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Sean O'Casey (Sean John Casey O'Casey) Biography

(1880–1964), (Sean John Casey O'Casey), The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock

Irish playwright, born in Dublin, the son of Protestant parents; he was brought up in circumstances of great poverty, with eight of his twelve siblings failing to survive infancy. From the age of 14 he took a variety of menial jobs, ranging from caretaking to hod-carrying. He became politically active, joining the Gaelic League and the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood, then involving himself in the trade union movement, and eventually committing himself to the Socialist Party of Ireland. He also developed an interest in the arts, especially the drama and Shakespeare, though not until 1923 did his own creative writing receive recognition. In that year, The Shadow of a Gunman was performed at the Abbey Theatre, followed by Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926) which, like The Playboy of the Western World (1907), provoked nationalist riots in the theatre. The theme of these plays, generally regarded as his masterpieces, is akin to that which preoccupied Synge, the contrast of romance and reality. All three look at major events in recent Irish history from the view of the residents of slum tenements, a stance which subverts high-flown sentiment and demythologizes patriotic rhetoric.

In 1926 O'Casey left Ireland and took up permanent residence in England, a move often used to explain the general decline of his work. Though he continued to draw most of his subject matter from his native country, his alienation from it became complete when the Abbey rejected The Silver Tassie (1928) which combined his customary naturalism with a new Expressionism in order to expose the immediate terrors of, and the suffering left by, the First World War. Later work worthy of note includes Within the Gates (1933), a morality play in which various religious and intellectual interests battle for the soul of a prostitute; Purple Dust (1930), a satiric piece involving pompous Englishmen in Ireland; The Star Turns Red (1940), a didactic play in which O'Casey seeks to reconcile a somewhat unorthodox communism with a somewhat unorthodox Christianity; Red Roses For Me (1942), in which he treats political unrest in Dublin, but without the scepticism about heroes and heroics that marked his first plays; and Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949) and The Bishop's Bonfire (1955), two sprightly attacks on parochialism, philistinism, and religiosity in Ireland. It has been well said that, just as a reader or spectator is giving up O'Casey as sententious, laboured, and dull, he will introduce a line, a note, or a sentiment that brings his work freshly to life. Nothing matches the observation of slum life that marks his ‘Abbey’ plays; but he never lost his wry eye for human absurdity, his quirky humour, or his gift for sparkling, imaginative dialogue. Biographies include Sean O'Casey: The Man and His Work (1960) by David Krause and Sean (1971) by Eileen O'Casey. See also Letters (4 volumes; 197592), edited by David Krause.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: New from Tartary to Frank O'connor