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."