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SOURCE: A review of Two Plays: Juno and the Paycock [and] The Shadow of a Gunman, in The New York Times Book Review, March 8, 1925, p. 5.
[In the following review of Juno and the Paycock and The Shadow of a Gunman, the critic hails O'Casey as an impressive talent whose early work "deserves serious consideration."]
The chaotic Dublin of 1920 and 1922 furnishes Sean O'Casey the material for his two vivid dramas, Juno and the Paycock and The Shadow of a Gunman, in Two Plays. These efforts, ruthless enough in their depiction of a reality that was a matter of blood and murder, move with surprising speed and comprehension of dramatic value, and yet, at the same time, they are lighted by a broad humor that is laughable enough on the surface but which, taken with the subject involved, reveals sardonic undercurrents. Mr. O'Casey is frankly melodramatic when its suits his purpose to be so, and his humor is often enough a stage matter, "fat stuff," as an actor would say, and calculated to arouse the laughter of a popular audience. And yet the reader will never lose the impression of a depth in these plays that is not always visible on the surface. There are tragic connotations that lose themselves in a befuddled sense of the obligations toward life that are part of a man's heritage.
Mr. O'Casey is no philosopher; he is a somewhat stark expositor, who is building plays that are meant to act well and which, from a reading, seem to fulfill all the requirements of suspense, thrill, humor and vivid characterization. But he is also an artist and it is within his province as a playwright to find form and sincerity in his material. Gifted with the power of creating a rich and colorful dialogue that is artful in its dramatic possibilities, he sets to work to show through two groups of people in two of the poorer tenements the chaotic whirlpool of that Dublin that passed through the guerrilla warfare of the Irregulars and the Black and Tans. The result is both thrilling and depressing. There are gunfire, ambushes, raids, seductions, cowardice, poverty, drunkenness, all the concomitants that follow hard on any liberating movement that depends on force. Through all this is threaded a spiritual revelation that is both pathetic and disturbing. It wounds the heart of man to think that life is so constituted, and yet it so smacks of the verisimilitude of life that the reader automatically accepts it as it is revealed.
Juno and the Paycock is the better of these two plays, for here Mr. O'Casey develops an essentially serious action in an almost constant comedy medium. Curiously enough, the reader will realize no disparity between the medium and the subject. This play presents as its central character a drunken loafer and braggart with an engaging tongue, who watches regardlessly as his little world, poverty-stricken enough in the first place, falls to pieces about him. "Captain" Jack Boyle is a character rich in acting possibilities, and as the reader follows him through his imbroglio, noting how the wastrel counts on the legacy that never comes to recoup his fallen fortunes, and leaves him careless and drunken in his wretched house, from which his wife has hurried to look upon the face of her dead son—killed by the Irregulars for alleged treachery—a violent desire must spring up to see some clever actor in this role. It is crammed with possibilities. The spiritual flavor of the play may be acrid but it rings true. Boyle is the engaging loafer altogether too fond of his poteen, singing his Irish patriotic songs with a high air, and letting his world fall into ruins about him. His daughter is seduced and deserted by a young Englishman. The very furniture is removed from the house for debt. Misfortune piles upon misfortune, and still Boyle exists in his boastful imaginative world of big words and no deeds. All this is deplorable enough, but the reader does not pity Boyle so much as the women—as Boyle's wife Juno and his daughter Mary. It is upon their puny shoulders that the eventual degradations come.
In The Shadow of a Gunman, the second play in this impressive book, it is again the women who suffer. Donal Davoren is the typical poet, who is paralysed in the face of action. This hardly seems to ring true of those fierce Dublin days, for it was the poets, the writers, the thinkers, who crumpled up first of all before the withering gunfire. But for the sake of Mr. O'Casey's theme he is quite justified in making his leading male character a writer who constantly quotes Shelley. The pretty city girl is charmed by the poet who takes the suitcase of bombs to her room when the Black and Tans raid the tenement and is shot down when she tries to escape from the lorry. Davoren is under suspicion of being a gunman because he lives so quietly, and there is a subtle mockery in this characterization of a man who is incapable of action, who can hear an innocent girl being hurried from the house and to her death, and who yet receives the plaudits and admiration of the Republican-minded folk about him. Fate places him in this milieu and he is lacking in the strength of will to surmount the situation that leaves him a confessed coward. The Shadow of a Gunman is a more subdued play than Juno and the Paycock, in that it hardly depends upon comedy elements to carry it forward. But there is reason for this, because the characterization is of a different order. The theme does not permit such personages as the Jack Boyle, Joxer Daly and Mrs. Madigan of the first drama. Juno Boyle in Juno and the Paycock cries out, "Ah, what can God do agen the stupidity o' men!" and both of these plays seem to be more or less directly based upon this text. It is through the stupidity, the fear, the avarice, the drunkenness of men, that all the woes of the women in these two plays come into being. Mr. O'Casey is an impressive realist here.
The playwright's name will be new to readers of Irish plays, but his two dramas should prove sufficient to show that that dramatic urge that began so many years ago with Yeats, Martyn, Colum and Synge has not died. It may have flickered down during the past decade, but the dramatic instincts of the Irish writers continue to exist, and every now and then something impressive like the work of Mr. O'Casey happens and those who know breathe a sigh of relief. It would be a rather foolish procedure to attempt any comparison of Mr. O'Casey with the older Irish dramatists on the strength of these two plays, for, fine as they are, they are no more than a beginning. If he is to be another Synge he will have to do better than this. He will have to reach the authentic plane of tragedy or of high comedy, and in neither Juno and the Paycock nor The Shadow of a Gunman has he reached those proud eminences as yet. But what he has done deserves serious consideration, for his plays are among the first things to come out of that new Ireland that was baptized with machine gunfire only a few years ago.
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Sean O'Casey 1880–1964
(Born John Casey; also wrote under pseudonym Sean O'Cathasaigh) Irish dramatist, autobiographer, poet, short story writer, and critic.
The following entry provides an overview of O'Casey's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 5, 9, 11, and 15.
Considered by many critics to be one of the most original and accomplished dramatists of the twentieth century, O'Casey is noted for formally innovative and aggressively iconoclastic plays in which he condemns war, satirizes the follies of the Irish people, and celebrates the perseverance of the working class. In addition to his standing as a major playwright, O'Casey is esteemed for his impassioned, combative criticism and for an acclaimed series of autobiographies. A highly controversial figure, O'Casey openly expressed his Irish nationalist sympathies and advocacy of communism throughout his life.
O'Casey was born John Casey to working-class Protestant parents in predominantly Catholic Dublin. His father died when O'Casey was only six years old, and this event exacerbated the family's already precarious financial position. Due to his family's economic standing, O'Casey, who suffered from a disease which seriously affected his eyes throughout his life, consequently received little formal education. In spite of these disadvantages, O'Casey read Shakespeare and the English classics extensively during his teens, simultaneously supporting himself with a series of clerical and manual labor jobs. Sometime around 1906, he left the Protestant church, became an agnostic, and began to cultivate ardent nationalist feelings. O'Casey joined The Gaelic League, which spurred his self-education in the Gaelic language and its literature, and later joined the Irish Brotherhood, the radical organization responsible for planning the 1916 Easter Rebellion. After publishing several collections of lyrical ballads and poems under the Gaelic pseudonym Sean O'Cathasaigh in 1918, he turned to writing plays. Rejecting O'Casey's early submissions, the Abbey Theatre of Dublin eventually accepted The Shadow of a Gunman, staging its first performance in 1923. Despite the success of The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926), the Abbey's directors, including the famed Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, rejected The Silver Tassie (1929), which is noted for its deeply nihilistic depiction of war and disconcerting use of expressionistic technique. In subsequent plays O'Casey abandoned the conventions of dramatic realism and opted for a highly rhetorical and formalistic style which foregrounded his poetic and ideo-logical sensibilities. During the 1930s O'Casey published only one play but made significant progress on his autobiography. Ostracized by most theater critics as much on the basis of his political affiliations as for his highly formalized style of playwriting, O'Casey had relatively few plays staged during the remainder of his career. In spite of a revived interest in O'Casey's work beginning in the 1960s, he remained aloof from the public and declined several honorary doctorates. He died in 1964.
The Shadow of a Gunman, O'Casey's first staged play, is a lyrical tragicomedy about the political violence in Dublin's tenements told from the perspective of its working-class victims. Transcending propaganda, the play articulates one of O'Casey's central themes: the impersonal brutality and absurdity of war. His following two plays, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, focus on the civil war in Ireland—the former from the perspective of a troubled family whose dissension and strife mirror the national situation and the latter from the standpoint of an entire tenement house. In both plays O'Casey dramatized the horrors of slum life, which, he stressed, parallel the destruction of war, but suggested that life in the tenements is redeemed by the humanity of its women. Though similar in theme to his earlier plays, The Silver Tassie, which examines the impact of World War I on Irish and British soldiers, represents a significant departure from his previous style. In particular, the second act, which features an expressionistic blend of colloquial speech, plainsong chants, and an apocalyptic setting representing the front lines in Flanders, proved disconcerting for audiences and critics. O'Casey's penchant for expressionistic devices and stylized dialogue is even more evident in subsequent plays, including Within the Gates (1934), an ambitious attempt to dramatize the multifarious interactions of people filtering through a crowded urban park, and Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), a farcical satire of rural Irish customs and folklore. O'Casey is also known for his multi-volume autobiography, which he began with I Knock at the Door (1939) and concluded with Sunset and Evening Star (1954).
While critical praise is fairly unanimous for O'Casey's first three major plays, which are naturalistic in style and presentation, some critics have condemned the works following The Silver Tassie as overly didactic, ideological propaganda pieces rather than exemplars of expressionist theater. Richard Gilman, for example, suggests that O'Casey's work cannot bear the weight of his reputation as a major dramatist: "There are too many bad and even deeply embarrassing plays in his oeuvre … and too many esthetic sins of naiveté, rhetorical excess, sentimentality and tendentiousness in all but his very best work." At the opposite extreme, O'Casey's most sympathetic advocates assert that his achievements in playwriting and autobiography have been insufficiently recognized and that mainstream commentators have failed to appreciate the poetic richness of O'Casey's language and his virtuosic handling of expressionist technique. In the judgment of critic Carol Kleiman, O'Casey was a visionary who pioneered some of the major trends in contemporary theater: "[The] 'humanly absurd' aspect of O'Casey's theatre, embodied in … all those elements which O'Casey uses to create his own kind of stage poetry … allows us to view his plays as an unacknowledged seedbed from which grew many of the dramatic motifs and techniques of the Theatre of the Absurd."
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SOURCE: A review of Two Plays, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. II, No. 5, August 29, 1925, p. 78.
[In the following excerpt, Campbell contends that Juno and the Paycock and Shadow of a Gunman authentically and sympathetically portray Dublin's working classes and that these dramas also espouse a feminist political agenda.]
The action of Two Plays is almost contemporary. Juno and the Paycock is dated 1922, The Shadow of a Gunman, 1920; but in each case the setting is a Dublin tenement—antique, once splendid, the town-house, perhaps, of some buck of the wig and silk stocking period, but now squalid and tottering. Things are so bad, that it would appear difficult to make any improvement in such places, short of demolition. Both plays are labelled tragedies; rather are they ironic comedies. The fact that they mirror poverty, and poverty seen at its drabbest in war, does not prevent them from being funny to the point of caricature. Hogarth might have written them, had he been a dramatist. The word tragedy, in the Aristotelian sense, implies something that cleanses through pity and terror. Shock—a thorough shaking out of my equanimity—was the vibration I got from reading the plays; Abbey Theater audiences have, I understand, laughed at them as they would at a farce of Lady Gregory's.
The plots are so immaterial, as to make one wonder that so fragile a skeleton can hold together so much robust flesh and blood of character. Certain critics will plead for the architectonic side of the plays, but to me it is in character-drawing that their excellence lies. Mr. James Stephens made the statement recently that Mr. O'Casey, himself only a labor-worker unused to the handling of a pen, had taught the Dublin littérateurs how to write. While there is a deal of leprachaunish flightiness in what Mr. Stephens says, he is pretty near the mark here. To be able to evoke sentiment, breathing creatures—men and women with the impress of life upon them—out of blank space is half the creative writer's equipment. It is the touchstone of all the great literary artists from Shakespeare to Chekov, and Mr. O'Casey is a juvenist of their order. High praise, but praise deserved.
The story of Juno and the Paycock turns on the hopes and ultimate disillusionment of a family of Dublin workers. Captain Jack Boyle, the father, might be described more properly as a chronic looker-for-work—a scrounger—rather than a worker. He has been left a fortune of about eight thousand dollars by a cousin, a Mr. Ellison, who has just died in the country. The fortune turns out to be mythical, and my brave Captain, having acquired a gramophone, a gaudily-upholstered lounge and armchair, cheap pictures, vases, and other impedimenta of the propertied on the strength of it, strikes his flag, and resumes his old cadging habits.
The Captain is a man on in years, with a bullet head and reddish-purple cheeks. He has been "wanst on the wather in on oul' collier" trading between Dublin and Liverpool; he habitually wears a faded seaman's cap with a glazed peak—hence the nautical sobriquet. He has an alter ego in one Joxer Daly. With him he goes "struttin' about the town like a paycock." An inimitable duo, comparable in their line with Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, or with Falstaff and Bardolph. Wherever Joxer is the Captain is—"drinkin' in some snug or other." "Now an' agen we have our differ," says the Captain, "but we're there together all the time." And Joxer answers: "Me for you, an you for me, like the two Musketeers." The Captain has a temperamental aversion to what he calls "climbin' jobs," that is, jobs involving the ascent of a ladder in building operations. But the mere suggestion of work of any kind (and Father Farrel, the local priest, occasionally gets him a start) brings on violent rheumatic pains in his legs. "That man'll be lookin' for somethin' on the Day of Judgment," says his wife, Juno, in Act I. And in Act III, "He'll be hopeless till the end of his days."
The father of the Karamazovs—aristocratic buffoon, drunkard, squanderer of the chances of life—in Dostoievsky's novel, is a tragic figure; Captain Boyle—a proletarian of corresponding type—in Mr. O'Casey's play, is not.
Joxer is a familiar Dublin specimen, but Mr. O'Casey's net has been the first to catch him. He looks a lot older than his butty. His face is a wisp of crinkled paper. He is spare and loosely built. He has a habit of constantly shrugging his shoulders with a peculiar twitching movement meant to be ingratiating. He has tags of proverbial learning, he quotes patriotic poetry on the slightest provocation, and in his sentimental moods he sings songs with his eyes shut. A foxy matterjack,—"past Chief Ranger of the Dear Little Shamrock Branch of the Irish National Foresters," a semi-political, semi-mutual-benefit organization, whose members parade on St. Patrick's Day in Robert Emmet costume. There is a scene in Act I between the pair which is the apotheosis of ironic comedy. The Captain is holding forth on his imaginary exploits when he went sailing from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. He describes his alleged hardships and perils at length. Then there is a pause, and he says:
… an' it blowed, an' blowed—blew is the right word, Joxer, but blowed is what the sailors use …
JOXER. Aw, it's a darlin' word, a daarlin' word.
BOYLE. An', as it blowed an' blowed, I often looked up at the sky an' assed meself the question—what is the stars?
VOICE OF COAL-VENDOR, OUTSIDE. Any blocks, coal-blocks; blocks, coal-blocks!
JOXER. Ah, that's the question,—What is the stars?
Between them, with their idle drinking habits and idler talk, Juno Boyle has an uncomfortable time. She is forty-five. Twenty years ago she must have been a pretty woman; but her face has now assumed that look which ultimately settles upon the faces of the women of the working-class. We know that look. We see it on the sidewalks, and in trolley-cars and subway trains every day: carefree beauty giving place to an expression of harassed anxiety and mechanical resistance. Captain Boyle explains to the schoolmaster, Bentham, who has brought him news of the legacy, how she came by her mythological name:
You see, Juno was born an' christened in June; I met her in June; we were married in June, an' Johnny was born in June, so wan day I says to her, "You should a' been called Juno," an' the name stuck to her ever since.
In another place he complains that "tis n't Juno should be her pet name at all, but Deirdre of the Sorras, for she's always grousin'." But she has her tu quoque. "Amn't I nicely handicapped with the whole o' youse!" And she is, poor woman; for on her shoulders fall not only the consequences of her husband's and Joxer's misdeeds, but the troubles of her son and daughter as well.
Juno, being a woman, succumbs to the feeling of prodigality felt by her husband when the "banjax of a will" is first read to him. She launches on a sea of unaccustomed expenditure, while having (womanlike, again) a secret dread that it will all turn out badly. When the crash comes at last—when the very foundations of existence seem to be slipping from under her, it is then Juno shows her womanly mettle and rises to her true height. "Who has kep' the home together for the past few years," she cries with passionate remonstrance—"only me? An' who'll have to bear the biggest part o' this throuble but me?" and to her daughter, who in the lunacy of her grief denies there is a God—"there isn't a God: if there was He wouldn't let these things happen!"—she says.
Mary, Mary, you mustn't say them things. We'll want all the help we can get from God an' His Blessed Mother now! These things have nothin' to do with the Will o' God. Ah, what can God do agen the stupidity o' men!
Juno and the Paycock is a feminist document. Defenders of Art-for-Art's sake would, I suppose, protest that the dramatist is not concerned with the exposition of any special theory, or with putting before the public propaganda for any particular cause. They may be right; they may be wrong. But this play affects me in the same way that Measure for Measure does, or that Anna Karenina does. It points an accusing finger at men: it sets woman on a pedestal.
The Shadow of a Gunman is not, by a long way, as good as its fellow. It is a study of the Black and Tan period, when it was dangerous to be in the Irish movement and equally dangerous to be out. There is a raid by British Auxiliaries in Act II, which gives a thrilling picture of what Dublin had to endure in the cataclysmic years, 1920–21. Mr. O'Casey's touch is not so sure in this play as in the other; it bears the sign-manual of apprenticeship. Donal Davoren is such a poet as one never met on sea or land. But there is Mrs. Grigson, the cave-dweller; and her loyalist husband, Adolphus; and Mr. Gallogher and Mrs. Henderson—creations in the author's best comic vein.
And there is Minnie Powell, who stands up to the soldiers when strong men blench and run away. The cloven hoof of feminism again!
I hope New Yorkers will soon have an opportunity of seeing Mr. O'Casey's work on the stage. They will admire his strongly-painted portraits. They will enjoy the humorous sallies of folk who, with true Irish paradox, live the saddest of lives.
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Lament for Thomas Ashe [as Sean O'Cathasaigh] (prose) 1917
The Story of Thomas Ashe [as Sean O'Cathasaigh] (prose) 1917
Songs of the Wren No. 1 [as Sean O'Cathasaigh] (verse) 1918
Songs of the Wren No. 2 [as Sean O'Cathasaigh] (verse) 1918
More Wren Songs [as Sean O'Cathasaigh] (verse) 1918
The Story of the Irish Citizen Army [as Sean O'Cathasaigh] (essay) 1919
∗The Shadow of a Gunman (drama) 1923
∗Juno and the Paycock (drama) 1924
The Plough and the Stars (drama) 1926
The Silver Tassie (drama) 1929
Windfalls (short stories, poems, and dramas) 1934
Within the Gates (drama) 1934
The Flying Wasp (criticism) 1937
I Knock at the Door: Swift Glances Back at Things That Made Me (autobiography) 1939
The Star Turns Red (drama) 1940
Pictures in the Hallway (autobiography) 1942
Purple Dust (drama) 1943
Red Roses for Me (drama) 1943
Drums Under the Windows (autobiography) 1945
Oak Leaves and Lavender; or A World on Wallpaper (drama) 1946
Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (drama) 1949
Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (autobiography) 1949
Collected Plays. 4 vols. (dramas) 1949–1952
Rose and Crown (autobiography) 1952
Sunset and Evening Star (autobiography) 1954
The Bishop's Bonfire: A Sad Play within the Tune of a Polka (drama) 1955
The Green Crow (criticism) 1956
Mirror in My House: The Autobiographies of Sean O'Casey. 2 vols. (autobiography) 1956
The Drums of Father Ned (drama) 1960
Behind the Green Curtains (drama) 1962
Feathers from the Green Crow [edited by Robert Hogan] (criticism) 1962
Figuro in the Night (drama) 1962
The Moon Shines on Kylenamoe (drama) 1962
Under a Colored Cap: Articles Merry and Mournful with Comments and a Song (criticism) 1963
The Letters of Sean O'Casey. 4 vols. [edited by David Krause] (letters) 1975–1992
The Complete Plays of Sean O'Casey (dramas) 1984
∗These two works were collectively published as Two Plays.
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SOURCE: "Sean O'Casey, Up to 12," in The New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1939, pp. 4, 16.
[In the following review of I Knock at the Door, the first of O'Casey's autobiographies, Reynolds asserts that the book's dramatic portraits and dialogue prove "again what a greatly gifted dramatist O'Casey is."]
Here at last is a book [I Knock at the Door: Swift Glances Back at Things That Made Me] many of us have waited ten years to see. Here is O'Casey's autobiography from the day he was born in Dorset Street, Dublin, the son of Susan Arthur Casey of the County Wicklow and Michael Harding Casey, a Limerick man, until, at the age of 12, he learned to recite Tennyson's "Brook," kissed Jennie Clitheroe and knocked at the door of life.
It is, of course, a book every admirer of his plays will want to own. It's a queer kind of autobiography—O'Casey has his own way of doing everything—much of it cast into the form of dream and fairy tale, all of it written in a style which lapses often into song, tag, jingle and burlesque use of trite phrase. Everybody talks O'Casey, his ma, his da, his brothers and sister, cabmen and colonels, oldsters and kidgers; every one from the Viceroy on his white steed to the man in the tram with the wide watery mouth and the mustache drooping over it like a weeping willow. All of the long Joycean soliloquies which leave us breathless are out of O'Casey's, not his characters', stream of consciousness. Much of the speech—the ribald talk of the cabmen at his father's funeral, his mother's angry comment on the world's treatment of her favorite chick, for instance—has the magnificence of the dialogue of the Irish plays.
Normally, a man who had had so bitter and sour a childhood would, I think, want to forget it, and, if he were obliged to remember it, would recall it with pain. But O'Casey seems to enjoy bringing back to the bar of memory all the aches and pains, the sorrows and disappointments of a miserable, unhappy boyhood. It is as if he said: "Johnny went through all this while you and your like looked on and did nothing. Now, by God, you're going to read it! I'll rub your noses in it. I'll make you feel every stab of pain in Johnny's ulcered eyes, every whack of the schoolmaster's cane on his poor shivering buttocks."
It's a cinch to point out the faults of so strongly marked a way of writing. O'Casey is occasionally sentimental from failure to see around the corner to the other man's point of view. Too much of the writing is bathed in an almost frivolous mood of cynical satire. He is much too fond of the flowers of rhetoric. All through the book runs an unfortunate note of self-pity which self-criticism should have expunged. This self-pity, however, is corrected by an accompanying objectivity. O'Casey has divided himself in attitude. Johnny is very sorry for himself. O'Casey is detached.
But how easily we forget these faults in the glow, warmth and rich savor of the writing! This book proves again what a greatly gifted dramatist O'Casey is. For all his nearsightedness, his small-pupiled eyes seize unerringly on the salient detail of dress or posture or behavior which can bring a character smack before us. He can grab a man out of the streets by his yellow muffler or his drooping mustache and shake gorgeous comedy out of him, making every cut of his jib leap out of the rhythms of his speech, tagging a man to his navel by the way he spits or paws his face with his hand.
The portrait of his da, the strictly principled, devoted-to-education Protestant workman whose wake and funeral provide memorable chapters, is a grand bit of reminiscent writing. He stands foursquare to his environment, in honor, resignation and good old-fashioned principle, a corrective for the smilingly monsterish Reverend Mr. Hunter. Beside him, cooking, washing, scrubbing and protecting her youngest, moves the figure of O'Casey's ma, with her wide mouth, black hair parted in the middle and the gay ringing laugh.
In this story of Johnny, O'Casey has done what so far as I know no Irish writer has done before him. He has given us a full and passionately felt picture of Irish Protestantism, revealed just how and to what degree it can mark the mind of the young. The parallel with Joyce is inescapable. What Irish Catholicism and its ritual are to him, Irish Protestantism and the Prayer Book and the King James Bible are to O'Casey. I Knock at the Door is the Protestant analogue of the chapel and school scenes in A Portrait of an Artist. It is no less a work of rare courage, honesty and the power to release what is significant in the experience of youth.
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SOURCE: "An Irish Proletarian," in The New Statesman & Nation, Vol. XXXVII, No. 937, February 19, 1949, pp. 184-85.
[MacNeice was an Irish-born English poet, playwright, critic and educator. In the following review of Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well, he faults O'Casey's writing as overly polemical and intemperate, yet concludes that its vitality and verbal invention redeem these shortcomings.]
The fourth and last volume in Mr. O'Casey's record of his Irish experiences [Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well], which this time include the Troubles and the Abbey Theatre, again throws much light both on Ireland and on O'Casey. There are many very good things in it and some pretty bad ones, but even the latter are illuminating; this man who brought something new and virile into the modern theatre remains for better or worse a creator. He may be unjust, but he is sincere; he may be naive, but he is alive; he may sow with the whole sack, but it is his own sack. He is the most powerful "proletarian" writer we have, one who, in his own words, "would ever preserve, ever wear—though he would never flaunt it—the tattered badge of his tribe." (I query merely the clause that I have italicised.) He tells us that his Irish critics in the Twenties accused him of "exploiting the poor," a judgment which illustrates not only the well-known malice of the Dublin intelligentsia, but also their cowardice when faced with uncomfortable facts. O'Casey, who says truly that "there were few things in Dublin more conventional than the boastful, free-and-easy manners of its bohemianism," is no respecter either of conventions or of persons.
This refusal to compromise is both his strength and his weakness. There is perhaps no other writer of his calibre using the English language to-day who shows less self-criticism and self-discipline. Incorrigibly slap-dash he often here, as elsewhere, travesties his own profoundest feelings and perceptions by a kind of writing which belongs to a twopence-coloured novelette. A plethora of ready-made epithets such as third-rate writers use to make poignant what they do not feel, is found in O'Casey obscuring his intensest feelings of what is most poignant by its nature. And this over-emphasis and crudity of style are linked, as they are in Dickens, with a major flaw—a flaw of the intellect—which can only be called sentimentality. This is not, of course, the sentimentality of someone who fakes his feelings; it is that of the muddled crusader who lacks a sense of proportion. O'Casey in his earlier days was labelled a realist, and still calls himself a rationalist, but he is, in fact, a romantic. Only a romantic could indict the Roman Catholic Church for its interference with freedom of thought and of discussion and, almost in the same breath, utter a hymn to the Red Star which beats the lushest of orthodox hymnographers on their own ground.
To see the world in terms of sheep, all white or all red, and of goats as black as top hats or a priest's robes is an asset perhaps to a prophet or pamphleteer, but is not what we expect from a dramatist. And a distinction is apparent between O'Casey the dramatist and O'Casey the dithyrambist. The characters of his earlier plays emerge as individuals—neither black nor white but multi-coloured as in life. When keeping his eye on the people he knew he had ample scope for those surprises so characteristic of life and so necessary to a dramatist. Bessie Burgess in The Plough and the Stars behaves very oddly—but truly. The recognition of such human inconsistency gives a dramatist two things he needs—irony and concentration. It is the sheep-and-goaters, not those who see life as complex, who lose themselves in verbosity. O'Casey throughout his autobiography alternates between irony and naivety, between concentration and diffuseness. "Do the insurance companies pay if a man is shot after curfew?" That one line from The Shadow of a Gunman is worth pages of slogan-plugging, and O'Casey can still tap that vein when he lets the people speak—not the masses nor the megaphones, but the people whom that phrase, "the masses," disembodies. The best thing in this new book is a chapter called "The Raid"; here again is a multum in parvo of tangled emotions and issues, here again the ironic pay-off that lifts reporting into tragedy. This chapter would make a magnificent one-act play.
