the bird-like Ariel of air and fire whose magical tricks served an exiled Prospero, and now an exiled O'Casey, as this bright little song announces the bold chanticleer in The Tempest (I, ii):

Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of the strutting chanticleer
Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow.

Then the cohorts of the Cock, led by Robin Adair, the trusty Messenger, with his beloved Marion the maid, add implications of the folk tradition of the outlaw Robin Hood to the merriment, taking from the rich bog owner and giving to the poor peasants. Robin also assumes the mantle of a Robin Goodfellow or Puck, who with the Cock shows what fools these puritanical mortals are in Nyadnanave. Only the Cock and Robin and the three young women are touched by O'Casey's version of the Holy Ghost.

When the opposing forces, the frightened puritans, go forth to fight the shape-changing Cock, they identify him as a dangerous bird in various tongues: “Gallus” (Latin), “Le Coq” (French), “Kyleloch” (Gaelic). Old Shanaar, that “Latin-lustrous oul' cod of a prayer-blower,” also tries to spout his “killakee” or bog-Latin at the “cockalorum,” a slang term referring to any playfully strutting or cocky young fellow, but here invoked as an expression of abuse aimed at an evil spirit. O'Casey is relying upon the superstitious Irish tales in which devils are supposed to have taken possession of human beings and made them commit acts of violence, like those horrors fabricated by Shanaar, where only a priest like Father Domineer, armed with a barrage of bog-Latin, as well as bell, book, and candle, can exorcize the “demonological disturbances.” There is something satirically reminiscent of Chaucer in these exorcizing episodes. Furthermore, the Oxford English Dictionary records some comic “cockalorum” references in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century folk literature that suggest that in the playful popular imagination, the cock can indeed be associated with a merry but harmless demon, as in the “Witches' Frolic,” a singing and leapfrog dancing folk game with the lines,

Now away! and away without delay,
Hey Cockalorum, my Broomstick gay!

O'Casey's dancing Cock is devilishly clever as he leaps about as if he were riding a magic broomstick, and he knows the women are his allies. From the start, Marthraun is convinced that his young daughter Loreleen, recently returned from “pagan” England, is possessed by the devil, and so are the other women, due to their association with the “demon” Cock. If the women are truly possessed, however, it is by a natural desire for freedom and love, which are denied by the nay-saying Nyadnanaves. The three young women, Loreleen, Marthraun's second wife Lorna, and Marion, are in no mood to submit to threats, for they spring from an honorable tradition of strong-willed and sexually alert Irish women: the passionate Deirdre of Celtic mythology; the love-starved peasant girls of Brian Merriman's eighteenth-century Midnight Court; and in modern times, Joyce's earthy and sensual Molly Bloom and Yeats's sexually rebellious Crazy Jane. Nevertheless, in spite of the Cock's comic subversion in their behalf, the women of Nyadnanave will have to lose their fight in the end, because O'Casey refused to oversimplify or sweeten their unhappy fate. And, perhaps, because he believed that in 1949, Jansenist Ireland was not ready for liberated women—or men.

Led by the thou-shalt-not warnings of Father Domineer, the less-than-valiant Knights of Columbanus gain a hollow victory at the final curtain since they have been thoroughly discredited. The despairing women have gone away in symbolic exile, soon to be followed by Robin Adair; the paralyzed Julia has come back from Lourdes without a cure; Sailor Mahan has been rebuked for his compassion in trying to help the beaten Loreleen; Marthraun is left with the prospect of a lonely and barren life; and this narrow little world now belongs to a hard priest and his trio of grotesque crawthumpers, Shanaar and One-Eyed Larry and the Bellman. Absurdly, these three villainous clowns have won, though there is no longer any impulse toward laughter, even at their expense, in this place that “bites away some of the soul.”

