On this date in 1880, Sean O’Casey, destined to become one of the greatest Irish playwrights and memoirists, was born in Dublin.
Born poor in a working-class district of Dublin, with all of Ireland then under British rule, the young John Casey became interested in the Irish nationalist cause, learning the Irish language and Gaelicizing his name. He became involved in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which represented the unskilled laborers inhabiting the Dublin tenements. He participated in labor actions and was blackballed, unable to find steady work for some time.
After the Easter Rising of 1916, an armed insurrection mounted by Irish republicans, O’Casey was inspired to write. Out of his love of Shakespeare and earlier Irish playwrights, he devoted himself primarily to the theater.
O’Casey’s first accepted play, The Shadow of a Gunman, was performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1923, the beginning of a relationship that was to be fruitful for both the theater and the dramatist, but which 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 in 1924 and The Plough and the Stars in 1926. The former deals with the effect of the Irish Civil War on the working poor of Dublin and became a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, while the latter is set in 1916 around the Easter Rising. A committed socialist, O’Casey was the first Irish playwright of note to write about the Irish working class.
In 1928, the eminent Irish poet W. B. Yeats rejected O’Casey’s fourth play, The Silver Tassie, for the Abbey. It was an attack on imperialist wars and the suffering they cause. Riots and disturbances had often accompanied productions of O’Casey’s plays, which openly attacked the repressive Catholic Church and the established order. The hostile environment for his work in Ireland led him to leave the country in the 1930s. Thereafter he lived in a quiet corner of southwest England.
In the autumn of 1934, O’Casey went to the United States to visit the New York production of his play Within the Gates, which was directed by actor Melvyn Douglas and starred Lillian Gish.
The Star Turns Red (1940) is a four-act political allegory in which the Star of Bethlehem turns red. The story follows Big Red (who was based on O’Casey’s friend, nationalist leader James Larkin), a trade-union leader. The union takes over an unnamed country despite the ruthless efforts of the Saffron Shirts, a fascist organization openly supported by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It was staged by the left-wing Unity Theatre in London during 1940.
In his later years O’Casey put his creative energy into a six-volume autobiography, written with lyrical and perceptive aplomb.
Critics of the playwright would chide him for his continued support of the Soviet Union, contrasting Soviet policies with his passion for personal liberty, but O’Casey habitually dismissed derogatory information as propaganda.
The imaginative flights of poetry in popular speech that characterized O’Casey’s plays inevitably attracted the attention of left-wing composers. Marc Blitzstein wrote his Broadway musical Juno based on Juno and the Paycock, starring Melvyn Douglas as the blustering Captain Boyle. Elie Siegmeister wrote an opera on The Plough and the Stars.
O’Casey died at Torquay, England, in 1964.
“The artist’s life,” O’Casey advised, “is to be where life is, active life, found in neither ivory tower nor concrete shelter; he must be out listening to everything, looking at everything, and thinking it all out afterward.”
Adapted from Wikipedia and other sources.
Photo: Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. Yale University.