by Anthony Domestico
Sean O’Casey (1880-1964) was one of Ireland’s most celebrated modern dramatists. The internationally acclaimed productions of his plays, including Juno and the Peacock and The Plough and the Stars, helped launch the Abbey Theatre as a preeminent stage for world drama, and his realistic depiction of the struggles of Ireland for independence were a defining characteristic of the Irish Literary Revival.
Born in 1880 to a poor Protestant family living in the Dublin tenements, O’Casey suffered from serious eye ailments from his early years. Forced to leave school at the age of fourteen due in part to poor eyesight, O’Casey worked on the railroads before becoming interested in Irish cultural and political issues: becoming enamored of Marxism in his years as a laborer, he took part in a strike by transport workers organized by Jim Larkin in 1913.
In 1906, O’Casey joined the Gaelic League, one of the main organs of the Irish Revival, and began to learn the Irish language. This interest in issues of Irish nationalism grew in later years. In 1914, O’Casey became the General Secretary for the Irish Citizen Army. He also wrote the constitution for the ICA, and his time in this organization would provide the material for his first published work, the 1919 The Story of the Irish Citizen Army, 1913-1916.
O’Casey did not begin writing dramas until the late 1910’s, and his first attempts, including The Harvest Festival and The Frost in the Flower, were rejected by the Abbey Theatre. It was not until April 12, 1923 that O’Casey’s first play was staged. The play,The Shadow of the Gunman, dealt with the sordid lives of those living in the tenements and showed the deep engagement with Irish national issues that would define O’Casey’s early work. The play was a success from the beginning.
O’Casey’s two masterpieces, Juno and the Peacock and The Plough and the Stars, also had their world premieres at the Abbey Theatre. Juno and the Peacock, a searing, realistic drama about the everyday impact of the Irish Civil War that premiered on March 3, 1923, was recognized as a classic instantly and saw productions in Britain and the United States by the end of 1926. This same year saw the publication and staging in London of The Plough and the Stars, a play that caused rioting in Dublin due to its controversial depiction of the nationalist cause in the Easter Rising of 1916.
In 1929, William Butler Yeats and the Abbey Theatre rejected O’Casey’s newest play, The Silver Tassie. In anger, O’Casey declared his independence from the Abbey Theatre specifically and from Ireland generally, emigrating to England and residing there until his death in 1964. His later plays turned against traditional realism and experimented with symbolism and the melding of different genres. He is still most celebrated, however, for the sympathetic yet unsparing representations of the Dublin working class that filled his earlier work.