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Studies on Sean O'Casey

Jacqueline Genet
Wynne Hellegouarc’h

The theatre of Sean O'Casey in the Context of Modernism (Sean O'Casey between Bertold Brecht and Samuel Beckett)

Anna Angela M. Albino

Texte intégral

1A large number of critics who have tried to penetrate the complexity of Sean O'Casey's theatrical works have been fighting against a matter which seems to reject every easy outline and label. They seem to be shaped by a deep will to experiment which leads the author to embrace theatrical forms and techniques very different from each other. This is why almost all of his plays appear full of contradictory elements and tendencies, traumatic breaks and bold innovations.

2After his "explosion" at the Abbey Theatre of Dublin with the vigorous realism of his trilogy, O'Casey abandons this reassuring haven – it was probably too reassuring for his restlessness – and begins his collection of "experimental" plays, starting with The Silver Tassie (1929) and going on with Within the Gates (1910), The Star Turns Red, 1940, Red Roses For Me (1912)...

3Naturalism, Realism, Symbolism, Expressionism and also Theatre of the Absurd: these are a few of the labels used to describe O'Casey's later works, in which all these tendencies – and possibly many others – appear in a fascinating mixture. In this context The Silver Tassie seems to embody the symbolic role of a turning-point; there is no doubt that it is a break with the realism of the previous plays; nonetheless, it represents only a step in the continuous development of O'Casey's theatrical research. It is worth noting that The Silver Tassie creates a kind of bridge between the small but active stage of the "provincial" Abbey Theatre and the large and varied stage of the European theatre. In its complexity of content and form, The Silver Tassie throws O'Casey into the main stream of the experimental theatre, more precisely, in the Modernist movement.

4In the context of the most vital forces and tendencies of the European theatre, the later plays by O'Casey find their proper place and it is in this context that their originality will emerge in all their expressive force. In this perspective O'Casey's position seems to be halfway between the two great lines of development of the Modernist theatre: the socially committed theatre by Bertold Brecht and the Theatre of the Absurd by Samuel Beckett. On one side, there is the stage of Brecht's theatre on which the external reality is still a rationally knowable object and the theatre offers the proper means to study it. On the other side, there is the bareness of Beckett's stage with its disintegrated, meaningless, "absurd" reality. On the borderline, between these two dimensions, are O'Casey's later plays, modelled on his incapacity for a final choice: the author is still trying to assert the rationality of the objective world while the signs of disintegration are getting more and more visible and menacing.

5This oscillation between Reality and Absurdity, Order and Chaos, is realized through dramatic forms in which Brechtian elements – particularly those taken from the expressionist theatre – take a new form. This is what happens – on the structural level – in plays such as The Silver Tassie, Within the Gates, Red Roses for Me, in which O'Casey uses the stationendrama technique with its "tableaux" and Its ritual. The Act II or The Silver Tassie offers a significant and powerful example of this technique with its ritualized action, developed through stylized scenes as shown in the following stage direction:

  • 1 S. O'Casey, The Silver Tassie, London, Macmillan, 1928, p.55.

The sky has become vexed with a crimson glare, mixed with yellow streaks, and striped with pillars of rising brown and black smoke.1

6As in Brecht's plays, O'Casey's use of ritual dramatizes a narrative, non-dramatic, parabolic process, but unlike Brecht, the Irish playwright creates a dramatic structure which retains the orthodox form of the Stationendrama only on a purely formal level. This element marks a peculiar difference between the two playwrights: while Brecht uses his ritual as a dynamic force, representing a "real" changing of state through the dramatic action, O'Casey's ritual expresses a stasis more than an action. While Brecht's ritual dramatizes a linear, progressive development of individual and social consciousness, the ritual used by O'Casey in The Silver Tassie – as well as in Within the Gates – reveals that the situation changes only on a very superficial level, remaining unchanged in the deepest centres of consciousness. On this occasion the starting point is not dissimilar from the final one and the ritual performed on the stage is only a fictitious action, a parody. The "pagan" communion of Harry Heegan during the grotesque dance in Act IV of The Silver Tassie shows how this parodical use of ritual is brought to its climax:

  • 2 S. O'Casey, The Silver Tassie, op.cit., p.81.

Harry; Red wine first, Jessie, to the passion and the power of the pain of life, an' then a drink of white wine to the melody that is in them all!2

7In this perspective, the ritual used by O'Casey seems to be halfway between the Brechtian linearity and the Becket-tian circularity, indicating the staais of a situation in the casual and potentially endless iteration of the same action (non action). The circular structure of Waiting for Godot (1954, Play (1964), Krapp's Last Tape (1951), Rockaby (1981), may be seen as the triumph of the ritual deprived of any development and reduced to mere iteration of a meaningless, fragmented action.

8The increasing process of loss of meaning appears clearly if we compare the use of characterization in the plays of the three authors.

9The escape from the realistic characterization of the trilogy leads O'Casey toward an increasing stylization, getting closer sometimes to the "epic" characters of Brecht, more often to the "puppets" without identity of Beckett. This process begins with the trilogy, In which the realism of Nora Clitheroe and Juno Boyle – women and mothers of "flesh and blood" – is rather dissolved through symbolic elements. This escape from realistic types will lead O'Casey to the "one-dimensional" stylized figures in The Silver Tassie – Mrs. Heegan, Mrs. Foran, Jessie – or to the expressionistic, symbolic characters in Within the Gates.

10There is no doubt that the evolution from the realistic characters towards the personification, the type, the symbol, the mask of O'Casey's later plays, may pass through some Brechtian characters such as Pelagea Vlassova, Mutter Courage, Frau Carrar, in which the symbolic value enriches the individual characters. Brecht creates a balance between strong realism and symbolic stylization, representing his characters through a few elementary components, as in the following example taken from The Mother (1932):

  • 3 Bertold Brecht, The Mother, stage direction used for a production of the Theatre Union, New York, i (...)

Scene I: It is early morning in the kitchen and living room of Pelagea Vlassova. The Mother is cooking soup for her son. 3

  • 4 Bertold Brecht, The Mother, op.cit., p.872.

Scene II: Picture of four poor women of different nations including Negro and Chinese with caption: In every country of the world there are women like Pelagea Vlassova.4

11In the same direction, the characters in the later plays by O'Casey are often fixed, stylized characters like the "hero" in The Silver Tassie, Harry Heegan, described in the stage direction of Act. I as follows:

  • 5 S. O'Casey, The Silver Tassie, op.cit., p.25.

He is twenty three years of age, tall, with the sinewy muscles of a manual worker made flexible by athletic sport... He isn't naturally stupid; it is the stupidity of persons in high places that has stupefied him...5

12To create this kind of character both O'Casey and Brecht use the same theatrical tradition: the medieval Morality and Mystery plays – often elaborated through the expressionist lesson – and the "popular" theatre of comedy, farce, music-hall.

13In the Increasing loss of the unity of the individual self, the characters of Brecht's and O'Casey's theatre become fragments, anonymous masks on the Beckettian stage. Before and behind Winnie and Willie, W, Nell and Nagg, there are probably Mrs. Heegan and Sylvester, Mrs. Foran and Teddy... Before and behind Hamm and Clov there are probably Teddy and Harry, or Schweyk... Before and behind the absurd clowns of Beckett's stage, Didi and Gogo, there are probably the pathetic clowns of O'Casey's The Sliver Tassie, Sylvester and Simon, and the grotesque strolling players of Brecht's Dreigroschenoper (1928).

14This choice of a comic-grotesque characterization for figures with a fundamentally tragic attitude reveals a further affinity among Brecht, O'Casey and Beckett. The three of them express tragic themes through comedy in a rather linear sequence which begins with the Brechtian grotesque attitude and reaches the Beckettian "comic" attitude, passing through O'Casey's tragicomedy.

15Brecht uses the technique of parody and farce as a social and political weapon, as happens in plays such as Mann ist Mann (1924) and Schweyk im zwelten weltkrieg (1941); in these plays the parodical distorsion of a situation as well as of a character, reveals their tragical aspects. Brecht uses the grotesque comedy to attack a well-defined behaviour, which may be the inhuman violence of the war, the rapacity of capitalism, the alienation of man in the hostile world. What is peculiar in Brecht's use of farce and comedy is that all the targets of his comical attitude are objective, historical realities with precise political and social definition. In his use of comic elements O'Casey seems to overcome Brecht's experience. His comic attitude penetrates the surface of reality in a stronger way, revealing beyond the tragical, objective appearance, some hints of a deeper and hidden tragic reality. Act IV of The Silver Tassie offers a series of examples of this technique:

  • 6 S. O'Casey, The Silver Tassie, op.cit., p.84.

Susie: ... Teddy Foran and Harry Heegan have gone to live their own way in another world. Neither I nor you can lift them out of it... We can't give sight to the blind or make the lame walk... But we, who have come through the fire unharmed, must go on living.6

16Continuing in this direction, Beckett's plays lead this process of disintegration to its extreme limits, reaching a "land of nonsense" in which fun arises from the meaninglessness of life, and comedy – as in Waiting for Godot – is only a vain attempt to become tragedy. In this way, on Beckett's stage, we observe the triumph of Modernist tragi-comedy as defined by Flechter:

  • 7 B. Fletcher, A Student's Cuide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett, London, Faber and Faber, 1978, pp.24 (...)

The real was opposed to the illusory, the mask to the face, the stage to the auditorium, and above all the smile was opposed to the tear in that characteristically Modernist phenomenon, the grimace of tragicomedy.7

17In the "grimace of tragicomedy" is also embodied the tragic vision of human life which characterizes O'Casey's later productions, particularly The Silver Tassie. Through the distorting mirror of tragicomedy, O'Casey explores the gap between individual dimension and the external world in a way which is closer to the absurd scene of Beckett than to that of Brecht. Also if O'Casey cannot accept the final defeat of man – as continually represented on Beckett's stage – the tragicomical vision of life which he brings on the stage in The Silver Tassie is placed just before that of Beckett. If Beckett represents the "Waste Land" after the "explosion of meaning", in the triumph of chaos, O'Casey stops his description a moment before when Order and Chaos, Reality and Absurdity are still fighting for the supremacy of man. This "fight" is expressed, – in The Sliver Tassie – with a technique which may be defined – using the words of Beckett – as "knockabout":

  • 8 S. Beckett, "The Essential and the Incidental", a review of Windfalls, reprinted from The Bookman, (...)

Mr. O'Casey is a master of knockabout in this very serious and honourable sense – that he discerns the principle of disintegration in even the most complacent solidities and activates it to their explosion. This is the energy of his theatre, the triumph of knockabout in situation, in all its elements and on all its planes, from the furniture to the higher centres.8

18Following this definition. The Silver Tassie is a kind of tragicomical prologue to the Beckettian theatre in which the struggle Order-Chaos is over. In the typical Irish mixture of laugh and tear, O'Casey reveals In The Silver Tassie the Beckettian belief that:

  • 9 B. Fletcher, A Student's Guide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett, op.cit., p. 26.

To be able to laugh at our condition is the only way to set about the necessary business of bearing it.9

19In The Silver Tassie, we "laugh at our condition" when O'Casey brings on the stage the "comic couple" Sylvester and Simon, using them as puppets in a "knockabout" world. These two pathetic old clowns try to hide the tragic meaning-lessness of their lives using pantomime, music, dance, farce, puns, misunderstandings. They are tragically playing with pantomime as well as with words; let us listen to one of their parodical "poetic speeches";

  • 10 S. O'Casey, The Silver Tassie, op. cit., p. 8.

An' the hedges by the roadside standin' still in the silent cold of the air, the frost beads on the branches glistenin' like toss'd diamonds from the breasts of the stars, the quietness of the night stimulated to a full stillness...10

20Playing with the theatre – as he is doing in The Silver Tassie – O'Casey continues his difficult game: he goes on as a tightropewalker who is trembling on his rope, trying not to fall – or being unable to fall – neither in the "solid" universe or Brecht, nor In the universe of Beckett, made of fragments and ghosts.


Beckett S., "The Essential and the Incidental", a review of Windfalls, reprinted from The Bookman, London, vol. LXXXVI, 1934.

Brecht V., The Mother, In Teatro, Torino, Einaudi, 3rd. ed., 1971.

Fletcher B., A Student's Guide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett, London, Faber and Faher. 1978.

O'Casey S., The Silver Tassie, London, Macmillan, 1928.


1 S. O'Casey, The Silver Tassie, London, Macmillan, 1928, p.55.

2 S. O'Casey, The Silver Tassie, op.cit., p.81.

3 Bertold Brecht, The Mother, stage direction used for a production of the Theatre Union, New York, in Teatro, Torino, Einaudi, 3rd.ed., 1971, p.883.

4 Bertold Brecht, The Mother, op.cit., p.872.

5 S. O'Casey, The Silver Tassie, op.cit., p.25.

6 S. O'Casey, The Silver Tassie, op.cit., p.84.

7 B. Fletcher, A Student's Cuide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett, London, Faber and Faber, 1978, pp.24-25.

8 S. Beckett, "The Essential and the Incidental", a review of Windfalls, reprinted from The Bookman, London, vol. LXXXVI, 1934.

9 B. Fletcher, A Student's Guide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett, op.cit., p. 26.

10 S. O'Casey, The Silver Tassie, op. cit., p. 8.

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1988

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