Seán O'Casey was an Irish dramatist and memoirist. A committed socialist, he was the first Irish playwright of note to write about the Dublin working classes.
O'Casey was born at 85 Upper Dorset Street, Dublin, as John Casey, the son of Michael Casey, a mercantile clerk, and Susan Archer. His family background was "shabby genteel", and not, as often assumed, the working-class culture in which his plays are set. His parents were Protestants and he was a member of the Church of Ireland, baptized on July 28, 1880 in St. Mary's parish, confirmed at St John the Baptist Church in Clontarf, and an active member of Saint Barnabas until his mid-twenties, when he drifted away from the church.
O'Casey's father died when Seán was just six years of age, leaving a family of thirteen. The family lived a peripatetic life thereafter, moving from house to house around north Dublin. As a child, he suffered from poor eyesight, which interfered somewhat with his early education, but O'Casey taught himself to read and write by the age of thirteen.
He left school at fourteen and worked at a variety of jobs, including a nine-year period as a railway man on the GNR. O'Casey worked in Eason's for a short while, in the newspaper distribution business, but was sacked for not taking off his cap when collecting his wage packet.
From the early 1890s, O'Casey and his elder brother, Archie, put on performances of plays by Dion Boucicault and William Shakespeare in the family home. He 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. At this time, he Gaelicised his name from John Casey to Seán Ó Cathasaigh. He also learned to play the Uilleann 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. He participated in the Dublin Lockout but was blacklisted and could not find steady work for some time.
In March 1914 he became General Secretary of Larkin's Irish Citizen Army, which would soon be run by James Connolly. On 24 July 1914 he resigned from the ICA, after his proposal to deny dual membership to both the ICA and the Irish Volunteers was rejected.
In 1917, his friend Thomas Ashe died in a hunger strike and it inspired him to write. He wrote two laments: one in verse and a longer one in prose. Ballads authored around this time by O'Casey featured in the two editions of Songs of the Wren, published in 1918; these included "The Man from the Daily Mail", which, along with "The Grand Oul' Dame Britannia", became Irish rebel music staples. A common theme was opposition to Irish conscription into the British Army during the First World War.
He spent the next five years writing plays. In 1918, when both his sister and mother died (in January and September, respectively), the St Laurence O'Toole National Club commissioned him to write the play The Frost in the Flower. He had been in the St Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band and played on the hurling team, but the club declined to put the play on, out of fear that its satirical treatment of several parishioners would cause resentment. O'Casey then submitted the play to the Abbey Theatre, which also rejected it but encouraged him to continue writing. Eventually, O'Casey expanded the play to three acts and retitled it The Harvest Festival.
O'Casey's first accepted play, The Shadow of a Gunman, was performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1923. This was the beginning of a relationship that was to be fruitful for both theatre and dramatist but which ended in some bitterness.
The play deals with the impact of revolutionary politics on Dublin's slums and their inhabitants, and is understood to be set in Mountjoy Square, where he lived during the 1916 Easter Rising. It was followed by Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926). The former deals with the effect of the Irish Civil War on the working class poor of the city, while the latter is set in Dublin in 1916 around the Easter Rising. Both plays deal realistically with the rhetoric and dangers of Irish patriotism, with tenement life, self-deception, and survival; they are tragi-comedies in which violent death throws into relief the blustering masculine bravado of characters such as Jack Boyle and Joxer Daly in Juno and the Paycock and the heroic resilience of Juno herself or of Bessie Burgess in The Plough and the Stars. Juno and the Paycock became a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
The Plough and the Stars was not well received by the Abbey audience and resulted in scenes reminiscent of the riots that greeted J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World in 1907. There was a riot reported on the fourth night of the show. His depiction of sex and religion even offended some of the actors, who refused to speak their lines. The full-scale riot occurred partly because the play was thought to be an attack on the men in the rising and partly in protest in opposition to the animated appearance of a prostitute in Act 2. W. B. Yeats intervened and described the audience as "shaming themselves". The takings of the play were substantial compared with the previous week. O'Casey gave up his job and became a full-time writer.
After the incident, even though the play was well liked by most of the Abbey goers, Liam O'Flaherty, Austin Clarke and F. R. Higgins launched an attack against it in the press. O'Casey believed it was an attack on Yeats, that they were using O'Casey's play to berate Yeats.
In 1952 he appeared in a play by Irish playwright Teresa Deevy called "The Wild Goose" in which he played the part of Father Ryan. O'Casey was involved in numerous productions with the Abbey; these can be found in the Abbey Archives.
While in London to receive the Hawthornden Prize and supervise the West End production of Juno and the Paycock, O'Casey fell in love with Eileen Carey. The couple were married in 1927 and remained in London until 1938, when they moved to Totnes.
