Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 82

O'Casey, Sean (Pseudonym of John Casey) 1880–1964

O'Casey, an Irish dramatist and essayist, began his career writing ballads and short fiction. The political struggles of modern Ireland are central to his early work, which is essentially naturalistic in character. His later works blend elements of naturalism with expressionism and are...

(The entire section contains 5093 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Sean O'Casey study guide. You'll get access to all of the Sean O'Casey content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

O'Casey, Sean (Pseudonym of John Casey) 1880–1964

O'Casey, an Irish dramatist and essayist, began his career writing ballads and short fiction. The political struggles of modern Ireland are central to his early work, which is essentially naturalistic in character. His later works blend elements of naturalism with expressionism and are concerned with the universal problem of individuality in an age of conformity. O'Casey used dialect in his plays to add verisimilitude to setting and character and to establish mood. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, 9, 11.)

Emil Roy

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1621

Because of his unabashed love of melodramatic devices, and particularly because of his self-taught reflections of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dion Boucicault, O'Casey has been regarded with some justice as Synge's opposite. An urban primitivist in contrast with the sophisticated, well-read Bohemian, he is deeply committed to the power of impassioned, idiomatic speech to reform society. His seething resentments are spewed upon a puritanical Catholic clergy, the narrow-minded petite bourgeoisie, and [a] government supported by those twin pillars.

However, as O'Casey's rebellious quest for identity (reflected by two name changes) fixed on the craft and vocation of a writer, a double-layered personality came into view. Long before the Abbey produced The Shadow of a Gunman in 1923 when O'Casey was nearly middle-aged, his romanticism reflected a self which was essentially passionate, optimistic, and rebellious…. Perpetually dissatisfied with the shifting, weighty masses of native Irish conflicts, O'Casey successfully unified these diverse elements in his works only so long as his faith in their ultimate reconciliation in the real world lasted.

Nowhere is the tension between O'Casey's idealistic and analytic drives more evident than in his ambivalence toward the artist's role, craft, and powers, particularly as they are defined and expressed by words. His artist-personae treat poetry as priests do the Mass, using sacred language to bless, prophesy, or curse. Along with his countrymen, he regards the unseen spiritual authority of Catholicism with a mixed awe and dread. To a romantic individualist, moreover, nothing is so infuriating as the unreasoning subordination of "inferiors" to their social and moral superiors, an act of repression which, like the bending of man to God's will, was backed by the full authority of the Church. (pp. 68-9)

O'Casey is not a systematic thinker. Yet he quickly perceived that in a capricious and willfully cruel world, submission to authority is unvariably equated with connivance, escape from it with irresponsibility. Since it is not just a social system but life itself which arouses O'Casey's furious resentment, his lifelong, romantic commitment to communism masks an apocalyptic totalism. Too puritanical and repressed to fully explore man's naked cruelty, O'Casey divides his characters into two main types—deluded, humorless rebels and witty, innovative thinkers, those who embrace violence and those who attempt to withdraw from it. But whether victimizers or victims, almost all of his people are repelled by their own emotions and seek a haven of rest beyond the clash of endless turmoil.

Incapable of being either alone or alone with a lover, O'Casey's characters seek engulfment or isolation from sensation, conveyed at their extremes by fire and water symbolism. The flickering of one's inner aliveness may emerge as an impatient drive to magnify human destiny, to bring life to its conclusion…. Only a fiery cataclysm, it would seem, enables the desperate idealist to grasp certainty from the one true Identity, which was Divine wrath. (p. 70)

Like fire, water symbolism projects radical antitheses of relief and impingement, depending on a character's relatedness to his group. Surrendering to drink, as O'Casey gave in to communist orthodoxy, was a means of controlling one's rebellious drives by submitting to a force larger than oneself. O'Casey's drinkers … merge alcoholically with their worlds. Drink, one should note, is implicitly linked with floating in the amniotic fluid of the mother's womb. For his insecure authoritarians, particularly those who project their fears on societal scapegoats, normally pleasurable sensations threaten submergence in putrefaction…. In the early plays extremes of freedom and subjection are juxtaposed: Jack Boyle's regressive drunkenness stresses his family's vulnerability, while a sense of universal nullity qualifies the heroism of Clitheroe's sacrifice. But in later plays, extremes are treated allegorically, clarifying themes but impoverishing their ironies. (p. 71)

Throughout his early trilogy, O'Casey's characters lead lives of virtual paranoia; neighbors repeatedly intrude to spy, mock, or steal; armed militants break in to harass, arrest, and murder; and even the spiritual world torments them with indistinguishable true and false omens. The battered interiors of his crowded tenements objectify the torn bodies of his victims while symbolizing the country's terrible political and religious divisions. (p. 73)

[In Juno and the Paycock], evil is done melodramatically by identifiable villains: thus a sharp disparity appears between human malevolence and the good but helpless spirit of the universe. In [The Plough and the Stars], as in Synge's Riders to the Sea and Shaw's Heartbreak House, malignancy is rooted in the heart of the cosmos. The whole galaxy appears suffused with malice, and fire drops from the very heavens. Injustice so pervades the play that conventional virtues are not only dubious but impossible…. [Both] victors and victims of war emerge as incompetent, deluded mediocrites. In such a world, Fluther Good need only display a discreet pragmatism and a perceptive sensitivity to the foibles of others to be considered a "whole man" by the women of the play. Hedging bravery with natural caution, he intuitively adjusts his piercing skepticism to a flawed social milieu. (p. 77)

In Plough, O'Casey compresses within familial symbolism a complex disparity between visions of heroism and the ineffectuality of selfless actions, the gap between man's antic delusions and his compulsive failures. Along with his fully realized historical milieu, his preoccupation with social turmoil, and his feeling for an ideal community of man, O'Casey places schismatic Ireland in a wider setting that universalizes it.

Once O'Casey rejects his poet's hope for a productive role in transforming society for the more modest goal of theatrical recognition, the titanic contradictions he had once imbedded in complex interrelationships melt away. For all his apparent faith in creativity, the artist-dreamers who appear in plays beginning with Within the Gates (1933) exhibit curious disabilities. Ayamonn Breydon in Red Roses is O'Casey's most explicit self-portrait…. Breydon feels compelled finally to renounce both art and the love of his Catholic fiancée for a gratuitous martyrdom. Society offers few roles to the artist and those few are self-defeating, O'Casey seems to conclude: impotent visionary, benevolent charlatan, or defeated rebel.

In the same plays, his artists' antagonists are as unrestrained as they are morally unprincipled, neatly countering good intentions with unbridled villainy. While O'Casey scorns the self-righteous pride and dogmatic narrowness of his ideologues, he secretly envies them their uncomplicated assurance, the approval of a reverential society, and their freedom from ordinary moral restraints—all of them attributes his artists desperately but futilely crave. Thus, O'Casey's social revolt, like O'Neill's and Brecht's, finds its target in the greed, the fatuousness and the sadism of society's agents; but his existential revolt is romantic, vitalist, and apocalyptic.

Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949) may be the most accomplished of O'Casey's later plays. It is also his most condensed, with its unity of setting and time scheme. (pp. 78-9)

The ubiquitous Cock of the title, symbolizing the spontaneous exuberance and fertility of nature, is less the source of the frantic activity of the play than an Ariel-like agent of Robin Adair. This messenger assumes a satirical but despairing Prospero-like role in the play, functioning as a hovering reflective intelligence or raisonneur—commenting or expostulating. On the comic level of the play, it is as though Robin were leading the convention-bound characters through a maze and showing them marvels meant to bring them true self-knowledge. But the attempt ends in failure, resulting in a neatly symmetrical ternary action: a fallen society is granted a brief glimpse of a festival world of license and renewal, usually available only through drink, dance, song, and the more lively arts. The dead hand of the past proves too strong, however. The vitalists are ostracized, and society returns unchanged to its former lifeless state. (pp. 79-80)

Freed from the restrictions of dramatic realism, O'Casey extends his vision of a forbidding universe: his cosmos is suffused by the spirit of a capricious deity who delights in the torment of its helpless human victims…. Inhibitions are the death of spontaneity, but disorder is the end of culture, O'Casey seems to conclude.

Except for his propagandistic set pieces, O'Casey's later plays, from The Silver Tassie to Drums of Father Ned (1958), increasingly deal with settled, isolated rural communities…. Along with his reversion to stereotyped romantic ideals of unlimited human freedom, O'Casey flattens his characterizations. Both passionate and confused, his earlier characters had tenaciously replaced their masks as quickly as reality had ripped them off, so powerfully had apocalyptic drives churned beneath the surface…. His later plays are supposed to be imaginative, experimental dramas with no concessions to outworn tradition. But his casts increasingly fill with stage Irishmen, stock English villains, and excited crowd choruses worthy of Dion Boucicault.

In his masterpieces, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, O'Casey demonstrates a growing ingenuity and competence. He skillfully projects the tragicomic disparity between farcical aggressiveness and ineffectual yieldings within the cockpit of the family upon a nation recoiling against itself. But in his more disparate, experimental plays, beneath the joyous vitality which marks his characters' restless quests for innocence and freedom, grew a profound and restless frustration with life's rigidities, which he identified, in turn, with the limitations of the drama itself. Thus, his experiments with form, his excursions into expressionistic treatments of communistic uprisings or misty Irish folklore, represent attempts to deal with his own growing dissatisfaction with the vivid but wholly symbolic role of the artist. The more ludicrous the comic misdeeds become in his plays, the surer his humor contains an admission of failure, a resentful accommodation to things as they are. But it is for his earlier plays that O'Casey will be remembered, where he effectively dramatized the anguish of moral paralysis. (pp. 81-2)

Emil Roy, "Sean O'Casey," in his British Drama since Shaw (copyright © 1972 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1972, pp. 68-82.

Ronald Ayling

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1378

Certain ideas and themes preoccupied Sean O'Casey's mind throughout his life. As we might expect, they recur again and again in his work, in autobiographical narratives and occasional prose writings as well as in the drama. Most important of these recurrent interests, perhaps, is O'Casey's desire to find order and harmony in a world rent by physical and spiritual chaos…. In his drama emphasis is often placed on disorder and selfishness, shown particularly in social and economic exploitation, and in man's inhumanity to man. This subject is shown, notably, in the degrading effects of war and poverty. At the same time, O'Casey subtly realizes the moral ambiguities inherent in the problems of law and order in a country dominated by a superimposed alien system of morality and justice and therefore particularly vulnerable to revolution and anarchy. These problems are naturally most apparent—and often in the forefront of the action—in the early plays set in Ireland during the period from 1915 to 1922, The Plough and the Stars, The Shadow of a Gunman, and Juno and the Paycock (to place them in chronological order of subject-matter rather than order of writing). Yet from the evidence of later works like Purple Dust and Red Roses for Me, where the discussion is continued though in a less prominent manner, it is clear that O'Casey did not consider the matter resolved by the ending of "colonial"/rule in Ireland.

It is surprising how writers on O'Casey have ignored the significant number of references to "law and order" which may be found in his writings, particularly the term's multiple occurance in the six-volume autobiographical narrative…. [Whenever] there is an appeal to such a notion, or the phrase itself is introduced in disputation in O'Casey's plays or Autobiographies it is invariably in an ironic context. Those who invoke the idea are often the least law-abiding themselves. (pp. 265-66)

Whenever O'Casey touches upon the theme of legality in a social or political context it is invariably in a contradictory and ambiguous manner. This serves to demonstrate the conviction that consistently underlies his social morality: that no state in which disorder bred of poverty is found may be regarded as possessing law and order in any meaningful sense. (p. 268)

In an inseparable counterbalance to O'Casey's concern for order and harmony there is his abundant use of stage chaos for satirical and symbolical purposes. Stylistically, this affords one of the playwright's most original contributions to modern drama. (pp. 268-69)

[To O'Casey dehiscence and dissolution] are means to a greater end, elements subservient … to a more inclusive theme. Deeply concerned that order and harmony be achieved in human society and the individual life, O'Casey is painfully aware of disruptive tensions and disorder in both, and follows the theme through to its reductio ad absurdum of destruction. Yet, at the back of the experience, he plainly hints—sometimes not even implicitly but directly—that this anarchy, the product of poverty, bad social organization and individual ignorance, is avoidable. (pp. 269-70)

[The] technique of stage chaos is one O'Casey was to use, with significant variations, throughout his career. Of plays written after 1934, perhaps Purple Dust and Cock-a-Doodle Dandy provide the most spectacular and hilarious knockabout…. Yet, if later works like, say, Cock and Time to Go use seemingly supernatural effects and extravagant fantasy in ways that at first appear quite foreign to the basically realistic Juno and the Paycock, these differences are more apparent than they are real. In theatrical and symbolic terms we see a particular kind of social order splitting apart at the seams, in the one case in post-Independence Ireland and in the other during the Civil War preceding independence. One does not have to delve too deeply to perceive the logical growth of the later form of drama from the earlier one.

In Shakespearian manner, O'Casey is never afraid to put important ideas in the mouths of minor characters, like the anonymous disputants in crowd scenes in Within the Gates, or even fools (like the Old Woman in The Star Turns Red) who sometimes say things without themselves fully understanding their true significance. A bigoted character such as the Covey in The Plough is ludicrously ineffectual as a human being, let alone a revolutionary, yet in his speech he often presents many of O'Casey's political and social convictions. (pp. 270-71)

In later plays, when O'Casey uses individual figures as mouthpieces for his convictions, they are generally presented in a less ambiguous and in a more attractive way, even though characters like the Dreamer and Ayamonn Breyden are in no way depicted as supermen but as erring and imperfect human beings. In his final plays the dramatist goes further, inventing symbolic figures like Father Ned and the Figuro, who—because they never appear on stage, but work through their influence on the minds and deeds of other people in the dramatic action—can successfully embody the author's ideals without appearing in any way priggish or self-righteous…. It is not an unusual device, of course, but O'Casey's particular practice in this respect allows him great imaginative freedom in using fantasy and comedy to help realize his didactic purposes. (p. 271)

Throughout his career O'Casey consistently drew attention to the many obstacles in the way of proletarian self-advancement and acquisition of culture. The working people have not only to contend with a social order which gives the poorer children little or no schooling—and what teaching they have often of a mediocre standard—but, frequently, the vehement opposition of parents, neighbours, and friends. (p. 273)

With little or no hope of improvement in their standard of living, a complete lack of privacy, and few opportunities for any creative expression of the enormous reserves of imaginative energy latent in them, it is hardly surprising that many of the Dublin slum dwellers seek various forms of escape from reality. The contrasting of illusion and reality, indeed, is a theme that recurs throughout O'Casey's writings. Many of his characters find a refuge in private fantasies—in drink and gambling, for instance—and others in public fantasy as expressed in nationalist rhetoric and slogan cries or in hero-worship of one kind or another. (p. 274)

In a society of inequality and want, money naturally assumes a major role. Its possession or absence can entail life or death, hope or despair. As one might expect, therefore, money is a predominant theme in O'Casey's drama; money as a talisman, as a panacea for all ills, and as a further kind of escapism in the form of legacies or in gambling on cards, horses, dice, and football pools. (p. 275)

