The Shadow of a Gunman

by Sean O'Casey
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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman takes place in Dublin in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence.

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The action occurs in a single day and night in a tenement flat shared by two men, Donal Davoren and Seumas Shields. Both are adherents of the Republican cause that seeks independence from Britain. Davoren is apparently an IRA operative, but it is unclear what his activities are; at a crucial moment when alone, he describes himself as the eponymous shadow of a gunman. At least during the one day of the drama, both he and Seumas appear to spend most of their time philosophizing and quoting poetry rather than doing anything constructive, despite their Republican sympathies.

A young girl who lives in the same building, Minnie Powell, is attracted to Davoren and visits him in the flat. This occurs after another man, a friend of Seumas named Maguire, has dropped off a bag and then immediately rushed out, saying that he is going out "to catch butterflies."

Minnie and others look up to Davoren because of his reputation as a member of the independence movement. While Minnie is visiting him, two other tenants, Mr. Gallogher and Mrs. Henderson, present Davoren with a letter addressed to the "Gentlemen of the Irish Republican Army" and asking for help against residents of the tenement who are disruptive and are threatening people. Davoren accepts the letter. But during this scene the news is received that an ambush has occurred in which a man named Maguire has been killed. When the others ask Davoren if he knew Maguire, he first answers yes, then quickly denies it. After the others have left, Minnie asks Davoren to type her name on a sheet of paper for her; he does so, then types his own name below it. She leaves, and when Davoren is alone he muses over her attraction to him because of her belief that he's a "gunman on the run," but then tells himself that there is no actual danger in merely being the shadow of such a gunman.

Later, in the middle of the night when Davoren and Seumas are awake in the room, a disturbance is heard down the street, and it becomes evident that British soldiers are raiding the area in search of Republican sympathizers. Both men are fearful, and they discover that the bag Maguire left in their flat contains bombs. Minnie comes in and tells them the building is surrounded, and she takes the bag, saying that because she is a woman the soldiers won't harm her, while if it's found with the men, they're sure to be arrested. After Minnie is gone, soldiers burst into the room and make threats, but they leave Davoren and Seumas undisturbed. Another neighbor, Mrs. Grigson, enters and tells Davoren and Seumas that Minnie has been arrested, having been found in possession of the bombs. The military truck on which Minnie is being held is then ambushed, and when Minnie jumps off the truck in an attempt to escape, she is shot dead. Davoren and Seumas, when told of this, are left to reflect that they are the ones who should be dead, not her, and that the two of them are mere "poltroons and poets," rather than true fighters.

The action of the play is a microcosm of war, not just in Ireland but any conflict in which the actual heroes turn out to be the least expected ones. A young woman sacrifices herself in this case for two men who (although it is somewhat understandable in the context of the war) evade punishment. Rather than stand and fight, both Davoren and Seumas in a moment of fear relinquish their high-minded principles and retreat safely into the background of the great conflict.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691

Although it was not the first play that O’Casey wrote, The Shadow of a Gunman was the first play of his produced. It was premiered at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on April 12, 1923, and was an immediate success. The reason for its success is its setting, the Irish War of Independence. This war was fought, largely in guerrilla style, between volunteers of the Irish Republican Army and British forces. The nature of the war is very well reflected in the play’s use of abrupt and vicious turns of fortune. These are reflected in the play’s three central characters.

Donal Davoren, the poet, Seumas Shields, the opportunist, and Minnie Powell, the heroine, represent not only the twists of fate brought about by the action of the play. They may also be considered as an introduction to O’Casey’s people. Most of the men in The Shadow of a Gunman are all talk. This quality is evident in O’Casey’s decision to make Davoren a naïve, youthful, romantic versifier. Davoren’s self-pity and self-involvement make him blind to the realities around him. Poetry, which is often thought of as a diagnosis of life’s challenges, is Davoren’s means of escape from those challenges. It is not surprising that his poetry is weak and inadequate.

Yet in this portrait of the artistic temperament, O’Casey is not only presenting a character for whom the image and self-deception define his relationship to the world. He is speaking to an audience of contemporaries who knew that many of the leaders of the Easter, 1916, rebellion were poets and dreamers. The violent circumstances of the play draw on the historical reality that was a direct result of that rebellion. In that sense, also, the gunman’s shadow lies behind the activity of some of Irish nationalism’s purest idealists.

Shields, on the other hand, is a down-to-earth exploiter of the main chance. He is Davoren’s opposite, and the somewhat implausible fact of their sharing a room brings their differences into sharp focus. While Davoren does not fully appreciate the danger that his illusions can cause, Shields is fully alive to the perils that pass for normal life in a community at war. Seen in the larger context of the events that inspired the play, Shields may be seen as the unprincipled hanger-on, willing to do anything to survive. Shields never says that he knows there might be something amiss about the bag that Maguire leaves in his care. Although Shields is apparently Davoren’s opposite, the result of both men’s behavior is the same. Like Davoren, Shields talks about everything except what needs at all costs to be addressed. The magnitude of these costs is revealed when Minnie Powell pays with her life. She is the victim of Davoren’s speech and Shields’s silence. She is the one character in the play who attempts to take life as she finds it. As the play indicates, the challenge is to find something for which life is worth living, to emerge from the gunman’s shadow. O’Casey’s awareness of the severity of this challenge is one of the main reasons he subtitled The Shadow of a Gunman a tragedy.

In some respects, The Shadow of a Gunman reveals O’Casey as still something of an apprentice playwright. The plot is thin, and the minor characters sometimes seem to be too great a distraction from the main action. At the same time, however, these characters are necessary to enrich a sense of the play’s theme. O’Casey compensates for such deficiencies by the richness of his characterizations and by his use of language. He not only equips his characters with colorful vocabularies but also bases much of the play’s costly conflict on what people say and what they do not say and on the moral consequences of the appropriate use of language. O’Casey’s relentless exposure of self-deception, hypocrisy, and cowardice, however, enables the play to transcend its immediate context to become a potent reflection on the distorting and destructive effect of historical events on ordinary people.

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