Andrew E. Malone, ‘Ireland Gives a New Playwright to the World’ (1926).


Source: ‘Ireland Gives a New Playwright to the World: O’Casey, Former Manual Laborer, Declared the Greatest Dramatist Since Synge’, in Theatre Magazine [ed. Arthur Hornblow] 43, 4 (April 1926). pp.9, 58, 62; available in TheatreHistory .com [online; accessed 25.12.2009].

Today the name of Sean O’Casey, quite unknown a few years ago, is one of the most prominent in the world’s press. Dublin hailed him a year back when it crowded the Abbey Theatre as it had never before been crowded. It was an unusual experience for the Abbey Theatre to be compelled to turn away hundreds of people every night. The plays of Sean O’Casey gave it that thrill almost for the first time.

With the production of his Juno and the Paycock, London recently had an opportunity to give its verdict on one of his plays. The English critics hailed O’Casey as “the greatest Irish dramatist since Synge.” That, of course, means very little, as the London reviewers seem quite unable to judge an Irish play. They have placed many Irish dramatists on a level with Synge in the course of their professional careers.

There is really no basis for comparison between O’Casey and Synge, except it be that they are both strange and incomprehensible to Londoners. Synge was a poet, with all the attributes of a poet, O’Casey is a photographic artist who retouches his films with an acid pencil to produce an effect of grotesque satire. All his characters are taken directly from the Dublin slums, placed in surroundings and in positions which give the appearance of caricature. In the streets they would pass unnoticed, they are normal, but on the stage they are figures from Dickens, illustrated by Phiz. His plays resemble those of Eugene O’Neill rather than those of Synge, but in comparison with the work of O’Neill his plays do not live up to the extravagant praise bestowed upon them in the press of England and Ireland.

In his life, too, O’Casey somewhat resembles O’Neill. O’Casey is some few years older than the American playwright and he has not roved the world. But he has spent his years as a manual worker and as a resident of the slums of Dublin. He was born and reared in a Dublin “tenement” house, that is, a house which once sheltered the aristocracy of the Irish capital, but now houses sometimes several families in a single room. He never went to school, but earned a livelihood from a very early age by selling newspapers in the streets. Like many of his class, he drifted to the vague occupation called a casual laborer, engaged from time to time on any work that offered, from the docks to a bricklayer’s mate. In the effort to organize the casual workers of Dublin he tooks his part with Jim Larkin, and he was for a time connected with the Transport Union. He aided in the organization of the Irish Citizen Army, which fought under James Connolly in the streets of Dublin in 1916, and wrote its history. That history was his first published work, and it appeared in 1918 under a Gaelic name.

Since that date he has given himself entirely to drama and his daily work. He attended the Abbey Theatre regularly, and any craft that he has learned he found in watching the plays. He has written many plays, but so far only four have been produced on the Abbey stage. It is said that eight of his plays were rejected before his first was produced in April, 1923. That production of The Shadow of the Gunman made his Dublin reputation in a single night. It packed the theatre for weeks with enthusiastic audiences and made the name of Sean O’Casey the most prominent in Dublin. Since then three other plays have been staged: Kathleen Listens In, in October, 1923; Juno and the Paycock, in May, 1924, and Nannie’s Night Out, in September, 1924. His two longer plays, The Shadow of the Gunman and Juno and the Paycock, have recently been published in one volume by Messrs. Macmillan and Juno has been produced at the Royalty Theatre in London.

Sean O’Casey is not by any means the first dramatist to stage the slums of Dublin and to portray the hardy, vivacious race that inhabits them in a play, but it can hardly be questioned that he is the greatest. Some years ago two plays staged the type and both passed without notice. They were The Slough, by A.P. Wilson, and a blistering social satire called Blight, by one who called himself Alpha & Omega. Then there was Daniel Corkery’s The Labor Leader, which, somewhat incidentally perhaps, used the same material. Where O’Casey scores over those dramatists is in the use he makes of the period of war and bloodshed through which Dublin has recently passed and with which his audiences are thoroughly familiar. The plays named were all very serious, they contained no comedy element and were not calculated to make audiences laugh. They were all in the English Reportory Theatre style and have all been dropped from the repertoire of the Abbey Theatre. Such is the fate of plays which deal seriously with serious subjects. “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” The playwrights felt tragedies, but the audience insisted upon comedies. O’Casey calls his plays tragedies, but they are played and accepted as comedies.