[O'Casey] stresses how harsh economic pressures force people into unnatural and inhuman attitudes…. [The importance of money] in The Silver Tassie is presented as a terrible debasement of human and family values. In that play, the action of which takes place during the First World War, Mrs. Heegan shows a concern for the safety and welfare of her soldier-son similar in kind to Mrs. Grigson's for her husband. Because she draws maintenance from army authorities while he is on active service, Mrs. Heegan is anxious to pack him off to the trenches for fear that he might over-stay his leave and she lose her allowance. Later, after he has been severely crippled in action, she seems more anxious about the continuance of his disability pension than about his mental and physical sufferings. Here the dramatist depicts in an extreme form the corrupting and dehumanizing power of poverty and of economic pressures arising from it. It is not that Mrs. Heegan has no love for her son—clearly, she has—but that she has had to fight and scheme to eke out an existence for her family for so long that feelings of pity and human sympathy have, finally, been subordinated to economic necessity. (pp. 278-79)

[The] pursuit of money and the morality of money [are] intense preoccupations in O'Casey's mind and art. Development and innovation mark each stage of the playwright's career from first to last, yet the continuity in certain significant themes and ideas is equally remarkable and as well sustained. (p. 279)

Ronald Ayling, "Recurrent Patterns in O'Casey's Drama," in Myth and Reality in Irish Literature, edited by Joseph Ronsley (copyright © 1977 Joseph Ronsley), Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1977, pp. 265-79.

Jacqueline Doyle

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2012

The Silver Tassie represents a radical departure from Sean O'Casey's early work, and its most significant aspects have been almost consistently misunderstood by his critics. The play is a conscious blend of naturalism and symbolic expressionism, and as such is unified through language, imagery, and theme, rather than through character. O'Casey himself wrote to W. B. Yeats, in their famous controversy over the play [documented in O'Casey's Blasts and Benedictions]: "I'm afraid I can't make my mind mix with the sense of importance you give to 'a dominating character.' God forgive me, but it does sound as if you peeked and pined for a hero in the play. Now, is a dominating character more important than a play, or is a play more important than a dominating character?" Characterization in The Silver Tassie is clearly subordinate to the play's ritualistic structure and to its complex symbolic framework. Symbol and imagery throughout the four acts revolve around the trinity of war, religion, and sexuality—"the decorations of security." This imagery is placed within the dual context of a strong anti-war theme and the Sacrifice of the Mass. The thematic and structural function of the imagery is well expressed by the Croucher's lines in Act II: "Then the decorations of security/Become the symbols of self sacrifice." (p. 29)

The ritual structure is manifested first and most obviously in the religious chanting. Despite the observations of the critics, the chant is not confined to the second, expressionistic act, but operates as a unifying element throughout the play, appearing in both naturalistic and expressionistic passages…. The intertwining of war, religion, and sexuality in the imagery of [the first] act is subtly manipulated. Susie chants Biblical platitudes as she polishes Harry's rifle, an activity that is prolonged almost to the end of the scene, and is unavoidably phallic. It is revealed that the roots of her religious belief lie in sexual frustration…. It becomes clear as the act progresses that hers is the chanting of the "faithful" and not of the "Faith."… The tragedy of the "faithful" is in Susie's line at the conclusion of the scene, "the men that go with the guns are going with God."… (p. 30)

If Act I is the chant of the "faithful," Act II is the chant of the "Faith." The curtain rises on a starkly expressionistic set dominated by a broken crucifix. The beginnings of the Mass are heard faintly from the ruins of the monastery, while the Croucher, a ragged and blood-stained soldier, intones ironic reversals of the Book of Ezekiel over the traditional Latin chants. In Ezekiel God's question in the valley of bones was, "Son of man, can these bones live?"… The Croucher's premonition is far darker: "And I looked and saw a great multitude that stood upon their feet, an exceeding great army. / And he said unto me, Son of man, can this exceeding great army become a valley of dry bones?"… The Croucher concludes with a horrifying image of the ravages of war: "And I prophesied, and the breath came out of them, and behold a shaking, and their bones fell asunder, bone from his bone, and they died, and the exceeding great army became a valley of dry bones." The contrast is between God's vision of resurrection and man's vision of sacrifice; this is painfully in keeping with the thematic impulse of the play. The soldiers, the sacrificial victims, respond to the Mass rather than to the Croucher's ominous forebodings. (p. 31)

Act II could be interpreted as corresponding to the Offertory of the Mass—offering the soldiers as the sacrificial victims of the "faithful. The entire play participates loosely in the structure of the Mass. Ironically, it is a death Mass rather than a life Mass, and the Consecration results in desecration rather than in Resurrection. Both the play and the Mass are divided into four parts…. The first act of the play is the "Mass of the Catechumens," the portion of the Mass open to the uninitiated—O'Casey's "faithful." In ancient Christian ritual, the remainder of the Mass was for those initiated into the mysteries of the "Faith"; in the second act the stage is cleared of all but the soldiers. After the second act, the Offertory, the third act traces the Consecration. The reluctant bathing of Simon and Sylvester represents a sort of mock-purification, and certainly the breaking of the Host (Christ's Body) is tragically present in Harry Heegan's crippled body…. Surgeon Maxwell's "While there's life there's hope (with a grin and a wink at Susie)" … is an ironic mockery of the "Faith" and hope of Act II and of Harry's timid hope for resurrection. In some senses it prepares the audience for the failed Communion of Act IV.

The soldier as Christ figure is implicit in O'Casey's manipulation of the Mass structure. (pp. 31-2)

The soldier as Christ figure functions as both martyr and priest. The Baltimore Catechism describes the Christ-martyr-priest relation most simply: "In every Mass, through the priest at the altar, Jesus again offers himself as a sacrifice to God in an unbloody (not bloody) way, under the appearance of bread and wine." Most specifically, this Christ-priest figure is Harry Heegan. The play opens with a mythic chronicling of his strength by Simon and Sylvester ("Simon" and "Sylvester" perhaps functioning in their religious roles as disciple and saint; clearly the two act as commentators on the life of "Christ"). Harry briefly appears, associated with the Silver Tassie as chalice…. There exist overtones of the Last Supper throughout the conclusion of Act I, most explicitly in Harry's lines, "Jesus, a last drink, then!."… The four acts (which I have identified as Public Mass, Offertory, Consecration, Eucharist) could also be seen as the last four days of Christ's life. Thus Act I includes the Last Supper and Holy Thursday (Gethsemane and the vision of the chalice); Act II is Holy Friday and the Crucifixion (and certainly the crucifix plays a prominent part in the act); Act III is Holy Saturday (with the body interred in the hospital rather than the tomb); and Act IV is Easter Sunday. Both Acts III and IV contain denials of miracle; the women came to Christ's tomb but Jessie refuses, and, of course, the Resurrection in Act IV is a failed one.

These overpowering religious overtones pervade the secular imagery, particularly the two major strands of imagery—color and dance. The images relate to the two martyrs: Teddy Foran, who is blinded, and Harry Heegan, whose legs are paralyzed. Color and dance are literal and symbolic losses which are not restored.

The colors red, green, white, and black recur constantly throughout the play, but critics seem to have done little or no work in interpreting them…. The color symbolism becomes even more striking when interpreted in the context of Catholic liturgical symbolism. The Catholic Encyclopedia reports:

The variety of liturgical colours in the Church arose from the mystical meaning attached to them. Thus white, the symbol of light, typifies innocence and purity, joy and glory; red, the language of fire and blood, indicates burning charity and the martyrs' generous sacrifice; green, the hue of plants and trees, bespeaks the hope of life eternal; violet, the gloomy cast of the mortified, denotes affliction and melancholy; while black, the universal emblem of mourning, signifies the sorrow of death and the sombreness of the tomb.

The symbolism is most obvious in the sets, which appear to be restricted to these colors alone. In the set of Act I, the prominent colors are the purple velvet shield, the bedspread striped with black and vivid green, the picture of Harry in his red and yellow football uniform. In Act II he describes explicitly the red glare, the green star, the white star, and the expressionistic stained glass window with its green background and white-faced Virgin in black robes. Act III in the hospital contains the colors of martyrdom, of purity, and of death—the red quilt, the white quilt, the black quilt, white walls, green lampshade. The dance-hall of Act IV is hung with red and black striped curtains, green curtains, red and black ribbon, and its most startling image is that of the lanterns: "the lanterns are black, with a broad red stripe running down the centre of the largest and across those hanging at each side, so that, when they are lighted, they suggest an illuminated black cross with an inner one of gleaming red."… Harry is consistently associated with the papal colors, red and yellow (red for martyrdom and sacrifice), supporting his Christ-priest function. Colors are expressive of life throughout the play and become a poignant symbol of life lost (most literally for the martyr Teddy Foran). (pp. 32-4)

While the dance is not as integral a symbol as color, it is clearly a life symbol and central to the imagery of the last act…. The dance becomes part of the religious ritual of the Eucharist, the self-sacrifice of war, and sexual ritual. For the impotent and crippled Harry is deprived both of partner and dance. Sergeant Maxwell replaces Harry of the first act as the symbol of virility. The resumption of the dance by Susie and Sergeant Maxwell symbolizes life in both its indifference and survival. (p. 35)

Color and dance fuse in the major symbol of the play—the Silver Tassie. The tassie is a secular and a religious life symbol which is subject to a Joycean symbolist desecration at the end of the play. (Joyce, however, in taking the symbols of God, pits symbolist art against religion in Portrait of the Artist, whereas O'Casey pits art and the symbols of religion against war and the "faithful" in The Silver Tassie.) Reference to the first scene and Jessie's raising of the tassie as a chalice is helpful. Harry articulates the (trinity of) meaning in the tassie with an ironic pun on the trinity and the "One": "Won, won, won, be-God; by the odd goal in five. Lift it up, lift it up, Jessie, sign of youth, sign of strength, sign of victory."… The values of the tassie are those of war and sexuality. The scene ends with a song, possibly a hymn, to the tassie. The cup reappears in Act IV, again associated with the trinity: "The Silver Tassie—that I won three times, three times for them…."… Miracle for the "faithful" is denied; Christ is not resurrected, and Barney hysterically calls Harry a "half baked Lazarus." In one of the most important passages of the play, Harry stages a mock-Eucharist…. The sacrilege demonstrates the tragedy of man's self-sacrifice—"The Lord hath given and man hath taken away!"

The importance of the tassie is best and most conclusively understood through the parallel structures of Acts I and IV. The hope, the faith, and the desecration implicit within the theme are a part of both acts. In Act I marriage (sexuality) is desecrated by war, and in Act IV religion (the chalice) is desecrated by war. In the first act, Teddy Foran, the later blinded martyr, throws down and breaks his wife's treasured wedding-bowl, as Harry, the Christ-martyr figure, later flings the treasured tassie to the floor…. [Aesthetic] affirmation and hope lies at the core of the play, despite the blasphemy of the "faithful." In the last act, Harry raises the cup three times and then smashes it, committing the final sacrilege. Susie's reply this time is intentionally blasphemous: "We can't give sight to the blind or make the lame walk. We would if we could. It is the misfortune of war."… Her complacent reversal of the Bible tragically emphasizes Harry's insight: "The Lord hath given and man hath taken away!" For the despairing yet hopeful conclusion of the play is not that God does not exist, but that man through sacrilege, through self-sacrifice, through war, has driven God away. (pp. 35-7)

Jacqueline Doyle, "Liturgical Imagery in Sean O'Casey's 'The Silver Tassie'," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1978, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. XXI, No. 1, March, 1978, pp. 29-38.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Sean O'Casey Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Sources for Further Study

Next

O'Casey, Sean (Vol. 1)