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Studies on Sean O'Casey

Jacqueline Genet
Wynne Hellegouarc’h

Innovation and experiment in the theatre of Sean O'Casey

Siga Asanga

Texte intégral

  • 1 D.E.S. Maxwell, A Critical History of Modern Irish Drama 1891-1980, (London: Cambridge University (...)
  • 2 Ibid. pp. 109-110.

1The drama of Sean O'Casey, especially the plays written while he lived in England, shows the playwright's constant engagement to bring new life and new perceptions into the theatre. Yet it has been suggested, quite understandably, that "O'Casey's first three plays are his best" while the "subsequent plays flounder – in restless, fascinating experiment". The reasons offered to account for this break in O'Casey's career are that not only did his "leaving Dublin to live in England" compel him to abandon "his familiar Urban Muse"1 it also deprived him of the continual practical experience provided by the Abbey Theatre. The reading of O'Casey's drama which regards the latter plays as merely experimental work, in a pejorative sense, work which lacks a controlling design and vision, concludes that O'Casey was "perhaps distracted by the glamour of experiment from the essential problem of sustaining a dramatic language".2

  • 3 Eric Bentley, In Search of Theatre (New York: Alfred A. Knopf', 1953), p.321.

2I think that the problem does not lie with O'Casey's art, but is contained in the conventions of realistic or naturalistic acting. Sean O'Casey had introduced, as early as the first three Dublin plays, non-naturalistic techniques like mime, parody, symbol and song in his plays. In the latter plays he invigorated the stage, but in a crusading manner, with distancing effects with the aim of fragmenting the "frame of more or less logical appearances"3 of the naturalistic style in the theatre.

  • 4 David Krause, "The Principle of Comic Disintegration" in James Joyce Quarterly, VIII (1970), p. 6 (...)

3In these plays, it is evident that O'Casey is very much alive to the theatre's ways and means; the profuse use of devices, objects, idioms drawn from folklore is no aberration, rather it is part of O'Casey's larger design to reflect in a comprehensive way on the need for the theatre to renovate itself. O'Casey also uses the theatre to demonstrate that this process of self-retrieval need not end on the stage but can occur in the lives of individuals as well as In the life of society as a whole. In doing so, O'Casey begins by dislocating existing logical structures in order that the "pull of life" may assert itself.4 O'Casey's theatre is experimental therefore in being ahead of its time, in anticipating avant-garde and absurdist theatre, rather than in being entrapped in the ostensible conventions of realism in the theatre.

  • 5 Katharine Worth, The Irish Drama of Europe from Yeats to Beckett (London: The Athlone Press, 1978) (...)

4What has been repellent about realism as a mode of representing life in the theatre is not only its plainness and monotony but also its contraction of human vision. W.B. Yeats's experiments with Noh dramatic form is part of the effort to arrest the attenuation of man's vision of his own place in the Universe. Yeats's use of mythic archetypes, ritual, symbols and mask idioms anticipated much of the desire to enlarge the range of human experience in the theatre of Sean O'Casey.5

  • 6 Michael OhAodha, Theatre in Ireland (London: Basil Blackwell, 1974) p.77.

5The special place which O'Casey occupied in the Irish theatre was largely responsible for the combative attitude which he adopted in his effort to inject new life into the theatre. O'Casey had entered the theatre when the "artless impulsiveness" of the actors of the Abbey Theatre demonstrated "the possibilities of naturalistic acting better than any other company". The actors were praised for being able to "stand stock still", the speaker of the moment being allowed only "a little gesture". In fact, a "little natural clumsiness" produced a "delightful effect of spontaneity".6 But in the plays of Sean O'Casey, including the Dublin plays, the exploration of human motives and actions is intangibly fleeting and often bewildering.

  • 7 Michael OhAodha, Theatre in Ireland (London: Basil Blackwell, 1974), p.112.

6While O'Casey accused his contemporaries of "building little worlds of wallpaper, and hiding striding life behind it all"7 he set out to put on the stage a comprehensive vision of reality:

  • 8 Robert Hoogan and Sven Eric Mölln, eds., Drama: The Major Genres, An Introductory Critical Antholo (...)

... the time has passed for a drama to devote Its expression to one aspect of life alone, and to consider that aspect of life as dominant for the time the play takes to unfold itself... Consistency of mood and manner isn't always, indeed not even often, found in life, and why should it then be demanded of the play?8

  • 9 Ibid. p. 340.

7In revolting against the "sameness of tens of thousands of realistic or naturalistic plays that have gone before", O'Casey "shows life on the stage" in its "flashes or light and colour", hoping, I think, to ingest new lire into the theatre. "Dramatists... must change, must experiment, must develop their powers, or try to, if the drama is to live".9.

  • 10 cf. David Krause, p.5: "the anarchic spirit of knock about comedy... inspired antics... This is th (...)

8Experimentation becomes an essential part of the theatre in its continual endeavour to renew itself. O'Casey's theatre is animated therefore by a pervading sense of life which asserts itself in individuals as well as in the group; and whenever this "power, the joy, the pull of life", which is often repressed, erupts, its presence is embodied in acts of anarchic inversions, bewildering pranks and general disorderliness, producing a profusely, lively and vitally engaging theatre.10

  • 11 Eric Bentley, In Search of Theatre (New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). p. 321.
  • 12 Ronald Ayling, ed., Seven Plays or Sean O'Casey, Selected, with an introduction and notes by Ronal (...)

9O'Casey employs myth, ritual, dream, fantasy, parody and caricature to evoke multiple levels of experience, casting aside the "grasp of psychology and idea... urbanity and pace... colloquial tone and realistic11 appearance. Even in the early plays, O'Casey already shows that In spite of the precarious nature of city life, his people can still "feel the merry motion of dance".12

  • 13 Christopher Innes, Holy Theatre: Ritual and the Avant Garde (London: Cambridge University Press, 1 (...)
  • 14 Robert Hogan et al, eds., Drama; The Major Genres, p.340. The Silver Tassie was presented at the A (...)

10In order to evoke multiple-level effects, O'Casey also uses details, a large quantity of disparate objects, colour and light, sound, song and dance. The technique is directed at what Christopher Innes In another context describes as the "reasoned derangement of senses".13 This dislocation of rational structures is subversive in its intent since the main targets of its attack are existing institutions, beliefs, organised religion and other ideals considered to be repressive. It was this "new aspect of play writing which puzzled" audiences in Dublin in 1929, provoking them to anger and tears when The Silver Tassie was revived at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre in 19'I7.14

  • 15 Theatre in Ireland, p.115.

11I have dwelt extensively on the point of innovation and experiment in order to ascertain as Michael OhAodha has noted that "there is the danger that the genius of O'Casey the dramatist... may be obscured by an approach which pays due attention to everything but the plays themselves".15 In the discussion of the plays that follows it will be evident that in O'Casey's theatre all the life-denying institutions, the soul-deadening conventions, fostering social and cultural sterility and poverty are not essential but merely Incidental, contingent, to the individual as well as the group consciousness of itself. That is why O'Casey's theatre consistently enacts the possibility for the individual as well as the collectivity to assert the power of the greater life.

  • 16 Seven Plays by Sean O'Casey, p.194, all future references are to this edition.

12The Silver Tassie begins in a deceptive mood of "spiritual and animal exaltation commented on by the clowns, Sylvester Heegan and Simon Norton. The two men discuss Harry's "sweet and innocent insanity or a fine achievement"16 as well as making disparaging comments about Susie Monican's "tambourine theology" (p.183). However, the real action is delayed until Act. II, the zone of war, with its "scene of jagged and lacerated ruin of what was once a monastery". Here we are told that "every one who wears a cocked hat isn't a Napoleon" and that the lousy-map-scanner in his bunker, the ordinary soldier in the trench are dominated not by heroism but by "Tear, fear, fear" (p.210). The futility of war is mocked in a choric chant by the stretcher-bearers who recognise "the peace of death" but who long to "hold on to the little finger of life" (p.219). O'Casey uses contrast to show that the attraction to life is not merely "innocent"; it erupts as a result of the experiences which serve in this sense to enlarge their appetite for life.

13These changes are more overtly displayed in Susie and Jessie. From the beginning Susie's Joyless view of life had been displayed in her "rigid manner", "her unflinching and uncompromising modesty" (p. 181), and her desire to "mangle" piety (p. 186) into the emotions of Sylvester and Simon. But the effects of working at the front with the Red Cross Unit are evident in her attachment to Sergeant Maxwell.

14Act. IV of The Silver Tassie is a celebration of life by a group of people whose senses have been enlarged by the experience of war. It is shown that the war scene has liberated subconscious forces by giving the occasion for the direct expression of the characters' dreams, obsessions, even the least avowable. The presentation of the couples at the dance hall of the Avondale Football Club is revealing. Susie, now in the "arms of Sergeant Maxwell", is "lookin' game... for anything", has abandoned "her one time fear of God". Jessie is busy "advertising her immodesty", attached to Barney she is "getting tired of her maidenhood" (p.239). With Barney she is responsive "to all the animal Impulses of life"; she is "hot, excited" and desires red wine to celebrate the "passion and the power and the pain of life" (p.234). She is represented as the kind of female who "gives her favour to the prominent and popular" (p.194). When Harry's strength and speed won the Final for his club he was her favourite but when Harry brought back a "tangled body" (p.234) from the war she gave her favours to Barney. In her world no moral scruples are respected, nature simply rules.

15Here O'Casey employs film techniques to focus first, on the pathetic figure of Harry wheeling and whirling in a wheel chair and then on Teddy Foran "Smoking and walking to and fro in the cautious manner of the blind" (p.235). In the background, however, comes the "sound of dancing, the eyes of women, grey and blue and brown and black... sparkle and dim and sparkle again. The white breasts rise and fall, and rise and fall again. Slender legs, from red and black, and white and green, come out, go in again" (p.239). These celebrants, dancing in the background, glide past the entrance. In a manner of reinforcing the point, O'Casey introduces "numerous bottles of wine and a dozen glasses". The symbolism of wine is altogether effective as it works in conjunction with sound, colour, and dance to enlarge their appetite for life. Also placed in ironic contrast are Harry condemned to the wheel chair and Teddy to darkness; both men are deprived of the opportunity to participate in the "Crowd of life". Harry's parody or the sacrament during which he takes red wine for the "blood that was shed for you and for many for the commission of sin", confirms his desire to participate in the "merry motion of dance" (p.234).

16Similarly, Barney's "lusty lordship" over Jessie, "mid sounds of merriment and excitement" erupts and is enacted in his ripping of her "shoulder strap so that her dress leaves her shoulders and bosom bare" (p.245). A careful and close shifting of character, objects, and perspectives, enlarges their vision and deepens their knowledge of reality

Harry: The rising sap in trees I'll never feel.
Teddy: The hues of branch or leaf I'll never see.
Harry: There's something wrong with lire when men can walk.
Teddy: There's something wrong with life when men can see.
Harry: I never felt the hand that made me helpless.
Teddy: I never saw the hand that made me blind.
Harry: Life came and took away the half of life.
Teddy: Life took from me the half he left with you.
Harry: The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away.
Teddy: Blessed be the name or the Lord. (p.242)

17This passage should be seen in the context of the larger cosmic space in which the characters see themselves and the events in which they have been involved. It should also be read In relation to Susie's account of their tragedy "It is the misfortune of war", (p.248) because war or injustice constitutes part of the unchanging nature of reality. This understanding of misfortune had been anticipated in Barney's garbled recollection of the ending of a prayer in the old Latin mass: "Per omnia Saecula Saeculorum" which has been translated to read something like, "From century to century, or for ever and ever" (p. 212). On a larger cosmic space, the benign and malign forces, tragedy and comedy exist side by side.

18One the one hand, the Inculcation of the fear of God encouraged in Act. I by Susie tends to enfeeble the will to live. Just as the paralysing effects of the war on Harry and Teddy rendered them helpless, depriving them of the opportunity to participate in the "merry motion of dance".

19The use of the word "mangle" repeatedly to describe Harry's helplessness is anticipated in Act. I where Sylvester and Simon accuse Susie of trying to "mangle" religion Into their emotions. She is further attacked for her "persecuting, tambourine theology". Susie is further accused of trying to "batter religion into a man", to "claw" people into the kingdom of heaven; of pushing the "kingdom of God into a reservation of a few yards." In Act.I, violence is associated with Susie' methods of introducing her "scorching gospel" to people. Mrs. Foran reinforces this attitude in referring to Susie as "the gospel-gunner" where the gospel and the gun are symbolic of emotional and physical violence inflicted on ordinary people by organised religion. It is therefore no accident that Susie who has been persecuting Sylvester and Simon with her "glory-to-God business" is first shown "polishing a rifle" and later "comes in with a bayonet and has commenced to polish it". The change that takes place in Susie at the end of the play is pronounced because she has not only managed to "disintensify her soul-huntin'", she has become less neurotic, instead she flings herself with reckless abandon into the arms of Sergeant Maxwell for a taste of life, confirmed in the words of Maxwell's song:

For mine is a life on the ebb.
Yours a full life on the flow (p.248).

20Red Roses for Me shows O'Casey's ability to use colour, sound, a variety of objects, masks and setting to project psychological states. The physical background to the action taking place in Ayammon Breydon's apartment is provided by the "top of a railway signal... showing green and red lights... occasionally in the distance can be heard the whistle of an engine followed by its strenuous puffing as it pulls at a heavy rake of goods wagon". The action, we are told, takes place in "two rather dilapidated rooms in a poor working class locality" and from here will emerge the leader of the striking railwaymen. In this contracted space will be heard the intruding "knock" coming from troublesome and "pestering neighbours" in a locality where "it's hardly an honourable thing to gainsay the knock" of a neighbour. But action in this realistic scene barely prepares us for the main event which occurs on "the bridge of vision".

21The scene on the bridge introduces a striking contrast: the use of the setting to evoke an atmosphere which happens also to be a psychic projection of the people. The tenement scene of Act. I Is essentially realistic, in which little interest is attached to devices of disorientation of perspectives except perhaps in Brennan's pranks of depriving the three women of their much adored statue of the Virgin, the Queen of Eblana's Poor, restoring its sheen and replacing the statue in its original position on the wall. This playfulness with objects and ideas combines "amusement with a little scorn". Similarly, the naive fascination of the other characters with Mulcanny's evolutionary Ideas, the possibility that he may be right, is sufficiently subversive in the effects it produces on a number of Mulcanny's audience, throwing their whole system of belief into disorder; the derision of the Biblical creation story is not only funny but it introduces a comic and absurdist element in the play.

22The Third Act however, focuses on an impoverished part of the City of Dublin where we meet the three women: Eada, Dympna, and Pinnoola who form part of a debased, wasted humanity, together with the group of dejected men they are the products of the "heartless pavements of th' Dublin Streets". Ayammon arrives on the scene and relieves the women and men of their boredom with his promise of the "greater life" to be round in the "City's hidden splendor". As if responding to Ayammon's presence the City suddenly assumes a "melody or colours" from the "caress of the setting sun"; the houses are "decked in mauve and burnished bronze": the "lounging" men "stand stalwart, looking like fine bronze statues, slashed with scarlet". Eeada, "rising into light,now shows a fresh and virile race, and she is garbed in a dark-green robe, with a silvery mantle over her shoulders". To her these changes are a sign that the city is "battle minded". Dympna's "race is aglow" and Finnoola thinks that the city is "glowin' like a song aung be Osheen himself". Ayammon's "our city is in the hands of God" barely confirms the visions of the men and women.

23The vision which transforms the Joyless lire of the men and women is summed up by the Voices of the collectivity:

Thy people together shall build a brave city
Th' fairest an'finest that ever was seen (p.315).

24Ayammon and Finnoola dance to the tune of a "Gavotte or an air of some dignified and joyous dance, "moving" around in this spontaneous dance, she in a golden pool of light, and he In a violet coloured shadow". Here, as in The Silver Tassie, the re-enactment of the "urge of jubilation in the heart of the young" transforms the realistic setting by compelling the people to view their life in the context of a wider cosmic whole The dream technique is effectively employed here, in which the individual affirms that "God's right hand still holds all things firmly" (p.311).

25Apart from the use of dream to obtain distancing effects, characters allude to archetypes like Osheen, Cathleen ni Houlihan, reiterated by Ayammon's idea that "we love th' ideal Kathleen ni Houlihan not because she is false but because she is beautiful". O'Casey also introduces masks as a technique of detaching the characters from their realistic base by blurring their individual traits. The technique of using light, colour and masks is expressive since the combination of light, colour and sound establishes "correspondences" between the senses. This technique of using light and colour for suggestive purposes is employed to transform Ayammon's head into "the severed head of Dunn-Boo", turning him into an archetypal vegetation god, anticipated in the allusion to Dunn-Boo.

26Although the Fourth Act contracts reality to the size of the grounds surrounding the Protestant Church of St. Burnupus, located in the midst of "a poor and smoky district," Ayammon's vision is not vitiated. This section of the plays is dominated by the menacing presence of Inspector Finglass, whose haughty, contemptuous and scornful disregard of the dispirited women and mirthless men is matched only by the "heartless" indifference of the pavements of Dublin city. The Inspector was meant to represent the shams which Mrs. Breydon attacks, especially when he insists on doing his duty, even when it means losing innocent lives.

27In the ensuing confrontation Ayammon had the choice of staying "safe by his fire side" or confronting Finglass's might. The action of the play is developed along lines determined by Ayammon's higher vision.

28The symbolism of spring daffodils which the Rector thinks "Simply signify the new life" and which is connected quite innocently in a symbolic way with our "Blessed Lord's Rising" works exceedingly well in this context, in making Ayammon's death a sacrifice, turning him into a vegetation god. The use of myth is reinforced by the paradoxical truth contained in "From the clash of life new life is born" (P.317). The original issue for which the strikers were demanding an extra shilling has not in this ending been resolved in the context of the dialectics of history, instead, recourse is made to affirmative myths, which assert collective survival:

Men and women [above]. He comes with us!
Ayammon [turning toward Them]. I go with you!

29O'Casey's Insistence on sustaining Ayammon's superior vision over the Inspector's sense of duty is re-inforced by the Rector's remonstrance to the Inspector for adopting a belligerent attitude toward the strikers. Mrs. Breydon's reaction is instructive as she chooses, in spite of her motherly feelings, to be reconciled to Ayammon's vision, and in trying to appraise the value of the Inspector in the context of that vision she found him to be "Just a braided an' tassied dot" before the "round world, man, an' all its wonders".

30I have already noted that O'Casey uses masks to suggest "correspondences" of feeling between character and setting. In Ayammon's apartment three men who stay around the door have "stiff and mask-like" faces, showing "expression of dumb resignation". Sammy, the young singer, appears on the stage with a "pale and mask-like" face, also symbolic of "resignation to the world and all around him". O'Casey insists that we take his stage directions seriously. The light-hearted, mischievous Mulcanny, whose funny theory of evolution baffles his audiences, appears on stage in a mood of Jocularity. He is "young, lusty, and restless... wearing fine tweeds". His "tweed cap is set rakishly on his head". In contrast to this liveliness is the mask-like face, always "pale", "wearing the frozen look of resignation" dressed "drably" "stonily stare", "stand stock still", "expressionless faces". In Cock-a-Doodle Dandy, Julia, the paralytic is borne on a stretcher and her" face is a sad yellowish-mask". The use of the mask idiom in O'Casey's plays is often associated with imbecility and recklessness. But the ghost-like Figure of a man who appears In Purple Dust "dressed from head to root in gleaming black oilskins, hooded over head, just giving a glimpse or a blue mask serves a different purpose as his presence on the stage is ominous. The effects or "rays or flickering lightning" transform it into "the spirit of the turbulent waters of the rising river. Its symbolic function is apocalyptic as it announces the flooding of the house by the rising waters of the river.

31In introducing archetypes and masks into his theatre, O'Casey has in mind the destruction or the picturesque and stereotype which an adherence to realism or naturalism encourages. This is evident in his use of women, two types of whom dominate the latter plays: those who have been enervated and crippled by conventional morality, organized religion and many of the shams and sterile conventions parading as virtues. Their actions are very often enfeebled by an obsession: Susie in Act. I of The Silver Tassie is decribed as "undeniably pretty, but her charms are hidden, are almost completely hidden by her sombre, ill-fitting dress, and her rigid manner in which she has made her hair up declares her unflinching and uncompromising modesty". Susie has lately renounced the "sin-splashed desires of the flesh" such as "the honey-post kiss of a lover", instead she embraces "the kiss of righteousness and peace". Susie's morbid view of life is contrasted to Jessie's. She is the type who "gives her favour to the prominent and the popular", who is "responsive to all the animal impulses of life". The vivacity of this second type of woman is used to subvert the complacency of middle class morality.

  • 17 Sean O'Casey, Three More Plays, edited with an Introduction by J.C. Trewin (London: Macmillan, 196 (...)

32Purple Dust17 is about the restoration by two Englishmen of a Tudor-Elizabethan mansion in Clun na Geera, a rural town in Ireland. The two Irish women in this play work in collusion with the workmen to throw disorder into the plans of Cyril Poges and his companion, Basil Stokes, for renovating the mansion. We have noticed that the realism of the urban slums of the early plays offered little room for the exhilarating play of life which pervades the action of these latter dramas. The plan of Poges and Basil to bring their mistresses to this pastoral scene was to find a place where "country peace and good will are to be found"; also they were inspired by an archaistic motive: nostalgia for the "flow, energy, colour, imagination and hilarity" of the Tudor period. While he walked about the rooms Basil would hear "the clank, clank, clank of armour" (p. 134). Another reason for restoring the mansion is the wish to resuscitate the values and virtues of the Tudor period. Poges is disgusted with the "paltry, mean, tight and tedious" (p..170) nature of the moderns. In spite of the "frills, its frivolities and its studied ceremonials", the Tudor period "had in it the core of virtue" (p.189). In renovating the mansion they hoped to restore some of "the harmony of the old house" (p.192).

33The local priest, Canon Chreehewel, hoped to use their presence in Clun na Greera to "bring some of the slow movement of the past into the reckless and Godless speed of the present". Poges and Basil would "assist the clergy to keep a sensible check on the lower Inclinations of the people", they would help them "curtail th' damned activity of the devilish dance balls", attack the wearing of "lowcut bodices, defiant short skirts, or shorter trousers murdherin' modesty with a restless an' reckless hand" (p.190).

34But the Irish workmen, acting under the influence of O'Killigain, their headman, with their "jaunty and hilarious" airs, and with the complicity of the women, upset the entire plan.

35The women first discover that Poges and Basil are part of a repressive system. Basil Stokes is described to be "gouty, douty" symbolic of sterility. The result is that the women are attracted to the Irish workmen with whom they find a bond. Avril is the first to be affected by O'Killigain; similarly Souhaun is attracted to the Second Workman. With these new developments the two Englishmen become Increasingly distracted and enervated.

36The rebellion of the workmen and the women is projected into the setting: the rising waters of a nearby river threaten and eventually flood the entire house, dispersing its distracted occupants. A combination of sounds from owls, cattle, swine, sheep, cocks, dogs, birds all add to the exasperation of the Englishmen. The weather suddenly becomes "miserably cold", the situation is further worsened by menacing rains and wind, loud peals of thunder, all of which become excitingly theatrical as the Englishmen, exasperated and bewildered, lose control of the entire situation as they in turn gradually become affected by the insanity of the place:

Poges (arranging things on the bureau). Poor crazy fools. They're all a bit demented. Must be the climate. Most amusing.

Basil (gloomily). Yes, amusing up to a point, but hardly reassuring; no (He comes near to Poges) I don't like it, Poges.

Poges (startled). Eh?

Basil Well, it isn't exactly comfortable to be living in a community of crazy people, is it? It may even become dangerous.

Poges (Sitting up straight). That's a serious thought, Stokes. Now that you mention it, I do feel the insidious infuence of the place. We might become demented too (p.209).

37The Englishmen's sense of themselves, their original aim or resuscitating a Tudor sense of order In Clun na Greera have surfered. O'Casey's technique of derangement of the senses is effective as the Canon begins to suspect that evil forces, represented by O'Killigain, who is associated with the archetypal "snake In the garden", have invaded the place. But the assembled forces of nature, symbolised by the malevolent waters of the river, overrun the house, confirming O'Killigain's own words:

Your Tudors have had their day ... and the little heap o' purple dust they left behind them will vanish away in th' flow of the river (p.216).

38The symbolic river represents the "call of life" which the girls fall to find in Poges and Basil but the promise of which they hope to find in O'Killigain and his men.

  • 18 In Seven Plays by Sean O'Casey.

39In Cock -a – Doodle – Dandy18 the pull of life is symbolised by the Cock which cavorts on the stage "with its huge, handsome crimson comb", letting out "a violent and triumphant crow". In this play, O'Casey's satire is directed at Michael Marthraun, Sailor Mahan, the Sergeant of the Civic Guards and Father Domineer. Their world is directly pitted against the mischievous and savage attacks of the Cock. By the end of the play the derangement has been so thoroughly effective that the men lose their senses altogether, a state of unrelieving nervous debility and helplessness reigns.

40As was the case in Purple Dust, setting contributes its own share of the disorder: "a fierce flash of lightning shoots through the darkness", objects disappear and reappear, the Cock vanishes, reappears and crows lustily. A "loud, long peal of thunder is heard". The Sergeant who had brought out his gun to shoot down the Cock is disarmed and forced to rush on to the stage, his cap gone, "a piece of rope tied round his chest to keep his coat on ... he wears no trousers, leaving him in a long shirt over short pants".

41Father Domineer, who has been fighting "against th' onward rush of paganism", decides to exorcise Marthraun's house of all evil influences, emerges from the house with "a big black eye, his coat is awry on his back, and his hair is widely tossed".

42Julia, Lorna's crippled sister, is the symbolic embodiment of the general state of sterility that pervades the society. Julia's failure to receive a ritual cure from Lourdes reinforces the failure of the barely conventional rituals enacted In this play. Father Domineer's murder of the Lorry Driver is to be seen as a physical re-enactment of the spiritual emasculation of the people since Father Domineer's presence always oppresses and enervates the other characters. Father Domineer had instilled the fear of women in the men in always referring to women as "the banished children of Eve" (p. 359) – In order to bring the alienated men to think about the women Lorna performs a ritual which entails inducing the men to drink, to sensitize them. The effect of the drinks on the men is dramatic: a "look or animation gradually comes onto" Mahan's face; a "reckless look steals" over Michael's face.

43The Cock, working in conjunction with the women, represents the pull of life which the men have repressed but which asserts itself. The satire is directed at those lire-denying institutions which stifle the desire for freedom. That is why the Cock and the women seem to act in a concerted fashion to assert themselves. The drinks work to embolden Mahan to the extent that he is attracted to Loreleen. O'Casey's stage directions at this point make excellent theatre as the bold Mahan in trying to show that he is not indifferent to the charms of Loreleen, mimes the youthfulness of his age until he "suddenly puts an arm round her in a kind of clutch: Jasus, you have lovely eyes!" (p.337).

  • 19 Ibid.
  • 20 Ibid. p.531.

44In The Bishop's Bonfire19 O'Casey continues to examine "Social and Cultural sterility, the strict censorship of minds and conduct: as well as of books, the increased power of the Roman Catholic Church"20. The central event in this play is the Bishop's coming visit to Ballyoonagh for which preparations in the way of the renovation of Reilligan's house are being made. There will be the lighting of a ritual bonfire to welcome the Bishop, during which occasion piles of bad books and evil pictures are to be burnt (p.430).We are familiar with the church's attack on bad books in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy where Father Domineer orders that all the bad books found in Loreleen's possession, among which are Voltaire's works and Joyce's Ulysses, should be taken to the presbytery for destruction (p.390).

45Reilligan's first daughter, Foorawn, has taken a vow of chastity and decides to live quietly "under the pure white moon of heaven" (p.438). She is also reluctant to encourage her relation with Manus, a failed priest, who has been convincing Foorawn to understand that life is to be found "under her bodice on her breasts" (p.439). Reilligan's other daughter, Keelin, is livelier and her aggression is enacted in sudden acta of rebelliousness. Keelin is attracted to Daniel, one of Reilligan's workmen.

46Councillor Reilligan's views on life are reinforced by the presence of his mentor, the Very Reverend Timothy Canon Burren, whose views are contrasted with those of the radical priest. Father Boheroe. Father Boheroe reminds us of the Rector of the Protestant Church of St. Burnupus in Red Roses For Me who was able to remonstrate openly to Inspector Finglass for adopting an aggressive attitude towards the strikers. In The Bishop's Bonfire, Father Boheroe appears as the representative defender of Intellectual freedom which, he argues, ought to follow naturally from the attainment of political freedom. He also openly shows his sympathies for the young lovers, Keel in and Daniel, in their struggle against soul-deadening conventions which stifle their love.

47The symbolism of the bonfire is to be seen as a ritual whose paradoxical nature is best understood by Manus who tries to explain it to Foorawn: "in the ashes that the fire will leave will be the ashes of our love; of mine for you, of yours for me; and Daniel's love for Keelin and hers for him" (pp. 139-10). It is this kind of love which Father Boheroe encourages between Daniel and Keelin, about which he waxes eloquent:

You are both now in the fierce flow of what the poets have glorified in a thousand songs... Get to yourselves the courage to last it out. You've escaped from the dominion of the big house with the lion and the Unicorn on its front; don't let yourselves sink beneath the meaner dominion of the big shop with the cross and the shamrock on its gable. Whatever comes, refuse to be frightened and take whatever the glow may bring, be it the mourning habit or the golden gown! (p. 462).

48Father Boheroe appears to serve as a mouthpiece for Keelin, whose desire for freedom is unabashedly displayed. There is a coincidence of views on freedom between Boheroe and Keelin:

Father Boheroe... it is easy to turn one's back on things, but it is better and braver to face them. I shall never turn my back on a beautiful world, nor on the beautiful flesh or humanity, asparkle with vigour, Intelligence, and health; and as for the devil, what we often declare to be the devil is but truth who has at last mustered the courage to speak it (p.486).

49Therefore it is appropriate that Manus Monroe, "the dead priest", (p.183) should kill Foorawn, the "puritanical bitch", and "mournful, empty shell of womanhood", at the end of the play. Foorawn is made to write a letter In which she renounces her vow of chastity by her avowal of a suppressed love for Manus: "I loved you once. I love you now. I love..." (p.490).

50In Cock-a-Doodle Dandy and The Bishop's Bonfire a combination of natural and human forces savagely attack all the "sacred things in Ireland" in order to assert the freedom of the individual as well as that of the group. The liveliness of O'Casey's theatre derives from his practice of eliciting from folklore active images to show how his people embrace life in an extravagant whole. In casting aside the constrictive devices of realistic or naturalistic drama, he is able to draw copiously from a rich oral culture which gives his drama a complex texture. The boldness of execution is enhanced by the belief that theatre can be used to show how the community continually seeks ways of renewing itself. This desire for self-renewal and freedom pervades O'Casey's theatre.


1 D.E.S. Maxwell, A Critical History of Modern Irish Drama 1891-1980, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 105-106.

2 Ibid. pp. 109-110.

3 Eric Bentley, In Search of Theatre (New York: Alfred A. Knopf', 1953), p.321.

4 David Krause, "The Principle of Comic Disintegration" in James Joyce Quarterly, VIII (1970), p. 6 where he quotes Samuel Beckett's description of this technique as "dramatic dehiscence".

5 Katharine Worth, The Irish Drama of Europe from Yeats to Beckett (London: The Athlone Press, 1978) pp.221-240 shows Yeats's influence on O'Casey's later plays.

6 Michael OhAodha, Theatre in Ireland (London: Basil Blackwell, 1974) p.77.

7 Michael OhAodha, Theatre in Ireland (London: Basil Blackwell, 1974), p.112.

8 Robert Hoogan and Sven Eric Mölln, eds., Drama: The Major Genres, An Introductory Critical Anthology (New York: Dodd, Mead 1962), p. 340.

9 Ibid. p. 340.

10 cf. David Krause, p.5: "the anarchic spirit of knock about comedy... inspired antics... This is the energy or his theatre".

11 Eric Bentley, In Search of Theatre (New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). p. 321.

12 Ronald Ayling, ed., Seven Plays or Sean O'Casey, Selected, with an introduction and notes by Ronald Ayling, (London: Macmillan, 1985), p.234.

13 Christopher Innes, Holy Theatre: Ritual and the Avant Garde (London: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p.18. The expression is attributed to Rimbaud who claimed that "the poet makes himself a visionary through a long, Immense and reasoned derangement of the senses".

14 Robert Hogan et al, eds., Drama; The Major Genres, p.340. The Silver Tassie was presented at the Apollo Theatre, London on 11 October 1982 by C.B. Cochran; it was revived at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin on 26 May, 1947.

15 Theatre in Ireland, p.115.

16 Seven Plays by Sean O'Casey, p.194, all future references are to this edition.

17 Sean O'Casey, Three More Plays, edited with an Introduction by J.C. Trewin (London: Macmillan, 1965), p.213, all further references from Purple Dust are from this edition.

18 In Seven Plays by Sean O'Casey.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid. p.531.


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