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.)
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).
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 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)
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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