Within the Gates

by Sean O'Casey
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1834

First produced: 1933

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Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Morality

Time of work: Twentieth century

Locale: In a London park

Principal Characters:

The Dreamer, a young poet

The Young Woman, Jannice, a prostitute

The Old Woman, her mother, a drunkard

The Atheist, foster father of Jannice

The Bishop, Jannice's father


This expressionistic morality play, the least-produced play of a seldom-produced playwright, has had a very mixed reception by audiences and critics alike. It belongs to the Devon period of plays by an expatriate, though still very Irish, writer who followed Shaw into English exile and who became in part his successor in the theater. The play, in four parts or seasons, is a kind of war cry against the modern, impoverished spirit of man, weighed down by mass conformity, though protested against by the poet-dreamer. In its simplest outline, the play is a modern Everywoman—O'Casey's great concern for the life force is brought to focus here—who turns, in her final days on earth, to family, church, social agency, lover, and finally, poet. Though she dies making the sign of the cross, he alone sustains her with love and compassion.

The Story:

It was spring within the gates of a London park where a war memorial stood in strong contrast to the surrounding spring flowers. A group of young people, costumed like the spring vegetation, sang and danced to a poem newly written by The Dreamer. His song expressed hope for the world through the earth mother's renewal of old promises. Contrasted with this lively group were The Down-and-Outs, those bowed by the master classes and the prejudices they spawn.

The Dreamer, who sensed the independent spirit disguised by her conventional street-walker's appearance, followed The Young Woman, only to be rejected by her. His friend The Atheist urged the poet to leave her adrift. As the girl's foster father, he explained to the interested young man that she had a fine mind which forever darted first to the left, then to the right. A young divinity student named Gilbert had fathered and forgotten her. Her housemaid mother, turned away from the college gate, had placed her child in a church orphanage, where the nuns treated her as a child of sin and impressed fancifully on her mind the hell for which she was probably destined. The Atheist, smitten with the good looks and fierce spirit of the mother, took them both in, only to be deserted when the daughter became a prostitute and the mother a drunkard. Both were beset by their own vision of sin and full of hate for each other.

Since the godless man gave the girl no poetry but only intellectual exercises, The Dreamer suggested that The Atheist had taken her from one darkness into another. He begged the foster father to take her home again while there still was loveliness in her, but The Atheist was too fond of his independent life of rabble-rousing through speechifying and pamphleteering.

Within the park appeared vested interests represented by nursemaids and their aristocratic charges, a policewoman, The Bishop and his sister, chair attendants, a gardener, a Salvation Army officer, evangelists, and politicians in various types of hats which corresponded to their points of view. The Dreamer moved among them all and urged them to throw off their worldly bonds; for them he wrote the Song of the Down-and-Outs, a lament for those who whine through life with dread and who are sick with apprehension, the victims of dead traditions.

The Young Woman, in spite of a heart condition, ran after her foster father. Rebuffed, she still persisted in disclosing her dreams of hell and heaven. She turned next to a young Salvation Army officer who offered her the minimum security of the body, though he was interested in her for other reasons of the flesh. The Gardener, in love with physical love and unresponsive to her claim for affectionate understanding, rejected her and refused to marry her when he learned she was ill. The gates then closed on this satiric spring idyl.

Summer found the gates opening on the people's sensuous enjoyment of the lovely day, bellowing summer's deceptive pleasures. Conventional morality was the topic of discussion among the Down-and-Outs; The Bishop, guiltily avoiding his sister, who disliked the commoners, was their leader while on a kind of pilgrimage among the "lower classes." His morality was tested by chair attendants wanting charity and by The Young Woman, who wanted redemption. She vigorously parried dogma against dogma—to his chagrin, for he urged her to return to her mother and the church, only to discover himself as the guilty lover and irresponsible father. After this disjointed, highly emotional reunion, The Dreamer rescued The Young Woman from the mother's violence and the passivity of the priest-father (as yet not identified by anyone but himself), who could only give her money clandestinely. She again rejected the poet, who offered her a song, and departed with the somewhat guilty-acting Salvation Army officer. She mocked the priest who saved only himself but complimented the poet on his song as the gates closed on the departing couple.

On a lovely autumn day, the park gates opened on The Dreamer and The Young Woman, he ecstatic and she drunk with wine and joy. She begged him not to leave her because in his absence she might return to her Salvation Army lover. The young poet insisted that the officer could give her neither peace nor joy, for his peace brought a measured joy, whereas she needed joy to find peace.