Wild laughter, however, consistently provides the sustaining energy of this dark comedy. First of all, the play is characterized by one of O'Casey's patented comic trademarks, the knockabout flytings between Marthraun and Mahan, those ridiculously fierce and cowardly lions, those devious word fighters, whose roar is reminiscent of those arguing “butties” Boyle and Joxer in Juno, Fluther and the Covey, the Covey and Uncle Peter in The Plough; and all of whom owe their boisterous clowning to the Plautine and Shakespearean braggart-warrior and parasite-slave duets. What O'Casey adds to this richly farcical tradition is a double view of his knock-about clowns, whose lively camaraderie is tainted but not quite destroyed by their blatant selfishness and culpability. They entertain us hugely even though we distrust them, particularly someone like the greedy and hypocritically pious Marthraun. The more attractive and salty Sailor Mahan may share in the greed, but he is wise enough to be skeptical about the crawthumpers, and his heart is in the right place during the mock battle between good and evil.

Even the outright comic villains are drawn with such strikingly colorful strokes that the religious quackery of old Shanaar, for example, creates a spectacle of hilarious confusion. The humbug-ridden Shanaar is not clever enough to be duplicitous, but with his supernatural tales, pseudo piety and exorcizing bog-Latin, he emerges as one of O'Casey's most entertainingly satirized clowns. A remarkable portrait of flam-boyant religious folly, his similarly exposed counterparts can readily be found in the works of Jonson, Molière and Dickens.

Continuing to stir the pot with comic chaos, O'Casey brings on the pompous and equivocating Porter, a bemused petty official who in various disguises appears in many of the pastoral comedies. With much verbal sidestepping he tries to explain the bullet holes in Marthraun's new tall hat, for the local police in their frantic hunt for the “demon” Cock are spraying the countryside with rifle shot. This accident calls for aid from the bumbling Dogberry of a Police Sergeant, who adds further confusion with his roundabout tale of how the hat was hit because “there was the demonizing Cock changin' himself into a silken glossified tall hat!”

In this burlesque treatment of the tall hat, O'Casey aimed his satire at the stilted masquerade of the new bourgeois Irish politicians. As the local councillor, manipulating entrepreneur, and Knight of Columbanus, Marthraun needs his formal hat for an audience with the tall-hatted president of Ireland. Himself a proud wearer of the workingman's cloth cap, O'Casey, paraphrasing Yeats in a satiric way, says “the terrible beauty of the tall-hat is born to Ireland.”30 He sees men like Marthraun, the Catholic bourgeois capitalist, as the new power in the country—the “devalerian” aristocracy of the tall hat. He echoes Joyce's warning that “Christ and Caesar are hand in glove” when he notes the alliance between the “purple biretta” of the Church and the “tall-hat” of the politicians: “A Terrible Beauty Is Borneo.”

To mock this alliance of church and state, and to ridicule the puritanical apes of Nyadnanave who represent it, the Cock resorts to magic tricks, taking the shape of a tall hat or a beautiful woman. He makes whiskey bottles go dry or glow red hot; he imitates cuckoos and corncrakes; he makes chairs and flagpoles and houses collapse; he creates a powerful wind that blows off men's trousers; he brings down thunder and lightning; he casts all sorts of mischievous spells on holy objects, and on the men who oppose the vital way of life he represents. These merry pranks provoke a series of counterattacks, abetted by the absurd Shanaar and the petty villainy of One-Eyed Larry and the Bellman, those comic toadies of Father Domineer.

Except for the ailing Julia, Father Domineer is the only non-comic character in the play. As a one-dimensional symbol of authority and repression, he is the most transparent and least interesting person in Nyadnanave. A cardboard figure, there is no complexity or consciousness of cruelty in him, and his enraged killing of the lorry driver at the end of the second scene seems too sudden, too extreme. O'Casey apparently created him out of anger rather than artistry. Although he insisted that he had based Domineer on what he had read about an actual case of a parish priest in an Irish town who had struck and accidentally killed a man,31 a newspaper account was in this instance not an adequate source for a successful characterization.

