Sean O'Casey, Former Manual Laborer, Declared the Greatest Dramatist Since Synge


This article was originally published in Theatre Magazine, Vol. 43, No. 4. Ed. Arthur Hornblow. New York: Theatre Magazine Company, April 1926. pp. 9, 58, 62.

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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...

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