The Theatre of Seán O’Casey
With contributions by Garry Hynes, Paul Murphy & Victor Merriman
Methuen Drama Critical Companions
London: Bloomsbury, 2013
Paperback. xii + 314 [ ISBN 978-1408175354. £16.99
Reviewed by Ciaran Ross
Université de Strasbourg
In this clearly-written study, James Moran reassesses the mixed legacy of one of Ireland’s best-known playwrights, Seán O’Casey, whose fiftieth anniversary was last year. O’Casey was and still is best known for his early works, the Dublin trilogy: The Shadow of a Gunman, (1923) Juno and the Paycock (1924), The Plough and the Stars (1926). Set in Dublin’s tenements amidst war and revolution, these are realist plays that proved to be deeply controversial (The Plough and the Stars in particular), causing nationalist riots due to their cynical view of the dangers of Irish patriotism and nationalism (O’Casey always believed that Ireland’s real enemy was the capitalist system). Reviled as an iconoclast in Ireland “hell-bent on tearing down the country’s most cherished ideas and symbols” , O’Casey moved to England in 1926 settling permanently in Devon. His talent was duly recognised in Britain with the Hawthornden Prize in 1926 and by Hitchcock’s decision to film Juno and the Paycock at Elstree in 1930. The plays that followed – The Silver Tassie (1928), Within the Gates (1930) – were influenced by Strindberg and Ernst Toller and embraced a more expressionistic and fantastic style. However, the Abbey Theatre, (Ireland’s national theatre), rejected The Silver Tassie on account of its experimental nature, thereby confirming O’Casey’s alienation from Ireland and marking a turning point in his career. History also has it that despite initially winning praise from British and American critics alike, none of these experimental plays nor the later left-wing polemical works such as The Star turns Red (1938) or The Bishop’s Bonfire (1955) were ever to find a regular place in the theatrical repertoire either in Ireland or elsewhere . Equally telling is the fact that O’Casey’s London publisher decided in the mid 1990s to keep in print less than half the scripts once included in O’Casey’s “complete plays”.
In his reappraisal of O’Casey’s standing, James Moran is clearly keen to defend and revaluate the later works for “they reveal a playwright with a brave commitment to formal innovation, and a laudable determination to avoid replicating his own earlier style” . It is his belief that these scripts are “serious attempts at dramatic writing” , that examining only the popular pieces would give us an incomplete idea of O’Casey’s overall career and legacy. Hence the author’s judicious decision to also include the prose autobiographies in his corpus. This is all the more justified since these have enjoyed their own success in adapted form on stage and screen and were to a large extent dismissed or ignored by the Irish critics due to O’Casey’s atheist views. This fact is illustrated by two tables of figures compiled by Moran showing the stunning contrast between Irish Independent and TLS in the light of comments made on the Autobiographies [157-158], the Irish newspaper being gallingly negative and hostile.
The Theatre of Seán O’Casey might lend itself to be read as a detailed critical history of O’Casey’s works given the fact that the first part of the book, entitled “O’Casey’s Life, Work and Legacy”, constitutes the main body of the book, covering some 200 pages. However, the author is also concerned with O’Casey’s current standing in Irish drama and in Irish society at large. Such issues are addressed in a short annex, entitled “New Perspectives”, which comprises some 40 pages and is presented as Part 2 of the book. Here we are given the views of three experts from the world of Irish theatre: Garry Hynes, a professional theatre director who, in an interview with James Moran, speaks of her long experience producing O’Casey’s plays [201-213] and two Irish drama scholars, Victor Merriman and Paul Murphy.
Moran begins by looking back at O’Casey’s formative years, underlining the importance of the author’s lower-class Protestant background and his subsequent identification with working-class Catholics. This was to influence his life-long concern with social injustice and inequality, and to help pave the way for his international career as dramatist. Moran critically revises the celebrated story that O’Casey told himself about himself (and to television documentary teams), namely that he was the last of 13 children of whom 8 died in infancy and lived in slums, and did not know how to read or write, until the late age of 12 or 13. He had to leave his homeland in 1926 because of being literally persecuted in Ireland . While Moran acknowledges that O’Casey’s self-invented slum image is “one of the most widely recounted things about (him)” [ibid.], the facts tell us a very different story. In reality, John Casey, the future Seán O’Casey (he had originally “gaelicised” his name to Sean O’Cathasaigh), had been born into a lower middle-class Protestant family who had chosen to live in a deprived area on the poorer Northside since his father was a clerk for the Irish Church Missions: “strategically, then, the family had opted to live in close proximity to a very large group of unsaved souls living in stark material deprivation” [Ibid.].
As regards the plays, for the most part the author adopts essentially a materialist position as he invariably looks at the circumstances of their production, their performance context and subsequent reception in Ireland and abroad – O’Casey’s initial transatlantic popularity being an interesting case in point [160-166]. One cannot but admire the reader-friendly fashion Moran goes about presenting his findings – methodically preceding his chapters, as he does, with neat summaries of the major plays before clearly replacing them in their historical, political and cultural contexts. (The researcher will also be glad to find that the study comes with a set of richly documented end-notes most of which refer to unpublished archival material, and, in addition, a detailed chronology and index.)
