O'Casey understood that participation in great events can weaken, as well as ennoble, men; can make them blind to man's common humanity. O’Casey had referred to both Christ and Shakespeare as “givers of life”, and in his work he displays an understanding of the weakness of men, but he never hates his men. He portrays them in the grip of illusions, often delusions.
For example, in The Shadow of a Gunman it is the peddler Seamus Shields who questions the nature of the heroism of the gunmen in the Irish guerrilla war with its attendant civilian casualties.
Seamus: it’s the civilians that suffer; when there’s an ambush they don’t know where to run. Shot in the back to save the British Empire, an’ shot in the breast to save the soul of Ireland. I believe in the freedom of Ireland, an’ that England has no right to be here, but I draw the line when I hear the gunmen blowin’ about dyin’ for the people, when it’s the people that are dyin’ for the gunmen! With all due respect to the gunmen, I don’t want them to die for me.
In this example, I believe that O'Casey was the first modern writer to recognise that in terrorist wars it is the ordinary unarmed civilian who represents war's 'front line'. In this modern age, when the recent spate of terrorist bombings has shown us the cost of dehumanised patriotism, it is remarkable to recognise O’Casey’s prescience. The point is reinforced in Juno and the Paycock. Johnny Boyle, the Paycock’s son, has been badly wounded and lost an arm in the War of Independence against Britain. Now, in the course of Ireland’s Civil War, he is suspected by the Republican Irregulars of having given information, which has led to the shooting dead by Free State soldiers of his former IRA comrade Commandant Tancred. A young man, a Republican Irregular, enters Boyle’s tenement room and instructs him to attend an Irregular Battalion Staff meeting that is to investigate Tancred’s betrayal. Johnny refuses in the scene following:
Johnny: I’m not goin’ then. I knew nothing about Tancred.
The Young Man (at the door): You’d betther come for your own sake –
remember your oath.
Johnny (passionately): I won’t go! Haven’t I done enough for Ireland!
I’ve lost me arm, an’ me hip’s destroyed so that I’ll never be able to walk right,
agen! Good God, haven’t I done enough for Ireland!
The Young Man: Boyle, no man can do enough for Ireland!
Towards the end of the play, Johnny Boyle is taken away by two Irregulars to be shot for his betrayal of Tancred.
But the young Irregular’s reply to Boyle is clear. Patriotism demands more than a man can offer, especially his humanity.
This point is again reinforced, in The Plough and the Stars, in the scene in the pub where three of the volunteers, Clitheroe, Langan and Brennan, who are about to take part in the Rising toast the prospect of their success and the following dialogue: occurs:
Commandant Clitheroe: You have a mother Langan.
Lieutenant Langan:Ireland is greater than a mother.
Captain Brennan: You have a wife Clitheroe
Commandant Clitheroe: Ireland is greater than a wife.
Thus the cycle of dehumanisation is complete.
O’Casey is neither a sentimental nor a didactic writer. Although his theme in the Dublin trilogy is that of the effects of internecine war on ordinary peoples' lives, he neither sentimentalizes his characters nor sends them rushing to the barricades shouting “Victory or Death” ! His theatrical influences were primaril
y Shakespeare and the Irish comic playwright Dion Boucouciat. Thus there is much that is comic in O’Casey’s writing, and given that he was challenging the pieties of Irish Republicanism so immediately after the major events of the 1916 – 1922 period, comedy was the means by which he first won his audience. Then – as Irish playwright Brendan Behan later expressed it – he got up to all sort of tricks behind their backs. He succeeded with his anti-war theme in his first two plays of the trilogy The Shadow of a Gunman, and Juno and the Paycock. But it was the performance of the third part of the trilogy The Plough and the Stars that woke his Dublin audiences up to the fact that this “slum dramatist” was more than what he seemed to be and that he had a serious intent on them.
O'Casey's refusal to sentimentalize his characters, and an example of the intent he has on his audience, can be displayed in his treatment of the most comic character in The Plough and the Stars: Fluther Good. For most of the play, Fluther is portrayed as a drunken comic buffoon. But when the distraught Nora Clitheroe goes in search of her husband Commandant Clitheroe (unaware that he is already dead), it is her neighbour Fluther who follows her through the smoking ruins of Dublin and brings her home through the gunfire. Later the unarmed Fluther confronts the two British soldiers who are rounding up the men in the tenement. “Jasus, you an’ your guns! Leave them down an’ I’d beat the two o’ yous without sweatin!” Heroism can be found in an aparrent buffoon as much as in a histrionic patriot.
The events of the 1916 Rising that The Plough and the Stars deal with are separated by only ten years from the first performance of the play at the Abbey Theatre in 1926, but already by that time the Rising had taken on a quasi-religious character and the executed leaders the status of saintly icons. O’Casey’s play deals with both the lead-up to the Rising and the events of Easter Week. The play juxtaposes both comedy and tragedy; it portrays of some of the Rising's participants as having venal motives; and in the pub scene it portrays the supreme 1916 icon Patrick Pearse as the ‘Figure in the Window’ purveying a high-blown rhetoric of war and destruction at a political rally outside of the pub. All of this proved too much for the Dublin audience to handle.