O'Casey at his best, then, writes about real people but we should not, even in his earlier work, simply label him "realist." Mr. Sean O'Faolain has recently done so ("unassuaged realism" was his phrase), contrasting him with Synge, but the two playwrights have much in common. An early critique by F. R. Higgins, though quoted with resentment by O'Casey, touches at least on the other half of the truth in suggesting that the Dublin plays show "a technique based on the revue structure." The prominence in the plays of song, of tags of poetry and of incantatory speech, is, like Synge's over-packing of imagery, at least an "assuagement" of realism. Irish peasants do use striking imagery and Dublin slum-dwellers do sing songs in the most unlikely circumstances but both Synge and O'Casey have greatly strengthened the mixture—and quite right too; they are dramatists. But the ingredients were drawn from life, from a particular life; it was when O'Casey left the Dublin scene that, in such sentimental plays as Within the Gates or Oak Leaves and Lavender, he got the ingredients themselves wrong. It should be added that this declared Communist and rationalist has always been obsessed with religion. Thus both his last two books have been dedicated to the memory of Maynooth professors. These two Roman Catholic teachers were to some extent rebels within the fold but what goes on in that fold seems to fascinate this Dublin Protestant turned Communist. And the Catholic butler in his latest play remains more genuinely eloquent than the butler's Communist son. In Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well nothing could be more bitter than the attacks, sometimes merited, on the Roman Catholic bishops in Ireland but as usual, when he starts to propagandise, O'Casey spoils his case by over-simplifying. It is too easy a score to set. Stalin's Life of Lenin against Sir Joseph Glynn's Life of Matt Talbot (the Dublin labourer who was beatified for wearing cart chains next his skin.)
Compared with O'Casey's previous autobiographical books this final movement is monochrome and sober. He has here abandoned—and it is no great loss—his Finneganese Without Tears but he has also all but abandoned those flights into wild satirical fantasy which so distinguished Drums Beneath the Windows—such astonishing pieces of writing as "The Song of a Shift" (on the repercussions of Synge's Playboy) or the dialogue between St. Patrick and St. Laurence O'Toole or the apocalyptic picture of the madhouse. Still, this last volume has plenty of bitter humour, at its best when the commentary is made in character and through dialogue:
You see, it's this way: if Document No. 2 gets accepted, Ireland'll be what you could call a sequestered country that is still within the outlines of the British Empire.
—I don't much like the sayin' of within the outlines of the British Empire, and I don't altogether like the word sequestered either.
—If we don't take the chance offered in Document No. 2, said the whisper, louder now than it had been before, the land'll become an improvised inferno.
Irish politics, Irish social life and Irish intellectuals give plenty of chances to a satirist of genius and O'Casey seizes them with gusto. He brilliantly caricatures the post-Treaty social climbers "feverishly fitting themselves into the castoff manners and minor deportment of the English." He has no less fun with De Valera and his disingenuous method of taking the oath of allegiance. As for the Abbey Theatre he gives a slapstick picture of the riot over The Plough and the Stars when Barry Fitzgerald knocked someone into the stalls and Yeats "stormed in utter disregard of all around him … as he conjured up a vision for them of O'Casey on a cloud, with Fluther on his right hand and Rosie Redmond on his left, rising upwards to Olympus," etc., etc. This satirical gift, however, is sometimes abused as in the long and laboured attack on A. E.—though we should be grateful that he also includes a long panegyric on Lady Gregory. Sheep and goats—here we are again but that is O'Casey, take him or leave him. And those who like a writer to have guts and loyalties, those who prefer a river however muddy to a pool however ornamental, those who are interested in living words or living workers or the still living Ireland, should certainly take him.
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Krause, David. Sean O'Casey: The Man and His Work. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1960, 390 p.
Biocritical study of O'Casey's life and career.
O'Connor, Garry. Sean O'Casey: A Life. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, 448 p.
Detailed biography in which O'Connor focuses on showing "how Sean O'Casey … painstakingly created himself out of the real-life John Casey."
Atkinson, Brooks. Sean O'Casey: From Times Past. Edited by Robert G. Lowery. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1982, 175 p.
Collection of reviews and essays on O'Casey by the renowned drama critic Brooks Atkinson, who was also a personal friend of O'Casey.
Coston, Herbert. "Sean O'Casey: Prelude to Playwriting." Tulane Drama Review 5, No. 1 (September 1960): 102-12.
Describes O'Casey's formative experiences as a writer, emphasizing his sympathies for labor unions and the propagandistic tone of his early plays and poems.
daRin, Doris. Sean O'Casey. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1976, 216 p.
Analyzes twelve of O'Casey's plays. daRin also provides an introductory profile of the author, an evaluation of his artistic stature, an epilogue on Irish politics, and a bibliography.
Hogan, Robert. "Since O'Casey" and Other Essays on Irish Drama. Buckinghamshire, England: Colin Smythe, 1983, 176 p.
Includes three essays on O'Casey, whom the author considers to be the most important figure in Irish drama.
Jones, Nesta, ed. File on O'Casey. London: Methuen, 1986, 96 p.
Collection of reviews of O'Casey's plays.
Kenneally, Michael. Portraying the Self: Sean O'Casey and the Art of Autobiography. Buckinghamshire, England: Colin Smythe, 1988, 268 p.
Argues that O'Casey was a master in the autobiography genre. In the introduction Kenneally cites a number of eminent critics who contend "that O'Casey's reputation will rest, ultimately, not on his stature as a dramatist—however great it may be—but on his achievements as autobiographer."
Kilroy, Thomas, ed. Sean O'Casey: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975, 174 p.
Includes commentary by leading O'Casey scholars and such eminent literary figures as William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett.
Krause, David, and Lowery, Robert G., eds. Sean O'Casey: Centenary Essays. Buckinghamshire, England: Colin Smythe, 1980, 257 p.
Collection of essays which examines such topics as the sources of O'Casey's dramatic art in Irish folklore and his relationships with William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and James Joyce.
Rollins, Ronald Gene. Sean O'Casey's Drama: Verisimilitude and Vision. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1979, 139 p.
Analyzes selected O'Casey plays, focusing on his visual techniques, ritualistic patterns, and use of myths.
Smith, B. L. O'Casey's Satiric Vision. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1978, 199 p.
Contends that O'Casey is primarily a satirist, though he "offers something vital to replace that which he seeks to destroy."
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SOURCE: "Himself, and Things That Happened," in The New York Times Book Review, November 14, 1954, pp. 1, 38.
[An American journalist and critic, Atkinson was perhaps the most influential and respected theater critic of his time. In the following mixed review of Sunset and Evening Star, he asserts that, in spite of its quarrelsome tirades and general irascibility, O'Casey's prose still evokes "grandeur" and a joyous affirmation of life.]
With Sunset and Evening Star Sean O'Casey completes his autobiography. The six-volume series began fifteen years ago with his valiant and lovely impressions of childhood, I Knock at the Door. In that book "Johnny Casside," as the chief character was then named, innocently entered the slum world of Dublin. In Sunset and Evening Star (another glorious title) the chief character is named "Sean." He reports some of the things he did and many of the things he thought between his return to England from America and the years following World War II. Since the autobiography is no chronicle of vital statistics, Mr. O'Casey is chary of dates. But the period covered in the new volume is from 1934 or 1935 to, apparently, 1949 or 1950.
Whatever else the autobiography may be, it is a masterpiece of writing. The writing has music, eloquence, passion, bitterness and force. It can recreate sense perceptions with concrete exactitude. As a sample of Mr. O'Casey's descriptive writing with its vivid use of details, note this sentence about an English nursing home where Mrs. O'Casey was a patient: "The rooms were heavy with old air, and wore a weak look, as if they, too, were sick: and all he saw seemed to whisper cynically of uncleaniliness and of clumsy, uncomely methods of management and care."
Or consider this description of the flower-strewn fields of Devon, where the O'Caseys live: "Newly ploughed fields of red earth, spreading out in a view as wide as the eye can cover, aglow with their differing hues, from reddish-purple, reddish-brown to what seems to be a vivid crimson, separated here and there by squares and diagonals of green as rich and velvety as the red, a sight to be wondered at and loved. Oh, the Devon people have a beautiful carpet under their feet."
Mr. O'Casey has long been fascinated by the mystical prose style of James Joyce, whom he regards as a master of writing. There are more than the usual number of Joycean passages in Sunset and Evening Star, and it must be conceded that Mr. O'Casey manages them well. When he takes wing into one of these records of sensory impressions, interwoven with subjective comment, he keeps one foot on the ground. Whether they are Joyce or Carlyle might be closely argued. But they do give Mr. O'Casey an opportunity to convey overtones of scorn for the rich, horror of the inhumanity of bombing, contempt for his enemies. Their flow of imagery is his comment—generally ironic—on the facts or the people with whom he is dealing.
It seems to me that the impressionistic passages are second-best O'Casey. The best O'Casey, which is also the best in modern English prose, is the direct statement of what happened, like the hilarious chronicle of a cold night at Cambridge University where Mr. O'Casey got lost in an unlighted corridor; or, the description of Shaw and Mrs. Shaw at the luncheon table, with a record of what they said. Mr. O'Casey is not a self-conscious stylist. The strength and beauty of his writing are implicit in the purpose of his autobiography: "The idea of setting down some of the things that happened to himself; the thoughts that had darkened or lightened the roads along which he had traveled; the things that had woven his life into strange patterns, with the words of a song weaving a way through a ragged coat, or a shroud, maybe, that has missed him and covered another."
Through all his works Mr. O'Casey has one theme. He is for joy and freedom. He hates anything or anyone who does not contribute to the joy of being alive or who impinges on personal freedom. He hates gentility because he suspects that it is joyless. He hates wealth and power because he believes that they are bought at the expense of ordinary people. Never having been in the Soviet Union, he wistfully imagines that joy and freedom for all the people will grow like a beautiful flower out of the wide land where the slave camps flourish. Never was there a man less suited by temperament to the harsh disciplines of Soviet society.
Mr. O'Casey is not one to abandon old ideals lightly. One of the most pungent chapters in Sunset and Evening Star portrays his imperious dismissal of a former Soviet worker who has the effrontery to tell him that the Ogpu took her husband away. "Not proven," is Mr. O'Casey's lofty verdict. "Lady," said Sean [to quote what he has written], "I have been a comrade of the Soviet Union for twenty-three years, and all she stands for in the way of socialism, and I don't intend to break that bond for a few hasty remarks by one who obviously hates the very bones of the Soviet people. And the more you shout, lady, the less I hear."
Pegging away at his writing in Totnes, Mr. O'Casey is not inclined to have an old faith shaken by an overwrought woman back from Russia whose husband had been spirited away by the police. He dislikes her so much he probably suspects that her husband conspired with the police to get away from home. He dismisses her from his house with a royal gesture.
Despite the grandeur of the writing, Sunset and Evening Star is a quarrelsome book. When Mr. O'Casey is not relating what happened to himself and his family, he carries on running feuds with the Roman Catholic Church, to which he keeps returning; G. K. Chesterton, whom he regards as a fake; Denis Johnston, who was so ignorant that he did not recognize a Giorgione picture hanging in the O'Casey hallway (a good example of the O'Casey snobbery in reverse); George Orwell, who reviewed Drums Under the Window contemptuously, and other people and institutions that Mr. O'Casey keeps on his griddle. These tirades, some of them as furious as tracts, become tiresome before the book is finished. But they are part of the O'Casey temperament and have to be borne, though not necessarily in silence.
One reason they grow tiresome is that Mr. O'Casey is also a warm-hearted, gentle man, affectionate toward his family and his friends, and he is spiritually unconquerable. There is plenty of the lovable O'Casey in these pages. Note, especially, his compassionate understanding of the needs of children; his devotion to the memory of his mother, who was the immortal character in the early books; his sorrowful portrait of a Totnes mother who had just lost her son in battle; his loyalty to Lady Gregory; his respect for Yeats; his kindly interest in the American soldiers quartered in Totnes during the war; his humility toward his wife.
In all his moods there is one dominant fact about Mr. O'Casey: He is thoroughly alive. In his seventies, he is still a fiery particle. He is not giving quarter on any side. Laying down his worn pen in the sixth volume of his story, he writes this word of farewell: "Here, with whitened hair, desires failing, strength ebbing out of him, with the sun gone down, and with only the serenity and calm warning of the evening star left to him, he drank to Life, to all it had been, to what it was, to what it would be. Hurrah!"
He's a man.
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SOURCE: An extracted interview in The Sting and the Twinkle: Conversations with Sean O'Casey, edited by E. H. Mikhail and John O'Riordan, The MacMillan Press Ltd, 1974, pp. 103-06.
[Weatherby is an English journalist and novelist. In the following excerpt from an interview that was originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 10 September 1959, O'Casey reflects on his relationship to the Abbey Theatre and his decision to use a more extravagant dramatic style after Juno and the Paycock. O'Casey's wife also participates in the interview.]
[Weatherby]: You were once quoted as saying you were an exile from everything.
[O'Casey]: I never accept anything that has not my name to it because many things have been said about me that are not true. I have never been exiled from life and that is the only thing that matters. I'll be exiled enough when I go off at the end from all the things I love and participate in. Most of the modern writers are so god-damn gloomy. They reject life in every concept, yet they cling to it if they get a cold or a fever and rush to the doctor and appeal to him to set them on the road again. You'd think they would welcome the way to the tomb, but they don't. I want to live as long as I'm active and can more or less look after myself and not be a burden or a nuisance to myself. I can't understand how the hell any young man is despairing in life.
What do you think about our ways of preparing people for life?
[O'Casey]: I'm against any prison system of education in high school, secondary school, or university. Packing with facts to the point of suffocation is an extraordinary way of drawing out a human mind. But I'm no authority on education. Lots of people make the mistake of thinking when I say something I mean to be positive about it. I just have an opinion like anyone else. Oxford and Cambridge, the king and queen of English universities, have a monopoly of influence and fame they ought not to have. The best of the education that comes out of them is due to the opportunities offered for students to come together and hold discussions.
Do you believe in communism, in politics generally, that power corrupts….
[O'Casey]: Oh, you Liberals are all alike. You always trot out that saying….
I'm nearer an anarchist than that….
[O'Casey]: Anarchism is a high philosophical state. Remember, we must do our best with what we have. We can't just say 'No' to life. It is regrettably true that every great change has brought upset and suffering, whether it's the Industrial Revolution or communism. Soviet communism as far as I know is a Russian system. It is peculiar to the Russian people. English communism when it comes, as it will eventually, will not be the same at all. An Englishman can't be a Russian any more that you can make an Irishman an Englishman. I saw a Russian come over here to teach drama—a nephew of Chekhov, Michel Chekhov. He taught the Russian Stanislavsky way of acting. But it didn't suit the English. They couldn't do it. They looked laughable when they appeared on the stage. The English must act his own way, so must the Irish, and the Scot is different from both. The only similarity is that they all speak the same language—a great advantage.
Is the English style no good for your plays?
[O'Casey]: I remember one actress. She was no damn good. So I think it was the director who said Beatrix Lehmann could do it. She didn't look as though she could. But by God she gave a wonderful performance. You can never decide with artists what they can do. An artist can almost do anything—if he's got genius of course. But the English as a whole find it difficult to get the Irish lilt and they put on an accent which is terrible. There are 32 accents in Ireland. Every county has got one. Look how the English way of speech varies. (He did some imitations.) The West here is a very homely and hospitable part, very unspoilt. They're well away from London. The Home Counties are suffocated by London manners. I never met the English people until I penetrated into the country. When you get away from London the English people are truly English. They live their English way and are very, very charming. But in London, they get spoilt, I think.
How long ago is it since a play of yours was produced in London?
[O'Casey]: I don't know. Some time during the war, was it? About fifteen years.
Why do you think your plays have been so neglected?
[O'Casey]: I don't know. Perhaps, as the man said, it is because of my politics. Or is it that I write bad plays?
[Mrs O'Casey]: Perhaps they are a bit too good.
[O'Casey]: My plays I hope always have a good deal of humour in them.
[Mrs O'Casey]: Perhaps what is fashionable to-day is something a little vague, like Eliot's The Cocktail Party.
[O'Casey]: Eliot's integrity is undoubted. I always had a great respect for him. I reprobated the Soviet Union for attacking Eliot because he's a very honest man. He admits to being an old Tory and a churchman. No one should mind an honest enemy. What you have to be afraid of is a dishonest friend.
What were you aiming at when you changed from the realistic style of Juno?
[O'Casey]: I had no aim except to try to write a good play. Nobody lives without a touch of fantasy. I can't stand these little trivial realistic things. The change in my style came spontaneously. I didn't want to restrict the range of the theatre. Neither did Shakespeare. It's not all O'Casey. Shakespeare is full of fantasy, symbolism, song and dance. You would think it's something new. Shakespeare of course is allowed to do it because he is in the English canon. A cult began for realism and it lasted for a while and reached its peak. Nobody could excel the realism of O'Neill.
When O'Neill died, [Time] magazine said only Shaw and you outranked him among twentieth-century dramatists.
[O'Casey]: That was kind of them. But not Time the magazine but time itself is the only critic which can say whether a man is great or not great. Time discards a hell of a lot of things.
Do you speak your dialogue aloud as you write?
[O'Casey]: I think in dialogue. But I don't like talking about my work at all. I can't stand the early stuff like Juno and The Plough as a matter of fact. Realism comes too easy in a way. I think I can create a character and put dialogue into his mouth but I'm not satisfied to do only that.
[Mrs O'Casey]: It's a pity Sean hasn't had a theatre or a group in which to try out his plays before they were presented to the public.
[O'Casey]: I would have liked that. I remember seeing a play of mine acted in the United States and thinking some part of it was underwritten. Watching the acting, I discovered I had taken all the leading characters off the stage at the same time. It was not unbearably dull but it was comparatively dull. I rewrote the whole play. If I had had somewhere to run it through, I would have seen that so much sooner. Every town should have a municipal theatre with equal vision from every seat in the house.
Do you miss your connections with the Abbey Theatre?
[O'Casey]: I don't think so. I miss the few hundreds a year I had. But I'm told they can't act now. Anyway I've banned my plays in Ireland since the trouble last year over Drums of Father Ned. I'm not going to submit any of my plays with the chance of an archbishop speaking against them. Theatre people in Dublin get just a bit jittery when that happens.
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SOURCE: "The Anti-heroic Vision," in Sean O'Casey: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Kilroy, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 91-112.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in a different form in Krause's Sean O'Casey: The Man and His Work (1960), Krause argues that O'Casey's first four plays articulate an antiheroic condemnation of war.]
An anti-heroic vision of life provides the unity of theme and the diversity of character and action in O'Casey's first four plays, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1925), The Plough and the Stars (1926), and The Silver Tassie (1928).
The first three plays are initially linked by the fact that they are all pacifist plays in which the main characters are not the National heroes actually engaged in the fighting but the noncombatants in a city under military siege, a tragic experience which has by mid-twentieth century become terrifyingly familiar to too many people in all parts of the world. O'Casey's "open city" is Dublin during the Irish War of Independence; the setting of The Gunman is 1920 during the guerrilla warfare between the insurgent Irish Republican Army and the British forces, mainly the ruthless Auxiliary troops known by their uniforms as the Black and Tans; the setting of Juno is 1922 during the Civil War between the Irishmen who supported the Free State Settlement and the die-hard Irish Republicans who rejected partition; the setting of The Plough is 1916 during the Easter Rising against the British. The action in each succeeding play is built around an ever-expanding radius of involvement. In the first play the conflict arises when a poet and a pedlar inadvertently become involved in the war; in the second play a whole family is caught in the crossfire of the battle; and in the third play all the people in the tenements are trapped by the war that now covers the whole city which is in flames at the end of the play.
In all these plays the theme revolves around a series of illusions of heroism which point to the basic conflict. Donal Davoren in The Gunman thinks he is a lofty poet, his neighbours think he is a brave "gunman on the run." But he is actually a "shadow" of a poet, a "shadow" of a gunman—a shadow-man who doesn't know who he is. All the tenement-dwellers in the play suffer from a variety of dreams and deceptions which serve as contrasts to Davoren's self-deception and self-discovery. When his neighbours mistake him for an I.R.A. gunman he foolishly encourages the deception and vainly enjoys it, especially when he is with the impressionable Minnie Powell—"the Helen of Troy come to live in a tenement"—who has fallen in love with the romantic image of the poet-gunman she thinks he is. But Davoren isn't much of a poet either, for most of the time he sighs like a "stricken deer" trying to flee from the stupid "herd," trying to isolate himself from his neighbours and the war in order to write his sentimental verses in a watered-down imitation of Shelley. Throughout the play he indulges his mock-heroic fancies as masquerading gunman and romancing poet, with the result that his vanity and detachment defeat him and lead to the tragic death of Minnie Powell.
Davoren tries to see himself as a dreamy poet who "lives on the mountain-top." O'Casey had borrowed Davoren's romantic idealism from Louis Dubedat's creed in Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma: the belief in "the might of design, the mystery of colour, and the belief in the redemption of all things by beauty everlasting." Davoren repeats these words when he tries to escape to his mountain-top, but the world in which he lives will not allow him to assume the romantic attitudes of the grandiloquent and dying Dubedat. It is only the shock of Minnie Powell's death that makes Davoren see himself and his world with terrifying clarity.
It is his droll pedlar friend Seumas Shields who really understands that poetic and patriotic poses will not help, even though he is in his own way just as ineffectual as Davoren, for he is a lazy, blustering, amiable coward who resorts to the efficacy of prayer or the comfort of his bed when trouble comes. Yet he understands and is the ironic Chorus character in the guise of a bumbling clown, a wisefool who sees the truth. He has better reasons than Davoren for not becoming involved in the war since he was once active in the Irish Republican movement but left it when the fanatical nationalism and the terror of indiscriminate bloodshed began to destroy the people it was supposed to save. Seumas makes this point in an episode which thematically links the plays of the trilogy.
SEUMAS. I wish to God it was all over. The country is gone mad. Instead of counting their beads now they're countin' bullets; their Hail Marys and paternosters are burstin' bombs—burstin' bombs, an' the rattle of machine-guns; petrol is their holy water; their Mass is a burnin' buildin'; their De Profundis is "The Soldier's Song," an' their creed is, "I believe in the gun almighty, maker of heaven an' earth"—an' it's all for "the glory o' God an' the honour o' Ireland."
DAVOREN. I remember the time when you yourself believed in nothing but the gun.
SEUMAS. Ay, when there wasn't a gun in the country; I've a different opinion now when there's nothin' but guns in the country—an' you daren't open your mouth, for Kathleen ni Houlihan is very different now to the woman who used to play the harp an' sing "Weep on, weep on, your hour is past," for she's a ragin' divil now, an' if you only look crooked at her you're sure of a punch in th' eye. But this is the way I look at it—I look at it this way: You're not goin'—you're not goin' to beat the British Empire—the British Empire, by shootin' an occasional Tommy at the corner of an occasional street. Besides, when the Tommies have the wind up—when the Tommies have the wind up they let bang at everything they see—they don't give a God's curse who they plug.
DAVOREN. Maybe they ought to get down off the lorry and run to the Records Office to find out a man's pedigree before they plug him.
SEUMAS. It's the civilians who suffer; when there's an ambush they don't know where to run. Shot in the back to save the British Empire, an' shot in the breast to save the soul of Ireland. I'm a Nationalist meself, right enough—a Nationalist right enough, but all the same—I'm a Nationalist right enough; I believe in the freedom of Ireland, an' that England has no right to be here, but I draw the line when I hear the gunmen blowin' about dyin' for the people, when it's the people that are dyin' for the gunmen! With all due respect to the gunmen, I don't want them to die for me.
For Seumas as for the women in Juno and The Plough, for Juno Boyle and Nora Clitheroe, life is more sacred than patriotic slogans; human realities are more meaningful than fanatical abstractions, particularly when in the name of the national honour the revolution devours its own children. When Juno's son Johnny, who had his hip crippled in the Easter Rising and lost an arm fighting with the I.R.A. in the Civil War, boasts about the sacred "principles" and insists he would sacrifice himself again for Ireland, she promptly offers her opinion about such heroics.
JOHNNY. I'd do it agen, ma, I'd do it agen; for a principle's a principle.
MRS. BOYLE. Ah, you lost your best principle, me boy, when you lost your arm; them's the only sort o' principles that's any good to a workin' man.
Juno sees life in terms of the essential human situation—bread on the table and love in the heart; these are the only realities that have any meaning for her and she fights for them without any heroics. And when she loses her son, when Johnny is finally shot, she follows Mrs. Tancred and keens the heartbreaking lament of the universal mother for a dead son.
MRS. BOYLE…. Maybe I didn't feel sorry enough for Mrs. Tancred when her poor son was found as Johnny's been found now—because he was a Die-hard! Ah, why didn't I remember that then he wasn't a Die-hard or a Stater, but only a poor dead son! It's well I remember all that she said—an' it's my turn to say it now: What was the pain I suffered, Johnny, bringin' you into the world to carry you to your cradle, to the pains I'll suffer carryin' you out o' the world to bring you to your grave! Mother o' God, Mother o' God, have pity on us all! Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets, when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets? Sacred Heart o' Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh! Take away this murdherin' hate, an' give us Thine own eternal love!
But the men go on sacrificing themselves for principles and the "murdherin' hate" continues. In the second act of The Plough, Commandant Jack Clitheroe and two of his comrades, after listening to the speeches about "the sanctity of bloodshed … and the exhilaration of war," drink a toast to Ireland before they go out to battle. The stage directions indicate that "they speak rapidly, as if unaware of the meaning of what they say. They have been mesmerized by the fervency of the speeches."
CLITHEROE. You have a mother, Langon.
LIEUT. LANGON. Ireland is greater than a mother.
CAPT. BRENNAN. You have a wife, Clitheroe.
CLITHEROE. Ireland is greater than a wife.
But the mothers and wives of Ireland think otherwise, and in the third act when the pregnant Nora Clitheroe returns from a desperate search for her husband, she replies for all Irish women, for women of all countries who lose their men in wars.
NORA. I could find him nowhere, Mrs. Gogan. None of them would tell me where he was. They told me I shamed my husband an' th' women of Ireland by carryin' on as I was—They said th' women must learn to be brave an' cease to be cowardly—Me who risked more for love than they would risk for hate—My Jack will be killed, my Jack will be killed! He is to be butchered as a sacrifice to th' dead!—an' there's no woman gives a son or a husband to be killed—if they say it, they're lyin', lyin', against God, Nature, an' against themselves!… I cursed them—cursed the rebel ruffians an' Volunteers that had dhragged me ravin' mad into th' sthreets to seek me husband!… An' he stands wherever he is because he's brave? No, but because he's a coward, a coward, a coward!…—At th' barricades in North King Street I saw fear glowin' in all their eyes—An' in th' middle o' th' sthreet was somethin' huddled up in a horrible tangled heap—His face was jammed again th' stones, an' his arm was twisted round his back—An' I saw they were afraid to look at it—An' some o' them laughed at me, but th' laugh was a frightened one—An' some o' them shouted at me, but th' shout had in it th' shiver o' fear—I tell you they were afraid, afraid, afraid!
Juno and Nora are against war not Ireland. As wives and mothers they realize there can be no victory in war for them if they lose their men and homes. They repudiate war and the illusion that the soldiers alone are the chief sufferers, the illusion that the soldiers die bravely and beautifully for their country, the illusion that the women willingly send their men out to die. For centuries romantic Irishmen had nurtured these illusions by celebrating in poems and stories the glorious deeds of rebel patriots who kissed their beloved colleens farewell and went off to sacrifice themselves for a greater love, Kathleen ni Houlihan. But now O'Casey was mocking all these illusions by looking at the brutality of war through the realistic eyes of working-class Irishwomen instead of through the haze of sentimental patriotism.
This is O'Casey's underlying theme; and yet his anti-heroic vision of life encompasses infinitely more than an argument against war and the illusions of Irishmen. Because he is sceptical about rampant heroism, he is at heart more concerned about the individual nature of his people than the causes they are heroic about. He creates a unique and diversified world, a human comedy, as well as an incisive theme. Once he establishes his controlling theme he moves freely and even discursively around it, playing tragi-comic variations on it, developing it broadly through an ensemble of characters rather than closely through a few central characters. The structural pattern of his plays is loose not tight, contrapuntal not dialectical.
O'Casey's world is chaotic and tragic but his vision of it is ironically comic. It is in this war-torn world of horrors and potential tragedy that he finds the rowdy humour which paradoxically satirizes and sustains his earthy characters: they are the victims of their follies yet they revel in their voluble absurdities. And it is clear that O'Casey himself enjoys his people no less for their follies, as he intends his audiences to enjoy them. There is a sharp tone of outrage in his Daumier-like portraits of life in the slums of a beleaguered city, and this tone becomes even stronger in his later plays, but he was not dramatizing case histories. His plays do not follow the documentary principles of Naturalism—of Hauptmann's Weavers or Galsworthy's Strife. Low comedy is not one of the handmaidens of Naturalism. Even when he is in a serious mood O'Casey is likely to be satiric not solemn, poignant not pathetic. And when the tragic events or consequences of war and poverty become most crucial he will open up the action and counter-balance the incipient tragedy with a music-hall turn or a randy ballad or a mock-battle. While everyone awaits a terrifying raid by the Black and Tans in The Gunman the well-oiled Dolphie Grigson parades into the house spouting songs and biblical rhetoric in drunken bravado. Just when Mrs. Tancred is on her way to bury her ambushed son in Juno the Boyles have launched their wild drinking and singing party. While the streets ring with patriotic speeches about heroic bloodshed in The Plough the women of the tenements have a free-for-all fight about respectability in a Pub.