However familiar one may be with O’Casey’s “history”, one is nonetheless struck by the central role played by Yeats and the Abbey Theatre in the career of the young emerging dramatist. Moran lets the facts speak for themselves as he supplies numerous tables of figures compiled essentially from the Abbey Theatre Archives. These chart the history of O’Casey’s popularity allowing us to closely follow his shifting reputation. We get fascinating details, for example, on the number of submissions he made to the Abbey Theatre , fewer than half of which were accepted. We learn too for instance that despite its box-office success, The Plough and the Stars failed to gain unanimous approval from the Abbey Board.
Moran’s account of the famous controversy over the The Silver Tassie [66-70] is a compelling one where he insists on the role played by the professional rivalry between Yeats and O’Casey. It turned out that the former had a misgiving about writers in general who dealt with the World War (as O’Casey had done in The Silver Tassie). However, as Moran shows in a table of figures , there was probably a more practical reason behind Yeats’s rejection of the play: since the Abbey had relied on O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy for their box-office receipts, it was clearly reluctant to invest in a play that was highly unlikely to be commercially successful. Ironically the rejection of O’Casey did more “financial harm” to the Abbey than it had done to O’Casey, who finally had the play produced in London. Paradoxically, Yeats was to be a “contrarian inspiration”  for O’Casey, who continued to respect the older poet by making many intertextual allusions to his writings, in particular to Yeats’s late play Purgatory the influence of which we see in O’Casey’s play, Purple Dust.
As to the thorny question concerning the failure of the later experimental work, Moran plausibly argues that O’Casey may have been too detached and distant from the practicalities of the modern theatre-making: “the plots tend to stutter (with their)… rushed denouements, one-dimensional characters and simplistic moralizing” . The earlier success with the Abbey was partly due to the creative collaboration between actors, author and the Abbey directors. In England O’Casey had literally been in solitary confinement. Where Joyce and Beckett managed to make their exiles “work” for them, as it were, gaining a reputation for literary experimentation and innovation respectively, O’Casey’s émigré status, based in Devon as he was, could be dismissed as “retreating away from innovation into the anonymity of a conservative, English backwater” . As Moran points out, where Joyce was praised after his death in 1941 for his forensic knowledge of Dublin’s streets (and life), the living O’Casey was continually receiving criticism for being out-of-touch [Ibid.].
Moran is equally illuminating on the reasons for the success and continuing popularity of the Dublin trilogy on the Irish stage down the years. Unlike the later ideology-driven works that tended to lecture the spectator, O’Casey in the early plays managed to combine a number of literary influences that made his drama fresh and insightful . These include Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Dion Boucicault, music-hall and slapstick. Moran points to the artfulness or self-reflexivity of such re-appropriations for O’Casey “was no cut-and-paste man” . The general importance of satire is also underlined (O’Casey both satirising himself, his literary influences and his reading habits).
If O’Casey is at his best in these political plays, it is because he managed somehow to suspend his personal disregard for Irish nationalism, which had earned him the image of a historical revisionist. As a dramatist O’Casey refuses to present a demonstrably good option for his characters or, to quote Moran:
to take up arms in the cause of Irish nationalism is only to follow a path to murderous destruction. But acquiescing to the Brits shows toleration of brutality and bloodshed. How about taking the ostrich option and staying at home? Again no, the tenement life described is scarcely one of domestic contentment. Here exists poverty, family disintegration and the threat of murder arriving from the street outside. This is the terrain that the characters of the Dublin trilogy must navigate, as they search for the least-worst path through life .
The ambivalence and ambiguity of O’Casey’s anti-nationalism, or what Moran calls his “complicated and fluid relationship with nationalism” , is best glimpsed in the revisions O’Casey made to his texts, particularly to the The Plough and the Stars, a play in which O’Casey literally lampoons Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Moran shows us an O’Casey fretting about his subversive depictions of Pearse as he tried to redraft a watered-down revisions of the patriot with a view, in Moran’s terms, to de-familiarise the Pearse figure, and potentially pave the way “for a less controversial show” . In reality, none of these alterations ever survived into performance, nor are there any traces of them either in the 1926 Abbey promptbook or indeed in any printed version of the text.
