Juno and the Paycock

Juno and the Paycock, Yeatsian Intertextuality, and Materialism

by Natalie Prizel

Introduction

Sean O’Casey was born in 1880 and came of age in the impoverished Dublin he portrays in his realist dramas. An activist in labor movements and the struggle for Irish independence, O’Casey played a prominent role in the Irish Citizen Army, a group formed to protect trade unionists from state violence that also participated in the 1916 Easter Rising in a failed attempt to violently force the issue of Irish independence.

O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock was performed at the Abbey Theater in 1924. W.B. Yeats, the managing director of the theater, extended the play beyond the standard weekly run (it was the first play to receive such an extension) because of its immediate success.[1] Juno and the Paycock tells the story of the Boyle family, desperately poor Dubliners living amidst the sectarian violence of the early 1920’s. The drama, the action of which is confined to the Boyle’s home, contains three primary narratives: that of Johnny Boyle, the wounded Irish nationalist son, who has betrayed his “Diehard” (Irish nationalists who would not accept partition) ally Robby Tancred and is ultimately killed in revenge; that of Juno Boyle, the wife who desperately tries to convince her ne’er-do-well husband (Captain Boyle) to work, only to be told they have come into a small fortune, and ultimately to find that the supposed fortune does not exist; and that of Mary Boyle, the trade unionist daughter who betrays her labor leader lover, Jerry, for the charms of the manipulative school teacher Charlie Bentham, who ruins her family by misleading them about the “fortune” and then impregnates and leaves her.

Ronald Ayling argues for the uniqueness of O’Casey’s “firsthand experience of urban warfare, seen from a civilian’s viewpoint, with some knowledge of military matters [. . .] as a member of the the Irish Citizen Army [. . .].”[2] This practical experience not only contributes to the realism of O’Casey’s plays but also informs his materialist stance in relation to political violence. O’Casey can be fruitfully compared to W.B. Yeats in their mutual treatments of local and national political struggles in contrast to the cosmopolitanism of the other great Irish modernist, Joyce. However, O’Casey’s work is marked by a materialism not present in Yeats’ poetry, in no small part because of the physical immediacy of the dramatic form. Furthermore, Juno and the Paycock draws a thematic binary between theory (“principle”) and material reality, the collision of which leads to  devastating ends.

Intertextuality between O’Casey and Yeats

The parallels between Juno and the Paycock and Yeats’ poetry are striking; indeed, it seems that O’Casey is virtually quoting Yeats in a quotidian form that conveys the gritty reality of Dublin in a way that both Yeats’ romantic and increasingly modernist verse cannot. Both writers are reflecting on an innocence lost in the violence of the early twentieth century. For example, in “September 1913,” Yeats laments, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,/It’s with O’Leary in the grave” (lines 7-8).[3] O’Casey rewrites this in the romantic interchange between Jerry and Mary:

Jerry: [. . .]. Have you forgotten, Mary, all the happy evenin’s that were as sweet as the scented hawthorn that sheltered the sides o’ the road as we saunthered through the country?
Mary: That’s all over now.[4]

While here Yeats’ poem is directly political and Mary and Jerry are discussing the end of erotic love, both reflect the loss of a certain innocence and potential, both personal and national. By grounding this theme in the everyday realm of young romantic love, O’Casey endows “romantic Ireland” with a specificity that removes it from the realm of abstract political discourse and into the realm of daily life.

O’Casey performs a similar rewriting of Yeats by placing poetic verse in Dublin dialect. In his 1919 poem, “The Second Coming,” Yeats writes: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned” (lines 3-6).[5] Similarly and in contrast, Captain Boyle repeatedly asserts and in fact ends the play with the lines “th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’ chassis.”[6] Clearly, O’Casey’s use of dialect lends realism to his drama, and indeed this seems necessary in a dramatic production which relies on the suspension of disbelief in a way in which lyric poetry does not.

It is interesting to read this use of dialect as a perhaps incomplete assertion of Irish nationalist linguistics. O’Casey became a member of the Gaelic League in 1905, eventually becoming branch secretary and Gaelicising his name to Sean O Cathasaigh.[7] That said, the Abbey Theater, while it did produce Gaelic plays including several by Gaelic League founder Douglas Hyde, was in fact angrily denounced by the Rev. Michael O’Flanagan of the Gaelic League in 1911:

The plays are written in a new dialect of English produced by a literal translation of Gaelic idioms into Irish.  This is a purely literary dialect, and is not spoken in any part of Ireland. The Gaelic League is not interested in the creation of a new dialect of English. Its concern is with the Irish language. The spirit of the Gaelic League is a thing entirely different from the spirit of the Abbey Theater, the very antithesis of it in many ways.[8]

While I cannot speak to the question of whether the language of the Abbey (notably here, language which predates O’Casey’s play) was indeed a literary creation, it is clear that O’Casey is presenting a mode of speech that reflects the reality of spoken language in a way that Yeats is not.

It is also worth looking at Yeatsian intertextuality through an examination of the character of Charlie Bentham. While Yeats and O’Casey did not fall out until 1929 when, as director of the Abbey, Yeats rejected O’Casey’s play The Silver Tassie, it is possible to view Bentham as an unflattering characture of Yeats. Like Yeats, Bentham describes himself as a “Theosophist” and comically describes his beliefs as the Boyle’s listen:

Betham: [. . .]. Theosophy’s founded on The Vedas, the religious books of the East. Its central theme is the existence of an all-pervading Spirit– the Life-Breath. Nothing really exists but this one Universal Life-Breath. And whatever even seems to exist separately from this Life-Breath, doesn’t really exist at all. It is all vital force in man, in all animals, and in all vegetation. This Life-Breath is called the Prawna.
Mrs. Boyle: The Prawna! What a comical name![9]

Bentham is comically detached from the reality of daily Dublin life. Not only is his religious belief removed from the local in a way that seems nonsensical in light of the highly parochial nature of the play but its central focus on Spirit is in stark contrast to the material realities of the play. Jerry Devine, Charlie Bentham’s rival in love, is described as “a type, becoming very common now in the Labor Movement”[10]. It seems that Bentham too is a type, modelled on the eastward looking, spiritualist inclinations of certain modernist authors, notably Yeats. Bentham states “dogma has no attraction for me.”[11] In “The Second Coming”, Yeats writes, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (lines 7-8).[12] In O’Casey’s world it is the worst, despite his greater acculturation, Bentham, who lacks all conviction. representing a rejection of the elitism of Yeats’ politics in which the best are the (admittedly politically passive) artistic elite.

It would seem presumptuous to mock the artist to whom O’Casey appealed to have his work staged; nevertheless, Bentham can be read as a sort of send-up of Yeats. Furthermore, it is ironic that Bentham, whose name hearkens back to utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, is so philosophically detached from the material world– so detached indeed that he disappears by Act III, only leaving the consequence of his material presence, that is, Mary’s pregnancy.

 “Principle” and Reality, or O’Casey’s Materialism

As O’Casey linguistically presents an alternative, material version of Yeats’ treatment of Irish political strife, so does he thematically treat the conflict between theory and reality in the play. Within Juno and the Paycock itself, there are two opposing views of the relationship between theory or “principle” and material reality. Mary, defending her labor strike to her mother says, “a principle’s a principle;”[13] in contrast, Joxer, Captain Boyle’s drinking companion, contends, “It’s betther to be a coward than a corpse!”[14], and Mrs. Boyle tells her son “Ah, you lost your best principle, me boy, when you lost your arm; them’s the only sort o’ principles that’s any good to a workin’ man.”[15] Ultimately, I believe, the play is situated liminally between these two positions.

Ronald Ayling argues that the play is centrally concerned with betrayal, as Bentham betrays Mary; Johnny betrays Tancred; and Boyle’s indifference amounts to a “betrayal of life.”[16] Mary also is a traitor: she abandons Jerry her materialist principles to take up with a man without dogma. On one hand, the betrayal of principles has tragic consequences: Johnny is killed for his betrayal of his comrade Tancred; Mary is pregnant out of wedlock; Boyle is left again impoverished; and the family is humiliated. On the other hand, principles have left Johnny armless and Mary unemployed. In her apparent rejection of “principles”, Mrs. Boyle is a truly heroic figure, particularly at the beginning of the play, when she is the only member of the family who is precluded from work on account of principle (Mary and Johnny) or lack thereof (Captain Boyle).[17]   Mrs. Boyle’s necessary materialism neither dooms nor saves her but rather leaves her as a suffering survivor with a dead son, the same shiftless husband she had in the beginning, and a pregnant daughter, whom she comforts when Mary laments the fatherlessness of her child, saying, “It’ll have what’s far betther– it’ll have two mothers.”[18] The play ends both with the condemnation of “principles” as Mrs. Boyle says “Ah, why didn’t I remember that then he wasn’t a Diehard or a Stater, but only a poor dead son!”[19], and the depiction of the utter degradation of the indifference that Boyle and Joxer represent.

Given O’Casey’s apparent rejection of both abstract “principle” (Irish Independence, labor rights) and its absence, the play puts forth a quotidian heroism in the form of Mrs. Boyle. Mrs. Boyle is not without principles like her husband; she is anything but indifferent. However, her principle- supporting and protecting her family- is firmly grounded in material reality and is divorced from political and economic theory. Tellingly, Mrs. Madigan shouts at the police: “For you’re the same as yous were undher the British Government– never where yous are wanted! As far as I can see, the Polis as Polis, in this city, is Null an’ Void!”[20] Regardless of the political status of Ireland, the material reality for its citizens remains the same, particularly in the wake of continued interfactional violence.

Irish Modernism, Genre, and the Representation of Violence

In response to the Easter Rising of 1916, in which O’Casey played an active role, Yeats wrote: “All changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born” (lines 15-16).[21]  Yeats’ poetry, with its stunningly lyrical depictions of horror, exemplifies the terrible beauty he sees in the world. In contrast, O’Casey’s world, though not humorless, is distinctly ugly and mundane in its treatment of violence. While we see the effects of economic deprivation on the stage, both Tancred and Johnny are mutilated and ultimately killed off-stage. For all his linguistic and thematic realism, violence is strangely abstracted in the play. At the beginning of Act One, Johnny berates Mary: “Oh, quit that readin’ for God’s sake! Are yous losin’ all your feelin’s? It’ll soon be that none of you’ll read anything’ that’s not about butcherin’!”[22] In this line, not only does O’Casey show graphic violence as increasingly the proper subject of the written word, but he also forecasts his own refusal to participate in its depiction. Realism stops at the point of horrific violence in the play, a relief to theater-goers who would not only be asked to read it but to visualize it on the stage. Unlike Yeats, O’Casey gives us an Ireland struggling for independence with neither beauty nor terrific violence, but rather the dull, aching suffering of everyday life.


  1. ↑ Ronald Ayling, Sean O’Casey’s Theater of War (Vernon, BC: Kalamalka Press, 2004) 35.
  2. ↑ Ibid, 35.
  3. ↑ W.B. Yeats, “September 1913” in Yeats’ Poetry, Drama and Prose, ed. James Pethica. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2000), 44-45.
  4. ↑ Sean O’Casey, “Juno and the Paycock” in Three Plays (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1957) 17.
  5. ↑ W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming” in Yeats’ Poetry, Drama and Prose, ed. James Pethica (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2000), 76.
  6. ↑ O’Casey, 73.
  7. ↑ Ayling, xi.
  8. ↑ “League Disowns Irish Players,” New York Times, Dec 4, 1911. <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9D04E5DB1E31E233A25757C0A9649D946096D6CF>
  9. ↑ O’Casey, 36-37.
  10. ↑ Ibid, 9.
  11. ↑ Ibid, 36.
  12. ↑ Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 76.
  13. ↑ O’Casey, 9.
  14. ↑ Ibid, 20.
  15. ↑ Ibid, 27.
  16. ↑ Ayling, 37-39.
  17. ↑ Robert Brazeau, “Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy and the ‘Promise’ of Metropolitan Modernity” in Studies of the Literary Imagination 41 (Spring 2008):31.
  18. ↑ O’Casey, 71.
  19. ↑ Ibid, 71
  20. ↑ Ibid, 71.
  21. ↑ W.B. Yeats, “Easter 1916” in Yeats’ Poetry, Drama, and Prose, ed. James Pethica (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2000) 73.
  22. ↑ O’Casey, 6.

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