Seán O'Casey : Contribution to Drama

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      Seán O'Casey (1884-1964) was born in Dublin and worked as a labourer, living in the crowded tenements of Dublin's slums, which he describes so vividly in his early plays. After his early stage successes he made literature his career, and in 1926 received the Hawthornden Prize.

      O'Casey's first play, The Shadow of a Gunman, was produced at the Abbey Theatre in 1923. Its setting is the slum tenements of Dublin, in their crowded squalor, and it is an unflinching study of the Anglo-Irish War of 1920, capturing well all the bloodiness and violence of the struggle and the dangerous intensity of the lives of the participants, his characters.

O'Casey's first play, The Shadow of a Gunman, was produced at the Abbey Theatre in 1923. Its setting is the slum tenements of Dublin, in their crowded squalor, and it is an unflinching study of the Anglo-Irish War of 1920, capturing well all the bloodiness and violence of the struggle and the dangerous intensity of the lives of the participants, his characters.
Seán O'Casey

      O'Casey, as later, uses the device of a mouthpiece character, who here gives an ironical commentary on the events. The chief heroic character is a woman, as in Juno and the Paycock (1924), an infinitely more mature play, and his masterpiece. Again the setting is the Dublin slums: the time now the civil disturbances of 1922. It is a vivid and intensely powerful play, in which rich, almost grotesque humour covers yet emphasizes the underlying bitter tragedy.

      Three of O' Casey's finest creations figure here - the deeply pitying Juno, her worthless husband, the Paycock, and his boon companion, Joxer Daly. The Plough and the Stars (1926), a tragic chronicle play dealing with the Easter rising of 1916, is equally realistic in its exposure of the futility and horror of war. There is the same blend of grotesque humour and deep tragedy, and once again O'Casey makes use of the mouthpiece character.

      O'Casey's next play, The Silver Tassie (1929), was refused by the Abbey Theatre and failed on the boards, though some have described it as the most powerful tragedy of our day. War is still the theme, now the 1914-1918 War. O'Casey gives an impassioned and bitter picture of the footballer hero returning paralysed from the trenches. It is unflinching in its truthfulness, and the suffering in the play is intense - perhaps there is too much suffering and too little action.

      It is of particular interest because here O'Casey experiments with the mingling of the realistic and expressionistic types of drama. His introduction of a symbolic technique is seen in the blending of prose and rhythmic chanted verse, which gives tremendous power to the second act in particular. How far his experiments have, as has been thought, subdued. his great gifts it is difficult to say, but his later plays Within the Gates (1933), The Star Turns Red (1940), Purple Dust (1940), Red Roses for Me (1946), Oak Leaves and Lavender (1946), and Cockadoodle Dandy (1949), do not have the intense life of his best three, though the magic of his language remains.

      Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars, and The Silver Tassie marked O'Casey out as the greatest new figure in the inter war theatre. His own experience enabled him to study the life of the Dublin slums with the warm understanding with which Synge studied the life of the Irish peasantry, and, like Synge, he could draw magic from the language of the ordinary folk he portrayed. His dialogue is vivid, racy, and packed with metaphor, and his prose is rhythmical and imaginative. He had, too, Synge's gift of mingling comedy with the tragedy that is his main theme. In O'Casey the mood changes rapidly. Comedy is seldom long absent, yet one can never forget the grim, underlying sadness. He draws what he sees with a ruthless objectivity and an impressionistic vividness of detail.

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