Of course the antagonist in O’Casey’s ongoing battle with the powers-that-be was played by the Irish Catholic Church. The long-running feud between O’Casey and the Irish Establishment came to a head in 1958, when the dramatist decided to ban all professional productions of his work in Ireland following the Church’s opposition to his play The Drums of Father Ned being performed “uncensored” at that year’s Dublin theatre Festival. In a chapter entitled “The Church, 1946-64” [117-146], Moran revises the received views of O’Casey’s reputed anti-Catholicism that earned him in mid-century Ireland the image of “a willful controversialist, if not a downright sectarian blowhard” . This was hardly justified in Moran’s eyes, for despite his antipathy towards institutional Catholicism, O’Casey was a “deeply spiritual and inquisitive man” . Despite the protests and condemnation of the first production of The Bishop’s Bonfire (1955), O’Casey’s late works – Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), Behind the Green Curtains (1961) – had little interest in defaming the historical character of Christ. On the contrary, they “convey broadly Christian themes about the blessedness of the poor and the hypocrisy of the outwardly pious” . Moran goes to the extent of claiming that O’Casey’s judgement on institutional religion in mid-century Ireland, “also happened to be true” . This statement he justifies by jumping forward in time to contemporary Ireland and drawing a parallel with the various official enquiries that, since 2005, had exposed “the secrecy and oppression of Catholic institutions… the noxious intersection of state and clerical power that long existed in the country” . If this was all prefigured by O’Casey some fifty years previously, surprisingly Moran does not mention the more obvious affinity between what was probably O’Casey’s most religiously provocative play, Within the Gates (1933) – a play about an unrepentant prostitute whose real father is a bishop – and the numerous sex scandals and controversies that have plagued the Irish Church ever since the 1980s.
What is particularly engaging about this book is the balance its author strikes between defending O’Casey against would-be detractors and yet taking appropriate critical distance when necessary. For example, in addition to O’Casey’s self-sponsored childhood myth of poverty, already alluded to, Moran is also alert to what he calls the “self-defeating aspects” of O’Casey’s personality, an instance of this being his homophobia. This is all the more paradoxical, notes Moran, given the fact that O’Casey “had always believed that all men are created equal, and remained genuinely outraged by political and social injustices across the globe” . Another disservice that O’Casey does to himself was his (unfortunate) ability to maintain grudges against those critics and reviewers whom he felt had wronged him. This was to become one of the defining features of his later career . Moran is equally critical of what he terms O’Casey’s “unquestioning dogmatism” in relation to the USSR: “the most morally repugnant moment in O’Casey’s playwriting occurs in Oak Leaves and Lavender” , a play written in 1946 in which O’Casey championed the role played by the Red Army in the Second World War while totally ignoring the part played by the United States. By Moran’s own admission “it is difficult to derive pleasure from a play that repeatedly uses the gulag and concentration camp as a source of easy punch lines” . Even if O’Casey eventually became strongly pro-Israeli, we are told that he never changed his view of the USSR nor withdrew his support for Stalin.
In “Critical Responses, 1923-2013”, the final chapter of part one, Moran sketches out O’Casey’s global or international importance [176-185], reminding us that the work has already been translated into 26 languages, from Afrikaans to Chinese. Perhaps it is only in these pages that one gets a clearer sense of O’Casey’s shifting legacy given his considerable popularity in the non-anglophone world. Where Irish critics continued to write scathing reviews of O’Casey’s polemical plays essentially due to his pro-Communist and anti-Vatican views, the same author was to find an enthusiastic reception not only in the former Communist countries but also in former West Germany and France of the 1960s. O’Casey’s success in France was due to the décentralisation movement where, under the auspices of André Malraux, more and more regional theatre companies were encouraged to produce original plays, . Moran stresses the fact that such international perspectives and multiple audiences point to a different and more complex kind of O’Casey, whose international legacy was no longer finally based on the Dublin trilogy but on a wider body of works including the one-act musical-hall sketch, The End of the Beginning, (1930) a play that strangely had hardly ever been seen on the English-speaking stage, although Beckett, for one, had expressed his admiration .
The general consensus in “New Perspectives” is that O’Casey’s voice was an innovative one and still resonates in and for our current age whether in relation to the requirements of the modern director [Hynes : 201-213] or to issues such as postcolonialism [Merriman : 214-226] or social class [Murphy : 227-238]. In a way the “global” O’Casey evoked by Moran at the end of “Critical Responses, 1923-2013” very much mirrors and is mirrored by Victor Merriman’s view of O’Casey’s plays as being internationalist rather than nationalist. The Dublin writer’s dramaturgical journey from the early trilogy to a play like Red Roses for Me (1942) was “not as a decline from fine craftsmanship into ‘experimentalism’, but as a broad trajectory from Melodrama, through Expressionism, toward a developed postcolonial aesthetic of Disrupted Realism ”, states Merriman. Indeed, as Moran adds, right from the start, O’Casey “proved himself an avowed experimenter” .
In conclusion, James Moran’s study confidently reaffirms the vital legacy of Seán O’Casey who “remains central to Irish drama and to Irish identity in a way that is true of no other playwright” . His best-known work has consistently been a touchstone for Irish directors and actors, and is likely to continue to do so. Garry Hynes in her conclusion maintains that “O’Casey is a writer who needs a new assessment” . James Moran’s elegant study has provided just such a necessary assessment.
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