Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Seán O’Casey – Portrait of the Artist as an Outsider

It certainly didn’t help that one of the characters in the pub, the prostitute Rosie Redmond, is shown to endorse the Figure’s bloodthirsty sentiments. When the Figure declares that “There are many things more horrible than bloodshed, and slavery is one of them!”, Rosie remarks: “It’s a sacred truth, mind you, what that man’s after sayin'”. The result was a riot in the theatre. The audience attacked the stage and the players defended themselves with stage props. The theatre’s director and co-founder W.B. Yeats berated the audience from the stage: “You have disgraced yourselves once again”. A reference to the disturbances in 1907 that had greeted the production of J.M. Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World. But the Playboy riots lacked the intensity of those that greeted the The Plough and the Stars and later performances of the play had to take place with a large presence of the new Irish police force An Garda Siochána standing around the walls of the auditorium, and O’Casey’s name and fame had been assured.

It is ironic therefore that the Abbey rejected O’Casey’s next play The Silver Tassie. This play is an overtly anti-war play that deals with the First World War and is written largely in an expressionist mode. Yeats had seen O’Casey solely as a realist whose success had been in making dramatic material out of the Dublin working class people amongst whom he lived. But Yeats knew little about the working class of Dublin or any other city and could not recognise that O’Casey had transformed his characters to serve his artistic purpose. The sensitive, music loving O’Casey, steeped in the drama of Shakespeare and the poetry of Shelly, had become a victim of the persona he had allowed to be formed to explain his unique success, i.e. the self-educated labourer from the slums.
And it must be said that O’Casey also contributed largely to the formation of this persona, as it put the necessary distance between him and the Dublin theatre-going public, and facilitated the emergence of his work until that audience finally realised his intent and rioted. Very few of the Dublin working-class comprised the Abbey Theatre audiences who were mostly Catholic and middle-class. Had those audiences realised that they were dealing with the work, not of a self-educated slum labourer, but of a lower-middle class Protestant whose father had worked for a society that sought to convert Catholics to Protestantism, they might have rioted a lot earlier. Had they done so they might also have deprived O’Casey of the workshop – the Abbey Theatre – which allowed his genius to develop and create dramas that are world-renowned. After the Abbey’s rejection of The Silver Tassie O’Casey left Dublin and his writing dealt less immediately with Ireland.

Whatever about the merits of the The Silver Tassie and of his later plays such as Red Roses for Me and Cock a Doodle Dandy, the question remains. Was Yeats right to reject The Silver Tassie ? Was O’Casey at heart a realist who simply used the people amongst whom he lived as material for his work, or was he something different, a conscious artist who had the necessary detachment from his milieu to transform his material into great art? I’ll let O’Casey in an essay on theatre in his collection The Flying Wasp have the last word in the attempt to answer this question.

“We do not want merely an excerpt from reality; it is the imaginative translation of reality, as it is seen through the eye of the poet, that we desire. The great art of the theatre is to suggest, not to tell openly; to dilate the mind by symbols, not by actual things; to express in Lear a world’s sorrow, and in Hamlet the grief of humanity. Van Gogh, and particularly Cezanne, took from the extravagance of Cubism its possibilities and, uniting these with the greater possibilities of Realism and Impressionism, burst into a new art of painting. Now that is what I want to do in Drama !”