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Studies on Sean O'Casey

Jacqueline Genet
Wynne Hellegouarc’h

"... your humanity is Just as narrow as the humanity of the others"

Deception in Juno and the Pavcock

Marie Arndt

Texte intégral

  • 1 Jack Mitchell, The Essential O'Casey A Study of the Twelve Major Plays of Sean O'Casey (Berlini Se (...)

1First I will make a short recapitulation of the political and social framework of the play. This I judge as indispensable for the understanding or how the state of a nation can make its people deceptive towards their presumed close ones and against their neighbours.1 I will also discuss the different obligations of the main characters in the play, according to their positions in the social network. This will lead to my major point, namely that characters in the play do not fulfill their obligations to each other, instead they deceive one another. I will give examples of this in the play. My final question will be: does any of the characters develop during the action of the play in the sense of admitting their deception?

2In 1922, the year in which the play is set, the Irish people had lived under circumstances resembling war for a number of years. Taking it from the Easter Rising in 1916 – which did not find any popular support before the leaders were executed – the people had witnessed, and sometimes been victims of how the IRB (IRA) and English soldiers had attacked each other, and taken bloody revenge on the other party every now and then.

  • 2 Robert Kee, The Green Flag: Ourselves Alone, Vol. 3 (London: Quartet Books, 1978), pp. 58ff.

3In 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. A branch of the IRA signed the document which was to give Ireland dominion status under the British Crown. This gave the Irish people a temporary rest. But soon they would be haunted by distress once again. The reason was that the Treaty divided the IRA into two groups: the pro-Treaty Free Staters and the anti-Treaty Republican Die-Hards. Irishmen who once had fought side by side against the English, were now aiming their guns at each other. Some will claim that the Free State government was even more ruthless in suppressing their Irish opponents than the English had been.2

  • 3 Bernice Schrank, "Dialectical Configurations in Juno and the Paycock," in Twentieth Century Litera (...)
  • 4 Sean O'Casey, "Juno and the Paycock," in Three Plays, (London: Macmillan Papermac, 1978), p. 8.

4This is the political background that must not be forgotten when taking the characters in Juno and the Paycock into consideration. For the Boyle family the Troubles have brought them nothing but another strain to their poor tenement-house life. It is through Johnny, who has taken an active part in the fighting, that the political framework of the play is made evident.3 Johnny's destiny is premonitioned when he is first introduced, as having "gone through a rough time... [and as having]... a tremulous look of infinite fear in his eyes".4 The political chaos will be the death of Johnny.

5The point I want to make in this paper is that individuals are deceptive towards one another because the country as such has deceived its people. Political pride is more important to the fighters than humane consideration. Therefore we have, working in the play, both an exterior deception, directly caused by or being part of the political action in the country, and also an interior deception, caused by the people themselves, against one another.

6Let us now turn to some of the characters in the play and see what obligations they have to each other, according to the social network.

7Jack Boyle, the paycock himself, should be the one who brings in the money for the family's support. He should be an authority to his children and a tower of strength for his wife. This is of course, a most traditional picture of an ideal husband but, none the less accurate in 1922. Jack Boyle, as we all know, does not meet these requirements in any way. He prefers to frequent a snug with his butty Joxer Daly, rather than assuming the responsibility for his family, including doing everything to avoid getting a Job. Boyle has to stimulate aching legs while others have pain thrust upon them. This carefree existence has cost Boyle the respect of his wife Juno and of his children.

  • 5 Ibid., p. 63
  • 6 Ibid., p. 34

8The children, Johnny and Mary, treat their father without the traditional respect that children should show their parents. When the will won't leave the family any money after all, Johnny turns his disappointment, now turned into anger, against his father; " borreyed money from everybody to fill yourself with beer!... I'm done with you..."5 Mary keeps a distance and is trying to find an identity outside of the family and outside of the tenement house. Therefore she questions her father's Judgment now and again. When the hope of money brings a gramophone into the house, Mary claims that they are "destructive of real music".6 Mary is going against her father with arguments picked up from her two suitors Jerry Devine and Charles Bentham. Johnny and Mary should help to bring in money to the household, since they are old enough to work. But they have both given that up for principles, although in different ways. Johnny has been fighting with the Irish rebels since he was a teenager. He has been maimed and is unfit for physical work. Mary is taking part in a strike during the action of the play, to show the employers that the workers won't be pushed around any more, Mary argues. When she does earn money, part of it is spent on luxuries like ribbons for the hair and silk-stockings, instead of helping to meet the bills.

9Since Jack Boyle has relieved himself of all economic responsibility for the family, it is Juno who has to struggle to bring in money for the support of the family. She has assumed the part of head of the family, since their economic situation depends on her. She is also the traditional mediator between the children and their father.

10The person outside of the family who most obviously has an obligation to fulfill is Bentham, a teacher who tries his hand at being a solicitor, with fatal consequences for the Boyle family. Also he should have taken better care of Mary, considering the result of their relationship.

11Just like Bentham, Jerry Devine is full of fine talk, until it comes down to practicalities. Devine cannot live up to his theories nor face reality. As a union leader, Jerry should be able to see the problems and needs of the workers. But since his thinking mainly transpires from theories and not from experience this is quite impossible for him.

12I will now further develop the discussion on how characters in the play on one hand do not take on the responsibility to ensure the safety or comfort of those they are under an obligation to, either by kinship, friendship or on a professional basis; this being the interior deception. On the other hand, deception is also when a character is letting down a conviction of a political or of a social nature, or when a character is let down by society; this is exterior deception.

13Johnny has fought for a principle he believed in; the freedom of Ireland. But he has been deceived by society, which has not stood up to its principles in practice. He has sacrificed his youth and parts of his body for his country. Johnny has seen Ireland turning out in a way which has now made him disappointed, He has given in Tancred to the enemy because, to Johnny his former comrades have let him down by not caring for him, now when he can't be of direct use in the fighting any more. A way for him to have that made up to him is to have his mother pamper him like a baby. To further show how the fighters have given up humanity, we are told that his old companions kill Johnny in a ruthless manner. This makes us feel sympathy for Johnny in the end.

  • 7 Ibid., p. 5

14Because of the conditions that she sees around her, Mary wants to reach out beyond the tenement-house existence. In the introduction of her we are made aware that there are "two forces... working in her mind – one, through the circumstances of her life pulling her back; the other through the influence of books she has read, pushing her forward".7 She wants to climb the social ladder and change her present life. Therefore she is willing to abandon her social background. While she is agitating for workers' rights, she is particular with attributes of the middle class, like silk stockings. Mary cares more for her looks than for the troubles of her family.

  • 8 Ibid., p. 66
  • 9 Ibid., p. 67

15In the first act Mary naively turns Jerry Devinie down, in favour of the seemingly more refined Bentham. This leaves Jerry with our sympathy for the moment. But when Jerry returns in the third act to try to patch it up again with Mary, his reaction to her pregnancy makes us turn away from him completely. His failure to oblige as a human being is fully revealed in his comment, "My God, Mary, have you fallen as low as that?".8To this Mary retorts, "... it's only as I expected – your humanity is just as narrow as the humanity of the others".9 Mary turns out to be the more realistic one of the two. She shows Jerry's shallow real politics even more when she reminds him of the verses he once quoted at a political rally; verses telling about hope for the agonies of the people to come to an end; agonies brought about by circumstances.

  • 10 Ibid., p. 13
  • 11 Ibid., p. 11

16Johnny and Mary, as discussed earlier, have looked for ideals outside of the family and their immediate circle. The character who has worked as a catapult for them is their father, Jack Boyle. Instead of taking his responsibility for the welfare of his family, he gives all his attention to his companion Joxer Daly. They go about parasiting and trying to take advantage of the situation whenever they can, for instance when Juno is away at work they come in to eat. But Juno has seen through their ways, and she says to Jack that he would "do far more work with a knife an' fork than ever /he would/ do with a shovel!"10 To Juno, Jack is only "gallivantln' about all the day like a paycock".11 The Captain has let down his family and they bully him until hope for money from the legacy arises.

  • 12 Ibid., p. 33

17After Bentham has brought the message about the will, Boyle takes on a new dignity, emphasized in clothing and 'attackey-case'. Even the Church is now accepted by Boyle. By this change he moves away from his own class and takes on values of the upper middle class. This temporary change in Boyle's character also shows a sudden streak of awareness, which has not been noted earlier in the play. This is revealed in his judgment of Mary's boyfriends. He feels nothing but contempt for them when he remarks that "(t)he two o' them ud give you a pain in your face, listenin' to them, Jerry believin' in nothin', an' Bentham bellevin' in everythin'."12

  • 13 Ibid., p. 13
  • 14 Ibid., p. 32

18Joxer Daly has no obligations to any particular character in the play. To Joxer, his only obligation is to himself. He tries to stay away from any kind of danger for himself, whether it be Juno's anger or bullets; "It's betther to be a coward than a corpse!",13 a statement of Joxer's which wraps up his character in a nutshell. He would never stand up for any principles if it meant any harm for him. Since Boyle is his only true companion, Joxer is careful not to go against him. When Boyle is expecting the money, Joxer is like an errand-boy, taking messages for him around town. When Boyle's sudden change of view concerning the parish priest takes Joxer by surprise, he twists his words to turn them in Boyle's direction: "You're takin' me up wrong, Captain; I wouldn't let a word be said agen father Parrel... I always said he was a darlin' man, a daarlin' man".14

  • 15 Ibid., p. 51
  • 16 Ibid., p. 59

19Joxer feels that Boyle is deceiving him and their way of life when assuming the ways of a better socially situated person. Therefore Joxer develops a parasitic deception against Boyle, when the truth about the legacy is dawning on them all. Joxer doesn't hesitate to talk against Boyle to the tailor Nugent as "a mastherpice of the Free State counthry ; forgettin' their friends ; forgettin' God..."15 He even steals the stout in Boyle's unattended kitchen. "Jacky Boyle, Esquire, infernal rogue an' damned liar",16 Joxer fires away, implying that Boyle has tried to make himself out as gentry and dumped his friend Joxer in the process. But when the legacy is lost forever and Boyle calls out for his old butty, Joxer is eagerly waiting for him, answering like a love-bird. Joxer and Boyle are back to square one with each other at the end of the play.

20Bentham is the cause of the Boyle family's hope for a more comfortable life; just as he is the immediate cause of their destruction as a family. A fine polish and the use of difficult words are just a facade for an uncaring and selfish fraud. When Bentham realizes that he has made out the will in a way that will leave the Boyles penniless and when he has been sexually successful with Mary in a way that might, and does, prove fatal, he runs away to England without a word of farewell.

  • 17 Ibid., p. 64

21Mary's pregnancy costs her the deception of all the men close to her. Bentham, the father of the child left. Jerry, a man who fought for the rights of the workers, let her down when he found out about the pregnancy. Johnny, who is in distress because he had hoped that the money would save his life, adds Mary's misfortune to his own disaster, "I've a nice sisther, an' a nice father, there's no bettin' on it".17 Her father who has lost his newly found dignity, tries to hold on to it by throwing Mary out of the house.

  • 18 Ibid., p. 47
  • 19 Ibid., p. 71

22The one time when Juno is deceptive is when the family is celebrating the legacy and Mrs. Tancred passes, on her way to the funeral of her dead son. Juno goes as far as saying that"(i)n one way, she deserves all she got; for lately, she let th' Die-Hards make an open house of th' place..."18 At that point, Juno can't see the human tragedy in the loss of a son. It is only when Juno herself is left without her own son that she can admit that, she "was only thinkin' of herself [and that she] didn't feel sorry enough for Mrs. Tancred when her son was found as Johnny's been found now... why didn't I remember that he wasn't a Diehard or a Stater, but only a poor dead son!"19, she says when repenting her harsh words.

23A fair conclusion of the play is that it wants to show how money, and particularly in this case the prospect of money, makes people more deceptive towards one another. In the play, this is caused by the chaotic state of the country and poverty among the people.

24To summarize the characters' different destinies in the play it is Mary who is the most deceived one in the play, and the most obvious victim in it. It is tragic that Mary, who is the most positive character in the play, should be slapped in the face so brutally by destiny. Johnny feels deceived by society and the principles he has fought for. This finally destroys him, after he has deceived his old companion and neighbour, Robbie Tancred. Jack Boyle is at first deceiving his family, in favour of Joxer. When he sees the prospect of money and a comfortable life for himself and his family, without working for it, he gives up his rambling existence in favour of his family. Joxer is left in the background for a while, and is offended by that. When the truth about the legacy comes out into the open, Boyle retreats back into the carefree existence with Joxer. Since Joxer is depending on Boyle's friendship, Boyle won't be abused by Joxer as he would have been by his family. Joxer is weak and he wants, just like Boyle, to survive at any cost except money or work. Juno is also guilty of deception, towards Mrs. Tancred. But Juno is the character who most obviously develops through the action of the play by her explicitly regretting her harsh words to Mrs. Tancred. At the end of the play it is Juno and Mary who are looking ahead towards a future and for a better life for the child that Mary is expecting.

25As in other plays by O'Casey, the women come out the strongest. They are the ones who are willing to admit mistakes and who try to make the best out of the circumstances. It is the men who cause deception which brings inhumanity, distress and destruction.


1 Jack Mitchell, The Essential O'Casey A Study of the Twelve Major Plays of Sean O'Casey (Berlini Seven Seas Books Publishers, 1980), passim.

2 Robert Kee, The Green Flag: Ourselves Alone, Vol. 3 (London: Quartet Books, 1978), pp. 58ff.

3 Bernice Schrank, "Dialectical Configurations in Juno and the Paycock," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 21 Nr. 4, pp. 438 ff.

4 Sean O'Casey, "Juno and the Paycock," in Three Plays, (London: Macmillan Papermac, 1978), p. 8.

5 Ibid., p. 63

6 Ibid., p. 34

7 Ibid., p. 5

8 Ibid., p. 66

9 Ibid., p. 67

10 Ibid., p. 13

11 Ibid., p. 11

12 Ibid., p. 33

13 Ibid., p. 13

14 Ibid., p. 32

15 Ibid., p. 51

16 Ibid., p. 59

17 Ibid., p. 64

18 Ibid., p. 47

19 Ibid., p. 71


© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1988

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