|Born:||March 30 1880
|Died:||18 September 1964 (aged 84)
Seán O'Casey (March 30, 1880 – September 18, 1964) was a major Irish dramatist and memoirist. A committed nationalist and socialist, he was the first Irish playwright of note to write about the Dublin working classes. His plays are particularly noted for the sympathetic treatment of female characters.
O'Casey was especially associated with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where, together which such writers as William Butler Yeats and John Millington Synge, O'Casey helped to develop the Abbey as a national theater with a distinctly Irish identity.
O'Casey was born John Casey in a house at 85 Upper Dorset Street, in the northern inner-city area of Dublin. It is commonly thought that he grew up in the tenement world in which many of his plays are set. In fact, his family belonged to that social class that was known as "shabby genteel." He was a member of the Church of Ireland and was confirmed at St John The Baptist Church in Clontarf.
O'Casey's father, Michael Casey, died when he choked on raw fish. The family lived a peripatetic life thereafter, moving from house to house around north Dublin. As a child, Seán suffered from poor eyesight, which interfered somewhat with his early education. He left school at the age of fourteen and worked at a variety of jobs, including a nine-year stint as a railway man.
From the early 1890s, Sean and his older brother, Archie, put on performances of plays by Dion Boucicault and William Shakespeare in the family home. Sean also got a small part in Boucicault's The Shaughraun, in the Mechanics' Theatre, which stood on what was to be the site of the Abbey Theatre.
As his interest in the Irish nationalist cause grew, O'Casey joined the Gaelic League in 1906, and learned the Irish language. He also learned to play the Irish pipes and was a founder and Secretary of the St Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and became involved in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which had been established by Jim Larkin to represent the interests of the unskilled laborers who inhabited the Dublin tenements.
In March 1914, he became General Secretary of Jim Larkin's Irish Citizen Army, which would soon be run by James Connolly. On July 24, 1914, he resigned from the Irish Citizen Army.
O'Casey's first accepted play, The Shadow of a Gunman, was performed on the stage of the Abbey Theatre in 1923. This was the beginning of a relationship that was to be fruitful for both theater and dramatist, but which ended in some bitterness.
The play deals with the impact of revolutionary politics on Dublin's slums and their inhabitants. It was followed by Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926), probably O'Casey's two finest plays.
Juno and the Paycock was the second of his well-known "Dublin Trilogy," and one of the most highly regarded and oft-performed plays in Ireland. It was first staged at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1924. It is set in the working-class tenements of Dublin in the early 1920s, during the Irish Civil War period known as the "Troubles." It deals with the impact of the Irish Civil War on the working class poor of the city.
Juno and the Paycock concerns the Boyle family, who live in the Dublin tenements. The father, "Captain" Jack Boyle (so called because of his status as a retired merchant sailor, his propensity for telling colorful stories of the sea, and his incessant wearing of his nautical-looking hat) constantly tries to evade work by pretending to have pains in his legs, and spends all his money at the pub with his "butty," Joxer Daly. The mother, Juno, is the only member of the family working, as the daughter Mary is on strike, and the son, Johnny, lost his arm in the Irish War of Independence. Johnny betrayed a comrade in the IRA, and is afraid that he will be executed as punishment. A distant relative dies, and a solicitor, Mr. Bentham, brings news that the family has come into money. The family buys goods on credit, and borrows money from neighbors with the intent of paying them back when the fortune arrives.
In the third act tragedy befalls the Boyle family. Mr Bentham, who had been courting Mary, ceases all contact with the family, and it becomes apparent that no money will be forthcoming. As the goods bought with the borrowed money are being taken back, Mr. and Mrs. Boyle learn that Mary has been impregnated by Mr Bentham. "Captain" Boyle goes with Joxer to a pub to spend the last of his money and take his mind off of the situation. While he is gone, Mrs. Boyle learns that her son, Johnny, has been killed, presumably by the IRA. Mary and Juno leave to live with Juno's sister and Captain Boyle returns to the stage drunk, unaware of his son's death.
A musical adaptation of the play, titled Juno, was created by Marc Blitzstein (music, lyrics) and Joseph Stein (book), and opened on Broadway in 1959. Shirley Booth starred as Juno Boyle, and Melvyn Douglas as the Captain. The musical version was a flop, closing after 16 performances, but Blitzstein's score was preserved on the original cast album and is today considered one of the composer's masterpieces. O'Casey gave his blessing to the project, but never saw the production.
Part of the Dublin trilogy, the play is set in Dublin in 1916, around the Easter Rising, which was, in fact, a middle-class affair, not a reaction by the poor.
The Plough and the Stars, an anti-war play, was misinterpreted by the Abbey audience as an anti-nationalist work, which resulted in scenes reminiscent of the riots that greeted Synge's The Playboy of the Western World in 1907. In reference to the "Playboy Riots," W.B. Yeats famously declared to the rioters against The Plough and the Stars, "You have disgraced yourself again, is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?"
In 1936, it was made into a film by American director John Ford.
Despite the controversy, O'Casey gave up his job to become a full-time writer.
In 1929, W.B. Yeats rejected O'Casey's fourth play, The Silver Tassie, for production at the Abbey Theatre. Already upset by the violent reaction to The Plough and the Stars, O'Casey decided to sever all ties with the Abbey, and moved to England, where he spent the rest of his life.
The plays he wrote after this, including the darken, allegorical Within the Gates (1934); his Communist extravaganza, The Star Turns Red (1940); the "wayward comedy" Purple Dust (1942); and Red Roses for Me (1943), saw a move away from his early style towards a more expressionistic and overtly socialist mode of writing.
These plays have never had the same critical or popular success as the early trilogy. After World War II, he wrote Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), which is perhaps one of his most beautiful works. From The Bishop's Bonfire (1955) O'Casey's late plays are studies on the common life in Ireland, "Irish microcosms," like The Drums of Father Ned (1958).
In these late years, O'Casey put his creative energy into his highly entertaining and interesting, six-volume Autobiography.
Sean O'Casey's career was inextricably linked with Ireland's most famous theater, the Abbey Theatre. After its heyday with such playwrights as John Millington Synge, the Abbey drifted along and suffered from falling public interest and box office returns. This trend was halted for a time by the emergence of Sean O'Casey as an heir to Synge. The Shadow of a Gunman was staged by the Abbey in 1923. This was followed by Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926). This last play resulted in riots reminiscent of those that had greeted the Playboy, nineteen years earlier. Once again, scared off by the public reaction, the Abbey rejected O'Casey's next play and he emigrated shortly thereafter.
All links retrieved November 2, 2019.
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