Juno and the Paycock
Juno and the Paycock
by Sean O’Casey
THE LITEKAftY WORK
In this tragicomedy, the Boyle family, living to the Dublin slums, is shattered by poverty, alcoholism, illegitimate pregnancy, and the Irish Civil War.
Sean O’Casey was born John Casey in 1880 in Dublin and baptized in the Church of Ireland. After the death of his father, in 1886, the family sank into the poverty of the Dublin tenements. Throughout the beginning of the twentieth century, O’Casey was politically active, becoming a nationalist, joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood (forerunner of the Irish Republican Army), and also a socialist, joining a union in 1911 and participating in a major Dublin strike of 1913. The Shadow of a Gunman was accepted for production by the Abbey Theatre in 1923. In the following year, the Abbey produced Juno and the Paycock. Though the play established his reputation in Ireland, O’Casey would ultimately find that in order to draft the plays he was interested in writing, and see them produced, he would have to leave Ireland. His next major play, The Plough and the Stars, set in the 1916 Rebellion, caused riots in Dublin, and the following play, The Silver Tassie, written in 1928 and set in World War I, was rejected by the Abbey as too experimental. By that time, O’Casey was living in England. He would be buried there in 1964. An immediate hit when performed in 1924, Juno and the Paycock remains one of O’Casey’s most popular plays; the world it gives us is “unpredictable, fickle, but surviving” (Maxwell, p. 567).
Poverty in Dublin
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the state of life in the Dublin tenements—filthy, disease-ridden, overcrowded—was appalling. From the time of the Potato Famine, in the 1840s, which devastated the rural social structure of the country, people had been leaving the rural areas, many for other countries entirely, but many others for Dublin, where they found, increasingly, little room and little work. In 1880, the year Sean O’Casey was bom, the death rate in Dublin was 44.8 per 1000, the worst in Europe—worse even than Calcutta, India, where the death rate was 37.0, or Alexandria, Egypt, where the death rate was 40.0 (Krause, p. 4). By the 1920s, at the time Juno and the Paycock is set, the situation had improved only slightly (Hughes, p. 64). F. S. L. Lyons provides some of the details:
About thirty per cent (87,000) of the people of Dublin lived in the slums which were for the most part the worn-out shells of Georgian mansions. Over 2,000 families lived in single room tenements which were without heat or light or water (save for a tap in a passage or backyard) or adequate sanitation. Inevitably, the death-rate was the highest in the country, while infant mortality was the worst, not just in Ireland, but in the British Isles. Disease of every kind, especially tuberculosis, was rife and malnutrition was endemic; it was hardly surprising that the poor, when they had a few pence, often spent them seeking oblivion through drink.
(Lyons, pp. 277-78)
O’Casey was not born in the Dublin slums, but he grew up in them and knew them well. The Boyle family in Juno and the Paycock, living a hand-to-mouth existence, subsisting more on dreams than wages, is taken from his direct experience and the lives he saw his neighbors lead.
O’Casey’s portrayal of Dublin tenement life seems to have been not merely entertaining and evocative, but accurate as well. Former residents of the slums who knew his plays often refer to them when speaking of tenement life. Patrick O’Leary, for instance, says, “I’ve absolutely no doubt that Sean O’Casey didn’t invent a single thing. All he did was keep his ears open” (Kearns, p. 143). All the key elements of Juno and the Paycock are taken directly from tenement life, at its most infamous and most stereotypical.
Captain Boyle and Joxer, for instance, illustrate one of the most conspicuous social problems of the tenements: excessive drinking. As historian Kevin C. Kearns relates, “most men drank heartily and many over-indulged, leading to deprivation at home and abuse of wife and children” (Kearns, p. 52). Mary Boyle, at the end of the play, is also not an unusual figure. She is unmarried and pregnant, in desperate trouble, and her menfolk want to throw her out of the house, a common reaction among family members to the problem of illegitimate pregnancy. At the end of the play, she is indeed going away, but, hap pily, with her mother, the strong, enduring Juno. Juno herself represents yet another well-known figure of Dublin tenement life, the mother who holds the impoverished family together. Una Shaw, who lived in the Dublin tenements near the time in which Juno is set, says, “the women were the mainstay, they were everything. They were mother, father, counselor, doctor … everything” (Kearns, p. 49).
