Authors: Sean O’Casey

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Irish playwright


Sean O’Casey was born John Casey (or Casside) in Dublin on March 30, 1880, and lived to be one of the most eminent twentieth century dramatists in English. His family was Protestant, communicants of the Church of Ireland, and Unionist (several relatives had been soldiers in the British army). The family lived comfortably until the illness and death of Sean’s father plunged them into dire poverty. Partly because of this fact and partly because of a painful condition in his eyes, O’Casey had little formal education. His autobiographies contain moving depictions of the family’s decline, of his mother’s heroic attempts to hold things together, and of his sister’s pathetic life and death, victim of a mentally ill husband. From the age of fourteen until he was forty-five, O’Casey worked at various menial jobs, the longest (1901-1911) being as a laborer on the railroad. These jobs did not by any means exhaust his energies. Through adolescence he remained active in the church, but gradually he lost his faith–though not his gratitude to a rector who had befriended his family, or his antipathy to the Catholic Church, though his motives for this would change.{$I[AN]9810000935}{$I[A]O’Casey, Sean[OCasey, Sean]}{$S[A]Casside, John;O’Casey, Sean}{$S[A]Casey, John;O’Casey, Sean}{$I[geo]IRELAND;O’Casey, Sean[OCasey, Sean]}{$I[tim]1880;O’Casey, Sean[OCasey, Sean]}

O’Casey was infected by the rising tide of Irish nationalism in its cultural and political forms. He was a supporter of and for a time a teacher in the Gaelic League (Sean O’Casey is an approximation of the Gaelic form of his name). On the political side, he was for a time secretary of the Irish Citizen Army, founded originally to protect strikers from the police. By the time the Citizen Army took part in the Easter Rebellion of 1916, however, he had become disillusioned and was a passive observer of the revolt. He remained somewhat detached during the troubles of 1917 to 1921, when the Irish Republican Army conducted guerrilla warfare against the British, and also during the civil war of 1921 to 1923, when the Free Staters who accepted a peace treaty with England fought their fellow Irishmen who would not.

O’Casey’s original break with the Nationalists came because he believed that they ignored or even actively opposed the demands of the working class for social justice. He was a warm supporter of Jim Larkin, who founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and led the workers in the traumatic strike of 1913. Throughout his life, O’Casey had socialist sympathies and was even friendly toward the Soviet Union; many of his plays were translated and produced there.

O’Casey’s interest in drama began early; he was involved in amateur theatricals and at the age of fifteen filled in at a professional performance of a play by Dion Boucicault. Beginning in 1920, O’Casey offered a number of plays to the Abbey Theatre, and after many rejections, The Shadow of a Gunman was produced in 1923, to be followed by Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. They depict, respectively, the troubles of 1917 to 1921, the civil war, and the Easter Rebellion. Their conventions are naturalistic, their attitude toward Irish nationalism cynical; typically, there is a contrast between the vaingloriousness of the men and the long-suffering (and sometimes heroic) patience of the women.

In 1926 O’Casey went to England to accept the Hawthornden Prize for Juno and the Paycock. He lived there for the rest of his life; he revisited Dublin for the last time in 1935. In England he married an actress, Eileen Reynolds Carey, with whom he had three children. The family lived at various places around London before settling at Totnes and later Torquay, Devon.

The year 1925 was traumatic for O’Casey. He had written an antiwar play, The Silver Tassie, which partly followed the naturalistic style of his early plays but also made use of an expressionistic style reminiscent of August Strindberg. The Abbey Theatre rejected it, and William Butler Yeats’s letter of rejection was tactless. O’Casey was thereby cut off from his Irish roots. The situation was aggravated later by Irish censorship of his autobiographies. At the same time, income from English and American sources enabled him to live, however precariously, a middle-class life for the first time in his career. He wrote many plays after The Silver Tassie; some are interesting experiments that had to be produced in such places as Liverpool and Dallas. Critics generally agree that none of them comes up to the standard set by The Plough and the Stars. O’Casey had to endure German bombs during World War II and the death of his son Niall of leukemia in 1955. O’Casey died of a heart attack on September 18, 1964.

BibliographyAyling, Ronald, and Michael J. Durkan. Sean O’Casey: A Bibliography. London: Macmillan, 1978. A valuable bibliographic source on O’Casey’s work and the critical reaction to it.Kearney, Colbert. The Glamour of Grammar: Orality and Politics and the Emergence of Sean O’Casey. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. A study of the Irishness of the literary language of O’Casey, especially his early works.Krause, David. Sean O’Casey: The Man and His Work. 2d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1975. Krause examines O’Casey’s life, drama, and experiences in the theatrical world.Mikhail, E. H. Sean O’Casey and His Critics: An Annotated Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985. Mikhail’s bibliography is a fine survey of available sources on O’Casey to the mid-1980’s.Mitchell, Jack. The Essential O’Casey: A Study of the Twelve Major Plays of Sean O’Casey. New York: International Publishers, 1980. This volume provides a handy summary of O’Casey’s most popular works.O’Connor, Garry. Sean O’Casey: A Life. New York: Atheneum, 1988. A highly readable biography, especially useful on the playwright’s rise, through self-education and life as a Dublin laborer, to his Abbey Theatre productions.
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