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

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all