23 January, 2009
Seán O'Casey was a major Irish dramatist and memoirist. A committed Irish Republican 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 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 a bog 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, being confirmed at St John The Baptist Church in Clontarf, and being an active member of Saint Barnabas until his mid-twenties, when he drifted away from the church.
O'Casey's father, Michael Casey, died when Seán was just six years of age. 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 railwayman. O'Casey worked in Easons 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, Seán and his older brother, Archie, put on performances of plays by Dion Boucicault and William Shakespeare in the family home. Seán 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 labourers 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 24 July 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 theatre and dramatist, but that 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.
The former deals with the impact 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, 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 being anti-nationalist and resulted in scenes reminiscent of the riots that greeted Synge's The Playboy of the Western World in 1907. Regardless, O'Casey gave up his job and became a full-time writer.
Juno and the Paycock was successfully filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. In 1959 O'Casey gave his blessing to a musical adaptation of the play 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 O'Casey, he, at age 79, made no effort to cross the Atlantic to contribute any input to the production or even to view it in its brief run prior to its closing. Despite general agreement on the brilliance of the underlying material, the musical has defied all efforts to mount any successful revival of it.
In 1929, W. B. Yeats rejected O'Casey's fourth play, The Silver Tassie for the Abbey. 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 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 microcosmos", like The Drums of Father Ned (1958).
In these late years, O'Casey put his creative energy into his six-volume Autobiography too.
In September 1964 at the age of 84, O'Casey died of a heart attack, in Torquay, England. He was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium.