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
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.