Socialism in Dublin
The situation of the Dublin poor made the city a natural place for socialist organizing. O’Casey became a socialist early in the century. He joined the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1911, serving as the Secretary of the Women and Children’s Relief Fund in 1913 during the Dublin Lockout. He also joined the Irish Citizen’s Army, the force created by the union to protect the striking workers during the Lockout. Anxious about worker militancy, a group of employers led by the head of the Dublin United Tramways company (William Martin Murphy) had closed ranks, pressuring employees to withdraw from the union or be fired. In response, the firebrand union leader James Larkin called a strike against the Dublin United Tramways Company, after which union members were locked out of the offices of the Tramway Company as well as other enterprises—newspapers, dockyards, and building suppliers. Within a month, some 25,000 men were off work (Lyons, p. 282). In the end, management proved stronger than the unions; the strike failed after about six months, but the strikers’ protective force, the Irish Citizens’ Army (ICA), stayed vital, due in large part to Sean O’Casey, who at the time was secretary of the ICA. Irish socialism, a movement whose intent was to establish a workers’ republic, disappeared during World War I, but it resurfaced thereafter in the form of the Irish Labour Party.
In Juno and the Paycock, Mary Boyle, a factory worker, is on strike, and though the play is set a decade after the Dublin Lockout, the issues remain the same: the tenement dwellers in the play live a hand-to-mouth existence, working—when they can get work at all—under horrible conditions for tiny wages; their unions have not been strong enough to change the situation; and every day Mary spends on strike means one day less of wages coming into her impoverished home. In the Boyle family, Johnny, the son, can’t work Joxer, the father, won’t. The family is dependent on Mary’s wages and what money Juno can bring in. While Mary is on strike, the financial position of the family is especially unstable. Though O’Casey remained committed to socialist ideals, he was disappointed that the theories tended to turn into empty talk rather than into meaningful action, as illustrated in Juno by both Mary Boyle and Jerry, her first suitor.
The Irish Civil War
The background of th Irish Civil War is the Irish Revolution. In 1916, on April 24, Easter Monday, combined nationalist forces (including the Irish Volunteers, the associated Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the Irish Citizens’ Army, which by this time O’Casey had left) occupied government buildings in Dublin and in other towns throughout Ireland. Since this occupation took place while Britain was fighting World War I in Europe, the British executed the leaders as traitors in time of war. The structure of the nationalist forces was temporarily shattered, but by April 1917, it had reorganized as the Irish Republican Army. Its war against Britain continued until July 1921, when a treaty was signed, which ended the conflict with a compromise: 26 counties (today’s Ireland) would become autonomous; 6 counties (today’s Northern Ireland) would remain part of Britain. While the Republican forces that had fought against Britain were not happy with the treaty, the majority of them nevertheless saw it as the lesser of two evils, the greater evil being continued war; Dr. Patrick McCartan, for example, who would remain neutral in the Civil War that followed the signing of the Treaty, nevertheless resigned himself to it.
I see no glimmer of hope. We are presented with a fait accompli and asked to endorse it. I, as a Republican, will not endorse it, but I will not vote for chaos.
(McCartan in Neeson, p. 62)
Chaos did follow. There were outbreaks of violence in the North, and the army split. By March 1922 the Civil War had started, with the groups that splintered off from the government forces portraying themselves as “the lawful army of a sovereign republic proclaimed at Easter 1916, which [the government that signed the treaty] had betrayed” (Hughes, p. 56). In Juno and the Paycock, the pro-treaty forces, or Free State forces, are called “Staters”; the anti-treaty forces, or Republicans, are called “Diehards.”
The Civil War necessarily involved the shattering of old alliances, with former comrades turning on each other, as shown in Juno and the
CALL FOR CIVIL WAR, 26 JUNE 1922
Fellow citizens of the Irish Republics; The fateful hour has come, At the dictation of our hereditary enemy our rightful cause being treacherously assailed by recreant Irishmen. The crash of arms and the boom of artillery reverberate in this supreme test of the Nation’s destiny, Gallant soldiers of the Irish Republic stand vigorously firm in its defence and worthily uphold their noblest traditions. The sacred sprits of the Illustrious Dead are with ys in this great struggle. “Death before Dishonour,” being an unchanging principle of our national faith as It was of theirs, still inspires us to emulate their glorious effort, We, therefore, appeal to all citiiens who have withstood unflinchingly the oppression of ihe enemy during the past six years, to rally to the support of the republic and recognise that the resistance now being offered is but the continuation of the struggle that was suspended with the British, We especially appeal to our former comrades of the Irish Republic to return to that allegiance and thus guard the Nation’s honour from the infamous stigma that her som aided her foes in retaining a hateful domination over her, Confident of victory and of maintaining Ireland’s Independence this appeal is issued by the Army Executive on behalf of the Irish Republican Army.
(Poblachat na hEireann War News, 29 June 1922, in Hughes, p. 119)
Paycock by Johnny Boyle’s betrayal of his old friend and comrade Robbie Tancred. Johnny’s early faithfulness to the Republican cause has cost him an arm, and, in the 1916 Rebellion, he was shot in the hip as well. At the start of the Civil War, he stayed with the Republican forces, but he has since left and has betrayed a former comrade to the Free State troops. Before the start of the play this comrade has been murdered, which leads directly to Johnny’s own death at the close of the play. The war formally ended in May 1923, when the anti-treaty forces agreed to dump arms—significantly, not a full surrender (Hughes, p. 57). By 1924, when O’-Casey wrote Juno and the Paycock, conditions were peaceful, the Republican forces temporarily quieted, and the Irish focused on rebuilding and stabilizing the new country. The bitterness left by the Civil War remained, however, and would surface again.
Juno and the Paycock opens with Mary Boyle, the 22-year-old daughter of the family, reading the paper in the Boyle’s tenement living-room to her brother, Johnny. (The play is staged entirely in the living-room; there is one other room to the tenement dwelling, but it is offstage.) When Mary shares details from the newspaper about the death of a neighbor’s son—a former comrade of her brother Johnny—Johnny leaves in distress. By this time, Mary’s mother, Juno Boyle (the “Juno” of the title), has arrived. Mary, a factory worker, is on strike, and her father, “Captain” Boyle (the “paycock,” or “peacock,” of the title), is out of work and likely to remain so. Meanwhile, Johnny, due to wounds he received in the Easter Uprising, is unable to work.
Mary’s suitor, Jerry Devine, a socialist, arrives with news of a possible job for the Captain, but on hearing her suitor arriving, Mary leaves. In a humorous scene, the Captain and his best buddy, Joxer (whom Juno considers a particularly bad influence on Captain Boyle) arriving, and Juno hides herself. The Captain and Joxer are interrupted in their quest for food (“Ah, a cup o’ tay’s a darlin’ thing, a daarlin’ thing—the cup that cheers”) when Juno reveals herself (Juno, p. 209). At this point, Joxer and the Captain lie about trying to find work; Joxer subsequently leaves. Juno and the Captain bitterly discuss the Captain’s inability to find work while he is getting drunk in the pub. In comes Jerry Devine to inform the Captain of the job prospect. Mary appears, and it becomes clear that she is seeing another man. All leave, except for the Captain, who begins to eat the breakfast he proudly refused to consume earlier, when he was annoyed at Juno for berating him about his shiftlessness. Joxer returns, whereupon he and the Captain eat and discuss, with great boastfulness and inaccuracy, Irish politics and religion. When Juno reenters, the men hide the dishes, and Joxer sneaks out the window. Mary returns with Charlie Bentham, an Englishman, who has a copy of the last will and testament of Captain Boyle’s cousin. The cousin has left all his goods “to be divided between my two first and second cousins” (Juno, p. 223); half of the property will amount to between £1500 and £2000, a fortune, so financially, at least, things seem to be looking up for the Boyles at the end of Act One.
Act Two opens in the same living room. Although it is only two days after the action of the first act, there are more items, especially garish ones, around the room. Captain Boyle is sleeping on the sofa but pretends, when Joxer enters, to be working on papers. They discuss the Boyle finances, which appear to now include a vast and complex fortune. Juno and Mary arrive with a gramophone. It becomes clear that all the new furniture and knickknacks have been purchased on credit, on the strength of the cousin’s will. Johnny enters; he is moody and wan, and we learn that he has not been sleeping. When Charlie Bentham walks in, the Captain tries to impress him with misunderstood bits of economic news. Mary enters, and she and Juno pour out tea. It becomes obvious that Mary and Bentham are romantically interested in each other. Bentham discusses his philosophy; he’s a Theosophist, he says, a term that means nothing to his listeners, even though he helpfully explains that he believes in an “all-pervading Spirit—the Life-Breath” (Juno, p. 228). There is a discussion about religion; when ghosts are mentioned, Johnny turns pale and leaves. He screams from the room offstage and reenters, having seen the ghost of Robbie Tancred, the dead comrade mentioned at the beginning of the play. There follows an amusing party. Mrs. Madigan, one of the neighbors, comes in, and the company drinks whiskey. There are Irish songs, one sung by Mary and her mother and one attempted by Joxer, though he cannot finish it, since he forgets the words. Mrs. Tancred—the mother of the dead comrade—comes downstairs with other neighbors. Entering the Boyle rooms, she keens for her son, and the mourners leave. The company discusses the tragedy. Juno explains that Robbie and Johnny had been good friends in the Republican force, but Johnny denies that they were ever close. Next Juno enumerates the many dead and wounded sons and husbands of neighbors and friends. The Captain recites a maudlin poem, then plays a record on the gramophone. Needle Nugent, the tailor, objects. Robbie Tancred’s funeral is passing outside the window, and playing a record at this time, says Nugent, is in poor taste. All the company but Johnnie goes to the window to watch the funeral, then almost everyone exits to the street. Johnny has been left alone in the room; interrupting his solitude, a young man enters and informs Johnny that he must go to a Battalion Staff meeting in two nights to answer questions about the death of Robbie Tancred. Johnny refuses, saying he has done his share in getting wounded: “I’ve lost me arm, an’ me hip’s desthroyed so that I’ll never be able to walk right agen! Good God, haven’t I done enough for Ireland?” (Juno, p. 238).
Act Three is set two months later. Mary is sitting, dejected. In fact, Juno is about to take Mary to the doctor because is so wan and depressed. As Juno readies herself, she asks Mary when she last heard from Bentham. A month earlier, we learn. They leave, while the Captain remains offstage in the next room. Joxer and Nugent, the tailor, enter and discuss the Boyles’ finances. The family has been buying a great deal on credit, but has paid nothing off. Nugent asks the Captain, still offstage, for some of the money owed on his new clothes. The Captain not only refuses to pay, but he asks for more credit. Unwilling to give him any, Nugent leaves with the Captain’s new suit. Joxer steals a bottle of stout. When the Captain comes into the living room, Joxer pretends not to know anything about the previous exchange with the tailor and blames the disappearance of the stout on Nugent. The neighbor Mrs. Madigan comes in, asking for some money that the Boyles owe her. Refused payment, she takes the gramophone and leaves. Joxer departs too, after which Johnny and a solemn-looking Juno return, separately. Mary is pregnant, and Bentham, the father, has disappeared. The Captain and Johnny both take this as a personal affront and demand that Mary be thrown out of the house. At this point, the Captain admits that he is not going to receive any money from his deceased relative. The will said “first and second cousins,” but it did not specify the two people meant. Now cousins are coming out of the woodwork. There will be no money once everything is divided up, yet the Captain has been buying more and more on credit, even though he knows the family cannot pay the bills. He leaves to get drunk, and some furniture removal men arrive to confiscate their wares. Mary comes home, and Jerry Devine enters, telling her that he will take her back, though he retracts the offer when he discovers that she is pregnant. Afterwards Johnny berates Mary, and she runs out. The play winds down to a near finish. First, the votive candle for the Virgin expires and Johnny panics, with just cause, since two members of the IRA come to drag him away for betraying his comrade Robbie Tancred to the Free State forces. Then the curtain falls. It rises again on a mostly empty living room, the furniture having been confiscated. Mary and Juno are there, awaiting news of Johnny. Word finally arrives that he has been found dead. Juno prays for an end to hatred in the country, and she and Mary leave to identify the body and start a new life with Juno’s sister. Afterward Captain and Joxer wander in drunk, wondering what happened to the furniture. The play ends with their maudlin ramblings about the state of Ireland and the world in a scene both hilarious and appalling: “Irelan’ sober . is Ire-Ian’… free,” Boyle manages to say, observing, “… th’ whole worl’s . in a terr … ible state o’ chassis” (Juno, p. 254).
The foundation of the action in Juno and the Paycock is betrayal: Johnny’s betrayal of
B efore she and Mary leave to start a new life, with the baby that, though it will have no father, will have two mothers, Juno delivers a now-famous prayer:
Mother o” god, Mother o’ god, have pity on us all! Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin, son was riddled with bullets Sacred Heart o’ jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdhern hate, an’ give us Thine own eternal love!
(Jumo p. 253)
his comrade Robbie Tancred; the Captain’s betrayal of his family, financially and emotionally; Bentham’s betrayal of the pregnant Mary. All these betrayals intertwine and magnify each other, but the betrayals of the Civil War are the background of the play that the author referred to as a play about Johnny Boyle (Fallon, p. 19). At the time when the play was written, Ireland was trying to recover from the damage done by the Revolution (1917-21) and the Civil War (1922-24). Though there had of course been much physical damage done in the wars, the longest lasting damage was the legacy of bitterness left by the Civil War. A civil war in itself necessitates violence turned against fellow citizens, and in the case of the Irish Civil War, violence was turned against former comrades, as the military forces that had fought for Ireland in the Revolution split into those willing to accept the 1921 Treaty with Britain and those unwilling to accept it. In the Revolution, horrific crimes had been committed against the people, by both Irish forces and British forces, but the Black-and-Tans (British mercenaries brought in during 1920 to reinforce the police force) were much more feared than the Irish forces of the IRA. Also, the war had been fought against a distinct enemy, Britain. But the Civil War involved Irishmen fighting Irishmen. The horrific crimes committed against soldiers and civilians were entirely the doings of the Irish themselves. The Free State imprisoned men who had fought to create it; the Republicans killed men alongside whom they had fought a year before. This occurred at the highest levels of the government, as well as at grass-root levels. Kevin O’Higgins, for instance, Minister of Home Affairs for the new government, had Rory O’Connor, the best man at his wedding, executed in one of the Free State reprisals (Lyons, p. 487). It was a humiliating situation, with very little moral high ground.
When O’Casey wrote Juno and the Paycock, the nation as a whole was pulling itself together. The new government had to be stabilized, buildings reconstructed, lives refocused. But at the same time that the Irish focused on the rebuilding process, the horror of the Civil War was still fresh in their minds. Johnny’s fate—being dragged off to be shot, for betraying a former IRA comrade—was one that the audience and actors had known well, either from firsthand experience or from stories circulating throughout Dublin.
O’Casey’s disgust at these betrayals is especially clear in that the reason Johnny has betrayed Robbie Tancred is never clear in the play. Tan cred had been his neighbor, a boyhood friend, and a comrade-in-arms in the IRA after the treaty was signed. By the time of the play, not long after the civil war begins (the play is set in 1922, the same year the war started), Johnny has left the IRA—a source of satisfaction to his mother, who does not like his involvement in the violent politics of the day. But we never learn why he has left. And we never leam why, in the process of leaving the IRA, he betrayed Tancred. In any case, he did; and so two young men are dead at the end of the play. It is vital to the drama that Johnny’s betrayal of Tancred seems to make no sense. The violence is senseless. The betrayal seems senseless. Johnny shatters himself—long before the IRA shows up at the door he is clearly in grave emotional trouble. He becomes a powerful symbol of the horror of civil war.
Sources and literary context
For the poverty-stricken family in Juno and the Pay cock, O’Casey drew on the poverty-stricken Dublin he grew up in; his source for the pattern of betrayal in the play, and especially the betrayal of a former comrade, was the civil war the country had just endured. W. B. Yeats urged O’Casey to write about what he knew, and in the end his finest plays for the Abbey Theatre were grounded in realism.
After Yeats suggested to him that he write about the life of the Dublin slums, O’Casey wrote The Shadow of a Gunman, which was accepted without revision (other than that the title had been changed). The next year, Juno and the Pay-cock appeared and was a great success. O’Casey and the Abbey Theatre both benefited from their connection. There would be riots in 1926 when his play The Plough and the Stars was produced, and in 1928 his association with the Abbey Theatre would be severed, when his experimental play The Silver lassie was rejected by Yeats. However, O’Casey made his reputation at the Abbey Theatre and wrote his best known plays for its company; and the staging of his plays there gave the theater its first wildly popular, sellout performances.
The subject matter of Juno and the Paycock was somewhat unusual for the Abbey, however. True, the realism of Juno was in large part common to the Abbey plays of the early twentieth century. While many Abbey plays dealt with themes connected to either the mythological underpinnings of cultural nationalism (Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand, for instance, or Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows), others concerned the Irish political situation. One example is Yeats’s early play, Cathleen ni Houlihan (performed in 1902); others were Lady Gregory’s Rising of the Moon (in 1907) and O’Casey’s first produced play, The Shadow of a Gunman (in 1923). And, though there was considerable pressure on the Abbey Theatre to produce plays that portrayed the Irish in a positive way, the company had produced plays with questionable characters—the riots which had broken out in 1907 at the opening of Synge’s Playboy ofthe Western World (also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times) were a reaction to its “supposed defamation of the peasantry’s moral and linguistic purity” (Maxwell, p. 563). But only Juno and the Paycock dealt with the Irish Civil War, so soon on its heels. For a brief time, its negative view of both Irish politics and Irish morality was not only tolerable but welcomed. To be sure, other writers addressed the Civil War at the time. Yeats, for instance, wrote “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” first published in The Dial, in January of 1923; but The Dial was a literary magazine published in America. Also, Frank O’Connor would deal with the Civil War in some of the short stories contained in his collection, Guests of the Nation, published in 1931. But Juno and the Paycock is unique in that it addressed the Civil
O’CASEY DESCRIBES A CIVIL WAR BETRAYAL
Many of O’Casey’s friends remembered his retelling of the stories he heard of the atrocities of the civil war, They affected him strongly, especially the stories of comrades killing other comrades. Later, in his autobiographies, he mentions those terrible years and, in his autobiographies, he mentions one of the stories. In this excerpt, Lanehin, an IRA member, has bombed a house where Free state troops are quartered and has been captured by Colonel Clonervy, who had been “Sergeant of his company when they had both fought the Tans”:
He advanced with his two men towards Lanehin; advanced without a word, till they were so close, l&nehin fancied he felt their breaths tickling his cheeks. They stood as they had satin a closer semicircle, staring curiously at him. He stared back at them for a little; dropped his gaze; lifted his head again, knowing not what to do, for his mind overflowed with prayer…
—I surrendher, he said plaintively at last; what are you going to do with me? I surrrendher.
—A wise thing to do, said one of the civilian-clad men.—After ail, went on the frightened man, there wasn’t a lot of damage done…
—I’m an old comrade of yours, Mick the young man pleaded…
—Jesus! whimpered the half-dead tad, yous wouldn’t shoot an old comrade, Mick!
The Colonel’s arm holding the gun shot forward suddenly, the muzzle of the gun, tilted slightly upwards, splitting the tad’s lips and crashing through his gun, tilted slightly upwards, splitting the lad’s lips and crashing through his chattering teeth.
—Be Jasus! we would, he said, and then he pulled the trigger.
(O’Casey, Inishfallen, pp. 142-44)
War so immediately after the war ended, and in so public a fashion.
As has been mentioned, Juno and the Paycock was an immediate success. Its original run of a week was extended for another week, the first time such a thing had happened in the history of the Abbey Theatre. The company knew by the dress rehearsal how good it was; after hearing Juno’s prayer, spoken after the death of her son Johnny, for the Lord to “take away this murdherin’ hate, an’ give us Thine own eternal love,” Lady Gregory told Yeats, “this is one of the evenings at the Abbey that makes me glad to have been born” (Cowasjee, pp. 51-52). The reviewer for the Freeman’s journal (4 March 1924) would write:
AN ACTOR DISCUSSES THE WAY
Gabriel Fallon, the Abbey Theatre actor who played Ben-tham In the first production, describes the rehearsals for the play and its production, in his book concerning Nte friendship with Sean G’Casey, According to Fallow the first read-through was hardly promising; the company thoyght they had a failure on their hands:
We could make nothing of the reading of funo and ttw Pay-cock and it was called. It seemed to be a strange baffling mix, ture of comedy arid tragedy; and none of us could say, with wy certainty, whether or might it would stand up on the stage…. All were agreed that the title of the play was not a good one and that the dialogue written for the part of jerry Devlne, which wns to be played by the manly forthright aictor P. J. Car, olan, was possibly the most stilted ever written in the history of rite Abbey Theatre, There was a generat feefing that the play lacked form, that it wm much too “bitty,” that the mixtwe of tragedy and comedy “wouid not go, and that the author of The &tfman might weft have overshot his mark,
(Fallon, p. 19)
No one who saw the Shadow of a Gunman will ever forget its strong ironic bite. Here we have that same irony, centrifugal and indiscriminating as to character, but with a finer point. If the point is finer, however, the thrust is deeper. In the last act, touching the vitals, it becomes unbearable.
(Freeman’s Journal in Cowasjee, p. 43)
Its brilliant combination of horrible tragedy and hilarious comedy precisely caught the mood of the Dublin citizens. As O’Casey’s friend Joseph Holloway put it, the play was “backgrounded by the terrible times we have just passed through, but his characters are so true to life and humorous that all swallow the bitter pill of fact that underlies both pieces” (Harrington, p. 494). But there would be a limited time when O’Casey could be presented without trouble in Ireland, since the mood would shift quickly. Some hint of the future trouble that O’Casey would run into with The Plough and the Stars surfaced when the Abbey Theatre took the show to Cork, where it had to be performed in a bowdlerized version, with every reference to religion expunged and every mention of sex cleaned up.
Even the beautiful and poignant prayer spoken by Mrs. Tancred and Juno Boyle, one of the most important speeches in the play, was cut out; and to avoid the undesirable fact that an Irish girl had been seduced, albeit by an Englishman, some dialog was added to indicate that Bentham had married Mary Boyle before he deserted her.
(Krause, p. 39)
The main problem in Cork had to do with the sexuality in the play, not the politics. The next year, the play opened in London, where it was again successful; in London, neither the sexuality nor O’Casey’s bitter view of Irish politics was a problem. Reviewing the first London production for the Sunday Times (November 16, 1925), James Agate applauded the play’s finish:
There are some tremendous moments in this piece, and the ironic close—in which the drunken porter returns to his lodging unconscious of his son’s death, daughter’s flight to river or streets, and wife’s desertion—is the work of a master.
(Agate, p. 77)
The next year, 1926, the play won the Hawthorn-den prize in London, for the finest work of the previous year by a new writer. In 1930, Alfred Hitchcock would direct a movie version, which would in short order be burned in the streets of Limerick by Irish nationalists; but by then, O’Casey had moved to England.
But at the dress rehearsal, the play hit its mark for Fallen and the others in the theater:
I sat there stunned. So, indeed, so far as I could see, did Robinson, Yeats and Lady Gregory. Then Yeats ventured an opinion. He said that the play, particularly in its final scene, reminded him of a Dostoievsky novel. Lady Gregory turned to him and said: “You know, Willie, you never read a novel by Dostoievsky.” And she promised to amend this deficiency by sending him a copy of The Idiot. I turned to O’Casey and I found I could only say to him: “Magnificent, Sean, magnificent.” Then we all quietly went home.
(Fallen, p. 22)
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