This pattern of ironic counterpoint is maintained as a tragi-comic rhythm throughout the plays. For each tragic character there are comic foils who constantly bring the action round from the tragic to the comic mood; for Davoren there is Seumas Shields, for Juno there is the "Paycock," for Nora there is Bessie Burgess. Actually, Bessie and Nora exchange roles in the last act of The Plough when the mad Nora is reduced to ironic babbling and the previously sardonic Bessie achieves tragic dignity. For all the mock-heroic clowns in the plays there is a retinue of boisterous drunkards, liars, cowards, braggarts, parasites, hypocrites, viragos, and snobs; in The Gunman there is Tommy Owens, Mr. and Mrs. Grigson, Mr. Mulligan, Mrs. Henderson, Mr. Gallogher; in Juno there is Joxer Daly, Masie Madigan, Needle Nugent; in The Plough there is Fluther Good, Peter Flynn, the Covey, Mrs. Gogan, Rosie Redmond. In a turbulent world crowded with these broadly comic and satiric characters it is not surprising to find that the comic spirit often dominates the action. But O'Casey would have it so precisely because the humour in his plays reveals a native vigour and shrewdness in his characters which ironically becomes a means of survival in a shattered world. It is this attitude which keeps his plays from becoming melancholy or pessimistic. His humour saves him and his characters from despair. In the midst of anti-heroic laughter there can be no total catastrophe. Where there is suffering and death no happy endings are possible, but where there is also laughter life goes on.
War and poverty create the terrible conditions that force O'Casey's people to reveal their resourcefulness in wild scenes of tragi-comic irony in which the grotesque laughter seems to mock at death. For instance, the third act of The Plough is set among the crumbling tenements during the week of the Easter Rising; now the speeches about "the glory of bloodshed" in the previous act have been transformed into a terrible reality. The streets are a battlefield and the sickening whine of bullets fills the air. The British gunboat Helga has begun to shell the city. The hysterical Nora Clitheroe collapses after her unsuccessful attempt to find her husband at the barricades. The shrivelled little Mollser, unable to get proper food or medical care, is dying of tuberculosis. Lieutenant Langon is carried in dying of a stomach wound. And in the midst of this chaos O'Casey presents the looting of the shops by the ragged and hungry slum-dwellers who scramble amid bursting bombs and bullets to grab the only trophies that have any meaning for them—food and clothing. These people have been deprived of the bare necessities for so long that those who are not shot stagger away from the shops overburdened with luxuries and strange assortments of ridiculous items. Rushing in with a new hat, a box of biscuits, and three umbrellas, Bessie Burgess sets the tone of humour amid horror with her breathless announcement:
They're breakin' into th' shops, they're breakin' into th' shops! Smashing windows, battherin' in th' doors, an' whippin' away everything! An' th' Volunteers is firin' on them. I seen two men an' a lassie pushin' a piano down th' sthreet, an' th' sweat rollin' off them thryin' to get it up on th' pavement; an' an oul' wan that must ha' been seventy lookin' as if she'd dhrop every minute with th' dint o' heart beatin', thryin' to pull a big double bed out of a broken shop-window! I was goin' to wait till I dhressed meself from th' skin out.
With this call to action the Covey soon reels in carrying a huge sack of flour and a ham, and Fluther, as might have been expected, comes in roaring drunk after having launched a raid on a Pub. Bessie is about to go out for another haul with a neighbour's pram when she is intercepted by the eager Mrs. Gogan, and the two women rage at each other in a mock-battle over which of them has the proper right to use the pram for looting. Their intentions with the pram are equally set on plunder, yet both women assume an indignant legal attitude, characterized by Mrs. Gogan's sense of outage: "Moreover, somethin's tellin' me that th' hurry of inthrest you're takin' in it now is a sudden ambition to use th' pram for a purpose that a loyal woman of law an' order would stagger away from."
The comic absurdity of this fight between two viragos over the jurisdiction of the pram, like the similar brawl in the Pub in the previous act, when contrasted with the fighting at the barricades, irreverently mocks the "holiness" of war. The heroes at the barricades are deflated by this profane farce in which the pram and the looting take precedence over patriotism, and thus the anti-heroes of the tenements become heroes by comic proxy.
But before long these anti-heroes begin to earn their ironic heroism. The two women finally go off together with the pram, and as the intensity of the war increases a significant change occurs among these people. Although they all continue to quarrel and "twart" each other with reckless delight, they also begin to unite against what they gradually recognize as their common enemy—the war. Fluther, before he gets drunk, risks his life to find Nora and bring her back safely from the fighting area. The sharp-tongued but compassionate Bessie Burgess—who grows larger in stature as the play progresses and might finally be said to earn the role of main hero, as the Juno of this play—silently gives the suffering Mollser a bowl of milk, helps the prostrate Nora, whom she has so bitterly abused, into the house, and then risks her life in the machine-gunned streets trying to get a doctor for Mollser, the daughter of her favourite sparring-partner, Mrs. Gogan. And in the last act, when Mollser has died and the disconsolate Nora has lost her baby prematurely, all the people in the house take refuge in Bessie's attic flat. It is Fluther again who dodges the bullets to make arrangements for the burial of the two children, and it is Bessie who nurses the deranged Nora through three sleepless days and nights, only to be shot trying to protect Nora. Finally, it is Ginnie Gogan who carried on and takes Nora down to Mollser's empty bed.
In this manner the women who are the main victims of the war rise to become the main heroes. This pattern is repeated in all the plays as some of the women die for their neighbours and others live to rebuild a new life out of the ruins. Minnie Powell dies trying to save Donal Davoren, and Bessie Burgess dies trying to save Nora Clitheroe; Juno Boyle and Ginnie Gogan endure everything. This is the only kind of untainted heroism that O'Casey recognizes. These women are his Ireland. They are not the patriotic Ireland that made an exhilarating epiphany of the ritual of bloodshed. They are not the romantic Ireland that idealized Kathleen ni Houlihan of the beautiful green fields and the harp. They are not the sweet blushing colleens whose fabled existence is exalted in the guise of the Stage Irishwoman. They are the Ireland of tenacious mothers and wives, the women of the tenements—earthy, shrewd, laughing, suffering, brawling, independent women. O'Casey found them in the Dublin slums, but they have their counterparts in Synge's peasant woman, like Pegeen Mike in The Playboy of the Western World and Mary Byrne in The Tinker's Wedding: in Joyce's Molly Bloom; in Yeats's Crazy Jane; in the eighteenth-century Brian Merriman's peasant girl of "The Midnight Court."
Juno Boyle has the name of a classical heroine, and she has many of the qualities of that Roman goddess, but O'Casey uses the allusion in such a way as to give her the heroic stature of her namesake and the earthy reality of a Dublin housewife of the tenements. When Bentham hears her name he is reminded of the "ancient gods and heroes," however, the Captain explains how she got her name: "You see, Juno was born an' christened in June; I met her in June; we were married in June, an' Johnny was born in June so wan day I says to her, 'You should ha' been called Juno,' an' the name stuck to her ever since." Furthermore, O'Casey was aware of the fact that the classical Juno was always associated with peacocks, the patron birds who are often near her or draw her chariot, but he used this aspect of the legend in a completely ironic way by giving his Juno a peacock of a husband who takes his name from the common association of strutting vanity. Thus, the "Paycock" becomes Juno's parasite not her protector.
The women in O'Casey's plays are realists from necessity, the men are dreamers by default. The men are frustrated and gulled by dreams which they are unable and unwilling to convert into realities. And as if in mock-defence of those dreams they revel in their romanticizing and bragging and drinking. In John Bull's Other Island Shaw may have gone to the root of the Irishman's curse when he made Larry Doyle pour out his embittered confession.
O'Casey's Irishmen suffer from the symptoms of this outcry, and as a result there is an undercurrent of tragedy in the plays. But most of O'Casey's Irishmen possess the grotesque symptoms without Larry Doyle's awareness of them, and as a result there is also an abundance of comedy in the plays. Herein lies one of the many differences between tragedy and comedy: the tragic figure becomes truly tragic when he is able to see his own image; the comic figure becomes absurdly comic when he is unable, or pretends to be unable, to see his own image. When the women in O'Casey's plays finally see themselves and their world clearly they become tragic figures, like Juno Boyle and Bessie Burgess. Of the men, only Davoren as the self-confessed "poltroon" makes Larry Doyle's discovery, at the very end of the Gunman after he has fully indulged his aery dreams, but he is the only non-comic character in the play.
There is, however, one unique figure who dominates all three plays, the mock-heroic character who proudly wears his motley and is satisfied to see as much of himself and the world as he expediently chooses to see. This character is first formulated in Seumas Shields in the Gunman, and he is fully developed in Captain Jack Boyle in Juno and Fluther Good in The Plough—those two Falstaffian rogues who epitomize the triumphant anti-hero.
Captain Jack Boyle may lack the girth of Captain Jack Falstaff, but he has the same flamboyant humour and glorious mendacity, the ingenious sense of self-indulgence and self-preservation. Both men are bragging scoundrels whose disrespect for the truth stems not only from an instinctive love of license but from an empirical conviction that a virtuous life invariably leads to dullness and an heroic life often leads to death. Falstaff can point to a corpse on the battlefield and say, "there's honour for you," or counterfeit death because "The better part of valour is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life." Boyle, living like Falstaff in a time of Civil War when men's lives are valued cheaply, sets too high a price on his own sweet skin to care about honour or become involved in the fighting. And he has his counterfeit game for saving himself from the deadly virtues of work: he automatically develops a powerful pain in his legs at the mere mention of a job. When Jerry Devine goes looking for him in all the Pubs with news of a job, his discretionary wrath erupts and protects him: "Is a man not to be allowed to leave his house for a minute without havin' a pack o' spies, pimps an' informers cantherin' at his heels?… I don't want the motions of me body to be watched the way asthronomer ud watch a star. If you're folleyin' Mary aself, you've no pereeogative to be folleyin' me. (Suddenly catching his thigh.) U-ugh, I'm afther gettin' a terrible twinge in me right leg!" Furthermore, Boyle has what he considers a good reason to regard a man like Devine with suspicion: "I don't believe he was ever dhrunk in his life—sure he's not like a Christian at all!"
Captain Boyle's account of his adventures on the sea has that comic touch of fantastic imagination which characterized Captain Falstaff's version of his exploits on Gadshill. Juno Boyle knows her husband for the "struttin' paycock" that he is, and she pointedly explains his seafaring record: "Everybody callin' you 'Captain', an' you only wanst on the wather, in an oul' collier from here to Liverpool, when anybody, to listen or look at you, ud take you for a second Christo For Columbus!" But this fact does not prevent the "Captain" from telling his "buttie" Joxer what it was like to be an adventurous sailor on the high seas.
BOYLE. Them was days, Joxer, them was days. Nothin' was too hot or too heavy for me then. Sailin' from the Gulf o' Mexico to the Antanartic Ocean. I seen things, I seen things, Joxer, that no mortal man should speak about that knows his Catechism. Often, an' often, when I was fixed to the wheel with a marlin-spike, an' the wins blowin' fierce an' the waves lashin' an' lashin', till you'd think every minute was goin' to be your last, an' it blowed, an' blowed—blew is the right word, Joxer, but blowed is what the sailors use—
JOXER. Aw, it's a darlin' word, a daarlin' word.
BOYLE. An' as it blowed an' blowed, I often looked up at the sky an' assed meself the question—what is the stars, what is the stars?
JOXER. Ah, that's the question, that's the question—what is the stars?
A clever parasite full of comic platitudes, the ingratiating Joxer is a perfect foil for the braggart Captain; he spaniels at the Captain's heels most of the time, but he too sees as much of himself and the world as it is profitable for him to see. Joxer is capable of reversing the game and fooling the Captain when he has something to gain. Together they insulate themselves from the world of terrible realities by living in an illusory world of fantasies and drunken bravado. O'Casey satirizes them unsparingly for the shiftless rascals that they are, yet because he also sees the amusement of a universal frailty in them—they are fools not knaves—he is able to laugh with as well as at their hilarious mischief. And audiences laugh with as well as at them because they too recognize the common frailties of man in the Boyles and Joxers of this world—Boyle the universal braggart-warrior, Joxer the universal parasite-slave, both of them derived from the well-known clowns of Roman and Elizabethan comedy. It is also possible that many men are more than amused by the "paycock's" game and secretly envy the Captain and his "buttie" their merry pranks. The average man who realizes he cannot cope with his besetting problems on an heroic scale may well have an unconscious desire to get rid of his problems entirely by emulating the Captain in his irresponsible and therefore irresistible dreaming and singing and drinking. A frustrated non-hero might if he dared forsake his responsible suffering and seek the uninhibited pleasures of a clowning anti-hero; however, he probably settles for the vicarious pleasure of sitting in a theatre and watching a Captain Boyle thumb his red nose at responsibility. Much is made of the frustrated clown who yearns to play Hamlet, but the average man is more likely a frustrated Hamlet who if he had the strength of his weakness would cheerfully assume the role of an uninhibited Falstaff or Boyle.
The women in O'Casey's plays may be uninhibited creatures, too, but they always remain close to the realities of life and when there is a call for responsible action they put aside self-gratification and act. Even Juno has her fling. When the Boyles have their wild party Juno joins the celebration on borrowed money and time, and after the mourning Mrs. Tancred interrupts them, Juno temporarily agrees with the Captain and remarks that maybe Mrs. Tancred deserved to lose her die-hard son. But when her own son is killed, when her daughter is seduced, Juno assumes her burdens; she repeats Mrs. Tancred's prayer and rejects the Captain. When her daughter cries out against a God who would allow such tragic things to happen, Juno replies: "These things have nothin' to do with the Will o' God. Ah, what can God do agen the stipidity o' men!" And she abandons the Captain. When Prince Hal becomes King he assumes the burdens of state and rejects the dissolute Falstaff.
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers:
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream'd of such a king of man,
So surfeit-swell'd, so old, and so profane.
But being awak'd, I do despise my dream.
In a somewhat similar manner, Juno, being awake, forsakes all dreams and rejects her foolish jester of a husband. Her elegaic prayer brings her to a condition of tragic awareness.
Yet, O'Casey does not end the play with Juno. Maintaining the anti-heroic theme and contrapuntal rhythm of the whole work, he concludes on a tragi-comic note by contrasting Juno's heroic condition with the Captain's mock-heroic condition. For it is his play as well as Juno's; together they represent the tragi-comic cycle of O'Casey's world; together they reveal the ironic cross-purposes of life. As Juno and Mary leave to start a new life, the Captain and Joxer stagger drunkenly into the barren room, roaring patriotic slogans as they collapse in a state of semicoherent bravado. It is a final scene of horrible humour. The Captain remains the "struttin' paycock" in his glorious deterioration; even in his drunken raving he remains a magnificently grotesque anti-hero. Juno must reject him, yet we can forgive him, for he maintains his falstaffian spirit to the end.
Fluther Good is also drawn in the Falstaffian mould, but he is sufficiently different from Captain Boyle to emerge with the stamp of his own individuality. He too is a roistering fellow, a drinking and bragging clown, but he is more impetuous than the Captain, more aggressive and daring, in his guarded way. He is more of a blustering gamecock than a "struttin' paycock." He has more stomach for a fight than the wily Captain, though his fighting is discreetly confined to rhetorical invective. He has no trouble annihilating little Peter Flynn—that ridiculous "patriot" clad in the full-dress uniform of a National benevolent association—when "oul' Pether" brags about never having missed a pilgrimage to Bodenstown to the shrine of Wolfe Tone. But he has to "sing on the high notes" of his ignorance when he gets into a shouting contest with the clever Covey (a "covey" is Dublin slang for a "smart aleck") who dumbfounds Fluther with materialistic catechisms from his vade-mecum, Jenersky's Thesis on the Origin, Development and Consolidation of the Evolutionary Idea of the Proletariat, a tome which understandably fills the Covey with a proletarian fervour that makes him impervious to the protests of Fluther, patriots, and prostitutes.
And yet the windy Fluther is capable of courageous deeds where women are concerned, for he is a knight-errant of the tenements—he rescues pregnant women in distress and defends the honour of insulted prostitutes. All the women had a good word for Fluther. Mrs. Gogan praises him for risking his life to arrange the decent burial of poor Mollser: "An' you'll find, that Mollser, in th' happy place she's gone to, won't forget to whisper, now an' again, th' name o' Fluther." When he gallantly protects Rosie Redmond and her venerable profession from the "twarting" Covey, she describes him as a man "that's well flavoured in th' knowledge of th' world he's livin' in." Perhaps Nora Clitheroe, who is constantly in his debt, pays him the highest compliment when she calls him "a whole man."
Taken in his "wholeness," Fluther the "well-flavoured" man is a magnificent mixture of contradictions. He has the heart of a Don Quixote but the hide of a Sancho Panza. Among the ladies he is a protector and a peace-maker, but with the men he is full of himself and his inimitable flutherian wrath, or full of Irish whiskey. His roar is worse than his bite; he starts more arguments than he can settle; he rages and boasts, lies and threatens when he is cornered; he swears abstinence then drowns himself in drink when the shops are looted, crying "Up the Rebels" and "th' whole city can topple home to hell" in the same drunken breath; he can defend a prostitute's good name, and then go off to spend the night with her—"wellflavoured" man that he is, Fluther knows that there are times when Dulcinea must give way to Doll Tearsheet.
As a man of many frailties and fine parts, as a prince of buffoonery as well as errantry, Fluther the Good is the mock-hero of the play. In a terrible time of war, he is too shrewd to be a patriot, too wise to be an idealist; yet in his comic anti-heroism he plays the fool for man's sake. In his vitality and humour there is a hope that man may endure.
Harry Heegan, the symbolic hero of The Silver Tassie, is a herculean young athlete and infantry soldier who dominates and provokes the action of the play, even when he is not on the stage. Before he makes his victorious appearance from the football field late in the first act, the other characters, particularly Harry's father Sylvester and his old "buttie" Simon, exalt the legend of Harry's impulsive courage and strength. Like two comic chorus-characters the old codgers offer a vivid catalogue of Harry's fabulous deeds as champion runner, strong-man, fighter, and football hero. And from the moment Harry bursts on the stage, surrounded by his admirers and carrying "the silver tassie," the trophy which he has almost single-handedly helped the Avondales win, he is the play.
In the first act Harry's tumultuous spirit shines through the mundane world like the image of a legendary hero. He is an open-hearted primitive, an instinctive hero who glories in the joy of his uninhibited emotions and the vigour of his powerful limbs. Like Synge's Christy Mahon, he is a conquering "playboy of the western world," victor in all games, races, and fights, and the darling hero of all the girls. O'Casey, however, introduced his tragic hero at the point where Synge's comic hero departed. Christy had discovered his primitive powers at the conclusion of The Playboy of the Western World. At the beginning of The Silver Tassie Harry has already gone "romancing through a romping life-time," and he is in the full flush of a new victory when we first see him. Harry is on the heights from which he will soon fall when he is wounded in the war and abandoned by his friends and the girl he loves. Christy, however, is only able to become the real "playboy" when he is abandoned by his friends and the girl he loves. The comic movement of Christy's life goes from impotence to liberation and triumph; the tragic movement of Harry's life goes from liberation and triumph to impotence.
Symbolically Harry is the universal soldier destroyed in a world war, but he is also a particular Irishman; except for the second act, which takes place in the war zone in France, the other three acts are set in Dublin. Thus although the play is in a sense a morality play—a conflict between the good life that Harry represents and the evil of war—O'Casey avoids the allegorical abstractions of the old morality plays by allowing his universal theme to develop out of individualized characters in a particular time and place. With this particularized locale he is also able to reveal in the last half of the play how the people who stay at home are spiritually wounded by the war.
As in his previous works, O'Casey begins this play on a broad comic note, but with an undercurrent of tragic implications that will presently emerge and darken the mood of the last three acts. The first act is a comic-ironic prologue that builds up to the moment of Harry's triumphant arrival. Much of the satiric humour grows out of a running quarrel between the two old men and Susie Monican. Sylvester and Simon are continually defending the natural joy and exuberance that Harry represents against what Sylvester calls Susie's "persecutin' tambourine theology." Susie is a fire-and-brimstone religious fanatic with a thoushalt-not fear of life, largely a result of her frustrated love for Harry, and the more she hurls her hysterical warnings at Sylvester and Simon—"I can hear some persons fallin' with a splash of sparks into the lake of everlastin' fire"—the greater their excitement flares over Harry's heroic deeds. And later Susie's fanaticism will be contrasted with the genuine religious feeling of the soldiers.
As rambunctious clowns Sylvester and Simon have the hilariously vulnerable traits of the roguish Captain Boyle and Joxer, and they are not immune from O'Casey's satire, for he laughs at as well as with them. They appear to be shrewd enough to cope with Susie's attempts to "claw" them into the kingdom of heaven, but their own attitude toward religion is a kind of genial hypocrisy characteristically illustrated in the following scene:
SIMON. In a church, somehow or other, it seems natural enough, and even in the street it's alright, for one thing is as good as another in the wide-open ear of the air, but in the delicate quietness of your own home it, it—
SYLVESTER. Jars on you!
SYLVESTER. If she'd only confine her glory-to-God business to the festivals, Christmas, now, or even Easter, Simon, it would be recommendable; for a few days before Christmas, like the quiet raisin' of a curtain, an' a few days after, like the gentle lowerin' of one, there's nothing more—more—
SYLVESTER. Exhilaratin' than the singin' of the Adestay Fidellis.
Harry and his neighbour Teddy Foran are home from the trenches on furlough, and while Harry is out on the football field, Teddy has a brawl with his wife who seems too glad to see him go back to the war. In an uproarious scene, after he has smashed all the dishes in the upstairs Foran flat, Teddy chases his wife into the Heegan rooms where the bold Sylvester protects her by hiding under the bed with her. And Simon, still excited about the way Harry stretched out a Bobby with a right to the jaw, had gone upstairs to take care of the raging Teddy—"Phun, I'll keep him off with the left and hook him with the right"—but after a discreet reconsideration of the odds he disappeared.
All these preludes to Harry's entrance serve to create the vivid background of his life, and they are also ironic pointers of what lies ahead of him. Teddy Foran's relationship with his wife is a foreshadowing of what will later happen to Harry and his girl Jessie Taite. The religious theme will reappear in a more serious vein throughout the play as the dazed soldiers struggle to find comfort and understanding. And Sylvester and Simon by exalting Harry's natural powers establish a norm with which we can contrast the tragic consequences of the when he comes back wounded.
When it is almost time for the troopship to take the men back to France, Harry's teammates carry him and his girl Jessie on their shoulders through the streets and the chant of the crowd is heard outside—"Up Harry Heegan and the Avondales!" Harry comes in explaining excitedly how he kicked the winning goal, and he and Jessie celebrate by kissing and drinking wine from the tassie, which Harry calls the "sign of youth, sign of strength, sign of victory." Before they march off, Harry and Barney, another of his soldier friends, sing the Scottish ballad by Robert Burns, "The Silver Tassie"—"the song that the little Jock used to sing … the little Jock we left shrivellin' on the wire after the last push":
Gae bring to me a pint of wine
And fill it in a silver tassie;
That I may drink before I go,
A service to my bonnie lassie.
The boat rocks at the pier o' Leith,
Full loud the wind blows from the ferry;
The ship rides at the Berwick Law,
An' I must leave my bonnie Mary.
The trumpets sound, the banners fly,
The glittering spears are ranked ready;
The shouts of war are heard afar,
The battle closes thick and bloody.
It's not the roar of the sea or shore,
That makes me longer wish to tarry,
Nor shouts of war that's heard afar—
It's leaving thee, my bonnie lassie.
The first stanza is from an old folk ballad and Burns added the remaining stanzas. There is a legend that Burns composed the song after seeing a young soldier part from his sweetheart on the pier of Leith; and while O'Casey introduces the song in a generally similar situation at the end of the first act, he associates the tassie itself with Harry in a special way, as the cup of victory as well as love. And in the rest of the play the tassie is used as a symbol of Harry's lost love and forgotten triumphs.Ironically, there is no protesting or keening as the men leave for the trenches. The lassies in the play seem to be glad that their men are going back to the war. Harry is too intoxicated by his victory in the game and the wine he has drunk to see through Jessie, who merely regards him as a prize catch and hates his mother for preventing her from marrying him to get his allowance cheques. Susie and Mrs. Heegan are fiercely jealous of Jessie, and Mrs. Heegan's greatest concern is that her son should not miss the boat, in which case she might miss his allowance cheques. When the justifiably outraged Teddy Foran turns on his flighty wife and smashes the dishes, it is Mrs. Heegan who remarks: "You'd imagine, now, the trenches would have given him some idea of the sacredness of life." But none of the women in the play seem to understand "the sacredness of life" or the tragedy of war. O'Casey here departs from his earlier sympathetic treatment of women because he is writing about an aspect of war which is not directly their tragedy, the holocaust of the battlefront. Also, the insensitivity of the women increases the tragic isolation of the soldiers, for it is their tragedy, their play.
We feel the full impact of this tragic isolation in the second act when we are suddenly brought into the no-man's land of the war zone. There is a violent change of technique to parallel the violent change of mood—from comic reality to tragic surreality. Here O'Casey creates the shock of the war in a horrible transfiguration scene. In the second act of The Plough he had been confronted with a somewhat similar problem but he solved it by using off-stage devices, a huge shadowy figure and a loud-speaker voice to blare out exhortations of bloodshed; and later in that play he had a number of characters rush in from the barricades to describe the gory street fighting. But these methods were now too limited for his new play. Instead of telling the audience through exposition that war is hell, he had found in the techniques of Expressionism a way of showing them a symbolic nightmare of that hell—a new method of developing the tortured figure that the once herculean Harry has become in the last two acts. There are many variations in the Expressionistic methods of Strindberg, Toller, Kaiser, and O'Neill, and they have been very accurately summarized by Allardyce Nicoll in the following statement [from World Drama, 1949].
Short scenes took the place of longer acts; dialogue was made abrupt and given a staccato effect; symbolic (almost morality-type) forms were substituted for "real" characters; realistic scenery was abandoned, and in its place the use of light was freely substituted; frequently choral, or mass, effects were preferred to the employment of single figures, or else single figures were elevated into positions where they became representative of forces larger than themselves.
With some modifications O'Casey incorporated most of these elements in his second act. He used one long act with a fixed set instead of a series of short tableaux. The symbolic soldiers are very close to morality types. Several figures stand out above the choral mass of soldiers and lead the antiphonal chanting of songs and staccato phrases, especially the Croucher who is on a ramp above the other men. Predominantly red lighting and the black barrel of a huge howitzer gun create the representational battlefield just behind the front lines beside the ruins of a monastery which now serves as a Red Cross Station. When the enemy breaks through at the end of the act the firing of the gun and the general barrage of shells is simulated by wild flashes of light, without sound effects. In one of the jagged monastery walls there still remains a single unbroken stained-glass window of the Virgin, and just above it, a life-size Crucifix, one arm of which has been loosened by a shell and now leans outstretched toward the Virgin. The symbols of the Virgin and the Gun stand out as opposing forces. While an organ is heard from behind the ruined monastery wall, where a celebration of the Mass is in progress, the Croucher, a half-crazed soldier, dreamily intones his litany as the act begins. The Notes explain that "The Croucher's make-up should come as close as possible to a death's head, a skull; and his hands should show like those of a skeleton's. He should sit somewhere above the group of soldiers."
In the Croucher's prophetic speeches O'Casey has ironically paraphrased but reversed the meaning of the biblical passages from the Book of Ezekiel. In Chapter 37 of that Book, the Lord offers the wandering Israelites a prophecy of hope and renewal; their dried bones shall be revived and they shall arise a "great army." Ezekiel 39:9 actually reads: "… come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live." And Ezekiel 37:10 reads: "… and a breath came into them and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army." But the Croucher, intoning through his death-mask, sees only a wasted battlefield of dried bones.
For a contrasting treatment of the same biblical allusions—in this case an orthodox view—one can turn to T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday." In this poem of renewed faith Eliot used these same phrases from Chapter 37 of Ezekiel, but of course he does not reverse the meaning. He wrote this poem in 1930 (two years after O'Casey's play) after his conversion, when he no longer saw the modern world as a sterile valley of dead bones. However, in "The Waste Land" (1922) where he had also used an allusion from Ezekiel—this time in a context of despair—there is a closer parallel to what O'Casey does in the above scene. Perhaps the second act of The Silver Tassie might be called an "objective correlative" for O'Casey's "waste land," Eliot's line "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" might have been spoken by the Croucher.
At the same time that the Croucher intones his fateful dithy-rambs, the incantation of the Kyrie is heard—the plea to God for mercy. But the only response is the bitter chant of the exhausted soldiers, an ironic antistrophe. In their chanted cockney diction, here and throughout the act, O'Casey creates a special mock-lingo which fixes the mood of the action at a strident non-realistic pitch and reinforces the grotesque anonymity of the soldiers. And yet there are some deeply poignant links with the outside world of reality, as for example in the 1st Soldier's dream of his missus and his little girl Emmie wanting a balloon. The Soldiers try to reject the hopeless prophecy of the mad Croucher, the death's head figure; they try to pray, they try desperately to convince themselves that they can escape from this valley of death. The 1st Soldier insists, "There's a Gawd knocking abaht somewhere." But though they have not been able to find Him on the battlefield, they go on believing in Him, and in the weapons of war that might save them. Just before the enemy breakthrough at the end of the act the Soldiers sing their songs to God and the Gun—"We believe in God and we believe in thee." And it is the Wounded on the Stretchers, the mutilated and dying, who remind us that "the image God hath made" and the war is destroying, is the image of "power and joy" which Harry Heegan symbolized in the first act:
The power, the joy, the pull of life,
The laugh, the blow, and the dear kiss,
The pride and hope, the gain and loss,
Have been temper'd down to this, this, this.
There are four songs and five extended chants in the act. In the Notes, O'Casey explains that all the chanted passages are to be intoned antiphonally in the simple Plain Song of Gregorian chant, with the traditional three-part division, the Intonation, the Meditation, and the Ending. Thus, by following the responsive pattern of the Mass at the beginning, and the recurring intonation of Gregorian chant throughout the act, O'Casey sets the traditional rituals of the church against the terrible rituals of the war in a dissonant struggle between the forces of good and evil. In this manner he was able to develop his anti-war theme as an organic part of his symbolic form.
In the second act, the dehumanizing forces of war win the tragic struggle, and in the last two acts we see the realistic consequences of the war as the wounded soldiers also lose the struggle on the home front. Absolute war corrupts absolutely—those who ignored it at home as well as those who were crippled by it in the trenches.
The third act takes place in a hospital ward back in Dublin with all the individualized characters of the first act now in a new situation. Harry was wounded in the spine and is confined to a wheelchair, paralysed from the waist down. Teddy was blinded. Susie Monican has become a nurse, but her patients are little more than bed-numbers to her and she releases her repressions in love games with the young doctor. The fickle Jessie Taite has abandoned the invalid Harry for the healthy Barney, who has now won Harry's girl as well as the Victoria Cross for carrying him out of the line of fire. Harry's mother now finds great comfort in the knowledge that she will get the maximum disability allowance.
Sylvester and Simon are also patients in the hospital, and their imaginary pains and fears represent a series of comic contrasts to the tragic condition of Harry and Teddy. The two old clowns are given many opportunities to create an atmosphere of sheer theatrical fun with their capers. Their bath episode in the third act and telephone episode in the fourth act are excellent examples of the tour de force comedy that is such a characteristic part of every O'Casey play. Once he sets the direction of his main plot, he often steers a circuitous course of action with his comic subplots. It is his way of maintaining contact with the hurlyburly traffic of life, and what he called the "Ta Ra Ra Boom Dee Ay" element of the drama.
Gradually, however, the tragic implications of the main plot dominate the action as the abandoned and bitter Harry tries to fight back. When the operation he is to undergo in the third act proves a failure, he turns up at the Avondales' War Victory Dance in the final act, his once powerful body now impotent in a wheelchair. The unfaithful Jessie deserts him for Barney, and Harry calls for red wine, remembering the wine of victory he had earlier drunk when he was the hero of the Avondales. Now he drinks an ironic toast:
To the dancing, for the day cometh when no man can play. And legs were made to dance, to run, to jump, to carry you from one place to another; but mine can neither walk, nor run, nor jump, nor feel the merry motion of a dance. But stretch me on the floor fair on my belly, and I will turn over on my back, then wriggle back again on to my belly; and that's more than a dead, dead man can do!
The red wine of life has lost its meaning for the crippled Harry, and he speaks for all the sad-mad soldiers wounded in body and spirit by the war. Later he drinks wine from the symbolic tassie and cries out to everyone, to the world:
Red wine, red like the faint remembrance of the fires in France; red wine like the poppies that spill their petals on the breasts of the dead men. No, white wine white like the stillness of the millions that have removed their clamours from the crowd of life. No, red, wine; red like the blood that was shed for you and for many for the commission of sin. (He drinks the wine.) Steady, Harry, and lift up thine eyes unto the hills.
Implicit in the second act, the martyred soldiers are now directly associated with Christ in the blood-and-wine ritual "for the commission of sin." All the symbolic rituals in the play are eventually exposed to tragic irony—the ritual of the triumphant hero, the ritual of the Mass, the ritual of the war, the ritual of red wine drunk from the tassie. And at significant points in the semi-realistic last two acts there are ironic echoes of the symbolic chanting in the second act. For example, the older people try to calm Harry by asking him to play his ukulele and sing a Negro spiritual, and the scene is presented with antiphonal voices:
SYLVESTER. An' give him breath to sing his song an' play the ukelele.
MRS. HEEGAN. Just as he used to do.
SYLVESTER. Behind the trenches.
SIMON. In the Rest Camps.
MRS. FORAN. Out in France.
HARRY. I can see, but I cannot dance.
TEDDY. I can dance, but I cannot see.
HARRY. Would that I had the strength to do the things I see.
TEDDY. Would that I could see the things I've strength to do.
HARRY. The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away.
TEDDY. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
MRS. FORAN. I love the ukelele, especially when it goes tinkle, tinkle, tinkle in the nighttime.
Softly Harry sings his Negro spiritual—it is "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in the text, although there is a suggestion in the notes that "Keep Me From Sinkin' Down" might be more suitable to Harry's present frame of mind—and the song is a preparation for Harry's stoical exit. He has one more burst of rage in a fight with Barney, and then he goes off with the blind Teddy. The two of them are finally prepared to conquer their self-pity as they leave:
HARRY. What's in front we'll face like men! The Lord hath given and man hath taken away.
TEDDY. Blessed be the name of the Lord!
Harry changes one significant word, and it is man and man-made war that have destroyed what God created. God is the guardian, but man is the measure. This conclusion reminds one of Juno Boyle's reply to her daughter: "Ah, what can God do agen the stipidity o' men."
While Juno is the universal mother and Harry is the universal soldier, she is above all a realistic character who finally becomes symbolic in the most general sense, he is above all a symbolic character who is at all times both realistic and representational. Juno speaks for all mothers in a war-time, Harry speaks for all soldiers; but O'Casey felt he had to use different stories. O'Casey realized that the dramatist cannot limit himself to a single approach; he must suit the theme and character to the form, and the particular emphasis and technique depend upon the total intention. In Juno and the Paycock the character defines the theme; in The Silver Tassie the theme defines the character. The methods and forms are different, and the result is that in the one play he created a noble woman, in the other a noble theme.
Among the important discoveries O'Casey made in his new experiment, he found that it was not only possible but necessary to combine realistic and non-realistic techniques, as he had already combined comic and tragic material in his previous work. He found that he could set a large theme in a framework of reality and at the same time develop it allegorically through the methods of Expressionism. He found that he could bring a sharper tone of moral passion to his theme by projecting it through the symbolic second act, as well as through Harry Heegan in the other three acts, thus making his play an ethical as well as an emotional spectacle, giving it moral as well as imaginative power. As a result The Silver Tassie is one of the most original and powerful anti-war plays ever written—a passionate morality play for modern man.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2160
SOURCE: A review of The Sean O'Casey Reader: Plays, Autobiographies, Opinions, in The New York Times Book Review, December 15, 1968, pp. 1, 23-5.
[O'Neill-Barna is an American writer. In the following review, she asserts that O'Casey's status as a major playwright and a social and theatrical visionary, long obscured by the opposition of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats and other influential critics, is firmly established in The Sean O'Casey Reader.]
Doubtless it sounds ponderous to some and quixotic to others to say that Irish literature affirms the worth of ordinary man. Ponderous if we feel this is merely the neutral conclusion arrived at by all literatures; and quixotic if we weigh up particular writings about Ireland, either crowded accounts of wars, evictions, famines, workhouses and immigration, or whimsy about untidy servants, "Irish bulls," quaint amusing remarks, leprechauns and "Little People"—these last appreciated most by landlords and visitors. For neither the misfortunes of multitudes nor the fancies of a few are likely to convey an idea of human value.
But a striking element in Irish literature is that the worth of man is bound up with, even arises from, his enjoyment of words: language becomes the tool by which he shows his worth.
Both the tradition of Gaelic Ireland and the great Anglo-Irish writers agree on this rather distinctive point; to them ordinary man—who is in this case of course an Irishman—is seen as simple and helpless, without money, influence, job or education. But he can knock a glory out of life by his courage, his loyalty, and his powers of imagery and description, which include the comic. Comedy is one half of the heroic—the important half—the one that makes the hero human. The comic spirit calls into play the sense of justice which forces a man to resist oppression and the sense of irony which makes wars merry and songs sad.
Dead center in this tradition stands the work of Sean O'Casey. In this new volume [The Sean O'Casey Reader: Plays, Autobiographies, Opinions] in which his friend Brooks Atkinson has consolidated his writings, we can see the pattern of irony, satire and imagination, and above all, of the magic that can be wrought with popular speech. O'Casey the man is central too: his large view; his strong sense of justice and its opposite side, grievance; his courage in holding to his "own way of thinking and freedom to give it utterance," and his very acknowledgment of the force of the written word.
Once, Alan Dent tells us, he went along with Brooks Atkinson on Atkinson's annual visit to O'Casey in Torquay. O'Casey remarked that it was the first time a British critic had called, though New York ones came regularly. When Dent pointed out that O'Casey had attacked English critics, O'Casey said with a smile, "Sure, they should have the sense to know that I'm only venomous when I have a pen in me hand." To him, as to the Gaelic bards, it was fundamental that written words were made for battles and human contacts for empathy.
So it is extraordinarily helpful to hold between two covers nine O'Casey plays, 300 pages of autobiography, eight expository "opinions" from his later works, and a little-known short story. The plays show his empathy, his profound knowledge of the human experience as comic and tragic, real and visionary: the prose writings give us embattled words, in his own commentary on the plays and empathy again in his own human story. Choosing both what is essential and what is representative, Brooks Atkinson has not spread old wounds or controversial views; and by giving the lot, he has made possible a long-needed total impression.
We have the framework; birth in 1880, poverty-stricken Dublin boyhood, bad eyes, wonderful mother, manual jobs, the lock-out of workers in 1913, Irish Labor party, Citizen Army, despair at these and all organizations, dogged attempts at playwriting, triumph of the first Abbey plays, break over The Silver Tassie, England, marriage, turn away from realism, "Communism," the family, international acclaim, death in 1964.
But the choice thing is that here, at last and at once, is the source material for an O'Casey overview. He emerges as a touchstone of right feeling; for man he had a social and religious concern like the idealists of an older, simpler time. In the teeth of every Establishment, he stubbornly held true to his hopes for humanity as the great 19th-century rebels did, and as we do not—though typically this generation would admit that a man who is against everything can't be all bad.
O'Casey and his writing were of one piece, and we can now see that it was not his work but only his reputation which suffered by his "exile." While the early indictment of his realistic drama for combining comedy and tragedy died down, the accusation stood that the later plays lost touch with Ireland and were unrealistic on that account as well as by being expressionistic. But the Irish people whom O'Casey knew, relatively free of both benefits and corruptions of materialism, relatively simple and spontaneous, were the unveneered mankind he needed for his plays, and their use of English—so tremendous, concrete, witty, rich, racy-of-the-soil, fresh-minted—was perfectly suited for adaptation to his humor and poetry. He did not go wrong in characterization, for though Ireland may have changed, O'Casey folk may still be found there even today.
Instead, the out-of-touch airy-fairy canard stemmed from the two derogating forces that shadowed O'Casey's entire life—that of Irish reaction and that of Yeats. The work developed intact, but the man had to fight an unending battle, for since the Irish disparaged the Irish plays and Yeats and ensuing British critics the others, between them they would have licked the platter clean. One of the excitements of this book is to watch O'Casey defend with logic and fire what he had written out of love and pity.
Irish reaction of course harked back to Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, presented by the Abbey Theatre in 1905. Riots had resulted from objections to the word "shift" (woman's undergarment). The stalls, their delicacy offended, are reported to have cried, "Lower the bloody curtain and give us what we bloody well want." So in 1926 when O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars met the same chauvinism, everyone from Lady Gregory down foresaw that it would be another Playboy, and indeed they were right.
Joseph Holloway, that Irish Babbitt, said it was suited only for filthy minds, because one of the characters was a streetwalker and "there are no streetwalkers in Dublin." (Reply by another spectator: "I was accosted by one only last night." Holloway: "There were none in Dublin till the Tommies brought them over!") After consultation with her confessor, an actress refused the lines "any kid, livin' or dead, that Jinnie Gogan's had … was got between the bordhers of th' Ten Commandments," and F. J. McCormick declined to say the word "snotty." Interesting speculations arise: what arcane connotations lurk here? Borders! Snotty! You never know. An Irish barrister once told me that in cross-examination "conversation" could be a dangerous word: "Did you have a conversation with her?"
And there was the fuss about bringing the flags of the Republic into a pub, and umbrage over pseudo "patriots" shown as cowards and looters. Behind the scenes Yeats pulled strings with a ruthless determination for publicity. He gave what was intended to be a famous speech from the stage, or rather gave it to the newspapers; the riot squads were called out just in time; the whole country was rocked. All of this meant one sure thing for Sean O'Casey—not the "apotheosis" of Yeats's rhetoric—but that he would be the target forevermore of middle-class Roman Catholic nationalistic sensibility, then rising into full spate of power with the Irish Free State. For while the opposition to Synge had been nationalist-romantic, that to O'Casey was nationalist-political—and had control.
In a way it was a tribute. As we have seen, the Irish have always recognized the effectiveness of words; they have their proverbial gift of the gab and their mastery of repartee, and in Gaelic times their poets used verses to raise pimples on an enemy or to cause his death. Thus they bitterly resented the stereotype fixed on them by the English, that of the comic, low-life stage Irishman. In their struggle for independence, they understandably saw that this image must be changed at all costs. As Ireland gradually became the place "where Christ and Caesar are hand in glove," a new frontier for patriotism opened up for them in the theater, where by booing at a bad word or an earthy character they could not only strike a blow for Ireland but also get in well with the right political side. In the process, they jettisoned their esthetic sense.
But this was only the first of the two main difficulties, and this one was shared with Joyce, Shaw, Synge and other honest observers. The other difficulty was more destructive and solitary—the antipathy of Yeats, who owned and operated Anglo-Irish literature. Whatever praise is justly given Yeats as a great poet, it is now beginning to be allowed that as a philosopher and dramatist he was inferior, and that as a judge of writers he was a disaster. Poets may be ipso facto introverted, but Yeats was singularly unable to acknowledge the achievement of others, and singularly conceited. It is a pity that as far as England was concerned he was the arbiter of Irish letters, and as the editor of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, in a position of great influence.
There were of course, eminent figures who stood apart from his opinion: in America, Brooks Atkinson and George Jean Nathan; in Ireland Lady Gregory, who had discovered O'Casey and had given him the gratefully received advice that his forte was characterization. She alone of the Abbey group appreciated his grandeur, but she was outvoted and upstaged. In England Shaw defended, counseled, and sympathized (while Mrs. Shaw urged concessions to the powers that be).
Ironically, at the time of the trouble with Yeats, O'Casey was credited with "being singlehandedly responsible" for the worldwide revival of the "Abbey's declining phase." His The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars had been produced in 1923, 1924 and 1926. But when in 1928 he duly sent in The Silver Tassie with every expectation of its acceptance, Yeats wrote him an arrogant letter of rejection, upbraiding him for dealing with the Great War which, he told O'Casey, O'Casey was not interested in. O'Casey asked in amazed reply, "What human being was not?"
Other critics were upset by O'Casey's use of expressionism along with realism, an objection which has simply evaporated with the passage of time, the mixture of documentary and symbolic being a commonplace today. The case of Ulysses is parallel—another work belittled not only as blasphemous and obscene but also as incomprehensible—which is now understood without difficulty.
Like Joyce, O'Casey was penalized for being in advance of his time, for being universal, original, passionate and antiheroic. He realized his position; here as elsewhere Atkinson gives us relevant passages: "Yeats's denunciation of The Silver Tassie had done Sean's name a lot of violence. The Nobel Prize winner, the Leader of English literature was a judge against whom there was no appeal for the time being."
"For the time being" is the operative phrase. One long result of the rejection of The Silver Tassie is that O'Casey's plays are typically read rather than seen. Even so, they wear well. The fantasy which seemed outrageous even 20 years ago is coming closer and closer not only to modern stage techniques but to modern experience. And if he never were a dramatist, this volume makes it abundantly evident that O'Casey would rest on his autobiographical writings as a master of prose. When he says in his heart-breaking lament for his son, "though I may bear it like a man, I must also feel it like a man," it is a key statement, for man, loving and enduring, is his subject. Frustration, deprivation, poverty and, above all, war are always with us, but so is O'Casey's challenge to these destroyers of human goodness and gusto.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2992
SOURCE: "Sean O'Casey," in Sean O'Casey: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Kilroy, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 53-60.
[An English critic and novelist, Williams was highly acclaimed for his neo-Marxist studies of literature, culture, and society. Some of his best-known works include The Long Revolution (1961), The Country and the City (1973), and Marxism and Literature (1977). In the following excerpt, originally published in his Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (1968), Williams contends that O'Casey's dramas primarily exploit the ironic contrast between the violence and desolation of life in Dublin and the carefree language of its working-class residents.]
Irish history had broken into revolution, a war of liberation and civil war by the time O'Casey began to write for the Abbey Theatre. His first acted play, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) is at once a response to this experience of violence and, in its way, a bitter postscript to Synge's Playboy of the Western World. It is set in the crowded overflowing life of a Dublin tenement house, which is O'Casey's major early setting. The Irish drama, in this sense, has come to town. The turbulent history through which Ireland had been living breaks into these tenements. As a direct action it is on the streets, and the people crowded in the houses react to it, in essential ways, as if it were an action beyond and outside them. This viewpoint determines most of O'Casey's early drama.
The Shadow of a Gunman is in this sense exact. It is the shadow that falls across a quite other life, but also it is the Playboy's action of a false hero: the frightened sentimental poet Davoren who is built up, by gossip and surmise, into a gunman's reputation:
And what danger can there be in being the shadow of a gunman?
It is the contrast between the bitter action of the history and a feckless deceiving and self-deceiving talk that O'Casey uses as his dramatic point. Men are killed elsewhere, but within the tenement:
No wonder this unfortunate country is as it is for you can't depend upon the word of a single individual in it.
The only victim within the play is the girl Minnie:
DAVOREN…. I'm sure she is a good girl, and I believe she is a brave girl.
SEUMAS. A Helen of Troy come to live in a tenement! You think a lot about her simply because she thinks a lot about you, an' she thinks a lot about you because she looks upon you as a hero—a kind o' Paris … she'd give the worl' and all to be gaddin' about with a gunman.
It is Minnie who is killed, after a raid on the house; found hiding arms because she believes in Davoren. The bitterness is carried right through, in that Davoren, after her death, can react only in the stereotyped "poetry" which has been his pretence and his reality:
Ah me, alas! Pain, pain, pain ever, for ever!
With real killing in the streets, the poverty and the pretence cross to make new inadvertent victims.
This kind of irony, in O'Casey, is very difficult to follow through. The central language of Shadow of a Gunman is bare and taut; it is there, in reality, in the crowded life, as a tension with the endless romanticizing, boasting, sentimentality; or, again characteristically, with the simple misuse of language by the uneducated, which O'Casey always emphasizes, as here in Gallogher's letter:
ventures to say that he thinks he has made out a Primmy Fashy case.
It is done from the inside, this tenement life, but with an eye on the audience, on external and "educated" reactions. O'Casey moves from this kind of caricature to a simpler excited naturalism—the endless overflowing talk:
They didn't leave a thing in the kitchen that they didn't flitter about the floor …
It is a dramatist speaking at once from inside and outside this rush of life; in The Shadow of a Gunman with genuine uncertainty, and using the tension of the farcical and the terrible.
Juno and the Paycock, which followed in 1924, is in the same structure of feeling. The life is seen as farce, with death cutting across it. This can be rationalized, as in O'Casey's late description of Shadow of a Gunman, as expressing "the bewilderment and horror at one section of the community trying to murder and kill the other." But this is never, really, what the plays show. What is there is a feckless, rush, endlessly evading and posturing, while through it one or two figures—mainly women—take the eventual burden of reality. In Juno and the Paycock the dominant action is the talk of Boyle and Joxer: idle talk, with a continual play at importance: the false colours of poverty, which has gone beyond being faced and which is now the endless, stumbling, engaging spin of fantasy. The formal plot is rooted in this, as it might have been in Synge: the false expectation of a legacy, which will alter this world. But what comes, in the real action, is the killing from outside: first Tancred, the Republican fighter, and then Johnny, the son of the house, who betrayed him. The bereaved mothers in each case, and in the same words, call:
Take away our hearts o' stone, an' give us hearts o' flesh! Take away this murdherin' hate, an' give us Thine own eternal love!
It is a deep, convincing, unconnected cry. It is what the mothers feel, in the terrible disturbance of the fighting. But what the play shows is not the "hearts of stone"; it is counterpointing and overriding these moments of intense suffering, the endless, bibulous, blathering talk.
This is, of course, an authentic structure, but it is not that which is usually presented. It is always difficult to speak from outside so intense and self-conscious a culture, but in the end we are bound to notice, as a continuing and determining fact, how little respect, except in the grand gestures, the Irish drama had for the Irish people. It was different when the people were remote and traditional, as in Riders to the Sea. But already what comes through the surface warmth of The Playboy of the Western World is a deeply resigned contempt—a contempt which then allows amusement—for these deprived, fantasy-ridden talkers. Synge got near this real theme, and O'Casey is continuously dramatically aware of it. But it is a very difficult emotion to control: an uneasy separation and exile, from within the heart of the talk. And because this is so, this people's dramatist writing for what was said to be a people's theatre at the crisis of this people's history, is in a deep sense mocking it at the very moment when it moves him. The feelings of the fighters, in that real history, are not dramatically engaged at all; all we see and hear is the flag, the gesture, the rhetoric. The need and the oppression are silent, or at best oblique in some consequent action. What is active and vociferous is a confusion: the victims trapped in their tenements and abusing or flattering each other. What can be said by the mother, authentically, is
Take away this murdhering hate
—a reaction to the fact of a dead son, in whatever cause. But what is primarily and finally said is Boyle's
The whole worl's in a terrible state of chassis
—the authentic confusion translated into a refrain and a verbal error; the error and inadequacy of this people. It is strange, powerful, cross-grained: a tension worked out, in full view, in this unusual kind of play: the facts of farce and the facts of killing.
The crisis of O'Casey's drama is the working-out of this complicated emotion. What is at issue, always, is the relation between the language of men in intense experience and the inflated, engaging language of men avoiding experience. It is a very deep disturbance, which I suppose comes out of that confused history. But what seems to me to happen, as O'Casey goes on, is the hardening of a mannerism which overrides this crucial and difficult distinction. Juno and the Paycock is powerful and unforgettable because the distinction is dramatized, in the loose but authentic form which alone, within naturalism, could express it. The Plough and the Stars (1926) has resemblances to this, and in fact moves nearer the action that would finally have to be faced if this endless paradox—the reality of suffering and the pathetic winking confusion—was to be directly explored. But there is a change in the language, a development from the earlier plays but now exceptionally self-conscious, as if always with an eye on the audience:
It would take something more than a thing like you to flutther a feather o'Fluther.
Is a man fermentin' with fear to stick th' showin' off to him of a thing that looks like a shinin' shroud?
Phrases like this have been repeatedly quoted as an "Elizabethan" richness; but they are, in their origin and development, and where successful in their direct dramatic use, the consistent evidence of poverty: of a starved, showing-off imagination. I remember reacting very bitterly against them, and against the repeated tricks of colour—the naming of colours—which O'Casey carried to the point of parody. But the real point is more complex. Through all the early plays, it is the fact of evasion, and the verbal inflation that covers it, that O'Casey at once creates and criticizes: Boyle and Joxer, or again Fluther, are in the same movement engaging and despicable; talking to hold the attention from the fact that they have nothing to say. Yet then the manner spills over, into a different dramatic speech. It flares, successfully, into the shouted abuse of the over-crowded people, as here in The Plough and the Stars:
BESSIE. Bessie Burgess doesn't put up to know much, never havin' a swaggerin' mind, thanks be to God, but goin' on packin' up knowledge accordin' to her conscience: precept upon precept, line upon line; here a little, an' there a little. But thanks be to Christ, she knows when she was got, where she was got, an' how she was got; while there's some she knows, decoratin' their finger with a well-polished wedding-ring, would be hard put to it if they were assed to show their weddin' lines!
MRS. GOGAN. Y' oul' rip of a blasted liar …
This almost formal rhetoric, in the daily quarrels, connects with the more difficult use: the almost habitual showing-off. But it is critically different from what looks like the same manner applied to intense feeling, as in Nora in The Plough and the Stars:
While your little red-lipp'd Nora can go on sittin' here, makin' a companion of th' loneliness of th' night …
… It's hard to force away th' tears of happiness at th' end of an awful agony.
The paradoxical force of the language, endlessly presenting and self-conscious, at once to others and to the audience, drives through the play, but not as richness: as the sound, really, of a long confusion and disintegration. A characteristic and significant action is repeated: while the men are dying, in the Easter rising, the people of the tenements are looting, and lying about themselves. It is an unbearable contrast, and it is the main emotion O'Casey had to show: of nerves ragged by talking which cannot connect with the direct and terrible action. The use of random colour, of flags, of slogans, of rhetoric and comic inflation, of the sentimental song, of reminiscences of theatre (as in Nora repeating the mad Ophelia) is a rush of disintegration, of catching at temporary effects, which is quite unique: in a way, already, the separated consciousness, writing from within a life it cannot accept in its real terms yet finds endlessly engaging and preoccupying: the structure of feeling of the self-exile, still within a collective action, which can be neither avoided nor taken wholly seriously; neither indifferent nor direct.
Those three Abbey plays—Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars—are a substantial but increasingly precarious achievement. The emotion is so difficult, so deeply paradoxical, that no simple development was possible. As it happened, O'Casey went away: all his remaining plays were written in exile, and there was a turning-point in his life when the Abbey Theatre, stupidly and unjustly, rejected The Silver Tassie. We have already seen the paradox, when the connection with Irish life and theatre was direct. That essential tension might have worked out differently, in a continuing contact. As it was, O'Casey went on elaborating his unusual forms: in a way released, in a way deprived.
The Silver Tassie (1928) is a serious experiment in a new form: an extension of naturalism to what is presented as an expressionist crisis. The first and last acts are again the crowded, overflowing talk of the Abbey plays; excited and colourful in its superficial actions—the winning of the cup, the victory dance, the songs—but with a cold using of people, a persistent indifference to each other, that repeats, more bitterly, the paradoxical emotions of the earlier plays. The more the cry of colour and of triumph goes up, the more deprived and shut-off are the honest people. To praise the colour and excitement in abstraction is then not only critically foolish; it insults this genuine and persistent sense of loss and poverty. But the difficulty is inherent: O'Casey shows an emptiness, a terrible passivity, through the continual jerking of what presents itself as excitement. It is as if, as often in the earlier plays, he is at times himself carried away by the surface vitality; though what he always comes back to, when he shows the people, is an empty incapacity, an indifference and a cruelty.
The two middle acts of The Silver Tassie are a newly direct presentation—in their form critically conscious—of the determining suffering. It is the repetition, in bitter parody, of the recourse to song: the exposed soldiers finding a desperate voice, and beside them the alienated, clipped orders—the false clarity of the war. The second act is still one of the most remarkable written in English in this century, but it has the same uncertainty, the root uncertainty, of the earlier work. The critical showing, of what the war does to these men, is brilliantly achieved:
Stumbling, swiftly cursing, plodding,
Lumbering, loitering, stumbling, grousing,
Through mud and rain and filth and danger
Flesh and blood seek slow the front line.
But they are not only exposed victims. Their final chant is to the glory of the gun: they compound their suffering. And they cannot break through, at the crisis of exposure, to reason:
But wy'r we 'ere, wy'r we 'ere,—that's wot I wants to know. Why's 'e 'ere, why's 'e 'ere—that's wot 'e wants to know. We're here because we're here, because we're here, because we're here.
It is the persistent feeling: the exposed and deprived who cannot understand what is happening to them; who can talk, within limits, in their own idiom, but then fall for an alien rhetoric. It is a very deep kind of despair, and when the soldiers have become numbers, in the casualty ward, what we see again, in the reactions of others, is an indifference and cruelty. O'Casey had here his hero: the footballer who is paralysed by a wound, who watches his girl despise him and go dancing with his friend. It is the image he always returns to: of a trapped consciousness, suffering the noisy vitality of what is supposed to be a liberation. The songs point the feeling, but also, in a sense, compound it:
Let him come, let him sigh, let him go,
For he is a life on the ebb,
We a full life on the flow.
It is that ebb, that long ebb, that O'Casey writes, but through that what sounds, in inattention, like life on the flow.
The Silver Tassie is memorable and important. The uncertainty and the paradox find their way into parts of the form, but the general power is still there. In his later work, O'Casey experimented continually, out of touch with the theatre. What got him another kind of reputation was a play like The Star Turns Red (1940): a formally rhetorical communism, which overlies the difficult and incompatible social experience, the shouting frustration and loss. He dramatizes a class of attitudes, with the flags and slogans now offered in their own right. Only a careless external glance would accept them. Red Roses for Me (1943) is a replay of the Abbey work, with the mannerism of colour—the external colour of names and sashes—intense. But the most interesting later work is where the interest always was: in the true nature of that endless fantasy of Irish talk. There is an unusually straight dramatization of the theme—the frustration of ordinary life under the sparks of a now organized showing-off—in the post-liberation Ireland of The Bishop's Bonfire (1955): a directly successful play. There is also the experiment—away on his own—with an area between pantomime and folk-play, as in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949). It is a different Irish experience that he now has in view: he has identified the enemies of the people as the Church and business and order; what crows against this is the life and play—the liberation through fancy—which he had seen, in his earlier work, shot through by the killing—at once irrepressible and their own worst enemies. It was easier, perhaps, when he could identify a cause; but it was at a distance—a felt dramatic distance—from that original confusion and intensity. It is to the Abbey plays that we still go back, but watchfully, moved and involved and yet without sentiment: seeing what happened, what so strangely happened, as the rhetoric and the reality collided, memorably, and then lurched away singing, gesturing, suffering.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1850
SOURCE: A review of The Letters of Sean O'Casey, Vol. I, 1910–1941, in The New York Times Book Review, March 16, 1975, pp. 1, 16, 18.
[Gilman is an American critic, editor, and educator. In the following review, a small portion of which appeared in CLC-5, he contends that O'Casey's literary reputation has been unduly inflated by critics, and that the value of his correspondence is not in "revelation about what-lies-behind-greatness … [but] that of insight into a flawed career."]
He described himself in the titles of several of his books as a "green crow" and a "flying wasp," but the image of Sean O'Casey that's fixed in my mind is of a more ungainly sort of winged creature: a crane or stork, a great flapping, squawking, long-necked, near-sighted bird with Adam's apple bobbing in rage or indignation. O'Casey pretended to—and sometimes possessed—the homely uncorrupted sagacity of the crow of our animal tales, and regarded himself as called on to administer stinging wasp-like rebukes to social and artistic complacency. Yet as this ponderous volume of his correspondence [The Letters of Sean O'Casey, Volume I, 1910–1941] demonstrates, he was often simple-minded rather than innocently wise, and querulous, even mean-spirited, instead of intellectually valorous.
There's nothing to be surprised at in this: we expect a man's letters—a fortiori a writer's—to reveal his dissonances and contradictions. Still, in the matter of O'Casey something of more than psychic or moral interest is at stake when we find him displayed to us in this informal way. Anomalies and contradictions abound in his writings and in the zone of estimation that surrounds it. What is his place, this troublesome, erratic, autodidactic Irishman? Was he really one of the great modern playwrights, as so many textbooks and so much popular consideration would have it? I remember the litany from my student days: Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, O'Casey, O'Neill—the recent masters.
His towering importance is naturally assumed by the editor of these letters. David Krause is the author of a serviceable if indulgent literary biography, Sean O'Casey: The Man and His Work, which has just been reissued by Macmillan in an expanded edition, and he has worked with astonishing diligence to track down nearly every scrap of correspondence O'Casey ever wrote. This volume, 1910–1941, is to be followed by two more going up to O'Casey's death in 1964, the whole enterprise being likely to come to more than 2,500 pages. "A heroic figure," "the radical conscience of the modern theater," "a generation ahead of his time," Mr. Krause says of his subject, and one would like it all to be true, if only to justify such stupendous labor.
But it's not true. O'Casey can't bear the weight of such an apotheosis, which threatens by reaction to diminish his limited achievement. There are too many bad and even deeply embarrassing plays in his oeuvre (Within the Gates, The Star Turns Red, The Bishop's Bonfire, et al.) and too many esthetic sins of naiveté, rhetorical excess, sentimentality and tendentiousness in all but his very best work: Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars, the late and only half-successful Cock-a-doodle Dandy. I suspect that O'Casey's inflated reputation in the textbooks and in certain theatrical circles is largely a set of extra-artistic circumstances: the sterility of the English-speaking theater in the twenties when he came to prominence with his "Dublin" plays at the Abbey Theater; his ferocious battle with censorship; his own "dramatic" story—slum childhood, self-education, lifelong nearblindness, self-exile.
If the letters have value, then, it's not in the mode of revelation about what-lies-behind-greatness, etc., but (it doesn't seem to me insulting to say) in a more prosaic vein, that of insight into a flawed career. The peculiar violence of O'Casey's circumstances, his beleaguered physical and economic condition, his struggle with Irish prudery and provincialism, make him something other than a fully representative literary figure, but he is representative in having been frequently unconscious of the true nature of his work, in having felt simultaneously misunderstood and touched with glory, and in having doggedly insisted on his inspiration even when it was leading him to imaginative disaster.
"Writing letters is a talent the gods have denied me. I must have been a secretary in a previous existence," he writes in 1925 to Gabriel Fallon, an actor-friend to whom many of the most personal letters are directed. Yet he obviously relished it, and though there is indeed something secretarial in the dutifulness with which he sets down the details of his own career, there is also an attractive energy in the way he goes about it. He lets nothing get past: he pounces, groans, fulminates, lyricizes, protests. And always in the substance of what he writes, or in its subtext, is the assertion (or question) of who he is, what he has done.
The letters are to friends and acquaintances, of course, but there are also a great many to newspapers and magazines, constituting the text of O'Casey's lifelong public debate. They begin when he is 30 and for some years, until he turns seriously to writing plays, mostly concern his political ideas and activity. (Most of the early ones are signed S. O'Cathasaigh: christened John Casey, he Gaelicized himself in his mid-twenties, adopting his final name when The Shadow of a Gunman was accepted by the Abbey in 1923.) As he begins to think of himself as a writer the letters touch more and more on literary matters and from then on move easily among politics of an increasingly radical kind. He writes finally about the theater and, to intimates, about the details of his besieged existence.
Impetuous to defend himself, he rushes headlong at every criticism. His letters to journals where he has been attacked are full of impassioned (though not usually very seductive) claims for the value of his plays or ideas, together with frequently vituperative assaults on his detractors' intelligence and, in some instances, sanity. Of an opponent in a controversy over The Plough and the Stars he writes: "Mrs. Skeffington is certainly not dumb but she appears to be both blind and deaf." To the poet AE, in the latter's capacity as editor of The Irish Statesman, he says: "Calm yourself, calm yourself, and try to force a definite thought or two out of the congested mass of nonsense in your nut."
He himself is "altogether too vehement to be a good critic," as he tells a friend. But the awareness doesn't prevent him from being a sedulous and savage one. Except for Shaw, who befriended him, and Joyce, he detests his Irish contemporaries. Of Sean O'Faolain and Frank O'Connor he writes that "they go along in literature like two little neatly dressed colleens, arm in arm, out for a walk." And from London, where he settled in 1926, he anathematizes the entire English cultural establishment in a letter to Fallon of 1929: "What these Literary and Art controlling posers want is to be chained together and made to look at Punch and Judy shows, visit Circuses, stare at Revues, and do years of hard labor dancing Jazz. Then there might possibly be a glimpse of God for them."
There was a basis to his complaint. British culture between the wars was in fact desiccated and nowhere more so than in the theater. Yet in its cocksure invocation of popular forms with their presumed vitality and childlike directness the passage is revealing of one strand of O'Casey's opaque self-estimation as on artist. He considered himself a "natural" singer, a voice from the streets, making a virtue of his lack of formal background and seeing himself as the victim of a conspiracy of highbrows: "I can honestly say that I don't care a tinker's damn about art," he writes in 1938 to George Jean Nathan, who had become his advocate in America and later a close friend, "simply because I know nothing about it. But I love the way I imagine the Greeks wrote [and] the way I know the Elizabethans wrote."
Admirable sentiments. The trouble was that O'Casey's ambitions after his "naturalistic" period demanded something tougher than such splendid innocence. He wanted to experiment, to mix structures and styles, to be more "poetic." Yet his sensibility and theory of drama, grounded in what he acknowledges in a letter to be a strange equality of admiration for Shakespeare and Dion Boucicault, were scarcely up to the job. With The Silver Tassie in 1928 he fell into some of the most flagrant delinquences—bathos, ideological cant, pseudo-poetic rhetoric—of the then dying Expressionist movement, and most of his plays from then on exhibit the same malfeasances.
The controversy over the Abbey's rejection of The Silver Tassie is fascinating and instructive. (O'Casey had the entire correspondence published in The Observer, and Krause reprints it here.) Speaking for the Abbey's directors, W. B. Yeats told O'Casey that the play suffered from both inadequate technical prowess and imaginative unconvincingness, to which O'Casey, furious, replied that "you seem … to be getting beautifully worse…. There are shallows in you of which no one ever dreamed." On O'Casey's behalf Krause asserts that "it is still an open question whether Yeats was right or wrong about this challenging work." But the question isn't open: Yeats was right, and though, as Krause says, O'Casey was treated shabbily, there was no failure to discern his genius.
Convinced, though, that the play had been rejected because of its disturbing originality, O'Casey seized on and built up a role as prophet unhonored. He was given ample material: the bannings of his plays in Ireland and Boston, the abuse of outraged jingoists and bluenoses. But political irreverence, anti-clericalism and sexual honesty aren't enough to constitute literary genius. Good as his best work is, emotionally accurate as it occasionally can be, O'Casey's theater mostly lacks that mysterious agency by which experience is shaped by form into new consciousness. His six-volume part-fictional autobiography, to which these letters serve as an addendum and a check, is perhaps the most durable of his contributions.
When Ibsen heard in Rome of the critical outcry back home against Peer Gynt he wrote superbly to a friend that "the definition of poetry will have to be changed to conform to my play." Ibsen's critics were artistically obtuse; O'Casey's were simply morally dense. He was not ahead of his time: to see this one has only to compare his "experiments" with those of Brecht and Pirandello, who wrote during much of the same period.
In any case, this book shows him reacting with extraordinary persistence and violence to the low-level critique which, sadly, was almost all he was offered. I don't want to give the impression that there is nothing else in these letters: O'Casey could be a warm, shrewd, witty and generous correspondent, all of which qualities are in full evidence. But he misunderstood the nature of his imaginative powers, and that is the important cultural fact. In one of the last of these letters he writes to his American agent: "I've never written anything that didn't cause a dispute, a row, a difference of something." He was right, but the disputes were mostly ephemeral, the differences pitifully small.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10089
SOURCE: "A Revaluation in the Light of the Absurd," in Sean O'Casey's Bridge of Vision: Four Essays on Structure and Perspective, University of Toronto Press, 1982, pp. 84-106.
[In the following essay, Kleiman argues that O'Casey's plays express an absurdist view of life, but in a more humanistic tone than is registered in the works of Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and other playwrights associated with the "Theater of the Absurd."]
Sean O'Casey's response to the dark world of the absurdists was, quite simply, one of outrage. 'For the life of me,' he complained bitterly in 'The Bald Primaqueera,' the last article he wrote before his death, 'I can't find anything humanly absurd in any of them.'
Earlier, in an article ['Not Waiting for Godot (1956)' in Blasts and Benedictions, 1967] written especially for students of the theatre, he wrote indignantly:
Beckett? I have nothing to do with Beckett. He isn't in me; nor am I in him. I am not waiting for Godot to bring me life; I am out after life myself, even at the age I've reached. What have any of you to do with Godot? There is more life than Godot can give in the life of the least of us. That Beckett is a clever writer, and that he has written a rotting and remarkable play, there is no doubt; but his philosophy isn't my philosophy, for within him there is no hazard of hope; no desire for it; nothing in it but a lust for despair, and a crying of woe, not in a wilderness, but in a garden.
Though there are many dark moments in O'Casey, certainly in the Dublin 'Tragedies,' what his most despairing play—The Silver Tassie—makes clear is that, however he might cry 'woe' in both garden and wilderness, the world, for him, was still a place of sacrament, a place which was at once both Eden and Gethsemane. Thus, as his own plays, culminating in Red Roses for Me and Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, grew more visionary and apocalyptic, he felt justified in protesting the bleak and pessimistic outlook of the younger generation of dramatists who were, to O'Casey's chagrin, obviously up-and-coming.
The sudden and almost inexplicable popularity which the new Theatre of the Absurd achieved during the last decade of O'Casey's lifetime must have perplexed him greatly. In view of his own failure to achieve the recognition that he felt his experimental plays deserved, and the more or less continuing eclipse of his own fortunes since the rejection of The Silver Tassie, the acceptance of even more wildly experimental plays in the popular and commercial theatres must have seemed totally unjust.
Indeed, we can gauge O'Casey's feeling here by comparing his final bitter lampooning of 'these Primaqueera play-wrights'—Ionesco, Rudkin, Pinter—with his fierce praise of John Arden's anti-war play, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. This play, with its structural use of music and song, its richly comic, brawling characters, and its brilliant climax in the grotesque scene of the hanging skeleton and the dance of death, is strikingly like O'Casey's own expressionist theatre. Nor could O'Casey have been unaware of the multiple ironies involved when he described Arden's work as
far and away the finest play of the present day, full of power, protest, and frantic compassion, notwithstanding that, on its first presentation, it was scowled and scooted from the theatre by most of our intelligent and unintelligent drama critics. I wonder why! What dazzling Freudian id or idiom swept this rejection into them, making them reject the denunciation of war's horrors, and led them to embrace the plays which despise and hate life. ['The Bald Primaqueera,' in Blasts and Benedictions]
There is much restless energy—much wit and anger—in these two articles, one on Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the other on the Theatre of the Absurd and the Theatre of Cruelty, which, as O'Casey points out, go 'arm in arm.' And this energy derives in part from the way in which he had himself been served, throughout his lifetime, by a host of reviewers and critics, all echoing the opinion of Yeats, who rejected The Tassie out of hand. O'Casey, while not entirely blameless in the matter, at least had the good sense to recognize what was involved: 'there goes a cursed opinion again,' he told Yeats with a touch of self-mockery. And in the titles of his books, The Flying Wasp and The Green Crow, he acknowledges, with humour and courage and with a certain humility, the kind of pose vis-à-vis his detractors that he had been forced to adopt.
Despite the occasional error of fact or judgement, the value of O'Casey's own opinions on the Theatre of the Absurd lies in the energy, and even in the anger, with which they are expressed—an anger which is made palatable by wit, and an energy which remains vital and creative. Thus, O'Casey's last written words intended for publication were not just a dismissal of what he felt to be the limited and one-sided vision of the absurdists, but also a strong affirmation of his own beliefs:
Ah, to hell with the loutish lust of Primaqueera. There are still many red threads of courage, many golden threads of nobility woven into the tingling fibres of our common humanity. No one passes through life scatheless. The world has many sour noises, the body is an open target for many invisible enemies, all hurtful, some venemous, like the accursed virus which can bite deeply into flesh and mind. It is full of disappointments, and too many of us have to suffer the loss of a beloved child, a wound that aches bitterly till our time here ends. Yet, even so, each of us, one time or another, can ride a white horse, can have rings on our fingers and bells on our toes, and, if we keep our senses open to the scents, sounds, and sights all around us, we shall have music wherever we go. ['The Bald Primaqueera']
The appeal to the child's world, to the 'authority' of the nursery rhyme, makes O'Casey's point with a characteristic and utterly convincing simplicity. Rhymes and songs, music and dance were all a part of that magical affirmation of life that O'Casey wanted to see on the contemporary stage, and the older he grew, the more magic became a part of his plays in the shape, for example, of a flying cock or a trumpeting statue. Thus—despite the Tassie's rejection—O'Casey and Yeats were once more in agreement. In their later years, what they both tell us is that the proximity of death, the final cruelty in a cruel world, is not an occasion for even more metaphysical anguish at the absurdity of man's condition, but an occasion on which [as W. B. Yeats wrote in 'Sailing to Byzantium']
Soul [must] clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.
It is, then, the optimistic belief that it is possible for man to transcend the absurdity of his condition which, above all, distinguishes an O'Casey play from the plays of Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd, and from the plays of those other dramatists who have been influenced by Antonin Artaud's concept of the 'theatre of cruelty.'
Yet the difference is one of emphasis and degree, rather than one of absolute contrast, for O'Casey's world contains within it the world of the absurd—that often cruel world which each of us inhabits but which can at least be laughed at, if it cannot be dealt with in any other way. And it is this 'humanly absurd' aspect of O'Casey's theatre, embodied in the song and dance, the mask, mime, farce, and slapstick, the wild tragicomic scenes in which the grotesque and the sublime mingle—in fact, all those elements which O'Casey uses to create his own kind of stage poetry—that allows us to view his plays as an unacknowledged seedbed from which grew many of the dramatic motifs and techniques of the Theatre of the Absurd. For when the curtain fell on the nearly empty stage of Juno and the Paycock, what the audience had glimpsed was the 'realistic' stage being stripped down to essentials in preparation for the curtain going up—a quarter century later—on the Theatre of the Absurd. Until recently, however, it has been O'Casey's own impassioned outcry against those 'Primaqueera' playwrights that has, to a large extent, obscured this fact.
Earlier, and in a more mellow mood, O'Casey had actually expressed a deep admiration for Beckett, even while recognizing the basic difference in their philosophies. In 'The Lark in the Clear Air Still Sings,' he wrote:
I was born to sing a different song, facing those singing the same song in many different keys—Kafka, Beckett, Ionesco, Greene, Eliot, Genêt, Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Camus, leaders of a host of worshipping intelligentsia—a great galaxy of darkened stars dulling the human sky. Many of these are very fine writers indeed, but to me they seem to be setting down the history of life as a Doomsday Book, though Samuel Beckett wears his rue with a difference. He is a poet, and there is a sly humor as well as music in his writing. One has but to listen to good actors speaking it within a monologue or a play to hear the music, at times to feel the deep, gloomy compassion, and to be touched by the humor in the sad recital.
Beckett, for his part, had long been an admirer of O'Casey, and this mutual admiration and respect which the two self-exiled Irishmen felt for each other speaks of a kinship of spirit and sensibility, and of an affinity which underlies their work, at least in certain clearly defined areas. In fact, long before Beckett wrote his own plays, he defined [in 'The Essential and the Incidental'] that humanly absurd element which comprises the 'essential' O'Casey:
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. If Juno and the Paycock, as seems likely, is his best work so far, it is because it communicates most fully this dramatic dehiscence, mind and world come asunder in irreparable dissociation—'chassis.'
Beckett's interest and delight in the 'knockabout' world of O'Caseyan drama actually presages, as David Krause points out [in his Sean O'Casey, 1960], 'the knockabout nightmare world of Gogo and Didi, Pozzo and Lucky, Hamm and Clov, Nagg and Nell, Krapp and Krapp, Winnie and Willie.' Moreover, Beckett's definition of O'Casey's 'chassis' as a state in which 'mind and world come asunder in irreparable dissociation' points to the fact that O'Casey's 'state o' chassis' is, in fact, the 'disintegrated' mode of the Absurd, with all of its tragi-comic display of metaphysical anguish. O'Casey's plays, with their knockabout, and with their basic structural metaphor of 'chassis,' suggest a relationship between the two theatres which is finally beginning to be recognized.
Thus at the end of Juno when the furniture removal men have literally taken the room apart before our very eyes and the drunken Boyle and Joxer struggle to keep from falling on the almost empty stage, the concrete image that results is a classic one which will appear again and again in the Theatre of the Absurd. Truly, 'The blinds is down'; there is no sunlight; man is surrounded by emptiness; he is alone, except for his 'parasite' or slave, who is, perhaps, his alter ego. Communication, too, is difficult, if not impossible, for words have become disjointed, their point of contact with reality uncertain:
The counthry'll have to steady itself … it's goin' … to hell … Where'r all … the chairs … gone … steady itself, Joxer … Chairs'll … have to … steady themselves … No matther … what any one may … say … Irelan' sober … is Irelan' … free.
Moreover, the ideals of Irish patriotism embodied in the fantasies of Boyle and Joxer are as insubstantial as the conjectures about Godot that preoccupy Gogo and Didi. Both worlds are absurd, but, of the two, Beckett's is the harsher, since it exists almost without reference to a saner world of basic human values, that world which Juno and Mary have, presumably, just set out to regain.
Yet the laughter which arises is, in both cases, a reaffirming laughter, for it springs from our own awareness of the discrepancy between the amount of anguish evoked and the amount which might reasonably be justified by the 'state o' chassis' that prevails. We laugh at Boyle and Joxer because, while they would enlarge the scope of their sufferings, flinging them against the grander background of Ireland's greater anguish, they are actually not even aware of the true dimensions of the 'chassis' that has invaded their lives. Boyle does not know his son is dead, nor does he realize the Juno and Mary have left him. On the contrary, all that Boyle and his 'butty' Joxer understand is that the money, with the comforts it provided, is gone, and so the last 'tanner' flung into the centre of the stage becomes the actual focus of their grief. Thus their anguish is ironically disproportionate to its cause: greater than its known cause—the loss of the legacy—less than what should be its real cause—the death of a son, the breaking up of a family, the Civil War in Ireland.
With Gogo and Didi [from Beckett's Waiting for Godot], too, we have a sense of disproportion, both grotesque and humorous, a sense that their grief is somehow less than the situation warrants—or perhaps it is greater—we cannot tell which. Godot—Man—God: a mysterious trinity, to say the least. And waiting for Godot, or, like Pozzo and Lucky, not waiting, is equally futile. All that is certain is that man's life is defined by two polarities, annihilation and salvation:
VLADIMIR. We'll hang ourselves to-morrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes.
ESTRAGON. And if he comes?
VLADIMIR. We'll be saved.
Yet not even this much is certain, for the words of these two sad clowns are continually contradicted by their actions, proof enough that mind and world have come irreparably asunder. And this is the way the play ends:
VLADIMIR. Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON. Yes, let's go.
They do not move.
As in the Theatre of the Absurd, the world Boyle and Joxer struggle comically to comprehend can be summed up, finally, only by an admission of its total incomprehensibility. 'Th' whole worl',' Boyle tells Joxer conclusively, is 'in a terr … ible state o' … It is a frightening admission, but there is an undertone of self-importance, even of triumph, in Boyle's voice, for he is one of those capable (despite the odd pratfall) of standing up to such an irrational and cruel universe.
In Juno and the Paycock, as in his other plays, O'Casey reveals that he understood instinctively the Artaudian concept of a 'theatre of cruelty,' though in 'The Bald Primaqueera,' he chose instead to lampoon, in the most out-rageous way he knew how, those expressions of it which he felt, perhaps rightly, invited man to despair. A similar conclusion has been reached by Robert P. Murphy [in his 'Sean O'Casey and "The Bald Primaqueera"'], who is the first to recognize the many affinities both of dramatic motifs and dramaturgical devices between O'Casey's theatre and the theatre of Artaud. Yet Murphy does not care to speculate on why O'Casey 'seems unwilling or unable to admit that the theatre of cruelty is more than violence or the threat of violence.'
In The Theater and Its Double, Artaud specifically comments on this oversimplified notion of cruelty (such as O'Casey deliberately fastened on), when he writes:
It is not the cruelty we can exercise upon each other by hacking at each other's bodies, carving up our personal anatomies, or, like Assyrian emperors, sending parcels of human ears, noses, or neatly detached nostrils through the mail, but the much more terrible and necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us. We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theater has been created to teach us that first of all.
Clearly, there are many moments in the theatre of O'Casey where such a world is glimpsed. It is even possible to catalogue (as Murphy does) the surprisingly large number of gratuitous deaths that do occur in O'Casey's plays: Minnie's, in Shadow of a Gunman, the death of Bessie Burgess in The Plough and the Stars, the shooting of Ayamonn in Red Roses for Me, the death of Jack the lorry driver, struck down in anger by Father Domineer in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, the impending death of the paralysed Julia in the same play, and the murder of Foorawn in The Bishop's Bonfire.
But what we should also be aware of is that as many of these deaths as possible occur offstage. In fact, O'Casey rewrote the scene in Juno where Johnny is taken by the IRA so that we are not even asked to visualize the actual physical violence. Instead, the news of Johnny's death is brought by two impatient policemen and conveyed sympathetically by Mrs Madigan to Juno, whose words of grief echo those of Mrs Tancred when her own son was killed because Johnny had betrayed him. Such multiple ironies are more effective than any number of casual onstage shootings and underline the senseless cruelty of a world engaged in Civil War, a world which makes its comic ascendancy in the final scene of 'chassis.' In an O'Casey play, then, when the sky does fall—as it threatened to fall on Chicken Little—the cruelty and comedy mingle as they do in the child's magical world of the nursery fable or in the celluloid world of the cartoon.
However, while both Artaud and O'Casey insist on magic in the theatre in order to express the mysterious, unknown quality of life, the effect of O'Casey's magic is quite different. To Artaud, magic is 'brimstone,' and therefore it follows that his theatre 'emphasizes the scathes, disappointments, and suffering of life' [Murphy]. Whereas, to O'Casey: 'A play poetical to be worthy of the theatre must be able to withstand the terror of Ta Ra Ra Boom Dee Ay, as a blue sky, or an apple tree in bloom, withstand any ugliness around or beneath them' [Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well, 1949]. In other words, O'Casey rarely offers us straight brimstone to drink, but more often a deceptively innocent-looking mixture of brimstone and treacle—a traditional nursery medicine.
Actually, it is seldom recognized nowadays that, even in O'Casey's later plays, this kind of magic, like the drum roll of Father Ned or the trumpeting of St Trinculo in The Bishop's Bonfire, heralds potential danger and the risk of disaster as well as laughter, excitement, and mystery. Though at least one critic has even managed to overstate the sense of despair in Juno, the more usual tendency now is to overlook the very real danger that lurks in O'Casey's tragi-comic 'state o' chassis' and in his often seemingly innocent Ta Ra Ra Boom Dee Ay of life. Ironically, then, it is really only in retrospect and in the context of the Theatre of the Absurd and the Theatre of Cruelty, that Joseph Wood Krutch's comment about the final scene in Juno [in his Modern Drama] takes on its true significance: 'Like the play as a whole, this concluding scene is funny at the same time that it is bitter, hopeless, and terrible. It would, in fact, be difficult to find anywhere else in dramatic literature so extraordinary a combination of farce with loathing and a bleak despair.'
And yet it is just this extraordinary combination of farce and tragic despair that threatens in The Silver Tassie to blot out, for once, the blue sky and the blossoms of apple tree or daffodil. Nowhere else in O'Casey is the mixture of laughter and tears so painful. Nowhere else is the juxtaposition and mingling, not only of comedy and tragedy, but also of farce and tragedy treated so masterfully and so intensely. Think, for example, of Act III, where Harry's agonized and terrified awareness of 'a soft, velvety sense of distance between my fingers and the things I touch' expresses so completely the 'irreparable dissociation' of mind and body, of a world falling asunder into chaos. Here, certainly, is mystery and terror, and also a kind of magic, for there is magic in O'Casey's language as he surrounds Harry with scene of comic anarchy and refuses to let him—or us—escape from the Ta Ra Ra Boom Dee Ay of life.
As Harry agonizes over his condition, life rollicks mindlessly on: 'Kiss in a corner; ta-ra-ra-ra, kiss in a corner!' Surgeon Maxwell flirts outrageously with Susie, while deciding, at the same time, that Sylvester must be operated on in the morning, information which sends the reluctant patient into an unwarranted paroxysm of terror. Sylvester's outraged and agonized response, as he calculates the odds for survival in this kind of universe, is wildly funny. But since in this scene he functions as a kind of comic surrogate for Harry, who is also to be operated on in the morning, there are darker and more painful undertones:
SYLVESTER. We have our hands full, Simon, to keep alive. Think of sinkin' your body to the level of a hand that, ta-ra-ra-ra, would plunge a knife into your middle, haphazard, hurryin' up to run away after a thrill from a kiss in a corner. Did you see me dizzied an' wastin' me time pumpin' ninety-nines out of me, unrecognized, quiverin' with cold an' equivocation!
SIMON. Everybody says he's a very clever fellow with the knife.
SYLVESTER. He'd gouge out your eye, saw off your arm, lift a load of vitals out of your middle, rub his hands, keep down a terrible desire to cheer lookin' at the ruin, an' say, 'Twenty-six, when you're a little better, you'll feel a new man!'
It is with a start that we realize that the kind of comic mutilations described here and portrayed, on the tragic level, by the blind Teddy and the paralysed Harry are quite similar to those which abound in the Theatre of the Absurd and Theatre of Cruelty. The absurdists, in fact, have populated their plays with blind, deaf, dumb, and crippled creatures, perhaps the most grotesque of which is the protagonist of Adamov's La grande et la petite manœuvre, who loses one limb after another each time he shows some kind of weakness, until he ends up as a basket case in a wheel-chair and is then pushed under a truck. Clearly, what these very sad clowns are trying to tell us is that the human condition is one of impotence in the face of a universe that is implacably cruel and mysterious.
It is the same theme heard in Gloucester's anguished cry [from William Shakespeare's King Lear],
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.
Yet, in the world of the absurdists, the gods are not simply unjust and inscrutable: they no longer even exist, and those who, like Mullcanny in Red Roses for Me, have made the 'grand discovery' that 'God is dead' can now draw two totally opposite conclusions.
In the face of such a meaningless universe, where the sky can fall at any moment and where there is so much suffering, one conclusion we can obviously come to is that life has no meaning. Thus, in the world depicted by the absurdists, man's intelligent and rational speech becomes, finally, an unintelligible cry. Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, for example, shows Stanley gagging on such a world when Goldberg and McCann offer it to him for his birthday:
GOLDBERG. Well, Stanny boy, what do you say, eh?
They watch. He concentrates. His head lowers, his chin draws into his chest, he crouches.
STANLEY. Ug-gughh … uh-gughh …
MCCANN. What's your opinion, sir?
STANLEY. Caaahhh … caaahhh …
The closest we come to this kind of huddled and despairing cry in the theatre of O'Casey is in Harry's bitter denial, 'Napoo!' ('Vanished! lost! done! finished!'), a denial of home and friend and the girl he loves—all now equally meaningless. If the word was not already becoming obsolete when O'Casey used it, he must nevertheless have chosen it for the quality of its sound. For its power, in the context of the Theatre of the Absurd, also derives, perhaps coincidentally, from its very strangeness, its very unintelligibility. By contrast, the anguished crying of Ayamonn's name, which occurs several times throughout the final act of Red Roses for Me, functions on both a realistic and expressionist level to present a world which, in its Eastertime context, is simultaneously absurd and divine.
Here, then, is the other conclusion that we can come to in a meaningless universe: man must create his own meaning, must continually make his own affirmations. This task is not an easy one, and it comes as no surprise to discover that the anguish of the absurdists is often reflected in their lives, as well as in their plays. Certainly this is true of Ionesco, Adamov, and Genêt, though the example of Artaud, himself, with his visions and his history of mental breakdown, is the most extreme. Significantly, however, it is in O'Casey's plays, rather than in the plays of the absurdists, that we can detect something of Artaud's messianic vision.
Somewhat paradoxically, Artaud believed, as did O'Casey, that the true theatrical experience was a religious one, that the experience of the theatre was a communion involving all its participants, and that to base the drama in myth and ritual was to root it in life itself. Such plays as The Silver Tassie and Red Roses for Me are particularly good illustrations of what Artaud meant when he wrote: 'To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theater':
Furthermore, when we speak the word 'life,' it must be understood we are not referring to life as we know it from its surface of fact, but to that fragile, fluctuating center which forms never reach. And if there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames. [The Theater and Its Double]
The ultimately unbearable intensity of Artaud's artistic vision is summed up by the metaphor of fire. Whereas, in O'Casey, it is not so much the metaphor of fire, as of light—from the 'red glare' illuminating the darkness in Act II of The Silver Tassie to the 'little flower of light' that the lamplighter carries in Red Roses for Me—which best expresses the range and intensity of O'Casey's vision.
And it is somewhere between the burning genius of Artaud and the brilliant illumination of O'Casey's genius that we glimpse the countenance of Beckett as Martin Esslin [in his The Theatre of the Absurd, 1969] describes him, 'the most balanced and serene of men.' Of all the absurdists, it is Beckett who allows us to catch almost infinitesimal glimmers of hope in the midst of darkest despair: the 'four or five leaves' that have suddenly appeared on the tree in the second act of Godot, for instance, or the fact that, after innumerable pratfalls, Gogo and Didi are standing miraculously upright at the final curtain—and Gogo has even managed to pull up his trousers!
To evoke laughter in the face of despair and to make poetry out of the cruelty of the human condition is a considerable achievement. For O'Casey, however, it was clearly not enough. And if the ecstatic joy which transforms the hearts of the Dublin men and women in the visionary third act of Red Roses for Me occurs only once, there are still many times in the theatre of O'Casey where the possibility of such a transfigured world is glimpsed. For it is just where his vision is darkest and the irony most intense that O'Casey's characters usually choose to affirm life in whatever way they can.
Even in The Silver Tassie, the darkest of all O'Casey's plays, Harry, the grotesque 'half-baked Lazarus,' is finally able to put his wits together long enough to make sense out of nonsense: 'The Lord hath given and man hath taken away!' Of course, in the context of blind man and wheel-chair victim, Harry's previous resolve, 'What's in front we'll face like men!'—as its deliberately trite and commonplace phrasing confirms—seems as ironic and futile as any of the attempts at affirmation made by Gogo and Didi. In fact, it is really only in the final movement of Harry and Teddy onstage, more than in their speech, that we can discern the more positive direction that the O'Casey play takes. For, in the last two acts of The Tassie, the garden on the edge of the 'wilderness' exists, for the most part, outside the consciousness of the characters in the play. Or, at any rate, the garden exists on the very periphery of consciousness (like the calm sea in Endgame), related only tangentially to the world of the absurd that dominates the stage. Thus, as blind man and cripple move into the garden prior to going offstage altogether, this purposeful movement, in contrast to the immobility of Gogo and Didi, or Hamm and Clov, at their play's end, must be seen as some kind of rather less ambiguous affirmation.
In Endgame, moreover, the actions of Hamm and Clov finally negate the positive direction in which the play, even if only by means of its often lyrical dialogue, is attempting to move. Nagg's generosity to Nell, for example, is continually thwarted by Hamm's orders, which Clov faithfully carries out: stuffed in ash-cans, Nagg and Nell cannot move close enough together to kiss, or to scratch each other's backs. For Hamm, in his misery, is destructive and has been responsible for the deaths of the other survivors. In fact his cruelty to others is appalling. But since it springs directly from the terrible way in which a cruel and senseless universe has treated him, it is, like Harry Heegan's cruelty, easily understandable.
Yet, while Hamm controls the others, he is impotent: blind and paralyzed, wheeled about in an armchair with castors, he calls petulantly for his pain-killer and his catheter. For he is another of the maimed creatures of the Absurd whose multiple disabilities embody a gaping spiritual defect. Nor is there any cure for what is simply part of the human condition. As Hamm reminds Clov: 'use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that!'
With Hamm, despair continually extinguishes hope, even as it continually points to the existence of that cruel and absurd universe from which man so longs to escape. The image of Hamm in his wheelchair, then, is one of the most basic images of the Absurd: man reduced to 'ham,' to the purely animal and physical, by means of a despair which overwhelms and finally annihilates him. The image is becoming a familiar one in our time, as it sums up all the metaphysical anguish of twentieth-century man in a mechanized world. Impotent, blind, crippled, without faith or hope, unable any longer to walk upright, he lashes out angrily at whatever crosses his path.
And behind the figure of Hamm, if we look closely, is the figure of another wheelchair victim—Harry Heegan—wheeling himself crazily about the stage, pursuing, running down and grappling with whatever he thinks to be the cause of his anguish, and, finally, calling out, both to man and God, for the misery to cease. And though the torment can never cease for Harry Heegan, it does lessen, partly because he has plumbed the limits of despair and can go no further, but also because, by an act of faith or will, he chooses to move into the garden—beyond the Absurd.
It is these limits which both the Theatre of O'Casey and the Theatre of the Absurd continually re-examine and redefine. But, while 'The blinds is down' for Captain Boyle and his 'butty' Joxer, the darkness is not nearly so intense as that which ends Hamm's apocalyptic day: 'You cried for night; it falls: now cry in darkness.' Hamm's words are a poignant and lyrical description of one aspect of the human condition, but the advice would never be followed by an O'Casey character simply because—with such rare exceptions as Nora Clitheroe and Harry Heegan—an O'Casey character never given in, for long, to despair.
O'Casey's relationship to the Theatre of the Absurd, made apparent first of all by his use of such key structural images as the 'state o' chassis' and man in a wheelchair, is also clearly evident in the particular way he uses language. The 'irreparable dissociation' of mind and world that puzzles and amazes Boyle and terrifies Harry finds concrete expression, not only in disintegrating stage sets, in the splitting apart of families, in violent quarrels, in blind and crippled bodies, in sudden, gratuitous deaths, but also, above all, in the violent rending apart of language itself, a convulsion that can result, however, in a new world of meaning rising out of the old. Accordingly, by the end of Red Roses for Me, even Brennan's ridiculous cliché, 'Money's the root of all evil,' is forced to impart its own unexpected truth. And what is revealed is that to choose Brennan's viewing of life—or, worse still, the Inspector's—is to choose to live in a world of cliché and absurdity. Such an ironic use of the cliché is a characteristic device of O'Casey's from the early plays onward. In Juno and the Paycock, for example, the hackneyed slogan 'a principle's a principle' echoes throughout the play, but before it is over the actions of the various characters have exposed, and rejected, the hollowness of a world which tries to function according to completely arbitrary and inhuman principles.
Similarly, in The Bald Prima Donna, Ionesco uses cliché to record the pettiness, meanness, viciousness—and, finally, the absurdity—of the world his characters inhabit. But, again, the difference between the two theatres is one of degree. For Ionesco, unlike O'Casey, often makes his characters speak nothing but cliché, so that, in effect, a process of reductio ad absurdum is constantly at work. Is it any wonder, then, that Ionesco's plays evoked the charge that language is in the process of being broken down and stripped of meaning altogether? [In a footnote, Kleiman refers the reader to Kenneth Tynan's 'Ionesco, Man of Destiny?' (1958).] Yet Ionesco denied that he felt language had become meaningless: 'The very fact of writing and presenting plays is surely incompatible with such a view. I simply hold that it is difficult to make oneself understood, not absolutely impossible' [Ionesco, 'A Reply to Kenneth Tynan: The Playwright's Role' (1958)].
Ionesco's reply makes clear that the difficulty of communicating new ideas in a language which has become riddled with clichés, truisms, and the slogans of outworn ideologies is, of course, basically the same for any writer. But what links O'Casey ahead to Ionesco and the Absurdists, rather than back to Toller and the Expressionists, is the fact that O'Casey is not afraid to satirize verbal formulas—to disintegrate language along with the stage sets—since he knows that, in the explosion which follows, a lot of false beliefs and prejudices will be swept away. Thus, while the basic device which O'Casey uses to force language to communicate again is the old, traditional one of dramatic irony, he often pushes it to an extreme which creates a new context: one which can replace walls with the limitless perspective of the universe.
In this universe stumble characters who reveal, by the emptiness of their nonsensical conversations, their mental and spiritual disabilities. Such characters, with their use of obscure and unpronounceable names or Latin tags—'Terra Del Fooaygeeans,' 'os coccyges'—even manage to sound like fugitives on their way from the expressionist theatre of O'Casey to the Theatre of the Absurd. However, while these various kinds of 'talkathons'—so characteristic of both theatres—usually sound quite funny and seem harmless enough, they can at times be harmful, and, at worst, downright dangerous. Not only do they signify the 'blindness' and 'impotence' of certain characters, but they can also signify a willingness to blind and castrate others, if not to destroy them completely. For example, the Professor in Ionesco's The Lesson and McCann and Goldberg in Pinter's The Birthday Party destroy their victims, first of all, by talk. And the final disastrous result of all this empty and dangerous talk is the realization onstage of a dark and crippled world, a world which can be summed up in the images of blind man and wheelchair victim.
Disintegrated language, then, itself becomes one of the most basic images of a world which continually threatens us with its unintelligibility. And cliché, platitude, political slogans, mispronounced words, or words from dead or foreign languages are but a few of the many modes of its disintegration which O'Casey shares with the absurdists. Yet, rather than merely acknowledging and confronting such an unintelligible universe, O'Casey actively persists in his attempts to find new ways of establishing meaning. In Act III of The Tassie, to take a more complex example, the extremely intricate effect of the repetition of the name 'Sister Peter Alcantara' five times in seven lines of dialogue comes from the interaction of words and rhythm:
MRS HEEGAN. Sister Peter Alcantara said we might come up, Nurse.
MRS FORAN. (loftily) Sister Peter Alcantara's authority ought to be good enough, I think.
MRS HEEGAN. Sister Peter Alcantara said a visit might buck him up a bit.
MRS FORAN. Sister Peter Alcantara knows the responsibility she'd incur by keeping a wife from her husband and a mother from her son.
SUSIE. Sister Peter Alcantara hasn't got to nurse him.
This apparently senseless and farcical repetition of a name is the kind of repetition that frequently occurs in the dialogue of Absurd plays. It is another one of the many devices which signal that the characters are having difficulty in communicating. And it occurs as a prelude to the 'Disgraceful … commotion'—the 'state o' chassis'—into which the visiting scene collapses. Thus, despite the assurances, the repeated affirmation in the appeal to the authority of a representative of the Church, the dissonant note struck by Susie's reply has been carried all along in the rhythmical drumbeat of the name in which the militant power of the Church itself is felt. In the rhythms of the name—Sís-têr Pé-têr Ál-cân-tá-râ—there is more of O'Casey's Ta Ra Ra Boom Dee Ay of life with its attendant dangers. Here, the rhythms should remind us that it is the powerful authority of the Church militant that has countenanced the war in which Harry has been crippled and Teddy blinded. For the characters onstage, however, the language communicates on only the most elementary level. And the constant repetitions, like those in a child's primer (or the English language primer out of which Ionesco constructed The Bald Prima Donna), calls attention to this fact.
Yet it is out of our awareness of the disintegration of their language and the explosion of laughter that results from their absurdity that O'Casey manages to make sense. In other words, by using one of the disintegrated fragments of language, in this case, the rhythms and tonal qualities of the words themselves, O'Casey forces language to communicate again. And what we should hear in the persistent repetition of the name, 'Sister Peter Alcantara'—and what the director should perhaps let us hear in the wings—is the insistent drumbeat of war.
Finally, the complex use O'Casey makes of dialect illustrates even more clearly the artifice that is involved in creating 'humanly absurd' characters whose speech is supposedly a faithful transcript of life. Even in the early plays, as J. A. Snowden comments [in 'Dialect in the Plays of Sean O'Casey' (1972)], O'Casey 'shows a preoccupation with language and an obvious belief in its power to transform reality.' By the time he is writing Red Roses, O'Casey is using dialect (or the absence of dialect) for symbolic purposes, to convey a mood or attitude or a metaphysical dimension of character. For example, during the religious dissension in Act II, Brennan, who usually speaks like a Dubliner, lapses into a 'semi-Ulster' dialect. Similarly, Foster and Dowzard speak in a strong Ulster dialect—so characteristic of the extreme Orange faction—though there is no indication in the text that they come from anywhere else but Dublin. What O'Casey is doing, then, is using the dialect to indicate an attitude of extreme fanaticism where religious matters are concerned, an attitude which is not confined to Ulster, but which can be found anywhere. Since the dialect is broken apart, as it were, from its normal referent and used satirically and symbolically, it provides still another instance of language being used in the disintegrated mode of the Absurd.
The apparent contradiction which underlies the fact that such a disintegration of language has resulted in some of the most vital of contemporary theatre, together with dialogue that is fresh and new and really very exciting, is a contradiction which can be resolved by recognizing that disintegrating language, like laughter itself, is a liberating process. O'Casey seems to have realized this instinctively and was never averse to playing exuberantly with language for fear it might drop and break. On the contrary, especially in his persona of the raucous Green Crow, he became quite vocal in his demands for a liberated theatre, one in which there is the freedom to mix styles and modes, prose and verse, dialects and rhetorical devices with what may look at first like a kind of gay abandon. What we need to be aware of, however, in evaluating O'Casey's apparent 'excesses' of language, is that there may be a legitimate dramatic purpose behind his use of sentimental or melodramatic cliché, or behind his use of what has been called a 'pseudo-poetic' rhetoric. And that purpose, as well as his means of realizing it onstage, can often be made clear in the light of the Absurd.
While some of O'Casey's language (like some of his stage sets) shows a remarkable inclination to fly apart, his stage-craft, by contrast, shows a remarkable cohesiveness. It is, in fact, his skilful use of all the elements of theatre, particularly in his two most visionary plays, that often allows him to build a series of concrete symbolic images, all closely integrated, which, if properly realized onstage, will unify what otherwise can wrongly appear as a loosely knit and disparate structure.
Moreover, the way in which O'Casey uses the concrete 'physical' aspects of his theatre—dance, mime and mask, music, lighting, and scenery—bears a striking resemblance to the way in which the exponents of the Theatre of Cruelty have made use of Artaud's concept of mise en scène. [In a footnote Kleiman elaborates: 'By mise en scène Artaud means "everything that occupies the stage, everything that can be manifested and expressed materially on a stage and that is addressed first of all to the senses instead of being addressed primarily to the mind as is the language of words … This language created for the senses must from the outset be concerned with satisfying them. This does not prevent it from developing later its full intellectual effect on all possible levels and in every direction. But it permits the substitution, for the poetry of language, of a poetry in space which will be resolved in precisely the domain which does not belong strictly to words"' (Artaud, The Theater and Its Double).] This relationship can be discerned, for instance, in the various transformation scenes and in the dances of life—or death—found throughout the O'Casey canon, each of which can be described as an 'Artaudian replacement of words by another dramatic language' [Murphy]. Though in the final analysis, O'Casey's language is never really devaluated, in this kind of 'speech before words' the appeal is clearly to the senses and cannot be fully articulated by the dialogue alone.
Thus, in his own attempts to break the bonds of the realistic stage, O'Casey was actually translating into practical stagecraft, even earlier than 1928, a great many of the less extreme demands that Artaud was to formulate, with messianic zeal, a decade later. Ironically, though O'Casey was to make his demands clearly enough and in a way which linked his theatre to the traditions of the past—to the 'big life and … gorgeous time' that the theatre had 'when the Trade Guilds went about in their wagons doing the Mystery and the Morality Plays' [O'Casey, 'Behind the Curtained World (1942),' in Blasts and Benedictions], and to the exuberance and freedom of the Elizabethan stage—the true nature of his experimental drama was constantly obscured by the criticism (often sectarian and non-literary) which assailed it.
But if we use Ionesco's articulate and far-reaching claims for the contemporary avant-garde theatre as a kind of lens to view, in retrospect, the plays of Sean O'Casey, what we confirm is how surprisingly alike, in their use of certain elements of stagecraft, the two theatres are:
Everything is permitted in the theatre: to bring characters to life, but also to materialize states of anxiety, inner presences. It is thus not only permitted, but advisable, to make the properties join in the action, to make objects live, to animate the décor, to make symbols concrete. Just as words are continued by gesture, action, mime, which, at the moment when words become inadequate, take their place, the material elements of the stage can in turn further intensify these. [Esslin]
This kind of theatre, where mise en scène is itself the essence of the drama, has been described as 'concretized poetic images in associative sequence,' a concept which is an elaboration of Artaud's own term, 'poetry in space.' What better way could one describe the total effect of, say, Act II of The Silver Tassie or Act III of Red Roses? Certainly what unifies these two acts, when plot and character apparently become fluid and disunified (perhaps we should say 'disintegrated'), is the highly formal structure that unifies poetry.
Thinking of Absurd plays as 'poems,' Esslin calls attention [in his Reflections] to the symmetry of Acts I and II of Waiting for Godot and 'the rigid ritual structure of The Blacks.' Clearly, the formal and dramatic structure of The Tassie also depends upon the symmetry of the ritual: the symmetrical 'elevations' both of 'chalice' and 'host,' the 'host' being Harry in Act I, the Croucher in Act II. While in Red Roses, as we have seen, the underlying formal principle, made evident by its Easter setting, is that of the miracle or passion play.
The inclusion, once again, in the theatre of such formal elements as myth and ritual has naturally tended to acquire a certain aura of respectability: whereas the inclusion of such apparently disparate elements as those drawn from the circus, the ballet, the mime show, or the music hall—at least until the advent of the absurdists—has not. And yet the effect of adding these magical elements to a basically realistic theatre, as O'Casey was apparently aware, is to give more scope to the expression of the absurd side of man's nature. The portrayal which results is often a grotesque, yet by taking into full account the basest aspect of our humanity, and by liberating us from it by laughter, such a portrayal also has the capacity for showing forth the sublime. Characters, scenes, and images which are grotesque are, in fact, one of O'Casey's means of realizing onstage the most complete dimensions of man's life and of the world he inhabits.
For O'Casey's artistic vision saw how the grotesque images of the Expressionists could be used in a new way: one in which elements of farce, as an expression and admission of the absurd side of our nature, can heighten, as well as shatter, our sense of the tragic, the noble or the divine. Thus, in Red Roses, a play whose affinities with the Absurd derive directly from O'Casey's own 'homemade' expressionism, he fully acknowledges, in Ayamonn's 'hunchbacked' form, our bondage in an unintelligible world in order to show us why such a world must somehow be translated.
From early plays to late, O'Casey's tragi-comic vision naturally found expression in a multiplicity of grotesque and absurd images: from Bessie's dishevelled head (framed in a tenement window), crying, 'Choke th' chicken,' to the mysteriously appearing statue in Figuro in the Night. Yet, of all these images, it is one from Red Roses for Me, 'the severed head of Dunn-Bo speaking out of the darkness,' which best sums up that quality of O'Casey's work that has remained without a proper critical context or vocabulary to explicate it. Labelled simply as 'a piece of near-expressionist symbolism, the severed head has been reduced to 'atmosphere' with something like the melodramatic effect of the graveyard scene in Wedekind's Spring's Awakening, where Moritz 'comes stomping over the graves, his head under his arm.' In fact this part of the transformation scene has consistently been dramatized in a way which topples the act, and, frequently, much of the play into bathos and sentimentality. As well as being bathed in 'a patch of supernatural light descending from the sky like a benediction, the head of Dunn-Bo demands to be realized onstage in a way which does not understate its relationship to the 'severed' heads of Nagg and Nell as they come popping up out of the ashcans in Endgame, or the head of Winnie resting atop the mound of earth in Happy Days.
However, it is out of this absurd world (as he modulates through the grotesque on the way to the sublime) that O'Casey, unlike Beckett, creates onstage a new world of meaning. Thus the severed head of Dunn-Bo, contrary to what we would expect, does not prophesy, except by speaking in the apparently meaningless cliché of political rhetoric—'A step ahead for us today: another one for you tomorrow'—and so calls into doubt its own role as a symbol of the godhead. Here is Ayamonn apparently 'talking' himself to his death, foolishly giving his life, as the severed head so mockingly implies, for the ideals he believes in. Yet, the next moment, moving beyond parody, the head appears magical, prophetic, and divine as Ayamonn's empty rhetoric is replaced by 'poetry in space,' poetry made concrete by the miraculous transformation of the world about him. For the ecstatic dance of life in which Ayamonn and Finnoola now join is the celebration of a world which is no longer absurd.
But it is when we are without such a vision that life can quickly become a macabre dance of death: Dowzard dancing wildly about as he shouts, 'Th' dhrum, th' dhrum, th' Protestant dhrum!', or Foster, 'a dancing dervish,' trampling on Ayamonn's cross of daffodils; or Harry in his wheelchair crying, 'Trumpets and drum begin!… Dance and dance and dance', as he 'Whirls round … to the beat of the tune.' In each case the dancing is a maimed and crippled rite, a St Vitus dance of pained, spasmodic movements, the grotesque convulsions of those who are possessed, not by a sense of love and fellowship, but by an agonizing hatred of their fellow man.
Not so surprisingly, then, while both visionary plays struggle to transcend despair, it is in the more anguished Tassie, when Harry, despite his 'agony,' is able to move into the garden, that the absurd world remains behind to dominate the stage. Whereas, it is in Red Roses (The Tassie's 'mirror twin'), when Foster and Dowzard flee in terror out of the garden taking with them their absurd world of buffoonery and knockabout, that Ayamonn's vision, caught in the harmony of song, presents, as the curtain falls, a final image of discordia concors.
What distinguishes O'Casey's vision from that of either the Expressionists or the Absurdists is this unerring ability to harmonize discords, to integrate successfully both thematically and in terms of stagecraft, all the wildly disintegrating elements of the world in which we live. Unlike Ernst Toller, who, in Transfiguration, could not control the effect of farce in the dance of death with the girl skeleton 'outraged' by war, O'Casey was able to mingle the absurd and the tragic—in the 'graveyard' scene in Act II of The Tassie, for example—to heighten and make credible his overall artistic purpose. But the effect of farce mingling with tragedy was one that audiences in the late twenties were almost completely unprepared for, as the rejection of The Tassie and the ensuing controversy made plain.
When an Expressionist skeleton appears in a dance of death on an English stage just prior to the sixties, however, a change has taken place, both in the play and in the audience. The play is John Arden's Serjeant Musgrave's Dance—that one 'Primaqueera' play which O'Casey exempted from his wholesale condemnation because, undoubtedly, he recognized in it an artistic vision akin to his own. Much of the power of the Arden play comes, in fact, from his use of the grotesque: Serjeant Musgrave expresses his despair and rage and his desire for revenge in a macabre dance of death, performed, appropriately enough, to the warlike sound of trumpet and drum. The point of the scene is underlined by having the hanging, dancing skeleton unveiled as the 'flag' beneath which Serjeant Musgrave himself dances, 'his face contorted with demoniac fury.' The skeleton is that of a comrade killed senselessly in a guerilla-type encounter and brought back to his home town in the box that the Serjeant and the other deserters have been carrying throughout the play. Thus the skeleton has not been brought in as a kind of portable 'atmosphere' but has been skilfully integrated into the narrative and dramatic structure. In this way, Arden's grotesque image of the dance of death now seems to bear a more direct relationship to O'Casey's 'homemade' expressionism—O'Casey's own 'poetry in space'—than it does to the Expressionist stage.
Significantly, it is in the work of such a playwright as Arden that Martin Esslin sees most clearly the direction in which contemporary drama should develop. In Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, Esslin discerns the bringing together of those elements of fable, folksong, and picaresque incident that are characteristic of Brecht's theatre with 'the obsessiveness, the nightmarish psychological reality of the Theatre of the Absurd—without ever leaving the plane of external realism' [Reflections]. Moreover, it is these two wings of the avant-grade—the objective, realistic, socially committed epic theatre of Brecht and the subjective, poetic, grotesque drama of the absurdists—that Esslin credits with rescuing the theatre from the bonds of the realistic stage:
It is the achievement of the Absurdists together with the Brechtians to have brought the theatre back to the full richness of its traditional vocabulary, to have freed it from the narrow restrictionism of pretending to be reality observed through a missing fourth wall, which … banished all the delicious world of the dreamlike, the supernatural, and its stage machinery from the theatre.
The description of the theatre of the future which Esslin gives sounds so much like O'Casey's theatre that it is sometimes difficult to understand why the true nature of O'Casey's innovative craftsmanship—developing out of Expressionism and moving towards the Theatre of the Absurd—has so long gone unrecognized. And yet a theatre which is ahead of its time can only wait patiently—or impatiently, as O'Casey did—for the times to catch up to it.
With a start we realize that all those wild and magical elements for which O'Casey's plays have long been criticized have nevertheless been accepted in the 'no-holds-barred' theatre of the newer and more popular avant-garde. Their dark vision, too, has held the stage to the exclusion of O'Casey's brighter one, yet, ironically, when O'Casey's own vision was darkest—in The Tassie—it was rejected. And though the proportion of nightmare and obsession in the later O'Casey lessens, as does the degree of tragedy, these qualities, which dominate in the tortured characters of the absurdists, have never been lacking in O'Casey's theatre: from the tap-tapping on the wall in Shadow of a Gunman; through the weird prophesies of Bessie Burgess in The Plough, the despairing Black Mass of the Croucher, the agonizing danse macabre of Harry in his wheelchair, the severed head of Dunn-Bo speaking out of the darkness; and, finally, in Foster's and Dowzard's diabolical dance of death.
Part of the excitement in O'Casey's theatre depends, not only upon such grotesque scenes and characters—at times closely related to the predominantly black magic, or 'brimstone,' of the Artaudian universe—but also upon the kinds of magical transformations that a no-holds-barred theatre is free to encourage. While O'Casey lampooned Ionesco for changing people into rhinoceroses, his own fanciful creation, the cock of Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, is obviously a similar kind of magical stage device. Then, too, the shock effect which Amos Kenan generates in The Lion, as the baby who is building a wall of wooden blocks, brusquely changes into a general overseeing a battle and then into a building magnate, is not entirely unlike the startling effects more realistically generated by O'Casey as football hero changes to soldier, soldier to Croucher, later to the dehumanized, anonymous soldier worshipping the gun; and, finally, to wheelchair victim. In O'Casey, though many of these transformations verge on the supernatural, they have a concreteness and a reality which is too often absent from the more abstract dreamlike representations of either the Expressionist stage or the stage of the Absurd.
Throughout O'Casey's constantly changing dramatic world there is, nevertheless, an underlying sense of permanence and reality which is borne out in the context of three O'Casey plays—The Tassie, Red Roses, and The Moon Shines on Kylenamoe—written over a period of more than thirty years. In these plays one image undergoes several startling transformations to suggest, not only the changing mood and tempo, but also the vast range and harmony of O'Casey's artistic vision. Thus that agonizingly bitter-'sweet chariot' of which Harry Heegan sings is transformed, by the power of Ayamonn's vision, to a bronze 'chariot … forging forward to th' battle-front,' until at last it becomes 'a turf creel-cart pulled by a donkey,' as a character to whom O'Casey gives his own name, Sean, 'unable to resist the humour of it … lilts':
Sweet chariot, comin' for to carry me home,
Swe-et char-i-o-t, comin' for to carry me home!
From the tragi-comic and grotesque, through the lyrical and sublime, O'Casey comes to rest in a gently comic viewing of man. With all his ridiculous pretensions and his vices and with all his noisy quarrelsomeness, there is still something noble and divine in man which allows him to respond gratefully to life, as Lord Leslieson does to the hospitable Martha of Kylenamoe, 'Thank you, thank you, an' God save you and your good man kindly, too.' Spoken after a quarrel over nothing—in a play which, like the plays of the absurdists, gives no plot and no external motivation for its characters—these words go beyond the absurd to affirm life in a way that, for a writer who was an avowed atheist in his eightieth year, is a truly astonishing achievement.
And the fullest expression of this achievement is, clearly, the colourful host of the characters themselves, as—at the sound of trumpet and drum—they come dancing across O'Casey's Bridge of Vision to take their place amidst all the gorgeous Ta Ra Ra Boom Dee Ay of life.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5660
SOURCE: "O'Casey, the Style and the Artist," in "Since O'Casey" and Other Essays on Irish Drama, Colin Smythe, 1983, pp. 62-77.
[Hogan is an American playwright, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt, he discusses O'Casey's "expressionistic" use of rhetorical, dramatic, and stylistic artifice, which sharply contrasts with the more familiar methods of realism.]
The style of O'Casey's plays has evoked two quite disparate reactions. Critics such as T. R. Henn, Raymond Williams, Ronald Peacock and Moody Prior, who are more concerned with drama as literature than as theatre, disparage it. As, for instance, Prior says [in The Language of Tragedy, 1964], 'On occasion, O'Casey introduces speeches in a prose more elaborate and mannered than that which serves for most of the dialogue in the play, and the effect is almost invariably one of sentimental effusiveness which seems to encourage the poetic cliché.' On the other hand, critics such as John Gassner, George Jean Nathan, Brooks Atkinson and Maxwell Anderson, who are more aware of the drama as theatre, admire O'Casey's style rather extravagantly. For instance, 'He has used language as though he were writing not for our modern pictureframe stage, but for the Elizabethan platform on which most of our great English drama was created'—to quote Gassner [in 'Genius Without Fetters,' in Selected Plays of Sean O'Casey, 1954].
Everyone seems to have a general impression of heavy rhythm, thick alliteration and dictional flamboyance, but so far both attitudes have remained impressionistic, and O'Casey's style has been subjected to little searching critical analysis. Although it is impossible in a short compass to say much about it, I would like to hazard a couple of general observations, and then to suggest a few specific peculiarities of the late plays.
It is now a commonplace that O'Casey's general dramatic technique underwent some notable changes, and his work is usually divided into an early, a middle and a late period. His dramatic style, however, is somewhat deceptive, for it initially appears, with one or two exceptions such as Act II of The Silver Tassie, to be much of a piece. In his rambles around Dublin as a young man, O'Casey had a retentive ear and a ready notebook, and certainly many phrases in his early plays which sound raciest to a non-Irish audience were familiar to Dubliners. This repertorial characteristic is most apparent in the early Dublin plays, but it still appears in the late ones. Similarly, in the early plays one notes such prominent characteristics as the singing of songs, the reciting of poems and the weaving of snatches of poems into ordinary conversation, the making of correct and incorrect literary and historical allusions, the making of malapropisms such as Captain Boyle's famous 'state o' chassis', the use of tag lines such as Joxer's 'darlin' and Fluther's 'derogatory', the use of repetition and alliteration, and the tendency toward rhythmical speech. All of these characteristics were present from the beginning, and all were sieved through a simple phonetic reproduction of Dublin speech.
However, the plays of the early period seem chiefly characterized by what might be called a heightened realism. The conjunction of the characteristics mentioned above produces an effect which is recognizably realistic, but nevertheless considerably richer than the speech of life. Little or nothing in the early plays could not have been said by a Dubliner; but, while an ordinary realist such as T. C. Murray, Lennox Robinson or George Shiels tried to reproduce the ordinary flavour of real speech, O'Casey tried to select the raciest of real speech.
The dominant dramatic technique of O'Casey's middle period is—to tack the usual label on it—expressionistic. Years ago Denis Johnston noted hints of Expressionism in the basically realistic early plays, and O'Casey himself was fond of pointing to the allegorical one-act of 1923, Kathleen Listens In, as evidence that he had from the outset of his career been intrigued by the technique. The second act of The Silver Tassie, then, was only a seemingly abrupt leap into expressionistic statement; and so it was not really unpredictable that the entirety of the next play, Within the Gates, should be expressionistic. With The Star Turns Red, O'Casey began a partial retreat from Expressionism, and that play, although basically phrased in generalizations, has many realistic touches. In Red Roses for Me, the third act contains elements of Expressionism which lift a basically realistic mode into a momentarily lyrical one. After Red Roses, Expressionism does not entirely disappear from O'Casey's dramatic technique, but it is reduced to a contributory role.
The dominant rhetorical mode of O'Casey's middle period is that of dramatic poetry, and it was probably his misunderstanding of the nature of dramatic poetry that largely contributed to the eclipse of his reputation until the middle 1950s. By the canons of either heightened realism or lyrical poetry, much of the language of these middle plays is florid and overblown, and I myself a number of years ago attacked this style as blowzy and banal. I think now that such a view rests upon an imperfect understanding of the practical function in a theatre of dramatic poetry. The techniques of effective dramatic poetry have eluded good poets from Browning and Tennyson to Eliot and Auden, and it is far outside the scope of my competence to discuss them. Very generally, though, it might be said that the language of dramatic poetry works much like the language of song. The words of a ballad or, for that matter, the libretto of an opera may be insipid, but their alliance with a fine melody can work a miraculous transformation. The 1969 revival of The Silver Tassie by the Royal Shakespeare Company was not in all respects successful, but the staging of Act II faithfully recreated O'Casey's intention and thoroughly vindicated his language.
Certain characteristics of this middle style—particularly its highly coloured and romantic diction—recur in the style of the late plays. These late plays—especially Purple Dust, Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, The Bishop's Bonfire and The Drums of Father Ned—are, I think, versions of pastoral; and their style is a complex mixture of the elements of O'Casey's early style, plus the addition of a few new devices. Although the late plays belong to the same general genre, they differ radically in tone, and so the overall style has in different plays different emphases. Certain rhetorical techniques are stressed in one play and appear much less significantly in another. This rhetorical emphasis gives much of the particular individuality to each play, and I should now like to illustrate what these devices are and where they mainly appear.
Purple Dust is an extravagant farce in which everything is exaggerated. The Irish are overwhelmingly Irish—vastly quaint, picturesquely shiftless, subtly cunning and fulsomely lyrical. The English are immoderately English, the cows are super cows, the hens are 'entherprisin' and lay their eggs with 'pride an' animation', the cocks are so 'prime an' startlin' that they scatter hens 'over hill an' dale, lyin' on their backs with their legs in the air, givin' their last gasp,' and even the lawn-roller is such a behemoth that one roll is sufficient for the season ('An', faith … for every season after too.') The lawn-roller in the Berliner Ensemble production looked big enough to level the Parthenon.
The language of the play is similarly extravagant, and its notable devices are parody, pastiche and mis-allusion. The most obvious parody is an extravagant stage-Irish dialogue when the Irish are guying the visitors. To take one instance from many, there is O'Killigain's reply to Avril's 'Top o' the mornin', boys!':
Same to you, miss an' many of them, each of them fairer an' finer than the finest of all that ever brought the soft light o' the dawn at the peep o' day into your openin' eyes.
Similarly, when the English attempt to put on the Irish dialect what comes out is bald parody, half stage-Irish and half memory of Synge. Poges says, for instance:
Looka that, now. Arra, whisht, an' amn't I told it's strange stories you do be tellin' of the noble things done by your fathers in their days, and in the old time before them.
There is also parody of the language of philosophical discourse, as when Basil says:
If we take the primrose, however, into our synthetical consideration, as a whole, or, a priori, as a part, with the rest of the whole of natural objects or phenomena, then there is, or may be, or can be a possibility of thinking of the flower as of above the status, or substance, or quality of a fragment; and, consequently, correlating it with the whole, so that, to a rational thinker, or logical mind, the simple primrose is, or may become, what we may venture to call a universal.
There is parody of the language of art criticism, as when Poges says:
Aaah! Precious, precious! The chaste form, the tender planes, the refined colouring, the exquisite design, the tout ensemble—they go into the undiscoverable deeps of the heart!
There is parody of the language of stock patriotism, as when Poges says of the English:
But every right-minded man the world over knows, or ought to know, that wherever we have gone, progress, civilization, truth, justice, honour, humanity, righteousness, and peace have followed at our heels. In the Press, in the Parliament, in the pulpit, or on the battlefield, no lie has ever been uttered by us, no false claim made, no right of man infringed, no law of God ignored, no human law, national or international, broken.
Several times there seems to be a pastiche of the language of Synge. The curtain line of Act One is a case in point. The Yellow-Bearded Man peeps down through his hole in the ceiling and learns that Avril is 'careerin' all over the counthry on horseback with only her skin as a coverin'!' He then cries in aggravated anguish, 'Oh, isn't it like me to be up here outa sight o' th' world, an' great things happenin'!'
Often O'Killigain and the Second Workman will use Irish dialect not satirically but eloquently. At the risk of redundance, it might be called a heightened eloquence because it uses the conventional devices of moving dialogue that are to be found in Synge, Hyde, Lady Gregory, Fitzmaurice and M. J. Molloy, but uses them in a contrived profusion which probably should not, but usually does work. For instance, at one point the Second Workman remarks:
That was in the days o' Finn Mac Coole, before his hair was scarred with a hint o' grey; the mighty Finn, I'm sayin', who stood as still as a stone in the' heart of a hill to hear the cry of a curlew over th' cliffs o' Erris, the song of the blackbird, the cry o' the hounds hotfoot afther a boundin' deer, the steady wail o' the waves tumblin' in on a lonely shore; the mighty Finn who'd surrendher an emperor's pomp for a place with the bards, and the gold o' the King o' Greece for a night asleep by the sthream of Assaroe!
The third prominent rhetorical device is the erroneous allusion. Poges' conversation is full of them:
Especially the wild flowers that Shakespeare loved—the—the—er—er the primrose, for instance; you know—the primrose by the river's brim, a yellow primrose was to him, but it was nothing more; though we all actually know all there is to be known about the little primrose.
… the, the glory that was Rome and the grandeur that was Greece—Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he said that.
Obviously these are in the play as comic illustrations of Poges' pretensions, but many are so drolly unexpected in their details that the play is lifted into the realms of lyrical nonsense. Just one last example:
POGES. Oh, if the misguided people would only go back to the veneration of the old Celtic gods, what a stir we'd have here! to the delightful, if legendary, loveliness of—er—er—er—what's his name, what's her name, what's their name? I have so often said it, so often in my mind, the chief or one of the chief gods of the ancient Celts?
SOUHAUN. Was it Gog or Magog, dear!
POGES. [with fierce scorn] No, no, no, no; try to think a little, if you really want to assist me. Can't you remember that Gog and Magog were two Philistinian giants killed by David, or Jonathan, or Joshua, or Joab, or Samson, or someone? It's the old Celtic god I have in mind, the one—what was his name?
POGES. Oh, no; not Gulliver!
SOUHAUN. Well, I don't know the hell who it was.
POGES. [clapping his thigh exultantly] Brobdingnag! That was the fellow.
Cock-a-Doodle Dandy is usually considered among the best—indeed, perhaps the best—of the late plays. Curiously, though the play is not rhetorically too interesting. There is some humour in Sailor Mahan's nautical diction, but this is a stereotyped device of comic rhetoric and handled with no great flair by O'Casey. There is a good deal of alliteration; in the first four or five lines of dialogue, for instance, there is 'edge of evil … long an' leering … sinisther signs … evil evocations … dismayin' decorations … lurin' legs.' Some alliterative phrases, like 'mangled into a monstrosity' or 'th' moody misery of th' brown bog', have a fine visual whimsicality; many others, like 'constant consternation' or 'causin' consthernation,' are not notably engaging. In only one or two instances does O'Casey pull out the stops and gain a strong comic effect by the device, as in:
Are you goin' to pit our palthry penances an' haltin' hummin' o' hymns against th' piercin' pipin' of th' rosary be Bing Bang Crosby an' other great film stars, who side-stepped from published greatness for a holy minute or two to send a blessed blast over th' wireless, callin' all Catholics to perpetuatin' prayer!
Perhaps the most engaging device is the 'Latin-lusthrous' language. This would include the playful dog-Latin which O'Casey used also in the autobiographies as a device of genial satire ('Oh, dana eirebus, heniba at galli scatterum in Multus parvum avic, ashorum!'), the Latinic saint's name ('St Custodius, pathron of th' police, protect us!') [In a footnote, Hogan remarks: 'O'Casey in various places creates quite a pantheon of such saints. There is also in this play a mention of St. Crankarious; there is the statue of St. Temolo in The Bishop's Bonfire; there is St. Sinfoilio in Behind the Green Curtains. An allied device is the symbolic portmanteau name. In this play, One-eyed Larry mentions the terrible spirits Kissalass, Velvethighs, Reedabuck, Dancesolong, and Sameagain. In Behind the Green Curtains, Beoman refers to the "blessed saints" of religious reaction—Stepaside, Touchnrun, Dubudont, and Goslow. There are many other instances, especially in the autobiographies.'], and the incongruous misuse of polysyllables derived from the Latin, and juxtaposed against the ordinary monosyllabic diction of colloquial discourse. This last device is the most effective of the three, and there are frequent instances of it. For example:
… so that you could controvert yourself into a dapper disturbance … liquidate whatever it is with your Latin.
… th' circumnambulatory nature of a woman's form often has a detonatin' effect on a man's idle thoughts.
Be on your guard against any unfamiliar motion or peculiar conspicuosity or quasimodical addendum, perceivable in any familiar thing or creature common to your general recognisances.
Aw, th' oul' fool, pipin' a gale into every breeze that blows! I don't believe there was ever anything engenderogically evil in that cock …
Looka, if you were only versed in th' endurin' promulgacity of th' gospels.
This comic device seems to work by 'fillin' broody minds with loose scholasticality'.
Another effective rhetorical device is the personified adjective. Here, O'Casey takes an inanimate noun, often a concept or a generalization, and 'galvanizes' it into 'visuality' by a most animate attached adjective. Some notable examples are:
jubilant store [of banknotes]
rosy rottenness of sin
He depends often upon a very visual verb choice. It might, in fact, be called a poetic choice, for the best instances are apt and unexpected:
… you could shutther th' world away with a kiss!
… she went sliddherin' down to hell!
… edgin' into revolt …
I'm not goin' to squandher meself conthrollin' live land-fowl!
… to perjure their perfection …
… I'd cyclonise you with a box [in the eye]!
If you want to embalm yourself in money …
… jet out your bitther blessin' …
You'll dhribble th' blackness of sin no longer over our virtuous bordhers!
The most noticeable rhetorical technique in The Bishop's Bonfire might be called the derogatory epithet. Usually it is simply a pejorative noun preceded by the word you. It is sometimes, but not always, modified by one or more adjectives or by an adjectival phrase. In the first act, the following appear:
you holy hoodlum
you rarefied bummer
you spoilers of men's hopes and men's fancies
you curses on Ballyoonagh
you slimy touch of hell
you buttoned-up delusion
you dirty, evil-minded lugworm
you huckster of hollow an' spiteful holiness
you God's remorse for men
you canting cod
you blob of dung
you muted jays
you prayin' gaum
you monkey-souled jays
you bunch of destituted owls
you neon light of ignorance and ruin
Only once or twice does O'Casey vary this form to something like, 'You're a nice Christian cut-throat' or 'Who are you to talk?… A dirty leaf torn out of a book'.
Had O'Casey used a less heightened diction, he would have written something like 'you crazy old fool', and this conventional and inexpressive criticism is the only other use of the form in the act. In a play like The Drums of Father Ned, where O'Casey is concentrating almost overwhelmingly on the device of allusion, the few derogatory epithets are, in fact, conventional. For instance, the only ones in Act III of that play are:
you dangerous fool
you damned fool
And in Behind the Green Curtains, where O'Casey is still relying upon allusion for most of his effects, there are again few derogatory epithets. In Scene II, for instance, the only notable ones are 'you gabby slug', 'you painted doll', 'you festhered lily', and 'you ignorant, impudent little arcadian tart'. All of these occur on one page, and all but one occur in the same speech.
O'Casey's use of allusion is governed by the necessities of dramatic dialogue. The prime necessity is that it be immediately apprehensible. If an audience must mull over the meaning or the implications of any particular line, then it cannot attend to what the actors are presently saying. This necessity does not absolutely imply that a dramatic author's allusions must be so obvious that any boob can understand them; but, when O'Casey weaves recondite allusions into his dialogue, he avoids obscurity by making his line function also on a non-allusive level. That is, a line of dialogue containing an obscure allusion will usually be perfectly clear and appropriate as literal statement to a person who does not recognize its reference.
Of the late plays, The Drums of Father Ned and Behind the Green Curtains are the most allusive, and The Bishop's Bonfire is the least. Act III of Father Ned can well illustrate the type and range of the allusions. First, among the conventional references to or quotations from something notable in the general history or literature of the world are the following:
Tom has a line, 'An' bid th' world farewell!' This seems to reflect a phrase from Thomas Campbell's 'Pleasures of Hope':
Hope, for a season, bade the world farewell,
And Freedom shrieked—as Kosciusko fell!
Later, Michael tries to remember the following lines from Tennyson's 'Locksley Hall', and Nora then quotes them:
Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising through the mellow shade, Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.
In the middle of the act there is a longish debate about religion, in which Lutheranism is referred to by the mention of Wittenberg, Calvinism by the mention of Knox, and Roman Catholicism by the mention of St. Robert Bellermine and Maynooth seminary. Shortly after there are mentioned 'the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles, the Westminster Confession … the Creed from the Council of Thrent'. This then is shortly followed by one of the most comic uses of allusion in the act:
McGILLIGAN…. It'll all settled already! St. Pether, an' afther him St. Pathrick, is our man, th' Rock on which our Church stands. What's yours piled up on? On a disgraceful, indecent attachment of a despicable English king for a loose woman!
SKERIGHAN. [trying to overthrow McGilligan] Lussen, mon, lussen tae me!
McGILLIGAN. [furiously] I've lussened to you long enough—Henry the Eighth I am an' his harlot! Th' two saints of your church—Henry the Eighth an' a harlot! Oh, it makes me laugh—ha ha ha ha!
Michael then enters the conversation by referring to Joyce's 'a shout in th' street', and in his next speech refers to Bunker Hill, the French Revolution and the Soviet Revolution.
When Father Fillifogue enters, he cries, 'Are we goin' to be out in th' dear, dead days beyond recall? Me an' me boys of the old brigade'. The first line recalls the first line of G. Clifton Bingham's popular 'Love's Old Sweet Song', and the second line recalls Frederic Edward Weatherly's poem 'The Old Brigade'.
Then, Skerighan remarks, 'Wull ye no' tak' th' tumber awa' frae th' wharf tull th' muckle Lammas moon is glintin' on ye!' There may be a reminiscence here of Burns's poem 'The Rigs O' Barley', of which the first four lines are:
It was upon a Lammas night,
When corn rigs are bonnie,
Beneath the moon's unclouded light
I held awa to Annie.
The resemblance is not particularly close, but Burns was one of O'Casey's favourite poets, and O'Casey fairly frequently quoted from him.
Nora paraphrases a famous line from T. S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men', when she says, 'Here's the whole town, currying a question to be answered, not with a whimper, but with a bang'.
There may be in Nora's comment, 'Doonavale has become th' town of th' shut mouth', a reminiscence of Brinsley MacNamara's novel, The Valley of the Squinting Windows. Undoubtedly, Murray's line, 'Dee trumpets blow, dee banners wave', reflects the first line of the second stanza of Burns's 'My Bonny Mary', which reads, 'The trumpets sound, the banners fly'. This is the poem, incidentally, from which O'Casey also took his title of The Silver Tassie.
Or, there is the following exchange:
BINNINGTON. [feebly] Bring me me bow of burnished gold!
McGILLIGAN. [attempting to be bolder] Bring me me arras of desire!
This is a slightly phoneticised version of two well-known lines from the Preface to Blake's Milton. Blake's complete stanza reads:
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
O'Casey's use of Blake is broadly ironic, and he gains an effectively ludicrous contrast by having these spirited lines emerge from such feeble speakers.
O'Casey's most appropriate and deftest use of allusion is his frequent quotation of once-popular patriotic Irish ballads and poems. He relies almost invariably on pieces which were once in the popular consciousness, and few of his Irish allusions will be found in conventional literary anthologies, such as The Oxford Book of Irish Verse. Instead, one will find his references in old, popular collections such as The Spirit of the Nation or The Emerald Isle Song Book. O'Casey's Irish quotations, as well as his simple Irish allusions, function as a running subliminal reminder of the best of Irish character and national aspirations. The Irish allusions are also made in an interesting variety of tones. Sometimes the tone is a straightforward melancholy or regret, sometimes it is genially satiric, and sometimes it is bitterly ironic. Practically always, however, the allusions are used to criticize the shortcomings of modern Ireland by the ideals of its past.
Act III of Father Ned, for instance, opens with a half-comic and half-plaintive discussion of Irish mythology, in which reference is made to Conn of the Hundred Fights, Brian Boru, Saint Columcille and Young Angus. There may also be an allusion to Boucicault's Sean the Post, in the reference to Jack the Cantherer, Doonavale's postman. Or there is a comic discussion about Yeats and Oliver Gogarty, and one of the lines—'th' poet Yeats an' Gogarty were goin' down Sackville Sthreet'—is a close resemblance to the title of Gogarty's most memorable book.
A less recognizable allusion appears when Mrs. McGilligan tries to make peace with the irascible Ulsterman Skerighan by quoting:
So let th' Orange Lily be
Thy badge, my patriot brother.
Mrs. Binnington then adds:
Th' everlastin' green for me.
And Binnington and McGilligan chime in together with:
An' we for one another.
The nobility of the sentiments, the broad and rather banal simplicity of the phrasing, the declamatory stiltedness of the delivery, and the complacency of the speakers all combine to produce an effect of mildly charming absurdity. However, the knowledge that the poem was not composed for the occasion by O'Casey, but was originally quite seriously intended and well known, insinuates a running truth of the play: although the Binningtons and McGilligans are amiably engaging, what they stand for is genially but firmly criticized throughout the play. This particular verse is from a poem called 'Orange and Green' or, more usually, 'Song for 12th July, 1843'. It was written by John D. Fraser, or Frazer, 'the poet of the workshop', who was one of the more popular writers for the organ of the Young Ireland movement, The Nation. The four lines which O'Casey uses are the conclusion of the first and final stanzas of Fraser's best-known poem [which, Hogan notes, is available in The Spirit of the Nation].
A few pages later, Father Fillifogue tries to stir Binnington and McGilligan to action in a speech which ends with the clause, 'youse'll be outlaws in a land forlorn'. O'Casey is here closely paraphrasing the first line of the chorus of Dr. George Sigerson's ballad 'The Mountains of Pomeroy'. Sigerson is not much remembered now, but he was for years the respected president of the Irish Literary Society in Dublin. His early translations from the Irish were pioneering work, and his 1897 volume, The Bards of the Gael and Gall, was influential and was known by O'Casey as a young man. Sigerson's stanza reads:
An outlawed man in a land forlorn,
He scorned to turn and fly,
But kept the cause of freedom safe
Up on the mountain high.
A bit further on, Father Fillifogue ineffectually murmurs, 'I'll lead youse. Minsthrel boys, minsthrel boys, harps an' swords, swords an' harps'. Here the humour is obvious because of the inevitable memory of Tom Moore's still well-known and stirring song 'The Minstrel-Boy', which begins:
The Minstrel-boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you'll find him;
His father's sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him.
'Land of Song!' said the warrior-bard,
'Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!'
Shortly after, a similar incongruous contrast is made between the allusion to an heroic poem and an ineffectual effort in the play, when McGilligan remarks lamely, 'Firm each foot, erect each head, an' step together'. Father Fillifogue picks up the allusion by his desultory reply, 'Like the deer on mountain heather'. Both men are quoting fairly closely from the rousing opening stanza of M. J. Barry's poem 'Step Together', which originally appeared in The Nation. Barry's first stanza reads:
Step together—boldly tread,
Firm each foot, erect each head,
Fixed in front be every glance—
Forward, at the word 'advance'—
Serried files that foes may dread;
Like the deer on mountain heather.
Steady, boys, and step together!
Behind the Green Curtains is a more caustically critical play than the genial Father Ned, and so the Irish allusions usually function as mordant comments on the faults of the present. In Scene I, Beoman functions as O'Casey's mouthpiece, and many of his comments are angry criticisms of the present, phrased in quotations from Irish songs and poems. He scornfully criticizes a drolly ignorant version of heaven by calling it 'a Phil th' Fluter's Ball!' 'Phil the Fluter's Ball' is, of course, a still popular comic song by Percy French. Or, when the Catholic artists are dithering about whether to attend the funeral of a Protestant artist (which is actually an allusion to the funeral of Lennox Robinson), and worrying about whether their attendance will mean excommunication, Beoman lilts softly a verse from the well-known ballad 'The Ould Orange Flute':
So th' old flute was doomed, and its fate was pathetic, 'Twas fasten'd an' burn'd at the stake as heretic.
While th' flames roar'd round it, they heard a strange noise; 'Twas the old flute still whistlin' 'Th' Protestant Boys!'
The song is followed by a satiric discussion of how the leadership of Yeats is sadly needed now, and that is followed by Chatastray's exhortation, 'For God's sake let us go in together'. To this, Beoman replies mockingly from Barry's 'Step Together', which was also used in Father Ned, 'Like th' deer on mountain heather'.
When Reena urges the artists to enter the church, Beoman makes one of his few non-ironic quotations during the scene, and cries out enthusiastically, 'Thou art not conquered yet, dear land'. He is quoting from the first line of an anonymous poem called 'Thou Art Not Conquered Yet'. Its first stanza goes:
Thou art not conquered yet, dear land,
Though pale thy once bright cheek,
Although thy lips of golden song
Now mournfully do speak.
Although thine eyes have dimmed their hue,
And with cold tears are wet,
Mother, thy heart beats proudly still;
Thou art not conquered yet.
(Incidentally, the name 'Reena' may be an allusion to Ria Mooney, who was the first 'Rosie Redmond', who was the first director of Red Roses for Me, and who acted at Lennox Robinson's funeral just as Reena does in O'Casey's play.)