When Robert Lewis was originally planning to produce the play in 1950, he told O'Casey that the scene of the killing “bothered” him and should be softened: “… it is not necessary to have Domineer actually strike the lorry driver. He can instead, in his anger viciously grab the driver by the arm and pull him to him in the scuffle, the driver can lose his foothold and fall to the ground, striking his head severely and the rest follow precisely as you have written it.”32 O'Casey replied that he had written the scene exactly as it had occurred in life, but he agreed with Lewis's suggestion that it should be played “less brutally.”33

When Tomas MacAnna finally produced the play at the Abbey Theatre in 1977, he decided to omit the episode of the killing entirely, not only because it was too brutal but because he believed “it didn't have anything to do with the rest of the play.”34 Since it was an extremely rare and untypical occurrence, Ireland, with some justification, was not ready to see a priest kill a man, even accidentally, on an Irish stage. This objection should be understandable in a country where several centuries earlier priests had been forbidden by British authorities to say Mass in public, had been hounded and driven underground, and in some instances had been brutally slain. Furthermore, even without the killing, Father Domineer condemns himself sufficiently by his savage treatment of Loreleen; his virulent attacks against innocent dancing and all forms of joy and free expression; his ruthless censorship and the destruction of a copy of Joyce's Ulysses and a book about Voltaire; and finally by his overall severe and unchristian behavior.

Nevertheless, O'Casey did have another valid target in mind, in Father Domineer's hysterical exorcism activities in the third scene, when he resorts to bell, book, and candle, bog-Latin, and vindictive ranting to purge the house of its evil influences. After Frank Carney's The Righteous Are Bold opened at the Abbey Theatre on 29 July 1946 and ran to packed houses for an unprecedented sixteen weeks, O'Casey, along with only a few enlightened reviewers in The Bell and the Irish Times, felt a dangerous concession had been made to sensational religiosity, which had corrupted the National Theatre and would thereafter make it difficult to attract audiences to good plays. O'Casey often mentioned this unfortunate situation in his letters. Carney's play is about a young Irish girl who is possessed by devils, which cause her to have mad fits and smash holy statues, until the evil spirits are exorcized by a priest. O'Casey called it bad religion as well as bad drama, “a travesty of the Catholic Faith and little more than ‘pietistic hokum.”’35 It should be apparent, therefore, that he intended the chaotic exorcism episode in the third scene to be a scathing parody of Carney's play and the Irish susceptibility for such religious claptrap.36

In the years ahead O'Casey must have felt the need to dramatize the sharp distinction between what he believed to be the genuine practice of the Catholic faith and the misleading Jansenist version fostered by some of the Irish clergy, for he created two attractive and noble young priests in his last two full-length plays, The Bishop's Bonfire (1955) and The Drums of Father Ned (1960). Again the setting is rural Ireland and in the first play, Father Boheroe, the local curate, urges his parishoners to practice their faith with abiding love and tolerance; much to the displeasure of his stiff-necked superior, the canon, he tells them that “merriment may be a way of worship.” It is the O'Casey credo. Father Ned never appears in The Drums, but as its guiding spirit he is often heard off-stage beating his drum for a festival to celebrate the love of God and man and woman in one of O'Casey's brightest and happiest comedies.

Ironically and predictably, perhaps, unhappy situations arose around both plays. When Tyrone Guthrie directed Cyril Cusack's world premiere production of The Bishop's Bonfire in Dublin in 1955, the visiting London critics were on the whole pleased by what they saw, but the Dublin critics were unamused. As a typical example, the review in de Valera's Irish Press called it “a grievous disappointment,” protesting that O'Casey was “completely out of touch with modern Irish life and thought.”37 Thereafter, however, as a curious illustration of how life sometimes illustrates art, Irish politicans and priests continued the dispute as if they were determined to act like characters in an O'Casey play and thereby prove how closely he really was in touch with Irish life.

First, the Irish Customs authorities, with an obvious prod from their political bosses but without any explanation, mysteriously banned O'Casey's Green Crow in 1956, the collection of essays and stories in which, among many other divertisements, he defended himself from attack by his Irish critics. After a year of this “unofficial” censorship, again without any explanation, the book was finally released for sale in Ireland in 1957. Then, as if not wanting to be left out of the censor-O'Casey-shenanigans, in 1958 the archbishop of Dublin played his role by “unofficially” banning The Drums of Father Ned. Although the play had been accepted for the Dublin Theatre Festival, along with a dramatization of Joyce's Ulysses and three mime plays by Samuel Beckett, the archbishop, who had of course not read O'Casey's light-hearted and pro-clerical comedy, refused to open the Festival with the traditional Mass. It was His Lordship's way of saying, indirectly, that a play by O'Casey was not acceptable. Frightened by this unmistakable sign of displeasure in a high place, all interested parties promptly found reasons for retiring from the theatre project. In devious ways the O'Casey and Joyce plays were dropped, and Beckett withdrew his plays in protest. It seemed as if Ireland were determined to act out an epilogue on censorship for Cock-a-doodle Dandy.

In 1949 O'Casey's play had predicted that Ireland was becoming emotionally and culturally repressed as a result of clerical and political domination. Almost thirty years later, in 1978, John Healy, the respected columnist and political reporter of the Irish Times, looking back over modern Irish history, indicated how prophetic O'Casey had been: “The 50s were not a great time in Dublin. It was the era when ‘Catholic Mother of Ten' set the moral tone of the country. We blacklisted international performers on the say so of Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy—we picketed Eastern bloc footballers and Catholicism nearly choked the life out of Christianity.”38

O'Casey's quarrel with the country he loved came down to this crucial point: he believed that Irish “Catholicism [had] nearly choked the life out of Christianity.” With merry and dark laughter, he had dramatized precisely this tragic possibility in the Cock. He concluded his essay on laughter with this appropriate prayer:

Let us pray: Oh, Lord, give us a sense of humor with courage to manifest it forth, so that we may laugh to shame the pomps, the vanities, the sense of self-importance of the Big Fellows that the world sometimes sends among us, and who try to take our peace away. Amen.39

Notes

  1. Sean O'Casey, “The Power of Laughter: Weapon Against Evil,” in The Green Crow (New York: Braziller, 1956), 227. Originally published in Saturday Night (Toronto) [Vol. 69, No.1], 3 October 1953.

  2. Ibid., 226.

  3. See Marion's speech, scene III, p. 115.

  4. W. B. Yeats, The Poems: A New Edition, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Macmillan, 1983), 150.

  5. The Critical Writings of James Joyce, ed. Ellsworth Mason and Richard Ellmann (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 243.

  6. Sean O'Casey, Collected Plays, Vol. I (London: Macmillan, 1949), 31.

  7. James Joyce, A Portrait, 246-47.

  8. Sean O'Casey, Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 370. See also Yeats's “The Collar-bone of a Hare,” The Poems, 136.

  9. W. B. Yeats, The Poems, 205.

  10. W. B. Yeats, On the Boiler (1939), in Selected Prose (London: Macmillan, 1964), 261.

  11. Herbert Gorman, James Joyce (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1941), 144.

  12. Letters I (New York: Macmillan, 1975), 433.

  13. The Green Crow, 227.

  14. E. K. Chambers, “Medieval Drama,” English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945), 37.

  15. The Times (London), 26 August 1948.

  16. The Green Crow, 230.

  17. Sean O'Faolain, An Irish Journey (London: Longmans, Green, 1940), 299.

  18. Ibid., 299.

  19. Sean O'Faolain, “The Bishop of Galway and ‘The Bell,’” The Bell, September 1951.

  20. Frank O'Connor, “The Future of Irish Literature,” Horizon, January 1942.

  21. Irish Press, 18 March 1943.

  22. Terence Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922-79 (London: Fontana, 1981), 187.

  23. Brendan Kennelly, “Patrick's Pilgrimage,” Irish Times, 27 January 1979.

  24. Sean O'Casey, “Cockadoodle Doo” (1958), in Blasts and Benedictions, ed. Ronald Ayling (London: Macmillan, 1967), 144. Probably working from memory, O'Casey used a slight variation of these lines from Yeats's Dreaming of the Bones (1919), Collected Plays (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 279. The article “Cockadoodle Doo” was first published as “O'Casey's Credo” in the New York Times, 9 November 1958, intended as an introduction to the New York premiere of the Cock in an off-Broadway production at the Carnegie Hall Playhouse on 12 November 1958, directed by Philip Burton.

  25. Ibid., 144.

  26. Ibid., 143.

  27. Ibid., 143.

  28. Sean O'Casey, The Flying Wasp (London: Macmillan, 1937) “A Laughing Look-over of What Has Been Said About the Things of the Theatre By the English Dramatic Critics, With Many Merry and Amusing Comments Thereon, With Some Shrewd Remarks By the Author on the Wise, Delicious, and Dignified Tendencies in the Theatre of Today.”

  29. Sean O'Casey, The Green Crow (1956), invokes the spirit of Chaucer's “The Parliament of Foules” and adds: “Some Latin writer once said, ‘If a crow would feed in quiet, it would have more meat.’ A thing this Green Crow could never do: it had always, and has still, to speak and speak while it seeks and finds its food, and so has had less meat than it might have had if only it had kept its big beak shut.” (Foreword, xiv)

  30. See the chapter “A Terrible Beauty is Borneo,” in Inishfallen, 200-222.

  31. For an account of the killing, see Letters II, 504.

  32. Ibid., 728.

  33. Ibid., 730.

  34. MacAnna made this comment in 1977 to Robert Lowery, editor of the Irish Literary Supplement. MacAnna's production of the play opened at the Abbey Theatre on 11 August 1977.

  35. Letters II, 414, 514.

  36. For an illuminating discussion of the connection between the Carney and O'Casey plays, see Christopher Murray's “Two More Allusions in Cock-a-doodle Dandy,Sean O'Casey Review 4 (Fall 1977).

  37. O'Casey quotes this passage in his defense of his play, “Bonfire under a Black Sun,” in The Green Crow, 131.

  38. John Healy, “News Focus,” Irish Times, 28 June 1978.

  39. The Green Crow, 232.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1591

Ayling, Robert. “Sean O'Casey and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.” In Sean O'Casey: Centenary Essays, edited by David Krause and Robert G. Lowery, pp. 13-40. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1980.

Attributes the enthusiastic popular reception of O'Casey's early plays to his artistic collaboration with the directorate at the Abbey Theatre.

———. “‘Two Words for Women’: A Reassessment of O'Casey's Heroines.” In Woman in Irish Legend, Life and Literature, edited by S. F. Gallagher, pp. 91-114. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1983.

Reviews the critical tradition with respect to O'Casey's treatment of women in his work, whom he portrays as life-enhancing agents who bear his anti-war message.

Benstock, Bernard. “The O'Casey Touch.” In Sean O'Casey, pp. 89-121. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1970.

Analyzes various dramatic techniques and aspects of stagecraft in O'Casey's later plays, beginning with The Silver Tassie.

———. Paycocks and Others: Sean O'Casey's World. New York: Harper and Row, 1976, 318 p.

Identifies general traits of typical characters that populate O'Casey's plays.

Greaves, C. Desmond. Sean O'Casey, Politics & Art. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979, 206 p.

Investigates the evolution of O'Casey's politics in terms of corresponding changes in his attitudes about dramatic art.

Hamburger, Miak. “Anti-Illusionism and the Use of Song in the Early Plays of Sean O'Casey.” In O'Casey Annual No. 2, edited by Robert G. Lowery, pp. 3-26. London: Macmillan, 1983.

Examines the role of songs as formal devices that generate a distancing effect and compromise conventional dramatic unity.

Höhne, Horst. “Brecht vs. O'Casey, or Brecht & O'Casey?” In O'Casey Annual No. 3, edited by Robert G. Lowery, pp. 1-32. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Contrasts the dramatic technique and themes of two plays by Brecht with those of Purple Dust and Red Roses for Me, investigating the political and artistic implications of each play.

Hogan, Robert. “The Experiments of Sean O'Casey.” In The Experiments of Sean O’Casey, pp. 3-15. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1960.

Refutes the mainstream opinion that O'Casey's dramatic technique gradually declined by analyzing the evolution of the perceived formlessness of the plays that followed Cock-a-Doodle Dandy.

———. “In Sean O'Casey's ‘Golden Days.’” Dublin Magazine V, Nos. 3-4 (Autumn/Winter 1966): 80-93.

Traces the influence of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pastoral dramatic conventions on O'Casey's dramaturgy, identifying this tradition as the unifying device in his later plays.

———. “O'Casey's Dramatic Apprenticeship.” Modern Drama 4, No. 3 (December 1961): 243-53.

Discusses the dramatic methods of Kathleen Listens In and Nannies Night Out as indications of O'Casey's tendencies toward the fantastic in his mature productions.

Holladay, William “Song as Aesthetic Manipulation in Sean O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy.” In From the Bard to Broadway, pp. 125-38. Lanham, MD: University Press America, 1987.

Demonstrates that O'Casey manipulates the audience's emotional response to the plot conflicts of the Dublin trilogy by contrasting the comic and heroic codes found in popular songs of contemporary melodrama.

Jones, Nesta, compiler. File on O'Casey. London: Methuen, 1987, 96 p.

Primary and secondary bibliographies, including plot summaries, initial reviews and major revivals, and samples of critical responses to each play.

Kaufman, Michael W. “O'Casey's Structural Designs in Juno and the Paycock.Quarterly Journal of Speech 58, No. 2 (April 1972): 191-98.

Assesses the dramatic significance of the concluding scenes in Juno by focusing on the play's general thematic dialectic between reality and illusion.

Kleiman, Carol. “O'Casey's ‘Homemade’ Expressionism: His Debt to Toller.” In Sean O'Casey's Bridge of Vision: Four Essays on Structure and Perspective. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.

Traces the influence of German Expressionist dramatist Toller in O'Casey's expressionist techniques, emphasizing the latter's difference in terms of his sympathies with the absurd.

Krause, David. “The Ironic Victory of Defeat in Irish Comedy.” In O'Casey Annual No. 1, edited by Robert G. Lowery, pp. 33-63. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Draws parallels between the dramatic representations of the comedic theme in the plays of Synge, Yeats, Shaw, and O'Casey.

———. “Master of Knockabout: The Work Revisited.” In Sean O'Casey, the Man and his Work, enlarged, pp. 302-25. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1975.

Evaluates O'Casey's dramaturgy in terms of the antic comedy tradition of modern drama.

———. “The Paradox of Ideological Formalism: Art vs. Ideology.” Massachusetts Review XXVIII, No. 3 (Autumn 1987): 516- 24.

Comments on the tension between literary and political impulses within the context of O'Casey's dramatic aesthetics and artistic ideology.

———. “The Risen O'Casey: Some Marxist and Irish Ironies.” In O'Casey Annual No. 3, edited by Robert G. Lowery, pp. 134-68. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Reviews selected Marxist interpretations of O'Casey's plays to demonstrate differences between his artistic representation of Irish laborers and the proletariat as depicted in mainline communist ideology.

Lowery, Robert G. A Whirlwind in Dublin, The Plough and the Stars Riots. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984, 121 p.

Describes historical circumstances surrounding the riots as documented in selected journal and newspaper accounts as well as letters and memoirs of the main participants, beginning with an account of the dire financial situation of the Abbey Theatre before O'Casey arrived.

Malone, Maureen. “The Last Word.” In The Plays of Sean O'Casey, pp. 150-60. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.

Outlines general themes of O'Casey's last plays, beginning with Behind the Green Curtains.

Maroldo, William J. “Insurrection as Enthymeme in O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy.” In O'Casey Annual No. 2, edited by Robert G. Lowery, pp. 88-113. London: Macmillan, 1983.

Discusses the rhetorical characteristics and the dramatic implications of “rebellion” as the fundamental premise informing the Dublin trilogy.

Mikhail, E. H. and John O'Riordan, eds. The Sting and the Twinkle: Conversations with Sean O'Casey. London: Macmillan, 1974, 184 p.

Contains mostly previously published interviews with O'Casey as well as personal and professional recollections of the dramatist, dating mainly from 1925 to 1964.

Mitchell, Jack. The Essential O'Casey: A Study of Twelve Major Plays of Sean O'Casey. New York: International Publishers, 1980, 346 p.

Assesses O'Casey's dramatic artistry and technique through Marxist readings of twelve plays.

Ó hAodha, Micheál. The O'Casey Enigma. Dublin: Mercier Press, 1980, 126 p.

