“That’s the Irish People all over – they treat a serious thing as a joke and a joke as a serious thing.” — Seán O’Casey, Shadow of a Gunman

“You cannot put a rope around the neck of an idea; you cannot put an idea up against the barrack-square wall and riddle it with bullets; you cannot confine it in the strongest prison cell your slaves could ever build.” — Seán O’Casey, The Death of Thomas Ashe (1918).

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 Dublin poor. He grew up working-class in a family of thirteen children. His father died when he was a boy, a catastrophic event throwing the family into chaos. Initially very religious, he eventually broke with the Church. He worked odd jobs, including gigs as an actor. He was of the generation coming to maturity during the Irish cultural Renaissance.

In the early years of the 20th century, there was a concentrated and conscious movement (helmed by those such as W.B. Yeats, and Lady Gregory) to re-claim Irish history from English domination. This wasn’t a spontaneous flowering. It was a planned effort. Yeats and Lady Gregory started the Abbey Theatre to provide a place for Irish voices: developing homegrown playwrights was one of their goals. The Irish language came back in vogue. There were classes and festivals and an all-around campaign to give Ireland back its sense of self. This, naturally, had a political component. The English were rightly worried about all this Celtic self-love going on. (And James Joyce seethed on the sidelines, finding it all ridiculous. Get me the hell outta here, he thought.)

Seán O’Casey was born at the perfect moment. His given name was John Casey. He Gaelicized it, a popular thing at the time. He learned to speak Irish. He got involved in the Gaelic League and became an Irish nationalist. Politics and art blended together. Then the upheaval of 1916 came. O’Casey lost friends in the war, as well as in the hunger strike following. It was a dangerous time. All the strife launched him into poetry. He also started to write plays. His work had a radical socialist bent, expressing his rage at the living conditions of the Irish poor, but his attitude was mocking and satirical, rather than sentimental. There may well have been a Golden Age of Satire, but you can bet in every age, in every time and place, there will be those who do not “get” it. They will share Onion articles as the real thing on Facebook, and be unable to recognize the sophisticated jokes/lampooning being made. Seán O’Casey’s work was challenging. People bristled. “But … you’re making fun of something people take very seriously …” Yes. That’s the point. Theaters shied away from putting on productions of his plays.

The time was right, though, for O’Casey. The Abbey Theatre was rising in prominence. Yeats was devoted to the Irish nationalist cause (albeit from the ANGLO side, an important distinction) and was open to the radical. O’Casey submitted a couple of his plays to the Abbey.

The first play accepted was The Shadow of a Gunman, first put on in 1923. The smoke hadn’t yet cleared from 1916. Home Rule started in 1922. There was a Civil War on. O’Casey’s play, about the slum residents of Dublin embroiled in revolutionary politics, is brilliant and biting. Then, in an extraordinary back-to-back homeruns, came Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, in 1923 and 1924. Both Juno and Plough deal with the Easter Rising. To write just one of these plays would be a great accomplishment. To be the author of three in such a short time is … extraordinary. Sometimes war brings a fiery intensity out in an artist whose work was otherwise unfocused. O’Casey’s Socialist politics and poverty-struck childhood made him very concerned about the impact all these events had on the poor in his country.

Juno and the Paycock was a hit, but Plough and the Stars did not go over as well. The audiences rioted during the production and the actors refused to say their lines. (This is reminiscent of what happened with J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in 1907, also at the Abbey, ie: “the Playboy riots” – if I could have a time machine to go back and experience famous theatrical productions, that Playboy riot is in my Top 10.).

Satire attacks sacred cows. It is meant to be threatening. Satire is not parody. It’s not comedy. You know satire is working when people say nervously, “Is he … serious?” For example, A Modest Proposal is satire, one of the high watermarks of the form, and reading it I feel a little nervous fluttering in my gut. This is the reaction satire encourages. You get nervous people won’t “get it”, even 400 years later. What if this gets into the wrong hands? What if someone wants to implement Swift’s proposal into policy? Satire is often local and specific, it has a target and goes after it. Because of this, some satire seems impenetrable outside of its own time. Swift’s satire is more potent once you know the background, and the same is true with O’Casey. However, remove the context of the Irish Civil War and the reprisals following the Easter Rising, and you still have brilliant powerful works, relevant to our world today. Poor people will always weigh heavily on the minds of those more fortunate, especially those who came from poverty. And so what is to be done? O’Casey worried about what was to be done.

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 Fallon’s description of the rehearsal process for Juno and the Paycock (1924). The actors and director started out in a state of confusion: how should they approach this difficult material? The play was untraditional, it required a specific tone. O’Casey was not famous yet, not yet an Irish household name.

Here, Fallon describes the dress rehearsal:

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.”

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

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7 Responses to “That’s the Irish People all over – they treat a serious thing as a joke and a joke as a serious thing.” — Seán O’Casey, Shadow of a Gunman

  1. Stumbled across late ’20s movie of Juno and the Paycock on youtube starring Sara Allgood. What a thrill!

  2. John doherty says:

    Brilliant, Sheila. Thanks.

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