Happy Birthday, Seán O’Casey

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Irish playwright Seán O’Casey was born on this day, in 1880. He was the first major Irish playwright to deal with slum life and the reality of the Dublin poor.

There is a wonderful anecdote about O’Casey from his colleague Gabriel Fallon who wrote (among other things) a book about Seán O’Casey. Here is his description of the rehearsal process (at first rather confusing for all involved, since the play was most definitely “something new”) for Juno and the Paycock (1924). O’Casey was not famous yet, not an Irish household name. This play was the breakthrough. His association with the Abbey (and Yeats and Lady Gregory) would be quite fruitful. One of his plays had been done by them before, but Juno was different, and everyone could feel it. Now I’ll let Fallon take over:

We could make nothing of the reading of Juno and the Paycock as it was called. It seemed to be a strange baffling mixture of comedy and tragedy; and none of us could say, with any certainty, whether or not it would stand up on the stage.

The dress rehearsal would be held at 5 p.m. on March 2, Sunday. I arrived at the theatre at 4:30 p.m., and found the author there before me looking rather glum and wondering if a rehearsal would take place … Gradually the players filed in and went to their dressing-rooms. Lennox Robinson arrived shortly before 5 o’clock and was followed by Yeats and Lady Gregory. The curtain rose about 5:36 p.m. so far as I could see and hear while waiting for my cue in the wings the rehearsal seemed to be proceeding smoothly. As soon as I had finished my part of Bentham at the end of the second act I went down into the stalls and sat two seats behind the author. Here for the first time I had an opportunity of seeing something of the play from an objective point of view. I was stunned by the tragic quality of the third act which the magnificent playing of Sara Allgood made almost unbearable. But it was the blistering irony of the final scene which convinced me that this man sitting two seats in front of me was a dramatist of genius, one destined to be spoken of far beyond the confines of the Abbey Theatre …

We watched the act move on, the furniture removers come and go, the ominous entry of the IRA men, the dragging of Johnny to summary execution, the stilted scene between Jerry Devine and Mary Boyle, and then as with the ensnaring slow impetus of a ninth great wave Allgood’s tragic genius rose to an unforgettable climax and drowned the stage in sorrow. How surely was the very butt and sea-mark of tragedy! But suddenly the curtain rises again: are Fitzgerald and McCormick fooling, letting off steam after the strain of rehearsal? Nothing of the kind; for we in the stalls are suddenly made to freeze in our seats as a note beyond tragedy, a blistering flannel-mouthed irony sears its maudlin way across the stage and slowly drops an exhausted curtain on a world disintegrating in ‘chassis’.

I sat there stunned. So, indeed, as far as I could see, did Robinson, Yeats, and Lady Gregory. Then Yeats ventured an opinion. He said that the play, particularly in the final scene, reminded him of a Dostoevsky novel. Lady Gregory turned to him and said, “You know, Willie, you never read a novel by Dostoevsky.” And she promised to amend this deficiency by sending him a copy of The Idiot. I turned to O’Casey and found I could only say to him, “Magnificent, Seán, magnificent.”

The image of Lady Gregory basically cutting “Willie” down to size is so funny to me, but I love the whole anecdote.

Excerpted from Gabriel Fallon’s memoir: SEAN O’CASEY: The Man I Knew

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5 Responses to Happy Birthday, Seán O’Casey

  1. michael carr says:

    After researching this play quite extensively in college all i could wish for was to be there to see Sara Allgood and her amazing performance. Happy Birthday Mr.O’Casey…truly a masterpiece…

  2. Guy says:

    Coincidental posting on Juno that I thought you might appreciate

    http://earlpomerantz.blogspot.com/2012/03/well-intentioned-mistake.html

    Have a great weekend

  3. sheila says:

    Guy – what a wonderful essay and what a terrible production idea! But your description of it had me howling.

    // is presumably wondering what this impoverished family is doing in this gargantuan living room? //

    hahahaha Oh, Lordy.

    You have a great weekend too and thanks for the link. I enjoyed it very much!

  4. Guy says:

    Thank you. Though it’s not my description. It’s Earl Pomerantz’s. (As a great man once said, I never steal credit unintentionally)

  5. Ken says:

    Well, as I am reading this in the university liberry and there are copies of Juno and the Paycock one floor below in yon stacks, I think I’ll grab one on the way out.

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