Beoman is not the only character to make allusions. When it appears momentarily that the artists have decided to enter the church, Chatastray cries, 'Ah, sure, I never doubted you, said Rory of the hill'. He is paraphrasing Charles J. Kickham's poem 'Rory of the Hill', and there is certainly some irony arising from the contrast of the heroic attitude of Rory in the poem and the cowardly one of the poets in the play. The poem in part reads:
Right Hearty was the Welcome
That greeted him, I ween,
For years gone by he fully proved
How well he loved the Green;
And there was one amongst them
Who grasped him by the hand—
One who through all that weary time
Roamed on a foreign strand;
He brought them news from gallant friends
That made their heart-strings thrill—
'My soul! I never doubted them!'
Said Rory of the Hill.
John Gassner has written in a vague but sympathetic essay that O'Casey's characters are often found to be 'lilting'. Probably he meant simply that lilting was the highly coloured mixture of rhetorical devices and vague rhythms. However, one narrower use of the term 'lilting' is song or snatches of song or even allusions to song. Although other devices may be prominent in one play, and more or less insignificant in another, I cannot think of an O'Casey play from the earliest to the latest in which this lilting is not a significant device.
As with allusions, the effect of song is various. Sometimes the song functions simply as background music to raise the emotional temperature. Often the songs suggest drolly or bitterly ironic attitudes, and often they are romantic or melancholy or stirring. Many of them are Irish ballads, and these, like the allusions, are almost always a reminder of some Irish ideal which is now withering away.
The effect of song can be tremendous in a play, and the effect can hardly be judged by the words and notes on a page. But perhaps generally we can say that the effect permeates the plays with a buoyant lyricism. The characters in O'Casey's plays are always tilting toward song, even at incongruous moments. For instance, there is a speech in Act III of Father Ned, in which Michael uses song as the clincher to an argument:
It might be a shout for freedom, like th' shout of men on Bunker Hill; shout of th' people for bread in th' streets, as in th' French Revolution; or for th' world's ownership by the people, as in the Soviet Revolution; or it might just be a drunken man, unsteadily meandhering his way home, shouting out Verdi's [he lilts the words] 'Oh, Le-on-or-a.'
George Orwell, reviewing one of O'Casey's autobiographies, commented that the style was 'a sort of basic Joyce.' He undoubtedly meant that O'Casey's style was a simplified, and probably simpleminded pastiche of complexity. As any successful play must evoke a mass public response, rather than the individual private response asked by poetry or fiction, any complexity in its writing must have at least the appearance of simplicity. Indeed, on one level a play must still have more than the appearance; it must have the actuality of simplicity. The style of O'Casey's plays does, of course, work on a simple, primary level of overt meaning, but it is a good deal more than a pastiche of complexity. It is complex.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5595
SOURCE: "Liturgy and Epiphany: Religious Experience as Dramatic Form in Two of Seán O'Casey's Symbolic Plays," in O'Casey Annual No. 3, edited by Robert G. Lowery, MacMillan Press, 1984, pp. 169-85.
[In the following essay, Zeiss analyzes O'Casey's use of formalized dialogue and epiphanies in The Silver Tassie and Red Roses for Me, contending that O'Casey's usage suggests a religious view of experience.]
Can we not take it that the form of the drama must vary from age to age in accordance with the religious assumptions of the age?… The more fluid, the more chaotic the religious and ethical beliefs, the more the drama must tend in the direction of liturgy. [T. S. Eliot, 'A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry,' in Selected Essays, 1932]
In emphasizing the relationship between liturgy and drama, T. S. Eliot implies that both forms express the need to affirm a purpose in the scheme of creation and of man's place in it.
In two powerful dramatizations of social change, The Silver Tassie and Red Roses for Me, O'Casey adapted certain of the expressionist techniques used by German dramatists to embody formal traditions in religious experience.
In Act II of The Silver Tassie, he used the liturgy as a dramatic mode through which to explore the negation, by war, of Christianity's most profoundly held assumption: that human life is sacrosanct. By this means he effects an absolute moral statement on the meaning of war. The human experience of war in this play is presented by the alternating and mingling of two dramatic perspectives. One is the view which characterized the Dublin trilogy, that of personal insensitivity and indifference to the sufferings of those who bear the actual consequences of war. As in The Plough and the Stars, this view is projected in a predominantly realistic mode heightened by interpolated songs and chanting. The other perspective is a generalized vision of man as the insignificant, uncomprehending victim of historical cataclysm, and is dramatized in an expressionist distortion of the Mass.
The two perspectives are linked by a unifying dramatic symbol, the silver tassie of the title. When we first meet Harry in Act I, he has won the silver cup by scoring a victory for his football club. He and his sweetheart, Jessie, drink wine from the cup in celebration of his achievement and his love. In Act II, we witness the expressionistic projection of war as a travesty of the Mass, in which soldiers are seen as human sacrifices. Although this is not dramatized, it is common knowledge that the central liturgical action in the Mass is the offering of the chalice of wine, transubstantiated into the blood of Christ, for the redemption of man. The silver tassie may not then be visible on the stage, but it is present by implication. In Act IV, the mutilated Harry crushes the silver cup, whose form recalls that of a chalice, to symbolize the sacrifice of his physical strength and the love he had toasted in Act I. The silver tassie thus functions as an objective correlative for Harry's personal tragedy and, through the interpolation of Act II, the tragedy of all man whose blood is shed in the idolatrous sacrifice of war.
The setting for Act II is a shocking transfiguration of a monastery, a visual representation of the infernal quality of a war zone. The abrupt shift in stage technique from the bitter comic realism of the first act to the surrealistic expressionism of this act parallels, in allegorical form, the abrupt annihilation of familiar values demanded by war. As David Krause expresses it [in his Sean O'Casey: The Man and His Work, 1960]: "Instead of telling the audience through exposition that war is hell, he [O'Casey] had found in the techniques of Expressionism a way of showing them a symbolic nightmare of that hell …" War negates the affirmation of individual life that is the fundamental assumption of religious faith; it glorifies the reduction of life to death. The negation and reversal of traditional assumptions are incorporated in the setting, characterization and dialogue, which symbolize the supersession of religious values by a war ethic that idealizes universal death. We have seen, in the "realistic" plays, that the inclusion of symbolism in stage-setting reinforces the dramatic themes. In this expressionistic act, setting and mode of characterization furnish an integral part of the action, and formulate a visual definition of the theme: man's victimization by institutionalized slaughter on a global scale. The religious implications of this theme were recognized by Robert Speight—one of the few reviewers to defend the play at the time of its Dublin production in 1935—when he wrote in the Catholic Herald [30 August 1935] that in the expressionist scene O'Casey had "seen into the heart of the horror of war, and wrenched out its dreadful secret: that the co-heirs with Christ destroy one another in the sight of the Son of Man."
The setting is carefully structured to represent the ritual sacrifice of man in hallowed precincts:
In the war zone: a scene of jagged and lacerated ruin of what was once a monastery. At back a lost wall and window are indicated by an arched piece of broken coping pointing from the left to the right, and a similar piece of masonry pointing from the right to the left. Between these two lacerated fingers of stone can be seen the country stretching to the horizon where the front trenches are. Here and there heaps of rubbish mark where houses once stood. From some of these, lean, dead hands are protruding. Further on, spiky stumps of trees which were once a small wood. The ground is dotted with rayed and shattered shell-holes. Across the horizon in the red glare can be seen the criss-cross pattern of the barbed wire bordering the trenches. In the sky sometimes a green star, sometimes a white star, burns. Within the broken archway to the left is an arched entrance to another part of the monastery, used now as a Red Cross Station. In the wall, right, near the front is a stained-glass window, background green, figure of the Virgin, white-faced, wearing a black robe, lights inside making the figure vividly apparent. Further up from this window is a life-size crucifix. A shell has released an arm from the cross, which has caused the upper part of the figure to lean forward with the released arm outstretched towards the figure of the Virgin. Underneath the crucifix on a pedestal, in red letters, are the words: PRINCEPTS PACIS. Almost opposite the crucifix is a gunwheel to which Barney is tied. At the back, in the centre, where the span of the arch should be, is the shape of a big howitzer gun, squat, heavy underpart, with a long, sinister barrel now pointing towards the front at an angle of forty-five degrees. At the base of the gun a piece of wood is placed on which is chalked, HYDE PARK CORNER. On another piece of wood near the entrance of the Red Cross Station is chalked, NO HAWKERS OR STREET CRIES PERMITTED HERE. In the near centre is a brazier in which a fire is burning. Crouching above, on a ramp, is a soldier whose clothes are covered with mud and splashed with blood. Every feature of the scene seems a little distorted from its original appearance. Rain is falling steadily; its fall worried now and again by fitful gusts of cold wind. A small organ is heard playing slow and stately notes as the curtain rises. [The Silver Tassie]
The ruined monastery represents the destruction of a traditional institution built on the conviction of divine love and charity. Death has replaced life in the landscape visible through the shattered wall, in the scorched earth punctuated with "dead hands" that were once men, and the "stump of trees which were once a small wood." The stained glass image of the Virgin has a "white face" and a "black robe", suggesting the pallor of death and the garments of mourning. The figure on the crucifix is life-size, reminding us that Christ assumed human form and was sacrificed so that men may have more abundant life.
The detached arm, pointing to the image of the Virgin, conveys a plea for the human bonds of kinship and love that existed between Christ and Mary in their earthly relations. The words "Princepts Pacis" ironically underscore the shambles of the scene, by reminding us that Christ came on earth to bring peace to men. Opposite the crucifix, the figure of Barney tied to the gun-wheel, as punishment for a "regimental misdemeanour" seems to mock Christ's supreme life-giving sacrifice. Man is humiliated and tortured, not that men may have more abundant life, but that they may devote themselves more single-mindedly to the industry of killing.
In its position at center back, the sinister howitzer dominates the setting, clearly suggesting that it has superseded the crucifix as the principle governing men's lives. The broken walls of the monastery seem to frame this emblem of the idol of war and death, while the symbol of the God of love and live bears evidence of the shelling that has reduced the scene to "heaps of rubbish."
O'Casey had already expressed his hostility to the glorification of slaughter in The Plough and the Stars by showing a semi-realistic, shadowy figure exhorting the people to violence in the words of a national hero. Here, he has replaced realistic characterization by the expressionistic technique of purely symbolic figures. Dominating the group of soldiers is the Croucher, a battle-crazed soldier who intones corrupted verses from Ezekiel. He acts as a chorus, chanting the prophetic perspective of war, a vision of cumulative slaughter in the valley of death. In appearance he is an embodiment of the doomed soldiers he envisages; in the Notes to the play, O'Casey includes the following instructions for his make-up:
The Croucher's make-up should come as close as possible to a death's head, a skull; and his hands should show like those of a skeleton's.
The soldiers in the group are divested of particularized identity and are nameless; they are referred to by the impersonal attribution of numbers: Ist, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Soldiers. This device emphasizes the submergence of the individual in the group, a necessary corollary of the massed action of war. By means of this adaptation of morality-type figures, O'Casey projects an allegory of man in a state of war; an allegory which effectively demonstrates the universal condition of everyman in circumstances to which he is compelled to submit.
The shift from the realism of the first act to the allegorical expressionism of the second provides a dramatic statement of the transformation of the quality of life effected by war. From the perspective offered by the second act, Harry assumes a significance broader than that of an individual character: by implication, he is the generalized symbol of man at the peak of his strength and power who is drawn into the anonymous mass of the war-effort. In the process his unique promise is channelled into the machinery of indiscriminate sacrifice. The absence of Harry from the second act intensifies this dramatic statement: the particular and the unique are devoured without a trace by the god of war. However, the presence of Barney can be regarded as a link maintaining continuity between the broad world vision projected in Act II, and the particular society of the other three acts. Barney is an individual soldier whose identity we recognize, and his appearance reminds us that the monstrous organization of war has engulfed not merely numbers of unknown men but characters with whom we are familiar. War is seen, then, not as a remote event involving others "out there", but as an immediate contingency affecting individuals personally known to us. The appearance of Barney calls to mind Harry and Teddy, and sustains an awareness that they are among the nameless multitude of victims. Their predicament, though not dramatized during the second act, is thus unobtrusively suggested throughout the symbolic action.
Barney's function as a unifying link is maintained in the subsequent events of the play with his reappearance in Acts III and IV. Here he appears as the soldier who emerged unscathed from the war: of the three volunteers, he is the only one to return physically intact—and decorated with a V.C. for courage in combat. Covered with the glory traditionally associated with the returning warrior, he replaces the maimed Harry in Jessie's vacillating affections. His victory adds bitter irony to the tragedy of Harry.
Dialogue in the second act takes the form of chanting. The chants alternate between monologue by the Croucher and antiphonal counterpoint by the soldiers. The Croucher intones verses adapted from Ezekiel 37 in which the meaning of the prophecy is inverted. The prophecy of the original foretells the restoration of the kingdom of Israel through the image of the divine breath resuscitating dry bones, and transforming them to a living army:
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me round among them; and behold, there were very many upon the valley; and lo, they were very dry. And he said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord GOD, thou knowest."
Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host.
The Croucher reverses the meaning of the prophecy:
CROUCHER. And the hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of a valley. 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 music ceases, and a voice, in the part of the monastery left standing, intones): Kyr … ie … e … eleison. Kyr … ie … e … eleison, (followed by the answer): Christe … eleison.
CROUCHER (resuming). And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest. And he said, prophesy and say unto the wind, come from the four winds a breath and breathe upon these living that they may die.
(As he pauses the voice in the monastery is heard again): Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
CROUCHER (resuming). And I prophesied, and the breath came out of them, and the sinews came away from them, and behold a shaking, and their bones fell assunder, bone from his bone, and they died, and the exceeding great army became a valley of dry bones.
In the Croucher's version, the breath departs from the living, leaving a "valley of dry bones". The "breath" should be seen not only as evidence of physical life, but as the spiritual vitality inherent in faith in God's purpose for man. The soldiers' chanting reveals an absence of all sense of meaningful action: their words merely record physical discomfort and repetitive tasks that serve no purpose other than to prevent them from returning to their homes and their identities:
1ST SOLDIER. Cold and wet and tir'd.
2ND SOLDIER. Wet and tir'd and cold.
3RD SOLDIER. Tir'd and cold and wet….
1ST SOLDIER. Twelve weary hours.
2ND SOLDIER. And wasting hours.
3RD SOLDIER. And hot and heavy hours.
1ST SOLDIER. Toiling and thinking to build the wall of force that blocks the way from here to home.
2ND SOLDIER. Lifting shells.
3RD SOLDIER. Carrying shells.
4TH SOLDIER. Piling shells.
In the Notes of the Play, O'Casey emphasizes that the chants should conform to the conventions of Gregorian Plain Song:
The Chants in the play are simple Plain Song … There are three parts in each chant: the Intonation; the Meditation; and the Ending
Gregorian Plain Song was first developed as liturgical music in the sixth century. By the end of the Middle Ages it had been adopted throughout Europe, which was then spiritually unified by the single Catholic and universal Church. Despite the fragmentation of the Church after the Reformation, Plain Song remained the ideal in Catholic liturgical music until the Second Vatican Council. By adapting a form of chant associated with the supreme achievement of spiritual unification, O'Casey projects the conditions of universal war and the perverted ideal that governs modern man's physical and spiritual life. The conditions of his life are characterized by fragmentation of action, physical hardship and indifference to the individual. The coordinating authority and its ultimate aim are alike as unidentifiable and remote as a deity. The idea of a universal redeemer in a single Church is replaced by that of a universal principle of destruction suggested through quasi-religious symbols of a god of war. The Mass is a sacred and sacramental ritual meal in which, through the ministry of the human priest, Christ the High Priest is made actually present under the forms of bread and wine. The parts of the Mass audible during the Croucher's prophecy thus imply that Christ is present as a witness of man's travesty of His sacrifice.
Christ's obedient sacrifice of love for God the Father, which was epitomized in his suffering, death and resurrection, is made present, in the Mass, in a particular situation for the salvation of mankind, so that the fullness of life may be increased. During the Mass the people ritually give themselves as a response with Christ's sacrifice. The union of the people with Christ is explained by St. Paul, in Corinthians 12:27, in the image of a body with Christ as the implied head: "Now you are the body of Christ, and members of member." In the second act, we see mankind as the mystical body of Christ, united in love, replaced by the vision of vast numbers of men under an unspecified human authority, coerced into unredemptive self-sacrifice in the realization of hate.
In the course of the Croucher's intonation, parts of a Mass being celebrated elsewhere in the monastery are audible. This forms an ironic counterpoint to the parody of the Ezekiel verses. The first excerpt from the Mass is the Kyrie, the plea for mercy. The second is the Gloria, celebrating God as the bringer of peace to men of goodwill. The Gloria is ironically juxtaposed with the words of the Croucher's prophecy in which the breath of life is withdrawn from the men of the army. The juxtaposition heightens the blasphemous inversion of life-giving religious faith in the deliberate pursuit of war. Ironically, the voice from the monastery is heard to intone:
Accendant in nobis Dominus ignem sui amoris, et flammam aeternae caritatis.
[The Lord has enkindled in us the fire of His love and the flame of eternal charity.]
These words contrast the God of eternal love with the vision of institutionalized hatred projected by the scene.
The relief with which we observed the women take leave of their men ended the first act with a pervasive sense of the isolation of the soldiers. This isolation is intensified by the alienation of their situation in the second act. We have seen that here the soldiers lack individual identity; they speak in a uniform cockney chant, and in this way the particular Irish society introduced in the opening act is abruptly obliterated. The Irish soldier is absorbed into the mass of British soldiery, and his alienation is increased in the degree to which he has lost all characteristic personality. The soldier is now no longer recognizable as a unique being with a personalized sense of belonging; he cannot comprehend the purpose of his presence in the war zone. His questioning is expressed in the chant:
But wy'r we 'ere, wy'r er 'ere—that's wot we wants to know!
and the response is the fatalistic refrain from the well-known song:
We're here because we're here, because we're here, because we're here!
The soldier's isolation is emphasized by the location of the war zone "somewhere in France" The vagueness of the locality reinforces the disorientation of the soldiers, by suggesting a no-man's land which could be any war zone. From the soldier's point of view, the dominant characteristic of the place is its remoteness from home and the familiar; they recall home as a "field of dysies" or an everyday recollection of wife and child:
I sees the missus paryding along Walham Green,…
Emmie a-pulling her skirt an' muttering, "A balloon, a balloon, I wants a balloon."
The alienating inhumanity of war is brought to a climax in the fourth and final act, in which both perspectives—the isolation of the wounded in their suffering and of the distorted sacrifice of war—are fused in a mingling of realistic and symbolic techniques. The scene is the War Victory Dance at Harry's old club, the Avondale. Among the guests are Harry and Teddy Foran, who has been blinded. Harry is no longer the triumphant hero of the club, but the humiliated discard, reduced to angry jealousy as, in his wheelchair, he impotently follows the dancing Jess and Barney. The expression of life and exuberance through dance is a characteristic of O'Casey's subsequent writing; here it stresses the exclusion of the wounded from the spontaneous rhythms of the living, who uncaringly celebrate their own vigour. O'Casey reintroduces expressionistic chanting into this largely realistic act by means of Harry's symbolic drinking of wine. His toast echoes the Consecration of the Mass:
Red wine, red like the faint remembrance of the fires in France; red wine like the poppies that spill their petals on the breasts of the dead men. No, white wine, white like the stillness of the millions that have removed their clamours from the crowd of life. No, red wine; red like the blood that was shed for you and for many for the commission of sin!
The last line is an allusion to Christ's regenerative sacrifice, and evokes the futile sacrifice in the blasphemous ritual of war. The tragic irony of this ritual is that Harry's sacrifice—and that of all war victims—has redeemed nobody. Harry's continued existence merely has nuisance-value for those who wish to erase recognition of his suffering from their consciousness.
Harry's recognition of his diminution is crystallized in his symbolic crushing of the silver tassie. We saw in Act I that the tassie, won for the club by Harry, was associated with him as symbolic of his physical power and triumph. Before leaving for the front, he celebrated his youth and love in the toast to Jessie which he drank from the tassie. The toast took the form of the song, The Silver Tassie, by Robert Burns. Now, in Act IV, he presents the tassie to the club as an emblem of his physical condition and his loss of Jessie's affection:
Mangled and bruised as I am bruised and mangled. Hammered free from all its comely shape. Look, there is Jessie writ, and here is Harry, the one name safely separated from the other …
These ironic echoes of the Mass are extended by responsorial chanting as Harry is invited to play on the ukelele:
HARRY. I can see, but I cannot dance.
TEDDY. I can dance, but I cannot see.
HARRY. Would that I had the strength to do the things I see.
TEDDY. Would that I could see the things I've strength to do.
HARRY. The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away.
TEDDY. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
MRS. FORAN. I do love the ukulele, especially when it goes tinkle, tinkle, tinkle in the nighttime.
Civilian incomprehension of the soldiers' loss is dramatized in the jarring interpolation of Mrs. Foran's trivial utterance. The war-victims' ironic vision of a life-giving God transformed to one who reduces life to the isolation of immobility and darkness is intensified by the impossibility of communication with others. Harry and Teddy are exiled from the human community by the abyss of their experience.
In his autobiographical play, Red Roses for Me, O'Casey again adapts expressionist techniques to represent an epiphanic vision of social change. The play was published in 1942, the same year as the second volume of his autobiography, Pictures in the Hallway. It is almost certain that in these two works O'Casey was concerned to project a personal epiphany through two different modes, poetic prose and semi-expressionist drama. The experience recorded in the All Heaven and Harmsworth chapter of the Pictures contains all the theatrical elements that dominate the dream-sequence in Act III of Red Roses.
As Johnny of the autobiography pushes a handcart laden with The Harmsworth Magazine, he reflects on his situation in language that parallels the expressionistic chant of the women on the bridge in the play: "Rotten Dublin; lousy Dublin, what had it for anyone? What had it for him? Poverty and pain and penance" [Autobiography: Vol. II: Pictures in the Hallway, 1963]. Descriptive details such as the following are almost identical to the lighting instructions for the third act:
Here the hard, set, and leering faces of roughs leaning against a corner had changed into sturdy faces of bronze where the sun's shadow lingered. [Pictures]
The great dome of the Four Courts shone like a golden rose in a great bronze cup. [Pictures]
Finally the spontaneous dance in the climax of both narrative and dramatic versions is almost unchanged:
the two of them whirled round in the bonny madness of a sun-dance, separating them so that she whirled into a violet shadow, while he danced into a golden pool … then changing places, he to be garbed in the hue of a purple shadow, and she to be robed in a golden light.
—Grandchildren of kings! he shouted, in the midst of the dancing; sons and daughters of princes, we are one with the race of Milesius!
The violet and gold of shadow and sun are linked contextually with the liturgical colours for Lent and Easter. The Heaven and Harmsworth incident is an explicit epiphany of spiritual redemption:
A rippling thrill of emotional ecstasy crept through him …; all this beauty and much more, everlasting, to be his and all men's through the life, passion, and death of the wonderful Jesus.
In Red Roses for Me, the interpolation of the expressionistic third act into a symbolic-realistic play enables O'Casey to counterpoint light and dark, despair and joy, and effect a synaesthetic dramatization of transcendence.
The political context of the play, the 1913 Irish Transport and General Workers' Strike, permits the dramatist to align his personal conception of socialism with the earthly manifestation of the divine recalled in All Heaven and Harmsworth. The values that O'Casey affirms throughout his dramatic career are embodied in the character of Ayamonn Breydon, the strike leader, whose social vision fuses an ideal world of the future and a reaffirmation of Ireland's mythic past. The epiphanic vision in the autobiography determines Johnny's choice of a life devoted to literature and the moral values it affirms. Similarly, the centrality of transcendent vision as the vital impetus towards social change forms the dramatic statement of Act III. Here, a realistic projection of poverty-stricken Dublin gives way to an expressionistic dream of a transfigured city.
The setting represents a bridge over the River Liffey and a street with dingy tenement houses; a knot of economically and politically depressed working-class people stand on the bridge, "their expressionless faces hidden by being bent down towards their breasts." A pall of darkness enshrouds the scene and is relieved only by a distant view of a "tapering silver spire of a church" and "Nelson's Pillar, a deep red … with Nelson, a deep black, on its top…. The sun shines on pillar and church spire, but there is no sign of sun where these people are." The selectiveness of the sunshine indicates that the ruling authority and established church are the only groups to enjoy privileges under the existing dispensation; the red and black of the Nelson pillar reinforce the implied oppressiveness of British rule. On the bridge, the three tenement women, Eeada, Dympna, and Finnoola, hawk their wares, "dressed so in black that they appear enveloped in the blackness of a dark night." The sense of death-in-life evoked by their garb gains in intensity by the progressive darkening of the scene and the women's responsorial chanting:
EEADA. (drowsily). This spongy leaden sky's Dublin; those tomby houses is Dublin too—Dublin's scurvy body; an' we're Dublin's silver soul. (She spits vigorously into the street) An' that's what Eeada thinks of th' city's soul an' body!
DYMPNA. Th' sun is always at a distance, an' th' chill grey is always here.
A graveyard where th' dead are all above th' ground.
The women are apathetic and drowsy; their devitalized torpor dramatize Dympna's view of their condition as a "graveyard" populated by the living dead. They reflect on their drab lives, alluding to the heroic past of ancient Ireland: this theme is elaborated by Roory O'Balacaun, who, with Ayamonn, has appeared on the scene.
Ayamonn then evokes his vision of a city which belongs to the people; he exhorts the people on the bridge to act, if the ideal city is to be realized. The dialogue assumes the form of the counterpointed chant which O'Casey first used with powerful effect in The Silver Tassie:
A YAMONN. Rouse yourselves; we hold a city in our hands!
EEADA. (in a very low, but bitter voice). It's a bitther city.
DYMPNA. (murmuring the same way). It's a black an' bitther city.
FINNOOLA. (speaking the same way). It's a bleak, black an' bitther city.
1ST MAN. Like a batthered, tatthered whore, bullied by too long a life.
2ND MAN. An' her three gates are castles of poverty, penance, an' pain.
AYAMONN. She's what our hands have made her. We pray too much and work too little. Meanness, spite, and common pattherns are woven thick through all her glory; but her glory's there for open eyes to see.
The alliterative rhythms of the people's responses intensify the sense of all-encompassing obscurity and blight which, in the setting, is seen to envelop the poor. The scene "has now become so dark that things are but dimly seen"; the expressionism recalls the dark night of desolation that precedes spiritual illumination. A streak of sunlight penetrates to Ayamonn's head, which now assumes the appearance of a mythic hero from the Celtic past. This illusion, together with the peoples' reveries of the legendary figures, implies that Ayamonn's vision elevates him to the stature of a modern mythological hero. The scene gradually brightens and the city emerges in splendid colours, "mauve and burnished bronze." The regal colours evoke the splendour that might be brought to the city.
The symbolic transformation extends to encompass the people on the bridge: their faces glow so that they resemble "bronze statues," heroic descendants of their legendary past. The women's black clothes are changed to green, the colour symbolizing promise for the new Kathleen ni Houlihan. Finnoola's dress is of a brighter green than those of the other women, suggesting the hope of a new generation that will be born into the illuminated world. The visual image of the revitalized city is reinforced by song and a dance of life: the words of the song suggest that the transformation of the people's lives can be effected through commitment to the efforts of labour:
We swear to release thee from hunger an' hardship,
From things that are ugly an' common an' mean;
Thy, people together shall build a brave city,
Th' fairest an' finest that ever was seen!
Ayamonn and Finnoola break into a "dignified and joyous dance" which increases in tempo and excitement as the people clap. The dancers are enveloped in gold and violet light, colours which repeat the regal tints of the illuminated city. The people remark on the glory of the change, seeing themselves as "Sons an' daughters of princes … an' one with th' race of Milesius." Ayamonn has inspired them with his vision of life in which they can all have a share: their participation in the song and dance, symbols of joy and fulfilment, conveys their willingness to work together for the envisioned future.
The scene gradually darkens again and the dream recedes; the city reassumes the dingy appearance of the opening act. The people, too, resume their former positions, though less apathetically, and they muse on the dreamlike experience they have undergone. Through the reemergence of the actual condition of the city, O'Casey insists on the persistence of present reality, and the limitations it imposes on the realization of the dream. The ecstatic prevision of a renewed city loses its iridescence, and the depressed working-people show an inclination to sink into their habitual torpor after Ayamonn has left them. At the same time, the sound of marching feet is heard; this is the police arriving to prevent the strike, a reminder of the obstacles that must be overcome if the renewed world is to be achieved. The people, however, though passive, cling to the vision Ayamonn has shown them, and their resolve to work together towards the realization of the dream is expressed in the song with which the scene ends, a repetition of that sung during the dream-sequence.