Seán O’Casey’s drama and Irish socialism

Issue: 183

Mark Brown

A review of Seán O’Casey: Political Activist and Writer, Paul O’Brien (Cork University Press), £45.00

“May you live in interesting times!” Whether offered as a blessing or a curse, this well-worn phrase certainly applied to the life of the great Irish dramatist and socialist Seán O’Casey. Born in Dublin in 1880 into a large, working-class family, O’Casey lived through a long series of major historical events: the fall of the iconic Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, brought down by the moral furore over an extra-marital love affair in 1890; the bitter class warfare of the Dublin Lockout in 1913; the bloodily suppressed (and soon mythologised) Republican rebellion of the 1916 Easter Rising; the Irish War of Independence, which raged between 1919 and 1921; the partition of Ireland into what would soon become the Irish Free State and the British statelet of Northern Ireland in 1921; and the subsequent Irish Civil War of 1922 and 1923. Moreover, the political turbulence in Ireland was, of course, intricately intertwined with massive events on the world stage, not least the First World War and the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917.

As one would expect of the writing of a Marxist author, Paul O’Brien’s fine ­political biography of O’Casey sets the famous playwright’s life and work firmly in the context of the material and historical conditions in which he found himself. Even in childhood, the brutality and futility of the Protestant, Unionist education to which O’Casey was subjected gave him a hatred of injustice that went on to fuel his later interests in Irish Republicanism and socialism.

O’Brien paints a vivid picture of the life of the young O’Casey. He had been scarred emotionally by the physical and psychological abuse he received at his Protestant junior school, though he was spared further suffering when his mother withdrew him from the institution after a particularly vicious beating. There were books at home—including the Bible and works by Robert Burns, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and William Shakespeare—which, more than formal schooling, formed the basis of the boy’s education.

O’Casey’s twin, and always interconnected, passions for justice and literature were instilled in him at an early age, but the evolution of his politics was far from linear. For instance, as O’Brien points out, there is a curious ­incongruity in O’Casey’s ­considerable admiration for the bourgeois nationalist Parnell (who is the ­dominant figure in the first two volumes of O’Casey’s ­autobiography) in ­comparison to the “glaringly obvious” omission of the ­radical socialist Michael Davitt.

Nevertheless, in his young adulthood, O’Casey was caught up in the excitement of the Irish literary revival. He came under the influence of the tram conductor Ayamonn O’Farrel (who lent him various works of radical Republican literature) and Abbey Theatre actor Sean Connolly (a member of James Connolly’s left-wing Irish Citizen Army (ICA) who was later killed during the 1916 Easter Rising).

Important though such people and books were, the formative political event of O’Casey’s life was the Dublin Lockout of 1913. O’Brien evokes excellently the high stakes struggle between the organised working class of Dublin (led by James Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union) and the employers who, by September 2013, had locked out more than 25,000 workers. During the Lockout, O’Casey proved himself an extremely capable activist and polemicist as well as a staunchly militant supporter both of his class and Larkin. Indeed, such was his level of activity that the Lockout all but broke O’Casey’s health.

The ultimate defeat of the workers during the Lockout, which followed the British Trades Union Congress’s refusal to call solidarity action, was devastating for O’Casey, as it was for the working class in Dublin, Ireland and more widely. However, the experience of the Lockout had a tremendous impact on O’Casey’s politics.

The tension between the red and the green—that is, between the ­prioritisation of working-class struggle and the fight, on a cross-class basis, for an Irish republic independent of the British crown—was largely resolved in O’Casey’s mind. He came down firmly, some would say dogmatically, on a particular conception of the class struggle. He was a prominent member of the ICA until his resignation from it in 1914, but he opposed Connolly’s involvement of the organisation in the Easter Rising, which O’Casey ­considered to be ­primarily bourgeois nationalist in character. This position, as O’Brien makes clear, put O’Casey at odds with Lenin, who welcomed the Rising as a revolutionary struggle against British imperialism. However, this significant difference of ­opinion failed to prevent O’Casey’s subsequent, fervent ­support of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Although O’Brien (quite understandably) rarely addresses contemporary ­politics, there are moments when his considerations of O’Casey’s times illuminate our own. For example, O’Casey’s most insightful writings on the political ­contestation between the forces of the labour movement and those of Republicanism cast an interesting light on the challenge posed to the current Irish left (in particular, the radical People Before Profit formation) by the electoral resurgence of Sinn Féin, which has been prepared to tack left in pursuit of votes.

Amid the political tumult surrounding him, O’Casey the activist and ­polemicist also emerged as a dramatist. Three of his most famous plays—The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926), which together became known as the “Dublin trilogy”—were staged by the famous Abbey Theatre, the playhouse established and managed by poet and playwright W B Yeats and fellow dramatist Lady Gregory.

The third play in the trilogy, The Plough and the Stars, led to Republican riots due to its opposition to the romantic mythology that had been weaved around the memory of the Easter Rising. The executed leaders, including Connolly and nationalist figure Patrick Pearse, had been elevated to the Irish Republican pantheon of martyrs.

Although O’Casey believed in a socialist workers’ republic—not under the nationalist tricolour, but rather the flag of Irish labour, “the plough and the stars”—he was justifiably repulsed by the romanticisation of the sacrifice of the Easter Rising and of Ireland itself. In The Plough and the Stars O’Casey refuses to depict the rebels as exalted heroes, instead presenting them as real men, some of whom were capable of dishonourable conduct. Coming just ten years after the Rising, this latter point outraged many Republicans. There were also political and moral objections to O’Casey’s representations of the harsh realities of life in working-class Dublin (including disease and prostitution) as well as, farcically, to his daring to show the republican tricolour inside a pub in the second act of the play.

The Republican opposition to the drama led to disturbances inside and outside the theatre as well as a bomb threat. At one point, there was even an attempt to kidnap one of the Abbey Theatre actors in order to prevent the performance from going ahead. To their credit, Yeats and Gregory stood firm, and the run continued to be performed to sold-out houses.

This key moment in O’Casey’s artistic career is described and contextualised by O’Brien in kind of clear, engaging and occasionally humorous prose. So too are those sections of the book that detail points of political history and ideological ­disputation. O’Brien is, much as O’Casey was, a person of politics and culture, and he writes interestingly on the development of the man as a dramatist. O’Casey’s turn away from traditional naturalism towards expressionism and other forms of modernism (perhaps most notably in his major 1928 play The Silver Tassie) is ­outlined thoughtfully and sympathetically. This also entailed a turn away from Dublin in favour of more universal settings, and O’Casey found himself facing demands to return his style and settings to those that had made him famous.

O’Brien’s portrayal is thorough, fair and unvarnished. O’Casey’s capacity for a damaging dogmatism in his personal and professional relations, as well as in his politics, is made clear. O’Casey was perfectly capable of needlessly burning his bridges with people (although he sometimes showed an equal capacity for ­reconciliation). However, the disastrous falling out between O’Casey and his ­erstwhile supporters, Yeats and Gregory, was very much down, O’Brien ­concludes, to the latter pair. When O’Casey followed up The Plough and the Stars with The Silver Tassie, an expressionistic anti-war play set both in Dublin and in a more universal, metaphysical place, the new play was rejected by the Abbey Theatre. He was forced to premiere the drama in London 1929. This created a breach between Ireland’s national theatre and its pre-eminent playwright that was never healed.

O’Brien defends O’Casey’s efforts to broaden his artistic horizons during his turn towards modernism, but he is clear about, though sometimes ­confused by, the dramatist’s shortcomings. He admits (entirely reasonably) to being “perplexed” by the strange period when O’Casey let go of his ­political ­principles, his head seemingly turned by the attention and patronage he received from the rich, and often very reactionary, set of London “society”. During the 1926 General Strike in Britain, O’Casey helped to finance a ­strike-breaking coal deal involving his dubious associate Billy McElroy—an episode as bizarre as it was disappointing.

One of O’Casey’s more widely known weaknesses was his Stalinism. This, sadly, is a political failure that he shared with an astonishing array of great artists, ranging from the painter Pablo Picasso to the montage artist John Heartfield, as well as the novelist and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. The Soviet Union had a strong hold over deluded Communists in the West and over many leftists fighting against Western colonialism in what we now call the Global South. However, the consequences of this influence were hideous. As O’Brien unflinchingly explains, they led O’Casey to mount a sickening defence of the sham Moscow Trials and the Soviet state’s execution of what he called “the Trotsky group of traitors”.

O’Brien’s biography is a very welcome and highly accomplished piece of work. Its blemishes are few and far between. As a Scot, I feel compelled to point out that my national poet is “Robert” or “Rabbie” Burns, but never “Robbie”. More seriously, the phrase “the lash of the mob”, with reference to The Plough and the Star riots, would have benefitted from the insertion of the word “reactionary”.

O’Brien applies a dialectical Marxist analysis to O’Casey’s life and work. Ironically, this approach is considerably less damning than the narrower ­perspective O’Casey himself often applied to those whose politics and art were distasteful to him. The final chapter of the biography, entitled “Politics, Art and Literature”, cuts a path through a number of different arguments for rejecting O’Casey. Ultimately, it establishes that he was a dramatist of genuinely great stature, deserving of a place alongside such celebrated Irish playwrights as Oscar Wilde, John Millington Synge, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien and Brian Friel.

Mark Brown is a theatre critic, journalist, teacher and active socialist. He is the author of Modernism and Scottish Theatre since 1969: A Revolution on Stage (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).