Seán O'Casey was a major Irish dramatist and memorist.
A committed nationalist and socialist, he was the first Irish
playwright of note to write about the Dublin working classes.
His plays are particularly noted for the sympathetic treatment
of female characters.
O'Casey was born John Cassidy in a house at 85 Upper Dorset Street,
in the northern inner-city area of Dublin. It is commonly thought
that he grew up in the tenement world in which many of his plays
are set. In fact, his family belonged to that social class that
was known as "shabby genteel". He was a member of the
Church of Ireland and was confirmed at St John The Baptist church
on Seafield Road in Clontarf.
father, Michael Cassidy, died when he choked on raw fish and was
sick and the family lived a peripatetic life thereafter, moving
from house to house around north Dublin. As a child, he suffered
from poor eyesight, which interfered somewhat with his early education.
He left school at the age of fourteen and worked at a variety
of jobs, including a nine-year stint as a railwayman.
the early 1890s, Sean and his older brother, Archie, put on performances
of plays by Dion Boucicault and William Shakespeare in the family
home. Sean also got a small part in Boucicault's The Shaughraun
in the Mechanics' Theatre, which stood on what was to be the site
of the Abbey Theatre.
As his interest in the Irish nationalist cause grew, O'Casey joined
the Gaelic League in 1906 and learned the Irish language. He also
learned to play the Irish pipes and was a founder and Secretary
of the St Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band.
soon joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and became involved
in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which had been
established by Jim Larkin to represent the interests of the unskilled
labourers who inhabited the Dublin tenements.
1914, he became General Secretary of Jim Larkin's Irish Citizen
Army, which would soon be run by James Connolly.
and the Abbey
O'Casey's first accepted play, The Shadow of a Gunman, was performed
on the stage of the Abbey Theatre in 1923. This was the beginning
of a relationship that was to be fruitful for both theatre and
dramatist, but that ended in some bitterness.
play deals with the impact of revolutionary politics on Dublin's
slums and their inhabitants. It was followed by Juno and the Paycock
(1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926), probably O'Casey's
two finest plays. The former deals with the impact of the Irish
Civil War on the working class poor of the city, while the latter
is set in Dublin in 1916 around the Easter Rising, which was,
in fact, a middle-class affair, not a reaction by the poor.
Plough and the Stars, an anti-war play, was misinterpreted by
the Abbey audience as being anti-nationalist and resulted in scenes
reminiscent of the riots that greeted Synge's The Playboy of the
Western World in 1907. Regardless, O'Casey gave up his job and
become a full-time writer.
and the Paycock was successfully filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. In
1959 O'Casey gave his blessing to a musical adaptation of the
play by American composer Marc Blitzstein. The musical, retitled
Juno, was a commercial failure, closing after only 16 Broadway
performances. It was also panned by some critics as being too
"dark" to be an appropriate musical, a genre then almost
invariably associated with light comedy.
the music, which survives in a cast album made before the show
opened, has since been regarded as some of Blitzstein's best work.
Although endorsed by O'Casey, he, at age 79, made no effort to
cross the Atlantic to contribute any input to the production or
even to view it in its brief run prior to its closing. Despite
general agreement on the brilliance of the underlying material,
the musical has defied all efforts to mount any successful revival
In 1929, W. B. Yeats rejected O'Casey's fourth play, The Silver
Tassie for the Abbey. Already upset by the violent reaction to
The Plough and the Stars, O'Casey decided to sever all ties with
the Abbey, and moved to England, where he spent the rest of his
plays he wrote after this, including Within the Gates (1934),
Purple Dust (1940), and Red Roses for Me (1943), saw a move away
from his early style towards a more expressionistic and overtly
socialist mode of writing.
plays have never had the same critical or popular success as the
early trilogy. In his later years, O'Casey ceased writing for
the stage and put all his creative energy into his highly entertaining
and interesting six-volume Autobiography.
time has been wasted during man's destiny in the struggle to decide
what man's next world will be like! The keener the effort to find
out, the less he knew about the present one he lived in."
church prelates, past or present, had even an inkling of physiology
they'd realise that what they term this inner ugliness creates
and nourishes the hearing ear, the seeing eye, the active mind,
and energetic body of man and woman, in the same way that dirt
and dung at the roots give the plant its delicate leaves and the
no reason to bring religion into it. I think we ought to have
as great a regard for religion as we can, so as to keep it out
of as many things as possible."