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The Stupidity of Men – Women in the Plays of Seán O’Casey

In dealing with the subject of women in Seán O’Casey’s plays, it is revealing to refer to the influence of women on Sean O’Casey’s early life. O’Casey’s father died when he was a young child and he was brought up by his mother and educated at home by his sister, who was a schoolteacher. In his autobiographies, O’Casey gives a rather harsh portrait of his sister but a very affectionate one of his mother. He lived with his mother until her death when he was thirty-nine and he dedicated what is arguably his greatest play The Plough and the Stars to “…the gay laugh of my mother at the gate of the grave”. After her husband’s early death Mrs. Cassidy (Seán O’Casey is the gaelicised version of Johnny Cassidy) had fought hard to keep her family together and care for her weak-sighted and sickly son, Johnny. Therefore his mother was to prove a strong influence on O’Casey until his early middle-age.

Although Juno and the Paycock is set during the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, it was written and performed before The Plough and the Stars which is set against the backdrop of the 1916 Rising. Juno, the mythological wife of Jupiter and mother of the gods (her symbol was a peacock), is here transposed into the character of a Dublin housewife. Juno’s husband Jack Boyle (mockingly nicknamed the ‘Captain’ because of his boasts about the one time only in his life that he had crossed the Irish Sea on a return journey on a collier to Liverpool) is a strutting Peacock (in Dublin slang Paycock), a bombastic wastrel, work-shy and constantly attended by his ‘buddy’ Joxer Daly. There is little love displayed between Boyle and his wife; she is constantly chiding him for his drinking and refusal to work. In the play’s stage directions O’Casey describes Juno as “having a look of listless monotony and harassed anxiety, blending with an expression of mechanical resistance”. She is forty-five and Boyle is sixty, and it is also noticeable that they have only two children which would have been considered an exceptionally small family among the Catholic Dublin working class of that period. The size of the Boyle family is clearly intended as an unspoken reproach to Boyle’s functions as a husband and parent.

The Boyle’s two offspring, Johnny and Mary, are shown to be very different in character. Johnny is incapacitated by the loss of an arm and other wounds he has received during the Civil War and spends his time lounging about the tenement room which is the Boyle family home. Mary is described as having “speech and manners both of which are degraded by her environment, and improved by her acquaintance – slight though it be – with literature”.

Mary is also shown to be somewhat vain, constantly looking in the mirror and preoccupied with the colour of her hair ribbons. Both female members of the Boyle family also share one thing in common apart from their gender: they are the only members of the household who are working for a living; although Mary is on strike. Both of the males are unemployed; the wounded Johnny is an invalid and Jack, ‘Captain’ Boyle, the Paycock, is clearly unemployable. Therefore the burden of keeping the family together, body and soul, falls primarily on Juno. The most noticeable feature of Juno is her realism; it is she who chides Mary with being on strike, asserting that “when the employers sacrifice wan victim, the Trades Unions go wan betther be sacrificin’ a hundred”.
When Johnny asserts that he would fight again despite the loss of his arm, as “a principle’s a principle”, Juno dismisses his bombast with the scathing reply: “Ah, you lost your best principle, me boy, when you lost your arm; them’s the only sort of principles that’s any good to a workin’ man”.

Juno is anxious for her daughter to escape from the fate that she herself is enduring. She is effusive in her treatment of her daughter’s boyfriend Charlie Bentham, the “mickey dazzler” (Dublin slang for a confidence trickster) that Mary has taken to in place of her former boyfriend Jerry Devine. Far from facilitating Mary’s escape from the working class, Bentham ruins the family’s prospects; first by his mishandling of a Boyle relatives will, and then by deserting Mary after getting her pregnant.

There are two other women in the play, both neighbours in the tenement, Mrs. Madigan and Mrs. Tancred. Masie Madigan is primarily a comic figure and contributes little to the action. She does however provide Jack Boyle with the opportunity to display his chivalrous side and he treats Masie with greater friendliness than he treats his wife. Mrs. Tancred is the mother of a republican irregular killed by the Free State forces (a former comrade of Johnny Boyle’s whom Johnny has betrayed). Mrs. Tancred’s tragic plea “O Blessed Virgin where were you when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets!” is to be echoed in turn by Juno when Johnny is killed by the irregulars in revenge for Tancred’s death. Mrs. Tancred is portrayed as a woman old before her time and defeated by the death of her only son; her plea is a despairing reproach to the Virgin and she surrenders to despair and anticipates her own death. When it is Juno’s turn to echo Mrs. Tancred’s words, she is not defeated by the tragedy. She reproaches herself for expecting Mary to accompany her to see Johnny’s body: “I forgot, Mary, I forgot; your poor oul’ selfish mother was only thinkin’ of herself”. Mary’s response to the tragedy is to reject God, but Juno refutes this saying: “Ah, what can God do agen the stupidity of men!”


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One Response to “The Stupidity of Men – Women in the Plays of Seán O’Casey”

  1. I had never thought of Mrs Tancred as a Protestant.

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