In 1928, W. B. Yeats rejected O'Casey's fourth play, The Silver Tassie for the Abbey. It was an attack on imperialist wars and the suffering they cause. The Abbey refused to perform it. The premier production was funded by Charles B. Cochran, who took only eighteen months to put it on stage. It was put up at the Apollo Theatre but lasted for only twenty-six performances. It was directed by Raymond Massey, starred Charles Laughton and with an Act II set design by Augustus John. George Bernard Shaw and Lady Gregory had a favorable opinion of the show.
The plays O'Casey wrote after this included the darkly allegorical Within the Gates (1934), which is set within the gates of a busy city park based on London's Hyde Park. Although it was highly controversial, Eugene O'Neill responded positively to it. The play was originally going to be a film script for Alfred Hitchcock. It closed not long after opening and was another box office failure.
In the autumn of 1934, O'Casey went to the United States to visit the New York City production of Within the Gates, which he admired greatly. It was directed by actor Melvyn Douglas and starred Lillian Gish. This is when he befriended Eugene O'Neill, Sherwood Anderson and George Jean Nathan.
The Star Turns Red (1940) is a four-act political allegory in which the Star of Bethlehem turns red. The story follows Big Red (who was based on O'Casey's friend, James Larkin) who is a trade-union leader. The union takes over the unnamed country despite the ruthless efforts of the Saffron Shirts, a fascist organization openly supported by the Roman Catholic hierarchy of the country. It was staged by Unity Theatre in London during 1940 (later, in 1978 by the Abbey in Dublin).
Purple Dust (1943) follows two wealthy, materialistic English stockbrokers who buy an ancient Irish mansion and attempt to restore it with their wrong notions of Tudor customs and taste. They try to impose upon a community with vastly different customs and lifestyles that are much closer to ancient Gaelic ways and are against such false values.
The Englishmen set their opposing standards against those represented by the men employed to renovate the house. In the resulting confrontation the English are satirized and in the end disappointed when a symbolic storm destroys their dream of resettling the old into the present. The hint that is enforced by the conclusion is that the little heap of purple dust that remains will be swept away by the rising winds of change, like the residue of pompous imperialism that abides in Ireland. The show has been compared to Shaw's John Bull's Other Island, which was one of O'Casey's favorites, but aside from a few similarities, there are no real grounds for comparison.
He also penned Red Roses for Me (1943), which saw him move away from his early style in favor of more expressionistic means and overtly socialist content to his writing. It went up at Dublin's Olympia Theatre (which was the first one produced in Ireland in seventeen years). It would move on to London in 1946, where O'Casey himself was able to see it. This was the first show of his own he saw since Within the Gates in 1934.
Oak Leaves and Lavender (1945) is a propaganda play commemorating the Battle of Britain and Britain's heroism in the anti-Nazi crusade and it takes place in a manor with shadowy 18th century figures commenting on the present.
These plays have never had the same critical or popular success as the early trilogy. After the Second World War he wrote Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), which is perhaps his most beautiful and exciting work. 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).
His play The Drums of Father Ned was supposed to go up at the 1958 Dublin Theatre Festival, but the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, refused to give his blessing (it has been assumed because works of both James Joyce and O'Casey were in the festival). After Joyce's play was quietly dropped, massive changes were required for The Drums of Father Ned, a devious way to get O'Casey to drop. After this, Samuel Beckett withdrew his mime piece in protest.
In 1959, O'Casey gave his blessing to a musical adaptation of Juno and the Paycock by American composer Marc Blitzstein. The musical, retitled Juno, was a commercial failure, closing after only 16 Broadway performances. It was also panned by some critics as being too "dark" to be an appropriate musical, a genre then almost invariably associated with light comedy. However, the music, which survives in a cast album made before the show opened, has since been regarded as some of Blitzstein's best work. Although endorsed by the then 79-year-old O'Casey, he did not contribute to the production or even see it during its brief run. Despite general agreement on the brilliance of the underlying material, the musical has defied all efforts to mount any successful revival.
Also in 1959, George Devine produced Cock-a-Doodle Dandy at the Royal Court Theatre and it was also successful at the Edinburgh International Festival and had a West End run.
His eightieth birthday occurred in 1960, and to celebrate, David Krause and Robert Hogan wrote full-length studies. The Mermaid Theatre in London launched the "O'Casey Festival" in 1962, which in turn made more theatre establishments put on his works, mostly in Britain and Germany. It is in the late years that O'Casey put his creative energy into his six-volume Autobiography.
On 18 September 1964 at the age of 84, O'Casey died of a heart attack, in Torquay, Devon. He was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium.