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Studies on Sean O'Casey

Jacqueline Genet
Wynne Hellegouarc’h

Juno and the Pavcock: Situation in Sean O'Casey's Theatre

Émile-Jean Dumay

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1Sean O'Casey once declared to an interviewer (Sept. 1959):

"I think in dialogue. But I don't like talking about my work at all. I can't stand the early stuff like Juno and The Plough as a matter of fact. Realism comes too easy in a way. I think I can create a character and put dialogue into his mouth but I'm not satisfied to do that only."

2Considering the evolution of O'Casey's drama, I contend he is certainly to be believed when he words his appreciation of his own work in such a puzzling way, although the public and the majority of directors seem to privilege the early way, the so-called Dublin Trilogy.

3So I suggest we can ask the following questions about Juno:

  1. Is Juno easy realism? If so, does it actually share exclusive characteristics with The Plough and The Shadow of a Gunman? In other words, is it relevant to use the "Dublin Trilogy" label?
  2. Was O'Casey (in Juno) only satisfied to put dialogues into characters' mouths, or, on the contrary, does he not tentatively pave the way for the later plays?

4I contend that we can see Juno as ambivalent: it appears as a fully significant "early play", although it is no less significant as a forerunner of the later works.

5We find that it contributes to make the Trilogy a valid unit, critically speaking, as different from the rest of O'Casey's drama, in particular through the dialectics of characterization and the use of dreams and merriment as merely evasive processes. We are also convinced that it evidences a global coherence in the theatre of Sean O'Casey, in so far as Juno is made of ingredients that we now find characterize the whole of his drama. We can even claim that Juno very accurately foreshadows some of the favourite themes, characters and dramatic approaches of the later plays.

Juno and the Trilogy.

6The typical character in the Trilogy is the man-in-the-street, the "prole", concerned in the development of History, but unwittingly. At this point it is hard to guess there are going to be such significant characters as the Dreamer (Within the Gates), the Messenger (Cock-a-Pood1e-Dandy) or Ayamonn Brendon (Red Roses for Me). Yet there exist in Juno and the Trilogy moments of liberation, or rather oblivion, closely connected with the working of imagination (Davoren tries to find liberation through poetry, Joxer Daly, the "Captain" and Fluther through drink and talk).

7Certainly History is important in the characters' lives, but, dramatically it is sheer LIFE that prevails. The characters are vivid, even overwhelmingly alive. I would go as far as suggest they might be almost pathologically vivid, in so far as beyond the enjoyment of language for language's sake, they are probably meant by O'Casey to make up for some unconscious alienation. But in return these characters contribute to give perspective to historical events, or struggles, or fights the dramatist does not agree with. The dialectics of the much praised vivid "early" characterization reveals that no revolution was then professed through leading messianic personae but was made to be felt as necessary out of pathetic portraits. All ideas of necessary changes in social life were so far seen only through negative evidence, through stoicism and/or absurdity, e.g. the hopeless stubbornness of Mrs. Boyle, the hopeless blarney of Joxer and Captain Boyle, the hopeless plight of Mary Boyle (just as O'Casey submits to the audiences the "hopeless poetry of Davoren or the hopeless heroism of the Easter Rising).

8Such features also set up, as a corollary, a permanent element of discomfort (that was to become one of the major trends in O'Casey's drama).

9At this early stage the characters are victims, bruised people. They are relentlessly threatened, jeopardized by the course of historical events, however unconscious, or indifferent to politics, they may be. Among other things, Juno is a problem of doors. "Who's knocking, who's at the door?", a worried Johnny inquires all the time, sympto-matically. Not only are the characters' homes raided in various ways (each play in the Trilogy offers an example) but we can say that their very selves are raided as their intimacy or identity is violated or shattered.

10Only later will appear characters devised by O'Casey as affirmative spokesmen of progressive stances, political and poetical prophets and challengers: the Cock, Father Ned, Ayamonn Brendon...The characters-as-victims in the Trilogy, so aptly exemplified by the set that O'Casey portrays in Juno, either resist oppression, or forget it unconsciously by trying to live or survive, by living with a vengeance: hence Mrs. Boyle's obstinacy and Captain Boyle's and Joxer Daly's logorrhea. Their fictitious life is somehow close to reality, but an enhanced reality, and, in a sense, they demonstrate some stored up energy that will, in later plays, be used efficiently, but that has so far never found yet its proper outlet in new social, political or aesthetic tenets.

11Their dreams just possess potential efficiency but fail to bring freedom and progress: Joxer and the Captain enjoy their day-dreams and pseudo-sagas as they would a drug. And yet, this opium for the people exists as an extra dimension that the destitute characters give themselves Indulgently. Their verbal intoxication could be described as a festive counter-attack against the hardships of life. And although the male characters' basic struggle for life (as is instanced in the three plays of the Trilogy, not only in Juno) is a flow of Inefficient words and leads to borrowed identities, in other words to alienation, one can conclude that they all come out with an equal claim for a right to dream.

12Now, in Juno this right to dream through drinking, imagining, talking, enjoying the language for its own sake, is, for the first time in O'Casey's career, coupled with a dramatic trick that was to develop steadily later: the use of merriment and celebration – symbolised in Juno by the bout of merry-making on the occasion of the expected legacy, and induced by the presence on stage of the horn of the old gramophone that suggests a cornucopia of a sort.

13The only trouble is that with Juno in particular, and the Trilogy more generally, all dreams set off reality negatively and eventually speed up the decline and fall of the characters. Even Juno Boyd, with her matter-of-fact-ness, finally gives in to the appeal of the improbable legacy out of sheer necessity and ends up as an image of courage but also of pathetic disappointment.

14Now, in terms of dramatic efficiency, it must be acknowledged that the whole set of early inefficient dreamers have been devised to draw the spectator's sympathy with their darling words. The repeated and assertive "state o'chassls" (Juno) being Just as good and enjoyable as Flu-ther's "derogatory" and "vice-versa" in The Plough. Yet life is a dead end for the characters in the Trilogy: beyond warmth and fun, it is bitterness, sarcasm and satire that are eventually perceived, and the vague, nondescript militant hope of Mary Boyle is no vision. In Juno, dream and vision do not join, the situation is one of self-deceit, or at least of dichotomy. Only In later plays will some characters both dream, and see the future, and perform it.

15Mary Boyle could hardly be called a poet, despite her particular remembrance of the workers' song at the end of Juno, and her militancy is still puny compared with later glorious examples. Now, the weakness of such features, together with the obvious dichotomy between the militant and the poet at this stage, are bound to make Mary Boyle a failure, the symbol or which could be round in the double failure she experiences in her love lire.

16Mary is dereated by her own hesitations and overwhelmed by the empty words of others, just as The Covey (in The Plough) is overwhelmed by his own idle words and his undigested political culture.

Juno as a trend-setter.

17Nevertheless Juno heralds many basic themes, characters, and dramatic patterns of the later plays.

18The character of Mary Boyle, for one thing, despite her failures and weaknesses, undoubtedly appears as the archetype of the basic O'Caseyian character, I.e. the union militant with a social and cultural mission. She tentatively suggests so many dreamers or messengers, even if she is miles away from Ayamonn or Rather Ned. Oddly enough, she is the only instance of a woman-leader and looks as if the various qualities with which O'Casey's female characters are endowed had for a moment made them ready for a leading social and political role, as If Minnie Powell (The Shadow of a Gunman), Bessie Burgess (The Plough and the Stars), and Mrs. Boyle (Juno and the Paycock) were summed up in Mary, the brave young girl on strike, vaguely sensitive to such words as force and beauty, earnestly interested in books but unable to work her way towards the power that they give. Torn between her lovers, and forsaken when pregnant, she is an aborted attempt in O'Casey's; theatre, but one knows that the ingredients for future militant-cum-poet leading characters were already at O'Casey's: disposal and, so to speak, at the back of his mind, when he devised Mary, whereas Minnie Powell or Nora Clitheroe for instance are utterly irrelevant in this respect.

19Another element that will inform the whole of O'Casey's dramatic work is the claim for a right to dream (that I have already alluded to), or rather the existence of dream as an indispensable ingredient to build up and found man's life on. For that matter, it can be traced as early as Juno and duly assessed as a fundamental item bound to gain momentum.

20Indeed, in the Trilogy, and in Juno in particular, the dream, although shared by many as momentary salvation, is only meant as an improbable individual solution to a life of collective hardships. Joxer's language builds up a fancy world for his own enjoyment and his own illusion. Captain Boyle's gullibility in the case of the legacy amply shows that he tends to live from hand to mouth on all possible chance games. But the very power of dream is to be asserted, as soon as The Silver Tassie and ever after, as the main point in O'Casey's drama.

21The right to dream turns collectively into a social, political, aesthetic and poetic weapon; all individual dreams merge into the vision of what one might call a "New Red Jerusalem", tiiey all contribute to promote a new society through the very intensity and earnestness of the dreamers. It is as if the Captain and Joxer suddenly started to dream for the benefit of mankind just as vividly as they do in their present obscure vacuum, as if their dreams, instead of just being passively dreamed, suddenly were embodied in characters and facts, and performed.

22The Star Turns Red. Red Roses for Me. Cock-a-Doodle-Dandy. The Drums of Father Ned. are all dreams come true, in some way. They all hold out to us a magic mirror that reflects the expected future of a revolution in fanciful colours and the pleasure of music and dance.

23More generally Juno can be described as submitting to the reader/spectator significant samples of dramatic features that, all things considered, give Sean O'Casey's drama its particular flavour. For instance it is not only characterization and its idiosyncrasies that attract the spectators: but the widespread use of trivial conversation that eventually creates simulated life out of meaningless-ness. On the other hand, O'Casey does not make use of a plot proper but most of the time sets up a central situation made up of topical events and the routine of everyday life. Uneventful lives are the event, much more than the melodramatic flashes of Mary's pregnancy or the shooting of Johmy off stage.

24In the field of language, Juno also shows very early what will be amply demonstrated later in Within the Gates, Red Roses for Me, or Purple Dust, namely that felicitous language is not necessarily the property of the ruling classes and their established culture. The poetic quality of the workers' language, best exemplified in Ayarnonn Brandon or O'Killigain, comes out awkwardly but perceptibly in the brief tragic cues of Mrs. Tancred or Mrs. Boyle, as well as in the uproarious declarations of Joxer and Captain Boyle.

25The dramatic concentration of space also appears as a feature that Juno inaugurates. This is a closed world, a closed microcosm, with concentration generating incredibly tense "events". Juno, like the rest of the Trilogy, takes place in the closed world of slums, just as The Silver Tassie demonstrates the closed world of war, just as the later plays will steadily reveal the mean closed world of the small Irish market-towns. Such recurrent modes of concentration making the spectator almost physically need and demand breathing space: we want to break the barrier in Within the Gates or open the windows for fresh air in Behind the Green Curtains. In other words we are made to want a free stage for the liberation of the world, so to speak.

26As I have already suggested, the noisy celebration of the "legacy" in Juno is the first of a series of festive days or occasions. Merriment and celebration is part and parcel of O'Casey's drama, a token or Free life able to conjure up, then eventually create, a future: the horn of the gramophone as some cornucopia appears as a flimsy vision of the good life, just as Red Roses for Me brings to life an ephemeral dance on a bridge over the Liffey in the bright-coloured transfiguration of Dublin. The ecstatic and frantic dance of the women in Cock-a-Doodle-Dandy equally paves the way for a new world through an elusive fancy-dress hall; and The Drums of Father Ned is exceptionally significant in this respect, since the last great O'Casey play is itself a Festival (the Tostal). In other words, life is the theatre: in merry-making, dream and reality come together, and fancy becomes momentary truth through performance – the very essence of the theatre. In this light, the wanderings of Joxer and Captain Boyle build up an incipient performance within the theatrical performance, and for us today are retrospectively endowed with deeper meaning. This is the first spark of O'Casey's later revolutionary bonfire.

27Juno also creates in many ways a sense of discomfort through perpetual imbalance – and this too is basic in O'Casey's plays: the celebration falls short, Mary is described as obviously uncomfortable between the appeal of her books and the burden of life, just as she is torn between her lovers. The phoney legacy and Mary's plight work the way the "flood" does in Purple Dust; O'Casey purposely smashes routine life to pieces, however precarious it may be at times, to set an example by making us uncomfortable and alert. This exactly is the O'Caseylan counterpart of Brecht's critical irony.

28In one last remark, I should like to suggest briefly how O'Casey's meticulous hyperrealism, In stage directions and descriptions of the setting and stage properties, will often naturally enough lead to some naive surrealism expressing poetic truth. What is true of Juno easily applies to the other plays. The wealth of details in the setting and stage properties coincide with what I said of his closed worlds: things are concentrated, so to speak, in a crammed space that imprisons the characters, whence the surrealistic image of Jumbled up objects (as in some of Magritte's paintings) leaving an empty space for the expression of freedom, lyricism and poetic truth. The only difference is that, in the case of Juno, if a director decided to stage the play the way we suggest, he would find that the empty space on the platform would lead nowhere and unexpectedly enough would look more Beckettian than anything else. Only later will the empty space be a place For revolutionary and poetic speculation.

29In conclusion we shall say that, on the one hand, Juno is a full achievement in its own right and a play relevant to the justified Dublin Trilogy label, but that, on the other, it can be genuinely assessed as O'Casey's future drama in the making. Many of the basic themes, characters, dramatic tricks and tones are to be found here, at this early stage, in embryonic shape.

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1988

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