The Theatre of Sean O'Casey
There is no question that this book is the best so far reviewed in the Methuen Drama Critical Companions series. James Moran has worked very hard at understanding the life and work of one of the greats of Irish theatre and does a fine job of conveying his findings in a fashion that will satisfy the general reader as much as professionals.
He provides much information that will be new to those who know of O'Casey only through the Dublin Trilogy and have read or seen little, if anything, else by this adventurous playwright.
Juno and the Paycock is probably O'Casey's best-known and most popular work, receiving constant revivals today not far short of a century after its creation. By the time of its debut at the Abbey, the writer was the darling of the Dublin cognoscenti but his good fortune was short lived.
Following riots in protest against the final play of the trilogy The Plough and the Stars worse was to follow.
Inexplicably, the next play, The Silver Tassie was rejected by W B Yeats and Lady Gregory, who ran Ireland's equivalent to a National Theatre, leading to disillusionment and emigration to England.
For the remainder of his long life, Sean O'Casey tried to recreate the success of his early years, without ever quite managing it.
Indeed, even committed theatre buffs would be hard pushed to name any play that he wrote after around the late 1920s, which comprises the last 30 years of his writing career.
It seems that O'Casey is one of those prophets who is much more popular not only outside the country of his birth and also that of his adoption. His experimental, surreal work from the later years that apparently bears comparison with Strindberg does well in Germany and Eastern Europe.
The man born with the far more anglicised name of John Casey was clearly something of a lad, writing six volumes of autobiography which contains a great deal of information that was as fictional as his theatrical works.
O'Casey not only gave himself a new name but a new history, becoming a self-proclaimed working-class genius, where in reality he was a lone, middle-class boy with a relatively average upbringing until the early death of his father and the financial problems that inevitably followed.
This was a man of great commitment who supported the Labour and union movements even more strongly than the cause of Irish independence that he documented so convincingly in the Trilogy.
James Moran paints a fully-rounded picture of this iconoclastic character and also analyses his plays with deft skill. The author's thorough analysis is also complemented by amongst others director Garry Hynes in an informative interview and academic Paul Murphy who has written an essay on O'Casey and class.
This really is a first-class book and is highly recommended both to academics and the general reader, both of whom will learn far more about Sean O'Casey than a simple biography or academic study would achieve.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher