Sean O'Casey

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O'Casey, Sean 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 more 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.)

Samuel Beckett

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This is the interest of Windfalls—that by its juxtaposition of what is distinguished and what is not, the essential O'Casey and the incidental, it facilitates a definition of the former. (p. 167)

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 impulse of material to escape and be consummate in its own knockabout is admirably expressed in the two "sketches" that conclude this volume, and especially in "The End of the Beginning," where the entire set comes to pieces and the chief character, in a final spasm of dislocation, leaves the scene by the chimney.

Beside this the poems are like the model palace of a dynamiter's lesiure moments. "Walk with Eros," through the seasons complete with accredited poetic phenomena and emotions to match, is the nec plus ultra of inertia, a Walt Disney inspected shot after shot on the celluloid. The influences of nature are great, but they do not enable the disruptive intelligence, exacting the tumult from unity, to invert its function. A man's mind is not a claw-hammer.

The short stories have more jizz, notably (characteristically) that on the dissolution of Mollser, the consumptive girl who had such a good curtain in The Plough and the Stars. Mr. O'Casey's admirers will give him the credit of allegorical intention in "I Wanna Woman."

But the main business, when at last it is reached, obliterates these preliminaries. And no reader so gentle but must be exalted to forgiveness, even of the prose poems in "Second Fall," by the passage in "The End of the Beginning," presenting Messrs. Darry Berrill and Barry Derrill supine on the stage, "expediting matters" in an agony of calisthenics, surrounded by the doomed furniture. (pp. 167-68)

Samuel Beckett, "The Essential and the Incidental" (reprinted by permission of Samuel Beckett), in The Bookman, Vol. LXXXVI, 1934 (and reprinted in Sean O'Casey: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Kilroy, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 167-68).

G. Wilson Knight

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In most of the plays written after Within the Gates we are aware of a certain weakening. The reiterated attacks on the Irish priesthood lack balance; attempts to build youthful sexuality into a saving force pall; and the author's proclaimed communism is never, not even in The Star Turns Red where the communist leader Red Jim is little more than a figure of accepted morality, loaded with human fire. O'Casey is a visionary; his various conflicts are always part of some patterned whole suffused with melody and colour; but technical patterning is not enough and it is far from easy to establish any more exact relation of contemporary energies and ideologies to the harmony. Neither communism nor sex-love can bridge the gap. But he fights on, always striving for solutions in human and dramatic terms; striving to relate man to his vision. (p. 133)

[In The Drums...

(This entire section contains 768 words.)

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of Father Ned we] find the usual repudiation of spoil-sport old fogeys and a restrictive Irish priest, Father Fillifogue, set against young people standing for youth, love and freedom. (p. 134)

[There are] two dominating symbolic persons. One is "Father Ned," who does not appear but is continually referred to as their leader and authority by those who stand for advance…. Father Ned is conceived, on the analogy of an Irish parish priest, as an ultimate local authority. Dramatically he exists through oblique reference and the sound of his drums as a summoning, potent and beneficent deity. In close association is the mysterious Echo, heard from time to time, recalling Webster's echo in The Duchess of Malfi.

Our second personification is Angus the Young, depicted emblematically as a symbol of youth and enlightenment…. [In] Greek terms we may regard him as a composite of Eros and Apollo. (pp. 134-35)

The symbolic persons here house rich meanings. Father Ned constitutes an obvious admission that the aim of O'Casey's dramatic world cannot be defined in social terms.

Nor, despite his advanced counsels, can we call Father Ned unorthodox. The title he goes by is Catholic or Anglo-Catholic and his authority is recognised just as an Irish community today recognises the authority of its local priest. O'Casey's attacks have always been against particular examples of the priesthood falsifying, as he sees it, their great office, not against Christianity itself nor against the Church. (pp. 135-36)

That Father Ned does not appear constitutes an admission that he cannot as yet be defined in visual terms, and for those we must turn to our second symbolic person, Angus the Young.

Angus might at first be supposed to add little to O'Casey's prepossession with youthful life-joy, but he is far more than a symbol of this alone…. The sexual problem is not solved, and still less does it solve us, by showing two young people in love. The emblematical Angus, however, does not incur such criticisms. He is the Platonic Eros, with all its multi-directional potentialities; he is also Apollo, god of art, with his harp; and a bird, for aspiration to higher spheres. He includes O'Casey's poet-dreamers as well as his youthful lovers. What the emblem asserts is what O'Casey has always been meaning: that is, that within the essence of youth-beauty there is a pointer of appalling importance. It is the inward and universal essence that is being honoured, independent of particular forms; and since it has this especial independence, this essence must be posited as an external myth-person in his own right. (p. 136)

And if we know this, we shall know too that Eros may encompass the whole of life. Angus' Bird has the colours of the various aspirations handled in O'Casey's dramas: black for the priesthood; red for Communism; green for Eire; gold, perhaps for Ulster, but for more too, since gold is O'Casey's highest colour. Elsewhere in the play colours are used purposefully, though without any exact consistency, and this purpose, and it is a purpose driven home by speech on speech, is generously inclusive, with the will to a harmony of all the forces contained.

And yet why do we need two symbolic persons? Because, as the central opposition of Within the Gates showed, there are still two positive rival powers in our western culture: Christ and Eros, Hebraic and Hellenic. Until we recognise and establish their identity, both are needed. (p. 137)

G. Wilson Knight, "Ever a Fighter: 'The Drums of Father Ned'," in his The Christian Renaissance (reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown Ltd., London acting on behalf of the author), Methuen Co. Ltd., 1962 (and reprinted in Sean O'Casey: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Kilroy, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 133-37).

Joan Templeton

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Though [O'Casey] is the only major British dramatist to have used Expressionism to any extent throughout his work, and though it is often mentioned that he was influenced by the German movement, he has been generally treated as an "experimenter." It is the thesis of this study that the techniques of Expressionist Drama established by Strindberg and the German writers who followed him are found throughout O'Casey's plays, and more importantly, that his early attempts at Expressionism became a kind of proving ground for his last plays. One finds the techniques of Expressionism in every full-length play from The Plough and the Stars in 1926 to The Drums of Father Ned in 1958, and they figure significantly in the success of the late comedies. (p. 47)

In contrast to Journey's End, which he considered a "piece of false effrontery" both in sentiment and in form, he would go "into the heart of war" [with The Silver Tassie]. It is the attempt to create the total effect of an experience, to dramatize the "essence" of a subject, which marks O'Casey's intent here as thoroughly Expressionist. (p. 48)

When O'Casey decided to fling a stone at patriotic militarism in The Silver Tassie, he turned directly to the methods of Ernst Toller and Strindberg, two playwrights he especially admired, and wrote a thoroughly Expressionist second act. It is this act which carries the weight of the play's theme, and in O'Casey's exposure of the "heart of war." Act II uses Strindberg's dream structure which became in the plays of Toller, Georg Kaiser, and scores of other writers one of Expressionism's basic departures from realistic theater…. The dream structure was a method by which Toller could present his view of modern society as confused, frightening, and warped.

It served O'Casey in precisely the same way. The curtain rises [in The Silver Tassie] on a terrifying vista. The setting is a grotesque blending of the symbols of war and religion: a ruined monastery in the war zone. "Lean, dead hands are protruding" from the rubble of houses beyond the monastery walls…. [The scene intones] a Biblical passage of destruction. (p. 49)

The characters who inhabit this place of death are caricatures in the manner of Strindberg and Frank Wedekind; they do not represent a "type" of person, but an attitude, or a way of looking at the world. The Visitor, the most distorted of these, is a ludicrous representation of militant patriotism…. The soldiers themselves constitute a kind of "group" caricature. (pp. 49-50)

Act II of The Silver Tassie qualifies as thoroughly Expressionist because it possesses the dream structure, a deliberately distorted setting, exaggerated caricatures, and at its close, highly symbolic stage action resembling pantomime and usually referred to by the term "stylized." It also has the special qualities of freneticism and grotesqueness found in many of the German plays. The presence of a skeletal figure and the use of many stage properties suggesting death are frequently found in German Expressionism at the height of the movement when the "graveyard scene" became stock. Act II is an Expressionist theme statement: man may cling to the belief that he worships a Christian God, but the real object of his worship is the power of wrath and destruction.

O'Casey's next play, Within the Gates, subtitled "A Morality In Four Scenes," bears many resemblances to the "station drama," a favorite form of German Expressionist Drama, in which, through a sequence of "stationen" or stages, the protagonist becomes progressively enlightened. The model for the German plays was Strindberg's To Damascus, but this kind of plot structure, of course, is basically that of the morality play and Faust, both of which influenced Strindberg. (pp. 50-1)

O'Casey's morality play [however] reverses the themes of the traditional ones, and contains the message that he was to return to over and over again in later plays: merriment and joy are the primary virtues in a world that has denounced them too long.

The Expressionist set is a symbolic garden with giant, formalized flowers. The events which take place in the microcosmic garden world advocate an ironic reversal of Christian myth; man must reject the notion of his "fall" and transform himself into a joyful creature who can delight in his physical nature. Within the Gates, like many of the German station dramas, maintains that to find the right way is to undergo a transformation which violates the existing codes of morality.

Within the Gates possesses interesting resemblances to Strindberg's station drama A Dream Play. The device of the "Dreamer" is very close to that in Strindberg's play, in which the "Officer," the "Lawyer," and the "Poet" are all meant to be aspects of one "Dreamer."… In Within the Gates it is the Dreamer's view of life that the Young Woman accepts before she dies. Like the Poet-Dreamer of A Dream Play, the Dreamer in Within the Gates is the character who is used to give the author's derogatory-pronouncements on the representatives of the established order. And in both plays, the Dreamer characters give similar answers to young women protagonists as they die.

O'Casey next turned directly to the problems of the proletariat with The Star Turns Red, a realistic play with isolated Expressionist techniques used to stress particular events and to emphasize some features of the setting. (pp. 51-2)

O'Casey's desire to present in The Star Turns Red the real nature of two opposed ideologies [fascism and communism] led him to use the kind of caricature of the Visitor in The Silver Tassie. Yet at the same time, the characters are supposed to be particular people with proper names and personal traits. When the fascist Kian, the communist Jack, and the workers' leader Jim begin to speak like pamphlets and chant slogans, O'Casey has deliberately suspended their identity as people in order to use them as Expressionist ideological symbols. The result is a strange and conflicting blend of two dramatic styles. One has to make a distinction between this type of character and those of a playwright like Wedekind, who employed more skillfully the same method. Wedekind's characters are given personal traits, but these traits are distorted in a way that causes us to accept the characters at the outset as representatives of an attitude or an idea. But O'Casey's use of exaggeration is sudden. We are not prepared for the difference between the symbolic function and the previous three-dimensional personality of a normal human being.

As though he had sensed that his experiment in The Star Turns Red was a failure, in Red Roses For Me O'Casey returned to the structure of The Silver Tassie. The Expressionist Act II is a dream sequence which dramatizes the goals of the protagonist Ayamonn and his fellow workers. (pp. 52-3)

Like Act II of The Silver Tassie, Act III of Red Roses For Me is the thematic center of the play. It is O'Casey's dream of obliterating the gulf between rich and poor in the modern world. The crescendo to transformation through the use of lighting and lyric dialogue immediately recalls scenes in Toller's Masse Mensch (Masses and Man) and Die Wandlung (The Transformation). It is interesting that not only are the same techniques employed, but exactly the same hopes are expressed through them. Like Toller, O'Casey hoped desperately for a workers' revolution to free his country from the stranglehold of oppressing institutions. (pp. 53-4)

The plays which I have considered so far demonstrate a basic attitude toward the techniques of Expressionism which can only be labeled "self-conscious." In Within the Gates, O'Casey deliberately constructed a modern "morality play" in which he used the structure of the station drama. In The Star Turns Red, he used Expressionism to place particular emphasis upon a character's speech or upon a symbolic event, basically the same method, though enlarged, of The Plough and the Stars. In both The Silver Tassie and Red Roses For Me, he included Expressionist acts which are sharply divided from the realistic ones. Although he had used Expressionism successfully in The Silver Tassie and Red Roses For Me, his use of the new methods demonstrates that for the most part he regarded them as useful largely when they are isolated from a traditional structure. When O'Casey abandoned the separate use of two different styles and merged the techniques of Expressionism with those of his old forte, comedy, he succeeded in creating a unified structure and a sustained atmosphere.

In Purple Dust we find the beginnings of this structure. O'Casey is moving toward the creation of a particular kind of comic world in which all notions of realistic "probability" are suspended…. [Unlike] the offstage figure of The Plough and the Stars, the speaker [in Purple Dust] joins the "real" characters of the play. He is not a shadowy silhouette, but he is explicitly described…. The contrast points to O'Casey's changed attitude toward dramatic structure. No longer is he isolating his Expressionist character from the action of the others; here, the figure is actually an agent of the action in his role as revenging spirit of the flood…. The Figure of Purple Dust makes only one speech, and then disappears, but O'Casey's blending of styles here anticipates the much fuller use in later comedies.

Oak Leaves and Lavender looks forward more clearly than Purple Dust to the method of O'Casey's last three plays. Here, for the first time, O'Casey relies heavily on blending the methods of Expressionism with other forms. The play begins with a "prelude of the shadows," in which figures out of England's past dance a minuet and lament the passing of the glories of old England. The voice of a lavender seller is heard offstage as the dancers exit…. The central idea of the play is that England's aristocratic past must fade before the coming of a new kind of community of men. Dame Hatherleigh [the protagonist] joins the dancers because she is the last representative of the old order…. O'Casey merges the present representative of the past and the past itself through the merging of the non-realistic and realistic characters.

The result is that Dame Hatherleigh and the dancers lose their identity in time, and become representative of an attitude. Oak Leaves and Lavender is always referred to as a "fantasy," but O'Casey's method here is purely Expressionist. It is the method of The Ghost Sonata, where Strindberg has characters out of Hummel's "past" join those in his "present"; it is the deliberate fusion of the "dream world" with the "real world" that one finds in To Damascus, A Dream Play, Masses and Man, The Transformation, and Kaiser's Gas. (pp. 54-5)

Oak Leaves and Lavender is the most extreme example of O'Casey's method of emphasizing theme through set design…. Just before the dancers re-enter at the end of the play [for example], the room comes alive, and the old manor house is now a factory, producing materials to win the war. The manor house's change from oak to steel must occur, for the past is lovely, but it is useless in the war against fascism. Metaphor and idea have become dramatized through stage properties, and the mechanization of the manor house is an Expressionist dramatization of the play's message: England must transform itself into a useful social order for modern man.

O'Casey's use of Expressionism in Oak Leaves and Lavender points both backward and forward in the O'Casey canon. The prologue and epilogue of the dancers form a kind of "frame story" that is structurally, though not thematically, divided from the play proper. Yet the merging of Dame Hatherleigh's world with that of the dancers, and the use of the Expressionist set design throughout the play show that O'Casey was attempting here to arrive at an integrated use of the techniques of Expressionism with other methods. Oak Leaves and Lavender is thus a transitional play; it displays an indication of the earlier plays' demarcation between Expressionism and Realism, and yet it strongly anticipates O'Casey's final synthesis of method.

The play which marks this achievement is the brilliant Cock-A-Doodle Dandy. The use of various modes of comedy—music-hall techniques, satire, farce—is reminiscent of Purple Dust. But in Cock-A-Doodle Dandy O'Casey has enveloped the whole play in an atmosphere so fantastic that anything is probable. No longer do the techniques of Expressionism seem in any way separate from a realistic primary structure, but rather they are part of the structure from the beginning. (pp. 56-7)

[The presiding spirit] is the Cock, a fabulous representation of a vast joie de vivre. Before anyone else appears, the creature enters to dance round the garden, immediately establishing a non-realistic structure. (p. 57)

To dramatize the forces which are responsible for Marthraun and Mahan's suspicious natures, O'Casey uses two fully Expressionist caricatures, Shanaar and Father Domineer…. Shanaar is the embodiment of the view that sees evil in everything. He is a grotesque caricature of the religious dirty mind. (pp. 57-8)

It has been argued that Father Domineer is "too much of a straight 'villain' to be an entirely satisfactory symbol," and that it would have been more appropriate to have him a more comic villain like Shanaar…. To make him more amusing and less a raving representative of horrifying principles would be to lessen his impact. And in the fantastic atmosphere of the play, his character cannot be condemned on the grounds that while the "nonhuman Cock is credible as a mythic creature … the inhuman priest is too obvious a sign-post to be convincing either as a symbol or a man." It is not the function of an Expressionist caricature to be a man; the problem lies in accepting the character as purely the representative of an attitude. Cock-A-Doodle Dandy is a parable in fancy dress. It cannot be judged on the basis of "obvious" versus "believable" characters because it is simply not of the realistic theater.

One reason for the success of Cock-A-Doodle Dandy is its integration of form. By wrapping the play in the sustained atmosphere of a super-realistic world, O'Casey is able to use fantastic devices and exaggerated characters without restraint. The merging of the "real world" and the "symbolic world" that we find at the end of Purple Dust and Oak Leaves and Lavender exists throughout Cock-A-Doodle Dandy…. It is essentially the total repudiation of the fourth wall and the presentation of an Expressionist version of reality, a heightened and exaggerated vision which can show the "thing behind the thing" rather than merely the thing itself.

In his next play, The Bishop's Bonfire, O'Casey again attempted fantastic comedy with a serious message, but the attempt is not wholly successful. (pp. 58-9)

The secondary plot of the play is its weakest point…. O'Casey ends the play in a melodramatic resolution of part of his secondary plot. Foorawn's disappointed lover steals the Church money and when she surprises him in the act, he shoots her. She quickly writes a suicide note absolving him from responsibility, and dies. There is too great a difference between this kind of melodrama and the rich comedy of the main plot. And there is no unifying element to bring them together. David Krause has suggested that "symbol, myth, and fantasy" are "catalytic agents" in Cock-A-Doodle Dandy, and that one of the difficulties with The Bishop's Bonfire is that "there is no symbolic or mythic equivalent" of the Cock to unite the comic and the serious elements. The play lacks the governing atmosphere of Cock-A-Doodle Dandy.

The Drums of Father Ned, like Cock-A-Doodle Dandy, depends heavily on the Expressionist's removal of realistic criteria. The play begins with a "prerumble," in which the street is "outlined only in a dream-like way."… There is an "Echo" which adds ironic emphasis to some of the dialogue, a device which O'Casey uses throughout the play. When the soldiers are forced to leave quickly, they abandon their prisoners, who crawl off the stage in opposite directions, calling each other names. The grim humor is particularly effective. (pp. 59-60)

Father Ned never appears, yet his presence is felt in every scene, and his drums are heard at intervals throughout the play. It is established very clearly that he is the main influence on the young people, O'Casey's heroes, and at first we expect him to appear. But it becomes evident that the reason we do not see him is that he is an idea. (p. 60)

Like the Cock, Father Ned is a force which performs "miracles" and scourges the rascals who would defeat his spirit. The Tostal is a great celebration and Father Ned becomes a kind of presiding God. The fact that we never see him, but only hear about his powers from the other characters, lends an aura of legend and magic to his name. Like Cock-A-Doodle Dandy, The Drums of Father Ned succeeds largely because of its title "character." If Expressionism is primarily concerned with portraying symbols which can represent the "essences" of things, then surely both the Cock and Father Ned must be considered Expressionist creations. The mythic Cock and the omnipresent priest both embody the essentials of joy and celebration which rule the two plays.

In surveying Expressionism in the O'Casey canon, one is struck by the number of attitudes O'Casey shared with the German playwrights. His opinion that Realism was dead, and that a new experimentalism was necessary to revitalize the theater is basic to Expressionism. His continual denunciation of established political and religious institutions and traditional ways of thinking is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the movement. His political sympathies were those of the "Activist" branch of Expressionism, the writers who during and immediately after the war hoped for a successful workers' revolution. Like the German playwrights, O'Casey was in deliberate revolt against the existing order of things, and he used the new and exaggerated methods to emphasize and to dramatize this revolt.

In terms of specific Expressionist techniques, one finds a general principle emerging from the plays. The Silver Tassie contains an Expressionist act sharply divided from its primarily realistic structure. In Within the Gates, O'Casey employed the station drama within a four-act morality play. In The Star Turns Red he used Expressionism to place symbolic emphasis on particular events, and in Red Roses For Me he returned to the separate Expressionist act of The Silver Tassie. But in Purple Dust and Oak Leaves and Lavender O'Casey began to merge with his traditional structure a significant new technique, the dream structure of Expressionism. It is this method which led to the form of Cock-A-Doodle Dandy. In 1934 O'Casey wrote that a "new form in drama" was emerging 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." When O'Casey succeeded in his attempt to "blend" Expressionism with other styles, he achieved a unique form. He himself realized what he had learned about the use of Expressionism when he wrote in 1958 that he "broke away from realism into the chant of the second act of The Silver Tassie. But one scene in as a chant or a work of musical action and dialogue was not enough, so I set about trying to do this in an entire play, and brought forth Cock-A-Doodle Dandy." When O'Casey saw that it "was not enough" to isolate Expressionism, but rather that he could better use its dream structure as governing form, then it helped him to achieve triumphant comedies. (pp. 61-2)

Joan Templeton, "Sean O'Casey and Expressionism," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1971, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), May, 1971, pp. 47-62.

Ronald Ayling

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It is in many ways rewarding to approach Juno and the Paycock together with The Plough and the Stars and The Shadow of a Gunman as a cycle of political and social plays conceived on an epic scale and deeply tinged by an overall tragic vision; a trilogy similar in some respects to Shakespeare's cycle comprising Richard II, Henry IV (two parts), and Richard III. In each series individual plays, though self-contained and complete in themselves, are more meaningful in conjunction with the other plays relating to their particular cycle, and, together with them, add up to a panoramic view of a country in a state of crisis. Of course Shakespeare's plays are more consciously shaped as chronicles of an age, a particular period of history, than are O'Casey's…. O'Casey wrote of the lives and struggles of ordinary men and women at a particular time of social upheaval, and in the process gave the drama something of an epic compass, realising a social and political content that is far wider and deeper than is apparent at first sight.

In chronological order of the subject-matter, The Plough and the Stars (1915–1916), The Shadow of a Gunman (1920), and Juno and the Paycock (1922) cover the most momentous events in recent Irish history, not from the point of view of the political or military leaders, but from that of the ordinary people unwillingly caught up in the indiscriminate savagery and recrimination of civil war and revolution. It is as though Ralph Mouldy, Peter Bullcalf, Francis Feeble and their families were at the centre of the dramatic action (with Bardolph, Nym, and Doll Tearsheet as minor characters) instead of Prince Hal and Hotspur. (pp. 77-8)

In O'Casey, as in Shakespeare's history plays, certain recurrent themes are uppermost: the inter-action of public and private drama, the horror of civil strife and anarchy in the state, and, likewise in both, a continuing debate on the ambiguous demands of justice and order in society.

[Writing] in close proximity to the events he chronicled, [O'Casey] naturally lacked so elaborate or consistent a narrative framework [as Shakespeare in his plays] and the consequent opportunities for cross-reference within plays and from one play to another, yet even so he does succeed in imposing a sense of unity on the Dublin trilogy. This cohesion is maintained by a grim ironic vision of the destructive forces in society, a compassionate concern for the resultant human suffering, a highly idiosyncratic comic technique, and purposeful thematic patterning common to each of these dramas. (p. 78)

Throughout his life O'Casey enriched the surface texture of his writings with a diverse selection of quotations, references, and clichés drawn from both popular and learned sources, using them for a variety of effects, though most often for satire or irony. In Juno and the Paycock the quotations—usually given by Joxer—are deliberately commonplace examples culled from Burns, Macaulay, Scott, Thomas Moore's Melodies, popular proverbs and Irish songs and ballads. (p. 79)

Indeed, the use of allusion on such an extensive, if mostly unobtrusive scale is comparable—though in the Dublin trilogy at a consistently popular, vernacular level—to the poetic practice of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and other modern writers. (pp. 80-1)

Though O'Casey's method developed quite independently, it served similar purposes to those [of Pound and Eliot]. Indeed, the irony works both ways in his case, for certain values of the past are criticised at the same time that their contemporary relevance is questioned. This is particularly true of conventional (that is, chivalric) notions of heroism, of martial glory and chauvinism. Legendary heroes and heroines are introduced at various times but always in a context that undermines the usually accepted valuation of them (always, that is, in the Dublin trilogy, for in later plays like Purple Dust, Red Roses for Me and The Drums of Father Ned the playwright also uses Irish myth in a more straightforward way to symbolise and endorse particular heroic attitudes and spiritual values). (p. 81)

The anti-heroic attitude is buttressed by a formidable assortment of weapons. In Juno, for example, the despicable toady Joxer Daly is one of the author's main agents for working this effect. He is always ready with a made-to-measure, custom-worn quotation to fit any occasion, whether it be a celebration of military bravery (Boyle's imaginary deeds in Easter Week), or of martial valour, or of life at sea. The satire works on various levels: for one thing, there is the credibility gap between what is said and the speaker himself; there is the frequent inappropriateness between what is said and the situation to which it refers; and there is the contrast, too, between what is resolved by the characters being satirised, and what in fact they do. (pp. 81-2)

O'Casey [, however,] is never wholly anti-heroic even in his most pessimistic moments: there is always someone worthy of esteem, always a hint that, despite all appearances to the contrary, there is in unlikely places and people much genuine bravery and self-sacrifice. His writings imply that a good deal of traditional literature, largely concerned with noble heroes and martial feats, has often celebrated courage and self-sacrifice in the wrong people and circumstances; at the same time we are left in no doubt that there is a good deal of positive human endeavour (generally ignored in pre-Modernist literature) that is really worthy of poetic celebration. Juno Boyle is, after all, aptly named: she does assume universal significance by the end of the play and can rightly be regarded as the "goddess" or symbol of womankind and marriage. (p. 83)

He also had the advantage—so often denied to modern writers—that not only did he use material that was common knowledge, nationally, but he also wrote with specific audience attitudes and prejudices in mind, and these could be exploited for his own purposes, too. He could rely upon particular songs and quotations, for instance, having predictable emotive associations for Irish people, and this allowed him to exploit such responses for his own purposes. As a more obvious example one might instance the songs sung by Tommy Owens and Adolphus Grigson in The Shadow of a Gunman. Both have strong emotional overtones either of love or hate for Irish people: "High upon the gallows-tree" used to be sung as a sort of national anthem in patriotic assemblies before "A Soldier's Song" was adopted as the official anthem of the Irish Republic, while "Erin's Orange Lily O!" might be regarded as a sectarian hymn for Northern Irish Protestant extremists. The use of these two antithetical "battle-cries" is carefully plotted by the playwright. By having each sung by drunken and irresponsible hypocrites at particularly "awkward" moments in the dramatic action—one in each of the two acts of the play—the dramatist enhances the overall impression that, for all the sectarian hatred between the two contending political movements, they have much in common in discreditable essentials…. Taken within the full contexts in which they appear, therefore, the ballads reinforce O'Casey's message—a plague on both kinds of extreme chauvinism—without the necessity of him resorting to overtly didactic means. Owens and Grigson condemn themselves out of their own mouths. Both overdo their attempts to ingratiate themselves with Davoren and to impress him with their importance and devotion to particular sectarian "principles." Understandably, the louder their protestations, the less credible are their claims. Because they are shown to be, in the course of the action, only too representative of extreme public opinion (that is, green and orange attitudes) on both sides of "the border," the dramatist's criticisms are therefore general in application. (pp. 83-4)

This is only one of many aggressive methods employed by O'Casey. Other audacious shock tactics include grotesque and disconcerting juxtapositions of incident and verbal response. Moreover, by choosing generally acceptable patriotic and religious sentiments and having them expressed by characters unacceptable to Irish audiences, and by encouraging stock reactions from the latter at what prove to be wholly inappropriate moments in the dramatic action, O'Casey set in motion a series of emotional and intellectual collisions with which to disturb the minds of the spectators. By these and many other conscious devices the playwright attempted to challenge and sometimes subvert the conventional moral and social attitudes of native audiences. He wanted to startle, shock, even scandalize Irish audiences into questioning inherited political and religious beliefs…. (p. 84)

Irish critics especially have refused to see the dramatist as anything other than a slice-of-life realist and, as we might expect with such an approach, many of O'Casey's more obvious satiric effects as well as some subtler touches have been attributed to accidental or historical factors by such critics. (p. 88)

The facts are quite otherwise. Each play for long periods bombards the audience with a wide range of conflicting thoughts and ethical attitudes—seemingly in an objective manner, it is true—putting forward certain basic values which the writer thinks paramount in the particular circumstances, while realising contrary values in ways which are carefully calculated to alienate them from the spectators. The dramatist's deep moral commitment inspires the audacious theatrical experimentation which characterises his Dublin trilogy. The formal daring exhibited in these plays, the liveliness of characters and their vivid idiomatic speech ought not to obscure the fact that such means are used for specific ends. That the plays are rarely as overtly didactic as some of his later works does not mean that they serve no propaganda purpose…. (p. 89)

Ronald Ayling, "Popular Tradition and Individual Talent in Sean O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy" (reprinted by permission of Ronald Ayling and the editor), in Journal of Modern Literature, November, 1972 (and reprinted as "Sean O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy" in Sean O'Casey: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Kilroy, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 77-89).

Julius Novick

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[The Plough and the Stars is] about a war fought at home, with shells exploding in the streets and women shot as they stand at the windows. The war in question, the Easter Rebellion, Dublin, 1916, was less squalid than most: a revolution, a struggle for freedom. Out of it, said Yeats, "a terrible beauty is born."

O'Casey had a somewhat different view. In the first two acts of The Plough he gives us plenty of revolutionary rhetoric and shows it to us as heady stuff, better than beer—and popular for the same reason. The other two acts are devoted to revolutionary reality, including some unexpected heroism and some (highly comic) behavior that is distinctly less than heroic. But for O'Casey the essential reality of war, revolutionary or otherwise, no matter how splendid the principle for which it is fought, is pain, and pain dominates the last half of The Plough and the Stars: fear, madness, miscarriage, and death. No wonder the Irish Nationalists rioted when the play was new; they did not want to see the seamy side of their glorious struggle. O'Casey had been the first secretary of the Irish Citizen Army, but The Plough and the Stars is nothing if not a pacifist play.

Julius Novick, "Take a Member of the IRA," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), November 29, 1976, p. 97.

Bernice Schrank

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Recurring patterns of destructive disorder underlie and link all the elements of [The Shadow of a Gunman] from the sloppiness of Seumas's room to the political messiness of the Irish "troubles." In Shadow, O'Casey creates a universe in which God is dead, the religious professions of his characters are full of violence and cant, the ship of state is going down in a blood-dimmed tide, slum poverty is destroying the privacy and threatening the sanity of its inhabitants, and personal relationships are characterized by selfishness and exploitation.

Since the entire play takes place in Seumas's room, its description ought to help establish a pervasive sense of chaos. Predictably it does. O'Casey's stage directions are explicit and relevant…. The room is a mess and that messiness has far-reaching implications. O'Casey makes the connection between the room's confusion and Donal's and Seumas's psychological states directly. But the room is also a microcosm of the larger world. The confusion outside is mirrored in the jumble of props which litter the room—religious icons, pots and pans, a typewriter, books and flowers. From the start then, the setting creates an atmosphere of chaos congenial to the theme of breakdown which runs through the play.

The disordered setting is surely an appropriate backdrop for projecting a sense of cosmic chaos. O'Casey implies that the universe of Shadow is at best godless; at worst, it is presided over by malevolent forces. When Minnie is taken, Seumas invokes higher and higher deities to protect himself even if it means sacrificing her. His appeal to Saint Anthony, "Holy Saint Anthony grant that she'll keep her mouth shut,"… is followed by further appeals to stronger powers: "God grant she won't say anything," and "God grant she'll keep her mouth shut."… The cowardly and self-serving quality of these prayers is emphasized by the Biblical form of the subject and verb and the colloquialism of the object. Ironically, however, the prayers are granted. Minnie is permanently silenced, shot accidentally in cross-fire between Irish patriots and Black and Tans. If God has indeed answered Seumas, He is petty and irrational and His presence in the universe is far from consoling. Of course it is more probable that Seumas's prayer bears no relation to Minnie's accidental death. Seumas himself explains that event in terms of "the tappin' on the wall."… There does not appear to be much difference between imaginary noises and God's intervention in either Seumas's or O'Casey's minds. The effect of equating the two, however, is to deny the presence of God in the universe of Shadow. (pp. 54-5)

Granted that God has been banished from Shadow, it follows that sincere religious belief is irrelevant because it does not correspond to the play's metaphysical reality. O'Casey's Christians, however, are rarely sincere. Often, as in Shadow, the self-consciously Christian characters are hypocrites. Religion offers people like Seumas and Grigson a convenient way of sugar-coating their hostility and aggression…. The religion of Ireland as revealed in The Shadow of a Gunman is violence decked out in Christian trimmings.

This coupling of Christianity and violence has a political side. Seumas's oft-quoted speech on the state of Ireland convincingly suggests that the religion of violence is more than a private aberration, it is a political disease afflicting the whole society. (p. 55)

Shadow of a Gunman is about living under conditions of social instability and collapse…. The fact that Minnie is shot accidentally in cross-fire between the Irregulars and the Black and Tans illustrates the murderous quality of both sides….

One of the meanings of the title which the play dramatizes so well is the long shadow cast over all the action, however innocuous, trivial, or apolitical, by the "troubles."…

By superimposing the slum poverty on the "troubles" and the religious chaos, O'Casey provides The Shadow of a Gunman with a very credible external reality in which to locate the domestic and personal symptoms of breakdown. It is certainly true that the predatory qualities of the characters abet the religious, political and economic disintegration which Shadow dramatizes. The play thus suggests the interrelationship between religious collapse, political upheaval, economic oppression and individual manifestations of brutality. Undeclared war describes the social and the political situation; it is also a good metaphor for the exploitative personal relationships between the characters. (p. 56)

The life of the tenement is contagiously and effortlessly destructive. Through some fatal mixture of personality and environment, decent characters like Mrs. Henderson and egotists like Tommy Owens turn into unpleasant bullies.

Mr. Gallogher and Mrs. Grigson are interesting but minor examples of O'Casey's theme of exploitation. Its fullest treatment is reserved for the sacrifice of Minnie Powell. In one sense, Minnie offers herself. She takes the bombs of her own free will to save Donal and, at the same time, she also manages to save Seumas. In another, profounder sense, Minnie is set up as sacrificial victim.

Minnie's action in this light is not so much a matter of rational decision as of impulsive gesture based on several seemingly trivial and harmless, yet mistaken, beliefs…. Minnie's beliefs are … a complicated and dangerous amalgam of passion, patriotism, propaganda and romantic fantasy. Minnie is too unreflective a character to sort out her beliefs and discard the illusions. Although Donal appreciates the falseness of some of Minnie's beliefs, particularly the ones that involve him, he does not attempt to separate fact from fancy. In effect, Donal encourages Minnie's fantasies. At first, they make him feel important; during the raid, they protect him…. She is the victim of a chance bullet, her own romantic illusions, the patriotic madness of her society and the cowardice and selfishness of Donal and Seumas. (p. 58)

[Donal's] complicity and Minnie's memory both fade as Donal takes stage centre for a final Shelleyian thrust of words.

Ah me, alas! Pain, pain, pain, ever, for ever! It's terrible to think that little Minnie is dead, but it's still more terrible to think that Davoren and Shields are alive! Oh, Donal Davoren, shame is your portion now till the silver cord is loosened and the golden bowl be broken. Oh, Davoren, Donal Davoren, poet and poltroon, poltroon and poet….

Not only have the phrases become more measured and poetic, but the pronouns of his previous speech have been translated into nouns. Rather than Donal expressing himself, Donal the poet is watching Donal the man expressing himself. And it is Donal, not Minnie, who is chief in his mind. As his immediate response yields to aesthetic distancing, Donal refashions Minnie's death into a lament for himself. Thus Minnie's death, like her life, is exploited.

From all that has been said, it seems fair to conclude that in The Shadow of a Gunman, O'Casey goes to considerable pains to present a thoroughgoing picture of breakdown. The sacrifice of Minnie Powell, the exploitative domestic relationships in the tenements, the economic deprivations, the murderous political strife, the religious hypocrisy and the vacuum in the sky unmistakably convey a sense of chaotic conditions and man's inadequate responses.

Belying these manifestations of breakdown, however, is the unquenchable talk of the play's tenement dwellers. By its very exuberance, it seems to express affirmation. But the talk, in spite of its exuberance, is the best illustration of how the characters are locked into the prevailing breakdown. Although everyone in the play talks, no one seems to care consistently whether or not his words have precise and literal meaning. For Maguire, language is a diversionary tactic. For Gallogher, Owens, Grigson, Shields and Davoren himself, talk is a form of escape from the slums, from the "troubles" and from a nagging sense of their own impotence. The flow of words induces a drugged stage of well-being in them where all sense of the necessary relationship between words and action is lost.

When action does occur, it tends to explode unexpectedly somewhere off stage. Maguire's fate and Minnie's sacrifice are violent examples of the failure of language to connect to action in this play. Maguire waltzes on and off stage talking about butterflies; he leaves a bag without telling anyone that it contains bombs. Later, he is reported killed in an I.R.A. action. In retrospect, his talk seems intentionally misdirected, while his true purpose is unaccompanied by any explanations. Meanwhile, Minnie goes off to die for the gunman on the run, her fantasy Donal who has nothing in common with the real Donal that O'Casey sets before the audience. Her final words, coming from offstage, ought to illuminate her action. But they are discredited slogans that bear no relation to reality. Maguire's and Minnie's words are, in different ways, strangers to their actions. (pp. 58-9)

Donal and Seumas finish as they began, talking irrelevantly. Donal's poetry floods the play with words as he attempts to bridge art and life like his model Shelley. But Donal's poetry proves hopelessly escapist. He is unable to come to terms with Minnie's death, hiding instead behind the soothing alliteration of "poet and poltroon." Seumas's religious commentary, like Donal's poetry, is spread over the whole play. From the beginning, Seumas uses it as a vehicle for expressing his anger and his jealousy rather than his holiness. When, at the end, he explains the traumatic events by "the tappin' on the wall," he shows his religious vocabulary to be nothing more than a noisy gloss for superstition. The implications of Maguire's and Minnie's actions are dissipated in this unceasing yet empty talk. Donal and Seumas, like Maguire and Minnie, are unwilling or unable to connect language and action. In this way, the misuse of language contributes a major share to the play's expression of chaos.

O'Casey has thus locked his characters into negative patterns of behaviour and thrown away the key. The most vital characters like Minnie are destroyed and weaker characters like Donal understand yet cannot alter the fact that their energies are being dissipated and perverted. No character escapes the general demoralization because the world O'Casey creates in Shadow is in all its aspects hostile to life. (pp. 59-60)

Bernice Schrank, "Poets, Poltroons and Platitudes: A Study of Sean O'Casey's 'The Shadow of a Gunman'," in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Study of Literature and Ideas (copyright © 1977 by the University of Manitoba Press; acknowledgment of previous publication is herewith made), Vol. XI, No. 1 (Fall, 1977), pp. 53-60.


O'Casey, Sean (Vol. 1)


O'Casey, Sean (Vol. 5)