The Irish dramatist Sean O'Casey (1880-1964) is considered the greatest of the Irish playwrights who began writing after World War I.
Sean O'Casey was born John Casey on March 31, 1880, the youngest of a large family living in a Dublin slum. He suffered all his life from painful, ulcerated eyeballs and could not read or write until he was 13, having been forced to begin lessons by an interested Irish clergyman. His later experiences among the laboring class in Dublin, where he worked first as an ironmonger, then as a day laborer despite his frail health, gave him a lifelong interest in the problems of the Irish working people. He was a Marxist and took an active part in proletarian reform movements, such as the transport workers strike of 1913, in which he worked with the labor leader Jim Larkin. Arrested as a political prisoner during the Easter Rebellion (1916), he narrowly escaped execution. However, his later socialist and pacificist convictions, his disenchantment with the results of Irish independence, and his professional disappointment concerning the poor reception of his plays led him to leave Ireland in 1926. He announced that his exile was final in 1928, when the Abbey Theatre's director William Butler Yeats rejected O'Casey's play The Silver Tassie (1928) as "unsuitable." Earlier, in announcing his break with the Gaelic League, O'Casey had deplored the preference of contemporary Irish audiences for a "Caithlin ni Houlihan in a respectable dress rather than a Caithlin in the garb of a working woman"—a reference to the romantic and aristocratic treatment of Ireland by Yeats and his circle. In 1928 O'Casey married Eileen Reynolds, an actress, and returned secretly to Dublin (Howth) for the honeymoon. The O'Caseys and their three children then made Devon, England, their permanent home.
Not until O'Casey had experienced life as a political rebel, poet, laborer, and fighter for Irish independence did he finally discover his true profession as a playwright. His first three attempts at drama were rejected by the Abbey Theatre, but his fourth, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), was an immediate success. His later plays, Cathleen Listens In (1923) and the tragicomic masterpiece Juno and the Paycock (1924), saved the Abbey from near bankruptcy and placed it on a secure financial footing.
Juno and the Paycock concerns the disintegration of the Boyle family in Dublin in 1922. The main characters are Juno, the long-suffering wife of an unemployed loafer, Jack Boyle (the "peacock"); their daughter, who is engaged to an Anglo-Irish fortune hunter; and their only son, crippled in the Irish Revolution and suspected of treachery. The comic antics of Boyle and his parasitic friend, Joxer, heighten the stark tragedy of the wife's sufferings, the daughter's seduction and desertion, and the son's murder.
O'Casey's next tragedy, The Plough and the Stars (1926), caused riots in Dublin, where audiences objected to what seemed his less than sympathetic portrayal of the heroes of the Easter Rebellion. The action concerns the events of Easter Week and their repercussions on Dublin tenement dwellers, who represent a cross section of political and religious opinion. The chief characters are revealed as a combination of honesty, showy patriotism, shallow opportunism, diehard imperialism, and dedicated communism.
The Silver Tassie (1928), rejected by Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory as unworthy and produced in 1929 in London, marked a distinct change from the earlier earthy plays with their realistic humor and tragedy. This play progressed from naturalistic farce in the first act to pure expressionism in the second; the remaining two acts combined farce and grim tragedy in the symbolist mode. The Star Turns Red (1939) was avowedly communistic, although O'Casey in his autobiography later described himself as "a voluntary and settled exile from every creed, from every party, and from every literary clique." His experimental dramas, Red Roses for Me (1942) and Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), show his increasing reliance on symbolism and fantasy. The Bishop's Bonfire, produced in Dublin in 1955, was described by O'Casey as a play about "the ferocious chastity of the Irish, a lament for the condition of Ireland, which is an apathetic country now."
O'Casey's later plays have been called erratic and formless, especially by American critics; but O'Casey insisted on his right to experiment with new forms "to interpret our times." His juxtaposition of various techniques and genres in one play—farce, realistic comedy, satire, melodrama, expressionism, tragedy—was aimed at breaking down the forms and conventions of dramatic realism. The designed formlessness of his last plays may be seen as a carrying out of his earlier dictum concerning drama, that a play should be "not the commonplace portrayal of the trivial events in the life of this man or that woman, but a commentary on life itself."
O'Casey's autobiography is contained in six volumes: I Knock at the Door (1939), Pictures in the Hallway (1942), Drums under the Window (1945), Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well (1949), Rose and Crown (1952), and Sunset and Evening Star (1954). His attitude toward Ireland seemed to have softened somewhat before his death in England on Sept. 18, 1964.
Although there is no definitive biography of O'Casey, his own six-volume autobiography can be supplemented and corrected by several good studies: David Krause, Sean O'Casey: The Man and His Work (1960); Saros Cowasjee, Sean O'Casey: The Man behind the Plays (1963); and Jules Koslow, Sean O'Casey: The Man and His Plays (1966), an enlargement and revision of a work which appeared in 1950 as The Green and the Red. An extensive treatment of O'Casey's contribution to modern drama is found in Robert G. Hogan, The Experiments of Sean O'Casey (1960). Recommended for general background are Ernest A. Boyd, Ireland's Literary Renaissance (1916) and The Contemporary Drama of Ireland (1917); Dorothy Macardle, The Irish Republic (1937; first American ed. 1965); Lennox Robinson, Ireland's Abbey Theater: A History, 1899-1951 (1951); Estella R. Taylor, The Modern Irish Writers: Cross Currents of Criticism (1954); Herbert Howarth, The Irish Writers, 1880-1940 (1958); Vivian Mercier, The Irish Comic Tradition (1962); and Robin Skelton and David R. Clark, eds., The Irish Renaissance: A Gathering of Essays, Memoirs and Letters from the Massachusetts Review (1965).
O'Casey, Sean, Pictures in the hallway, London, Pan Books, 1971.
Hunt, Hugh, Sean O'Casey, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1980.
Krause, David, Sean O'Casey and his world, New York: Scribner, 1976.
O'Connor, Garry, Sean O'Casey: a life, New York: Atheneum, 1988.