Sean O’ Casey(1880 – 1964) was an Irish dramatist and memoirist. A committed socialist, he was the first Irish playwright of note to write about the Dublin working classes.
Of the dramatists who made vital contributions to the rise the Abbey Theatre in Ireland, Sean O’ Casey is definitely conspicuous figure. In fact, his dramatic works, coming after the first World War, constitute an important milestone in the literary history of the Abbey Theatre.
Of course, Sean O’ Casey did not write many plays. His connection with the Abbey Theatre, too, did not last long. His two important plays, produced in the Abbey Theatre, are Juno and the Paycock (1925) and The Plough and the Stars (1926). His two remarkable other plays, performed outside the Abbey Theatre, include The Silver Tassie, written in 1928, and Red Roses for Me, performed during the Second World War, 1943.
In Juno and the Paycock, the place of action is a Dublin tenement, set against the background of the civil war between the Free Staters and the Republicans. The heroine of the play, Juno Boyle, is a poor woman in financial hardship, brought about by her husband Captain Boyle’s thriftlessness and drunkenness. She is a woman of practicality and fortitude but has to suffer intensely, while her husband spends freely and piles up debts. There is a sad affair of their daughter Mary who becomes pregnant and is abandoned by her schoolmaster lover. Their son John turned one-armed and neurotic in the civil war, is shot by his own comrades as an informer. The play is all a tragedy, with the heroine, representing suffering Irish womanhood. She is left with only a poor dead son, and she takes her grief as an inevitable casualty and prays to Jesus, ‘Given us Thine own eternal love.” She comes here very close to Synge’s memorable character Maurya in Riders to the Sea.
The Plough and the Stars is, perhaps, more serious in conception. The background is here also a political-the uprising in 1916. The play depicts quite explicitly the tragic effect of fanatical nationalism in the violence it engenders. Men are shown to indulge in the reckless acts of bloodshed under patriotic instincts. Sean O’Casey shows here ironically how the hard-hearted patriotic conduct is sponsored more by ego and vanity than by good sense and noble inspiration and results in the acutely agonizing suffering for women in particular. The tone here is definitely deeply tragic.
O’Casey relationship with the Abbey Theatre came to an unfortunate end in 1928, when his expressionist drama The Silver Tassie was refused by Yeats. He went to England and lived there in exile. The Silver Tassie, performed in London, is a harrowing exposure of the evil effect of trench warfare in England and the damage done by it on human hope and happiness. This is a sort of the experimental drama with rather non-naturalistic dialogue and undramatic presentation but basically pacifist in approach and humanist in outlook.
O’ Casey’s other play, Red Roses for Me, with Dublin as the setting, is somewhat autobiographical, and the hero seems to be a self-portrait. The new expressionist technique, suggested by the German dramatists and by the American Eugene O’Neill is found employed by him, with much lesser success. The emotional spontaneity and the verbal vitality of his earlier plays are found to give way to his conventionally colourful imagination, mechanical symbolism and verbal unnaturalism of his later plays.