“I forget,” said Sarcey, “what tyrant it was of ancient Greece to whom massacres were every-day affairs, but who wept copiously over the misfortunes of a heroine in a tragedy.” Dublin audiences are somewhat like that Greek, they endured the bloodletting of several years stoically, and then laughed uproariously at the tragedy of Juno. They overlooked the fact that the tragedy of Juno is of infinitely greater significance to Dublin and to the world than the spectacular melodrama which was played on the political stage. To the audiences, however, it was not; they had handled their guns like men, and then came the time to laugh. It did not matter that the laughter was induced by the tragedy of a great woman. After all Juno is only a martyr to the social system, a mere speck of dust beneath the Juggernaut without a brake. It is sweet and noble to die for one’s country, but it is only a music-hall “turn” to starve to death in a Dublin tenement. So it would seem if the laughter that greeted O’Casey’s plays at the Abbey Theatre is to be accepted at its superficial value. Life is a rollicking comedy to the audiences and a hideous tragedy to the dramatist, but it was not entirely the fault of the audience that the hideousness of O’Casey’s tragedies failed to affect them. As played at the Abbey Theatre it was the comic rather than the tragic aspects of his plays that were emphasized, and the superb acting of F. J. MacCormick and Barry Fitzgerald as “Joxer” and “The Captain” veiled the tragic significance of Juno as played by Sara Allgood. The audiences took the two typical Dublin loafers to their hearts, more easily perhaps because that type had never been so well exemplified on the stage of the Abbey Theatre ...

The two longer plays are tragedies of disillusionment; they were played and accepted as comedies of errors. The two shorter, one-act, plays are beneath serious consideration; they are at best but expanded anecdotes. Juno and the Paycock is modern tragedy at its best, almost at its greatest. The Shadow of the Gunman is that shadow of tragedy called melodrama. Tragedy presents a solemn view of life with depth, with feeling, so that the action clearly depicts the concern of all humanity. There may be sorrow, sin, death, blood, tears and suffering, but if the imagination be not led upwards and onwards from the individual to the universal, the play containing them is but superficial and melodramatic. Because of its superficiality, because of its close resemblance to a weekly newspaper in the Ireland of 1921, The Shadow of the Gunman is merely melodrama and must inevitably lose its significance quickly.

Juno and the Paycock has its superficial qualities verging upon the melodramatic, but it is lifted and ennobled by the character of Juno. Juno is the greatest, the universal mother, as great as the greatest mother in drama, even though her sphere of influence be limited to two rooms in a tenement house in a Dublin slum. The tragic significance of Mrs. Alving in Ghosts is small when compared with the tragic significance of Juno. Her son dead “for his country”; her daughter betrayed by a worthless liar and deserted by a coward; her husband a boasting, drunken, lying wastral, she rises superior to her slum surroundings and prepares to begin her life struggle anew.

Plays Without Plots
O’Casey’s plots are difficult to summarize; in a sense it may be said that his plays have no plots, and critics who think that a plot and a play are synonymous would rule him out of the list of dramatists in company with Schnitzler, Chekhov and O’Neill. His plays depend for their significance upon personalities rather than upon plots, upon characters, not upon story; upon Davoren, Shields, Maguire and Minnie Powell in The Shadow of the Gunman, and upon “Joxer” Daly, “Captain” Boyle and Juno in Juno and the Paycock . All the other persons play minor, if sometimes important, parts. Story there is none; they are “slices of life” in the strictest and most literal sense of that ill-used term. But a story must be made if the plays are to be summarized in a form that will be intelligible to anyone who has not seen or read them.

In Juno “Captain” Jack Boyle, the “Paycock”; his wife Juno, with Johnny and Mary, their two children, live in a two-roomed “flat” in a Dublin tenement house. Jack Boyle is a public-house lounger who got his title of “Captain” by being “only wanst on the wather in an oul’ collier from here to Liverpool.” His other title, the “Paycock,” was bestowed upon him by his wife because she thought he was about as useful and as vain as the peacock. Juno herself is nicknamed because everything of importance in her life happened in June. Juno and her daughter work while the “Paycock” struts the floor or lounges in public houses. Mary is presently on strike against the victimization of a fellow worker. Johnny is an invalid, who “was only a chiselur of a Boy Scout in Easter Week, when he got hit in the hip; and his arm was blew off in the fight in O’Connell Street.” “Joxer” Daly is the “butty” or drinking companion of Jack Boyle. He is a typical Dublin wastrel of the worst type, lazy, deceitful, hypocritical and engaging withal, but detested by Juno. Mary Boyle is being courted by Jerry Devine, who has dreams of becoming a leader of labor and a champion of democratic freedom, but she throws him over in favor of Charlie Bentham, a school-teacher now studying law.

Celebrating the Legacy
Into the Boyle household comes Bentham with a story of a legacy which has been left to Jack Boyle, and upon the prospect of it the Boyles buy new furniture and give a party to their neighbors to celebrate their good fortune. The festivities are interrupted by the funeral of the son of another resident of the house, whose body had been found on the roadside “beyant Finglas, riddled with bullets.” The entire party goes out to view the procession. Only Johnny, the crippled boy, remains; and to him is brought a message “to attend a Battalion Staff meetin’ the night afther to-morrow.” Johnny, nervously passionate, refuses to take any note of the message. “I done enough for Ireland,” he says. To which the messenger retorts: “Boyle, no man can do enough for Ireland.” Soon rumor begins to cast doubts upon the Boyle legacy. Bentham has gone to England, the tailor takes away the “Captain’s” new clothes, the furniture dealers take away the furniture, and their neighbor, Mrs. Madigan, takes the gramophone in lieu of her unpaid loan. Juno takes Mary to a doctor; the verdict makes Jerry Devine spurn where he once loved. Johnny and his father disown Mary for having “disgraced” them; and the “Captain” goes out to get drunk, vowing vengeance upon his return. Johnny is taken away for execution as a spy, he being responsible, it is alleged, for the death of his neighbor’s son and his own one-time chum.

“Patriotism is not enough,” this play shouts, with Nurse Cavell as an audience, and the audience laughs at the drunken antics of Boyle and Daly. Sacrifices are made in the name of and for the motherland, but the mother is sacrificed, derided, spurned or ignored. Ireland is loved as an abstraction, a dream; Juno is compelled to live in a slum, to see her children sacrificed, but she is ignored because she is merely a reality of flesh and blood. Even her own son will fight for the dream motherland instead of working to help his mother. Not in Ireland only does this happen. For years all the world knew it when the war drums sounded and the battle flags were unfurled. And how soon will the world know it again?

In comparison with Juno and the Paycock, the poverty of The Shadow of the Gunman manifests itself very quickly. Here a woman is again sacrificed to the cowardice of men, but the play is little more than a chrinicle of contemporary events, with a satirical commentary. Again the scene is a Dublin tenement house in which live Shields, a peddler, and Davoren, a poetic dreamer. Shields is a loquacious patriot, a hero in speech and a coward in action. Davoren is above and outside the battle. He is, however, believed by his neighbors to be a “gunman on the run,” and he is treated accordingly. Maguire, nominally a peddler, leaves a bag in the room. Minnie Powell, who occupies a room in the house, falls in love with Davoren, “the shadow of a gunman.” A raid is made upon the house by the Black-and-Tans. The pseudo-peddler, Maguire, has been killed in an ambush. His bag is found to contain bombs. Minnie takes the bag to her room, where it is discovered by the raiding party. She is arrested and is killed “trying to escape.” The lesson is the same even if the play be poor, a mere preparatory sketch for Juno . The innocent are goaded to destruction by the men of words, the speechmakers and the poets, while those word-spinners live to be hailed as “the men who won the war.”

Sean O’Casey has produced a great play in Juno and the Paycock, a poor melodrama in The Shadow of the Gunman and two negligible one-act plays which should never have been staged. He has been hailed as the greatest Irish dramatist since Synge. That is extravagant praise not warranted by the facts. Nevertheless Juno is a great play, in the first rank of its kind, and if O’Casey’s genius be great enough and strong enough to equal it, or to surpass it, in the future the praise may be justified. [End.]

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