Theatre: It's life, Sean, but not as we know it

Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock was once described as the greatest play in English since the days of Elizabeth I. But how much of its florid passion stemmed from the playwright's life, asks his biographer, Garry O'Connor

"Ah what can God do agin the stupidity o' Man?" is one of my favourite sayings of Sean O'Casey, the great Irish playwright, who was a lifelong atheist, and who also professed hard-line Stalinism. "It is said God never ceases working out His way, so why the hell should I?" is another such heartfelt cry.

Nothing quite matches, however, the impassioned outburst in Juno and the Paycock given to Juno when her son, Johnny, becomes the victim in a civil war background of all too familiar, savage reprisals. "Mother o'God, Mother o'God, have pity on us all!" she cries. "Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets?... Sacred Heart o'Jesus take away our hearts o'stone and give us hearts o'flesh! Take away this murderin' hate and give us Thine own eternal love."

It is one of O'Casey's many contradictions that he called on God so often, for like Shaw and Shakespeare, the Protestant English Bible remained a deep influence. Another is that when he had paradoxically settled in England for the second half of his life, his lifelong friend and publisher, Harold Macmillan, was a Tory grandee.

Success had brought him love and marriage to the beautiful Eileen Carey, and he was blessed with three much-adored children, but it never dispelled solitary confinement in the rag-and-bone shop of his Dublin heart. He minded little that Macmillan (among others), was being gently consoled behind his back by Eileen for the betrayals visited upon him by Dorothy, his wife, and her lover, Lord Boothby.

O'Casey remained innocent of Eileen and MacMillan's love for each other, and echoed Eileen's sentiment about his publisher: "He is, as you say, a fine fellow, indeed." "Sean lived very much in himself," commented Macmillan much later. "He didn't need people. Eileen was his kind of ambassador. She helped him a lot."

Juno and the Paycock, his masterpiece, was scribbled years before in penny exercise books in 1923. Yet the story of the strife-torn impoverished Dublin family is only too relevant to the present miserable condition of lacerated Northern Ireland. In Juno, the 43-year-old O'Casey - then celibate and still a virgin - was freeing himself, in a great comic, tragic burst, of a huge incubus of living matter. This consisted not only of Ireland's woeful history, its bitter circumstances of revolution, war, and civil butchery, but the playwright's own hopeful, very left-wing delusions, his failed idealism, and perhaps above all else, his powerful family ghosts.

As Juno Boyle, he was to bring his own mother, Susan Casey, who had recently died, back to life. She was an indomitably strong-willed woman to whom he owed everything, for he had lived all his life until then in their tenement, under her protection. He repaid her by exalting her mother image over the pathetic example of her husband, Captain Boyle, based not on his own father, but more on his hard-drinking brother, Mick, many of whose own remarks went straight into the play. The third of this triumvirate of living people that drives the play forward is Boyle's "butty", Joxer Daly, prototype of a thousand wheedling, back-sliding drinking companions.

Juno was first performed at the Abbey in Dublin, but O'Casey knew his English audience just as well - an early Dublin friend attested to his reading all of Shakespeare's plays a hundred times - and its success in Ireland was repeated not only in London, but all over the world. The reigning critic, James Agate, called it "the greatest play written in English since the days of Queen Elizabeth," while later, the no less influential American critic, George Jean Nathan was to describe O'Casey and Eugene O'Neill as the two greatest living playwrights in the English-speaking world.

Agate shrewdly assessed O'Casey's extraordinary knowledge of English taste "shown by the fact that the tragic element occupies at the most some 20 minutes, and that for the remaining two hours and a half, the piece is given up to gorgeous and incredible fooling".

Born into a Dublin lower-middle class family in 1880 as John Casey - "Sean the dynamiter" as Beckett called him in 1932 - he later changed his name to its Irish form. The playwright witnessed his sister, brothers and mother sink into abject penury after his father's early death, although later in his autobiographies, he somewhat overdid the guttersnipe and diseased sweat of the tenements image in his life.

He began by working on the railways, then joined the Irish Citizens Army and other working-class nationalist movements, but soon fell out with his hero, the labour leader Jim Larkin, in a quarrel over the Countess Markiewicz, who was the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons (although she never took up her seat). Later he had a celebrated quarrel with Lady Gregory and WB Yeats when the latter pair rejected The Silver Tassie for performance at the Abbey. He was no less kind to those who acted in his plays when he said: "The greatest actor in England today, without a shadow of a doubt, is Mickey Mouse."

He even callously turned on Samuel Beckett: "I have nothing to do with Beckett: he isn't in me; nor am I in him." At the end of his life, he was scathing about Harold Pinter who was, he said, contemptuous of life "of a larger part of the loveliness around him". Theatre's condition of mind had become sour, "loutish lust of Primaqueera".

But O'Casey's bitterness and blindness were only two sides of an exceedingly complex character. As well as finding continuous value in human life, he had a positive vision, a utopian ideal of society he called "communism", although it often seemed as he described it, a dreamy and unattainable City of God.

He attacked the New Ireland as it had emerged from the strife-torn years of 1916 to 1923. He hated the leaders, and the new bourgeoisi-fication, the growth of the power of money, the new social stratification and snobbery. Above all, he despised the Church - greater humiliation was there none, O'Casey believed, than that of President De Valera kneeling before a visiting cardinal from the Vatican. What he would have made of today's genuflections before the EU commissioners is not known.

The riots caused by The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey gave him the final push to leave Ireland in 1926. That he dared to desecrate, if only with comic irreverence, the sacred Easter Rising of 1916, provoked outrage among the Irish women whose brothers, sons and husbands had died. Fights broke out, stink-bombs were thrown, constables flooded the theatre's aisles. With his sickly red-rimmed eyes, wrote an observer at a political meeting before he wrote Juno, he looks like "a Jacobin of Jacobins". Although addressing the audience, he lowered his voice to a whisper. "Yet there was something else," added this commentator, "Joy!"

A young Beckett, writing about Juno, made the rather stuffy assertion that, "Mind and world come asunder in irreparable disassociation". This was what O'Casey loved to depict. In other words, as Captain Boyle said, "th'whole worl's... in a terr... ible state o'... chassis".

He spent his last years in Devon, happily fulfilled with wife and family, until his death in 1964. "He was a kind of medieval saint," Macmillan told me when I interviewed him about O'Casey for my biography. "In spite of the characters he created, he was a sensible man au fond... For me he had something of the greatness of Hardy, something of the strength of Hardy, which is to say that while both of them wrote a lot - some of it not very good - what they wrote came from a deep sincerity. That's why they live."

`Juno and the Paycock' previews at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0171-369 1732) opens 20 Sept. Garry O'Connor's revised and expanded `Ralph Richardson: An Actor's Life', is published this week by Methuen, pounds 9.99

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