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Sean O'Casey

Sean O'CaseyNO DISCUSSION of Irish drama is complete without Sean O'Casey's almost photographically real pictures of Irish tenement life. The late Professor J.W. Cunliffe of Columbia University went so far as to say that O'Casey was "the greatest discovery since World War I, not only of the Abbey Theater but of European drama."

Sean O'Casey was himself a product of the Dublin tenements. His father died when he was three and his mother managed some way to keep her little brood together. Their morning meal was dry bread and tea and, if they were lucky, they had dry bread and tea again for supper. When O'Casey was fourteen he taught himself to read. From then on, any money that could possibly be spared from the bare necessities, went into books. As for normal education, he had none.

Perhaps this very lack was a blessing in disguise. Knowing no rules for the building of successful drama except such as he had observed from his own reading, especially of Shakespeare, he was free to build his dramas of Irish tenement life as he saw it. If, breaking all accepted rules, tragedy and comedy follow on each other's heels, it is because they had done so in the playwright's own life. All his plays are tragic in intent but three-fourths of the dialogue stirs the audience to laughter.

O'Casey knew the bitter enmities of the Irish struggle for self-expression first hand, for he was part of the Citizen Army. He saw neighbor kill neighbor in the mad frenzy of religious clashes and later saw enemies weeping over the coffins of their victims. Those unforgettable pictures photographed in his brain he has reproduced in his plays.

The playwright's first accepted play, The Shadow of the Gunman, was produced April 12, 1923, at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. When his second play, Juno and the Paycock, entered a successful run in London, he felt free to leave his job as a bricksetter's helper and give his full attention to writing. His third play, The Plough and the Stars, created almost as much of a riot at its first production in the Abbey Theater as had Synge's Playboy of the Western World, and led Yeats to exclaim to an unruly audience: "You have again rocked the cradle of genius."

†This article was originally published in Minute History of the Drama Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935. p. 122.

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O'Casey's Plays

Related Sites

Irish Drama Index

Other Playwrights

Samuel Beckett

Aphra Behn

Bertolt Brecht

Anton Chekhov


Henrik Ibsen

Eugene Ionesco

Thomas Kyd

Christopher Marlowe


William Shakespeare

Bernard Shaw

August Strindberg


Tennessee Williams

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