The political forces came together armed with newspapers and debated the origin of God and the universe. The Young Woman ended the argument by stating that their combined knowledge could not fill a spoon. She, uneasy in her soul, sang the poet's song of love to the background chanting of despair. Her panic mounted as she felt death's clutch and she shouted for help, but the only solace she found was the conventional responses of The Bishop, responses she rejected with telling arguments against his stringent denial of life. Nor could The Atheist or Salvation Army arguments win her; only the kiss and embrace of man for woman took her through the gates.

Winter came through the gates into the desolate park as the bugle call, The Last Post, set the mood. The Bishop had returned with his sister, he now strongly moved to compassion, the desire to do the right thing, and she determined to prevent it.

The Old Woman, also touched by conscience, went looking for her daughter but presented her wreath to the war memorial because her one week of happiness had been spent with an Irish soldier killed later in a senseless battle. She accosted The Bishop, a thin thought of recollection assailing her, but he denied her and the girl and, prompted by his sister, reverted to his worship of self.

The men of argument proposed the riddles of modern psychology, again not filling a spoon with knowledge.

The Young Woman now wished to reject the poet-lover for The Bishop, knowing as she did so that life was fast going out of her. She revived long enough to revile her sob-saying mother, who in turn reviled The Bishop's sister in garbled ritual for oaths.

A great struggle for supremacy over the dying woman's thoughts ensued: The Bishop with Latin comfort, the Down-and-Outs with conventional sympathy, but the poet with song and dance of an Old Testament elegiac sort, a defiance of the world and a praise of God. The priest intoned as she haltingly made the sign of the cross, the hymn of Down-and-Outs praised oblivion, and the poet sang his song of praise to The Young Woman who was dying within the gates.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

In the period beginning with the Great Depression and ending with World War II, Sean O'Casey wrote four "morality plays," WITHIN THE GATES, THE STAR TURNS RED (1940), RED ROSES FOR ME (1942), and OAK LEAVES AND LAVENDER (1946), through which he hoped to show the chaos and crisis—economic, political, moral, and spiritual—of the modern world. And, following his split with the Abbey Theatre over its refusal to produce THE SILVER TASSIE (1929), he continued to reject the realism of his earlier triumphs, especially JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK and THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS, in favor of experimentation with symbolic, poetic, and expressionistic theatrical styles. As he was quoted in The Sunday Times in 1934: "To hell with so-called realism for it leads nowhere."

But exactly where the nonrealism of WITHIN THE GATES "leads" is also difficult to determine. Such "plot" as there is concerns the efforts of The Young Woman, a prostitute gradually dying from a heart ailment, to find sympathy, security, and "meaning" from those she meets in a public park. In the fashion of a true morality play, it is her soul that becomes the object of contention. An illegitimate child raised by nuns in a charity orphanage, she is mentally tormented by images of hell and damnation. Her foster father, The Atheist, offers her sympathy, but cannot satisfy her emotional needs because his humanity is entirely theoretical and impersonal. Because of her profession, she is socially ostracized and harassed by the guardians of public morality, The Bishop's Sister and The Policewoman. Because of her health, she is rejected as a wife by The Gardener.

She accosts The Bishop, but is cast off as a "sinner" in need of purification. To gain acceptance she must first join The Down-and-Outs, those poor who agree that their fate is just, beg hopelessly for scraps, and offer no resistance or criticism toward the society which has pushed them to the bottom. Rather than demean herself, The Young Woman defiantly challenges The Bishop, claiming that "his Christ" is an opulent dandy totally unconcerned with the poor and the unfortunate. The Salvation Army evangelist is less formal than The Bishop, but his appeal, which offers emotion without compassion, is of no use to her either, especially after she realizes that the evangelist is more interested in her body than in her soul.

It remains for The Dreamer, a poet and songwriter who challenges all of the life-denying characters in the park, to "save" her and to proclaim her victory. The Dreamer and The Young Woman dance together in defiance of the chanting Down-and-Outs and, in dying, she supports O'Casey's belief that affirmation, joy, and compassion can survive even the most stifling of attitudes and institutions.

This summary, however, probably makes the play sound more coherent than it actually is. Although a line of action exists beneath the surface of the play, it is frequently obscured by extra characters, inappropriate speeches, gratuitous satire, and confusing digressions. The whole of WITHIN THE GATES is less than many of its parts; nevertheless, it has moments of power, rich comedy, and provocative thought. If it fails, it fails on a scale that few twentieth century playwrights have been able to match.

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