Reassesses the significance of O'Casey's dramatic achievement in a socialist context.

O'Riordan, John. A Guide to O'Casey's Plays, from the Plough to the Stars. London: Macmillan, 419 p.

Comprehensive, chronological study of O'Casey's dramatic works, highlighting each play's theoretical orientation, plot and character summaries, staging issues, production history, and critical reception.

Rollins, Ronald G. “Dramatic Symbolism in Sean O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy.” Philological Papers 15, No. 12 (June 1966): 49-58.

Explains the symbolic significance of such theatrical devices as costumes, props, and lighting in the Dublin trilogy.

———. “Form and Content in Sean O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy” Modern Drama 8, No. 1 (February 1986): 419-425.

Correlates the thematic violence of the Dublin trilogy with elements of naturalistic dramaturgy.

———. “Pervasive Patterns in The Silver Tassie.Elre-Ireland VI, No. 4 (Winter 1971): 29-37.

Locates the structural unity of the play in its parallel patterns, ironic reversals, repetitive rhythms, and serial juxtapositions.

———. Sean O'Casey's Drama: Verisimilitude and Vision. University: University of Alabama Press, 1979, 139 p.

Studies mythopoetical influences on the dramatic structure and style of selected plays, including The Plow and the Stars, The Silver Tassie, Within the Gates, Purple Dust, Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, and The Drums of Father Ned.

Schrank, Bernice. “Anatomizing an Insurrection: Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars.Modern Drama XXIX, No. 2 (June 1986): 216-28.

Explores the ways by which the characters' attitudes toward history and death contribute to the radical social disintegration in the play, underscoring its essentially pessimistic outlook.

———. “Between Anarchy and Incarceration: The Struggle for Freedom in Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars.Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht XVIII, No. 3 (1985): 213-38.

Examines O'Casey's use of windows and doors as well as a games motif in The Plough and the Stars to illustrate a dialectical relation between personal and political concerns.

———. Sean O'Casey, A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, 298 p.

Comprehensive annotated primary and secondary bibliography, including play synopses, overviews of critical reactions to specific stagings and texts, production histories with cast lists, and archival sources.

———. “‘You needn't say no more’: Language and the Problems of Communication in Sean O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman.Irish University Review 8, No. 1 (Spring 1978): 23-38.

Analyzes various uses of language that contribute to the play's chaotic vision.

Scrimgeour, James R. Sean O'Casey. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978, 186 p.

Biographical critical analysis of O'Casey's autobiographies and major plays, concentrating on character development techniques.

Styan, J. L. “Conflicts in Dublin: the Irish Dramatic Movement.” In Modern Drama in Theory and Practice, Volume 1, Realism and Naturalism, pp. 91-109. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Chronicles the contributions of the Irish Dramatic Movement to theatrical naturalism in terms of contemporary production values and aesthetic principles, using The Plough and the Stars and Synge's Playboy of the Western World as exemplars.

———. “Expressionism in Ireland: The Later O'Casey.” In Modern Drama in Theory and Practice, Volume 111, Expressionism and Epic Theatre, pp. 121-28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Chronicles O'Casey's expressionistic experiments in The Silver Tassie and other “colored” plays with respect to contemporary production values and aesthetic principles.

Waters, Maureen “The Paycocks of Sean O'Casey.” In The Comic Irishman, pp. 149-61. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

Investigates O'Casey's satiric use of Irish stereotypes that motivate his plays.

Watt, Stephen. “O'Casey's Negotiations with the Popular.” In Joyce, O'Casey, and the Irish Popular Theater, pp. 143-87. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Examines the formal and allusive means O'Casey used in his plays to demythologize prevalent attitudes in Irish popular culture, emphasizing the ideological significance of his covert subversion of Irish stereotypes.

Williams, Raymond. “Sean O'Casey.” In Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, pp. 147-53. London: Chatto and Windus, 1968.

Provides a thematic overview of O'Casey's plays in relation to his evolving dramatic viewpoint.

Additional coverage of O’Casey's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1914-1945; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 5, 9, 11, 15, 88; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Dramatist Module, Most-Studied Authors Module; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 10; and Major 20th-Century Writers.

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