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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
O'Casey, Sean (1880-1964)
"Here we have bishops, priests, and deacons, a Censorship Board, vigilant librarians, confraternities and sodalities, Duce Maria, Legions of Mary, Knights of this Christian order and Knights of that one, all surrounding the sinner's free will in an embattled circle."

-- Sean O'Casey


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.

Early life
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.

O'Casey's 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.

From 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.

Politics
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.

He 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.

In 1914, he became General Secretary of Jim Larkin's Irish Citizen Army, which would soon be run by James Connolly.

O'Casey 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Juno 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.

However, 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 of it.

England
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 life.

The 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.

These 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.

Quotations

"What 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."

"If 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 full-blown rose."

"There's 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."

 
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